‘Charisma permits the believer to put his or her reason on the shelf and follow the leader.’

September 25, 2021 at 2:51 pm (Book review, books, Family)

The statement above is immediately followed by this one:

It is inspiring, seductive, and dangerous.

In his new book The Emergence of Charismatic Business Leadership, Richard S. Tedlow, author of Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American, enlarges on these aspects of charisma by examining how it functions – or functioned – in various titans of the business world.

Divided into three parts, the book opens with a description of the unprecedented outpouring of grief attendant upon the death of Steve Jobs. Jobs is, almost inevitably, a central figure in this narrative. The book begins with a chapter on Jobs’s own beginnings; Part One then goes on to make some general observations about charisma, focusing on business leaders in the post-World-War-Two era. This time period, Richard asserts, tended to produce business leaders notably lacking in this elusive yet magnetic quality. He offers as an example Harlow H. Curtice of General Motors. (Who? Well, that would be the point.)

Part Two offers profiles of other charismatic business people such as Lee Iacocca, Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kay Cosmetics) and Sam Walton. I particularly appreciated Richard’s explanation of the source of Walton’s appeal. It’s not what you’d expect, but powerful nonetheless.

Part Three begins with the story of Steve Jobs’s years in the wilderness, as it were, following his (forced) resignation from Apple in 1985. Profiles of Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey follow. Then, the inevitable “Steve Jobs: Triumph at Apple.”

I’m a great advocate of tight structure in both fiction and nonfiction, and I especially appreciate the way Richard structures his book. The life journey of Steve Jobs separates neatly into three parts; those parts can be likened to a tripod which elegantly supports the entire content of the narrative. The moment of Jobs’s passing is almost like a scripted climax: having attained the pinnacle of success, he left us.

I read, a while back, in an article about Edward Abbey, that since his premature demise, he is nicely morphing into a legend of the environmental movement. The same, with regard to the business world, can be said of Steve Jobs.

I want to mention briefly a point Richard makes about Oprah Winfrey; namely, that her success is in part due to the things she did not do:

She did not take her company public. She did not create her own book imprint. She did not license her name to any merchandise. She did not act in a public way that might call her authenticity into question. She did not fall prey to big deals promising the often-spoken-of but rarely found “synergy.”

I’d like to add to that list that she did not marry and/or have children. One thinks, perhaps a bit grandiosely, of Queen Elizabeth the First. The reasoning may  have been the same for both women. (To my knowledge, Oprah Winfrey does have what Wikipedia describes as “a long-term partner.”)

One of the many pleasures of this book is learning retailing lingo like “door buster.” This term describes the huge, immediate hit made by the Ford Mustang upon its introduction to the driving public in 1964. Also Richard’s witty formulations appear from time to time. For example, instruction manuals can mainly be described as “facedown-in-the-soup boring.” From first to last, The Emergence of Charismatic Business Leadership is a wonderful read – informative, surprising, engaging, absorbing,

You might be wondering at my effrontery in calling this author  by his first name. You must forgive me – I’ve been doing it my whole life!

He’s my brother.


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‘…a wild ride of beauty and fear.’ – The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science, by John Tresch

September 6, 2021 at 7:26 pm (Book review, books)

  Having recovered from an earlier outburst brought on by this tome – see this post – I can now report, with considerable relief, that I have finished reading The Reason for the Darkness of the Night and am well satisfied as well as relieved. Much of this book was fascinating, much of it was bewildering – rather like its subject:

Working in a stunning variety of styles, genres, and tones, he conjured up sublime landscapes, hypnotic interiors, and compellingly disturbed characters, demonstrating to later writers all that a short story could be: an aesthetic experiment, a study of anomalous psychology, a philosophical investigation, a wild ride of beauty and fear.

It is always gratifying to get some hint of what influence was brought to bear on the creative mind. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Poe was frequently cared for by Black servants (read enslaved persons). They told him tales he would not have heard anywhere else: “African tales–passed down generations, modulated and reinvented through the Middle Passage–often depicted souls possessed through witchcraft and dangerous obsessions, dead bodies brought back to life, malevolent spirits tormenting the living.”

Poe  spent only a year at the newly opened University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (Hie room there is preserved. I remember standing at the doorway looking in, able to see clearly the model of a raven perched on the nightstand.) Author Tresch offers this succinct description of the school’s student body:

Poe joined rich young white men acquiring a final gentlemanly polish before returning to manage their inherited estates. They clattered onto the lawn with horses and carriages, accompanied by African servants, fine clothing, dueling pistols, and large allowances.

(Rarely have I encountered a sentence as masterful as this second one, encapsulating a singular moment of a particular time and place in a burst of eloquence topped with a fine touch of irony.)

In Poe’s time, there were many lively debates going on regarding scientific subjects – little  things like the nature of the universe, the formation of the cosmos, etc. etc. Tresch reports on these matters in meticulous detail; I admit I had trouble following those reports and what’s more, had trouble staying interested in them. The most important thing to know is that they were of vital interest to Poe; he waded into every controversy on these subjects. all guns firing, calling out various other theorists and not caring whom he offended.

Of far more interest to me were the details of Poe’s life, his restless peregrinations up and down the Eastern Seaboard, with his small unorthodox family in tow, and of course, urgently scribbling his poems and stories, unequaled in their strangeness, fascination, terror, and beauty. I embarked on a rereading of the stories, only to be stopped in my tracks by the incomparable “Fall of the House of Usher.” (I need no program of rereading for the poems, which I’m always returning to.)

