Booklog: The Little Drummer Girl, Silverview & The Whitehall Effect

John Le Carré was an author of widely acknowledged talent and impact. Personally I far prefer his writings to the screen adaptations, though perhaps ‘The Constant Gardener’ was the most faithful adaptation in my (very) amateur opinion.

Most authors I can enjoy reading (or not) but with Le Carré I enjoy, admire and feel a deep frustration at how incredibly good he is at writing. Almost to the point of wanting to never write a word again. There is total mastery in the way he captures moral ambiguity in the little moments which uncover deeper truths whilst highlighting the deceit so fundamental to statecraft.

So I am on a completist drive to read everything he has written, but not read everything about him as a swathe of new memoirs on him and his love life have begun to emerge. To that end, my thoughts on two of his works I had yet to encounter until Kent Libraries came good:

The Little Drummer Girl – John Le Carré

A remarkably finely balanced piece which somehow manages to expose the hypocrisies and moral relativism of the British, Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. It also is a deep look into the psychology of recruiting and training ‘civilians’ to espionage, with his female lead providing, to my mind at least, a compelling narrative of her divided loyalties and motivations.

There are dream-like qualities to elements of the book as it flits between the female protagonist’s perspective and those of the agents working for each side. It delivers a satisfying ending yet one closes the book not sure who ‘won’ and if anyone really deserved to win.

Utterly astonishing and global in scope, though of course with good dollops of Germany and England as we come to expect.

Silverview – John Le Carré

At the time of writing, this was his last book, published posthumously from an essentially complete manuscript. In an afterword his son suggests that the manuscript had stayed in a drawer for some time not due to concerns over its quality, but because Le Carré feared it was ‘too close to the bone’ in its critique of his former colleagues in the British intelligence services. Personally I didn’t think it took a major detour from his usual critiques.

The usual quality is there, and many common themes are used from his previous works – the English seaside town, retired spies, the sense of British decline. Still, this is undoubtedly a new story, one told with care and grace as he delivers a final rebuke for the failings of international diplomacy as well as of ‘the Service’.

The scale is smaller than other of his tales, but this does not in any way diminish the emotional impact of its conclusion. He was just an amazing talent.

The Whitehall Effect – John Seddon

In many ways what John Seddon wrote in 2014 is well trodden ground for those of us steeped in the ways of system leadership and agile working. But he brings interesting examples and a helpful perspective to the question of why so many government programmes fail to deliver on their promises.

His argument is that the programmes are often poorly defined and led by people without the right skills who aren’t focussing on the right things. Harsh but often fair! He then shows examples of teams doing ‘study’ as he calls it, or discoveries in my world, which then roots teams into the lived experience of service users and staff before iterative work begins. To many that may seem obvious, yet others still aren’t sold so another strong book making the case can’t hurt!

notes from JK

Booklog: Three Women, Daniel, To Kill a Mockingbird & The Cat Who Liked Rain

As with many friends and acquaintances I found reading hard at the start of lockdown. After a couple of months I seemed to regain my appetite so here’s what I’ve got through. I’m missing libraries now…

Three Women – Lisa Taddeo

Powerful, brave, searing, brutal. This really is a masterpiece. Written with such beauty and clarity. Some of the sentences took my breath away. 

Nobody is normal. Nothing is ordinary. These are easily said but by delving into three women’s lives in crystalline detail we learn something essential about the American woman’s experience in the 2010s. About desire, about expectation, how men and women treat each other. About the guilt and doubt imposed through one’s own thoughts of what being a good parent or partner or friend should be. 

Some may balk at the very explicit details shared from each woman’s sexual experience in this book. But as a frank expose of love and desire it only works with that level of detail. 

Truly a masterful piece of work. 

Daniel – Henning Mankell

Beautiful, heart breaking. Perspective on how we are so easily drawn into exceptionalism for our culture, language, race and way of life. And how good intentions can cause harm if we don’t respect the agency of individuals. 

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

It’s a classic, and rightfully so. I had never read it. Now I have, and I’m glad. Powerful and beautiful. Still so relevant.

The Cat Who Liked Rain – Henning Mankell

In my obsession with Henning Mankell I’m now even reading this story he wrote for children. It’s a beautiful piece on childhood and loss – about a treasured cat going missing. I really loved it. It’s beautiful, sensitive and comforting in how it’s set in a very normal family.

notes from JK

Booklog: The World According to Star Wars & When I Die

The World According to Star Wars – Cass Sunstein

A book on what Star Wars can teach us about constitutional law, democracy and family relationships? Yes, yes and yes. Even better, it’s brilliant fun. Renowned scholar Cass Sunstein absolutely sparkles in this book where he swoops through what George Lucas’ creative process teaches us about life, how the Force relates to religion and why parents should watch Star Wars with their kids. I absolutely adored this book, it’s a real quirky gem. But I do have one bone to pick – Sunstein claims that no knowledge nor affinity for Star Wars is needed to enjoy the book. I disagree, it will make little sense if you haven’t watched all the films at least once. Indeed on reading the book I found great pleasure in re-watching them all again with new insight. Just a wonderful, unusual book from a brilliant mind.

