Book Broads • Business Lunch

by Angie Eakley

I drive 30 miles to and from work every day, from a Milwaukee suburb known for its white-trash reputation to a region known as "Lake Country," which gives the opposite impression. As with every generalization, 'Stallis isn't as down and dirty as people like to think, and there are working class people living in reasonably sized homes out in Lake Country. (Although in the former the mayor recently hired a PR firm to make commercials or something to change popular opinion, and the latter is home to a high school that made the news for funding a locker room to rival that of the Milwaukee Bucks, so some stereotypes die harder than others.) One of my friends also works out there, and we occasionally get together for lunch. We call it "business lunch," refer to ourselves as "business ladies," and once when a miscommunication resulted in us each waiting for the other at a different Panera location, ruthlessly mocked and blamed our non-existent assistants for mis-managing our calendars. All this is to say that I am sorry to the gentlemen we saw at BW3s and mocked for the suits they wore and the files they brought in, because you my have been doing something Very Important for Business that I, at least, will never understand.

Despite this pathological inability to envision myself as even kind of an adult, I have always been drawn to the Business Profiles section of the bookstore. I still can't stomach those motivational business books; even I know that a company has never been saved by forcing its managers to read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Sorry, worst manager I ever worked for, nobody liked you personally or as a boss, and corporate probably told you that this assignment was mandatory, but the main dysfunction of this Team is YOU, and also nobody's going to read that book. Nobody.

The Business shelves are my Sci-Fi/Fantasy section. It's an alien world to me. (I know there are incredible books in that genre, and I'm certainly missing out by remaining relatively oblivious about all of it, but I just can't do realms. I can't keep track of rules and conventions in a made-up world, and I have SO MANY books to read that I just can't get sucked in to a 20-book series that spans decades and thousands and thousands of pages. SO many pages! I'm a big fan of the psychological mystery/thriller, and I just read the OG - all 800 pages of Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White, and as much as I admired and loved and got totally sucked into it, the editor in me died a little every time I read a LITERAL PAGE AND A HALF about something that could be conveyed in a sentence, and it was almost lost altogether when the narrators speak of brevity AFTER 700 PAGES OF EXPOSITION. Also the gender politics of that book are horrific, but that is a story for another time.) To me, the business world might as well be a country in Westeros or something, because I don't know anything about it. All the popular business books seem like weird self-help books to me. I don't know what a "strength-finder" is, but I conservatively shelved 2 million copies of that book in my 10 years as a bookseller.

To belabor this metaphor, business profiles is my Patrick Rothfuss novel; my The Sparrow. (This is wishful thinking. It is on my reading challenge list this year. Godspeed, me.) It is a treasure trove of storytelling! Sometimes it's a whistle-blowing tell-all by an insider; sometimes, it's an exhaustively researched story about a glorious rise and fall. Sometimes, it's more of a biographical profile of a weirdo. I can't get enough! My Woman in White follow-up will be a business profile book called Losing the Signal, about the rise and fall of BlackBerry. I never had a BlackBerry; I was the last of my friends to get a cell phone, and am on my second ever smartphone. I shouldn't care, but I do, because a) "book with 2 authors" is a prompt in the reading challenge I am currently doing, and this book does, indeed, have 2 authors, and b) it's a Business Profile so this is my Game of Thrones, my Lord of the Rings, my Ender's Game. I already know that I am all in. My friends have no idea how many idiosyncratic facts about BlackBerry they're going to have to suffer through, but I'm not even sorry.

In honor of all the profiles that have come before it, here is a survey of Business Profiles That I Have Known and Loved:

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort
I picked this up as an advance reader copy in the free box at Barnes, and even that copy notes that the story is optioned for a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Business Profile books are often turned into movies. Recognize the narrative? Success from obscurity (they came from nothing! This could be you!), salad days of money and fame (wouldn't it be great to be stupid rich!), corruption as a result of said money and fame (you'd never lost sight of you origins! You'd appreciate every penny and be gracious and generous to everyone!), and finally, downfall (sweet, sweet schadenfreude!). You might get a little bit of redemption in the end, but that's just the cherry on top. It's been quite a while since I read this book, and I've since seen the movie, so I'm ignorant of many of the book-specific details, but I do remember the tone of the narrative jibing with the end-of-movie reveal that this dude is still an asshole who learned basically nothing. Regardless, his story is incredible.

