China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems- book reviews

Continuing on from Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan came out with China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems to complete a mesmerizing trilogy.

China Rich Girlfriend sees the spotlight turn to China. Nick and Rachel, the main couple from the first book, are getting married in the US when they receive a stunning revelation about Rachel’s real father. It turns out he is one of China’s richest billionaires and a rising Party official. But while he is receptive to receiving Rachel and welcoming the couple to Shanghai, his wife is not so keen. The extravagance factor goes up by several notches in China as we get treated to details about China’s rich elite. Somehow the main characters fly off to Paris where things get heated between Rachel’s half-brother and his socialite girlfriend.

This book is more over-the-top than its prequel, Crazy Rich Asians, and the China parts didn’t interest me much. I suspect that the author is not as familiar with China as he is with Singapore or Europe so that is why he didn’t spend too much time on China. Because what fascinates me about these books is not the luxury brands and high-end lifestyle descriptions, but the social and cultural references and explanations. As such, I didn’t find China Rich Girlfriend as interesting as Crazy Rich Asians. That said, Kwan includes a deadly Ferrari crash that is based on a real-life accident involving the son of presidential aide Ling Jihua in Beijing in 2012 so it shows he did his research on Chinese politics.

Rich People Problems concludes the saga as Nick’s 94-year-old grandmother Su Yi, the family head, falls seriously ill, bringing all her children and grandchildren to the family mansion in Singapore. Besides filial piety, there are more practical reasons for the family gathering, namely who gets what from Su Yi’s financial fortune. Readers get a glimpse of Su Yi’s early life from flashbacks of Su Yi’s experiences during World War II when she fled to India after the Japanese invasion of Singapore, as well as memories of her interactions with her brother and father. There are some mysterious bits concerning those flashbacks and Nick’s parents that are not explained so perhaps there is room for further books in the future. The conclusion wraps up a bit too neatly and conveniently.

The three books in the trilogy were all very fun reads that really pulled you in because of the many interesting details.
That said, there are a few problems.
For one, it is a pity that the few self-made main characters in the trilogy are made out to be wretched or deeply flawed. One of them, Kitty Pong, is an actress with a dubious past who tries to upgrade her standing in society by jumping from man to man to man (but is actually one of the funnier characters), while another, Michael, the husband of Nick’s cousin Astrid (a wealthy heiress in her own right), is a former soldier and tech entrepreneur from a middle-class family who warps from a decent man into an arrogant and status-obsessed social climber.
Another issue is that while the sheer amount of details pertaining to luxury brands, food and cultural quirks is a strength, sometimes the wealth and brand descriptions are so extreme and drawn out as to be inconsequential.

All in all, the trilogy was very entertaining, with the first and third books being particularly good reads.

Crazy Rich Asians- book review

Even though Crazy Rich Asians and its two sequels have earned a lot of acclaim, I held off on reading it for a long time because I wasn’t sure I cared about the lives of rich, high-class Singaporeans/Asians. Especially when the main plot centers on an American-Chinese girl, Rachel, flying to Singapore for the first time with her boyfriend Nicholas, whose family is one of the country’s wealthiest. Why would I find a romantic love story filled with wealth and extravagance interesting? Well, I did read Crazy Rich Asians, and I have to admit I found it interesting and more.

First off, the romantic plot is actually not the main point of the book – the lifestyle of the wealthy and elite Asian is. After getting past the convoluted beginning, which seemed to introduced several dozen characters (a mild exaggeration) and their backstories which focused on how rich they were, the story became more fascinating. That it is almost wholly set in Singapore, with a bit of Hong Kong and China included, made it interesting to me because I know little about the country. More specifically, it introduced the idea of a Singaporean old-money elite, which is distinct from the merely wealthy in the scale of their wealth, sophistication and their place in society. I suppose this is similar to the UK. The plot progresses from a simple trip to more complex and disturbing developments involving plots to break up the main couple, family fights, and illicit affairs. Rachel and Nick are coming to Singapore to attend Nick’s best friend’s wedding, where Nick will be the best man and which all of Singapore will be crazy about. However, despite being together for a year, Nick hasn’t told his parents about Rachel. But even worse, he hasn’t told Rachel about his family, which leads to obvious complications. In addition, there is a plot twist involving Rachel’s background that adds a poignant piece to the story and will have further repercussions.

