A Native Son’s Shocking Look at His Hometown in “Detroit: An American Autopsy”

The fascinating story of Detroit’s rise and subsequent fall — and whatever the future holds for the city and its beleaguered residents — is something we’ll likely be analyzing for years to come. It’s stunning, really, when you think about the fact that at one point Detroit was the nation’s richest big city, and is now its poorest. It leads the country in illiteracy and high-school dropouts, and half the adults living there have no consistent job. The population of Detroit topped out at 1.86 million in 1950. It now hovers at around 700,000 residents, which means Detroit’s population now is about where it was in 1910, before the city’s automobile boom.


Along with assembly lines producing American-made cars, we can also thank the Motor City for innovations such as the refrigerator, home ownership, credit, and the cement road. Detroit, for a time, appeared to be the most American of cities, drawing in flocks of blue-collar workers from across the country, promising them good jobs and an ever-better way of life. Now, entire swaths of the city sit abandoned, and wild animals like coyotes are reclaiming their former homes amidst the apocalyptic scenery.

Journalist Charlie LeDuff, who was born and raised in Detroit, returned with his family to the city in 2008. He’d worked for The New York Times and lived in Los Angeles for a while after that, but felt that inexorable pull home. His book, Detroit: An American Autopsy, is a heartbreaking, brash, honest, and true account of both Detroit’s woes as well as his own family’s. It’s a curious mix of memoir and reporting, sliding easily back and forth between the general and the specific.

LeDuff chronicles examples of the city’s downfall that have to be read to be believed – and this was before the city’s current status as officially bankrupt. It’s hard to imagine how things could be worse now.

Arson has become literal entertainment, with bored, broke, strung-out residents setting abandoned properties ablaze just for kicks. The firefighters tasked with putting them out have holes in their boots, busted hoses, and broken-down trucks. There’s simply no money for new equipment.

In the city’s morgue, the unclaimed dead pile up into the hundreds, because their relatives can’t afford to bury them. And on the streets, dead bodies sometimes stay out for days, with repeated calls to 911 going unanswered. Cops are overworked, underpaid, and understaffed.

LeDuff’s book is bleak in many ways, but he also showcases and honors the many good people in Detroit fighting to do the right thing. Their stories deserve to be heard.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/05/23/book-biz-native-son-writes-movingly-detroits-downfall/)

“Stumbling on Happiness” Highlights its Elusive Nature

What makes you happy? What’s likely to make you happy in the future? The answers may seem obvious to you, but Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness will show you that they’re actually anything but.


This lively book is not a self-help manual, but a work of psychology written for a popular audience. It’s a book I’ve read more than once, recommended to countless friends, and have continued to think about and reference for years. It will change the way you think – and, more importantly, it will change the way you think about the way you think.

Hopefully, too, it will get you closer to an answer for this critical question: “Why do we so often fail to know what will make us happy in the future?” Anyone who has made a decision or choice only to find that it didn’t make us as happy as we thought it would can relate. (I’d wager that’s everyone, at one time or another.)

There’s no one, single solution for this most basic of problems. Instead, the book describes the many ways that our memories and our imagination work together to, in essence, help us make decisions about the future based on faulty information.

For instance, our memories are not generated by some internal recording device, faithfully taking down each and every bit of info. Instead, and by necessity, memory is a “sophisticated editor that clips and saves key elements of an experience and then uses these elements to rewrite the story each time we ask to reread it.”

Think about a time that you experienced something and later shared your memories of it with another person who was also there. While overall you may both remember the event in a similar way, you each have specific memories of it that the other does not. Memory’s subject to suggestion, as well. If the other person points something out from that event that you don’t actually remember, you’re likely to add it to your story of the event anyway, without even realizing it.

The catch for predicting future happiness, then, is that our imagination relies on memory to consider how we’re likely to feel about something down the road, assuming that how we felt about something in the past is how we’ll feel in the future. But for many reasons, we often misremember how we actually felt. Our imaginations also assume, often incorrectly, that our future selves will feel the same as our current selves.

It’s a fascinating subject, and one that will make you reexamine how you make decisions.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/07/18/book-biz-digging-reasons-happy/)

Books: On The Yellow Birds

Nominated for the National Book Award and written by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds is a work of fiction that shares its lineage with books like Slaughterhouse Five and The Things They Carried. Just as Kurt Vonnegut served in Dresden during WWII and Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam, Powers served in Iraq. Vonnegut and O’Brien used their experiences to write what are arguably the defining fictional accounts of their respective conflicts. There’s a good chance Powers has done the same for the Iraq War.

