Thursday Book Reviews: 9/30

Different Seasons

Stephen King

Stephen King wrote this collection of four non-supernatural novellas when his editor asked him if all he did was horror. The answer was no, and the result was three classes and an odd little story about a woman who wanted to give birth no matter what.

The collection opens with what eventually became a cinematic classic, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Taking place in Maine’s Shawshank prison, inmate Red narrates the story of Andy, a man who somehow manages to game the system within the prison walls. Andy figures out how to stop “the Sisters” from attacking him, to keep his own cell to himself, and, eventually, how to escape from Shawshank. Andy might have got out legitimately when he found out, but the warden had too good a thing going follow up on it.

Second is “Apt Pupil,” where a bright teenage boy develops a bizarre parasitic relationship with a Nazi war criminal who is hiding out in the neighborhood. It does not end well for either of them.

“The Body” is better known as the movie Stand By Me, and establishes a pattern that frequently shows up in King’s later work, childhood friends transitioning to adulthood through a bizarre experience.  In this case, they find out about a dead body off nearby railroad tracks. Just getting to the body is an adventure.

The only remotely supernatural story is the final novella, “The Breathing Method.” A doctor tells a story to his gentlemen’s club about a young unwed mother who comes to him for help. There is a tragic accident at the end that the woman overcomes in a rather strange manner.

All four of these show that King does more than spin tails of angry telepaths, vampires, and haunted houses. In fact, you can’t really read Different Seasons and not realize that the horror elements are secondary in King’s other work.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Mary Roach, read by Sandra Burr

Science writer Mary Roach found that planning for the eventual mission to Mars is not easy. Oh, there are the obvious problems of fuel, weight, food, etc. But there are more pressing needs that, after 50 years of manned space flight, still challenge NASA, the Russians, and all the other space programs in the world. Like…

How do you handle BO? Can you stand being cooped up in a tin can with the same people for more than six months? How do you keep your bones from snapping when you return to Earth? What do you do with all that poop? And on a two-year mission with mixed-gender crews, what’s the best way to do the nasty in zero-G. (Hint: It really hasn’t been tried, urban legends to the contrary.) Roach seemed bemused by her research, an attitude conveyed nicely by reader Burr. Packing for Mars is not a stuffy scientific tome where some scientist promises you flying cars by 2020. Mary Roach comes off as a female Mike Rowe, talking about the dirty jobs involved in going to another planet.

The Game Changer

A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan

In 2000, consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble’s stock tanked. AG Lafley found himself thrust into the role of CEO at a time when many employees found themselves missing half their 401k’s and the company teetering. So how did Lafley turn things around?

He realized that, like many of the dotcom companies imploding around the same time, P&G was focusing on the wrong things. It had become a company focused on cost control and growth through acquisition. That’s not how Microsoft, Google, and Apple became big. They became big by innovation. Lafley realized that P&G could only survive and grow if it innovated as well. So how does a maker of laundry soap and potato chips and feminine pads innovate?

It’s a bit complicated to go into, but Lafley told his employees to do something you’d think would be obvious: Listen to the consumers. He also started taking a machete to P&G’s “not invented here” attitude towards partnering with outside companies.

A bit dry at times, and really geared towards senior managers in large companies, The Game Changer still points out some fundamental flaws in modern capitalism, such as the antiquated notion that competitors should be squashed at all costs. If P&G had that attitude, those two towers in downtown Cincinnati would be available for rent.