Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ category

“Amazing Fantastic Incredible” by Stan Lee

May 6, 2017

Trading cards are what got me hooked on Marvel. I remember feverishly opening packs of Marvel cards, hoping for rare hologram cards, and once or twice splurging on a box so I could collect a complete set. I remember writing to Marvel to request an annual report, back when I didn’t have money to invest and Marvel wasn’t making a profit, and being amazed by its colorful, jaunty, comic book format.

Since then, Marvel has become an entertainment titan, and Stan Lee, the creative force behind Marvel Comics, has given us a glimpse into the forces that shaped him in his informal, offbeat memoir, written with Peter David and art by Colleen Doran.  “Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir” (2015), appropriately enough, a graphic, full-color illustrated memoir that answers the question, “How did it happen?”

Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in New York City, New York on December 28, 1922 during the Great Depression. He spent most of his time reading – “I’d read the label on a bottle of ketchup if nothing else was around” and riding his bike – “It gave me freedom. I could go anywhere I wanted.” He gained self-confidence from his mother Celia and a strong work ethic from his father Jack, who was always looking for a better job.

The rise of Marvel began when Lee became an assistant to his uncle Rob and Jack Kirby at Atlas Comics, writing Captain America comics. When they left unexpectedly, publisher Martin Goodman put Stan in charge. After five years in the army, Lee returned to comic book writing and married Joan Boocock. He declares, “I was interested in creating stories that had human characters that could be relatable no matter what the reader’s age.”

Under Lee’s crafting, the Marvel Style focuses on characterization, realistic dialog, and humor. I enjoyed his one-line commentaries about his superheroes, like Spider-Man: “all the problems, hang-ups, and angst of any teen!” and Thor: because “How could any human be stronger than ol’ greenskin? Make him a god!” and X-Men: “Dedicated to all of the people in the world who have been mistreated because they were different in any way.”

Along the way, he also offers five tips for aspiring writers:

  1. “Write about things you know. Or else, be so vague that no one can pin you down.”
  2. Analyze everything you see.
  3. Proofread carefully. Pretend you’re the world’s toughest editor.
  4. “Keep rewriting until your script is as good as you can possibly make it.”
  5. “Don’t get discouraged.”

“Amazing Fantastic Incredible” is an exciting, enthusiastic, and humorous memoir about a reader who went on to become a writer and an actor. Its graphic novel format kept me engaged. I love his creativity (he has conversations with his younger self), sly humor, humility (he credits artists Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Larry Lieber, and Steve Ditko; acknowledges his family, wife Joan and daughter Joanie; and focuses on his fans), unwillingness to make personal attacks, and the respectful way he mentions personal tragedies and professional failures.

“Amazing Fantastic Incredible” is the most entertaining memoir I’ve ever read, and it left me wanting to know more about the next chapters in Lee’s – and Marvel’s – extraordinary adventure.

“Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii” by Patricia Jennings and Maria Ausherman

April 1, 2017

In 1939, Hawaiian Pineapple Co. (later the Dole Company) asked artist Georgia O’Keeffe to paint two pictures. According to a February 12, 1940 TIME Magazine article, “She agreed, on condition that she could paint whatever she pleased.” And in fact, stymied in her attempt to visit a plantation and dismayed by a cut-up pineapple, she refused to paint a pineapple.

“Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii” (2011) offers a personal glimpse into O’Keeffe’s 1939 visit to Hawaii. Her visit is seen through the eyes of 12-year old Patricia Jennings, who served as O’Keeffe’s personal guide while the artist was on Maui, written with author and teacher Maria Ausherman. O’Keeffe spent 9 weeks in Hawaii, visiting Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii Island. She painted 18 paintings in Hawaii, and two after she returned to New York.

The book is divided into roughly three sections: an introduction by Jennifer Saville, adapted from her book “Georgia O’Keeffe: Paintings of Hawaii” (1990), which offers a factual account of O’Keeffe’s visit; a personal narrative written by Patricia Jennings, who was 12 years old when O’Keeffe visited Maui and stayed at her home in Hāna; and an afterword by James Meeker, which highlights Hawaii’s lasting impression on O’Keeffe.

Through Jennings, we see a side of O’Keeffe who was daring enough to travel across the country alone to a new land, thoughtful and caring about a young girl, intensely private as she painted, temperamental about getting her way, and successful and confident enough to choose art instead of commercialism.

Of Jennings, she wrote in a letter to her husband Alfred Stieglitz: “The child too is so lovely – a flower in full bloom with the sun on it –“ In turn, O’Keeffe made a lasting impact on Jennings – she wrote, “But the deepest gift she offered me was the experience, in some way for the first time in my life, of really being listened to and appreciated for who I was.”