Poe persevered in his literary endeavors and public lectures, all the while dogged by almost unrelenting poverty, the failing health of his fragile  and beloved wife Virginia, and his own descent into alcoholism. Poe finally attained a measure of fame and recognition by the mid 1840s. Nevertheless, as his reputation grew, his personal life imploded. Tresch describes him as “a victim of bad luck, alcohol, and self-sabotage.” Virginia died in 1847, closing an agonizing chapter in his life.

Still, back in Richmond in early 1849, Poe felt rejuvenated. He was making progress in controlling the urge to drink. He was warmly welcomed by friends and relations still living there. One among them was Sarah Elmira Royster, now widowed and in possession of a goodly estate. Their reunion was so joyous that he asked her to marry him; though not immediately answering in the affirmative, she gave him hope that she would ultimately agree to be his wife.

But first, he must complete a scheduled lecture tour. He left for Baltimore via steamer, and at once fell into a company of old friends who invited him to go out drinking with them. Poe indulged them, and it was the beginning of the end. Several days later, he was discovered wandering the streets, incoherent and in generally terrible condition. He was taken to a hospital on October third; on the seventh, at the age of forty, he died.

He is buried at Westminster Hall and Burying Ground; this is now part of the University of Maryland Law School. As with everything to do with Poe, there’s a complicated story attached to his burial.

Then, there’s the story of the so-called Poe Toaster. This refers to  a tradition, probably begun in the 1930s. Every year on January 19, in the middle of the night, on Poe’s birthday….

Well, I’ll let Wikipedia complete the story:

a black-clad figure carrying a silver-tipped cane, his face obscured by a scarf or hood, entered the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore. At the site of Poe’s original grave—which is marked with a commemorative stone—he would pour a glass of Martell cognac and raise a toast. He then arranged three red roses on the monument in a distinctive configuration and departed, leaving the unfinished bottle of cognac.[5] The roses were believed to represent Poe, his wife Virginia, and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm, all three of whom were originally interred at the site. The significance of the cognac is uncertain, as it does not feature in Poe’s works (as would, for example, amontillado); but a note left at the 2004 visitation suggested that the cognac may have represented a tradition of the Toaster’s family rather than Poe’s. Several of the cognac bottles are kept at the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore.

I believe that at this date, the custom has been discontinued. With luck, it will reappear.

Although the passages on the philosophy of science are tough going, in general I recommend this book, especially to anyone who has an interest in nineteenth century American literature and  thought.. John Tresch, an author unfamiliar to me until now, writes beautifully. He has an illustrious academic pedigree and is currently Professor of the History of Art, Science,and Folk Practice at the Warburg Institute in London.

I also highly recommend visiting the site of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Somewhat to my surprise, they assert that the famous Poe Toaster has nothing to do with them.

Ghosts, perhaps..?

Edgar Allan Poe January 19, 1809-October 7, 1849




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Bounding, from wave to wave…

September 1, 2021 at 1:11 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories, The British police procedural, True crime)

…on the internet, that is, rather than on the actual ‘bounding main.’

I speak of two recent research adventures on the web, both inspired by Laura Lippman’s
new novel.

First – the premise itself. Novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his apartment in Baltimore. These are brand new digs, and he was blindsided by one of  those architectural features so cheerfully touted by real estate agents: a so-called floating staircase. Having tumbled down said design feature and badly broken his leg, he finds himself temporarily immobilized.

Gerry is not a detective – or not a professional one, that is – but his plight reminded me of two series protagonists who were: Morse and Alan Grant. In fact, Lippman at one point makes mention of Josephine Tey‘s Daughter of Time. In that classic of detective fiction, Scotland Yard’s Alan Grant, likewise laid up with a broken leg, occupies his mind with an effort to prove the innocence of Richard III in regard to the disappearance and supposed murder of Prince Edward and Prince Richard.

Then there’s The Wench Is Dead, the eighth entry in the Morse series written by Colin Dexter. (This novel was the 1989 Gold Dagger winner.) Morse, like Alan Grant, is hospitalized, not with a broken leg but with a bleeding ulcer. Like Alan Grant (and Gerry Andersen, for that matter), Morse needs  a way to occupy his mind while he’s recuperating. Someone gives him a book about a crime that occurred on a canal boat, in 1839, as it was making its way through Oxford. A passenger on the craft, Joanna Franks, was murdered; two men were hanged for killing her. The more he reads, the more convinced Morse becomes that the two men were in fact innocent.

I always assumed that the Joanna Franks case was fictional; it turns out that it was based on an actual occurrence. The victim’s real name was Christina Collins. She’d been traveling via canal boat to meet her husband, but she never made it. Her lifeless body was later pulled from the canal. Colin Dexter used these basic facts in constructing his narrative, changing the location from Staffordshire, where the crime actually occurred, to Oxford.

The Murder of Christina Collins by John Godwin came out in 2011. It features an introduction by Colin Dexter. Click here for an article with excellent photographs of the site.

The TV episode of The Wench Is Dead can be seen on YouTube:

In addition, the DVD is owned by the library – two copies, to be exact. Watch for Colin Dexter; he appears in the museum crowd at the beginning of the film.

This viewing experience may make you nostalgic for the days when this superb series was first aired, and in particular for John Thaw, whom we lost way too soon.

The second adventure was sparked by this brief passage in Dream Girl:

It’s a fine little story, as clever and compact as the ones he used to read in those Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies. Kill your husband with a leg of lamb, serve the leg of lamb to the detectives.


The story being referenced here is “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl. I read it several years ago; the mention of it in this context made me want to read it again. I found it in an excellent anthology that I own called Murder Short & Sweet. In his introduction to the Dahl story, the editor Paul D. Staudohar says:

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect short story than this one, both in plot and in presentation.

I couldn’t agree more.

This story can be downloaded by clicking on this link.

Murder Short & Sweet is available from Amazon.

And finally, do read Dream Girl. I loved it!




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