2014: My Year in Books

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Last year was an eventful one for me. A lot happened this year – which can be summed up in three simple words – I changed jobs. More than half of the year, I was occupied with stuff related to new job, new profile, new company and its culture, new coworkers, etc. etc. Reading really took a backstage. However, when I look back at 2014, I am glad that I was able to read 24 awesome books this year too. (same as 2013). The difference between this year and last year is that I was able to review a much lesser number of books (just four)

Some books I read in 2014

2014 Books Collage

2014 Books Collage

My thoughts on my 2014 reading list:

Well begin is half done

I started the year with Hercule Poirot – The Complete Short Story Collection. I really loved the television show Agatha Christie’s Poirot (starring David Suchet), and it was this show that prompted me to read this book. I am now a die-hard Poirot fan and hope to read some more Poirot stories in 2015 (esp. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which, as people tell me, is the best Poirot novel).

Rediscovery of Gabriel García Márquez.

This year we lost him, and as a tribute, I re-read some of my favorite novels by him. Most notably – A Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera (this is one of the best love story ever written – I you haven’t read this –  drop everything else and grab a copy)

Man-booker 2014

Of the six books shortlisted for Man booker 2014, I read three: To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (which I absolutely loved – it is an awesome book – see my review here), The Life of Others by Neel Mukherjee (a wonderful book, but a bit too long), and We are Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Flowler (I did not like it very much).

Other Books by Authors who impressed me

If I like a book, I generally try to read other books by the same author. This is how I selected the following books to read:

  • The Unnamed By Joshua Ferris (Selected after reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour) – hailed as ‘the first great book of the decade by GQ, I think it is one of the best books about marriage. See my review here
  • Malice by Keigo Higashino (selected as I liked The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint) – Not as good as other works by the same author. See my review here
  • Summer Home with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch (selected as I liked The Dinner) –  again not as good as The Dinner

Non Fiction

Just one non-fiction this year – Flash Boys by Michael Lewis – good book on algorithmic trading, but somewhat technically dense – not for everyone.

Indian Sherlock Holmes

This year I discovered Vish Puri series by Tarquin Hall – also called as the India Sherlock Holmes There are four novels in the series – The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri 1)The Case of the Man who Died Laughing (Vish Puri 2)The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (Vish Puri 3) and The Case of the Love Commandos. Not literary master pieces, neither as intelligent as Sherlock Homes series or Poirot series, but good enjoyable reads.

Some more Jack Reacher

Somehow, I find Jack Reacher series by Lee Child a very good travel/vacation Companion. I read three of them this year – Personal (Jack Reacher 19), The Affair (Jack Reacher 16) and The Visitor (Jack Reacher 4), taking my total tally to five. I enjoyed all of them, Visitor being the best of the three. Typical commercial entertainers – read, enjoy and forget. I am now selecting the next one to read for my upcoming vacation.

Grand Ending to a Great Year

The year ended at a wonderful note with The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. What a book!! Made me jealous of David, how can some one write something so awesome!

How was your year in books? Do Share.

And a very happy new year to everyone!! Have an amazing “book-year” ahead.

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Book Review: The Future of Boards by Jay Lorsch

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Note: The following review was published in the November 2013 edition of Strategic Finance. Many thanks to the editors at IMA/Strategic Finance for spending time to review and edit it.

The Future of BoardsThe growing complexity of today’s businesses, rapid technological changes, globalization, and increasingly assertive investors have made the role of corporate boards more challenging than ever before. The success of companies today depends highly on the ability of their boards to navigate them successfully through these challenges. The Future of Boards is a collection of eight essays covering the most important challenges faced by today’s corporate boards. Key topics covered include role of boards in strategy formulation and implementation, CEO succession, CEO compensation, group dynamics within the boardroom, independent chairmanship of boards, and the concept of lead director.

With contributions from some of the most eminent thought leaders in the field, both from the industry and the academia, this book is edited by Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Jay Lorsch, a leading authority on corporate boards.

On the topic of board’s role in company’s strategy, Krishna Palepu, HBS Professor and a leading expert in business strategy, opines that strategy formulation and implementation is the responsibility of the company’s management, and the board may not have the necessary expertise and time to get deeply involved. However, the board should not be passively approving the strategy presented by the management. Instead, they should actively review the underlying assumptions and implications, and monitor the implementation. In the essay “Focusing on Strategy to Govern Effectively”, he outlines a basic framework for strategic engagement which can help board members actively engage in discussions related to company’s strategy.