There are beautiful color prints of O’Keeffe’s paintings, as well as those of artist Robert Lee Eskridge, excerpts from letters, photographs, and transcripts of letters written in O’Keeffe’s curling, flowing handwriting. Interestingly, O’Keeffe used wavy lines to separate her thoughts and sentences, instead of standardized punctuation.

As I read “Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii,” I asked my then 9-year old son to read “Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased” (2012) by Amy Novesky. We talked a little about O’Keeffe’s decision not to paint pineapples: she was true to her artistic vision, but she also didn’t fulfill her implicit obligation to Dole Company. My son’s perspective: pineapples aren’t fun to paint, but O’Keeffe should have kept her word.

“The Power of Broke” by Daymond John

March 4, 2017

The Power of Broke

I’ve watched a few episodes of “Shark Tank” (ABC), and I find it to be both inspiring and intimidating. We get to meet passionate entrepreneurs and we watch the often brutal scrutiny of their dreams, or rather their business plans. So I was really interested to learn more about the successful “sharks,” written by successful “shark” and FUBU CEO and founder Daymond John.

“The Power of Broke: How Empty Pockets, a Tight Budget, and a Hunger for Success Can Become Your Greatest Competitive Advantage” (2016), written by Daymond John with Daniel Paisner, highlights wildly successful individuals who have a “power of broke” mindset. The mindset is simple: “When you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve got everything to gain.” John writes, “The choice of whether to succeed – or not – is all mine.”

John’s writing is conversational and informal – you really feel as if he is talking to you in a coffee shop or bar. His advice is encouraging, down-to-earth, and passionate. I really appreciated his emphasis on how we are in control of our success or failure (it’s all in our attitude) and his commitment to setting goals – he consistently sets goals for health, family, business, relationships, and philanthropy, each with expiration dates.

John points out that the most innovative products, services, and brands happen organically, authentically, usually from the people on the streets, not in boardrooms. He identifies 5 “Shark Points” that will help us succeed:

Set a goal. Be realistic and commit to it.
Homework, do yours. Know your field. Know your competitors. Know your stuff.
Adore what you do. Love what you are doing.
Remember, you are the brand. Everything you say and do reflects your business.
Keep swimming. Always be on the looking for an opportunity.

While discussing successful founders and inventors who embody the Shark Points, John shares his personal story of growing up with a single mother who worked multiple jobs, but was there for him in high school to make sure he kept on track and out of trouble. In a way, it is a testament to dedicating parenting. From shoveling driveways to a ride-sharing business to selling clothes out of the back of a van, while coping with dyslexia, we see John’s determination to make a better life for himself, relying on hard-work and creativity in seeing a need (for clean driveways, for safe and fast transportation, for clothes that make a statement) and filling it.

Here are John’s 8 Broke Power Principles:

  1. Use all of the resources available to you to your smartest advantage, like other people’s money.
  2. Keep it real. Strive for authenticity in everything you do.
  3. Make the best use of your time, energy, actions, opportunity costs, and capital.
  4. Solve other people’s problems and you will be rewarded.
  5. Believe in yourself and your product, service, or business. People invest in people.
  6. Understand and appreciate everyone you meet on your path to success – investor, distributor, vendor, prospective buyer, and customer.
  7. Think beyond the moment.
  8. Expect success. Keep your goals in sight and in reach.

“The Power of Broke” assumes that you have found your passion, and that you need the inspiration and the tools to take it to the next level. Two entrepreneurs stood out for me: a football player who saw a need for moisture-wicking clothes for athletes and founded Under Armour (Kevin Plank); and a 9-year old who grew his passion for fashionable bow ties into a successful business (Moziah Bridges and his mother Tramica Morris). They had an idea, but not the know-how; and they were driven to succeed.

What are you passionate about? What product or service could you create that could make the world better?

“The Providential Life and Heritage of Henry Obookiah” by Christopher L. Cook

February 4, 2017

The Providential Life and Heritage of Henry Obookiah

In school, we discuss the impact of the missionaries in Hawaii – the positive impacts, like literacy; the negative impacts, like the suppression of cultural traditions; and the lasting impacts, like the success of missionary descendants in accumulating land and wealth. But we seldom think about why missionaries came to Hawaii.

Henry Obookiah (‘Ōpūkaha’ia) was one of the driving forces behind the missionary presence in Hawaii, as we learn in Christopher L. Cook’s “The Providential Life and Heritage of Henry Obookiah: Why Did Missionaries Come to Hawaii from New England and Tahiti?” (2015). His book is an expansion and exploration of the 1818 book “Memoirs of Henry Obookiah: A Native of Owhyhee.”

