The Long Drive: Mostly True Stuff

Non-Fiction November 2015 is drawing to a close, and I should finish my last audiobook during my Thanksgiving travels. These are the books that kept me busy during my work commute this month.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny LawsonLet’s Pretend This Never Happened

(By Jenny Lawson, read by Jenny Lawson)

I read Lawson’s memoir in “dead tree” form when it came out a few years ago, but after hearing Lawson speak at several events I knew I needed to find the audiobook. Her stories about growing up rural Texas, her crazy-ass/awesome family, and her over-the-top “arguments” with husband Victor had me laughing all the way to and from work. I can’t wait to get my hands on her next book, Furiously Happy, which came out earlier this year. 5/5 stars

A Renegade History of the United States, Thaddeus RussellA Renegade History of the United States

(By Thaddeus Russell, read by Paul Boehmer)

In the 1960s and 1970s it became popular to tell American history “from the bottom up,” or from the perspectives of people who weren’t middle-aged white, aristocratic politicians. But even those at the “bottom” weren’t ordinary. Renegade History tells the story of America from what author Thaddeus Russell calls “the gutter up.” Prostitutes, alcoholics, and criminals influenced America just as much as those in the higher ranks — and may have done more than anyone else to sanctify what we now consider our most basic freedoms. Interesting premise, but fell flat. First DNF in quite some time. 1/5 stars

(I listened to these books as part of Non-Fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)

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Review: The Unpublished David Ogilvy

The Unpublished David OgilvyJust like Harry Gordon Selfridge, David Ogilvy is one of the greatest marketing men you’ve never heard of. Ogilvy’s actions did not immediately take the world of retail by storm, but his philosophies on writing, leadership, and company culture have changed the way many — including myself — look at marketing, writing, and life.

Ogilvy wrote several books on advertising, including Confessions of an Advertising Man, which some think makes him the inspiration for Mad Men’s Don Draper. That book is next on my list, but I also recently picked up The Unpublished David Ogilvy, a collection of some of his speeches, interviews, memos, and private letters.

On writing

Everything Ogilvy wrote was lean, crystal clear, and spot-on for the occasion; his 10 Tips on Writing memo is one of the best things I’ve ever read.

He attributed his success to his natural inclination for research — he spent more time reading and analyzing his clients than he did slopping out copy. He believed that consumers were much smarter than advertisers gave them credit for, and urged his employees to treat them respectfully.

The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything.

He knew where to focus his writing efforts.

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

Unfortunately, some writing challenges never change.

Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.

Another of Ogilvy’s most famous writing projects is The Theory and Practice of Selling the Aga Cooker (link to PDF), first published in 1935 and given to all of Aga’s door-to-door salesmen. It was described by Fortune magazine as “the finest instruction manual ever written,” and I think they might be right.

The best writers can make anything — even salesman how-tos — exciting to read.

On leadership

Every time an employee was promoted to a head of office in Ogilvy’s company, he or should would receive a matryoshka doll, or Russian nesting doll. As he or she opened each doll, they would find inside a slightly smaller doll, then a smaller, then a smaller. Inside the smallest doll would be a piece of paper.

If you always hire people who are smaller than you are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you are, we shall become a company of giants.

Ogilvy despised leaders who protected their own positions by hiring incompetent subordinates. He wanted leaders who would put the needs of the company ahead of their own egos.

On corporate culture

Companies that have cultivated their individual identities by shaping values, making heroes, spelling out rites and rituals, and acknowledging the cultural network have an edge.

In my experience it’s rare to find an organization that can plainly state their values (nevermind actually living up to them). These are a company’s “soft” features, but I think they matter just as much as their performance — because the former impacts the latter.

Ogilvy wrote a lot about corporate/company culture, a lot of which sounds pretty familiar.

Never Write an Advertisement Which You Wouldn’t Want Your Own Family To Read. You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine. Do as you would be done by.

Basically it all comes down to treating people like human beings. Not a crazy or original idea, but one I think some companies have trouble with.

Above all, humor

Allowing yourself and your employees to have fun with their work is something Ogilvy considered critical to doing good business — if people are miserable, they won’t be able to do their best work.

This philosophy doesn’t surprise me in the least — Mr. Ogilvy seems like he possessed a healthy sense of humor himself.

Develop your eccentricities while you are young. That way, when you get old, people won’t think you’re going gaga.

(I read this book as part of Non-Fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)

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Review: Long Walk to Freedom

Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson MandelaAnytime we’re asked to list them, Nelson Mandela is inevitably numbered as one of history’s greatest political leaders. But like many of my contemporaries who were still children when apartheid fell, most of what I know about Mandela comes from films like 2009’s Invictus, or 2013’s Mandela.

I love a good primary source, so this November I picked up a copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. I wanted to learn more about his life, and how he got involved in the politics that would eventually free millions of South Africans from apartheid.

Turns out it was all sort of a matter of chance.

A rural upbringing

Nelson Mandela (born Rolihlahla Mandela) was born in rural Africa in 1918. As the son of a prominent advisor to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Nelson believed that it was his responsibility to stay close to his village and do all he could to protect and improve the lives of his people.

This plan changed when Mandela’s father died prematurely. The further he moved from his village for education and job opportunities, the more Mandela realized that he wanted to help all Africans, not just his tribal family.

Political beginnings

When Mandela first arrived in Johannesburg to see if he could make a living practicing law, he avoided politics; it wasn’t until several years later that he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and helped form the ANC Youth League.

