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Great journalists are renowned for "getting the story" and then telling it well because they are gifted raconteurs whose keen analytical minds focus on who and what are most interesting as well as most significant. They suggest implications that help their readers (and viewers) to gain a greater understanding of what the "story" means. In recent years, my favorite journalists include Ken Auletta, Elizabeth Drew, Thomas Friedman, Hendrick Hertzberg, Jeffrey Toobin...and Joe Nocera. For almost thirty years, Nocera has written articles for a wide range of publications that include The New York Times (for which he writes a Saturday column, "Talking Business") and its Sunday magazine as well Esquire, GQ, Fortune, Money, Slate, and Texas Monthly. What we have in this volume is a collection of articles about various "good guys & bad guys," written over a period from 1982 until 2007.

He divides his material within 14 chapters. The articles of special interest to me are these:

Two articles about Boone Pickens, "It's Time to Make a Deal" in Chapter 1 and "Return of the Raider" in Chapter 14, that serve as "book ends" to all the other articles in between

His profile of Steve Jobs ("Jobs Agonistes") in Chapter 2

His analysis of Charlie Merrill and his dysfunctional relations with members of his family, especially his sons

His profile of Warren Buffett ("Saint Warren of Omaha") in Chapter 8

His explanation of "our love-hate relations with Wal-Mart" in Chapter 13

Obviously, other readers will have different favorites among the 26 articles assembled in this volume. However different the subjects and circumstances may be, however, all of them are exceptionally well-written, informative, and (more often that not) highly entertaining.

Here in Dallas, we have a Farmers Market area near downtown at which several vendors eagerly offer slices of fresh fruit as samples. In that same spirit, I now offer a sequence of three brief excerpts from the profile of Warren Buffett with the hope that they provide at least a "taste" of Nocera's style and perspective.

Why doesn't everyone invest the way Buffett does and, therefore, achieve the same results?

"I think the answer is twofold. First, truly great investing requires a temperament that very few people have. For most of us, it is difficult not to panic when the market tanks, for instance. It is hard not to want to jump on the hot stock, even if we know nothing about the business. The ups and downs of the market are stomach-churning events. The fundamental equanimity required to be a great investor is an extremely rare thing."

"The second reason we don't invest like Buffett is that his methods are far more complicated than they sound. Think about it: When Buffett talks about the `economic prospects' of a potential investment, what he means is that he wants to be able to see where the business will be 10 years from now. If he can see the business remaining dominant for the next decade, he'll consider buying the stock."

"One of the most important reasons for difference [i.e. being able to determine whether or not a business will remain dominant for the next decade] goes almost entirely unacknowledged among those who hope to find in Buffett an easily reproducible investing style. He is a genius when it comes to numbers. `Accounting,' he likes to say,' is the language of business.' It is a language in which his own fluency is unsurpassed, and which gives him an enormous competitive advantage. Usually, all he needs is a quick glance at a balance sheet to know whether he's interested in buying a company or not - because he finds meaning in numbers that the rest of us don't."

I envy those who have read only a few (if any) of the articles (including his Times columns) that Nocera has written for almost 30 years. Now in this single volume, they have some of his best...thus far.

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on September 3, 2008
I found this book to be just a collection of Nocera's articles. True he has added a preface to each article to make it a chapter, but those small additions don't tie the separate pieces together for me. Reading this book also made me realize the difference between magazine articles and books. The magazine article typically has a point of view (so-and-so is a jerk or a good guy) and everything in the article supports that point of view. I expect a book to be more nuanced pointing out both sides of a person or issue.
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on August 31, 2008
This book consists of a nice compilation of Joe Nocera's business stories over the past 25 years or so. Readers interested in business histories and people connected to some of the corporations will not be disappointed. The title is simplistic and inaccurate. The characters are certainly a lot more complex and cannot be characterized as "good" or "bad". In all fairness coming up with a title that unifies all the stories is a challenge. Book consists of 14 main chapters:

1) Boone Pickens (the 1st and last chapters cover him)
2) Steve Jobs
3) "Ga-Ga Years" covers the stock market boom and October crash of 1987
4) Michael Milken
5) Charlie Merrill
6) Lawyers involved in silicon breast implants litigation
7) Bancrofts
8) Warren Buffett
9) Henry Blodget
10) Enron collapse
11) Clifford Asness (a hedge fund manager)
12) Steve Parrish of Philip Morris
13) One chapter dedicated to 6 short articles including Starbucks, Walmart, and Home Depot

Nocera is an excellent writer whose stories are engaging. The articles, which vary in length, explore the companies and more importantly the individuals connected to the companies. We learn that human nature is perhaps the biggest force that shapes businesses.

Highly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon March 27, 2011
I generally don't like books that are compilations of magazine articles but this one I enjoyed immensely. Maybe it's because the first profile of Boone Pickens from the 80s was very long and insightful about takeovers. Then the close with his reincarnation, both good and bad, really makes the book. In between there are many great stories like my always favorite subject Mike Milken. But a article of which I have read nothing concerning Lawyers and silicone breast implant litigation really makes you want to toss our judicial system out the window. Yes, some articles are dated but still really well written and worth the read. Overall, a great business book I highly recommend!
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on June 1, 2008
Joe Nocera's Good Guys and Bad Guys

Read dozens of books about heroes and crooks

and I've learned much from both of their styles.