Cook based his narrative on primary research and interviews with family and descendants. The biography is scholarly and densely written, with meticulous detail. It is not for the casual reader; it is intended for those with a scholarly interest in Hawaiian history and early foreign Christian missions from New England. It is as much about the changing world around Obookiah as it was about Obookiah himself, illustrated with historical drawings, photographs, maps, excerpts, and quotes.

At times, there are tangential discussions of life in the 1800s, such as life for sealers on Isla Guadalupe (I was disturbed and amazed to learn that 50,000 fur seal skins were harvested in 1808 by the sealing crew of the Triumph), the design of Guilford merchant ships, and an exhaustive discussion of the New England religious revival.

‘Ōpūkaha’ia (1788?-1818) was born in Ka’ū, Hawaii Island possibly in 1788. Life in Ka’ū could be harsh: drinking water was scarce (divers had to fill hollow gourds with fresh water from underground springs), the grasslands were dry, and there were some times famines. At age 10, ‘Ōpūkaha’ia was orphaned in the war between Chief Nāmakehā and Kamehameha. For one year, he was a captive of the warrior who killed his family in front of him, until his uncle Pahua, a kahuna pule (praying priest) at Hikiau Heiau, claimed him. In 1808 at around age 20, Obookiah was invited by Captain Caleb Brintnall (1774-1850) to sail aboard the merchant ship Triumph, along with 12-year old “Hopu” Thomas Hopoo. Eager for a new start, Obookiah signed on as a sailor, escaping from his room when his uncle Pahua forbade him to leave.

We learn that Obookiah was “a sprightly active lad, of uncommon agility of body – tall in stature – straight built – his limbs proportional… mildness and modesty are the most prominent expressions of his countenance,” according to Reverend Chauncy Lee. He was “considerably above the ordinary size, but little less than six feet in height,” according to Edwin Dwight; his disposition was “amiable and affectionate,” his temper was “mild,” with good sense, an inquisitive mind, ingenious, and inventive. He was eager to learn, studious, a good mimic, and a captivating storyteller. A student at Bradford Academy wrote about Obookiah: “He had so much frankness, honesty, and simplicity that no one could be offended with him.”

After struggling with his faith, he embraced Christianity whole-heartedly and advocated for a Christian mission to Hawaii, looking forward to the day he could return home. He helped build an ‘ohana of Owhyhee youths whose lives were disrupted by war and political uncertainty in Hawaii, including “Hopu” Thomas Hopoo, the royal prince of Kauai George Tamorree (George Prince Kaumuali’i or Humehume), William Tennooe (Kanui), and John Honooree (Honoli’i). He began translating the Bible into Hawaiian, and started writing a primer of Hawaiian and English words.

Obookiah never returned to Hawaii; he died of typhus fever in 1818, a year before the Sandwich Islands Mission set sail.

Obookiah’s life was indeed providential: he escaped death as a boy; was sponsored by a Christian sea captain, Captain Brintnall, who did not treat him as a slave; found supporters and benefactors who gave him room and board in their own homes and arranged for him to receive an education; and was championed by a passionate anti-slavery advocate, Father Samuel Mills.

Hawaii would be a much different place if Obookiah had not defied his uncle, become a sailor, made Christian friends, or sparked a missionary fervor for Hawaii.

Henry Obookiah’s experiences and journal are collected in a book, “Memoirs of Henry Obookiah,”  and published by the Woman’s Board of Missions.

“The 5 Choices” by Kory Kogon, Adam Merrill, and Leena Rinne

January 7, 2017

The 5 Choices

“Everyone has the capacity to do extraordinary work.”

This is the foundation of “The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity” (2015), written by three executives at Franklin Covey: Kory Kogon, Global Practice Leader for Productivity; Adam Merrill, Vice President of Innovations; and Leena Rinne, Senior Consultant for productivity and leadership development. The book is a practical and helpful guide to planning and organizing your day.

The authors first identify three critical challenges in our lives: 1) We are making more decisions than ever. 2) Our attention is under unprecedented attack. And 3) We are suffering from a personal energy crisis.

Then the authors discuss the 5 choices that can increase our capability in decision management, attention management, and energy management. Some of the principles and anecdotes are influenced by Japanese martial arts and stories. Some of the organization tips feel targeted more to employees and managers of large corporations, who have access to more technology resources. But all of it can be scaled up or down for any business. Each chapter concludes with “To Sum Up” summaries, with a special section about being a Q2 leader, and a handy appendix with the Top 25 Email Protocols and Key Models.

