Category Archives: Auto/biography

Book: Screw Business as Usual by Richard Branson

Richard Branson - Screw Business as Usual

“Do good, have fun, and the money will follow”

372 pages, ★★★★★

Screw Business as Usual starts and ends with stories about natural disasters. In the opening pages, author Richard Branson’s Necker Island family home catches fire following a lightning strike. Times like this “remind us that stuff doesn’t matter”, he writes. The closing pages describe how a category III hurricane hit Necker Island while Virgin Unite (the charity arm of his multi-billion dollar Virgin empire) was staying there. In each case, Branson writes how opportunity rises in the face of adversity; how destruction clears way for the new; and how every unfortunate event has a ‘good’ side. I couldn’t agree more.

On page 12, he issues the readers a warning: “make sure you’ve read [this book] and can articulate its contents before you consider having this book on lying around on your desk!” (The contents, should they need to be articulated, could be summed up like this: Capitalists no longer face a choice between making money and doing good. Many businesses that “do good” (environmentally or socially) are finding that good deeds boost the company’s profits overall”.) Between pages 200 and 250, he includes plenty of detailed case studies to support his point.

I really like that despite Branson’s massive persona, he still laughs at himself sometimes. On page 21, he hints that he name drops too much, and it’s true. Honestly, though, I expected him to: Richard Branson is a ‘big’ personality known for his outlandish gestures and it would have seemed disappointingly out-of-character if he were too modest in this book. (Just type “Richard Branson” into Google Images for some examples of this.) After admitting he name-drops too much, he proceeds to name-drop throughout this book: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Queen, James Lovelock, Ban Ki-Moon and Al Gore are mentioned many times each. Page 230 adds Ray Anderson, Jochen and Ted Turner to the list of superstars he has close connections with. He laughs at himself on this and on several other occasions. I like the self-aware, self-mocking Branson that we see in this book.

I also really like the emphasis on “doing good”. This is clear not only from his many not-for-profit groups, which work worldwide in many different sectors, but also from his willingness to “do good” even if “doing good” means breaking the law! Twice, he breaks the law and the law changes for him, not the other way around. Once, at he beginning of the book, Branson breaks an old law that made it illegal to mention “venereal disease” in public. Branson felt it was a serious social problem at the time, and that the law was preventing useful health information from reaching the public. So he broke the law, got arrested, then took Her Majesty’s Government to court. (They apologised to Branson and then changed the law!) Later, the end of the book, Branson’s group tells factories in South Africa to ignore the law on racially-segregated toilets, which resulted in many black workers having to urinate, dehumanisingly, in gutters. This time, too, the law changed for him, not the other way around!

I learned a lot from this book. I learned that Peter Gabriel was signed by Virgin Records in 1983. I also learned that Virgin’s staff must love their jobs—Branson holds parties for Virgin Atlantic staff tropical island house and writes them personalised letters of invitation. In these letters (one is copied into the book), I learned that Virgin Atlantic was the first airline to introduce fully-non-smoking flights, and was also the first airline to have entertainment screens on the back of every seat!

Branson tells us all to love our jobs. He gives examples of businesses that do this very well, such as a greengrocery chain in Sussex that hires “local heroes”—people who love their job and their produce, and aren’t there “just for the pay check”. I’m really pleased to say that I’m one of those people 🙂

This quote fits perfectly with this book’s philosophy:

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.”

― Randy Komisar, Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur

(I am still yet to review Randy Komisar’s book, Monk and the Riddle.)

In one respect, Screw Business as Usual reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Both books straddle the non-fiction and biography genres. Both books tell tales of opportunity and what makes people succeed. In particular, the story about Peter Avis in this book seemed very similar to a scene in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In this book, Branson writes about Peter Avis, who, like Branson, is also dyslexic. While Branson has long talked quite openly about how his dyslexia shaped his thinking, and how it inspired the clean, easy-to-navigate customer experience that Virgin’s companies offer, Avis found dyslexia very debilitating throughout school and early adulthood. Avis, unlike Branson, didn’t come from such a supportive background, and his dyslexia went unnoticed for many years until someone cared enough to help him solve the problem. Malcolm Gladwell gives a similar example in his book (which I haven’t reviewed yet), where a child might be “blessed with confidence, acting skills and bursts of creativity” if they come from a rich background; but diagnosed with ADHD if they come from a poorer background. What’s more interesting about Branson’s stories, though, is that they’re from his own life—and his own friends—not from unrelated case studies.

