For some, the Christmas season begins the moment they first hear Bing Crosby on the loudspeaker at Big W in late-September. Others don’t really feel the festive joy bubbling over until one Thursday afternoon in December, laughing at some errant office worker in a Santa hat peeing into the Martin Place fountain. For me, it’s sending that first email to the team for contributions to our annual Christmas reading list.
Ten increasingly threatening emails later, we have our reading list. Forager’s favourite books of 2019. Hopefully you’ll find a small gift idea for that not-so-special someone. Or something to tuck into the void of the spare tyre of your overloaded SUV for the annual trip down the coast.
Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
Published back in 2003, this is the memoir of Li Cunxin who grew up in poor rural China. He was chosen to attend Madame Mao’s dance academy in Beijing at the age of 11. The story follows his time at the dance academy in Beijing and subsequent defection to the west following an exchange program with the Houston Ballet. He finally settled in Australia and was a principal dancer with The Australian Ballet in Melbourne for many years. Li is currently the artistic director of the Queensland Ballet in Brisbane. He also received an Order of Australia (AO) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2019.
Faster – The obsession, science and luck behind the world’s fastest cyclists by Michael Hutchinson
Former professional British cyclist Michael Hutchinson professes he was a victim of the doping that plagued his chosen sport during a time where one-third of a typical team’s budget comprised of drugs. With the retreat in systematic doping, and resulting under-investment in non-pharmaceutical ways to make riders go faster, Hutchinson frames his book with two main questions: “What is it about me that makes me faster than the vast majority of bike riders?” and “Why are a lucky few faster than me?”. Hutchinson seamlessly stitches his own experiences as a professional cyclist and deep research as he dissects every metric of performance; from innate skill and genetics through nutrition, technology and training. All in the context of eking out every possible marginal gain in performance. Hutchinson’s dry wit is ever present and makes this a highly readable book.
Wealth, War and Wisdom by Barton Biggs
Luck. We don’t usually think of it when we think about history. But history is full of turning points, and plenty of those are based on chance.
Take the World War II battle of Midway. One moment the Japanese fleet is on the verge of a historic victory. Within a few minutes their fleet had been decimated. Why? Lost American dive bombers just happened to arrive when the Japanese fleet was refuelling its attacking aircraft and while defending aircraft were occupied with torpedo bombers at sea level. The Americans triumphed and turned the tide of war in the Pacific.
Half history book and half investment tome, Biggs looks at the big turning points for both Axis and Allied powers and how the stock markets of these countries reacted. A great read for history buffs and investment fans alike.
Lean in by Sheryl Sandberg
I read the criticism of Sandberg and her book before I read the book itself. People claim she’s privileged, biased and puts the onus on women to pave the way for themselves. They’re not wrong. Sandberg writes about the challenges women face in the workplace. She cites a lot of research but throws in some personal stories which make the book an easy read.
One part of the book that stuck with me is a personal story of Sandberg’s. She was plagued with self-doubt after every exam in college, despite never failing one in her life. I can relate. She contrasts it with the self-assured nature of her brother going through similar exams. The sticker is this quote: “My brother was not overconfident. [My sister] and I were overly insecure. These experiences taught me that I needed to make an intellectual and emotional adjustment”. I’ve tried to be cognisant of this and have found myself making similar adjustments multiple times since reading Lean In. That alone was enough to make it the most worthwhile book I’ve read this year.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko is an epic family saga and historical novel about ethnic Koreans who migrate to Japan. It is about outsiders, minorities, the politically disenfranchised and the immigrant experience. The book’s title comes from the slot-machine-like game called Pachinko that is everywhere in Japan, and which unifies the central concerns of identity, homeland and belonging. The novel suggests that behind the facades of wildly different people lie countless private desires, hopes and miseries, if we have the patience and compassion to look and listen. Despite the compelling sweep of time and history, it is the characters and their tumultuous lives that propel the narrative. Small details subtly reveal the characters’ secret selves and build to powerful moments. This is an old-fashioned epic whose simple, captivating storytelling delivers both wisdom and truth.
Range – Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
David Epstein’s Range provides a counter argument to the 10,000-hour rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Gladwell argues that success requires long hours of dedicated and specific practice. Epstein’s counterargument is that this is only true in a limited number of fields—like golf and playing the piano—where the rules are fixed and the feedback is immediate.
That’s not most of life. Mostly we are trying to solve problems we have never seen before, make decisions that have consequences years down the track and all the while interacting with other humans who are themselves unpredictable.
Epstein argues that in this, the real world, applying a broad range of experiences and skills to life is a distinct advantage.
I loved the book and followed it up with biographies on a couple of Range’s subjects. The best was Van Gogh – The Life, by Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh. A monumental read (more than 800 pages) but absolutely fascinating.
True Confessions by John Singleton
John Singleton takes you through his swaggering rise in the Australian advertising world in the 1960s, from his first job in the mail room through to when he founded and sold his own advertising agency at age 35. In between are glimpses into how ads are made and some of the psychological nuances that make them work. John was not one to shy away from rocking the boat. He was the architect of many controversial but astonishingly effective campaigns. He convinced one client to attempt to secede from Australia. It’s a laugh-a-minute autobiography replete with hard to believe stories and hilarious visuals that will have your attention from page one.
