Books: On This Is Running for Your Life

For many of us, the word “essay” conjures up thoughts of college application essays or the essay portions from exams in middle school and beyond. Or, perhaps we remember the assigned readings of essays by thinkers like Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (who was the first person to describe his writing as essays back in the mid-1500s), John Locke, Thomas Malthus, or Francis Bacon.

Though they’ve been around a long time, and might remind us initially of their use in education, the essay in its modern form is still very much alive and well. Writers as diverse as Joan Didion, John Jeremiah Sullivan, David Sedaris, Jonathan Franzen, and the late David Foster Wallace all have employed essays in their bodies of work to great effect.

The definition of an “essay” is hard to pin down exactly, as there are as many different kinds and expressions of the form as there are people writing them, but perhaps the easiest definition is simply, “a short piece of writing on a particular subject.” What differentiates an essay from memoir is that typically an essay will link or tie personal reflections or stories from the author’s life to a bigger theme or idea. Essays also may require research and need to be supported with facts. Done well, essays provide a way for a writer to explore a topic in a unique way, and for readers, they can be like getting an inside look into someone’s mind and thought processes.

Author Michelle Orange’s book of essays, This Is Running for Your Life, is an excellent example of the power of the essay form from an up-and-coming writer. I hadn’t heard of her or her book, but just stumbled across it in a bookstore and was intrigued. She’s quick-witted and wry, and is as comfortable exploring our culture’s fascination with famous people who die young (and the way that the definition of “famous” has changed for many to now encompass reality television stars and the like) to her Canadian family’s various quirks and history to the way we all get stuck at some point in nostalgia for the music and movies of our youth.

MichelleOrange

For me, an essay is successful if I finish it feeling like I both learned something about the author and his or her life and I learned about something else, too. Bonus points for essays that really challenge my own viewpoints and thinking. I found those qualities repeatedly in Orange’s book, which made it a pleasure to read.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/04/14/bool-biz-old-literary-form-gets-new-life-writer-rise/)

Books: On This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Sometimes you love a book so much that you feel like it’s a travesty if everyone you know doesn’t read it right away. That’s exactly how I felt about Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

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Ann Patchett, is, of course, perhaps best known for her best-selling fiction, including Bel Canto, which won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in 2002. Here, though, she brings together an assortment of nonfiction published throughout her career, spanning from the Atlantic Monthly to the Wall Street Journal to Outside Magazine to Vogue and beyond. You get a real sense for who she is, both as a person and a writer — and she’s absolutely mesmerizing and entertaining.

In addition to writing with such wit and clarity that you feel like she’s right in the room next to you, just telling you stories about her life, the breadth of this collection makes it so compelling. You learn about, for instance, her deep devotion to her grandmother as well as her childhood growing up in Nashville after her mother divorced her father and moved the family there from California. She also tackles a controversy over one of her books after it was made assigned reading for all freshmen entering Clemson University, and in another couple of essays, you learn about her sweet dog, Rose. And yes, obviously (given the title essay), you hear about her marriage to her husband Karl.

The surprises for me, though, were a trio of essays about topics I wouldn’t ordinarily have thought I’d be interested in. In one, Patchett tries out for the Los Angeles Police Department, as both an homage to her cop father and as potential fodder for a book. In another, she writes so lovingly about opera and how she developed a passion for it that I felt I understood something about opera for the first time ever. And in the third essay, she and her husband take a Winnebago out for a trip in Montana that turns out in a much different way than she’d anticipated.

In addition to being a writer, Patchett is also the co-owner of the independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville. One of the most fascinating essays in this collection talks about the power and importance of bookstores and how she ended up opening one. As well, one of the earliest pieces in the book discusses her philosophy on writing and contains valuable gifts for any writer or aspiring writer.

Simply put, you should read this book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/12/04/louann-lofton-book-essays-contains-something-everyone/)

In order to succeed, fail well, argues “The Up Side of Down”

Spending 320 pages reading about failure may not seem like the most compelling idea, but hear me out. Economics and business journalist Megan McArdle’s first book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, makes a strong and thought-provoking case for the importance of failure.