One of the most important and challenging responsibility of the board is CEO succession. In the essay “Managing CEO succession” Joseph Bower, HBS Professor and author of “The CEO Within: Why Inside Outsiders Are the Key to Succession Planning”, mentions that the best way for any board to manage CEO succession is to make sure that they don’t have to make a succession choice. The job of identifying potential successors and mentoring them is best done by the CEO and the management. However, typically CEOs are reluctant to do this. It becomes the job of the board to encourage them to do so. Once a pool of potential successors is identified, the board should regularly interact with them, access their strengths and weaknesses. This will ensure that when the time to make a decision comes, the company has an abundance of well groomed options from within.

Executive compensation remains the most touchy corporate governance issue today. Jay Lorsh and Rajesh Khurana, HBS professor of Leadership development, in “The Pay Problem – Time for a New Paradigm for Executive Compensation”, question the assumptions behind a typical CEO compensation plan and urge board members to align executive pay packages with long term company results. They also highlight the fact that incentives have a motivational effect only if they reward outcomes over which the executives have control. They propose a compensation plan which includes both monetary and non-monetary rewards and encourages collaborative behavior within the executive team.

Multiple topics related to board leadership structure – who should chair the board: CEO or an independent director, should there be a lead director, and the group dynamics amongst the board members, its impact and whys to manage it – are covered in the remaining essays.

The Future of Boards is not only an outstanding assessment of the challenges currently being faced by boards, but also a provocative and insightful analysis of these challenges as well as a blueprint of how boards should work to overcome these challenges. Highly recommended for CEOs, CXOs, board members, and anyone interested in corporate governance and working of boards.

PS: Copyright 2013 by IMA®, Montvale, N.J., http://www.imanet.org, used with permission

Trying to Understand India – Three Books You Must Read

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The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

There is no better book to understand the history of India. Right from the Indus valley civilization through the various phases of its history, it is truly a journey to discover India. Written by Jahawarlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, when he was imprisoned during India’s freedom struggle, this book was an effort by the leader to understand and chronicle the rich past of his country. 

Notable Quotes

“India has known the innocence and insouciance of childhood, the passion and abandon of youth, and the ripe wisdom of maturity that comes from long experience of pain and pleasure; and over and over again she has renewed her childhood and youth and age”

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Nothing captures post Independence India like Salman Rushdie’s seminal work – Midnight’s Children, which is probably the best book ever written about India. 

Notable Quotes

“‎No people whose word for ‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for ‘tomorrow’ can be said to have a firm grip on the time.”

“India, the new myth–a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.”

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger is to post globalization India, what Midnight’s Children is to post colonial India. Aravind has such a fine understanding of the pulse of this new India, it almost make me jealous.  

Notable Quotes:

“Go to Old Delhi,and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.”

“The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy.”

“Do you know about Hanuman, sir? He was the faithful servant of the god Rama, and we worship him in our temples because he is a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion.

These are the kinds of gods they have foisted on us Mr. Jiabao. Understand, now, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India.”

Enjoy Reading!!

 

Book Review: Smart Tribes by Christine Comaford

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Note: This review was published in the July 2013 edition of Strategic Finance. Many thanks to the editors at IMA/Strategic Finance for spending time to review and edit it.

Smart TribesWhat are the biggest challenges faced by rapidly growing companies? Ask the CEO of any such company and chances are that establishing a growth-oriented culture, where employees are self-motivated, loyal, can perform to their fullest potential, and are passionate about the company’s shared goals, would be at or near the top of the list.

Typically, such companies are characterized by rapidly shifting internal and external priorities, frequently changing business models, unclear directives and accountability structures, and/or the lack of alignment within the leadership team. As a natural response to such situations, employees fall into a “fight/flight/freeze mode.” In her book, Smart Tribes: How Teams become Brilliant Together, Christine Comaford refers to this as the “critter state.” People in the critter state are driven by fear, individual safety, and survival rather than collective success. Instead of focusing on real issues that impede growth, they’re emotionally disengaged, don’t collaborate, and spend time and resources on solving problems that either don’t exist or aren’t important. When management decision-making and behavior is driven by the critter state, it’s nearly impossible for companies to move up to the next level of growth.

In Smart Tribes, Comaford, an applied neuroscience expert and a New York Times best-selling author, presents a recipe to move employees out of the critter state. When in the critter state, decision-making is driven by the most primitive part of the brain, which is a stimulus response system focused on survival. Instead, employees need to be in the “smart state,” where decision-making is driven by the pre-frontal cortex, a more evolved part of the brain that enables us to plan, innovate, solve complex problems, and think abstract thoughts. Employees in the smart state are focused, accountable, collaborative, loyal, and imbued with a passion to solve problems. With their creativity, innovation, and passion unleashed, they not only outsmart the competition but do it consistently, again and again.

