2019 Book Recommendations

December 1, 2019

It's always interesting to look back on what I thought I was going to read over the course of the year, and what I actually end up reading. This year, I hope to spend more time reading about two long-term themes that will continue to grow in influence, namely the rise of Asia and the spread of technology. I also plan to focus more on re-reading older books that deserve more time - quality over novelty and quantity. Reviewing last year's list (but more importantly, the long list of books that didn't make it to the recommendations), I found that I spent too much time on books that were good but not great.

 

Business, Finance & Economics

 

Dear Chairman (Jeff Gramm). What an absolutely smashing book this is. Gramm covers the history of shareholder activism in an entertaining and informative style that spans Ben Graham, Carl Icahn and many less well-known but terrifically fascinating characters. Required reading for anyone involved in public markets. 5.0 stars.

 

The Chastening (Paul Blustein). Blustein's book covers the 1997-98 financial and economic crisis that roiled the world, particularly in emerging markets. I've read this several times and always find something new and intriguing. It's easy to forget just how scary this crisis was, and how far-reaching it was, as we learn through the eventual collapse of Long-Term Capital Management. It makes for riveting reading. 5.0 stars. 

 

Superpower (Russell Gold). 'Superpower' is the story of Michael Skelly, a renewable energy entrepreneur determined to kickstart the clean energy revolution by building transmission infrastructure in the US. Without giving too much away, the book is an excellent look at how power markets have developed in the US and why building critical infrastructure continues to be a challenging undertaking. 5.0 stars.

 

Quality Investing (Lawrence A. Cunningham, Torkell T. Eide & Patrick Hargreaves). I read this last year and it made such a big impression on me that I went through it again. Written by investors at AKO Capital, this is an excellent and readable book on the the philosophy and practice of quality investing, i.e. investing in strong, well-managed companies for the long run. So much of this resonates with my outlook on all kinds of investments (not just of the financial variety) that I expect to write several blog posts on it over the course of the year. As before, my only minor criticism was that it relegates the question of valuation to a minor sub-chapter. Well worth the time for any equity investor. 4.9 stars. 

 

Playing To Win (A.G. Lafley & Roger L. Martin). This is a highly readable and insightful book on corporate strategy, written by a former CEO of consumer giant P&G and a long-time management consultant. The framework the authors lay out to create meaningful strategy seems useful in a variety of fields, and is illuminated by detailed examples of how P&G applied the framework. A clear and helpful guide in an often mystifying field. 4.7 stars. 

 

100 Baggers (Christopher W. Mayer). Mayer's book is an excellent update of Thomas Phelps's '100 to 1 in the Stock Market, inspired by legendary investor Chuck Akre. There's a lot to like in this guidebook for identifying long-term winners. Its simple style is very accessible but contains lots of wisdom for the long-term business/equity analyst. 4.6 stars.

 

Lessons in Corporate Finance (Paul Asquith & Lawrence A. Weiss). I chanced upon this in a university library and found its collection of cases excellent material for reviewing some corporate finance lessons. Some of the concepts were taught in a different style than other corporate finance textbooks (Brealey, Myers & Allen, for example), but that was actually useful in forcing me to think hard about the concepts. A useful addition to my library, and one I suspect I'll come back to occasionally. 4.5 stars. 

 

Never Split the Difference (Chris Voss). Former FBI negotiator Voss has written a practical manual on better negotiation. This is one I'd like to re-read at some point - I was reading it in too scattered a fashion, and it is of course likely to be most useful when paired with lots of practice. 4.3 stars. 

 

The Enlightened Capitalists (James O' Toole). O'Toole has written an excellent book about various businessmen and women who have attempted to run their organizations with a different model, i.e. that of "enlightened capitalism." O' Toole doesn't sugarcoat the results - it's mightily hard to run a business that way and succeed in the long run. This will be of real interest to anyone in the field of sustainable finance or ESG investing in particular. My only criticism is that after a while, many of the stories began to blend into one another. 4.3 stars.

 

The Three Box Solution (Vijay Govindarajan). Govindarajan provides a useful framework for companies that are trying to balance optimizing current operations (Box 1) and innovating (Box 3). The middle step, Box 2, involves "selectively forgetting" things that have worked in the past in order to innovate. There was a lot of sound advice in here, though Box 2 struck me as being articulated most weakly even though it's the crucial piece. (4.1 stars). 

 

Responsible Investing (Matthew W. Sherwood & Julia Pollard). ESG investing is an important new perspective to the traditional approach of financial analysis, and something that I'll be spending a lot of time on in the future. This is a solid overview of the history and present of ESG investing, although I found myself wishing the writing had a bit more pizzazz. 4.0 stars.

