I'm fortunate to have had time to read some actual books cover-to-cover in the last few weeks.  Other than some novels that made for decent beach reading, a notable theme of business, communication and politics emerged.  A few reviews are below; I've linked to an online purchase option, but please consider buying from your local bookseller or visiting your local library first.

Game Change
by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Published in 2010, Game Change recounts the stories of the 2008 Presidential election with a behind-the-scenes perspective unlike anything I've seen elsewhere. The book reads like a novel (think Joe Klein's Primary Colors or even a John Grisham work) and is simply fascinating to take in.  Chapter after chapter paint a nuanced picture of what Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, John McCain and other candidates were experiencing from the time they decided to run until the election itself - it's a narrative that the media simply couldn't have assembled along the way.  Knowing of the extensive research and interviewing that the authors did to assemble it together made it all the more impressive.

Though largely retrospective in nature, much of it remains relevant today as we try to understand how John Edwards` campaign could have made it as far as it did (and how surprisingly successful they were at denying to themselves the truth about his character and actions along the way), just how unprepared Sarah Palin was or is to be in any kind of position of national leadership, and how hard politicians have to work to overcome or work around the personal turmoil that being a candidate can bring.

I admit that as a current candidate for local office, some of this reading was personal escapism - no matter what challenges I might face in my campaign, at least I don't have to fly, drive and walk back and forth across the country for months and years.  But I think the book would be a page-turner for anyone who enjoys following national politics, or wants a more complete understanding of what goes into running for President.



Rework
by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Rework is a series of short and easily digestible chapters with common sense advice on how to succeed in business.  That particular topic - business advice - has surely been beaten to death by other publications over the years, so I was a little wary of Yet Another Business Book when a friend gave me a copy to check out.

It turned out to be the best single collection of business advice I've ever read.

It's important to say again that it's pretty common sense stuff, but that comes with the corollary observation that the traditional mainstream answers to the question of "how business should be done" are generally NOT helpful or good common sense, and that makes this book a bit of a revolutionary writing.

With advice like "don't have meetings just to have meetings" and "get a good night's sleep" and "fire the workaholics" and "don't label everything ASAP - of course everyone wants things done as soon as they can be done," it's hard to resist the urge to smack one's forehead over and over again while reading, if one has ever worked in a traditional corporate culture.  But make no mistake - this is not a cheesy, impractical and oversimplified "chicken soup for the business soul."  Authors Fried and Hansson write from experiences of success and failure that are real and complex and always evolving.  They've been there and done that, and they have lots of good stories from others who have done the same.  Their approach is one that acknowledges the realities of business while balancing the humanity and emotional layers of what it means for a group of people to collaborate on something together - a rarity in business books, I think.

If I can think of any resource that, were it available 15 years ago when I was working with my business partner and then first employees to start our own business, and during all the management decisions I've made since, would have saved me lots of time, hand-wringing and self-doubt, Rework is it.  For that reason alone, I think anyone starting or running a small business today should read this book, especially those that traffic in information or technology (some pieces of the book don't translate so well to more traditional brick and mortar business models).  There's no substitute for direct experience and I don't regret my own, but this book will be a head start and/or affirming encouragement to those who want to run a business well.



Confessions of a Public Speaker
by Scott Berkun

I'm fascinated by the art and science of interpersonal communication, and as I continue to develop my own profile and technique as a public speaker, I'm enjoying reading the advice of others who have been doing it for a while.

Scott Berkun's book is much more than a how-to book, though.  It's part telling of a personal journey - Berkun took a leap of faith to become a full time writer and speaker, and you can tell he's still riding a wave of amazement that it's working - part lesson in cultural anthropology and biology (asking questions like "why do we get butterflies in our stomach before a public talk?" and "what audience dynamics in a room lead to the most enjoyable sessions?"), and yes, part advice about the mechanics and logistics of giving a public talk.

Perhaps it's just that my own sense of humor seems to match up to with Berkun's really well, or maybe it was the no-frills, common sense approach to a topic that's either over-analyzed or hyped up and mystified by other writers, but I found Confessions to be very enjoyable and refreshing.

It also made me realize, unfortunately, just how many ineffective presentations and public talks I see on a regular basis,  even by those who are held up as great public speakers. It isn't always that the speakers themselves are executing their talks poorly (but sometimes it is), it's often that some of the many other factors Berkun identifies as critical in successful public speaking haven't been given any regard.  The size, layout, and decor of the room.  The time the speaker has given them self to practice and get setup.  The way that Q&A sessions are conducted.  The way feedback is obtained and used.  These are things I've thought about before (and even blogged about), but I've never seen such a useful distillation of the issues at stake.  In each case, Berkun makes a simple, straightforward argument for why these things matter, and offers his experience in how to do them well.

I highly recommend Confessions of a Public Speaker to anyone interested in public speaking and effective communications in group settings.