8 min read

Summer Reading 2023: On Management #52

"Evil is rarely complicated. It’s just fucking bold." - S.A. Cosby
Craggy wooden bench on dusty sand, with desert mountains in the background.  Sunny day, blue sky, low clouds
The Hot Seat - Death Valley NP, CA, by Nicholas Lh., CC BY-SA 2.0
Thank you for subscribing to On Management, and welcome to my nearly-annual Summer Reading edition. For new readers, what follows is hardly a list of business books. When I read, I'm curious about human behavior, and what motivates us. Really, any kind of leadership that lacks this curiosity is bound to be limited.

Road trip

I took a 2-day car trip around July 4 to visit friends, solo. My bags were haphazardly (over)packed; my books, and a few podcast episodes, were carefully chosen. I love to have anything I'm reading in both audio and book form; I listened while I was driving, and read when I wasn't.

Rain and smoke kept us indoors at my destination, and I wasn't sorry that we all got a bit of reading in. (We also did jigsaw puzzles. Made and ate good food. And watched at least 2 of the John Wick movies. Why.)

I downloaded Middlemarch – 30 hours of audio! - for my trip. It's one of those books I have never been able to truly crack. I planned to sail through it, supported by Mona Simpson's Summer Reading series at Ann Kjellberg's wonderful Book Post.

Instead, not sorry, I read the first three of S.A. Cosby's spectacular Southern noir crime novels. Cosby is a master of the English language, of tight plots, and complex characters living out the many legacies of America's original sin. Not specifically about the workplace, his protagonists have been chewed up – but not spit out – by capitalism.

  • My Darkest Prayer (library) (Bookshop.org) The community of a former Marine/police deputy pulls him into investigating the death of a local preacher.
  • Blacktop Wasteland (library) (Bookshop.org) Small business owner with a criminal past is convinced to do one last job.
  • Razorblade Tears (library) (Bookshop.org) Homophobic fathers of a murdered gay couple seek revenge I mean justice.

After my trip, I read Cosby's latest, All the Sinners Bleed. I rarely take a note when reading fiction, but “Evil is rarely complicated. It’s just fucking bold," seems like essential wisdom for our moment. At work, and in community.


The Heroine's Journey

You Must Remember This is a film podcast, written and produced by Karina Longworth. I’ve had it in my podcast feed since probably 2015, but have never really been hooked. This is a Me Problem: some episodes are longer the regular NYC - Chicago flights I took before the pandemic; too long, I thought. Some topics didn’t grab me. Until they did.

The current season of YMRT, Erotic 90's, dives into sex in the movies, in the 90s. Longworth describes the politics and personalities that dictated how gender relations played out on the screen, and behind the scenes. And the power built, or not built, by actors who were not men.

Longworth is unafraid to fall into rabbit holes, emerging with deeply researched, coherent, narratives about film in culture, and the culture of the film industry. Erotic 90's highlights visible women in a very particular workplace – one that has labelled those who advocate for themselves as “difficult,” a through line evident in Harvey Weinstein's harms, and likely beyond.

While on my road trip, I listened to The Last Seduction, Disclosure, & Fear of the Female Boss (Erotic 90’s, Part 13) for a second time, and several other recent episodes.

If you like audio and you've followed my Heroine's Journey posts, Erotic 90s may be for you. Also, the echoes of 90s culture are heard in all of our workplaces, even now.

It’s early summer, 1991. It’s probably 7am, and it’s one of those clear gorgeous early summer mornings in NYC. I’m on the top deck of the Hoboken Ferry to Lower Manhattan, probably thinking about work. The ferry makes its final turn towards the dock, paralleling the path along the Hudson in Battery Park City. Maybe 15 feet away, a young finance bro stands with a group of his cohorts, and starts catcalling a woman who’s out for a run. I call over to him, “Hey, leave her alone.” He answers, “Who do you think you are?” I say, “Have you seen Thelma and Louise? I’m Thelma.” No response from Bro, or his bros; they did shut up. At that moment.

Today, some in that cohort, or their bros, are making consequential decisions – whom to fund, to lay off, or to compensate fairly. Or whether to give more than lip service to building a diverse workforce.

Longworth's series illuminates the 90's culture we were marinating in as these guys started learning how successful white men can act. (see above: "Evil is rarely complicated. It’s just fucking bold.")

