Open: An Autobiography

Andre Agassi's Open: An AutobiographyThe moment I opened Andre Agassi’s controversial book, Open: An Autobiography, I was hooked on this brilliant retelling of the story of one of tennis’ most colorful champions. The Golden Slam winner (7 grand slams and 1 Olympic gold medal) held nothing from his readers and instead offered an insider look at the lonely world–at least his world–of tennis.

The son of a tennis-obsessed, violent Iranian migrant, Agassi was practically forced into the sport at 8, his father believing all along that he would become world number 1 someday. Thus began his hatred for the sport that would make him one of its most successful players. We all know that tennis rides equally on the mental strength of its players and on their physical agility, and Agassi provided page after page of insight into the mental savagery that went on in every game, including the psychological maneuverings on- and off-court among players, their supporters, and the pesky press.

Much has been said in the media about the crystal meth and Agassi’s lying to the ATP to escape a possible banning from the game that he never failed to mention he hated to anyone who was willing to listen.  People derided his wild mohawk then, and the public made fun of the hair when it was announced that it was fake after all. The fear that the fake hair would fall during a rally even cost him what could have been his first French Open title.

However, the real story is what went on during the years of his fall from the top of the ranks to outside the 100 circuit because of depression. I remember somewhat following tennis back in my college days on the news. While Sampras won slam after slam, the supposed competition between Agassi and his fellow American helped make the sport very popular in the US in the ’90s. I listened to news of his marriage to Brooke Shields and then found months later that Agassi had fallen so far below the rankings that it only made me believe that the actress caused his troubles. In Open, Agassi does not necessarily blame his first wife for his bad results, but it surely factored in the depression over the sport, his life and the treatment he suffered in the hands of the press.  However, if ever their relationship had any redeeming value at all, it was that Shields convinced him to ditch the wig.

Months after their divorce, everything started to come together for Agassi. The humbling experience forced him to play in qualifying rounds and challenger circuits in order to be able to compete in more serious tournaments. Eventually, his efforts paid off and he managed to become the fifth man to complete a career Grand Slam and the oldest to be world number one at 32.

The best part, however, is reserved for his courtship of Steffi Graf whom he had already admired even before he won his first major title, how he set up practice sessions with her, followed her around the tennis circuit, and waited for her to call him back. To this reader, “fraulein forehands” represented the elusive but eventually attainable French Open title, and if the cosmos had played any part in their fates, both players won their last French Open titles on the same year.

The implications of Agassi’s meth use might have had a bigger impact on tennis although it was just a recreational drug instead of a performance enhancer (I’m no expert on this). His fake wild hair was his way of hiding his confusion over who he was instead of being his way of rebelling against the norms of the sport. But I would dare a guess that what spurred him on to achieve greatness in the sport that he hated was his equal hatred for losing in it. I wonder how much he would have attained had he loved tennis.

The Café Scene

“The story of how Paris became what we now think of when somesays ‘Paris’ is the story of men and women who were able to reinvent the wheel in many different domains because they understood the fundamental importance of these two concepts: Stick to the high-end and forget the low. Never underestimate the importance of décor and ambiance. Take, for example, the café. The coffeehouse became an institution in England, the Netherlands, and Germany in the 1650s and 1660s. The original coffeehouses were fairly modest affairs; men frequented them to drink coffee and beer and to smoke. This concept had no appeal in France. And then, in 1675, the humble English coffeehouse was reinvented and quickly became an essential part of the new capital Paris was then becoming.

“Francesco Procopio transformed the coffeehouse; he made it exquisite. His peers referred to him as an ‘artist’: he had, after all, created the formula that made the café a way of life in Paris. Elsewhere, cafés featured nothing worthy of the name décor, whereas, at Café Procope, the tables were made of marble, crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, the walls were decorated with elegant mirrors, and coffee was served from silver pots. Beer was banished from these elegant surroundings; patrons sipped exotic cocktails instead. And they could snack on delicate pastries and sorbets in flavors such as amber and musk. The Procope, was, in short, the original chic café.

“Its example was quickly emulated: by the turn of the eighteenth century, the world’s first café scene had been created in the newly fashionable Saint-Gemain-des-Prés neighborhood. Parisian cafés attracted a very different clientele than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe–elegant women, who would never have set foot in a coffeehouse, frequented cafés to see and show off all the latest fashions.”

–de Jean, Joan. The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. New York: Free Press, 2005.

Photo source

Quel Temps Fait-il?

I like rains in the afternoons, but not when I’m about to take my commute from work. I like rains in the evenings, but not when I have to compete with Manila’s 15 million other commuters to get a taxi. I like rains in general, but not when it causes horrible traffic jams or when it means getting my shoes soaked in grimy waters.