Here are the 5 choices that can lead to extraordinary productivity:

  1. Act on the Important, Don’t React to the Urgent. Important activities, like planning, creative thinking, and relationship building let you take charge of your life and do things that make a difference. Use the Time Matrix to divide your activities and tasks into four quadrants: Q1 Necessary, Q2 Extraordinary Productivity, Q3 Distraction, and Q4 Waste. Before making decisions, Pause-Clarify-Decide whether something is important.
  2. Go for Extraordinary, Don’t Settle for Ordinary. Extraordinary is feeling satisfied and accomplished. Use a Life Wheel to identify the most important roles in your life (parent, spouse, manager, volunteer), and evaluate how you are doing in each (underperforming, ordinary, or extraordinary). Write role statements for each role, articulating what you will do and how you will achieve it. Set goals to focus your attention and energy.
  3. Schedule the Big Rocks, Don’t Sort Gravel. Let go of a lot of the little things and focus on the important things. Create a Master Task List of Q1s and Q2s. Commit to spending 30 minutes each week and 10 minutes each day on Q2 Planning. Review your roles and goals, and schedule a specific tune and place to do Q2 Planning. At the end of the day, “Close out the Day” by reviewing what you have accomplished, identify the few “must-dos” for tomorrow, and organize the rest.
  4. Rule Your Technology, Don’t Let it Rule You. Technology is not the problem; it is how conscious and deliberate we are in using it! Sort everything into Appointments, Tasks, Contacts, and Notes/Documents. Keep everything in one place in each category, either digitally or on paper, so that you don’t miss anything or waste time with duplicate effort. When you receive a document or request, act on it, file it, or dismiss it.
  5. Fuel Your Fire, Don’t Burn Out. Take care of your brain and body. Follow the 5 Energy Drivers: Move, Eat Healthy, Get Enough Sleep, Relax, and Connect with People.

“Extraordinary productivity is a question of being conscious in the moment” rather than reacting to the most recent crisis.

Do you feel as if you don’t have enough time to do everything you need to do? How do you balance work and personal life?

“Our Nostalgic Heritage” by Akinori Imai

December 3, 2016

Our Nostalgic Heritage

Earlier this year, my mother received a surprise package in the mail: two books written by her older cousin, Akinori Imai, an electrician, teacher, and lay minister. This is his story, written at age 81, from his childhood through age 17.

“Our Nostalgic Heritage: Growing Up in a Place Once Called Ola’a” (2012) is a memoir about Akinori Imai’s personal experiences, childhood memories, and family history as the son of Japanese immigrants. It is a wonderful glimpse into the Japanese immigrant plantation experience, and a nostalgic look at the plantation town of Ola‘a on Hawai‘i Island.

Imai was born in 1928 to Masayoshi and Hisayo Imai, and lived with his paternal grandparents Toyoji and Kii Imai and 8 siblings. He made frequent trips to Wailea to visit his maternal grandparents, Gosaku and Motoyo Nishiyama, and his Aunty Ayako Hamada, often traveling alone. During those trips to Wailea, he spent time with Aunty Ayako’s eldest son Kazumi – fishing, swimming, and picking mango and mountain apple. He and his friends, especially best friend George Fujiwara, made their own tops, kites, wooden boats, kama pio games, and squirt guns (from African tulip tree pods), and enjoyed sliding naked down the sugar cane water flume.

The Ola’a Sugar Company’s “9 Mile Camp” was divided into two camps, mainly Japanese and Filipino immigrant workers. The workers were frugal and resourceful, and nothing was wasted. Imai reminisces that for toilet paper, families used fruit wrappings, newspaper, and catalog pages from Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward. Ceiling materials were often made of bleached rice bags stitched together. In the 1930,s gasoline was 20 cents per gallon, blocks of ice were 10 cents and 15 cents, candy bars were 5 cents, and school lunches were 10 cents.

Imai was 13 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and war reached their remote town. On December 7, 1941, his grandfather Toyoji Imai was arrested and spent the war at an internment camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Ola’a, martial law was imposed, with a curfew and complete blackout. Residents had to carry their ID papers and gas masks. There was rationing for rice and gas. Imai’s parents lost their teaching jobs, so the family planted a garden and offered laundry services for soldiers.

In those years, children took on more responsibilities at a younger age. By age 14, Imai worked in the sugar cane fields for 12.5 cents per hour. At age 15, he worked at a lauhala processing and weaving company in Hilo. He took a summer job at the California Packing Corporation, picking pineapples at Camp Kunia on Oahu. Two years later, he boarded an interisland steamship “Waialeale” with $25 in his pocket and a leather luggage to work in Honolulu. With his uncle’s help, he worked as an electrician’s helper for 65 cents per hour, and 4 months later was hired by the American Electric Company for $1.10 per hour. His narrative ends with the 1946 tsunami on April 1 that devastated Hilo.