When I Die – Phillip Gould

A short, searing book told mostly from the personal perspective of political strategist Phillip Gould as he is diagnosed with and ultimately dies from cancer. It’s emotional, wrenching at points but deeply worthwhile. This is clearly a man who loved his family, but also had a huge appetite for his work and politics. Once can sense the battles within him as he suspects his work ethic may have contributed to his illness, and threatens to distract him from precious, now definitely finite, time with his family. He mostly stays true to what he identifies as the purpose for his illness: To share the experience in a direct and moving way, to help others and change how we talk about death and dying. And of course to have the conversations and time he needs to have with those closest to him. The book closes with messages from his family and close friends. He achieved his purpose and something more. A wonderful book.

In fiction:

Women – Charles Bukowski
Brutal, unrelenting, salacious and disturbing and points. It feels incredibly real, even if it is a life one would never want to live, one feels privileged that somebody was able to capture a slice of LA lowlife as eloquently and with grit as Bukowski did.  

Agent Running in the Field – John Le Carré
There are few authors so consistently good as Le Carré. I feel completely inadequate in the presence of his writing, how can he be so good? As with the great Henning Mankell, Le Carré has a talent that borders on magic: Writing gripping tales that also expose the great issues of our time in new and powerful ways. This is what great fiction writing should do – help us grow, learn and feel in ways we could never otherwise do. It’s another masterpiece. 

notes from JK

Booklog: Reasons to Stay Alive and Exposure

Reasons to Stay Alive — Matt Haig

A searingly honest book. While by no means the first book exposing the private devastation poor mental health can bring; to me, this book marks a real breakthrough in how we talk about mental health. Why? Perhaps because Matt Haig isn’t a super-handsome, mega-successful star/artist/celeb opening up about their challenges once they’ve achieved legendary status (sorry Matt). He’s a pretty ordinary bloke*, a writer by trade, which obviously helps. So here we have this sensitive bloke with a calm, open and caring way about him sharing his experiences with depression and anxiety. That in itself is all too rare still – men opening up about how they feel, sharing their anxieties and sensitivities. It’s testament to Haig’s skill that this is a good read, quick and light despite the subject matter. If everyone read this book the world would be a kinder, calmer more understanding place with far less stigma over mental health. That’s quite an achievement for a book.

* Perhaps more accurately, he was a pretty ordinary bloke at the time of his breakdown, because since then he’s written some bestselling books some of which have become plays and one is soon to be a film!

Exposure — Michael Woodford

This is the true story of how Woodford, shortly after becoming Olympus’ first non-Japanese president becomes aware of what turns out to be a huge accounting scandal. Over many years the company’s senior leaders had surreptitiously gambled funds and hidden the subsequent losses through a series of shady transactions. Woodford’s attempts to resolve matters through appropriate channels led to huge resistance from his mentor and board. The result: the board ousted him and he is left wondering if his life is at risk from criminal elements potentially connected with some of the underhand deals. 

It’s a brilliant read and fascinating for me as someone interested both in business and Japan.  Some of it is a critique of Japan’s business culture, which feels especially relevant in light of the Carlos Ghosn saga. I’ve had this on my list for a long time because whistleblowing is something I think we need to do far more to protect and support. Woodford’s account is very well written, feels fairly open to recognising his own failings whilst point a bright light on corporate behaviours which sadly still persist in too many boardrooms.

In Fiction: I read ‘The Children of Men’ by P.D. James and it was astonishingly good. Eery reading it when main action is set in 2021. So close!

notes from JK

Booklog: Bumper 2019 roundup

To Sell is Human – Daniel Pink

In a wonderful, gentle way Pink shows that there’s nothing wrong with selling and that we all do it, probably more than ever. 

Ultimately he concludes that by being humble, humane and seeking to find mutual benefit in any ‘sale’ we are all able to be a better version of ourselves. One could argue the book is simply a digestion of many well known studies and truisms. But that’s to undervalue the power of the work Pink has done in organising these ideas into a clear and helpful narrative structure which certainly gave me the opportunity to rethink how I approach some interactions. 

Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed

Much of it feels familiar – perhaps because the examples are now well trodden business lore, which they probably weren’t when this first came out. But it still feels powerful and relevant. Syed’s essential argument is how we treat and react to failure is fundamental to whether we can learn and improve. Contrasting aviation and medical professions is compelling. It’s very easy to agree with the book’s core prescription, very much harder to follow-through, especially in complex organisations. 

The Secret Barrister

Learn about English legal system and huge strain it is under. How successive reforms which seemed sensible to outsiders actually harmed a system we hope we’ll never need, but assume will be sound should we need it. This isn’t just about austerity, it’s a broad and deep critique on how we have failed to care for the justice s system. This book does a superb job of accessibly exposing the issues.

Don’t Hold My Head Down – Lucy-Anne Holmes

Wow, what a frank, open and funny tale of a woman exploring her sexuality. When that woman happens to have been the founder of the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign you realise this is going to be very special, and it is.

The People vs Tech – Jamie Bartlett

Excellent, highly readable defence of politics and democracy over Silicon Valley tech utopia.  Really effectively and concisely brings together many of the key concerns around how big tech can put the wester democratic ideal at risk. Lots of good policy suggestions too… Other than the oxymoron of “secure online voting” !

Bad Pharma – Ben Goldacre

I’ve long followed Ben’s work, he has a brilliantly personal writing style. But I felt remiss in not reading any of his books, so here we go. I should disclose our orbits have slightly touched through work we’ve both done with the Open Knowledge Foundation and Open Rights Group. In fact, the word ‘open’ is the lodestone.

Bad Pharma is a great piece of activism, mandate for change and a searing analysis of how so many people in industry, medicine, professional bodies, regulators, publishers and more allow appalling behaviour to persist which result in death and harm to patients. It’s as simple as that. People knowingly let vast swathes of medical trial data be hidden, abused and mis-reported. Regulations are regularly skipped, skirted around or ignored with little or no consequence. Nearly every doctor in the world gets their ongoing professional education sponsored and curated by the pharma industry, with huge negative consequences on the cost and efficacy of prescribing. And most of this could be avoided with sunlight – openness and rigour at every step of the drug development and approval cycle.

At moments the book is utterly depressing but it comes through with a positive message and clear actions we can all take to challenge this situation. And Ben is working hard on brilliant work to improve things to, such as and more…

One more thing…

I don’t tend to mention my fiction reading here, but two epics I recently hugely enjoyed were Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore and Henning Mankell’s A Treacherous Paradise.

notes from JK

Booklog: Atomic Habits and The No-S DIET

Atomic Habits – James Clear

The author had dreams of a sporting career until a baseball bat came loose and landed in his face during a game, landing him in a coma. This isn’t a cheesy all-american kid come true motivational book though, thank goodness. It’s a genuinely engaging take on why we form habits and how to use greater understanding of how habits form to make positive changes for work, fitness or anything.

Essentially Clear argues that just showing up and doing something regularly, to build the habit, is enough to get you going and make a difference. So he argues that regularly doing one or two pushups every day at the same time (for example after walking the dog) is better than occasionally managing twenty. And through the cumulative impact of incremental improvement (like interest on a savings account) progress will mount and become noticeable.

Personally I love anything which unpacks and challenges the myth of ‘overnight success’. Just showing up every day, building a streak of doing the thing each time, breaks down even the toughest challenges to bite-size chunks. Some of my favourite examples in the book (of which there are many) relate to the comedians Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld each of whom are reported to have worked daily on their jokes in a relentless way their effortless delivery belies.

Clear’s book isn’t earth shattering, it doesn’t offer breakthrough new science. It’s a very well presented and thought through framework for understanding habits, how they form and when they can be a problem. That in itself is a valuable contribution.

I don’t think improving your habits will necessarily make you a better person, build your emotional intelligence or launch your music career. But they could make your life better by cracking a few things and just getting them done. And if you make your habit practicing guitar every day, then maybe that music career has a chance after all.

The No-S Diet – Reinhard Engels and Ben Kallen

I came across Reinhard Engels through Oliver Burkeman’s book Help. Engels, a librarian turned programmer based at Harvard, is a bit of an internet legend for coming up with a range of ‘Everyday Systems’ for dealing with the challenges he faced: getting enough exercise, quitting smoking and losing weight. All of his ideas he shares freely from his websites but popular demand led to this book being published on his most successful idea, the No-S Diet. I ordered it from one of those online discount used bookstores that ship from millions of miles away so it came weeks after I ordered, and forgotten about it. By strange coincidence it landed a few days after I’d started Atomic Habits, and it turns out they’re a perfect match.