In conclusion, Branson says that unrestrained capitalism (“Greed is Good”) versus the flower power peace-and-love of the 1960s have merged to form a new era of capitalism, and Richard Branson labels, “Capitalism 24902”. (Read the book to find out what that means.)

This is a rare, high-quality business management book. It’s laced with personal examples, which are always much more interesting than random case studies, and I love the message he sends out in this book. Recommended for anyone who admires great people. ★★★★★

Book: Watching the Tree

Watching the Tree

Charming, delightful, concise reflections on Chinese life and culture.
248 pages, ★★★★★

Adline Yen Mah is one of my favourite Chinese authors. Her websites http://www.adelineyenmah.com/ and http://chinesecharacteraday.com/ focus on increasing the awareness of Chinese culture to “anyone who is willing to learn”! She’s even created free children’s books and an iPad app to help spread knowledge of Chinese culture worldwide.

Watching the Tree is a collection of charming reflections about the author’s grandfather and the stories he told. Her grandfather tends to connect Chinese and western ideas: he wants to believe in Confucianism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Taoism at the same time, for example, and couldn’t understand why religious pluralism displeased westerners. The author highlights the similarities between all of them in this book.

The author’s grandfather also describes how Escher’s art, Bach’s music and Zhuangzi’s Daodejing (a text) all tackle the same philosophical conundrums of circular logic and apparent paradoxes. Interconnectedness is a recurring theme throughout this book.

Another example of interconnectedness is when we learn that Hinduism evolved into Buddhism, which evolved into Daoism and also Japanese Buddhism, for example. We learn that China’s lack of scientific progress in recent centuries was attributed to a long-standing tradition of revering philosophers and neglecting mathematics—at least, not adopting a digit-based system of counting, which would have greatly assisted the advancement of maths and science, until the early 19th century. The author also makes connections between the Yi Ching (易经) and Carl Jung, and between hexagrams and binary computing. I love the connections the author (via her grandfather’s stories) makes in this book—it makes this book inclusive, beautiful, and unmistakably Chinese.

I also love how Watching the Tree‘s chapters are named after Chinese famous idioms. Each chapter tells a story that describes both the idiom and an aspect of Chinese life. The tone of these stories is beautiful, charming and uplifting. All the Chinese words are written in Wade-Giles, pinyin and Chinese characters—which makes is accessible for all Chinese learners from all backgrounds.

I recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in Chinese culture. It doesn’t matter how much you already know—this book is beautiful enough to bring pleasure even to those who are already familiar with the ideas it contains. ★★★★★

Book: A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind

Inspiring, invokes sympathy.
464 pages, ★★★

Q: What should we do with an overweight Hungarian?

Protagonist Johnny Nash is a ‘flamboyant’ and ‘mischievous’ mathematical genius. He invented Game Theory and the mathematical game ‘Hex’, won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994 and almost won a Fields Medal, too. A Beautiful Mind is a book in three parts: (1) the genius; (2) his illness; and (3) his remarkable recovery.

Nash was ‘ostracised’ and ‘teased’ in school. Some classmates described him as ’emotionless’ because he liked to be alone. Actually, Nash made strong friendships with a handful of people with whom he could really connect—mostly older, genius males. Most people could not relate to him—and vice versa.

He was extremely successful academically. He led a successful post-graduate career at Princeton and published papers on game theory and equilibrium theory. These were still areas of major interest to Nash by the end of the book.

However, Nash’s work on quantum theory began to deteriorate around page 221. Schizoid or bipolar symptoms became apparent. Nash would later blame “possibly overreaching and psychologically destabilising” efforts to resolve the contradictions in quantum theory for triggering his mental illness.

His condition deteriorated further on page 246 when he delivered what the audience described as a ‘horrible’, “nonsensical, lunatic” seminar on Reimann’s Hypothesis. Delusions of persecution led him to Europe where, against official advice, he attempted to renounce U.S. citizenship. Grandiose delusions led him to think of himself as a “great but secret religious figure” while he was in Rome (page 312), that he was “saving the world” (page 320), that newspapers were talking to him (page 322) and that he was constantly scared of annihilation (of himself and of the world; page 324). He used multiple identities when signing his letters—names from all over the world, historical figures, even animals—which represented the fragmentary nature of his mind. Undoubtedly, he was going through great suffering at this time, so he changed names and travelled the world to escape it.

