Review: ‘Paul Simon: The Life’ by Robert Hilburn

Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t know whether you’d call “Paul Simon: The Life” an authorized biography, but it sure is polite.

Simon did sit down with author Robert Hilburn for many interviews, but according to Hilburn, he didn’t have final say over the result. Nevertheless, Hilburn frequently pulls his punches, giving Simon the benefit of the doubt even when he’s being a prick.

The controversial journey to apartheid South Africa, then being shunned by many artists, to record songs for “Graceland”? Simon ran it by a number of interested parties, including at least one group that stabbed him in the back. Later, when Hilburn talks with Steven Van Zandt – still opposed to the trip years later – Van Zandt comes off as angrily wrongheaded. (Update: And Van Zandt helped save his life!)

The writing dispute with Los Lobos over “The Myth of Fingerprints,” which was credited solely to Simon? The band from East L.A. is still angry, but the incident is shrugged off.

The relationship with Simon’s father, Lou, which came off as difficult in a 1990 “60 Minutes” interview with Ed Bradley? Well, he could be hard to please, but he was still Paul’s hero.

I’m not saying Hilburn got it wrong. I think Simon went out of his way to do the right thing in South Africa, and I wasn’t in the studio with Los Lobos (though what Steve Berlin describes in the link above sounds plausible). Nor did I ever meet Lou Simon.

But boy. Hilburn’s Simon is admired by almost everybody – I can’t tell you how many times Quincy Jones is quoted when Hilburn needs a reference to an “artist on a challenging path” – and though Simon is lightly criticized for his perfectionism (to which, frankly, he’s entitled), he’s also overly praised for his generosity. I mean, the guy actually gave Warner Bros. their money back when the film “One Trick Pony” tanked, according to the book.

Still, you can’t deny Simon’s artistry, and Hilburn – who’s been writing about popular music for decades – captures it well. Simon did not emerge fully formed with “The Sound of Silence”; he was a fan of doo-wop who lucked out on a middling, early rock ‘n’ roll hit, “Hey, Schoolgirl,” with a grade-school buddy, Art Garfunkel, and never really strayed from the music business, scraping by for years.

Some of Hilburn’s most interesting stories are in the period between 1957’s “Hey, Schoolgirl” and the sudden takeoff of “The Sound of Silence” in late 1965 after producer Tom Wilson added electric instruments to an acoustic version off the failed album “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” Simon was a hustler, writing and song-plugging for music publishers in Manhattan with little success while halfheartedly attending Queens College. He worked Village coffeehouses – awkwardly – and kept hustling when he got his shot with Columbia Records, bringing Garfunkel along with him. (Art actually stayed in school well after the duo became stars, earning an M.A. in mathematics from Columbia in 1967. You know, in case the rock ‘n’ roll thing didn’t work out.)

Simon also benefited from connecting with the right people. He made friendships, and improved his chops, during a 1965 stint in England that paid dividends for years. Later in 1965, with “Sound of Silence” rising on the charts, he asked Columbia’s debonair president Goddard Lieberson to recommend a manager. Lieberson suggested either Albert Grossman (who already represented Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary) or a man named Mort Lewis. Simon went with Lewis, who turned out to be a scrupulous guardian.

And the songs. There’s no question Simon is one of the great American songwriters, capable of clever melodies, haunting lyrics, and unusual ideas. If his work had ended with Simon and Garfunkel, he’d still be considered one of the greats: “The Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Boxer,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – that’s a career, right there. Add in “American Tune,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Stranded in a Limousine,” “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” even several songs from the unfairly maligned “The Capeman,” and he’s up there with the legends.

Hilburn has a fondness for quoting entire Simon compositions, something I thought would be tedious – Look! Poetry! – but turns out to be wise, as Simon’s later work, in particular, offers a delicacy and care often missing from capital-S Songwriting. His lyrics take unexpected turns and actually work as verse, though the music does help.

But Hilburn could have been sympathetic to Simon, who sounds like a mostly decent guy, and still been more dispassionate. I can’t help comparing Hilburn’s book to the recent biography of Mike Nichols, a Simon friend who had his own long, successful career. Nichols biographer Mark Harris is hard-pressed to find an actor who doesn’t praise Nichols to the skies, but at the same time what comes across is a sometimes-tortured gentleman who really could be an asshole and make poor decisions – and yet it makes him all the more human and sympathetic. I seldom got that feeling with Simon. He’s an artist, usually a gentleman (and certainly generous), but Hilburn buffs his flaws to a fine sheen.