The book is not without its faults. The main male protagonist, Nicholas, was rather boring, and both him and his girlfriend were not the most interesting couple in the book. The narrative can get too caught up in superlatives, especially concerning physical appearances. For instance, almost all the main male and female characters are exceedingly handsome or exquisite beauties. On the other hand, Rachel’s Singaporean best friend, while also wealthy, belongs to a different class – nouveau riche – and her parents and brothers are all short, and the latter dark-complexioned. While the book is described as a satirical parody of wealthy Asians, I found that at times it was quite serious and seemed to have a reverential tone towards its characters. And the sheer vapidity was quite overwhelming in a few parts, such as the wedding of Nicholas’ best friend and a local supermodel.

Despite its flaws, Crazy Rich Asians was an exciting read that turned out to be a guilty pleasure and more.

Originals- book review

Being original is seen as highly valued in many areas in life, including work, business and arts, but it is not easy to attain. Some people are born with highly original and innovative minds, but the rest of us need to develop and foster originality. Originals- How Non-Confirmists Move the World aims to help readers do this with interesting lessons, insights and arguments.

Originals is a highly informative book, but also surprising as author Adam Grant makes arguments that contradict some pieces of conventional wisdom. For instance, at work, we always hear that instead of pointing out problems, we need to also have solutions (obviously managers love this suggestion), but Grant says that this can make people unwilling to speak up and as such, problems can be overlooked or ignored. As such, people should be allowed to make critiques freely.

Risk-taking is often praised and even encouraged, so you might think this is a key part of originality, but not so fast, says Grant. Keep your day-job while pursuing your dreams, like what author Stephen King and musician John Legend did initially before they really hit it big; and balance risks you do take in one area with caution in others, like a stock portfolio, for instance. To be honest, Grant’s advice seems more pragmatic than original as security seems to be the priority for him.

A lot of readers will take heart from the chapter on procrastination and companies not rushing into new markets. We often hear that procrastination is bad, but Grant says while leaving things to the last minute might hamper productivity, it might be good for creativity as it allows for flexibility and adaptability. Another instance of first being considered best is that companies that come out with products first always get lauded as innovators and supposedly have the first-mover advantage. Grant argues that these companies often get overtaken by competitors who wait and come out with better products. If anything, first-movers tend to be driven by impulsiveness which brings on more risk, says Grant. Grant also says civil movements and ideas failed because they were “ahead of their time” though he doesn’t give much evidence. Meanwhile, assigning somebody to be a “devil’s advocate” is less effective than if somebody was genuinely critical.

Another interesting chapter is about when to trust your intuition. According to Grant, intuition is dependable only when used in a familiar environment or situation but not in situations where conditions are always changing or a surprise. As such, you should trust your intuition in situations you are familiar with, but use more caution and thinking for unfamiliar circumstances. Hence doctors can trust their intuition when assessing cases they have encountered numerous times, but political and economic “experts” always seem to get things wrong.

One really surprising chapter is the one on the influence of birth order and parenting on originality. Grant finds that last-born children often turn out to be more creative and rebellious than their eldest siblings, who are more inclined to excel in traditional pursuits and become business and government leaders. Grant uses charts and stats showing that comedians and baseball steals leaders (steals are a sign of more risk-taking) are often the youngest in their families while a study showed that the largest percentage of CEOs were firstborn. In a somewhat vague link, Grant says parenting plays a key role such as using lessons and not orders to teach children to do the right thing.

Grant specifically praises investment company Bridgewater, where the founder and CEO Ray Danzig allows himself to be criticized publicly and harshly by subordinates. This is part of the company culture, based on over 200 principles that Danzig came up with. Employees are encouraged to publicly criticize their colleagues; all meetings are recorded; and all employees have scores published on a company-wide ratings board.