The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
I picked up this 1993 title after enjoying The Ninth Gate, a 1999 movie by Roman Polanski starring Johnny Depp, loosely based on the book.
The story’s protagonist is a book detective called Lucas Corso who has a talent for acquiring valuable and rare ancient books. He is tasked with hunting down an Alexandre Dumas manuscript and, while he’s at it, a Satanic/Occult tome tilted The Nine Gates which is said to be able to summon the devil. A well written and fun detective story involving devil worship, occult practices and several twists and turns filled with interesting characters.
Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven
“It’s mind-blowing that almost half the world—almost 3 billion people—live on $2.50 a day or less. More than one billion people live on $1 a day or less. This book explains how these families invest their money to best support themselves. I hope reading this provides some insight into ways we can all work to support them better as well.” Mark Zuckerberg.
Portfolios of the poor follows families from villages and slums in Bangladesh, India and South Africa, with meticulous tracking of their spending. The stories of these families are often surprisingly inspiring. Most poor households do not live hand to mouth, spending what they earn in a desperate bid to keep afloat. Instead, they employ financial tools, many linked to informal networks and family ties. They push money into savings for reserves, squeeze money out of creditors whenever possible, run sophisticated savings clubs, and use microfinancing wherever available. Their experiences reveal new methods to fight poverty and provide an insight into areas where others might be able to help.
Epigenetics and the Influence of our Genes, a Ted Talk by Courtney Griffins
Studying for my psychology degree on nights and weekends, I didn’t get time to read much else this year. But I found this Ted Talk fascinating – it runs for less than 20 minutes. Griffins explores the nature vs nurture debate from the perspective of epigenetics. These are a set of biological instructions that imprint on our DNA. Epigenetic marks serve to control which genes are activated and which genes remain turned off. While much of this takes place in the womb, the expression of certain epigenetic marks such as the triggering of anxiety can be influenced by our surrounding environment through our diet, drug choices, exercise, relationships and stress levels.
Fascinatingly, these marks can be transmitted from generation to generation. So the actions of your grandparents could have had implications on your epigenetic makeup and subsequent health. Likewise the lifestyle decisions we make today can affect the health of future generations. Scientists are developing treatments to reverse unwanted epigenetic marks. But we can positively influence our own epigenomes through different lifestyle choices and environmental exposures.
A Nation of Enemies – Chile under Pinochet by Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela
I read this book—originally published in 1991—to piece together my patchy, somewhat conflicted, knowledge of Chile in the Pinochet era. It was a great read, pulling together aspects of politics, a proud military history and the regime’s impact on both rich and poor.
Central was how fear was harnessed to control all aspects of Chilean life and its institutions. Starting out as temporary military rule, essentially to protect property rights, and morphing into an economic experiment that saw Chile lead prosperity stakes for decades.
But absolute power corrupts. This is a fascinating chronology of how this happened in Chile. And how it could occur in any society where personal rights are dismantled and power has no checks and balances.
Dopesick – Dealers, doctors and the drug company that addicted America by Beth Macy
The heroin epidemics of the 1970s and 1990s, and the crack epidemic they sandwiched, still hog the cultural reference limelight in America. But the opioid scourge that currently grips it dwarfs those earlier episodes. Approximately 70,000 people died of overdose in each of 2017 and 2018. That’s nearly an order of magnitude worse than anything seen last century.
Macy’s book highlights the problem through Virginian eyes. Starting in the poor, mountainous south west of the state, where a prescription opioid problem hit small, dying coal mining towns 20 years ago. The book chronicles the greed of Purdue, the doctors who became drug pushers and the prescient locals who fought the tide. It covers the moving epidemic geographically and pharmacologically. As the cancer grew north east through the valleys over the next decade into more populous and richer areas, closer and closer to Washington DC, it became harder to ignore. By the late 2000s, the clampdown on prescription drugs began. Of course, this is America, and there was insufficient medical help for those hopelessly addicted and now expected to wean themselves off oxy. The market shifted abruptly to illegal heroin, increasingly laced with cheap, deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
The book tells many heartbreaking stories. A typical story begins with a trip to a doctor with back pain, years of pill addiction and rehab, and progresses to illegal heroin once it becomes the cheapest and most available choice – rehab, lapse, rehab, lapse, morgue. Or it starts with a teenager taking their first ever oxy pill from a bowl at a pill party and ends that very night.
Dopesick is the story of a failed drugs policy, medical and rehab system. It’s also the story of failed communities and the void into which drugs flow. It makes evident the true cost of allowing such communities to collapse in the first place.
This book won’t appeal to everyone at this time of year. Other books I really enjoyed in 2019 include Alchemy by Rory Sutherland, Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, Deep Work by Cal Newport, Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright & Bradley Hope and Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy.
If you’ve got any good book, blog or podcast ideas to share, please leave a comment. Thanks.
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