Reading Update

Well, it’s December 1, which means there’s just thirty days left until the arrival of the new year…

In my very first post on this blog, I explained that my goal in 2010 was to read 52 books. Little did I know how hard the challenge would be…

My circumstances were largely different in the beginning of the year (I thought I would have a lot more “free” time than I ended up having), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ll massively fail to achieve my goal. In fact, probably since September of this year, I had already changed the goal in my mind: just reach the half-way point. So, I am trying to salvage the situation, and by December 31, I am hoping to have read 26 books (as of this post, I have read twenty-one books this year).

This post isn’t about making excuses. Had my priority remained to read 52 books this year, I think I would have been able to do it. But my priorities shifted through the course of the year, and I started reading (and sharing) more long-form articles, watching a few TV series that I’ve been neglecting, and of course, consistently updating my photoblog.

I’ll do my best to post more frequently this month, including a few list-type posts in which I profile the most interesting articles/books I’ve read this year. There’s no point in procrastinating, right?

In the meantime, if you think there’s a book that I must absolutely read by the end of the year, drop me a line or leave a comment to this post. Words of encouragement are also welcome. Finally, I’d be curious to hear about your 2010 reading goals (and how far you’ve progressed). Comments are open.

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At the moment, I am reading Stephen King’s On Writing, which a couple of people recommended after I published this post.

Thinking Strategically: Book Review

I finished reading Thinking Strategically by Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff in March 2010. Subtitled “The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life,” Thinking Strategically is an international bestseller and a classic, having been published in 1993. My motivation to read it was because I saw this book listed on numerous forums which listed excellent business books.

The book is organized into three parts, with a total of thirteen chapters. After reading the preface (with the moniker: “Thinking Strategically—Don’t Compete Without It”), the authors explain in the Introduction that the aim of the book is to improve the reader’s “strategy I.Q” while not promising to “solve every question you might have.”

The first chapter sets an excellent tone for the rest of this book; this chapter profiles ten interesting “tales” of strategy. The book leads of with the phenomenon of the “hot hand,” commonly observed by sports fans and sports analysts. In fact, hot hands in such sports as basketball are actually a fallacy, most likely observed because we (humans) have a tendency to focus on streaks of occurrence rather than non-occurrence…

In the first chapter, the authors also explain so-called zero-sum games: one person’s gain is another person’s loss (basketball, football, poker all fit this description). So what isn’t a zero-sum game? The most inviting example is that of the prisoner’s dilemma, where the payoffs of the two participants do not necessarily offset. In part II of the book, the authors have a lengthy chapter entitled “Resolving the Prisoner’s Dilemma” in which they elucidate a few excellent examples (they use OPEC to build the case). The authors explain that participants of a prisoner’s dilemma may try to achieve cooperation, but that there is a large underlying incentive to cheat even if an agreement is made.

The examples in this book are interesting. For example, in Chapter 2 (“Anticipating Your Rival’s Response”), the authors feature the recurring theme in the cartoon strip Peanuts, in which Lucy holds the football and invites Charlie Brown to run up to the ball and kick it. Of course, we all know Lucy’s intentions, but it’s worthwhile to create a decision tree and deduce what Charlie Brown should do (the authors do admit that the story of Charlie Brown is “absurdly simple,” but that this example allows the reader to become familiar with decision trees for more complex situations). Another example in this chapter is the game of chess, in which the players try to envision how their opponent will play a few moves into the future. I found it interesting that the authors pondered about solving chess, something I wrote about when I linked to the Garry Kasparov article, “The Chess and the Computer.”

In the chapter “Strategic Moves,” you’ll learn about unconditional moves (an example of a TV race between United States and Japan is presented), threats and promises (while an unconditional move gives a strategic advantage to a player able to seize the initiative and move first, you can establish a similar strategic advantage through a response rule—either a threat or a promise), warnings and assurances (a warning is when it is in your interest to carry out a threat while an assurance is when it is in your interest to carry out a promise).