In the end, Grant lists a series of rules and suggestions including to procrastinate strategically, to back up your opinions, come up with more ideas than usual, and to present your ideas to disagreeable people who can challenge it earnestly. Originals might veer towards pragmatism in a few areas, but it provides a lot of useful ideas that might change your mind about common situations and behaviors, which would be the first step in becoming more “original.”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness- book review

Twenty years ago, Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote a novel that ended up winning a Booker Prize. Then in 2017, she released her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which sounds like a cheery, whimsical work, but that is not the type of writer Roy is. So while I was slightly taken by surprise when the book took a major change of direction early on, I should have realized there would have been more to the story. The book starts off with the story of Anjum, a hijra (transsexual) who moves to a cemetery and opens a guesthouse, before focusing on a tenant, Tilo, whose mysterious, sad past involves Kashmir.

The book is poignant in some parts, and light in others, but Tilo’s story and the brutality in Kashmir impart a heavy air. In the beginning, when we learn about Anjum, the capital Delhi is portrayed with a rich amount of detail highlighting history, culture and architecture. Roy also provides an entrancing description of the hijra community which Anjum becomes part of when he leaves home and decides he wants to become a woman.

However, Anjum’s life changes when she takes a trip to Gujarat and survives a communal massacre of Muslims (this happened for real in 2003 in retaliation for a massacre of Hindu passengers on a train). When the story shifts to Kashmir, where local uprisings have occurred against the Indian state, the tone changes to one of politics and conflict, as well as religious extremism and brutal policing. To be honest, I would have preferred it if the novel had just been about Tilo without the transsexual and funeral guesthouse part, though that adds a lot of colour to the book. The two parts differ in tone as well as story, and the effect is like two distinct stories fused together. Another issue is that midway in the book, during a recounting of Tilo’s past, the narrative timeline gets a little confusing and it is unclear whether events had happened in the past or had just occurred.

Roy’s focus on transgenders, history and the Kashmir conflict echoes her diverse knowledge (she trained as an architect in school) and tremendous activist work in speaking out against causes ranging from caste violence, dam-building, and religious conflicts in India, as well as the US government when it invaded Iraq. Besides her two novels, she has written numerous non-fiction books, a few of which I read in my university years, filled with blunt, angry essays about these causes.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a pleasing book but one which might have been better if it had been streamlined.

Elon Musk- book review

I only just completed Elon Musk’s biography earlier this week so it is fitting that his SpaceX just successfully launched its largest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, on February 7. Elon Musk- How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future provides a fascinating glimpse into how significant the accomplishments of one of the world’s most famous billionaire entrepreneurs have been. Besides SpaceX, whose ultimate aim is to transport humans to Mars to sustain a colony, Musk also heads Tesla, the world’s most well-known and successful electric carmaker.

What the book vividly shows is not merely Musk’s success, but how impressive (and near-impossible) it was for it to have happened. With Tesla, Musk put electric cars in the spotlight and in SpaceX, he built a rocket company virtually from scratch, with the help of co-founders, to launch rockets into space and compete with industry giants like Lockheed. In addition, under his direction, SpaceX found a way to make its rockets reusable by controlling their orbit back into Earth after they had launched into space. Previously, rockets were just used once and were useless afterwards. SpaceX runs into many financial and technical challenges and there are precarious moments, but it is extraordinary how Musk drove and willed his vision into coming true. Besides SpaceX being a startup competing against industry giants and rocking an aging space industry, the fact it manufactured much of its own parts and systems (in the US too) rather than outsource them to contractors like the large companies, increased the incredible nature of its success. As if space rockets and electric cars weren’t enough to manage, Musk is also chairman of SolarCity, a solar panel systems company which Musk’s cousins started up.

Besides Tesla and Space X, the book also details Musk’s earliest ventures such as Zip2, an online listings for businesses, and Paypal, where things got a little messy and Musk was ousted as CEO. While Paypal is known today as an online payment processing site, Musk’s vision had actually been to create an online banking institution which would offer products like mutual funds. Of course, this did not happen but at least you can see how Musk from early on in his career had a thing for wanting to disrupt industries. Musk’s upbringing in South Africa, which includes a difficult relationship with his father (who is barred from meeting Musk’s children), and his marriages and divorces (with the same person) are also detailed. Yet all this is just a sideshow to the most fascinating parts in the book which are about Musk’s work with SpaceX and Tesla.