I guess people are just as fickle when it comes to liking and disliking the weather, and I can tell from their status updates on Facebook, but it has very little effect on people’s moods, according to a Humboldt University study. As CNN weather reports of more wet days to come, bring out your raincoats or umbrellas; stock up on “bed weather” food; find good books to read within the comforts of your room. For this weekend, I’m reading Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda.

One day to go before TGIF.

Get over Mr. Darcy!

“I blame Pride and Prejudice for the fact that the hero of every romance novel is rotten to the heroine the first time he meets her. In my heart, I also blame it for our persistent and anachronistic tendency to regard a man as an embodiment of personal destiny. Well, not Pride and Prejudice alone. But we carry stories around in our bones, and among novels about the sexes, it’s the best there is: Elizabeth snagging Mr. Darcy is romantic heroin for the discriminating reader.”

“The archetypal heroine” on Globe and Mail

Book Loot for August

book loot

I am an impulsive book buyer, and my weekend is not complete without a foray into Powerbooks, NBS, or the bargain book stores. That explains the number of books that have accumulate on my desk, overflowed to my bed, and added an extra weight to my already heavy bag. This month, I bought more than my share of books as if I didn’t have a long backlog to deal with already. And then there are the bookmarked chapters, thanks to the (step-)mothership, for domain knowledge and tech blogging stuff. (Yes, Allan and Yuliya, I am reading up on loads of stuff.)

I want to read at least 25 books/year or about one book every two weeks. The 25-book goal may not be possible at all for this year, but the one-book-per-week objective may (may!) still be salvaged. I’m in the middle of reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods while a bookmark has been stuck for over a month now in Stephenie Meyer’s The Host. I just lost interest halfway through The Host because it’s too convoluted in so many parts, and there are too many soliloquys that should have been cut off. I think that Breaking Dawn is the last young adult title that I’m reading in a long time.

There are more titles in my “to-read” list that I still have to buy and make the time for. For August, and maybe September, I have the following books to finish, and the backlog does not even include those that I bought in the early part of the year. Thank God for Book Sale because I can get my hands on titles that NBS or Powerbooks had ran out of, or are priced too steeply for my budget. Fully Booked has a decent collection, but every thing is more expensive by P20 to P80. I’m going to give the swanky branch on Bonifacio High Street a visit one of these days, though.

  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman (currently reading) – Ex-prisoner Shadow meets an old man during a flight to his wife’s funeral. The old man, Wednesday, hires Shadow to be his bodyguard and since then, nothing has been normal in former prisoner’s life. The story works on the premise that gods also joined the thousands of people who migrated to the America, and these gods still live among the populace to this day.
  • Geek Love, Katherine Dunne – Not necessarily about geeks as the cool kids in the hyperconnected world, but about freaks who were genetically designed be born with physical defects in order to star in the circus.
  • The Other Side of the Story, Marian Keyes – Mostly about another circle of friends who have reached a fork in the road. Keyes’ books are difficult find here, which is too bad because she comes up with pretty decent chick lit, i.e., not the typical girl-meets-dashing-boy story. The other Keyes book I read, Last Chance Saloon, is a choc-ful of laughs about a group of friends in their 30s who are confronted with their respective last chances at love and happiness. The best part of the story is that the gay couple is the happiest of them all.
  • In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant – From the New Yorker: “The novel, narrated by Fiammetta’s servant, a dwarf, chronicles the pair’s horrific scrapes and their dizzying triumphs, which include Fiammetta’s becoming Titian’s model for his “Venus of Urbino.” Along the way, Dunant presents a lively and detailed acccount of the glimmering palaces and murky alleys of Renaissance Venice, and examines the way the city’s clerics and prostitutes alike are bound by its peculiar dynamic of opulence and restraint.” Courtesan is Dunant’s follow-up to her outstanding debut set in Renaissance Florence, The Birth of Venus. This is the Renaissance in its artistic splendor, grimy alleys, religious conflicts, and power struggles.
  • The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl – As a group of young men from Boston, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, translate an Italian poem, they find themselves on the trail of a serial killer who tortures his victims in ways that are similar to passages from Dante’s Inferno.
  • The Thirteenth Tale, Dianne Setterfield – From Publishers Weekly: “Margaret Lea…is contacted by renowned aging author Vida Winter, who finally wishes to tell her own, long-hidden, life story. Margaret travels to Yorkshire, where she interviews the dying writer, walks the remains of her estate at Angelfield and tries to verify the old woman’s tale of a governess, a ghost and more than one abandoned baby. With the aid of colorful Aurelius Love, Margaret puzzles out generations of Angelfield: destructive Uncle Charlie; his elusive sister, Isabelle; their unhappy parents; Isabelle’s twin daughters, Adeline and Emmeline; and the children’s caretakers. Contending with ghosts and with a (mostly) scary bunch of living people, Setterfield’s sensible heroine is, like Jane Eyre, full of repressed feeling—and is unprepared for both heartache and romance. And like Jane, she’s a real reader and makes a terrific narrator.”
  • The Biographer’s Tale, AS Byatt – There is no other way to describe the gist of this book other than that it’s a multi-layered swipe at “poststructural literary criticism, to introduce arch observations about the current fad of psychoanalytic biography (Publishers Weekly).” Read: an intellectual masturbation on how a biographer profiles his subjects.
  • The Physician’s Tale, Ann Benson – A bioterror attack nearly decimates the population of the U.S. and leaves Doctor Janie Crowe and her husband, together with a small band of survivors, to struggle with their lives. Seven centuries earlier in Europe, a physician, Alejandro Canches, deals with a similar situation at the height of the black death and must make an ethical–but possibly dangerous–choice in order to survive, as well as save the king’s illegitimate daughter.
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt – There is murder and its subsequent high-profile trial; there is the circus of Savannah, Georgia’s interesting characters, which include a voodoo lady, a transsexual, and the town’s aristocracy. Berendt’s travelogue and eventual murder mystery investigation was turned into the 1997 film, starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey. And let’s face it–the book has one of the most intriguing titles in many years.
  • Crooked Little Heart, Anne Lamott – This is as much about tennis as it is about an unspoken competition between Rosie, who has to confront her awkward adolescent years, angst, and fear of being stuck in second place, and Simone, Rosie’s attractive, popular and skilled former doubles partner. This looks like a young adult read, but at least it’s about tennis and not mythical creatures.