Other chapters in the book include “Credible Commitments” (in which you will learn about “apparent irrationality,” contracts, and why it would make sense to burn bridges), “Unpredictability” (in which you will learn about the min-max theorem and the usefulness of surprising others by surprising yourself), “Brinkmanship” (please note that “brinksmanship” is not a word), “Cooperation and Coordination” (with a most interesting case about stock markets and beauty contests: how do they relate?),”The Strategy of Voting” (with considerations about median voting, the so-called “naive voter,” and how it may occasionally behoove to vote for an enemy to see a result you desire), “Bargaining” (with a discussion of handicap system in negotiations), and “Incentives” (an excellent chapter which sets the case for merit-based bonuses in jobs).

I think the best part of this book are the number of examples and the cases at the end of the chapter which reinforce the ideas discussed. Each case has a thorough solution, and so you can definitely learn a lot by reading through these cases. Speaking of cases, the last chapter of the book is entirely devoted to them; there are a total of twenty-three additional cases to go through which further reinforce the concepts covered in the book (again, solutions to the cases are also provided).

Quotes

Some interesting quotes from the book follow.

Setting the tone for the book:

You must recognize that your business rivals, prospective spouse, and even your child are intelligent and purposive people. Their aims often conflict with yours, but they include some potential allies. Your own choice must allow for the conflict, and utilize the cooperation. Such interactive decisions are called strategic, and the plan of action appropriate to them is called a strategy. This book aims to help you think strategically, and then translate these thoughts into action.

On threats and promises:

Is is never advantageous to allow others to threaten you. You could always do what they wanted you to do without the threat. The fact that they can make you worse off if you do not cooperate cannot help, because it limits your available options. But this maxim applies only to allowing threats alone. If the other side can make both promises and threats, then you can both be better off.

How do I know this book is dated? Reference to the Cold War on page 3 of the book:

As the cold war winds won and the world is generally perceived to be a safer place, we hope that the game-theoretic aspects of the arms race and the Cuban missile crisis can be examined for their strategic logic in some detachment from their emotional content.

On De Gaulle’s rejection of friendship:

A compromise in the short term may prove a better strategy over the long haul.

On Khrushchev’s silence:

Khrushchev first denounced Stalin’s purges at the Soviet Communist Party’s 20th Congress. After his dramatic speech, someone in the audience shouted out, asking what Khrushchev had been doing at the time. Khrushchev responded by asking the questioner to please stand up and identify himself. The audience remained silent. Khrushchev replied: “That is what I did, too.”

On rules of the game:

There are two general features of bargaining that we must first take into account. We have to know who gets to make an offer to whom, i.e., the rules of the game. And then we have to know what happens if the parties fail to reach an agreement.

On taking risks (this conclusion follows after a case study of the 1984 Orange Bowl game between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Miami Hurricanes):

If you have to take some risks, it is often better to do this as quickly as possible. This is obvious to those who play tennis: everyone knows to take risks on the first serve and hit the second serve more cautiously.

An explanation of a dominant strategy with a baseball analogy (situation: one or more players on base, there are two outs in the inning, and a batter is facing a 3-2 count):

We say that running on the pitch is the dominant strategy in this situation; it is better in some eventualities, and not worse in any. In general, a player has a dominant strategy when he has one course of action that outperforms all others no matter what the other players do. If a player has such a strategy, his decision becomes very simple; he can choose the dominant strategy without worrying about the rival’s moves.

What is the dominance in a “dominant strategy”?

The dominance in “dominant strategy” is a dominance of one of your strategies over your other strategies, not of you over your opponent. A dominant strategy is one that makes a player better off than he would be if he used any other strategy, no matter what strategy the opponent uses.

Another revelation of the age of this book:

As we write this, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has shot the price of oil up to $35 per barrel and experts are divided about the future of OPEC.

On an interesting police tactic:

Police have been known to scare drug dealers into confessing by threatening to release them. The threat is that if they are released, their supplies will assume they have squealed.