Musk is portrayed as a visionary, obsessed with huge goals like bringing people to Mars or creating a nationwide gas-free infrastructure for electric cars, but also a brilliant engineer and scientist who knew the physics and engineering behind what his companies were doing. He is also a very demanding boss and micro-manager, who could be kind of vicious at times, which make him sound similar to Steve Jobs, though Musk is slightly nicer, according to people in the book. But the real difference is that while Jobs strove for great design and consumer technology, Musk has a much greater vision for the world that seeks to improve the environment, through using electric cars and utilizing solar energy, and make space travel a reality. While the latter might be a bit too much of a reach, it is hard to dispute the significance of his energy and environmental goals on society in general.

In some ways, Musk came off as a real-life version of Tony Stark, the Marvel tech billionaire who fights evil as Iron Man, and Robert Downey Jr, the actor who played Tony Stark, actually visited Musk at his business. I actually had little interest in Elon Musk and his work, not being a particular fan of space technology or electric cars, but reading this biography has made me admire him a lot. I actually carried this book with me on a short trip and because it turned out to be more interesting than I’d thought, I had to ration the pages near the end so that I wouldn’t finish it too quickly.

Art of Thinking Clearly, and Lionheart- book reviews

Earlier last year, I went to Singapore for a brief trip and what I came away with were a bunch of photos that I took and these two books.

From its title, The Art of Thinking Clearly makes an impressive, bold claim. People, like you and me, often have  cognitive biases that influence how we approach problems and make decisions. But these biases are often misleading, inaccurate or dead wrong. Summarizing various cognitive errors people often make, Rolf Dobelli presents 99 clear and brief lessons on how to identify and overcome these errors and make better decisions.

For instance, when should you overthink and when should you rely on your intuition? The answer: take your time to think things through for complex situations whereas for regular, repetitive tasks you should heed your gut. Other interesting lessons include the base-rate neglect and false causality. The former is about how easy it is to ignore the frequency with which something major happens and so exaggerate the possibility of that event, while the latter tackles how people often mistake the cause of something for the effect and vice versa (for example: a study shows smarter kids have more books at home. But that doesn’t mean the books cause them to be smart, since maybe smarter kids enjoy reading more or have parents who are more educated). Another interesting lesson is to use different mental models when facing problems, inspired by a saying attributed to Mark Twain: “If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails.” If you use the same approach or mindset to solving every issue you encounter, your solutions will always be the same and not necessarily effective.

There are many more lessons covering common scenarios such as loss aversion (fear of losses), groupthink, confirmation bias (interpret things that happened to fit preconceived notions), and sunk cost fallacy (reluctance to give up in hopes of recovering losses). There are also lessons for the corporate world such as why teams and meetings don’t often work. This is because social loafing happens, as the more people there are involved, the less the individual participation, and hence the less useful (something most of us who have to attend long work meetings would probably agree).

Dobelli did not do original research, which he openly admits, but put together his lessons from extensive reading of different sources, so it wouldn’t hurt to follow up on additional sources to get more details. Nevertheless, the book is a very useful tool for re-evaluating your thinking and decision bias.

I’m a big fan of historical fiction and have read a lot of novels in this genre, but Lionheart is the first one I’ve read about the Crusades from the Christian side, specifically Richard I the Lionheart and his quest to retake Jerusalem in the Third Crusade. Starting in 1189, the novel follows the English king as he stops at Sicily, then captures Cyprus, and eventually lands in the Holy Land to retake Jerusalem. The book is full of characters and details, though at times there is a bit too much exposition and not enough action. The author Sharon Penman does well to explain the turbulent backdrop of that time, which followed from after Richard I had actually fought a civil war with his father, Henry II, after he imprisoned his own wife and Richard I’s mother, Queen Eleanor, and prevailed. Richard I must contend with not just the Muslim Saracens, but enemies from within in the form of the French King, Philip II, who is supposed to be the co-leader of the crusade but also a rival. The two are actually related, given the ties between European royalty which the book also does well to describe (Richard’s sister was married to the Sicilian king and thus the queen of that island kingdom, for example). Richard I manages to retake Acre and Jaffa from the Saracens before going on to Jerusalem. The novel is followed by a sequel, so I won’t give away the ending of Lionheart (history buffs will know how everything ends though).