Books I read in June 2017

From a reading perspective, June was a month which contained some unexpected surprises. That’s one of the things I love about reading, you don’t always know what you’re going to get.*

The Boys in the Boat – Daniel James Brown

This book was recommended to me by Mark Horstman, and is the kind of book I would never normally pick up. It got great reviews on Amazon but when it arrived and I started to leaf through it, I really wasn’t sure that it was going to be a book for me.

Well that just proves how wrong you can be. The book tells the story of the 1936 US Olympic eight-man rowing crew. The author’s neighbour, Joe Rantz, was a member of that crew and it is his story that the author relates in detail.

Joe was abandoned by his family and left to fend for himself at a very young age and it is the backdrop of this hardest of upbringings during the time of the Great Depression against which the story unfolds.

It is a remarkable story of triumph in the face of adversity; of an extraordinary journey of eight working-class boys, and a thumping good tale.

From a fairly inauspicious start, this was a book that I found I didn’t want to end. It is an amazing testament to what humans are capable of and just a damn good story. Definitely one of the best books I have read this year and in fact one of the best books I have read in a very, very long time.

The Cowboy and the Cossack – Clair Huffaker

This was my book club’s choice for June and, as the title suggests, it is a book about cowboys. I have to say my heart sank when I read the description of it on Amazon but as the whole point of being in a book club is to challenge my normal reading choices, I dutifully ordered the book and read it.

The book was written in 1973 and is a fictionalised account of American cowboys sailing to Vladivostok in Russia with 500 cattle and their quarter horses on a contract to supply beef to a remote Siberian town cut off by the Tsar, with revolutionary Cossacks aiding the cowboys. Fact actually does not support fiction in this instance as Russia was in a fairly stable and progressive state at the time in which the book is set, nevertheless fact is stranger than fiction as apparently in 2017 a Montana ranch secured a contract to ship 1,400 head of cattle to Siberia and negotiated to take cowboys and quarter horses to do the movement.

Clair Huffaker was a screenwriter of some note, with many great Western films and series (Bonanza for example) to his credit and that is evident in the writing. It is a sweeping novel of the Wild West in John Ford scale but transplanted to Siberia. It upholds the great Western principles of men being men; strong and of few words. Like all great Westerns it has the atypical characters of the poet cowboy, the cook, the tough guy and the young boy on his journey to becoming a man.

Once I got over my prejudices concerning reading a Western, I really enjoyed reading this book. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and would thoroughly recommend it.

Forty Lessons Learned in Forty Years of Business – Fowler’s Group

Last month I reviewed a book that was given to me at the GAIA conference in Napa. This book was also gifted to me by one of the attendees, Jason Fowler.

Jason’s father, Bob Fowler, started Fowler’s Group in the early 70s, and today it is very much a family business.

This is not a “how to” book about financial planning but rather – as the title suggests – a series of brief essays, penned by the partners of Fowler’s Group, on what they have learned during their years in business together. The majority of those lessons are in no way applicable only to a financial planning business but could be applied to almost any type of business.

It is a lovely book. The desire to always do right by the clients, the importance of family and the humility expressed in the sentiment that we never stop learning, all combine to produce something really quite special. The warmth literally radiates from the pages as you read them. Bob and his family have built a business of which they can quite rightly be proud.

It is a quick read – but one that stayed with me for some time after I had read it. I certainly see myself dipping in and out of this from time to time as there is a lot of wisdom in this little book.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen R Covey (re-read)

First published in 1989, and with more than 25 million copies sold worldwide, I would imagine that very few business owners have not read this book.

I only got round to reading it for the first time about five years ago and this is definitely one of those books which I believe I will benefit from re-reading periodically.

The seven habits are split into three groups: Independence; Interdependence and Continuous Improvements.

The first of these sections very much resonates with me as being an outline of the philosophy followed by the Stoics – understanding what you can control and what you can’t, being proactive rather than reactive – with shades of Peter Drucker thrown in for good measure (getting the right things done).

Section two deals with working with others – always look for the “Win-win” solution, listen before talking and achieve great things through effective teamwork. Section three covers on-going self-improvement – “Sharpen the saw”. Ensure that you take the time to maintain good health and high levels of energy and create a sustainable, effective lifestyle.

I think with a book like this, you are either on a continuous journey of self-discovery, or you are not. If you fall into the latter camp, then this book would likely be of no interest to you. If on the other hand you see yourself as a work in progress, then I think you would pick up one or two nuggets from it.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree – Eric Barker

I have been receiving Eric Barker’s weekly emails for some time now and have always found them both informative and amusing, so when he published this book I went ahead and purchased the Kindle version.

The book is essentially a look at the science behind what separates those who are extremely successful in life from the rest of us, how we can learn to be more like them and finding out in some cases why it is a pretty good thing that we aren’t.

Whilst the science behind the book lends gravitas, the mixture of stories, anecdotes and Eric Barker’s light-hearted touch make the book very accessible and a fun and informative read.

Covering topics such as whether nice guys really do finish last and what we can learn from gang members, pirates and serial killers, the book takes a fascinating look at exactly what it is that determines success and the changes we can all make in our lives to join their ranks. In essence, to be successful and achieve what you want to in life means knowing yourself and your true strengths. Successful people are not good at everything but they know their strengths and what they are good at. They then devote all their time and energies to being the best at that one thing. As Barker says, “Pick the right pond”.

The Obstacle is the Way – Ryan Holiday

I am not someone who has been particularly interested in philosophy as a subject in the past, but the more I read about the Stoics and Stoicism the more I feel that this is a philosophy to life with which I can really identify. Stoicism tells us that the world is unpredictable, life is short and that any dissatisfaction we feel with our lives is down to us. Sometimes life deals you a curveball and while sometimes you can have no control over those curveballs, you can control how you react to them. I think this philosophy appeals to me because if there is one thing I cannot stand it is whingers and moaners!

This book is not a study of Stoicism, but rather it takes the ancient philosophy and applies it to modern life. Through a series of stories involving both ancient and modern celebrities it can be viewed as a “guide book” to applying the teachings of Stoicism to your own life.

Warren Buffett once famously said that investing was “Simple, but not easy”. Stoicism, as a way of life, is very similar. The lessons it teaches are easy to understand, the challenge comes in applying them to our daily lives. As the old Zen story, which Holiday relates in the book, states, “The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, that within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”

I found this a fascinating book. The stories of people who have triumphed against unimaginable odds are inspiring, yet Holiday makes it quite clear that in every instance the end result was down to the choices each individual made about how they viewed the situation they were in. Every one of the people whose stories he relates are, essentially, just like us. So, if they can do it, so can we.

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

Warm regards


*Not all my book choices are pleasant surprises. I started reading Alan Johnson’s autobiography this month but just couldn’t get on with it, and did not finish it. I have no qualms in abandoning a book if it’s not resonating with me – life’s too short and there are more books out there than I will ever be able to read.