However, Hilburn does seem fair about one characterization in particular: Art Garfunkel, who comes across as smart, but also petty and truculent, holding grudges for 50 years. Simon earns our sympathy at those times. He seems almost saintly.

Though maybe I’m just being polite.

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Review: ‘Answers in the Form of Questions’ by Claire McNear

Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy! by Claire McNear

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Claire McNear’s history of “Jeopardy!”, “Answers in the Form of Questions,” is about what you’d expect: amiable and breezy, optimistic and self-deprecating, with a few nice insights but also few surprises.

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Review: ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Perhaps some spoilers to come. You’ve been warned.)

I shouldn’t have read the review.

Now, I regularly read reviews before reading a book. I like to get an idea of what other people think, and they rarely affect my own opinion. At the least, they’re often good for a laugh – those 1-star Amazon reviews in which people complain about the book because it arrived late. Folks, it’s not the author’s fault that UPS took too long to get the book to your door.

But this review, on Goodreads, stayed with me as I read “Station Eleven,” the generally praised novel by Emily St. John Mandel. And as it forms at least part of my own criticism, I’ll hold back on it for a few paragraphs.

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Review: ‘Reaganland’ by Rick Perlstein

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 by Rick Perlstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are more than 200 pages of endnotes in Rick Perlstein’s “Reaganland,” and I have no doubt that the author – who concludes his four-volume history of postwar American conservatism and culture with this book – read every single book, article, squib, and cocktail napkin he mentions.

The work – all 700-plus pages of it (not including the endnotes, or the bibliography, or the index, or the acknowledgments) — is a marvel of detail and synthesis. I lived through the period Perlstein chronicles, having been 11 when Jimmy Carter was elected president and 15 when he was voted out in favor of Ronald Reagan, and I paid pretty close attention to the news (especially for an adolescent). I’ve also read much about the era since. But there are any number of incidents I’d forgotten about, or failed to realize the significance of, until I saw them woven into Perlstein’s ‘70s tapestry: the background of Love Canal, the early flailing of the 1980 Reagan campaign (John Connolly was considered a much more attractive candidate at one time), how far down Carter’s approval ratings were – and how much they rose after the Camp David Accords and the early days of the Iran hostage crisis.

But those events are only the surface. The real story of “Reaganland” is the creation of the conservative messaging subculture and its joining with the religious right, led by such figures as Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, direct-mail king Richard Viguerie, Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell, and anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly. Together, they helped build an ideology that’s still with us today, one that’s become more homogenous, well-funded, and powerful than they could have ever imagined.

The echoes – or perhaps klaxons – are with us still.

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Review: ‘That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound’ by Daryl Sanders

That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound: Dylan, Nashville, and the Making of Blonde on Blonde by Daryl Sanders

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclosure: “Blonde on Blonde” is my favorite album.

In the 39(!) years since I first bought Bob Dylan’s 1966 classic as a curious 16-year-old who’d read about it from best-of lists, it has rarely failed to seduce me. There’s an energy about it that is equaled by few other records in my estimation – “Revolver,” “Moby Grape,” maybe Television’s “Marquee Moon” and the Clash’s “London Calling.” As with those albums, there are unpolished instances where things threaten to go completely off the rails, but that unpredictability only makes the music more powerful and transcendent. I can think of few moments more sublime than, say, the big G chord near the end of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” or the headlong rush into the last chorus of “Brand New Cadillac.”

But “Blonde on Blonde” has something more: Dylan’s lyrics. Opaque, imagistic, funny – “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” always makes me laugh – I don’t read into them as much as the budding A.J. Webermans of our time, but there’s no question that they provide a bottomless well of metaphor for those who seek that kind of thing. (For the rest of us, they just sound good.)

I wish Daryl Sanders’ chronicle of “Blonde on Blonde,” “That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound” – the title comes from Dylan himself, expressing a yearning for what he was hearing in his head – had the same kind of energy and unpredictability. Instead, it’s an adequate biography with some interesting detours, but on the whole simply an extended magazine article.

Sanders does do a service by pointing out that the key to understanding the sound of “Blonde on Blonde” is Nashville, where Dylan relocated after some abortive New York sessions after the success of “Like a Rolling Stone.” That single had peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, making Dylan an unlikely hitmaker after years of others, such as Peter, Paul & Mary and the Byrds, streamlining Dylan’s voice-guitar-harmonica songs into Top 40-friendly pop hits. Though “Stone” was produced by Tom Wilson, Dylan had switched afterwards to Bob Johnston, a Columbia Records staff producer who both gave the bard more freedom and had a better sense on how to record his roughest rock ‘n’ roll edges. (Compare the clanging “Maggie’s Farm,” off the Wilson-produced “Bringing It All Back Home,” with the richer Johnston-produced “Tombstone Blues,” from the follow-up, “Highway 61 Revisited.”)