Liar's Poker, The New New Thing, Next, The Big Short by Michael Lewis
Lewis is the king of the business profile. He's probably more famous for his sports books Moneyball and The Blind Side, but if you only know Michael Lewis from the movies based on his books, you're really missing out. His first book, Liar's Poker, is an account of his time at Solomon Brothers. He graduated college at a time when Wall Street jobs were handed out like AOL cds in the 90s, and although he was admittedly a mediocre-at-best trader, he proved to be an excellent observer and engaging writer. His books are centered on an incredible true life story (which is usually the only part of the narrative translated into film) that perfectly illustrates a larger cultural point. Moneyball is about Billy Beane and the A's, but it's also about the history of fantasy sports and the rise of sabermetrics. The Blind Side is about Michael Oher's improbable rise to NFL prominence, but it's also a Malcom Gladwell-worthy story about the physical and cultural particularities of Oher aligning perfectly with the prominence of the role of the quarterback and the rise of the west coast offense. It's about the ability of athletic prowess to provide an escape from economic depression, and about how far schools will go to bypass the "student" part of "student-athlete" for their own gain. It asks what happens to all the Michael Ohers who aren't "discovered" by wealthy white families who can provide to the means to a lucrative career. The Big Short taught me what a sub-prime mortgage actually is, and I left that book not only understanding what happened, but how it happened. Basically, if you see a book written by Michael Lewis, read it. It'll be entertaining and informative and worth it, I promise.

The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald
It's a shame that whatever is currently going on with Eichenwald is happening, because he has written some fascinating journalism. This particular book could also be in true crime, or FBI-specific sections, but the story of the world's most bumbling and diluted CI is worth every one of its many pages. Like all of these books that are turned into movies, a lot of the details are necessarily cut or changed for the film. No matter how little you think you care about corn, you will be mesmerized by the callous brazenness of the businessmen in these pages. This is one story that seems like it could only have been a movie, but proves the cliche that truth is often crazier than fiction.

The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich
Mezrich is one of those authors whose books I will read regardless of their subject. His format is simple: he writes about incredibly intelligent people doing incredible things. He's written about the MIT students that took Vegas for millions (Bringing Down the House, which was the basis of the movie 21), the heist of a priceless piece of the moon (Sex on the Moon), and the rise of billionaire Russian oligarchs in the wake of the fallen Soviet regime (Once Upon a Time in Russia). Lost in the glare of Sorkin, Fincher, Reznor, and Eisenberg is the fact that the basis of the movie The Social Network is this book by Mezrich. Before Justin Timberlake forced us all to wonder what's better than more money than we'll probably ever see (and remember all that time we spent on Napster), Mezrich was telling the story of an awkward loner who changed the world with his online Facebook. Again, if you want the story behind the story, this is the source.

No One Would Listen by Harry Markopolos
Any complexity inherent to Ponzi schemes, and to Madoff specifically, is emotional. The actual running of the scheme is simple; as long as you can keep convincing new people to hand over their money, the deception continues undetected. In order to do that, however, you need to justify robbing other people for your own gain. The Madoff case was spectacular for many reasons: it's brazenness, the relative restraint he had to use to remain undetected for so long, and his callous betrayal of friends and family along the way. No One Would Listen is the story of the people who uncovered Madoff's deception, how they did it, and why it took so long. It is a fascinating tale of greed, audacity, and the determination of a small group of people to expose the truth in the face of indifference and incompetence, told by the people who finally brought him down.

The Great Beanie Baby Bubble by Zac Bissonnette
Every time I see a TY display at the big box store, I think about this book. When they made their debut, beanie babies were sold exclusively at specialty toy shops. That's probably the least interesting fact in this book. Everything about beanie babies is kind of nuts. From their creator, a strange man on a quest to make the perfect stuffed toy, to their improbable ascent to the top of the collectable world, to the people left with entire rooms of now worthless toys with their tags carefully shielded in plastic protectors, the story of Ty Warner and his toys is worth every minute it takes to read this profile. Bissonnette details how and why the beanie baby bubble came into existence, and what happened when it inevitably popped.

Books like these are why I love the business profiles section. They are dynamic, interesting stories about a specific business or industry that will draw you in regardless of how many team dysfunctions you can name. These things happened in business settings, but they are stories about ambition, circumstance, greed, ingenuity, and consequence. It's not a surprise so many of them find success on the big screen. The movies may be compelling, but the books they're based on tell the whole story.

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