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Great books to read in the Christmas break

As chosen by Rosebank Wealth staff, fund managers and clients.

For this final article this year, we asked staff members, some fund managers and a few clients for reading tips over the Christmas break. The list below is what they came up with. We would like to take this opportunity to wish all readers and clients a joyful festive season.

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, by Kerry Brown

This book, first published in 2016, was recommended by Dawie Krige of Cedarberg Capital, a firm that specialises in investing in China. Anybody who is either interested in investing in China or understanding more about the politics of modern China should understand its leader, General Secretary Xi Jinping.

‘CEO, China’ tells the story of the man dubbed as the ‘Chinese Godfather’ who, under the guise of a corruption crackdown, imprisoned his rivals. In March this year, 99.8% of delegates to the National People’s Congress voted to remove the rules requiring leaders to stand down after two terms, paving the way for Xi Jinping to stay in office, potentially, for decades.

Brown is currently the Professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London.

In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India, by Edward Luce

Recommended by fund manager Jonathan Schiessl, this book highlights the many contrasts in India. It describes the growing capacity in information technology and economic might, set against stubborn levels of poverty, illiteracy and poor health. Readers begin to understand just how much darkness is still beneath the lamp.

The book takes the form of a series of acutely-observed vignettes, held together by the question: India will soon become a great power; what kind of great power will it be? While the book is a little dated (published in 2011), according to Schiessl, it gives a pretty good account of things prior to Modi, some of which are finally being addressed.

Luce was the Financial Times’s New Delhi-based South Asia bureau chief between 2001 and 2005.

Forgotten Continent: A History of the new Latin America, by Michael Reid

Recommended by Latin American specialist Adrian Langrebe, this is an updated edition of the best-selling primer on the social, political, and economic challenges facing Central and South America, ten years after the first edition was published.

Author Michael Reid noted in this updated edition that although much of Central and South America is less poor, less unequal, and better educated than before, the region faces different challenges now that the commodities boom of the 2000s is over. He writes that present concerns include corruption, climate change, the uncertainties of a Donald Trump-led US, and the growing popularity of centre-right governments.

Reid is a journalist, writer and commentator on Latin American and Iberian affairs. He is the former Americas editor for The Economist.

The Rise and Fall of Nations, by Ruchir Sharma

In this book, published in 2016, Ruchir Sharma forecasts the future of different countries over the next five years. He offers two frameworks with which to see the world: the four Ds and the ten rules. The four Ds are: de-globalisation (a shrinking of international trade), de-population (the decline in the growth rate – and in some cases an absolute decline – in the working age population, deleveraging (the need for nations to pay off debt), and de-democratisation (the tendency towards autocratic rule).  

Some of the ten rules include ‘Good and bad billionaires’; ‘The cover story curse’ (any country that ends up on the cover of Time Magazine as the next economic miracle is likely to have peaked); the growth of private debt; and the ‘the second city rule’ (which has it that any country where the capital city is more than five times larger than the next largest city is likely to suffer from levels of economic and political inequality that will hamper effective governance and long-term economic growth).

Sharma is currently the chief global strategist and head of the emerging markets equity team at Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood’ was the winner of the FT/McKinsey Business Book Award for 2018 and tells the story of the rise and fall of Theranos, a multibillion-dollar biotech startup which scammed Silicon Valley.

In 2014 the founder and CEO of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes, was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup ‘unicorn’ promised to revolutionise the medical industry, with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier. There was just one problem: the technology didn’t work.

This book reads like a fiction thriller with corporate intrigue, media excitement, ruined family relationships, conned high-profile investors and the demise of a company once valued at nearly $9 billion.

No turning back, by Rania Abouzeid

No turning back’ attempts to dissect the tangle of ideologies and allegiances that make up the Syrian conflict for readers who are unfamiliar with the history of Syria. It cleverly tells the story of the civil war through portraits of a range of Syrians with different insights into the conflict. The interviews show the life before the war, their role in the war and their reflections on the war six or so years later.

Characters in the book include a businessman whose family benefited from the rule of Bashar al-Assad, a social activist with hope for the country and a poet who becomes the commander in the Free Syrian Army militia.

Abouzeid has won the Michael Kelly Award and George Polk Award for foreign reporting, among many other prizes for international journalism.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari

Many Moneyweb readers will be familiar with Yuval Harari’s
writing; he was the author of the very well received ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ and ‘Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow.’ This latest offering was named by Bill Gates as one of his favourite books of 2018. He said that the book “…offers a helpful framework for processing the news and thinking about the challenges we face.”