Johnston had a feeling Dylan would mesh well with some of Nashville’s top session men, including multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, drummer Kenneth Buttrey, pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, bassist Henry Strzelecki, and guitarists Joe South, Wayne Moss, and Mac Gayden. With some established Dylan sidemen, notably organist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson, in the mix, “Blonde on Blonde” ended up making Nashville more than the country music capital it had been, with other rock musicians visiting town to get some of the Dylan magic.

In the detail that surprised me most, that magic often came at the end of long – very long – nights. The Nashville session guys would gather in the afternoon at Columbia’s Studio A and Dylan would arrive, usually with songs unfinished. So the session men would get paid for one three-hour session, then a second, sometimes more, as they waited in the canteen, smoking cigarettes or playing pool but not actually playing music. Finally Dylan would emerge and recording would start in earnest, the group, in Sanders’ telling, palpably exhausted.

This is how we got “Fourth Time Around,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” and “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” among others. It’s as if the group flicked a switch and the electricity flowed through them.

Another surprise, to me, was how young the Nashville pros were. Perhaps because Music City didn’t seem rock ‘n’ roll friendly in the mid-‘60s, I’d pictured McCoy, Buttrey and the others as mildly grizzled guys in their 30s and 40s, Hank Williams veterans resistant to Dylan’s style. Instead, McCoy was the leader of Nashville’s top rock band, the Escorts, and all of 24 when he started recording “Blonde on Blonde.” Buttrey was 20. The others were only slightly older. (Dylan was 24.)

For all this, Sanders’ book somehow lacks the same electricity – or even the ghost of electricity — that the album has. He goes into minutia about takes and studio chatter, great for a Dylan completist but adding little to the story. He quotes from clippings and other memoirs in a way that seems separate from his story (this is what sometimes makes the book feel like a long magazine article). He turns to people like Robyn Hitchcock and Dave Marsh for commentary; Marsh, who is very much capable of investing his prose with electricity, would have been better off writing his own book.

And the Nashville cats themselves are a rather modest bunch. Dylan surprised them and stretched them, but they are, at bottom, professionals – not wild-eyed Keith Moons shoving TVs out of hotel windows. Making music was, and for many still is, their job, as regular as punching a clock at a factory. They just happen to be very, very good at it, but they’re less good at talking about it.

The phrase “that thin, wild mercury sound” brings to mind a medieval alchemist, combining ingots of rare earth, the fur of feral dogs, and bits of Scripture an igniting it with a literal fiery passion. Perhaps that’s what makes “Blonde on Blonde” so special, a chemistry that can’t be recreated, and Sanders – as the old comparison claims – may as well be dancing about architecture in trying to write about it.

Dylan, of course, doesn’t need to say anything. “Blonde on Blonde” has said it all for him already. Sooner or later, we all know that.

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Review: ‘The Body’ by Bill Bryson

The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a famous line by the screenwriter William Goldman about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

Goldman’s statement seems even more apropos to Bill Bryson’s most recent book, “The Body: A Guide for Occupants.”

Over and over again, despite talking with leading experts and immersing himself in who knows how many books, Bryson has to revert to uncertainty. “We are not quite sure how solid that advice is,” he writes about the proper amount of fat in a diet. “Today [asthma] is common and still not understood,” he says about the respiratory ailment. “Meaningful definition [of pain] is impossible,” he offers.

And, of course, “The field of sex studies has a long history of providing dubious statistics,” Bryson says after reeling off some of the more improbable (“Men think of sex every seven seconds,” “The average amount of time kissing in a lifetime is 20,160 minutes [336 hours].”) That may express a lack of trust about sex, but at least a lack of trust about sex isn’t surprising. Just think of all the jokes about penis size: “What are the three sizes of condom? Small, medium and liar.”

None of this is bad, or even off-putting. But it is surprising, especially from a guy who wrote “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” a book about astronomy and cosmology that, for me at least, provided some real answers — or, at least, pretty well-supported theories — about earth and space. Heck, “Nearly Everything” even got into quantum physics, practically the definition of “uncertainty.” (Just ask Erwin Schrodinger.)