I enjoyed the short anecdotes about Imai’s youth and the many historic and personal photos that bring his story to life. I respect his family’s strong bonds and the way that they took care of each other, even though by today’s standards they didn’t have much. And I am delighted by glimpses of my grandfather – and great-grandparents and a connection to a place that I have never visited.

“Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock

November 5, 2016


Have you ever wondered about the company culture that keeps Google on the forefront of innovation?

“Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead” (2015) by Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google since 2006, discusses Google’s company culture and why and how Google works. It is a handbook for hiring people, managing people, and creating a workplace where people thrive. It is based on the conviction that “All it takes is a belief that people are fundamentally good – and enough courage to treat your people like owners instead of machines.”

The book is divided into 14 chapters that cover hiring, retaining, managing, and appreciating employees. Each chapter ends with “Work Rules” which summarize the chapter, and the book ends with a list of all the Work Rules.

Everything starts with founders who value people over profits. According to Bock, the three defining aspects of a great culture are 1) mission (a vision that is simple, meaningful, and open-ended/aspiring); 2) transparency (a willingness to share information); and 3) voice (giving employees a real say in how the company is run). When hiring, managing, and retaining employees at Google, this translates into 1) treating employees like owners and trusting them to do the right thing; 2) using data to evaluate products and employee programs; and 3) being transparent about decisions.

Hiring top performers: Google invests a lot of time and effort in recruiting, spending money to hire top performers instead of training average performers. They built a recruiting machine that turns employees into recruiters by soliciting referrals. Hiring decisions are made by committee, based on multiple interviews and a combination of work sample tests, general cognitive ability tests, and structured interviews.

Retaining employee-owners: To retain employees, Google helps employees be owners by taking power away from managers. The company eliminates status symbols, offers the same benefits to everyone, and announces promotions openly. They encourage creativity and innovation by offering employees time for side-projects called “twenty percent time.” Performance reviews are done by teams, not by managers, who measure performance with specific, measurable, and verifiable results, subject to “calibration” (group review). There are separate meetings for performance reviews and pay discussions.

Managing employees: Great managers make a big difference. Google helps the small number of people who struggle the most (people either improve dramatically or leave and succeed elsewhere), turning to experts and top performers within the company. Training focuses on deliberate learning (repetition and feedback). Because a small group of top performers account for a big part of productivity, innovation, and sales, Google pays them more (an instance where paying unfairly is actually fair).

Appreciating each other: Google offers ways to let peers reward each other (gThanks) and also rewards thoughtful failure to encourage innovation and risk-taking. People programs, whether it’s microkitchens, dry-cleaning, guest speakers, daycare, or shuttles, must help employees be more efficient, build community, or encourage innovation. The People Operations team uses nudes (gentle reminders) to make people happier, make people more effective, and encourage people to change – such as putting healthy foods at eye-level and unhealthy snacks in opaque containers, sending emails with checklists to help new hires settle in more quickly, or writing surveys that ask whether employees have done what you hope they will do differently. Google also admits its mistakes – Bock shares a story about how he was honest about a mistake and dropped everything to fix it.

“Work Rules!” is honest, insightful, and backed by data and experience. For a small business, the sheer amount of work and group effort that goes into hiring and managing employees seems overwhelming and a little exhausting. I am in awe about how much Google invests in its people, and the sheer amount of data they collect to back up their decisions. It actually makes me feel more comfortable about the reliability of their products, thought slightly more uncomfortable about the data they collect about people. Bock offers glimpses of his personality and personal life, from a recipe for pancakes to self-depreciating humor, a generous use of footnotes and wry acknowledgement that a 400-page book is not a nudge. He is even honest about his early, less than stellar performance reviews.

Here are the top 5 things I learned from Google:

1) Company missions and employee goals should be simple, meaningful, and just out of reach.

2) Make decisions about employees based on data (not gut feelings) in teams (not individual managers), and keep performance reviews separate from pay discussions.

3) Feedback surveys can nudge people into making improvements just by asking whether they have done what you hope they do differently.

4) At performance review, ask what they hope you would do differently.

5) Create employee programs that increase efficiently, community, or innovation – or are just the right things to do.

Laszlo Bock is a Pomona College graduate, class of 1993 and one of my classmates. I read about his book in a “Pomona College Magazine” Spring 2016 Book Talk, “The Freedom to Work.”