Powers’ personal history is interesting. He enlisted at 17, served in 2004 and 2005, and eventually earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Texas at Austin. You can hear his love of language often in the book, though his writing is not at all flowery. It’s taut and moves quickly.

The story’s one of survival, both physical and mental, following two soldiers as they try to keep it together while serving in Al Tafar, Iraq. The book hopscotches back and forth in time, from scenes set in Iraq to scenes after the narrator has returned home to Richmond, Va., with one early chapter set in Fort Dix, N.J., pre-deployment. That’s where the two main characters, John Bartle (age 21) and Daniel Murphy (age 18) meet. That’s also where the protagonist, Bartle, makes a promise to Murphy’s mother that you realize very early on, despite not knowing the details, he has been unable to keep.

The uncovering of this mystery stretches out over the entire book, unfolding piece by piece. The foreshadowing and suspense is masterful. You simply have to find out what happened, and why, and who was right and who was wrong. The answers are eventually revealed, but the “why” and the question of “right or wrong” are left murkier, and up to your own interpretation.

This was a tough book to read at times, not because of the writing style but just because of the content. But that’s to be expected when you’re writing honestly and brutally about war and death, mayhem and madness. And Powers certainly did that. It made me uncomfortable and even sad. But it also made me empathize, perhaps more than any other war book or movie I’ve encountered, with our soldiers, the dangers they face, and the horrors of war.

The Yellow Birds was well worth any uncomfortable feelings it stirred up. That’s what literature should do. It should make you think, make you re-examine things, and make you feel something. This unforgettable book did that.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2013/11/22/book-biz-fictionalized-account-iraq-war-unforgettable/)

One Investing Family’s Greatness Explored in “The Davis Dynasty”

Shelby Davis may not be a household name, compared, say, to one particularly famous value investor from Omaha, but the story of his life — and his son’s and grandsons’ lives — makes for a fascinating read. The elder Davis started investing in stocks at age 38, and by the time of his death at 85, he’d turned an initial $50,000 investment into a fortune worth $900 million. Following the same principles, his son and grandsons also became successful market-beating investors, creating a remarkable three generations of Wall Street wonders.

The Davis Dynasty, which was published over a decade ago but still has great insights for investors today, reads partly like a biography of an interesting family, partly like a history of the U.S. economy in the 20th century, and partly like a treatise on what it takes to make money in the market over the long haul. Shelby Davis did so, in large part, by investing in insurance companies, and one chapter in the book briefly traces the history of modern insurance companies back to 4000 B.C. I found this interesting (really!) — you’ll never look at insurance the same way again!

Perhaps not surprisingly, Shelby Davis’s philosophy on spending money, versus making it, was that he wanted to do as little of it as possible. The book’s filled with tales of his legendary penny-pinching, including one anecdote from his grandson about the lecture he got on compounding returns when asked for $1 to buy a hotdog. His granddad pointed out that $1 invested wisely over 50 years would turn into $1,024, so was he really so hungry he’d eat a $1,000 hotdog?

For investors, the book offers up lots of useful lessons that remain as true in today’s market as when Davis bought his first stocks back in 1947. For example, “A few big winners are what count in a lifetime of investing, and these winners need many years to appreciate.” Shelby Davis and his son and grandsons believed in buying and holding for the long-term, and together they grew their family’s wealth over three generations. When considered against the current trends of minute-by-minute trading and the overabundance of short-term thinking on Wall Street, what they accomplished is even more impressive and inspiring.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2013/10/03/book-biz-story-behind-best-investors-youve-never-heard/)

Books: On Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Are you the proverbial “life of the party,” flitting from this social function to that one, making friends everywhere you go? Or would you rather spend your time with only your close friends, or perhaps just alone reading or engaged in other solitary pursuits? At least one-third of us fall into the latter group, so chances are, if you aren’t an introvert yourself, you’re married to one, or you parent one, manage one, or are friends with one.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author (and self-described introvert herself) Susan Cain tackles the differences between introverts and extroverts in every aspect of our lives, from the workplace to social situations to school to home and family life. In her meticulously researched and compulsively readable book, Cain explains that while introverts are often labeled as shy at best or anti-social at worst, in fact, they just interact with the world differently than extroverts.

Extroverts draw energy from being around people, but for introverts that can be draining, and instead they need time alone to recharge. Using examples of famous introverts, from Rosa Parks to Steve Wozniak to Eleanor Roosevelt to Warren Buffett, Cain demonstrates how the quietest among us can be the bravest, the most thoughtful, and the most revolutionary.