Now, I love Bill Bryson. I particularly love “Nearly Everything,” because it has a wide-eyed curiosity about a subject that, by its nature, invites awe — a nice combination. But for “The Body,” you get the feeling that the author, who’s probably more famous for his books about language (“The Mother Tongue”) and traveling (“I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” “A Walk in the Woods,” “In a Sunburned Country”), decided to turn inward to biology and anatomy and was met with more confusion and frustration than he got from quantum physicists.

Still, “The Body” makes for a typically entertaining read, with Bryson’s love of knowledge and tidbits forever breaking through the “We’re not sure” shrugs.

For example, did you know that Theodor Escherich, who examined our excrement and found a number of microorganisms, including the one now known as E. (for Escherichia) coli, called it Bacteria coli commune? Or that apes don’t have an Achilles tendon? Or that Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian medical instructor, helped eliminate what was called childbed fever simply by recommending doctors wash their hands before doing examinations? Semmelweis, who sounds at least as important as Joseph Lister, was a prophet without honor in his lifetime, losing his job, being committed to an asylum, and beaten to death by his guards. And that was just a little more than 150 years ago.

Medicine has come a long way since then — even if we human beings remain notoriously unpredictable on an individual level. “The Body” came out at the end of last year, so there is no mention of Covid-19, but the reaction of our bodies to that disease is another one for the books, literally: some people asymptomatic, others violently ill, too many dead. It would likely have been a whole chapter in a later edition, but it’s provided no reason to laugh — and laughter is one reason “The Body” makes for a good read.

I wouldn’t say the book is among Bryson’s best. There’s just too much aggravation on the part of the author, who must have wondered what he got into. (It was probably more fun to write about black holes or weird Australian insects.) Moreover, some of the material has already been ably chronicled by Mary Roach, whom Bryson — to his credit — acknowledges when appropriate.

But Bryson is always a welcome guide, so if you’re looking for a breezy tour that takes you from head to toe, “The Body” is a winner. And if you’re still unsure? You know what they say: Ask your doctor.

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Review: ‘The Silent Patient’ by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Beware the book that is known for its twist.

There’s nothing wrong with twists, of course. The concluding pages of Robertson Davies’ “Fifth Business” are a master class in inducing gasps. Stephen King has been known to pull off a few in his short stories. (I can still remember the shock of the ending of “I Am the Doorway” from “Night Shift.”) Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” left me wondering in a good way.

But if the twist is all you have going for you, then the rest of the book is going to fall to pieces under its weight.

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Review: ‘Draft No. 4’ by John McPhee

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It feels so unfair, reviewing a book on writing by John McPhee. The man is a legendary stylist, known for novel-sized articles on subjects like geology and agriculture, spread over multiple issues of The New Yorker. He has an airport scanner’s eye for detail and a knack (he would probably describe it as the result of assiduous research) for the right word and the sturdy metaphor.

On the other hand, your humble McPhee reviewer has made his living (mostly) knocking out features 800 words at a time, articles that – if he were lucky – gave him about four hours for interviews and research and perhaps another few hours to get his paragraphs straight and drop in the word “brobdingnagian” for the entertainment of the copyeditor before a midafternoon deadline. (Admittedly, I’ve done my share of longform, but even then I usually had only about a month to grind out 3,000 words, not years to craft 30,000 like McPhee.) Right away, I feel at a disadvantage.

So it’s perversely heartening to read that Mr. McPhee, despite his many decades in the journalism business, has agonized over his ledes and rendered first drafts (and second drafts, and even third drafts) that were, to use a common newsroom term, shit. Or, alternately, he’s been paralyzed in fear of putting two sentences together.

In fact, in the second chapter of “Draft No. 4,” he describes having to write a Time magazine cover story on comedian Mort Sahl on deadline, “near tears in a catatonic swivet” as the clock ticks down. He had produced one sentence: “The citizen has certain misgivings.” That left him 4,995 words short of what Time demanded. He doesn’t go into great detail on how he got the story done in time; he just mentions that he remembered a recommendation from a high school teacher and organized his notes by theme and chronology. That must have been enough for him, but I’ve tried to organize my notes in similar ways to create a story, and let me tell you, many times they don’t read well. Score one on points for McPhee.