McArdle walks us through failures of all kinds: her own personal failures, numerous stories of business and entrepreneurial failures and even society’s failures. She convincingly demonstrates how vital it is to try things you might fail at — and if you do fail, what lessons to take away from those experiences. Indeed, her argument as it pertains to business is that this characteristic is at the very heart of what drives American innovation.

Failure obviously makes us uncomfortable. Even the thought of failing at something can give the most confident person pause. However, being willing to take risks and fail — and recognize those failures — is critical to your own life and the success of your business.

McArdle spends one chapter, for instance, on the long and protracted downfall of General Motors, and the ways that GM’s management was unwilling to react to many cues inside the business that all was not well, until it was too late. They fell prey to normalcy bias, or “acting as if things are fine when they quite obviously are not.” Not being able to deal with the failures as they happened meant that later, things for GM were much, much worse.

One of the things I liked best about this book, and McArdle’s work in general, is her ability to boil controversial topics down to their economic effects. She’s got a knack for making you question your own assumptions.

For instance, she argues, quite convincingly, that the relative permissiveness of U.S. bankruptcy laws help support small business development in a way that, net-net, is a positive thing for society. It allows entrepreneurs the ability to take risks, start businesses, fail, and then not be bound to those failures for the rest of their lives. They can then try again, starting new businesses.

This cycle contributes to what makes America’s economy so vibrant, supporting the growth of small businesses. Sure, some folks may abuse our lax bankruptcy laws, but overall the effect is a win. Were we to tighten up, she argues, we’d de-incentivize small business growth. Many European countries, for instance, have much tighter bankruptcy standards, which results in far fewer small businesses there as “innovators decide it’s not worth the risk.”

It’s that kind of contrarian thinking that makes this book a great read.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/07/25/book-biz-looking-bright-side-failure/)

Books: On Investing the Templeton Way

One word sprung to mind repeatedly as I read Investing the Templeton Way: courage. Simply put, courage defined the life and times of the renowned global value investor Sir John Templeton, and reading about how he approached investing left me both impressed and inspired.

Born in 1912 in the small town of Winchester, Tennessee, Templeton would go on to pioneer the idea of global investing. He was exceptional from the word go, managing to attend (and largely pay for on his own) college at Yale. He also became a Rhodes scholar, and traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

This insatiable curiosity and drive would lead him to work hard throughout his long career to uncover the best investment bargains worldwide. Well before U.S. investors were willing to look overseas for undervalued companies and markets poised to prosper, Templeton was actively researching and buying shares in foreign countries.

Templeton was focused first and foremost on uncovering bargains. By allowing himself to look outside the U.S., he was able to profit handsomely when U.S. stocks were overvalued. He didn’t place needless geographical limits on himself. He simply followed his research into the best places, and as a result, built a fortune by being brave enough to do things most investors would find unthinkable.

For instance, he recognized after World War II that Japan was transforming itself into a global powerhouse. This was not the view held by the majority at the time, given the country’s WWII defeat. But he presciently saw the future for Japan and began investing in the 1950s in the country – and, just as importantly, he got out after everyone else caught on to the Japanese story in the 1980s, moving his money to bargains elsewhere.

One of the greatest lessons from Templeton can be found in this quote from him: “If you want to have a better performance than the crowd, you must do things differently from the crowd.” That sounds a lot easier than it is, though. It takes courage to build a career by doing what others are too scared to do.

Written by his great-niece, Lauren Templeton, and her husband, Scott Phillips, who are exceptional investors in their own right, Investing the Templeton Way provides actionable advice for ways to unlock your own bargain-hunting tendencies as an investor. As counterintuitive as this sounds, learning about Sir John Templeton’s ability to think independently as an investor can improve your own ability to do so.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/08/22/book-biz-inspiring-instructive-look-value-investing-great-investing-templeton-way/)