Introverts prefer a few close friendships rather than being surrounded by lots of people. They like working alone versus working in groups, and enjoy concentrating on single tasks instead of trying to multitask. In the modern workplace, introverts’ ability to think deeply and creatively and solve problems is a tremendous benefit. However, they can often be overlooked, thanks to a pervasive culture of “big personalities,” the willingness of extroverts to speak up more, and even the detriments that come with open-office floor plans. Cain’s book will convince you not to overlook the introverts around you any longer.

The book also includes advice for parents of introverts and for educators. So much of childhood for many introverted children consists of everyone around them trying to “bring them out of their shell.” While learning socialization skills is important, more focus and encouragement should be placed on their unique gifts and strengths. As someone who was never once made to feel bad about preferring reading alone to just about anything else (yep, I’m an introvert), I can tell you first-hand how valuable for a child that really is.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2013/10/04/book-biz-loud-hectic-world-introverts-offer-valuable-insights/)

This Inside Account of a Devastating Brain Injury Fascinates

Imagine you’re a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, having spent years researching how our brains work and studying what can go awry with them. You’ve built a very fulfilling and fruitful career — and life — along the way. Now, you wake up one morning at the age of 37, and over the course of four critical hours, realize that you are suffering from a stroke. Your repository of insights into the brain allows you to analyze what’s going on, even as your left brain loses cognitive function.

Author and scientist Jill Bolte Taylor takes us on a first-hand account of just this very scenario in her striking memoir, My Stroke of Insight. In December 1996, she suffered an anteriovenous malformation (AVM), a rare form of stroke that, in her case, caused a massive hemorrhage on the left side of her brain.

In fascinating detail, Taylor recounts what it felt like to gradually lose the analytical powers of her left brain, while simultaneously recognizing that the right side of her brain was becoming dominant. In the book, she offers a quick and painless (really!) look at the two hemispheres of our brains and how they differ. The left is more logical, more concerned with order and time, while the right is more creative, more “in the moment,” and makes us feel connected to the world around us. As she felt her left brain go, Taylor was amazed at how it felt to live primarily in her right brain. She describes it as “nirvana,” and writes that she felt completely at peace with what was happening to her.

Taylor spent eight grueling years recovering from her stroke, having to relearn everything from knowing that you need to put on your socks before your shoes (a left brain injury means you don’t realize the order for things like that) to learning how to read all over again. She was relentless in her pursuit, determined to regain all of the cognitive function she’d lost, and was surrounded with loving friends and family who helped her.

In addition to being an inspirational read, My Stroke of Insight would also help anyone with a family member or friend recovering from a stroke. Taylor lays out how she herself recovered, what helped her, and, perhaps more importantly, what didn’t. She provides concrete suggestions for effective rehabilitation, including specifics about how stroke victims are treated.

Educational, entertaining, and engaging, anyone interested in the brain (or just an amazing story) would enjoy this book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2013/09/27/book-biz-stroke-victim-lives-analyze-tell-inspiring-story/)

How reading literature boosts empathy and emotional intelligence

Would you believe that reading can actually make you better at perceiving the emotional states of those around you? A study out of the New School for Social Research in New York City last year supports this notion, but interestingly, it’s not just reading any old thing that brings about these results. Specifically, those who read “literary fiction” versus popular fiction or serious nonfiction scored much better on tests designed to measure their ability to pick up on subtle emotional cues.

What do you get from Huck Finn that you just don’t get from Harry Potter? The two researchers who conducted the study believe that the nature of literary fiction causes the reader to have to draw conclusions and make connections that aren’t obvious. There are more things left unsaid. Simply put, literary fiction makes you work — sometimes a lot. While that undoubtedly slows down your reading (no speed reading of the classics as if they were beach books), it’s also building your ability to empathize with those around you. What better argument for diving into the great literary classics of our time?

As Mississippians (note: this originally was published in the Mississippi Business Journal), we’re lucky to call many authors of those great classics our own. So if you’re looking for a reason to read or reread literary giants from the Magnolia State like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams, Barry Hannah, or Larry Brown (just to name a few of my favorites), now’s the time.

Faulkner, in particular, makes you work hard for it, but the insights he provides into the human condition make every instance of furrowed brow worth it. I’m sure many of us have read As I Lay Dying and struggled through The Sound and the Fury, both exceptional. (My favorite remains Absalom, Absalom!, though.) By reading and rereading his work, we’re expanding our capacity for empathizing with our fellow man, a thought I think would delight Faulkner.