 

The Power Brokers (Jeremiah D. Lambert). The development of the US power industry is a fascinating story. Lambert manages to bring some of the wonderful characters to life well. In particular, I'd love to read a book just on Samuel Insull, Edison's protege. That said, I found some of the writing clunky and struggled to follow some of the complex twists and turns. 4.0 stars.

 

History, Society & Politics

 

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Sonny Liew). Quite simply one of the best things I've read (twice) in the past 5 years. Most tellings of Singapore's history lack nuance, but Liew conveys a wistful sense of the choices the country's leaders have made over the past 60 years. It's no surprise this graphic novel has won multiple awards. 5.0 stars.

 

The Naysayer's Book Club (Simon Vincent). Vincent interviews 26 "naysayers" - Singaporeans engaged in parts of civil society outside the mainstream - ranging from writers and artists to social activists. I learned a lot about different facets of Singapore society and the impressive work that people have been doing over the years. I'm not sure the book club motif always works but I enjoyed the premise. 4.5 stars. 

 

The Man Who Played With Fire (Jan Stocklassa)The murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, on a crowded Stockholm street in 1986, remains an unsolved murder. I first heard about the story in an excellent podcast by The Guardian. This is a recent book drawing on the investigation of Stieg Larsson (of the Millennium Trilogy fame). Larsson was an ardent enemy of fascism and its right-wing extremist version in Sweden, and this story intersects with that interest. Yet there was naturally a fair amount of speculation in this story, with a slightly choppy writing style (or translation) that detracted from its overall quality. 4.0 stars.

 

The Blood Telegram (Gary J. Bass)This is an account of Pakistan's atrocities in Bangladesh prior to independence in 1971. Some of this is so shocking that it's surprising it isn't a better known story. Bass focuses a good portion of the book on Nixon and Kissinger's realpolitik response to the crisis, largely giving Pakistan free rein so as to not upset their ally. While it's a fascinating story in many respects, I found it tough going to get through the whole thing. 4.0 stars.

 

6 Years at United (Alex Ferguson)I've been thinking a lot recently about Alex Ferguson's early years of struggle at Manchester United. When does it pay off to persist with a situation, and are there markers of long-term success, or that a process is working? With that in mind, I read this book about those first years for Fergie. While there are some wonderful stories and lessons here, I did not come away with the answer to my main question. Perhaps it would have been more instructive to read something from the perspective of the United board. 4.0 stars.

 

Ethics & Self-Improvement

 

You Learn by Living (Eleanor Roosevelt). I knew shockingly little about Eleanor Roosevelt's life till listening to this podcast on the outstanding Presidential series. There was a lot of solid insight in here, but it didn't really sustain my interest till the end. 4.0 stars. 

 

Fiction

 

The Lord of the Rings. A relatively unknown book that spawned an indie movie trilogy. You heard it here first. 5.0 stars.

 

Ministry of Moral Panic (Amanda Lee Koe). I don't read much fiction these days, but this debut collection of short stories by a Singaporean writer reminded me what I was missing. The stories are unusually creative, often fantastical. While the author's voice didn't always sound particularly Singaporean, she managed to imbue most stories with enough local flavour to keep the country in the foreground. 4.3 stars. 

 

Norse Mythology (Neil Gaiman). After re-reading Lord of the Rings, I stumbled upon some analysis that suggested that Gandalf was based somewhat on Odin from Norse mythology. I explored Gaiman's work of the same name. Some of these stories are interesting, strange tales, but I can't say I loved this as much as breathless Amazon reviewers did. 4.2 stars.

 

Call for the Dead (John Le Carre)Despite his legendary status, I'd never read any of Le Carre's work. I started with the first book in his George Smiley series, written in 1961. It's a fast-paced espionage tale with an unusual protagonist - Smiley is fat and awkward, hardly James Bond-esque - but I didn't think it was anything special. 4.0 stars. 

 

Marina Bay Sins (Neil Humphreys)I first read Humphreys' work more than 15 years ago. He made a name for himself as an East Londoner living in Singapore writing insightfully about the country's quirks and foibles with a terrific sense of humour. Now, he's turned his hand to crime fiction, writing about a Singaporean detective struggling with mental illness. I'd never read a Singapore crime novel before, so extra points for that, and for some wonderful characters, though I can't say this was a classic by any stretch. 3.9 stars.

 

Rich Kill Poor Kill (Neil Humphreys)Yes, I read the sequel too. It wasn't as good as the first, but also scratched my itch for some local Singapore flavour. 3.6 stars. 

 

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