1776- book review

The year 1776 is a significant one for the US, as that was the year when its founding fathers declared independence from Britain. But 1776 was also a precarious year when the fledgling American uprising led by George Washington could have been crushed after several severe military defeats and setbacks. This grim scenario is made abundantly clear in the book 1776, which describes the near fall and rise of the American revolution during that pivotal year.

I’m not too familiar with American history, especially the American Revolution, of which I just know the bare facts. So the precariousness of the American movement and the desperation of its rebel army during 1776 were something I had no idea of.

Having risen up in 1775 and fought several battles, the Americans actually started the year off in 1776 in a relatively decent position as they laid siege to British forces in Boston. For months, the two sides were in a stalemate, until the Americans took a hill overlooking the city and launched withering artillery bombardments, using heavy cannon that had been audaciously hauled 300 miles from Fort Ticonderoga over hills, frozen lakes, and forests. Having taken Boston, the American army then moved on to New York, where their fortunes would suffer a massive reverse.

A massive British fleet unloaded an army that routed the Americans, forcing them to flee south to New Jersey. By December, calamity awaited the Americans as the British pursued them south. I won’t reveal what happens at the end, though American readers and people familiar with the American Revolution will have a good idea.

McCullough has written a stirring historical account that focuses on the American leaders and army and the dire situation they faced. The army suffered from a desperate lack of supplies and men, a lack of discipline, and a constant struggle in retaining and training men as the force transitioned from a militia to a professional army. At any point, the American army could have come close to collapse and dissolution. After all, they faced a formidable and well supplied foe, that was not only made up of British “redcoats”, but also Hessian troops, hired from Germany and much feared for their valor in battle.

The book focuses on Washington, naturally, and highlights his character as well as flaws such as his indecisiveness which cost the Americans at least one of the battles. But McCullough also shows Washington’s burgeoning leadership traits such as being able to endure criticism, even from a trusted confidante in a letter to another person, and his constant urge to take action, which he found better than not doing anything. This shows the measure of the man. Intelligence, cunning and strategy are important, but so are self-motivation, perseverance, and the humility to bear criticism and learn from mistakes. McCullough also features Washington’s commanders Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, who decided on and brought the cannons overland from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston.

There is also a bit of sympathy for the British. King George III wasn’t as dim or ineffective as history often makes him out to be. The British commanders are described as reluctant to engage in total war, especially during the end of the year, preferring instead to wear out the American forces by attrition rather than kill them in numbers. I wonder if this had something to do with the Americans being mostly white descendants of British settlers, as British armies have not shown much restraint against military foes in India and Africa.

The Buy Side- book review

An honest and blunt account of working on Wall Street, The Buy Side shows both the glamour and pain behind what is supposedly one of the world’s most prestigious and high-earning industries. Including a stint at the notorious hedge fund Galleon, Duff worked for the “buy side”, meaning he bought bonds and securities on behalf of clients.

While finance is considered by many a really attractive industry to work in, the buy side is even more so, in comparison to the sell side, which sells the financial instruments like securities that people like Duff bought. As a buy side person, you get wined and dined by the sell side people, which is what happens to Duff. However, making six and seven figures a year isn’t enough as he starts taking drugs, drinking, and partying excessively. All this peels off the shiny facade from the financial industry.

Duff goes through a few disastrous episodes including almost passing out on the street, and goes to rehab, but relapses again and again. Duff doesn’t hold back on the details, which makes these recurrent relapses harder. Eventually with his marriage in ruins, Duff finds the courage to leave the industry at the end and decides to write this book.

It’s not the most inspirational kind of book, nor are there any compelling reasons to sympathize with Duff, but you’ve got to give it to him to be so forthcoming about his own downfall.

Disrupted- My Misadventures in the Start-Up Bubble- book review

Disrupted – My Misadventures in the Start-Up Bubble is a bit old (2016) but it’s an entertaining hit job by Dan Lyon on his former employer in the tech industry. The title is not entirely accurate because the employer Hubspot, which develops marketing and sales software, is in Boston, not in Silicon Valley but Lyons claims Silicon Valley refers to the broader American tech industry and is not merely a geographical location.

Before joining Hubspot, Lyons was Newsweek’s tech editor when he suddenly gets unceremoniously let go. He decides to get into the tech industry, so he can start earning big bucks rather than just writing about those who do, and after a brief stint at a startup, gets hired by Hubspot as a marketing writer. He’s made it, he thinks, and soon he can rake in big money when the company launches its IPO.

Soon, he realizes the job is not as great as he had expected as he finds himself underappreciated, ignored, and made to do repetitive SEO blog posts. He also disdains the youthful work environment, which is mostly staffed by under-30s and he thinks he is a victim of ageism. At one point, he realizes that at 52, he is twice as old as the average coworker. I sympathize with him in general, though I think a few of the issues are not surprising and perhaps just the result of a huge generation gap.

At first, I found his complaints kind of petty, but as the book progressed, his gripes made more sense especially as the slights and deceptions he experienced in the firm became more apparent. There is one especially weird development where he gets a new boss who he initially bonds with but eventually becomes bullying and manipulative.

Lyons does get to take several months off to go to Hollywood to write for Silicon Valley, the tech comedy which just ended last year (it’s a really funny show). Things get a little weird for him when he gets back and his job situation deteriorates until he seriously decides to leave. I wonder if jealousy from managers or colleagues played a part in this though Lyons did experience a lot of nonsense from the start.

Before Lyons left, the company went on to launch its IPO, and he managed to earn US$60,000 from selling his stock options so it wasn’t all bad for him.