How to deter cheating with punishment (you have to read the book to find out the problem with the approach listed below; alternatively, respond with your thoughts in the comments, and I will make note of the correct response):

Next we ask how severe a punishment should be. Most people’s instinctive feeling is that it should “fit the crime.” But that may not be big enough to deter cheating. The surest way to deter cheating is to make the punishment as big as possible. Since the punishment threat succeeds in sustaining cooperation, it should not matter how dire it is. The fear keeps everyone from defecting, hence the breakdown never actually occurs and its cost is irrelevant.

Threats and promises versus warnings and assurances:

Threats and promises are truly strategic moves, whereas warnings and assurances play more of an informational role. Warnings or assurances do not change your response rule in order to influence another party. Instead, you are simply informing them of how you will want to respond based on their actions. In stark contrast, the sole purpose of a threat or promise is to change your response rule away from what will be best when the time comes. This is done not to inform but to manipulate. Because threats and promises indicate that you will act against your own interest, there is an issue of credibility. After others have moved, you have an incentive to break your threat or promise. A commitment is needed to ensure credibility.

On burning bridges:

Armies often achieve commitment by denying themselves an opportunity to retreat. This strategy goes back at least to 1066, when William the Conqueror’s invading army burned its own ships, thus making an unconditional commitment to fight rather than retreat.

On the element of surprise:

If you choose a definite course of action, and the enemy discovers what you are going to do, he will adapt his course of action to your maximum disadvantage. You want to surprise him; the surest way to do so is to surprise yourself. You should keep the options open as long as possible, and at the last moment choose between them by an unpredictable and therefore espionage-proof device.

The essence of brinkmanship:

The essence of brinkmanship is the deliberate creation of risk. This risk should be sufficiently intolerable to your opponent to induce him to eliminate the risk by following your wishes. This makes brinkmanship a strategic move. Like any strategic move, it aims to influence the other’s action by altering his expectations. [Question for the reader: is brinkmanship a threat?]

On inferior technologies:

Our greater experience with gasoline engines, QWERTY keyboards, and light-water nuclear reactors may lock us in to continued used of these inferior technologies.

Final Thoughts

Most books on strategy and game theory can be dry and/or inaccessible to the general reader with overwhelming mathematics. This book is excellent (and interesting to read) because it has an amazing diversity of illustrative examples drawn from political campaigns, corporate relations, sports, OPEC, the military draft, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War (especially the Cold War, if I may so myself), speed limits, and other interesting topics. The book is mostly self-contained but it does require multiple sittings to go through it (I spent over a week reading this book), especially if you’re careful to go through the cases and work through some of the solutions to verify the authors’ findings. Do keep in mind that this book was published in 1993, so some of the topics are dated. Nevertheless, if you’re at all interested in strategy, game theory, and are comfortable with basic mathematical concepts, this book is definitely worth a read.

John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat: Book Review

I finished reading John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat this weekend. This is one of Steinbeck’s earlier novels, published in 1935. It’s a fairly short read, and I read the novel from the Library of America edition.

The novel is split into seventeen chapters, each with a descriptive title. For example, the first chapter is titled “How Danny, home from the wars, found himself an heir, and how he swore to protect the helpless.” The story begins with us finding out about Danny, who used to work as a mule driver during World War I. After he gets back to California, he finds out that he has inherited two houses from his deceased grandfather. The first line of Tortilla Flat:

When Danny came home from the army he learned that he was an heir and owner of property.

In what is a recurring theme in the novel, Danny gets drunk and is thrown in jail. While in jail, he shares a drink with his jailer, and not long after, manages to escape. Danny talks to his friend named Pilon into sharing his brandy and one of his houses (for a fifteen dollar rent).  Pilon soon talks to his friend named Pablo, who also is invited to live in the house, but Pilon mentions to Pablo that a fifteen dollar rent will be due. The story evolves into five friends living in the house: Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria Corcoran, Big Joe Portagee, and The Pirate (described as a man whose mind did not grow up with his body, he is a little bit slow and gets easily taken advantage of throughout the novel).