-Jimmy Buffett

One of my favorite business books is Mark McCormick's What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School.

The 1986 book had a huge influence on me. McCormick encouraged readers to write letters to people and say what you admire about them.

I always meant to write to McCormick and never did. I did write to Joe Nocera.

In 1994, I had reviewed Nocera's book, A Piece of the Action, for the Lexington Herald Leader. I was completely blown away by Nocera's work. He did exhaustive research in the style of David Halberstam or David McCullough. It was combined with writing that flows like Tom Wolfe. I've re-read the book 50 times and still find nuggets of wisdom.

I wrote and told Joe how much I admired him. He wrote back. We've followed each other's careers since then.

Joe had been writing for Esquire and GQ when we connected. He went on to be the Executive Editor at Fortune and now a columnist for the New York Times.

His latest book, Good Guys and Bad Guys, is a collection of writings along Joe's life journey.

Like the Jimmy Buffett song, Nocera noted that villains of business have good traits and business heroes have flaws.

Those of us in business need heroes. We need a realistic dream where we work hard and become the next Warren. We need to know that Warren has some flaws, (such as bad dietary habits), like we do.

Nocera looks at business people in a balanced way.

Movies and television tend to stereotype business people as ego driven and ethically challenged. Businessmen come across as some combination of JR Ewing on Dallas and Michael Douglas character in Wall Street.

They are really more complicated. Nocera allows us to see the nuance of that complexity.

Nocera said that in 1982, he was drawn from political journalism into business journalism. He saw the passion and drama of business stories in an era before CNBC and 24 hour business news.

Nocera has spent time with the great business leaders of this era. His insights into Steven Jobs and Warren Buffett are fascinating but my favorite chapter is one on Michael Milken.

Sometime in the late 1980's, I became fascinated with Milken and read every book written about him. Depending on the author, you got dramatically different portraits. Some books were intensely critical while others were puff pieces.

Joe wrote a 1991 article for GQ that nailed the Milken story. It balanced good versus bad.

Like Nocera does with many famous figures.

Since the book covers a 25 year spread, Nocera gives a historical perspective to recent events. A good example was the saga of how Rupert Murdoch took over the Wall Street Journal.

In a chapter called, "How the Bancrofts Blew it" Nocera includes a historic 1998 story in Fortune, when Elisabeth Goth Chelberg, a Kentucky horsewoman, started asking innocent questions about the company's stock price and management.

She is part of the Bancroft family, which had own the publishing empire for 100 years. Rather than getting the family to" act like an owner," Elisabeth was given the family cold shoulder.

If they had listened to Elisabeth in 1998, they could have addressed the long standing problems. 10 years later, it was too late.

Some might view the Bancroft's as good guys. They put out an award winning newspaper. If you owned WSJ stock, they were bad guys. Management lost billions in businesses they didn't understand and missed numerous opportunities. The company violated their investors trust.

Joe Nocera has knocked on the door of every business mover and shaker of the past 25 years. This collection inspires and provides a historic reference. Most of all, it captures our attention.

The characters depicted are the people who have made American business what it is. They encourage and motivate us those of us who seek to follow in their footsteps.

Sometimes business leaders are good guys and sometimes they are bad guys.

We can learn much from both of their styles.
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on July 26, 2008
I just finished reading this book today, and I am almost sad to be done with it. I consider myself a casual business reader, as I recently read "The Biography of the Dollar" by Craig Karmin as well as The Age of Turbulence by you know who. Both were great reads, but Nocera's work tops my list.

I studied economics in college, and work in the financial field now, so I stay up to date with the business world, but I never got a chance to learn about the big players of American business past. This collection of Nocera's previous articles/columns combined with his current reflections and insights is a perfect way to become familiar with the stories and personality characteristics of American business icons from Charles Merrill to Steve Jobs.

Nocera's writing style and his ability to become close with his interviewees is very engaging and provides for great storytelling. As he says in the beginning of his book, business stories can be some of the most drama filled and compelling tales to read, and he does a great job at doing just that.

If you enjoy reading gripping stories, opinions, and insights of American business icons, I recommend picking this up. I will now look forward to reading his columns and articles in the NY Times/Magazine.
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on June 22, 2008
Enjoyed the book; however most of it are reprints of columns from over the years...old news, that is. The book is well written. Read it if you enjoy reading about insights into the personalities of the business world.
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on June 17, 2008
While most of us end up working in business of some sort, little in the way of fiction gets published that's about business. Nocera, who could have been a really compelling sports writer, writes about business in a driven but succinctly intelligent way. His features read like fiction, because he's good at dramatizing and characterization. He gets very close to his subjects too - which is difficult when you're dealing with moguls. Nocera has never been far, the last quarter century, from major figures in business or the dramas that ensnare them, whether Microsoft, Apple or Enron. This is a very enjoyable book.
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