The craziest part of the book is at the very end, which comes after he leaves the company, gets a book deal and announces he was writing this book. I won’t spoil exactly what happened, but it’s something that doesn’t reflect well on Hubspot and had real-life ramifications on its management. The company still exists and seems to be doing alright while Lyons went on to Valleywag and then resumed writing for the Silicon Valley TV show.

The Golden House- book review

A wealthy stranger arrives from India with his three grown-up sons in New York, buying a large house in a close-knit community and attracts lots of speculation. However, nobody really knows their story and what the patriarch does, until a budding filmmaker decides to make a documentary about them. This is the premise of The Golden House- a novel, a strange story that takes a while to get going.

The “Goldens” come from Mumbai, which is author Salman Rushdie’s hometown in real life, after having suffered a tragedy during the infamous Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 that killed over 150 people across 4 days. Nero, the father, was a developer tycoon while his sons live comfortable and somewhat sheltered lives. The oldest is autistic, the middle son is a kind of artist, while the youngest is a sensitive soul who is still figuring out who he is.

The family settles into New York life just as a real-life political shocker is taking place as Donald Trump, who is unnamed, takes on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

The novel starts off a little slow as the filmmaker introduces and explains the mysterious Goldens. The filmmaker gets his own sideplot but honestly it’s not very interesting. A ravishing Russian soon complicates the picture as she seduces the patriarch and marries him. The story picks up as Vasilisa settles into the household, dominating her husband’s affections and attention, while getting pregnant. This part is not as straightforward as it seems but I won’t give up the details so you’ll just have to read it.

There is a return trip to Mumbai for one of the brothers, the artist, which ends on a not very positive note. Soon it is apparent that Golden senior has a very murky underworld past that is threatening to catch up with him. To me, the India storyline is the most fascinating and tragic, and I wouldn’t have minded if the novel had been solely about this.

I’m not a big fan of Rushdie, but this book becomes more interesting the further I got. He makes a big effort to loop in contemporary issues like human sexuality, political polarization and culture wars. I didn’t think these had such a strong impact because there is a lot of jumping around and the narrative never focuses too strongly on any single theme.

Fire and Fury-book review

Donald Trump is such a ubiquitous presence in the media that it feels a little redundant to read a book about his presidency. Especially when the book Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House. backs up the popular perception of Trump that you often get in the media, which is that he is unpredictable, shifty, and a bit simple-minded.

Don’t get me wrong, Fire and Fury was a riveting and fascinating read, but just not in a positive way. The book is well written and the characters and events are described in detail. The problem is that none of it is inspiring or fulfilling. It’s like Trump and his whole administration are a reality show or second-rate soap opera veering from one shambolic plot to another.

The books features in-depth profiles of the supporting cast around Trump, including his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, who form the main powerbase within the White House, and their nemesis Steve Bannon, who is a surprisingly compelling character. There are the military generals like James Mattis and HR McMaster, the young communications director Hope Hicks, who becomes a “senior” administration figure simply by staying on for over a year, the notorious Anthony “Mooch” Scaramucci (who succeeded for 10 days before being fired) and many others. However, one major figure who doesn’t really get much coverage in the book is Mike Pence, the vice president.

Assuming author Michael Wolff is correct, Trump genuinely did not expect to win, and instead, was planning to capitalize on the publicity of his campaign after his defeat to boost his reality star profile. Instead, he pulled off a shocking victory over Hillary Clinton, which forced him and those around him to figure out how to run the country. Almost three years on, it seems like Trump still hasn’t done so.

This Could Hurt- book review

Even though my mood has been affected by the turmoil in Hong Kong for two months and counting, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been able to do some reading.

Normally, human resources isn’t exactly the type of topic that great stories are made of, but I have a thing for workplace novels. This Could Hurt- a novel is about the HR head of a New York research marketing firm who goes through some major work drama and crisis, while rallying her team around her.

Rosa Guerrero has risen to the top of the corporate ranks as an executive VP and chief of human resources at her firm. But with a tough economy (the book is set in 2009) and rising unemployment, she faces the hard task of cutting headcount at the company, including within her own team. Having already been affected by previous rounds of job cuts, the HR department includes a capable female VP of communications who has hit a rut, a dedicated family man who is unfortunately mediocre at his work, an ambitious young Wharton grad, and the VP of employee benefits who is fiercely loyal to Rosa.

Early on, there is controversy over the sudden departure of Rosa’s longtime number two, which has something to do with theft and family issues. But this is only a sideplot as the story quickly moves on. Having already had to fire her number two, Rosa will need to make a hard decision on firing at least another of the execs on her team. This is where the hardhearted and sometimes deceitful nature of office politics rears its ugly head as people jockey for position to become Rosa’s new number two, criticize their colleagues behind their backs, and plot their way to other jobs whilst neglecting their work.

Workplace drama is only half the story here, as the personal lives of Rosa and her executives also play a significant part. Family tensions, financial problems, and romantic struggles are all issues afflicting the main characters. One person has to cope with his wife cheating on him, while another tries to be more open with his homosexuality. The author does well in focusing on the characters’ personal lives, which makes them believable and sympathetic. Of course, all of the main characters are senior or mid-level executives, which means from time to time, it’s hard to be too empathetic.

When Rosa suddenly has a stroke which leaves her with serious memory problems but otherwise mentally intact, her staff have to try and pull things together to ensure Rosa and themselves are able to survive the corporate restructuring.

One issue with the book is that the ending, which I won’t divulge, drags on. It’s not too predictable nor saccharine, but there were a few issues that could have been resolved better.

Many years ago, I read and reviewed And Then We Came to the End, a fantastic novel by Joshua Ferris about employees at an advertising agency. While that one still stands out as the best workplace novel I’ve ever read, This Could Hurt runs a close second.