Friends of the Newsletter on my TBR

Unlikeable female characters

Several indie podcasts helmed by people who are not white men closed their doors last year. Rose Eveleth's Flash Forward. Ashley Milne-Tyte's The Broad Experience. And Kristen Lepionka, Layne Fargo, and Wendy Heard's Unlikeable Female Characters.

The likeable – or at least sympathetic – female characters Karina Longworth describes in Erotic 90s are wives and a sex worker. Executives? Not terribly likeable. Some are evil. Others are "crazy."

After considering the legal outcomes for unlikeable characters Elizabeth Holmes and Martha Stewart, I started compiling a list of unlikeable female characters, I mean executives. I found myself thinking about erstwhile presidental candidate Carly Fiorina.

In 2019, I was one of Ashley Milne-Tyte's guests on a Broad Experience episode about coaching. Before the taping, iirc, we had discussed how many women seemed to be coaches. In my memory, I remarked on the cookie-cutter nature of some websites women used to promote their services, and my belief that many had been upsold website templates, software, and other services after enrolling in pricey coach training programs.

I felt some solidarity with these women. In several years of helping to organize an MBA alumnae group, I talked with hundreds of other women in their 40s and 50s who could no longer find a corporate space that wanted them to do the work we were all trained to do. Laid off during the recession. Aged out of banking/consulting. Fell off a glass cliff. Had kids, made less money than their partner, stayed home because childcare was expensive. Got cancer, got well. Add "taken to the cleaners in a divorce" to any of the previous cases, and, well, oof.

Nonetheless, Carly's website surprised me. Missing any hint of the MLM-ish coaches, she's out there marketing herself. Just like the rest of us. Booking Discovery Calls. Blogging on Linked In. (searches "carly fiorina substack" nope)

TBR – I'm heading down a rabbit hole

Other things I've read, heard, watched

  • As our lives increasingly move online, older adults are often left out, at Marketplace Tech, reported by Ashley Milne-Tyte. I don't get Marketplace Tech on my local NPR station, but it's now on my podcast feed. My sister and I are tech support for my parents, 87 and 90 – and though both parents are fairly tech savvy, we feel this one.
  • Audrey Watters’ new newsletter, Second Breakfast. I started following Audrey for her writing on Ed Tech, and today she's turning to the wellness-nutrition-industrial complex. My sisters and I are also Maintenance managers for my parents house...and I have thought deeply about how the word "housewife," as in married to the house, plays out in that space. The Efficiency Kitchen: Scientific Management and the Home, July 6, 2023.
  • Lost words and hidden histories, July 24 2023, Debbie Cameron at language: a feminist guide sent me looking for at least two books:
    • Mother Tongue: The Surprising History of Women's Words, by Jenni Nuttall. (library) (Bookshop) A history of language by women to describe our bodies, our work, our lives.
    • The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams (library) (Bookshop). Fiction about a young woman in the background, while men compiled the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • The Local: A Legal Thriller by Joey Hartstone (library) (Bookshop) I'm halfway through this thriller about a very specific workplace – a fictional patent court in Texas, based on an actual district court in Waco. The Local came to me via Elizabeth's newsletter, What to Read If.
  • Also – and it didn't happen on Fiorina's watch – my dive into Carly surfaced a truly bananas 2006 story about the time Hewlett Packard board members hired investigators to surveil other board members, in search of a leak. If it happened today, we'd be watching the dramatization on Hulu.

Thank you so much for reading my newsletter, and especially to those of you who pay to support On Management. To those of you who abhor profanity, pardon my quotes incorporating the f-word. I couldn't find it in myself to bleep a master like S.A. Cosby.

Thanks also to my public library, which makes my audiobook + book habit affordable, and creates a fantastic resource for our entire community. (On my vacation, I also bullied my friends into getting library cards. They're in coastal New England, and their library offerings include snowshoes and metal detectors, neither of which we checked out.)

Usually I send the newsletter on Sunday, but I took some tech issues yesterday as a sign to slow down. Hopefully the extra time enabled me to vanquish most of the typos and broken links, and at least some of the clumsy turns of phrase. I'll go back and fix some of them later on, on the Internet.

Please let me know what you're reading this summer! And as always, I welcome your questions, comments, suggestions – and even unsubscribes from folks who are ready to leave (link below). Lol I'm not for everyone.

May you, your loved ones, co-workers, and neighbors, be safe, healthy, and free.

Anne Libby

Readings from bygone summers

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