Remarkably, Nash’s life made an almost magical upturn around page 334. His illness receded, he re-married the love of his life, and he won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. Recovery from long-term schizophrenia is almost unheard of.

This story begs two questions for me. (1) What caused his schizophrenia? and (2) What made him recover?

(1) In my opinion, Nash’s behaviour can be explained entirely by his childhood, as predicted on page 38:

Johnny’s apparent sense of superiority, his standoffishness, and his occasional cruelty were ways of coping with uncertainty and loneliness. What he lost by his lack of genuine interaction with children his own age was a “lively sense, in reality, of his actual position in the human hierarchy” that prevents other children with more social contact from feeling unrealistically weak or unrealistically powerful. If he could not believe he was loveable, then feeling powerful was a good substitute. As long as we could be successful, his self-esteem would remain intact.

In other words, this book suggests that same factors that led him to be so successful also could have contributed to his illness. It makes sense, too—few geniuses are completely sane.

(2) As for what made him recover, the book gives no explicit answers. One possibility is that Nash’s reassurance that he was neither young enough to be drafted into the Army nor required to do defence-related research persuaded him to return from Europe to America and continue his life there. Falling in love (with Alicia) was either a cause or a result of his recovery, or maybe both, but the book gives no clear answers here, either. Either way, his story is a remarkable and inspiring one.

There are also some math problems in this book to think about. Try these:

Two cyclists, 20 miles apart, start at the same instant and ride towards each other along a straight road at a speed of 10 miles per hour. At the same instant, a fly on the forehead of one of the riders starts to fly at 15 miles per hour toward the other rider, alights on his forehead, and the immediately flies back to the first rider. The fly travels back and forth over the continuously-decreasing distance between the two riders until the two riders meet. How far has the fly flown when all its journeys are added together?

And another one:

THE JEEP PROBLEM: There are n units of fuel stored at a fixed base. The jeep can carry at most 1 unit of fuel at any time, and can travel 1 unit of distance on 1 unit of fuel (the jeep’s fuel consumption is assumed to be constant). At any point in a trip the jeep may leave any amount of fuel that it is carrying at a fuel dump, or may collect any amount of fuel that was left at a fuel dump on a previous trip, as long as its fuel load never exceeds 1 unit. The jeep must return to the base at the end of every trip.

There are ‘easy’ and ‘long-winded’ ways of calculating each of these problems.

I recommend this succinct, clearly-written book for anyone inspired by genius or inspired by stories of miraculous recovery★★★

P.S. I think The answer to the riddle at the top is, “Make him go to Hungary/too hungry”.

Book: Please Stop Laughing at Me

Please Stop Laughing at Me
Please Stop Laughing at Me

Bad inspiration for people struggling with bullying.
304 pages, ★★★

Please Stop Laughing at Me is an autobiographical story loaded with pained descriptions about how horrible it is to be bullied. These passages would resonate with some kids and grip their attention, which is a shame because the author provides some irresponsible solutions towards the end of the book.

I have two major problems with this book.

First, the protagonist is in a very privileged position. She’s fortunate enough to have two parents who care about her deeply. She’s quite well-off, and she’s able to change schools when the social environment at one school gets out of hand. Since many bullied kids are from deprived social backgrounds, how can this girl’s exotic holidays and expensive surgery (more on that later) inspire the majority of those struggling with bullying to find a way out? Bullied kids reading this book might get the erroneous impression that friends and happiness depend on having lots of money. They will be disappointed.

Second, the author places a large amount of emphasis on how corrective surgery on her breasts solved her bullying problem. She went against doctors’ advice and had this surgery too young. Doesn’t this teach kids to defy authority and give in to peer pressure? And what about those kids who are bullied despite looking ‘normal’? How can surgery ‘correct’ them? This books fails to illustrate how resisting bullies requires being mentally strong—not physically “perfect”.

