Meb Keflezighi is an Eritrean-born, American distance runner. He’s a four-time Olympian for Team USA, he participated in two World finals, and he has won prestigious races such as the Boston and the New York City marathons. He is practically as “elite” as a runner can get.
It has genuinely been such a long time since I picked up a book that could keep my interest. And it’s not because I haven’t tried: With my Scribd trial, which gave me access to a nearly infinite number of books in either audio or digital format, trying is all I did. And then with the library, too. Part of it has just been because I want to read, but another reason I’ve been trying so hard to find a good story is that I wanted to introduce/continue a book segment on this blog.
Well, I’m just accepting the fact that there are a lot of books being indiscriminately published, marketed to a buzz, and then as readers we’re kind of fooled into thinking it’s because they are actually good, right? Nope! This is a slight rant, I guess, but the truth is that as an advanced reader for NetGalley, I’ve read good, well-structured, interesting, and well-told stories that went out of print just a couple months after “launching.”
So, at least we know some good books don’t get any buzz. But must the opposite be true, too? No, it doesn’t have to be, but it definitely is if my experience with reading lately is anything to go by.
I picked up The Alice Network by Kate Quinn from the library on a whim. I recognized it when I saw it in the fast-lane display shelf at my local library. It’s this month’s book club pick for one of the few book clubs I know of in my area, and it’s also emblazoned with a seal for Reese’s book club. And maybe I haven’t talked about her on this blog, but put simply Reese Witherspoon’s opinion on a story really counts for something in my books. (Pun not initially intended!)
And the premise for this one is great. Or should I say these stories, because the book technically has two stories lines and it alternates between them with each consecutive chapter. One story is set just after WWII and involves a young, unmarried but pregnant woman who runs away from her family in search of her missing cousin. Her search leads her to Eva Gardiner, a seasoned French spy, and I presume (because I haven’t read the whole book) that together they solve the mystery of the missing cousin.
The second storyline is about Eve Gardiner and how she began her career as a spy in what is the fictionalized version of the real-life Alice Network, a group of female Allied WWII spies. Interesting, right?
Well, sort of. First, I was okay with the back-and-forth for a couple of chapters, but I quickly lost interest in the 1915 time line. The 1947 time line of finding Charlie’s (the young girl) cousin had so much more urgency. I even began skipping over the 1915 chapters and found that I didn’t feel lost at all. The stories are at least for the first 100 or so pages (1/5 of the book) completely independent. You don’t have to read both at the same time to get what’s going on, at least to that point.
But by page 100, what had begun as a truly interesting story with a hook began to swivel to a stop. The characters began to engage in meaningless banter and paragraphs describing Eve’s swearing or Charlie’s newly acquired morning sickness began to feel like cheap fillers to avoid getting to the next plot point before it’s structurally appropriate to do so. As in, if the story does hold water and warrant the number of pages and words spent telling it, then it wasn’t apparent in the first 20%.
Based on several Goodreads reviews, I also wasn’t the only one who strongly preferred one of the time lines over the other. I think this is problematic because that so many people made a “choice” is a symptom of the fact that you could make a choice (duh!), which means that some readers, myself included, weren’t given a compelling enough reason to want to read both other than their strategic placement, alternating chapter-by-chapter.
I’m not sure what I will move on to now. Any ideas?
I chose to spend my monthly Audible credit on this because I feel I always get the most perspective and the best lessons from reading biographies of people who have done remarkable things. And I think Richard Branson is one of those. Branson grew up middle to lower class and went on to build the Virgin empire that has brought his personal worth to an estimated $5 billion (though I don’t know how any of that is measured).
The audio book is a mere 5 hours, and since I listen at a speed of 1.25x it only took me about four. The retelling of Branson’s journey is about a mix of business, personal life and descriptions of the stunts Branson is known for. I personally wasn’t a big fan of these.
I was reading to learn from Branson more so than for entertainment and I felt the regular lengthy intervals about sea channel crossings and hot air balloon flights were there to create an artificial and also unnecessary sort of excitement. I felt Branson’s actual life was already interesting enough just by virtue of all he’s accomplished, starting with creating a small magazine geared towards students, then a health centre, a record label, an airline, communications companies, and more. But don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot in spite of the hot air balloons.
Two interesting things struck me while reading. The first is that Branson was very confident for absolutely no reason from the beginning. For example, in his youth, he was terrible at sports and all but a disaster academically, but he still had the audacity to write letters to the headmaster complaining about the lunch room at his school. Most people wouldn’t feel they have the right to do something so daring in his situation, even if they did want a better lunch room. In fact, I think myself and most people I meet use the existing evidence of their accomplishments to license themselves with confidence. Well, maybe this isn’t the best way because Branson’s spirit and passion led him and another student to start a small magazine named Student, all about students’ interests and issues. That was his first venture, and the rest as they say is history.
From there, Branson built a health centre where students could turn to be connected with doctors offering cheap care. While working on his by then up-and-running magazine, he saw an opportunity to connect students with certain health conditions with doctors charging less or nothing and ran with the idea.
Later, he started some record stores, knowing he could sell records for cheaper than the competitors and make a profit.
I am not writing all this to retell the book, but to demonstrate the essence of the second lesson I learned, which is that Branson was very, very good at identifying opportunities. This struck me because I see so many small-time entrepreneurs who have loads of skills sell something they think people should need or want, rather than truly offering an improvement on what their target market is already wanting or needing. That makes no sense, especially since these are smart people, but I’m inclined to think the reason this is somewhat rare is that this ability to step outside of yourself and notice the collective habits of streams of people is, broadly speaking, a type of listening that takes a lot of humility. Do I make sense? What I mean is, you just gotta stop thinking about yourself and see others and listen to others to be able to do that.
The idea of building a record store that sold cheaper records came from noticing that friends of his would spend three times the amount of money they’d ever consider spending on a meal on a record without ever thinking about it. Branson knew he’d have an advantage and a shot at business by providing the records for less.
Other than these two great qualities (confidence and great perception) Branson seemed remarkably normal. Aside from his pitiful academic and sports careers in his youth, he seems to have struggled quite a bit with relationships, both personal and business. In other words, he’s not good at everything he’s tried. This is both comforting and surprising. I haven’t personally had the opportunity to meet many people who’ve accomplished extraordinary feats, so each time I see stories of how truly average high achievers are (or at least, can be) in most aspects, it inspires me. But it’s also surprising because it goes against a narrative I’ve accepted, of people being either wholly (or even mostly) remarkable or unremarkable. Good or bad. But even if it takes less mind-space to see the world this way, it’s limiting and the cost of that is higher than living with and accepting the uncertainty of not being able to “peg” people as one thing or another because I know one side of them.
And that’s it. I hope you enjoyed reading. I’m sharing my view partly because I think it’s different from much of what so many others shared on Goodreads. For example, I didn’t learn any specific business tricks or a how-to for running an existing business. Instead this book shifted my perspective on business in general (something I frankly have little experience with) and it inspired me. I learned that when it comes to starting a venture, listening a lot more closely and identifying ways to serve others is probably more fruitful than starting companies meant to furnish the owners (or, you) with better lifestyles. And I also learned that this right attitude will probably go a much longer way in keeping you trying when things aren’t perfect—and so ultimately with being successful.