Changing the strategy

The ANC was established in 1912, and had always promoted peaceful protest and civil disobedience over violence. In response to continued abuse of black South Africans by an apartheid government, Mandela led the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), the “militant” wing of the ANC. This group set off explosions near government buildings, hoping to change through violence what Africans hadn’t been able to change through disobedience.

26 years’ confinement

Mandela was arrested and tried for numerous crimes, and in 1964 he and several other ANC leaders were sentenced to life in prison for sabotage. Mandela would not be freed until 1990.

Long Walk to Freedom goes into great detail about Mandela’s imprisonment. He spent most of his sentence at Robben Island, breaking rocks in a limestone quarry and agitating for prisoners’ rights. In the mid-1980s he began talks with the apartheid government, which was threatening to collapse under the strain of ever-mounting race riots.

In 1990, Mandela was released from prison, and in 1994 participated in South Africa’s first free election. He was South Africa’s first democratically elected President, and after a single term spent the rest of his life doing what he had always done: fighting for equality.

A hard, beautiful read

It’s difficult to sum up a 625-page autobiography, and I can’t pretend to have done the work justice. Long Walk to Freedom is a story of one man, but it’s also the story of a nation struggling to become truly free.

The book is full of details I didn’t know, but the biggest thing I hadn’t really learned was that the ANC has Communist leanings, and that at the time of his arrest, Mandela was a member of the South African Communist Party. My American brain is hard-wired to think that freedom fighters were/are fighting for democracy, which isn’t often the case.

The chapters about Mandela’s time in prison — where he started writing his autobiography — were the most interesting. Like his guards and fellow prisoners, I have a hard time understanding why he spent so much time campaigning for things like long pants (African prisoners had to wear shorts, like children) when he spent most of his time in a six-by-six windowless cell.

Nelson Mandela’s calling was to fight for equality…whether that meant wearing the same long pants as white prisoners, or being able to vote and having equal representation no matter the color of your skin. He wasn’t perfect, but he fought for what he believed in, and never sank to the level of his oppressors.

Mandela died in 2013, but his incredible work lives on.

(I read this book as part of Non-Fiction November, as well as the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. November’s challenge was to read a book published before the year 2000.)

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Review: Smile at Strangers

Smile at Strangers, Susan SchornSusan Schorn began taking karate in order to conquer her temper and anxiety; along the way, she discovered that her studies were bleeding into her personal and professional life. Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly is an exploration of how discovering a way to empower one part of your life can make your entire existence more wonderful and meaningful.

What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?

Fear and worry rule my life, and it sucks. They keep me from doing stupid things (like driving too fast), but they also keep me from doing things that are important (confronting people, applying for that dream job, etc.).

There are many people like me out there, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the majority of those people are women. We don’t want to cause trouble, ruffle feathers, or be called a “bitch.” We’re sometimes afraid to make noise, say “no,” or take up too much metaphorical space.

Smile at Strangers takes lessons from some of history’s best martial arts instructors and puts them in a contemporary context, explaining how readers can use them — on the mat and off — to improve their lives in whatever ways they choose.

And it might have inspired me to do a few new things, too.

(I read this book as part of Non-Fiction November. Click the link to see posts from this and previous years!)

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Review: The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black, Susan HillSolicitor Arthur Kipps leaves London with a light heart and bright future. He’s engaged to be married, and seems to finally be making an impression on the owner of the firm for which he works. Mr. Bentley has sent him to the little salt marsh hamlet of Crythin Gifford to settle the final affairs of Mrs. Alice Drablow, and he intends to do so quickly and efficiently.

The town is remote, Mrs. Drablow’s home even more so. Eel Marsh House looms damp and empty at the end of the causeway, only accessible at low tide. An abandoned cemetery sits nearby, and it’s there that Arthur first sees the gaunt woman in black.

This sighting is just the beginning. Arthur begins hearing terrifying sounds in the house and the fog that surrounds it: a rocking chair in an empty nursery, a pony and trap rattling across the causeway, a child’s scream in the night. He must complete his business, but will he survive long enough to do so?

Someone hold me

Susan Hill’s novel has no jump scares, no gore, and minimal violence. Yet I blitzed through the 176-page novel faster than I would have liked because I was holding my breath every time I picked it up, and “Passed out from fear while reading” seemed like an embarrassing thing to have to explain to my husband/an EMT/an ER doctor.

The Woman in Black is written from Arthur’s perspective as a letter to whomever may read it after the solicitor’s death. In the letter he describes the events of those terrifying few days, and how the consequences of his presence at Eel Marsh House have haunted him in the years since.

The story begins ominously enough, with everyone in Crythin Gifford doing their best to avoid Arthur’s questions about Mrs. Drablow and her home and family. The tension ratchets up with Arthur’s arrival at Eel Marsh House; if the fog and phantoms aren’t enough to creep you out, there’s always the creak-creak, creak-creak of a rocking chair to keep you up at night.

The story is told by Arthur, but it’s definitely about Eel Marsh House — the abandoned home and its mourning-clad haunt feel more real than does the narrator. The home’s isolation in the salty marshland makes it clear that Arthur is completely alone, and will survive or perish by himself.

The Woman in Black is at the top of my list for best settings, and is a perfect Halloween read. Now I’m going to eat candy until I’m not scared anymore.

(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. October’s challenge was to read a ghost story.)

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