In conclusion, Please Stop Laughing at Me tells children that money and breasts make you happy and popular! While the author’s journey was certainly a difficult one, it’s not a journey than can—or should—inspire young people. Be sure to criticise this book with any child who’s read it. ★★★

Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans
A Modern Chinese Classic

Bloody, detailed, action-packed account of Chinese history from the warlord-ridden 1920s to the reformist 1980s from the perspective of three generations in one family.
666 pages, ★★★★★

Through the eyes of three generations of women in one family, we learn about China’s tumultuous transition from the corrupt “warlords & concubines” era in the 1920s, to the “heaven on earth” 1950s, to the rough 1960s to the “post-Mao, reformist era” of the 1980s. Together, over six decades, their stories document China from both urban and rural perspectives, from both coastal and inland perspectives, and from the perspectives of every rung on the social ladder. Wild Swans covers basically every aspect of China’s transition—it’s an excellent starting point for studying modern Chinese history.

There’s also focus on Chairman Mao in this book. This is inevitable, as he dominated every Chinese person’s life from the Lei Feng cult (1962) to the end of the worst of the Cultural Revolution (1972). Jung Chang’s next book is a 1000-page biography of the Chairman himself, and it’s on my reading list.

[The next 984 words are omitted. After I wrote them, I felt uncomfortable about putting them online. Email me if you want a copy.]

In conclusion, while Communist China was bloody, violent and imperfect, Wild Swans suggests it was a more progressive and much happier place to live than the Nationalist China that preceded it. This conclusion isn’t obvious, however, from the number of pages that Wild Swans devotes to graphic descriptions of each historical episode. Wild Swans also paints a more flattering picture of the Communist regime than does Mao’s Last Dancer, whose author was born after Nationalist rule had ended.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who loves modern Chinese history★★★★★

Book: Mao’s Last Dancer

Happy Easter, everyone! 😀

At last, I have time to read and review a ‘fun’ book this week. Here goes…

Mao's Last Dancer
Mao’s Last Dancer

China’s reforms from the perspective of one Shandong family.
528 pages, ★★★★★

I chose this book because I love reading about China’s tumultuous transition from a chaotic, agrarian backwater to the economic powerhouse that it is today. Rather than reading history books, which give you a top-down perspective, novels give you the perspective of one of millions of Chinese families—like Zhang Yimou‘s To Live (film), and Jung Chang‘s Wild Swans (review coming next).

Protagonist and author Li Cunxin was raised in the 1960s in Li Commune in the outskirts of Qingdao. Despite poverty, despite not liking dancing, and despite growing up in a country with a nationalised hatred for all things extravagant and Western—especially ballet, Li Cunxin was selected for world-class ballet training at Madame Mao’s dance school in Beijing. This led to an international ballet career—and the fame, fortune and international travel that follows. All of this was unthinkable for most Chinese at the time.

China was full of contradictions under Mao’s rule (1949—1976). During the Cultural Revolution, officials issued “self-criticism” assignments to ballet students who indulged in such unnecessary extravagances as eating sweets. But why isn’t ballet itself considered extravagant and unnecessary? The “Criticise Confucius” political campaign included arguments such as, “Confucius was a feudalist whose theories described an ideal society for feudal leaders at the expense of the populace”. But during the Cultural Revolution, wasn’t the Communist Party doing exactly the same thing to its own people? Irony was everywhere, and it propelled Li Cunxin to fame.

His first trip to Houston revealed the true extent of the lies he’d been told back in China. Americans were not poor and unhappy; nor did they all carry guns; nor did they “kill coloured people”, as his family and fellow villagers back in China had warned. In America, he discovered the combination of happiness and wealth 1960s China was craving so much—and he instantly fell in love with it. He even got married, albeit hastily, to the first Western girl that he kissed.

Li Cunxin’s journey represents the journey that China took as a nation. From the 1970s onwards, China became increasingly infatuated with the west, started enjoying some political freedom (communes were dissolved), promoted cultural exchange (intermarriage is on the increase), got richer, emigrated (many Chinese with the means to emigrate have already done so) and started sending money back home (Chinese companies are investing in large western companies—sometimes purchasing them outright). It’s not just millions of Chinese who are following in Li Cunxin’s footsteps, but China as a nation-state, too.

Li Cunxin’s autobiography isn’t just about one man’s lucky journey. It instead describes the tumultuous transition to modernity that millions of people—and China itself—took in the last 60 years. Highly recommended for anyone who loves Chinese historyrags-to-riches stories, economic developmentSlumdog Millionaire, or Billy Elliot. 🙂 ★★★★★

Book: Geisha of Gion

Okay, I’m not just reading education books. Geisha of Gion has been sitting on my desk for a week or more, begging to be read. Yesterday, I finally read it.