The setting of the novel is Tortilla Flat, a town located above Monterey, California. The five main characters, also known as paisanos, who live in Danny’s house are drunkards, thieves, and vagabonds. They are scheming and conniving, often tricking one another to get a pint of wine to satisfy their cravings. Tortilla Flat revolves around the numerous adventures of these paisanos, including a quest to find treasure on St. Andrew’s Eve by Pilon and Big Joe (they dig at night, only to find a signpost for a geological survey). There are also descriptions of affairs with women. But, I think, the core of this story revolves around heart: the paisanos are generous, and near the end of the novel, when Danny gets afflicted with sadness (he doesn’t leave the porch of his house for a month), his friends throw him the biggest party held in Tortilla Flat. Unfortunately, the night of the party ends in tragedy. The ending of the novel is perhaps not surprising, given the way novel began (no spoilers from me)…

Some interesting quotes from the novel:

An arrival the afternoon:

The afternoon came down as imperceptibly as age comes to a happy man. A little gold entered into the sunlight. The bay became bluer and dimpled with shore-wind ripples. Those lonely fishermen who believe that the fish bite at high tide left their rocks, and their places were taken by others, who were convinced that the fish bit at low tide.

On Jesus Maria Corcoran:

Jesus Maria Corcoran was a pathway for the humanities. Suffering he tried to relieve; sorrow he tried to assuage; happiness he shared.

Is it possible to judge the depth of sleep?

If it were possible to judge depth of sleep, it could be said with justice that Pablo, whose culpable action was responsible for the fire, slept even more soundly than his two friends. But since there is no gauge, it can only be said that he slept very soundly.

Four characters described:

Their campaign had called into play and taxed to the limit the pitiless logic of Pilon, the artistic ingenuousness of Pablo and the gentleness and humanity of Jesus Maria Corcoran. Big Joe had contributed nothing.

A lesson about gifts:

But from everything that happens, there is a lesson to be learned. By this we learn that a present, especially to a lady, should have no quality that will require further present. Also we learn that it is sinful to give presents of too great value, for they may excite greed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is when the narration shifted from third person to first person, occurring late in the novel:

In the year of which I speak, the beans were piled and the candle had been burned.

On time near the sea:

Time is more complex near the sea than in any other place, for in addition to the circling of the sun and the turning of the seasons, the waves beat out the passage of time on the rocks and the tides rise and fall as a great clepsydra.

A mention of sack of potatoes:

They went home, and to their horror, they found that the new sack of potatoes that Pilon had found only that morning was gone.

The party thrown for Danny by his friends was of epic proportions:

Some time a historian may write a cold, dry, fungus-like history of The Party. He may refer to the moment when Danny defied and attacked the whole party, men, women and children, with a table leg…

Another instance of the narrator speaking to the reader, this time to persuade an issue of privacy (you have to read the novel to find out the circumstances):

I shall not go into the bedroom with Father Roman, for Pilon and Pablo and Jesus Maria and Big Joe and Johnny Pom-pom and Tito Ralph and the Pirate and the dogs were there; and they were Danny’s family. The door was, and is, closed. For after all there is pride in men, and some things cannot decently be pried into.

On Nature’s dispositions:

It is not always that Nature arranges her effects with good taste. Truly, it rained before Waterloo; forty feet of snow fell in the path of the Donner Party. But Friday turned out a nice day…

The last sentence of the novel, both conclusive and sad:

And after a while they turned and walked slowly away, and no two walked together.

Final Thoughts

I thought Tortilla Flat was a very good novel, but it pales in comparison to Steinbeck’s greater novella, Of Mice and Men. If you haven’t read any of Steinbeck’s novels, I think Of Mice and Men should be the first one read, as it is the most accessible, and perhaps the most poignant of his shorter novels. I’ve also read The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, which is one of my favorite novels of all-time. Primarily, I read Tortilla Flat because I enjoyed Steinbeck’s other novels (outside of the novels I already mentioned, I’ve also read The Winter of Our Discontent, The Pearl, and Travels with Charlie), and I also enjoy reading the more obscure works of particular authors to get a greater understanding of how they wrote (especially interesting is development of Steinbeck’s writing style, from his early novels to his magnum opus, East of Eden). I will probably read one or two more of Steinbeck’s novels before the year’s end, since the Library of America edition of his novels from 1932-1937 is on my bookshelf.