Want to be a leader in the tech field? Then read these books

Yes, would you like to buy a book? by Oolong

Do you want to be a leader in the tech industry? Then better read these books, according to Bob Rouse, head of Society for Information Management’s Regional Leadership Forum. Top of the book pile is Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, while the more interesting entries, not because of the subjects discussed, but because the list is for future tech industry leaders, include Steinbeck’s The Pearl (read in college), Machiavelli’s The Prince (required in Social Science II – Political Theories or some such thing), and Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

48 Laws of Power

One of the most provocative books I have read to date is Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power due mainly to its focus on gaining power through deceit and manipulation. While it does have a few “laws” that one could follow in real-world circumstances without necessarily ending up selling one’s soul to the devil, most of the rules involve either playing people against each other or leading others to believe in half-truths and veiled intentions.

Drawing anecdotes from the events of the past three thousand years, from ancient China to turn-of-the-20th-century America, 48 Laws provides cautionary examples of both great and terrible figures who managed to seal their places in the annals of history through greed, cunning and utter ruthlessness. Whether they are admired, feared or hated is not the issue, but what matters is that in their respective lifetimes, counting many years on the throne, amassing fortunes and annihilating enemies were the hallmarks of their existence.

“Amoral” is surely one of the words that best describes the book, but it still provides a good lesson on how to gain power if power is all you are after and not much else. It is also a textbook for understanding the dynamics at play in any setting where power or everything that it represents is too few for the many to enjoy. In this case, the fight for power and the eventual loss of trust among its players ensues, meritocracy and outstanding ideas that serve the good of the many  be damned.

Should you read the book? Yes, by all means, but only to understand the psyche of the power-hungry and not to imitate their ways. And if you have to pick up a few lessons, here are some that I recommend:

Law 5: So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard it with your Life

“Reputation is the cornerstone of power. Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win; once you slip, however, you are vulnerable, and will be attacked on all sides. Make your reputation unassailable. Always be alert to potential attacks and thwart them before they happen.”

Law 9: Win through your Actions, Never through Argument

“Any momentary triumph you think gained through argument is really a Pyrrhic victory: The resentment and ill will you stir up is stronger and lasts longer than any momentary change of opinion.”

Law 13: When Asking for Help, Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to their Mercy or Gratitude

“If you need to turn to an ally for help, do not bother to remind him of your past assistance and good deeds. He will find a way to ignore you. Instead, uncover something in your request, or in your alliance with him, that will benefit him.”

Law 25: Re-Create Yourself

“Do not accept the roles that society foists on you… Be the master of your own image rather than letting others define if for you.”

Law 29: Plan All the Way to the End

“By planning to the end you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances and you will know when to stop. Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead.”

Law 35: Master the Art of Timing

“Never seem to be in a hurry – hurrying betrays a lack of control over yourself, and over time. Always seem patient, as if you know that everything will come to you eventually.”