Books I Read In... December 2018

Books I Read In... December 2018

I had thought that I would get to read more books than normal during December, due to the Christmas break, but it turned out that I read fewer books than in any other month this year. That said, the ones I did read were excellent.

The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy – Michael Lewis

This Christmas, we sent each of our clients a copy of Hans Rosling’s book, ‘Factfulness’, as an antidote to all the bad news we’d had shoved down our throats during 2018, so it’s somewhat ironic that I chose to end the year with this book.

This book is seriously scary.  As with all of Lewis’s books, there’s a depth of research in the form of extensive interviews with those concerned, and right from the first page, you know this is going to be a hair-raising read.

The book starts with the period leading up to the 2016 US election. In April that year, Trump’s team (along with all Presidential candidate’s teams still in the race at that time) were asked to send their transition team for meetings at the White House to prepare for running the federal government should Trump be elected.  It turned out they didn’t have a team. Not only that, they didn’t intend to create one.  They had no idea that it was legally required.  This sets the tone for how Trump’s team have dealt with running the federal government.  

Trump’s transition team was led by former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie. He battled with Trump to get funding for the team – something Trump was loathe to provide and initially refused to do so until it was pointed out to him how bad he would look when that was reported on ‘Morning Joe’. As Lewis relates:

‘At one point he turned to Christie and said, “Chris, you and I are so smart that we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.”’

The book clearly illustrates that Trump resented having to use any of the campaign funds to pay for the transition team, relating meetings at which Trump would be ‘apoplectic’ about funds being used for this purpose, despite its vital task. As Lewis states:

“From time to time Trump would see something in the paper about Christie’s fund-raising and become upset all over again. The money people donated to his campaign Trump considered, effectively, his own. He thought the planning and forethought pointless.”

Lewis interviewed many of the top people in various branches of the federal government, all of whom – regardless of their political leanings – had done their best to prepare for the transition and aimed to provide as much help and support as they could to the over five hundred new people who would be occupying the top jobs.  In some cases, in the days and weeks following the election result, no one from Trump’s administration showed up at all. In others, the detailed handover documents, expertise and proffered support were simply ignored.

Reading that, it’s no surprise that Trump is running the US in the way that he is. Whether you agree with his politics or not, this book should worry you, wherever you live in the world, because the way the federal government is being run in the US affects us all. From the removal of all data relating to evidence on climate change and animal cruelty from publicly accessible government websites to the attempted monetisation of the US Weather Service, the legacy of the inadequacies of the current administration and the dangers that poses for the world at large could be felt for generations to come.

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why – Laurence Gonzales

I first heard about this book from Ben Carlson, and it’s another one that isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs.

As the title suggests, Gonzales has studied why it is that the most experienced people (for example mountain climbers) can make basic mistakes which cost them their lives, while a young child can emerge unscathed after six days lost in a forest.  While most of us are unlikely to put ourselves in potentially life-threatening situations voluntarily, we may nevertheless find ourselves in such a situation, so Gonzales’ findings might just help.  It’s also the case that while much of what he covers in his book applies to wilderness survival, the principles could be applied to any stressful, demanding situation – divorce, illness, running a business, for example.

A frightening statistic Gonzales quotes early on in the book is that only 10 to 20 per cent of untrained people can stay calm and think rationally in the midst of a survival emergency. In such situations, emotions can easily trump reason. Emotion is an ingrained response which is aimed to protect us but can often have the opposite effect. Emotions are lightning fast. Reason, on the other hand, takes time.

Gonzales explains in some detail how our brains are configured to react to situations – through unconscious learning, acting as an ‘organ of information and government’ – and what happens to how we react to situations as a result. 

One conundrum he mentions is that ‘Emotions are survival mechanisms, but they don’t always work for the individual… The individual may live or die, but over a few million years, more mammals lived than died by letting emotion take over, and so emotion was selected.’

The book is an engaging combination of neuroscience and real-life examples of survival situations detailing who died, and why, and what it was that made the difference for those who survived.

This book could give you nightmares, but I found it fascinating and having read it I realise the need we all have to train our brains to react in the right way in stressful situations – someday our lives might depend on it.

Ordinary Grace – William Kent Krueger

My one fiction read of the month. It’s the tale of a young teenage boy, Frank, on the brink of manhood and the tragic events which take place during a hot summer in 1961 in small town rural America.

It’s a tale in large part about God, but it’s not religious. It’s a tale about love, and family, and violence. It’s about the lesson we all learn at some point in our young lives – we may be searching for answers as to why bad things are allowed to happen, but ultimately we all have to learn just to keep moving forward.

I thought this was a lovely novel. Frank was portrayed with great sympathy. In some ways, it reminded me of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, one of my favourite novels. It was one of those books where, each time I picked it up, I was transported into the world of the book. That’s a real skill and doesn’t happen as often as it should with fiction. I have seen Krueger described as a ‘gentle writer’, and that is spot on. There is a beauty and a gentleness to his writing which is superb.

Thoroughly recommended.

I hope my comments will encourage you to pick up one or two of these books.