If you’ve read Tortilla Flat before, what did you think of it? Do you agree that one should read Of Mice and Men first? Of Steinbeck’s other novels (The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown, In Dubious Battle, Cannery Row), which one do you recommend I read next?

Case in Point: Book Review

I finished reading Marc Cosentino’s Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation in January 2010. I previously read this book in 2007, but I re-read it this year to reacquaint myself with some techniques in tackling case interview questions. If you’re preparing for a case interview, then my recommendation is to purchase this book to help you prepare.

The introductory quote to this book is clever:

The mind is wondrous. It starts working from the second you’re born and doesn’t stop until you get a case question.

And so, the premise behind this book: to learn how to prepare for the case interview question.

And what is the case interview? It’s a type of interview typically held by consulting firms such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Bain, Monitor Group, and many others. The purpose is to see how the applicant can apply business fundamentals in solving a (usually) real-life case revolving around business principles such as increasing profits, creating a larger marketing presence for a particular product, pricing a product, reducing costs, etc.

In the rest of this review, I explain how the book is organized, what you will learn in each section, and where appropriate, my comments regarding the different sections.

Organization
The book is organized into nine sections, with lengths varying from a single page to one hundred twenty pages. The chapters/sections, explained briefly, are below.

  1. Introduction. Mr. Cosentino begins this book by describing a case question and explaining that “consulting firms are in the business of renting out brains.” What do consultants do? They synthesize data, purge irrelevant or inconsequential information, structure an approach to an issue, and provide recommendations/solutions to the respective clients who have hired the consultants. This is a one page section, but Mr. Cosentino reassures the readers of this book that he has relevant experience regarding the case interview: he has been a career officer at Harvard University for over eighteen years, and he has helped more than ten thousand students prepare for case interviews. Even though this introduction is just one page long, Mr. Cosentino sets the record straight: he will prepare you for the case interview if you read this book, but he advises you to read the entire book and not to skip any pages.
  2. Interview. In this chapter, you’ll find how the typical consulting interview is structured. To be sure, you’ll face the typical behavior questions such as “Tell me about yourself” or “Tell me of a time you showed leadership skills?” (how do you answer that?) or “Have you ever failed at anything?” (quick tip: be sure to answer yes for this one). There’s a handy-dandy box which outlines some reasons why you’d want to enter the consulting field (“You’ll work and learn from intelligent and articulate people” and “You’ll be exposed to many industries” are some good reasons; a bad reason is “It will always look good on your resume”). This section also provides some helpful questions which you could ask the consulting firm or your interviewer (“What type of work does an entry-level consultant do?” and “How is a case team picked?”). Finally, this section concludes with tips on how to handle the “stress interview” (where you’re put on the defensive with a barrage of questions coming at you) and advice for international students (since consultants typically present their cases to clients, it is essential to work on minimizing one’s accent, for instance).
  3. Case Questions. This chapter explains what the case question in great detail. In “The Case Commandments” section, Mr. Cosentino gives thirteen excellent tips on how to go through the case interview (for example: how to properly manage your time, to make sure to ask clarifying questions, and to be coachable). The chapter also explains the types of case questions (such as “brainteasers,” for which you might pick up this book to better prepare, and “back-of-the-envelope” questions, which often involve doing some calculations, such as figuring out the weight of a Boeing 747 airplane). This chapter also includes a short note on what you shouldn’t do (things which could annoy the interviewer, such as asking to repeat the question multiple times, going on a five minute spiel/monologue, and speaking too fast).
  4. The Ivy Case System. This is an important chapter which provides a solid framework on how to approach and solve case questions. The Ivy Case System developed by Mr. Cosentino consists of two parts: the four steps to begin the approach and the approach in tackling twelve popular case scenarios. The four steps are: summarizing the question, verifying the objective (the case question always has at least one objective), ask clarifying questions, and lay out your structure to solve the case. The twelve case scenarios are as follows:

