01 May Books I read in... April 2018
While March seemed to whizz by, April seems to have passed at a much more meandering pace, giving me plenty of time to get some good reads in.
Here’s the best of what I read.
I’d imagine anyone over a certain age has a specific image of Cleopatra: a seductress who captured the hearts of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony; a woman who bathed in asses’ milk and was killed by an asp.
The truth is, of course, much more complicated. Cleopatra ruled Egypt for 22 years, becoming queen at the young age of 18 and at the height of her power she controlled virtually the whole of the eastern Mediterranean coast.
She was richer by far than anyone else in that part of the world. She came from a family that believed in educating women, but which also had a strong history of murdering each other to protect their own positions, a family tradition which she continued. She lived over 2,000 years ago – a generation before the birth of Christ. During her reign she bore four children to two different fathers (both of whom were two of the most powerful men of her time) and was married twice – to her brothers. She was extremely well educated and knew how to build a fleet, control a currency, suppress an insurrection and alleviate a famine. She was a master of self-preservation and ancient Egypt’s last great ruler.
Yet, despite the huge amount we know about Egyptian history in general, virtually no physical evidence of Cleopatra exists. Apart from a few coins bearing her face, we have no idea what she looked like. Cleopatra ruled her kingdom from Alexandria – a city famous as much for its huge wealth and technological advances as it was as a seat of learning in ancient times – but most of what made up the city in Cleopatra’s time was destroyed over the years by wars and nature and by 1323 it had virtually disappeared underwater.
It has been left to various (male) chroniclers to write her history, the first of whom was not born until 76 years after she died. Cicero mentions her often in the letters he wrote when she and Julius Caesar were together but his views were hardly unbiased. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she has ended up being portrayed as a wanton temptress who ‘enslaved’ both Caesar and Mark Antony.
Schiff has attempted, in her book, to redress the balance a little. Clearly meticulously researched, it’s a fascinating, highly readable, account of Cleopatra’s life and that of the Roman Empire at that time. This is not a ‘feminist take’ on her life but an attempt to dispel the myths and present Cleopatra in a more ‘enlightened’ light – no woman, then or today, gets to become as powerful and wealthy as she was on feminine wiles alone.
It certainly changed my previously one-dimensional view of her.
“‘It was just after 8 PM when my iPhone buzzed with a text message from a number I didn’t recognise. “I’ll meet you tomorrow, but I need to be certain I can trust you,” the text read. “This goes much much higher than me and a lot of what I know even the DOJ [Justice Department] is in the dark.” The message was from a terrified and very sober Tom Hayes.’”
So begins The Spider Network, the story of the LIBOR scandal written by Wall Street Journal journalist Enrich.
This book reminded me a bit of The Big Short, taking a highly complex financial instrument – derivatives – and a true story and creating a narrative that reads like a thriller.
I guess most of us have heard of LIBOR (London inter-bank offered rate), the interest rate which is set daily and represents the rate at which banks will lend to one another but I have to admit that until I read this book (and even though I was obviously aware of the scandal when it broke in 2012), I had always thought that the setting of the rate was controlled by the Bank of England, not outsourced to a trade association.
The story of the book’s protagonist, Tom Hayes, is engrossing and yet there’s a weary sense of déjà vu at the same time. The same old mistakes we’ve seen with every financial scandal: ‘soft touch regulation’ implemented by government which was ripe for abuse by those who value profits over integrity; the apples which were rotten to the core – Hayes’s employers, who were more than happy to collude with him due to the huge profits he generated for them; the utter contempt shown by traders working for those same banks for their clients, the pension funds of ordinary people for example, whom they referred to as ‘dumb money clients’; the trade association which was frankly too lazy to investigate early suspicions reported to it and a regulator which also seemed reluctant to take any action. The signs were all there years before the scandal broke, yet apparently no one wanted to do anything about it.
Whilst Hayes was undoubtedly guilty of the crimes he was charged with, he ended up being the ‘sacrificial lamb’. No one else involved in the scandal was jailed (he was jailed for 14 years), and most of those involved kept their jobs.
It’s not a flattering portrayal of the investment banking world. It is a great book though.
Enrich was interviewed about the book recently on Barry Ritholtz’s Bloomberg Masters in Business podcast. It’s worth a listen.
This is the second book written by a Pixar executive that I’ve read, but whilst Levy’s book concentrated on the financial journey the business went on, Catmull’s book concentrates on the ‘people’ side of the business and is a intended as a guide to managers and business owners on the lessons he has learned about building and sustaining a creative and successful business. It’s both an engaging peek behind the scenes of how Pixar does what it does so brilliantly and a guide for those whose goal it is to build great companies.
There are some great principles covered in this book. Amongst my favourites are:
- Give a good idea to a mediocre team and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team and they will either fix it or come up with something better;
- When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level;
- Always try to hire people who are smarter than you;
- It is not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them;
- Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new;
- Don’t confuse the process with the goal. Working on our processes to make them better, easier and more efficient is an indispensable activity and something we should continually work on – but it is not the goal. Making the product great is the goal (emphasis mine)
That last one is my standout favourite, and something which I am acutely aware that Bloomsbury – as a very process driven organisation – always needs to keep top of mind.
My favourite quotation from the book concerns the time when Steve Jobs was in the early stages of thinking about buying Pixar. Catmull, like a lot of people, found him quite difficult to deal with initially. At one point he asked Jobs how he resolved things when people disagreed with him. Jobs’ response?
“When I don’t see eye to eye with somebody, I just take the time to explain it better, so they understand the way it should be.”
Whenever I tell anyone that my favourite fiction writers are John Steinbeck and Stephen King, they generally don’t get it. There’s an awful lot of snobbishness about King’s writing. It seems you can’t be hugely successful and sell millions of books and yet be a master of your craft. I beg to differ. If you study his writing you can see just how brilliant it is.
I love Steinbeck’s writing for many of the same reasons that I love King’s. Not a single word is superfluous and yet their writing is so rich. They seem to be able to convey a story in such detail and yet they both follow King’s rule, stated (after quoting a passage of Steinbeck’s from ‘Grapes of Wrath’) in his book ‘On Writing’ – “Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it (you’ll be doing that as you read, of course…. but that comes later).” That sums up Steinbeck’s writing for me.
Grapes of Wrath is in my top three books, it’s a book which seared itself on to my soul and I’ll never forget how I felt while reading it. East of Eden hasn’t quite reached those heights but it came pretty damn close.
Steinbeck wouldn’t agree with me – he considered East of Eden, written after Grapes of Wrath, his magnum opus.
It’s the story of two families living in the Salinas Valley in California and spans a period from the beginning of the 20th century to the end of the First World War. It’s a story of good and evil and a retelling of Cain and Abel‘s.
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . .. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil…. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?”
It’s a wonderful book. If you haven’t read it I’d urge you to do so.
I hope my comments will inspire you to pick up one or two of these books.