2013 Reading

As an annual exercise, I’m looking back at the books I read in 2013. It’s always interesting to see a sweep of my interests for the year. This year, my travel related books dominated. I’ve found it adds a lot to a visit to a place to immerse myself in its stories.
 The Death and Life of Dith Pran, by Sydney H Schanberg. Four stars

This is a short book, largely the New York Times piece that Sydney H Schanberg wrote about his journalist partner Dith Pran, after Pran got out of Cambodia alive in 1979. It was the basis for the film, The Killing Fields. At a time when Australia is withdrawing from Afghanistan, and leaving local interpreters behind (despite earlier promises) it was a sobering read. This book reminded me once again how important it is to get to know the people behind the headlines; those interpreters are just numbers to me. Reading about Dith Pran, though, and the challenges he went through to stay alive, makes real many of the other statistics of the multiple tragedies that affected Cambodia in the last half century.

The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars, by Andrew X Pham. Five Stars

This book, written by Andrew X Pham, is the story of his father, Thong Pham, whose life went from being the scion of a rich landowning family in Vietnam’s rural rice farming north, to being a refugee in American backed Saigon, to reluctant soldier in the South Vietnamese army, and then re-education in a post reunification prison. Along the way, wars involving the Japanese, the French, and the Americans made life in Vietnam a tightrope of political calculation, as well as, during various waves of war induced starvation, a struggle merely to survive.

The characterisation of the various people we meet along the way underscore how even the most cartoon goodies and baddies have complexity; even the soulless 17 year old political assassin of Vietnamese nationalists didn’t start that way, but reacted to many horrendous experiences forced upon him by both sides during his short life. Highly recommended to accompany a trip to Vietnam.

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past, by Giles Tremlett. Four and a half stars

This is quite the companion piece to Eaves of Heaven, above. An English journalist, who has made his home in Spain travels the country trying to understand its past. As the Franco years recede into the distance, it is starting to be acceptable to talk about the killings that happened during the Civil War and during those years. But there are still some quite different narratives of events of those years, even within quite small villages. But as the silence starts to be broken, modern Spain is having to work out how to talk about those years without the violence that accompanied them.

In Tasmania, by Nicholas Shakespeare. Four and a half stars

Nicholas Shakespeare is an english writer who, after moving to Tasmania, discovers he has some fascinating family connections with the place, including being related to the “Father of Tasmania” Anthony Kemp. He uses his considerable biographical (he is the biographer of Bruce Chatwin) to weave a personal memoir of Tasmania into an idiosyncratic history of Tasmania – covering both the large events of white and Aboriginal history, and the small minutiae of what life was like in Tasmania for the early white settlers. My favourite anecdote covers Jørgen Jørgensen, a self-proclaimed “King of Iceland” who ended his days in obscurity in Tasmania, after trying and failing to install a fraternal republic in Iceland under cover of a British-Danish trading dispute in 1808.

I really enjoyed this book, but I’ve always been a sucker for well written history with a few primary sources – if you’ve ever read and enjoyed Henry Reynolds‘ various histories of the aboriginal view of Australian settlement you will enjoy this book.

Killing Fairfax: Packer, Murdoch and the Ultimate Revenge, by Pamela Williams, four stars

I read this on a colleague’s recommendation. His view was that it was a cautionary tale for many companies, including companies in the financial services industry. When you have a fantastic revenue source (the famous Fairfax classified Rivers of Gold), it is difficult (and proved impossible for Fairfax) to innovate in ways that, in the short term, damaged that revenue source, but ultimately in the long term ensured you had a share of the future.

At a time when the funds management and superannuation industries are changing – partly due to regulation, but also because of customer behaviour, holding on to old customers at the expense of new revenue sources is a strong temptation.

I would give this five stars for the strategic lessons, but I found Pamela Williams seemed a bit too star-struck by her level of access for my liking. She had clearly spent a lot of time with James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch and liked to show off her inside information.

 The Misogyny Factor, by Anne Summers. Three and a half stars.

This is a book that grew out of two speeches that Summers gave about Julia Gillard, and her experience with misogyny as Prime Minister of Australia. It does show its history. As a book, it is more a collection of chapters than a coherent whole.  But still fascinating to read Anne Summers’ take on the status of women in Australia,  particularly in public life, as she has spent her entire working life writing on the topic, and trying to improve the status of women. One for the aficionados.