(The more famous story of a stuck writer is that of Tom Wolfe, who was sent to do a story on Southern California hot rod culture for Esquire. Finding himself boxed in – the deadline was the next morning, the photos already laid out – he expressed his exasperation to his editor, Byron Dobell. Dobell suggested Wolfe send him his notes. So Wolfe sat down, began with “Dear Byron,” and wrote a 49-page letter. Upon receipt, Dobell cut the salutation and ran the rest. McPhee offers a similar method of cutting yourself out of a self-created cage in a chapter called “Draft No. 4.”)

I found “Draft No. 4,” the book, more entertaining for stories regarding McPhee’s struggles than I did as a writer’s guide. The Time guillotine blade notwithstanding, McPhee usually has something most reporters don’t: lead time. When researching a New Yorker piece, he’s sometimes had several months to gather research and several more months to write. Admittedly, he doesn’t get paid until he produces the finished product, but it’s still a luxury I’d like to have. (So I say. On other hand, I wouldn’t want to agonize over a single story, no matter how lengthy, for a year.)

Also, in the chapter called “Structure,” he talks about trying to do something – anything – besides telling a story chronologically, leading to structures that look like fractions (with three subjects in the numerator and a fourth subject, linking the other three, in the denominator) or Spirograph wheels. I’ve thought of writing stories like this – I once wrote a story about William Gibson that consisted of short mini-story shards, in tribute to Gibson’s kaleidoscopic visions – but it’s hard. (To quote the Who: “It’s very, very, very, very hard.”)

And so I ended up appreciating “Draft No. 4” more for McPhee’s empathy than his advice on writing. He may have plenty of time for his stories, he may write for The New Yorker, he may teach at Princeton, but he’s been there. For a scribbler like me, who has both lay in bed mentally rewriting ledes at 1 a.m. and who recently managed to write three 10,000-word chapters of a novel in six weeks, reread them, and decided the work thus far was a shallow pile of shit, that’s reassuring.

“If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you’ll never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer,” he writes at one point. I don’t know what that makes the prolific folks like James Patterson and Joyce Carol Oates, but it works for me. I’ll wear my agony proudly.

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Review: ‘The Mirror & the Light’ by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished “The Mirror & the Light,” the conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, about two months ago, but I’ve been intimidated by the prospect of reviewing it. How you review a book that is so brilliantly written –Mantel’s rich, creamy prose is something to savor – and obviously so well researched?

I mean, I actually had to look up some of the delightfully archaic words she drops in. I wish I’d dog-eared the pages so I could list them for you, but trust me, they’re the kinds of words you’ll find in good crossword puzzles.

And yet, I plunge ahead with this review in my middling 21st-century vernacular.

“Plunge” is probably the right word; when you put away “The Mirror & the Light” for the evening, as I did most nights over the course of two months, you feel like you’re coming up for air. Mantel creates a distinct, self-contained world with so many characters you find yourself looking at the helpful cast listing she provides at the outset (or digging into Wiki to see how history judged some of them), and yet her Cromwell feels very contemporary: a cynical, pragmatic lawyer who’s always one step ahead of his rivals and his king, Henry VIII. It is not for him to judge Henry’s capricious romances, casual cruelty, or rapacious eating habits; he’s just trying to keep money in the royal till, protect his own kin, and make sure his neck stays a safe distance away from the executioner’s blade.

It is no spoiler to tell you he does not succeed in the last, and if I’m reading Mantel correctly, it’s for the most Greek of reasons: hubris, crossed with a bit of politics. (I’d call the politics Shakespearean, but the Bard won’t be born until almost a quarter-century after Cromwell’s death. Perhaps Machiavellian? If I recall, the Medici aide’s book makes a cameo in Mantel’s work.)

“The Mirror & the Light” begins just after the second book, “Bring Up the Bodies,” ends, with the death of Anne Boleyn. Henry wants yet another wife, and this time she’d better produce a male heir. He gets his wish in the form of Jane Seymour, but after giving birth to the future Edward VI, Jane dies, and Henry is bereft – or at least wanting companionship – again.

Meanwhile, in rising from a brewer’s abused child to Henry’s right hand, Cromwell – Chancellor of the Exchequer, Principal Secretary, and Lord Privy Seal – has made a lot of enemies. However, as long as Henry’s happy, his enemies have no way of removing him from his elevated position.

With Jane Seymour’s death, Cromwell maneuvers to get Anne of Cleves, a German royal, into Henry’s palace. It seems like a good idea: The marriage will bond Henry with German Protestants and keep the French Catholics at bay. But when Anne is finally brought over to London, she is not to Henry’s liking (and vice versa). The marriage is never consummated.