Geisha of Gion
Written by the real-life geisha that supposedly inspired the protagonist of the same name in Memoirs of a Geisha. This book is also called, “Geisha, a Life”.

More of a ‘parallel alternative’ than a ‘fierce rebuttal’ to Memoirs.
352 pages, ★★★★

I found this book on Wikipedia while reading about Memoirs of a Geisha. Apparently, according to Wikipedia:

After the Japanese edition of the novel was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity if she told him about her life as a geisha, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash, to the point of death threats.[1] In his behalf, Arthur Golden countered that he had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki.[2] Eventually, in 2003, Golden’s publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.

Iwasaki later went on to write her own autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha life than the one shown in Golden’s novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life[3] in the U.S. and Geisha of Gion in the U.K.

Especially considering the real-life death threats involved, I expected Geisha of Gion to be a feisty, chapter-by-chapter rebuttal to Memoirs of a Geisha (rather like Three Cups of Tea and its rebuttal, Three Cups of Deceit). But it’s not like that at all—there are absolutely zero references to the original book. Instead, it’s a flattering, alternative narrative written with geisha grace. The tone, however, an a few important details have been radically altered.

The main difference between Geisha of Gion and Memoirs of a Geisha is that the former portrays a much more positive light on geisha industry. The author claims that she never had sex as a geisha and that mizuage is not a “ritual deflowering” but merely a “change of hair-style”. She emphasises that the okiya (geisha-house) was almost constantly on the verge of bankruptcy (which destroys any claims that the okiya was making a mint through exploitation).

Mineko describes geishas as high-status entertainers:

We are de facto diplomats who have to be able to communicate with anyone. But this doesn’t mean we are doormats. We are expected to be sharp-witted and insightful. Over time, I learned to express my thoughts and opinions without causing offence to others.

That last sentence is particularly important. In stark contrast to the slightly weak, victimised protagonist in Memoirs of a Geisha, Mineko demonstrates her strength in this book by including stories of how she offended both Prince Charles and the Queen—on separate occasions!

This book’s abnormally high death rate worries me. It’s set mostly in 1970s Japan, renowned for its longevity, but people die at very young ages throughout. Disease is also more common than it should be—is there something dangerous about geisha-hood that this book isn’t telling us?

The truth, not that it matters at all, probably lies somewhere between these two books. I have no idea where; I also don’t care. Just enjoy reading them! ★★★★

 

Book: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Stretched. Easy to read.
237 pages, ★★★

Amy Chua (a.k.a. “Tiger Mother”) bullies her children into being successful. Her loveable mixture of strict rules, punishments and blackmail locks her children into a world of all work and no play.

“Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin.”

Clearly, Amy Chua loves her children. She sees them as fallen deities, as sleeping giants, who, with enough maternal provocation, can once again prove themselves as prodigies. She sees in them infinite potential, and pressures them immensely to succeed.

Love for her children sometimes blinds her to reality. On page 7, she writes:

“I was on leave from my Wall Street law firm and desperate to get a teaching job so I wouldn’t have to go back—and at 2 months [of age], Sophia understood this”.

Really? That sounds like over-analaysis to me.

On page 8, she continues over-analysing: when her daughter draws what her husband calls “two overlapping circles”, Amy Chua calls it “doing simple set theory”. On page 11, she describes 豆腐脑, a simple Chinese tofu dish, as, “silken tofu braised in a light alabone and shiitake sauce with a cilantro garnish”. (Her description is correct—it’s just pretentious.)

Amy’s propensity to overestimate her ability to raise children is exemplified most clearly on page 82, when she takes pride in having raised a “weakling, underweight” puppy into an adult dog that “excelled on its dog IQ test” despite hating dogs. Clearly, she’s not only blinded by love, but also by pride.

Fortunately, Amy Chua’s ruthlessness is somewhat justified. Her daughters, not yet 20, have articles printed in the New York Post and have been accepted into world-class universities. It’s the millions of Tiger Mothers with average kids that are cause for concern.