After all, in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2013/10/25/lofton-reading-literature-boosts-empathy-emotional-intelligence/)

Books: On Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death

I won’t sugarcoat it: if you’re looking for a fun, lighthearted read, this is not the book for you. However, if you’re interested in how our society and medical community treat end-of-life decisions in the 21st century, Katy Butler’s remarkable Knocking on Heaven’s Door is enlightening, heartbreaking and, at times, enraging.


Butler is a journalist and brings an investigative depth to her book, digging into the history of everything from pacemakers to Medicare reimbursements (and the way the development of the latter helped drive the growth of the former). But this book is also personal for her, recounting her experiences dealing with the illnesses and deaths of her own parents. It’s this effective mix of hard facts coupled with understandable emotion that makes this sometimes-harrowing book so readable and relatable.

Butler’s father was a relatively healthy 79-year-old in the fall of 2001 when he suffered a serious stroke. Following this incident would be six and a half years of decline, including dementia, near-blindness, and increasing frailty. Thanks to a pacemaker inserted about a year after the stroke, though, Butler’s father’s heart kept beating even as the rest of his body and mind edged ever closer to the end. Unsettling questions about the necessity of the pacemaker would haunt Butler and her mother, as they watched the deterioration and eventual virtual disappearance of the smart, vivacious man they loved.

At its heart, really, this book asks, just because technology has developed to the point where we can keep someone alive, should we? Just because it’s possible, does that mean it’s right? Where do questions about quality of life play into this? Who speaks up for patients who can no longer speak up for themselves? Butler’s father was clearly suffering for years, and yet his pacemaker kept his heart beating, likely for much longer than it would have without it.

As with just about anything else, it helps to follow the money and uncover the incentives, and Butler does this in great detail. For instance, she points out that “between 1998 and 2011, pharmaceutical companies and makers of health products spent $2.3 billion on lobbying, making them the single biggest influencer of members of Congress.” The financial incentives for keeping people alive for as long as possible are eye opening and far-reaching, permeating throughout all layers of medicine.

This book’s a cautionary tale, written by a loving daughter who hated watching her infirm father suffer through his final years, and wondered if there’s a better way. For those brave enough, it’s an immensely educational, valuable read.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/09/24/book-biz-embracing-different-approach-end-life-care/)

A Nobel Prize Winner’s Latest Book Doesn’t Disappoint

In Dear Life, her 14th book of short stories, Alice Munro revisits the territory and topics that have endeared her to readers for years. Set mostly in the rural Canadian countryside she calls home, Munro weaves tales of regret, of unfulfilled lives, of children trying to make sense of the confounding things the adults around them do, of people resisting and resenting society’s changes. At their heart, her stories explore what it means to be human, and she writes of everyday struggles and desires in such a way that reading her work leaves you with a sense that she, somehow, knows you.

It’s this intimate quality, combined with her ingenuity in the short story format, that assures her place in literary history. And, well, a little thing called the Nobel Prize can’t hurt either. Munro won hers in October of 2013, at age 82. She is just the 13th woman in the prize’s 112 years of existence to win. The fact that as a writer she is known primarily for her short stories (she did publish one novel early in her career) also makes her win unique. Further, she’s considered the first Canadian to win a Nobel Prize (Saul Bellow was born in Canada but lived most of his life in the U.S.).

Munro shares an interesting connection to Mississippi, if only through our state’s literary heritage. She’s spoken of her adoration of Eudora Welty, another master of the art of the short story. Munro has also said that she loved reading other writers from the South, like Flannery O’Connor, because they showed her that it was possible to write compellingly about small towns and rural areas.

William Faulkner said that his “… little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about,” and Munro seems to have taken this idea to heart. She lives near where she grew up, in rural Ontario, Canada, in a town of just 3,000 people. Much of her work is set in these out-of-the-way places. Her rural sensibility made the stories in Dear Life even more relatable for me, having grown up in a small town (Monticello, Mississippi) myself.

If you’re new to Munro’s work, Dear Life would be a fine starting point. Each story is filled with quiet power, dignity, and humanity. After the book was published last year, she said it would be her final one and she was retiring from writing. Then she won the Nobel Prize. Will that inspire her to keep going? We’ll see, but I, for one, certainly hope so.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2013/11/29/book-biz-short-story-master-delivers-another-impressive-collection/)