Cromwell gets the blame, and his enemies heighten the king’s paranoia and fuel rumors about disloyalty. The worst blow comes from the trusted Thomas “Call-Me” Wriothesley (pronounced “Riz-lee”), who – having learned lessons in cunning from the master – decides to stab him in the back. So much for avoiding the king’s wrath, and its penalty.

It’s a rich tapestry, and Mantel takes her time weaving it. But, for me, therein lies the book’s flaw; it’s a bit flabby where “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” were tight. Though it has some wrenching set pieces (the last 50 pages, in which Cromwell is tried and executed, is absolutely dazzling), “The Mirror & the Light” contains too many long, empty stretches to be ranked on the same level as the other two novels. It reminded me of those 800-page biographies in which the biographer feels the need to list absolutely everything she uncovered about her subject — wearying in a biography, and just as wearying in fiction. I occasionally took breaks to read brisker fare.

Nevertheless, even with an overstretched finale, the trilogy is a remarkable achievement. Cromwell is such a fascinating character, a man ahead of his time in so many ways.

His depiction isn’t the only thing with contemporary echoes; I was struck by Mantel’s description of a plague that made its way through 1530s London:

The king had talked of a ceremony at midsummer. But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces. The Seymours, of course, urge the king to take the risk.

The Seymours would fit right into the current U.S. administration. One wishes there were a Thomas Cromwell around to take them on.

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Review: ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by James C. Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” because it was a huge bestseller when it came out in 2001, and I was curious to see a) what made for a good-to-great company; and b) if the companies in the book had maintained their greatness.

Well, the ensuing two decades haven’t been kind to many of the 11 companies profiled in the book.

Circuit City went bankrupt. Fannie Mae was caught in the 2008 financial crisis and was eventually delisted. Gillette is still a great name in personal grooming, but now it’s no longer an independent name, but part of an even bigger company, Procter & Gamble. Pitney Bowes, maker of postage meter technology, was trading at about $80 when the book was published; the stock is now in the single digits. Wells Fargo – well, you know what happened to Wells Fargo.

So were these companies never great to begin win? Was the definition of “great” too narrow?

It’s hard to say. Business is always changing, of course; there was no guarantee that business leaders who read the book and aimed at improving their lot would find greatness simply based on Collins’ anecdotal observations. His principles, which include “Level 5” leadership (a combination of focus and humility), truth-telling, and discipline, could simply serve as traps as much as jumping-off points.

The “Good to Great” principles and flywheel.



“Good to Great” has faltered, I think, because Collins generally used financial success as a proxy for greatness. He wanted to find out how companies that had been muddling along suddenly surged, with their stock value handily beating the market over the course of at least 15 years (without Enron-type chicanery) while their competitors kept muddling – or spiked, only to fall back. So even though he brings up other factors, success ends up coming back to the bottom line. Other aspects of greatness — working conditions, employee treatment, corporate culture – seem secondary.

Of course, I can’t help but be skeptical. I’ve read too many “Dilbert” collections. I’m not a big consumer of business books, but it seems that Collins wrote “Good to Great” with rose-colored glasses; not for him the no-bullshit tone of my favorite business book, “Up the Organization,” where Avis rejuvenator Robert Townsend described the way things too often are at large corporations. (Summary: The lower-level employees are ignored, even though they’re on the front lines. Townsend is big on communication and fair treatment, one reason I like his book so much.)

Also, I wish Collins had discussed greed more. He notes greed IS a factor at poorly run companies, such as former Nucor competitor Bethlehem Steel, in which Collins describes — with justifiable sneers — its monumental office building and cushy executive perks. I used to be able to see the building from my house before it was imploded last year, a vestige of a once-great company.

But in today’s era (and even the ‘90s, when Collins was compiling his research), greed is a big deal. We live in a world where, more than ever, the idea is to come up with a killer app, build up to an IPO, make a few people rich, create a dazzling C-suite, and take over competitors. Or simply play vulture. Wall Street likes those double-digit profit margins instead of steady success, Warren Buffett notwithstanding. So is there even a place for Collins’ brand of greatness?

In fairness, even if some of the book seems anachronistic, I did find things to like in “Good to Great.” Look past the model companies, and the principles – though common sense – still hold up. Don’t spend your profits on an edifice complex. Be honest about your problems. And don’t get caught up in celebrity culture: “The recent spate of boards enamored with celebrity CEOs … is one of the most damaging trends for the long-term health of companies,” Collins wrote 19 years ago.

Still, good companies would do these things anyway. Right?

I hope so. We could use just as many good companies as “great” ones.

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