Interestingly, the Chinese version of her book was titled “我在美国做妈妈”, which translates roughly as, “I am a mother in America”: no mention of tigers; no implication of being fierce, and no connotation of being Chinese! The Chinese title makes her parenting style look “normal”. Check out the Chinese cover, below:

我在美国做妈妈
我在美国做妈妈

While Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an easy, double-spaced read, it is no more informative than Amy Chua’s famous Wall Street Journal article, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. You can save time and just read the article (and this) instead. ★★★

Book: To Sir, With Love

To Sir With Love
Also a popular 1967 film

Great story, poor character development.
185 pages, ★★

Rick Braithwaite, a black military officer from Guyana (then British Guiana), receives a horrible shock after leaving the army. Even though he was highly respected as a soldier in British uniform, dozens of employers now reject him because he’s “too black”. Finally, one school accepts him despite his skin colour.

I strongly believe that racism is rooted in classism. Braithwaite summarises the views of the British on page vii:

“The few West Indians who did occupy the streets of England would, despite the prejudice they endured, have far more in common with white, working-class people than with this Cambridge-educated former [army] officer.”

Reading that, this speech/song sprung to mind.

Racism is also a scapegoat for classism. This is strongly supported on page 37:

“It is true that here and there one sees Negroes as doctors, lawyers or talented entertainers, but they are somehow considered ‘different’ and not to be confused with the mass.”

Most strikingly, when people of different races are of the same class (such as in some universities), racial oppression simply melts away. It doesn’t matter what race you are as long as you’re rich, well-connected and well-read. However, when people of the same race are of different social class, the symptoms of racism emergeostracism, bullying, derision, and so on. Classism, not racism, is evidently the root of these problems.

The U.S. now has programmes like Troops to Teachers, which fast-track army veterans like Braithwaite into teaching positions. Veterans provide the discipline, respect and structured lifestyles that are considered elixirs for America’s dilapidated high schools.

I have one complaint: this novel has too many superfluous characters. So many characters, so little interaction. See the character map below.

To Sir With Love Character Map
So many characters, so little interaction! Click to enlarge.

Important characters are also introduced at the last minute, as and when they’re needed. We never really get to know any of the characters other than protagonist Braithwaite, and some characters exist only for one paragraph. The characters aren’t the highlight of this novel, though. The most important aspect is the message that racism exists, and that it can be transformed.

To Sir With Love should be compulsory reading for schoolchildren. It’s easier to relate to than the other school-time favourite, To Kill A Mockingbird, yet the two books’ treatises on racism are of equal caliber. The accompanying discussion also provides a valuable lesson for kids. ★★

Book: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Black-on-white version also available

Impetus to run.
192 pages, ★★★★

Running is a form of meditation. Murakami says he “doesn’t doesn’t know what he thinks about when he’s running”. When he’s happy, he thinks a little about being happy, and when he’s unhappy, he thinks a little about being unhappy. He says the average human mind isn’t strong enough to sustain a vacuum of thoughts, so random thoughts will seep in occasionally no matter how hard we try to block them out (see my book review on meditation exercises). That sounds like meditation to me.

Murakami started running to recover from an addiction to cigarettes, and has since run multiple marathons, including the original marathon route in Greece (he did it alone, surrounded by traffic!) Running motivated him to write, to give up smoking, and to run even more. Runners compete only against their former selves.

This humorous, autobiographical collection of essays, letters and memories persuades me strongly to get up and run.

Enough said. I want to go running. ★★★★

Book: The Fry Chronicles

The Fry Chronicles
Adult Stephen Fry. This book is the sequel to Moab Is My Washpot.

Witty and well-written but largely forgettable.
464 pages, ★★★★

In The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry details his adult life, starting from his leaving prison at age 20. It starts exactly where his last book, Moab Is My Washpot, finished. Within just a few pages, Fry matriculates at Queen’s College, Cambridge University, where he thrives academically and finds a passion for acting.

I’m young, so I’ve only known Fry for his most recent TV work (I am a fan of QI, and am happy that it’s all on YouTube for free). His acting career is something to which I really can’t relate (hence my subtitle—’forgettable’). I’m sure that actors, or avid theatre-goers could find this book much more interesting than I did.

For me, Fry’s writings about Cambridge University were the most interesting. While most of his writing is respectful and upbeat, he does indulge in a page-long witty rant about “Cambridge people”, as I call them, on page 111, starting with sarcasm:

“…Garden parties on every lawn in every college for the two weeks in June that are perversely designated May Week. Dining clubs and societies, dons, clubs and rich individuals serving punch and Pimm’s beer and sangria, cocktails and champagne. Blazers and flannels, self-conscious little snobberies and affectations, flushed youth, pampered youth, privileged youth, happy youth.”