It is a loose collection of themed essays, many of which build on articles for the New York Times, Bloomberg and elsewhere.

Some reviewers have noted that the range of ideas is oddly juxtaposed, but on the other hand, this format plays to Harari’s big selling point: “…the ambition and breadth of his work, smashing together unexpected ideas into dazzling observations”.

The author, Professor Harari, is currently a member of the history department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

New Power: How it’s changing the 21st century — and why you need to know, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms

In this book the authors connect the rise of mega-platforms like Facebook and Uber with the out-of-nowhere rise of Trump and Corbyn, the new species of You Tube celebrity, and social media campaigns like ‘MeToo’.

They write that for most of human history, the rules of power were clear; to get ahead, individuals had to learn the old ways of doing things and simply do these things better than others. However, they argue, ‘New Power’ has made it possible for people to connect in a more open, participatory, peer-driven way.

In the book, readers can learn the necessary skills to use social platforms to spread an idea, lead a movement, or build a career. It has had mixed reviews, with some commenting that the book provides no new insights, and others applauding the authors’ analysis of how self-organising, bottom-up movements evolve.

Australian-based Heimans and Timms have been involved in social media companies themselves. Heimans founded GetUp!, a non-partisan political engagement organisation, while Timms is executive director of 92nd Street Y, a cultural centre.

The Billionaire Raj, by James Crabtree

This book has been described as “… a colourful and revealing portrait of the rise of India’s new billionaire class in a radically unequal society”.

The author takes his readers on a journey to meet the new billionaire elite in India which include reclusive billionaires, fugitive tycoons, and shadowy political power brokers. In the process, he describes the tension between the rich and the poor against the backdrop of aspiration, class, and caste.

Crabtree bemoans the fact that the top 1% of Indian families own nearly 60% of its wealth, but he shows how, as in the US, India could move forward into a progressive era, rather than slipping back into further excess and inequality.

Crabtree is an associate professor of practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He was formerly the Mumbai bureau chief for the Financial Times.

Brazilionaires: The Godfathers of Modern Brazil, by Alex Cuadros

‘Brazilionaires’ cleverly intertwines the story of modern Brazil (described as a country caught in the cycle of boom and bust, renewed hope and dashed promise) with the story of the super-rich: those who stride like giants, buying political power with impunity.

The book proposes that understanding the super wealthy is key to understanding the rampant corruption and endemic inequality that is so embedded in modern Brazil. It tells the story of Brazilian tycoon Eike Batista, who in 2012 was the eighth richest man in the world, his $30 billion fortune built on Brazil’s incredible natural resources. By the middle of 2013 he had lost it all, engulfed in scandal.

Brazillionaires is a fast-paced account of Batista’s rise and fall: a story of helicopter flights, beach-front penthouses and high-speed car crashes. The author, Cuadros, is a freelance journalist and writer based in New York.

The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis

In his latest book Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker) sets his sights on understanding how some US government agencies function and run, and shows how they are very dependent on a few good men and women, dedicated to their work. He focusses on the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce. He finds that all these departments have become vulnerable due to reduced budgets. In Agriculture the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed, in Commerce, there may not be enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly, while in the Energy, where international nuclear risk is managed, it’s not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do.

The objective of the book is to celebrate the unsung heroes of government whose knowledge, dedication, and proactivity keep the machinery of government running. Early on in the book we meet John MacWilliams, a former investment banker with expertise in the energy sector who is cajoled by Barack Obama’s energy secretary Ernest Moniz to go to work for the government.

Lewis is the best-selling author of Liar’s Poker, The Money Culture, The New New Thing, Moneyball, The Blind Side, Panic, Home Game, The Big Short and Boomerang.

Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World, by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright

According to the publishers, this book has been named a ‘Best Book of 2018’ by the Financial Times and Fortune. It covers the 1MDB scandal where $5 billion was stolen. 1MDB was set up about ten years ago by the Malaysian government to invest Malaysian government money in energy, real estate and tourism projects. Instead, billions of dollars were routed to bank accounts linked to Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak and Jho Low, a Malaysian businessman.

In November 2018 the WSJ reported that Goldman Sachs was an adviser to 1MDB on a series of multibillion-dollar bond issues in 2012 and 2013 and the bank’s former chair of southeast Asia, Tim Leissner, has pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder money by helping siphon billions from the bond deals.