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run— or Ruin— an Economy, by Tim Harford. Four and a half stars

My twelve-year-old son has got very into popular economics writing, which is why I bought this book. I wasn’t actually expecting to like it that much, as Tim Harford is more of a microeconomics writer, and this is his guide to macroeconomics.

What I should have remembered is that Harford is an excellent writer and explainer. This book uses his Q&A format, honed for his Financial Times columns. And while I have spent much of the past five years reading a fair bit about macroeconomics (enough to teach me far more than I remember from university) this book is so digestible that my son and I have started debating Keynesian economics over the dinner table. If you are at all interested in the various debates about how to drag various parts of the world out of recession (more spending? more tax cuts? and what about interest rates?) this is the book for you.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley. Four and a half stars.

For a while now (as I have children in school), I’ve been paying attention to the PISA results, and what they say about Australian education (for what its worth, they say we are above average in all subjects, but best at science, and that we have a much bigger than average range between top and bottom performers). Amanda Ripley has taken an American angle, and tracked some American exchange students as they go to some other countries with much better results than the average american.

Her conclusion (after visiting Finland, Korea and Poland, three very different countries with very good results) is that expectations and culture is the biggest factor. In those educationally successful countries, learning (not sport, self-esteem, or social activities) are the most important things that children and teachers can do at school. They go about it in very different ways, but they all expect great things, and support their achievement. Not necessarily an easy change to make for a country like Australia where sport is still a separate sub-heading on the Department of Foreign Affairs website about Australian Culture“Australians love their sport, both playing it and watching it.”

Quarterly Essay 50 Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny, by Anna Goldsworthy. Four stars

Anna Goldsworthy is an Australian concert pianist who has become a writer (one day I will read her memoir, Piano Lessons).  I haven’t read her before, and she did a tough job of writing something fresh, without bitterness, about the state of misogyny in Australia. I probably read too many feminist blogs for any of it to be new, but a great survey of the real situation for women in Australia.

Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, By Dan Ariely. Four stars

For me this book suffered by comparison with the masterpiece in this category, Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. If you are only going to read one book about behavioural economics, read Kahneman’s not Ariely’s. But if you find the topic fascinating, then it is worth reading more in the category, and this one is both interesting, and includes some new and different investigations from Kahneman’s. I’m still quite stunned that Kahneman’s book, by the original researcher, the Nobel Laureate, is so readable (it doesn’t seem fair to be able to do so much original research AND write well) so it is hard for me to credit any other books in the category.

Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data, by Charles Wheelan. Four stars

This is a good introduction to statistics, for those who don’t know much about it, but really know that they should. Any of my actuarial readers won’t be in that category (unless they have forgotten a fair bit that they once knew). But it is a good, quick refresher, if you are in that category. More to the point, it is a good pointer as to how to explain statistics to those who haven’t had to pass an exam in combinatorial probability. It never hurts to get a refresher in plain english explanations of important statistical concepts. A good one to have in the library.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg. Four stars

I bought this thinking I would like it more than I did. Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook, and popular speaker on work and life issues) is a great advocate of women in senior management, as am I. But while she spends a bit of time on the structural issues (ie it is not just about adequate maternity leave and part time work) that make it hard for women to make it to the very top of companies in corporate USA (and by extension corporate Australia) in the end her prescriptions are all about things that women can do better to get to the top. And while I have seen women fail to negotiate as hard as men, and thereby miss out on the big bonuses and pay increases, I’ve also seen women who do negotiate as hard as men, who are labelled aggressive, and miss out on the next promotion.

Women have come a long way in senior roles since the 1970s when the highest paid woman at at least one Australian financial services company was mandated to be the CEO’s secretary. But change is needed in more areas than just women’s ambition for real equality of opportunity.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen, Four and a half stars.

In a year when I took on a new challenging job in an industry in a bad way, it was good to have some help in improving my productivity. I haven’t quite managed to implement everything in this book, but the philosophy of freeing up your brain for important stuff, rather than remembering your to-do list is one that it is worth reading this book to embed. If you find this book useful, then I also recommend reading this series of blog posts on using Evernote to really get your productivity humming.

For a change, I have read quite a lot of non fiction this year (my annual book count has gone up, but my non fiction has gone down) which has been quite enjoyable. But I’m sticking to only talking about the non-fiction on this blog, for my readers who have got this far, it is because it makes me seem more intellectual than I really am.

Last year’s reading list is here.

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