Friday, January 27, 2017

Hologram for the King

I first read Dave Egger’s Hologram for the King when it was published in 2012. After watching the movie, I went back and reread it. Aside from a few minor character changes and a couple of plot adjustments, the screenplay balances the humor and ennui portrayed in the book. 

Alan Clay travels to Saudi Arabia to sell a new teleconferencing system to the king.  On his first day, he misses the shuttle to King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) where the presentation is to take place. The hotel arranges a driver who introduces himself as “driver, guide, hero.”

Yousef is a bright spark of humor in an otherwise bleak novel about globalization’s effects on manufacturing and middle-aged executives. Paranoid that someone might blow up his car, Yousef stops to check under the hood before he starts the engine. For what? He’s not exactly sure. As he tells Alan, “I watch the same TV shows as you.”

Alan means well, but he is floundering. Divorced, he needs this deal to go through so he can afford to put his daughter back in college and get by until his house, long on the market, sells. He tries to advocate for his three young techies who have been relegated to a tent outside despite its proximity to a grand, air-conditioned, practically vacant office building. Day after day, the Saudi representative is unavailable. No one knows for sure when the King will appear.

Alan remains (ironically) optimistic. “Maybe if he was the sort of man who could eat someone else’s hash browns, who the hotel wanted to impress so much they sent him someone else’s breakfast, maybe then he was the sort of man who could get an audience with the King.”

Next up is an adaptation of Egger’s The Circle. Will it be as successful an adaptation? We can only wait. And see. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

On Your Marks

Disappointed, and quite frankly disturbed, by the impending swearing-in of the winner of a certain presidential race, I decided to distract myself this week (I’m not the only one) with a book about a different kind of race – the mile.  

Reading a book about sports qualifies as a challenge since I haven’t read a (nonfiction) book about sports since 2009

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb tells the story of three men who are, well, in the running, to be the first to achieve a four-minute mile. 

After less than stellar showings at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, the men go home with renewed vigor to train harder and better.

Roger Bannister, a British medical student, trains alone when he’s not at the hospital. After failing to shave the last few seconds off his time, he seeks out a coach. He is told he only needs three things to achieve his goal: pacemakers, more strength, and complete belief in himself.

John Landy, an Australian agricultural science student who would rather collect butterflies, shakes off the wild ways of his first coach and makes his way to the better tracks of Europe to improve his time.  
Wes Santee, an American college student, depends on his coach’s guidance at the University of Kansas. Enjoying the attention, he is the most likely to thwart the rules about competing as an amateur.

As they run faster and faster, they capture the world’s attention at a time when “people are looking towards athletes who are confident and colorful” and sports are beginning to be broadcast on television. “Technology, progress, and coincidence had all played a part in their story,” writes Bascomb.

Almost as interesting as the record-breaking feat and the nail-biting race between two of the men at the end of the book is the development of athletic training. In the days before elite training centers, teams of dieticians and physiotherapists, and the temptations of performance-enhancers, amateur athletes could only rely on myths, rumors, and each other.

Nostalgic for a time when cheering on a contender meant honoring someone’s talent, strength, experience, and sportsmanlike behavior, I for one will be watching the clock.  

Friday, January 13, 2017

"Barbie and Ruth"

Growing up, I had one Barbie doll. She wore roller skates and a neon yellow sports outfit. However, she was often relegated to the back of the closet since I much preferred playing with “My Friend” dolls.  

When my daughter was in kindergarten, she began asking for Barbies. Most were modeled after the Disney princess characters, but she also favored Barbies who were going to the beach. When we packed up to move last year, she gave the whole collection away. She has held on to her generation’s 18” doll.  

So I was curious, but not invested in, the story of Ruth Handler, the brains behind Barbie. Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber opens with Ruth Handler in court. Her company, Mattel, is being accused of shady financial practices.

This dramatic opening sets the stage for Handler’s life. Gerber rewinds from the 1970s to Handler’s early years in retail. We learn how her business acumen, along with the creativity of her husband Elliot, launches her into business.

After a few years in the toy business, Ruth decides to create a doll that allowed girls to “project their dreams of their own futures as adult women.” As Gerber says, “Boys and girls did not just play with different toys; they grew up to be men and women [like Handler] who created different toys.”

Just as fascinating as reading about Barbie’s birth, was learning the story of how toys grew from being a Christmas commodity to one that is sold year-round. Television played a big role in making this shift as it changed the timing of the sales and manufacturing of toys. Designers also had to take into consideration how a toy would look on television.

After leaving Mattel and struggling with breast cancer, Handler created her second business. She developed and sold a product called “Nearly Me” - a silicon breast prostheses.

Whatever your opinion on Barbie’s suitableness as a role-model, it’s hard to disagree with Handler’s. Despite her later legal troubles, she became a leader in a male-dominated field and created an iconic toy that has made it onto kids’ Christmas (and Birthday and Tooth Fairy and Last Day of School) lists for generations.  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Challenge Accepted

The new reading challenge for 2017 is posted. First up…read a debut novel. After consulting this list, I chose The Assistants by Camille Perri because a) it was immediately available through my library’s Overdrive page and b) who can resist a book described as “9 to 5 meets Bonnie and Clyde, with a dash of The Devil Wears Prada.”

Tina Fontana is the assistant of the title who stumbles upon a scheme to siphon money from the expense account coffers to pay back her student loans. When an assistant in accounting catches on, she ropes Tina into helping her do the same. However, after falling for a young lawyer in the legal department, Tina’s conscience begins weighing on her. With the help of her partners in crime, she sets out to make the scheme public and above board.  

As a young Sassy reader, I dreamed of editorial internships at glossy magazines in New York.  As an adult, I love sendups of that world (like this and this) that focus on disgruntled assistants, sample closets, and the drama of deadlines and ambitious editors. The Assistants, a fast, easy read, is a debut that will produce a movie deal if not a sequel.