The following paragraph juxtaposes that paragraph beautifully:

“Don’t be too hard on them. Suppress the thought that they are all ghastly tosspots who don’t know they’re born, insufferable poseurs in need of a kick and a slap. Have some pity and understanding. They will get that kick and that slap soon enough. After all, look at them now. They are all in their fifties some of them on their third, forth or fifth marriage. Their children despise them. They are alcoholics or recovering alcoholics. Drugs addicts or recovering drug addicts. Their wrinkles, grey, bald, furrowed and fallen faces look back every morning from the mirror, those folds of dying flesh bearing not a trace of the high, joyful and elastic smiles that once lit them. Their lives have been a ruin and a waste. All that bright promise never quite matured into anything that can be looked back on with pride or pleasure. They took that job in the city, that job with merchant bank, stockbroker, law firm, accountancy firm, chemical company, drama Company, publishing company, any company. The light and energy, the passion, fun and faith were soon snuffed out one by one. In the grind of the demanding world their foolish hopeful dreams evaporated like mist in the cruel glare of the morning sun. Sometimes the dreams return to them at night and they are so ashamed, disappointed that they want to kill themselves. Once they laughed and seduced or were seduced, on ancient lawns, under ancient stones and now they hate the young and their music, they snort with contempt at everything strange and new and they have to catch their breath at the top of the stairs.”

He adds a quick note to reassure the readers that his rant is over, and gets his writing style promptly back on track. I love it.

Thankfully, in this book, there’s no graphic sex. In fact, Fry takes pride in being celibate for many years straight (excuse the pun). It’s a more comfortable read than Moab Is My Washpot, and more witty, too. I give this book four stars, even if the only memorable part for me was his thoughts on stereotypical “Cambridge people”. ★★★★

Book: Moab is My Washpot


Moab is My Washpot

Intelligence, gayness and (bipolar) mania. First 20 years of Fry’s life.
384 pages, ★★

I respect Stephen Fry as a man of a thousand talents. Wikipedia describes him as an “actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, poet, comedian, television presenter, and film director”. Moab is My Washpot was addictive to read, even if it only covers the first 20 years of his life. For me, Moab is My Washpot is about intelligence, homosexuality and a manic episode of bipolar disorder.

When talking about his (slightly sadistic) school, Stephen Fry defines intelligence as an “unappealing quality” and has “never expected anyone to find it appealing in me”. He is stumped by conversations with fans that start with, “Of course, I’m no brainbox like you”, and “I know I’m only stupid but…”. Stupid people are more appealing than pompous braggers, though:

“I might use long words from time to time and talk rapidly or name-drop culturally here and there and display and number of other silly donnish affecations, but if this gives me the impression that I might admire a similar manner or nature in others, then it makes me just want to go ‘bibbly-bobbly-bubbly-snibbly wib-wib floppit’ for the rest of my life, read nothing but Georgette Heyer, watch nothing but Emmerdale, do nothing but play snooker, take coke and get drunk and use no words longer than “wanker” and “cunt”.” — Page 125

Fry defied his “intelligent” image in school with mischief. He played with electric fences and stole money from his classmates’ coat pockets. Personally, I know that pupils with a golden reputation among teachers can get away with anything.

Fry then talks graphically about his first time having sex, also in school. It doesn’t cover much text, but because it’s so descriptive, it seems to jump out and hijack the rest of the book; so that “graphic gay sex” is the first thing I’m able to recall when I’m planning a book review. I didn’t know that he was gay, so this was a shock to read.

Moab is My Washpot ends right in the middle of the manic episode described in the TV documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressiveleaving us hankering for the sequel, The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography. I look forward to the sequel, his tenth book(!), which documents the vibrant career that followed him being released from jail.

Page 322 explains how he managed to maintain both an exciting career and a distinctively charming personality: “People who can change and change again are so much more reliable and happier than those who can’t”. All things change. ★★★★

Book: Decoded (Jay-Z)

Decoded is wonderfully-produced in full colour on glossy paper. The producers are playful with fonts and photoshopped images. And the paper feels great.