    (1) Entering a New Market
    (2) Industry Analysis
    (3) Mergers and Acquisitions
    (4) Developing a New Product
    (5) Pricing Strategies
    (6) Growth Strategies
    (7) Starting a New Business
    (8) Competitive Response
    (9) Increasing Sales
    (10) Reducing Costs
    (11) Increasing the Bottom Line (Profits)
    (12) Turnarounds

    For each of the twelve scenarios above, you’ll be exposed to the typical questions you should ask when encountering a case question which fits into one of those categories. The best part of this section is that you’ll see a graphical tree chart which summarizes the approach. The end of this chapter includes a very helpful “Ivy Case System at Glance,” which outlines the approach and elements for each type of case question type. For example, in Mergers and Acquisitions, you’ll break down your approach to covering the objectives, the price (and how to pay), performing due diligence, and explaining possible exit strategies. If you’re asked to reduce costs, you can reasonably break down the approach into assessment of the situation, and ultimately performing an internal cost analysis (union wages, supplies, materials, economies of scale) as well as an external cost analysis (state of the economy, interest rates, government regulations). For each of the twelve case types, you’ll find a similar breakdown.

  5. Additional Tools and Frameworks. This chapter explores some supplements to the Ivy Case System. One of the frameworks you’ll learn about is the “Five C’s and Four P’s” (Company, Costs, Competition, Consumers/Clients; Product, Price, Place, Promotions). There’s also a small section on the BCG Matrix, which you can read more about in an excellent Wikipedia article. Also discussed is Michael Porter’s “Five Forces” case framework and a framework developed at McKinsey known as the 7-S Model. This chapter also has a very helpful section on “If” scenarios, useful for cases dealing with sales, profit scenarios (example: if profits are declining while revenues are increasing, it is useful to review change in costs, changes in prices, the product mix, or change in customers’ needs), and product scenarios (example: if a product is in its emerging growth stage, it is fruitful to concentrate on the R&D, competition, and pricing). The last part of this chapter contains some business case tips, including a one page peer advice from students who successfully went through the case interviews.
  6. Practice Cases. This is the meat of this book: one hundred twenty pages of thirty-six (36) practices cases. If you’ve previously read about how to approach the case interview but just need to go through more practice cases, this is the chapter to read. The 36 cases touch upon all of the twelve case scenarios listed in the Ivy Case System. My recommendation for reading this chapter is to read the case question and write out your own initial thoughts and approach on a separate paper. You cannot answer the entire case question on your own because the nature of the case question revolves divulging important information relevant to the case depending on the prompts/questions you ask the interview. In effect, most of the cases are read through (which perhaps is a major limitation of this book). There are other case preparation guides which contain charts, graphs, and other information required to solve the case from the beginning. You won’t see this approach in this book (because the practice cases are actual interview conversations), but nevertheless, it is still extremely helpful to read through the cases. You’ll find excellent responses as well as mediocre ones (the end of each case question ends with a comment on the approach taken and how well the student answered the case question). To be sure, you’ll also find incredible responses, to the point where you might question how it would have been possible to even approach the elaborate, clever, and such well-organized responses.
  7. The Roommate’s Guide. This is a one page section which outlines what to do if you’re the friend that was asked (or as Mr. Cosentino puts it, “begged, bribed, or blackmailed”) into helping your friend(s) prepare for the case questions. The review list consist of a bulleted list of questions such as “Did they ask probing questions?” and “Were they well-organized?” to “Did they have a positive attitude?” and other subjective questions. The best part of this section is the “Aftermath,” which simply concludes with a single bullet point of “Go out on the town.”
  8. Final Analysis. This section is only a half-page long, but it perhaps contains the most important advice: no matter how hard you prepare, it is vitally important to come to the case interview with a perspective of self-worth and confidence. In other words, methodical preparation will only go so far in the case interview; the rest of your evaluation is how you come across in terms of personality, confidence, and demeanor.
  9. Consulting Buzzwords. This is a short glossary of key terms which you should be familiar with (or rather, know very well). Some business terms which are listed in this glossary include barrier to entry, cost-benefit analysis, depreciation, economies of scale, interest expense, market share, overhead, price-based costing, variable cost, and venture capital. This is a very short section and definitely not exhaustive.