Employing well-researched neuroscience and behavioral science techniques, Comaford proposes a very structured approach to move from the critter state to the smart state. She recommends the following five accelerators that can help the transition:

  • Focus: Be aware of what is important and delegate, defer, or ditch everything else.
  • Clarity: Be aware of why you do what you do.
  • Accountability: Make accountability a part of the company’s DNA by having clear expectations, owner’s agreement, and well-defined rewards and consequences.
  • Influence: Be able to understand, empower, and motivate people.
  • Sustained results: Have energy to enjoy your work and avoid burnout.

Interspersed with numerous real life cases and examples, Smart Tribes is a very well-written book. Comaford follows a “do it yourself approach,” using assessment questions, resources, and actions plans at the end of each section, making it a very engaging and interactive read. Another highlight is that it’s backed by rigorous scientific research, making it very credible and trustworthy.

The issues Comaford raises in the book are extremely critical for success in the contemporary business environment. Smart Tribes is a great read for anyone managing a team in a fast-paced and dynamic environment.

PS: Copyright 2013 by IMA®, Montvale, N.J., www.imanet.org, used with permission.

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

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“As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha placed her hopes; and education. Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition.” Excerpt from Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Pulitzer Prize winning author Katherine Boo

Stunned. If I have to put it in one word, that would be my reaction to this book. Stunned by the devastatingly visceral narrative, stunned by the ruthless frankness in which the characters are portrayed, but above all, stunned to know that the book is not a work of fiction, but a true story. It is hard to believe that this is a true account of what Katherine saw while interacting with the inhabitants of Annawadi, a slum near the international airport in Mumbai.

Annawadi Slums in Mumbai

Annawadi Slums in Mumbai

Behind Beautiful Forevers is a very well written book which focuses on the lives of three families living in abject poverty in one of Mumbai’s many slums.  Katherine has come up with a very vivid portrayal of life in the slums, the hopes and dreams of the characters, the challenges faced by them and the interactions they have among themselves and with the world outside the slum. The characters of Abdul – the enterprising rag picker and Asha – aspiring to be the most powerful person in the slums, are particularly hard-hitting.

This is an exceptionally well written book. The fact that Katherine is not from India and does not understand the language spoken by the slum dwellers (she had to reply on translators), and yet she has written such a remarkable book based on their lives, is an ode to her journalistic and literary abilities.

This is one of the two outstanding non-fiction books I have read in the last couple of months, the other one being Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

And yes, it would be a good idea to read the Author’s note at the end before starting the book.

PS: I received a complimentary copy of this book, in order to review it, from MySmartPrice Books. Know more about them here

Related Posts:Mumbai in Ink: Five Amazing Novels About Mumbai

Book Review: How Parking Enforcement Stole My Soul

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“…it’s the story of my journey of learning that a job is more than just a job. It affects who you are, your character” – excerpt from How Parking Enforcement Stole My Soul by Ben Friedrich

How Parking Enforcement Stole My Soul is the autobiographical story of how Ben’s life and character are affected because of his job as a parking enforcement officer – his transition from an easy-going and friendly person who was considered by mothers as an ideal companion for their homely daughters to being grumpy, sadistic and a jerk. On a broader level, it is about the stress and emotional turmoil which results from doing things in your job which your heart and soul are not in agreement with, and the impact it will have on your physical and psychological well-being.

It is an engaging and enjoyable book. The first person narrative is like having an intimate conversation with a friend over dinner or a cup of coffee. It is a frank and candid account of Ben’s experience, without any attempt to make him look heroic or good (self-glorification is one of the most common pitfalls of autobiographies – and Ben has done a good job of staying clear of it). Although, he is a good performing officer (in terms of number of tickets), he is not an ideal one. Description of his failed romances is also very real and honest – not overly melodramatic. Also, the story is sufficiently laced with humor and sarcasm which keeps it from being too emotionally laden.

By the end of the book the message is loud and clear – you life is too previous to waste on the wrong job. You may think that it is just about the hours you spend while on work. But it is much more than that. It effects you as a whole, it defines and shapes who you are. If you are in such a  situation, find an escape route. Sacrifice on material gains, if you must. Otherwise, momentary comfort may lead to life long regret.

PS: I received a complimentary copy of this book in order to review it

Awesome: History of E=MC^2

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Just came across this awesome video – “Einstein’s Big Idea” which tracks down key events in the history of physics leading to the discovery of arguably the most important equation in the history of science – E=MC^2.

Best thing about the video is that things are presented in a wonderfully easy to understand language without complicating with jargons. Discussions which Einstein is having with his wife Keep Reading…