A self-employed salesman’s glorious transition to adulthood
317 beautifully-produced pages, ★★★★★

We all loved Steve Jobs‘ biography. Steve Jobs was a white slumdog millionaire, who followed his heart from poverty to the same superstardom that surrounds L. Ron Hubbard and Chairman Mao. Steve Jobs was the American Dream personified twice, with international reach: some Chinese youths even sold kidneys to buy an iPhone or iPad 2. If you loved the recent Steve Jobs biography, then you’ll connect with Decoded, too.

Jay-Z’s story is similar to that of Steve Jobs. Both their fathers left when they were young. Both were excellent showmen and both of them succeeded in business. Both became extremely successful in more than one field. Both were supporters of Barack Obama. Jay-Z didn’t enjoy the success on the same scale as Steve Jobs, but his starting point was also much lower (“…you could get killed for being on the wrong train at the wrong time”). Their climb was roughly equal.

“You could get killed for being on the wrong train at the wrong time” — Jay-Z

Jay-Z is a professional salesman. He started aged 13 by selling crack cocaine to supplement his single mother’s income, when a couple of characters from his inner circle introduced him to poetry to vent stress from the job. To date, none of this early-age poetry has ever been published.

Jay-Z kept (relatively, aside from selling crack cocaine) out of trouble and kept doing what he loved. He kept writing poetry. The skills he learned from selling crack cocaine (life’s too short; don’t do drugs; stay away from trouble; everyone’s trying to get their hands in your pockets) hardened him for the dog-eat-dog environment of the music industry, which he describes as “one of the most ruthless industries in America”.

“Being a recording artist on a major label is probably the most exploitative contractual agreement in America, and it’s legal.” — Jay-Z

Decoded helped me understand the journey I took in 2011. I used to crave the salaried office jobs that Jay-Z criticises (“American Dreamin'”, page 30), with the water cooler conversation (page 79) and the safety net of having a fixed salary (“Freakonomics”, page 75). Most of these jobs (especially corporate finance) are just as socially-useless, money-obsessed and unfulfilling as selling crack cocaine on the street. They bring large paycheck at the expense of huge social damage; and Jay-Z reminds us that subprime mortgages are much worse than crack cocaine. ★★★★★

Book: Steve Jobs

I am Steve Jobs!”
598 pages, ★★★★★

Everyone’s reading this in Beijing. And suddenly, everyone thinks they’re [the next] Steve Jobs. Of course, I was no exception.

We’re alike. Steve Jobs found enlightenment in India, whereas I found it in China. Neither of us work for the money, which makes us both very difficult people to manage. While Steve was extremely passionate about projects he believed would succeed (the iMac, the iPod), he was also quick to throw tantrums of “this is shit” and destroy other people’s plans (the Newton, the first cancer diagnosis). I do this too.

Steve Jobs admitted he never worked for the money, and I could relate to that. He proved this by working for no salary as the “iCEO” of Apple from 1997. This book actually inspired me to walk away from a well-paying job I didn’t enjoy, which freed up 3 more days of my week to do things that I do enjoy (such as reading books).

Steve Jobs later postulated that the year he spent running around making billion-dollar deals for other people (Pixar) made him stressed and weak, which allowed his cancer to grow. I could relate to that, too: in the last 2 years, I’ve learned that one should only ever work for oneself, i.e. in projects that one truly believes in. Working for anyone else makes you feel sick at worst, and unsatisfied at best.

I read faster in the middle (where Jobs was ousted from Apple) because the ever-increasing sums of money didn’t interest me. Fortunately, it’s the only part of the book which focusses on his financial negotiations (“$”, “billion” and “CEO” were keywords in these chapters). I slowed down significantly towards the end because I didn’t want him to die. Useful spoiler: he doesn’t die in the book.

Al Gore was missing from this book. Having read The Assault on Reason and this TIME feature article (long ago), I expected to see Al Gore more in this book than the 2-3 times that he contributed to Apple meetings. I’ve read elsewhere that Jobs and Gore were good friends outside the boardroom. They even had similar N-shaped careers (being ousted from Apple; the 2000 election respectively). The fact that Gore has massive political and economic interests at stake (Apple, Current, the Alliance for Climate Protection, and many green start-ups) means he probably doesn’t want certain things exposed. To learn more about Steve Jobs, I look forward to reading Al Gore’s next, and hopefully more revealing, biography. ★★★★★