Books I read in January, 2017

Short days, long evenings, frost and fog, when all I want to do is to curl up by the woodburner with a good book. Here’s a selection of some of the books I read this month.

The Silk Roads: A new history of the World, Peter Frankopan

History was one of my favourite subjects at school but I’ve long felt that my education was lacking in terms of anything other than the history of the West. I knew quite a bit about the ancient Greeks and Romans and Henry VIII and his six wives but nothing about Muslim and other eastern civilisations.

This book spans more than 2,000 years, telling the story of the rise, fall and re-emergence of the East. It’s a huge, epic book, yet very easy to read. It’s not always a comfortable read, however.

The biggest takeaways for me were 1) how willing we are consistently to exploit those weaker than ourselves: greed, man’s inhumanity to man, the lust for power, the rape and pillage of countries and their citizens (there are very few innocents in these pages) and 2) how the future may look very different to us in the West than the recent past. Although I was obviously aware of the rise of the Russian oligarchs, I had not appreciated the extent to which the wealth that has propelled them to prominence is spreading across that entire region. I remember watching last year’s Formula 1 Grand Prix from Baku and asking my husband, “Where the hell is Baku?”, then being struck by the beauty of the old city and the obvious wealth on display in the new. As the author says,

“Here, we learn that the ruler’s son reportedly owns a portfolio of villas and apartments in Dubai worth a cool $45 million — or 10,000 years of the average Azeri income; not bad for an eleven-year-old.”

This is a fascinating book and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in world history and how we have ended up where we are today.

Moments of Truth, Jan Carlzon

In 1978, at the age of 36, Jan Carlzon became the world’s youngest airline president when he took over Linjeflyg, Sweden’s domestic airline, followed in 1981 by becoming president of the national airline, SAS. In both cases he achieved remarkable results, turning both companies around from making heavy losses to being consistently profitable at a time when collective losses in the international airline industry totalled a record $2 billion.

He achieved this not by slashing costs and reducing staff numbers — as many suspected he would — but by having a laser-like focus on customer service and empowering his employees.

It’s a book full of insights and tips from which anyone running a business or managing a team could learn — I certainly have.

Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis, J. D. Vance

This was one of the most talked about books of 2016 (at least on the book-related blogs I read), and I can understand why.
“As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”

J. D. Vance is a successful lawyer who graduated from Yale after a spell in the US Marines, during his service with which he fought in Iraq. Not your typical ‘hillbilly’ and the struggle he had to go through to get where he is today is remarkable.

A few years ago I read New Yorker staff writer George Packer’s The Unwinding, an insightful examination of the decline of America over the last 30 years. It’s one of the most moving books I’ve read and one which I credit with lessening the surprise (but not the shock) I felt when Donald Trump was elected President. Hillbilly Elegy reminded me a lot of that book.

Many reviewers of this book have claimed that it explains Trump and Brexit, and to an extent it does. There’s no doubt that appealing to people like the author’s family contributed to Trump getting elected. I dread to think what might happen a) if he doesn’t make good on his promises and b) when he, and they, realise that some problems can’t be solved by any government.

It’s another ultimately quite troubling read, whilst also managing to be hugely entertaining and very well written.

Read it, read it, read it.

The Effective Executive, Peter F Drucker [Re-read]

Drucker is widely acknowledged as one of the twentieth century’s true experts on management. This book isn’t the easiest book to read, but I make a point of reading it every year or so, because — for me — it encapsulates everything that I strive to be in my professional life. I’m always reminded of my shortcomings but also heartened by the fact that Drucker stresses that this is something which can be learned.

First published in 1966, its message is as true now as it was then and the only thing which dates it is that every time the words ‘manager’ or ‘executive’ are used or referred to, the pronoun ‘he’ is used!

Favourite quote: “Without an action plan, the executive becomes a prisoner of events. And without check-ins to re-examine the plan as events unfold, the executive has no way of knowing which events really matter and which are only noise.” (Gosh! That sounds a lot like the financial planning we do with our clients!)

A very British coup, Chris Mullin (Fiction)

I remember enjoying Channel 4’s 1988 (was it really that long ago!) dramatisation, but had never read the novel, so when it came up in the Kindle Daily Deal recently I decided to give it a try.

First published in 1982 and set in what was then the future — 1989 — it tells the story of the election of a genuinely socialist Labour government, led by former steel worker Harry Perkins. The Establishment does not approve, and the story deals with how the Whitehall mandarins handle the problem.

At the time it was published, some of the things done in an attempt to oust Perkins seemed somewhat outlandish and unlikely. Today, not so much.

I enjoyed it. It’s a quick read and whilst it inevitably seems a bit dated, the moral of the story remains the same.

Apparently, a sequel is on the cards.

Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world, Cal Newport

I wrote about this book recently and I think this is another one which I’ll return to periodically.

Cal defines ‘deep work’ as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.”

There are two main areas where I need to be able to concentrate on deep work: 1) I am often working on complex situations relating to our clients for which I need to have chunks of my time allocated to concentrate on the issues I’m trying to resolve; and 2) I do a lot of writing, which is something I find difficult to do if I am constantly being interrupted by emails, phone calls etc., so strategies which will enable me to achieve a state of deep work are always helpful.

Whilst the book is an extremely useful ‘manual’ on how to achieve this, it is also a fascinating study of why we should all engage in deep work. One reason amongst many is that the scientific evidence shows that if you spend enough time only doing shallow work, you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work. Another is that people able to perform deep work are becoming more valuable in today’s global economy and those who master this skill are those most likely to thrive as a result.

I really enjoyed this book. I picked up a whole swathe of ideas to help me work much more productively which I’ll be making a concerted effort to implement, added to which it’s a well-researched, very engaging read.

“Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my own son go hungry.”

(Interestingly that quote came from George Packer when he was writing ‘The Unwinding’ — see above)