Conclusion
If you’re preparing for the case interview, Marc Cosentino’s Case in Point is an excellent resource. I do recommend reading it from cover to cover. While the methods and practice cases presented in the book will help you create excellent strategies in tackling/approaching/solving case questions, I should mention that reading the book on its own is not a substitute for a solid education in business, finance, and economics. Those of you in an MBA program are already on the right track; undergraduate students in a non-business major may want to invest in a solid economics textbook and a book on basic financial principles. Overall, having read through numerous case preparation books, I do think that Case in Point is worth your time and money; you’ll learn the solid framework and practice from the numerous (36) case questions this book has to offer. If you’ve already read the book and looking to practice more cases, check out CaseQuestions.com, the complementary website of Case in Point.

As Mr. Cosentino puts it: Case closed!


Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading: Book Review

Today, I finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Invitation to a Beheading. It’s a fairly short novel, at around 220 pages, and I finished reading it in a span of two days.

This is an interesting work, full of vivid imagery, surreal settings, and twisted, sometimes irrational, dialogue. The plot revolves around a young man named Cincinnatus C., who is condemned to death (by beheading) for committing a crime of “gnostical turpitude.” The crime itself is imaginary, so no definition is provided. The majority of the novel takes place inside a prison cell, where Cincinnatus is visited by jailers, an executioner who pretends to be a fellow prisoner, and by his in-laws, who bring their furniture (not to mention household utensils and “sections of walls”) with them into Cincinnatus’s prison cell. The musings of Cincinnatus are bizarre: in one part of the novel, the protagonist imagines the characters as miniature people.

You’re unsure at first, but you discover maybe a quarter through the novel that Cincinnatus has grand visions (or illusions of grandeur). He has a notebook where he writes down his thoughts and what he encounters in his daily life (“to write letters to various objects and natural phenomena”) within the fortress in which he is confined. At times you think he is absolutely clueless about his situation, as the questions he asks may be mistaken for those coming from a child. Still, he tries to reconcile his (grim) situation…

You don’t really read this novel for its plot, absurd as it may be. You read it to digest the dialogue and Nabokov’s eloquent narration. At the end of the novel, Cincinnatus is taken to be hanged, and the way the ending unfolds is just sublime. I read it over multiple times just to make sure I followed (a foreshadowing three-fourths of the way into the novel: “Cincinnatus allowed them the right to exist, supported them, nourished them with himself”).

If you haven’t read any of Nabokov’s work, don’t make this your first. I would recommend reading Nabokov’s Magnum opus, Lolita, first. Then, I highly recommend reading Pale Fire (which I enjoyed much more than Invitation to a Beheading).

Nabokov himself said of this novel: “The worldling will deem it a trick. Old men will hurriedly turn from it to regional romances and the lives of public figures.” But prior to that sentence, the best line: “It [Invitation to a Beheading] is a violin in a void.” Take it for what it is.

The rest of this review is the presentation of certain quotes I found interesting, and where appropriate, my dissection of these quotes.

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Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Book Review

This is the third book I have finished reading in 2010, but Seth Godin’s Linchpin is the first book I will review here. I found out about this book from reading Seth’s blog (which I read daily, and I recommend you start reading as well, if you don’t read it already). In December 2009, I saw Seth’s post about launching his book in advance to motivated readers:

For a select group of motivated readers, I want to send you a copy of Linchpin (at my expense) three weeks before anyone else can buy one. My US publisher is not sending free review copies to magazines (the few that are left), newspaper editors, TV shows, any of the usual media suspects. Instead, we’re allowing people like you to raise their hands and, if they like the book, asking them to tell the world about it in January.

The filter for these motivated readers? A minimum $30 to Acumen Fund. I made my donation within two minutes of reading Seth’s blog post and was subsequently put on the mailing list (to receive updates about this book). I received my copy of Linchpin in the mail about a week ago, and finished reading it yesterday. What follows is my brief review, with snippets of my favorite quotes and my thoughts, where applicable.

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