Hope and Wright are both Pulitzer-finalist Wall Street Journal reporters.

The Eye: An Insider’s Memoir of Masterpieces, Money and the Magnetism of Art, by Philippe Costamagna

This book lifts the veil on the world of expert art connoisseurs devoted to the authentication and discovery of Old Master artworks. It describes the work of a handful of trusted experts around the world whose job it is to determine whether a picture is real or fake and whether it was painted by Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael.

Costamagna is a specialist in sixteenth-century Italian painting and director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Ajaccio, Corsica. He is the author of a book on the Florentine Renaissance painter Pontormo.

What we cannot know, by Marcus du Sautoy

Du Sautoy has been described Britain’s most famous mathematician (he is a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford) and in this book takes readers to the edge of knowledge to show us what we cannot know.

He addresses questions such as is it possible that we will one day know everything? Or will there always be fields of research that will always lie beyond the bounds of human comprehension? And if so, how do we cope with living in a universe where there are things that will forever transcend our understanding?

The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley’s books have been shortlisted for six literary awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (for Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters). He has been a scientist, a journalist, and a national newspaper columnist.

‘The Evolution of Everything’ was published in 2015, and according to the publishers this book looks at “… bottom-up order and its enemy, the top-down twitch—the endless fascination human beings have for design rather than evolution, for direction rather than emergence”. Rigby draws on anecdotes from science, economics, history, politics and philosophy to demolish conventional assumptions that major scientific and social imperatives are dictated by those on high, whether in government, business, academia, or morality.

The general view of staff members of Rosebank Wealth Group was that one of his previous books, ‘The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves’, published in 2010, was actually better than ‘The Evolution of Everything’, so if you are new to Ridley’s writing, perhaps that might be a better book to choose.

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, by Annie Duke

Annie Duke uses her experience of poker to show that the quality of decision making can be improved by having the right mind-set and by equipping ourselves with some important tools. The tools include an introduction to decision theory, behavioural psychology, habit loops and the theories of probability theorists Kahneman and Thaler. This book has been described as having a “high ratio of value to length”.

It describes a way of thinking that combats our culture’s increasing tendency to retroactively call decisions good or bad solely based on result, and assess ideas based on their source versus their merit.

Duke is a World Series of Poker bracelet winner and a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a founder of How I Decide, a non-profit that creates curricula and tools to improve decision making and critical thinking skills for school children.

Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover

Recently named by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of the year (and one of the top five recommended by Bill Gates), Westover’s memoir describes growing up in a survivalist Mormon family and not attending a school until college.

In the tradition of ‘The Glass Castle’, the book is an autobiography of a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University.

Gates wrote that he was fascinated by Westover’s ability to learn on her own. She taught herself algebra, trigonometry and other subjects in order to qualify for pre-college tests and by how her unusual childhood gave her a toughness that helped her persevere. He wrote that in his opinion, it was the kind of book that everyone will enjoy, no matter what genre you usually pick up.

Westover has a PhD from Cambridge University. This is her first book.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

This fictional work tells the story of a Russian aristocrat, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to house arrest after writing a poem in Russia in the early 1920s.

The authorities of the day would no doubt have preferred to execute the count, but their hands were stayed by some of those in power who considered Count Rostov a hero of the Russia of an earlier time. He is told that if he ever dares to step past the threshold of his hotel, he will be shot. He is thus condemned to house arrest in a luxury hotel for more than thirty years.

The focus of the book is on the character of the count and the friendships he forms over the next thirty years.

Towles is an American novelist; this is his second book. The first was Rules of Civility.

Chamberlain guide to birding Gauteng – 101 prime birding sites in and around Johannesburg and Pretoria, by Etienne Marais and Faansie Peacock

For those not leaving town over the holidays, there may be some time to explore Gauteng with this book as a companion.

According to the publishers, the greater Gauteng region includes Pretoria and Johannesburg and is home to 450 bird species. Furthermore about 80 endemics/near endemic species are more easily seen in Gauteng that anywhere else.

This book provides 101 birding sites with in-depth details on access, accommodation, habitats and specials; full colour site maps and information icons; illustrated features on identification challenges and finding sought-after species; supplementary information on other wildlife, geology and botany; a selection of top weekend trips; recommended birding itineraries; bi-monthly birding calendar with suggested birding activities for the whole year; and an annotated checklist (English and Afrikaans), featuring old and new bird names.



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