No-S is essentially a specific habit building system for controlling eating. The system is to eat only three plates of food a day with no seconds, no snacks and no sweets. The exceptions when the rules don’t apply are ’S-days’ which are Saturday, Sunday and special days like birthdays. That’s it. And indeed the whole plan is on the cover of the book.

Still the book does have value as Engels explains more on how and why he came up with the plan, and why it works. The most compelling argument he makes, based on analysis of mainly US government data sets, is that an astonishing 90% of the growth in Americans’ calorie intake has been through snacks. In fact he claims the data shows that the average calorific value of American dinners has declined in the last few decades, whilst snacking has more than made up for it. He is scathing on the diet and fitness industry which hawks snacks and health bars at the same time as telling us to restrict our eating habits. Normalising snacking, in Engels’ view, is the slippery slope to losing control over what and when we eat.

Let me repeat that as it’s stunning… 90% of the extra calories eaten through the decades when those on Western diets have grown fatter than ever, come from snacks. Wow.

Let’s be cautious with our stats though, Engels only shows correlation and not causation. Still his case is a strong one when he brings in comparisons with other nations such as France and China who have low but growing snack intakes, matched by low but growing obesity.

I’ve become a bit of a snack watcher since reading the book – and I can report that my kids are obsessed with snacking. Is this the new normal? I hope not. Measures are being taken!

I can report that since I’ve been trying to No-S habits I have lost weight, my appetite feels more regulated and I can’t take as many sweet things as I could gobble before. One plate of food is plenty enough and I rarely feel tempted to snack now. Maybe he’s onto something? 

notes from JK

Booklog: Creative Selection & It doesn’t have to be crazy at work

Creative Selection – Ken Kocienda

Kocienda summarises his book, and conclusions about the Apple culture as: “A small group of people built a work culture based on applying the seven essential elements through an ongoing process of creative selection.” If that sounds a bit vague to you then it summarises the book which veers from detailed anecdote to attempts at generalisable theory of Apple.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. It’s fascinating to be able to get a glimpse inside how Apple worked during the gestation of the iPhone. That’s what got this book published. Yet… it feels wrong for one person to be letting us behind the curtain when that’s just not what Apple does, and this was clearly a team endeavour. Even if Kocienda is the most benign and kindly teller of the iPhone story, it’s nigh on impossible for him to do justice to all of the teamwork involved.

There are undoubtedly interesting tales in the book, and some superb attempts to simplify complex technical issues for a non-technical audience. If I was compiling a list of must-read Apple-ology books this wouldn’t make it. But if you’ve read everything and want a bit more then Creative Selection is an interesting few hours of detail, particularly around the development of Safari and the iPhone keyboard.

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work – Jason Fried & David Heinnmeier Hansson

I have long been a fan of Basecamp the product and company (which used to be known as 37Signals). I spent so much time using Basecamp when Head of Technology at Netmums that some nights I dreamt in Basecamp!

Fried and Heinmeier Hansson influenced my approach to development and I greatly respect their approach to business. This is their third book, and I enjoyed it immensely. I don’t think they’d be offended if I noted that all three books have been pretty similar in style and content. But Fried and Heinmeier Hansson have clearly iterated their thinking to improve and condense their key messages. This latest book is the most crisp and impactful of all.

It reads as a series of short, digestible chapters extolling a human(e) approach to business and software development. One of their key insights is to consider the company itself a product that needs to be continuously improved. There’s lots of good thinking packed in there such as “hire the work, not the resume”, “don’t meet, write” and “disagree and commit”.

A refreshing and uplifting read for anyone with an interest in how to improve work – highly recommended.

notes from JK

Booklog: City on the Line and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

City on the Line – Andrew Kleine

Andrew Kleine is an unabashed government budget nerd. But that’s ok, in fact it’s what has made his book so good. In it he reflects on his time as Budget Director for the City of Baltimore, taking the city government on a journey from siloed budgets as usual to ones focussed on outcomes, on value delivered for the citizen all informed by staff and citizen involvement. The book combines an engaging memoir of his time in Baltimore, a crisp analysis of why public sector budget processes often founder and a very approachable guide on how to adopt outcomes based budgeting in your own public authority. I absolutely loved it and have bought a pile of copies for colleagues at Essex County Council. It’s a journey we’re committed to going on too.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo is a professional tidier from Japan – yes she gets paid to help people organise and tidy their homes and offices! She has become something of a phenomenon with her own Netflix series and a range of books. Kondo tells how even from a very early age she had a fascination with tidying and organising, how she tried every trick, gadget and gimmick to keep her home and school organised. Through trial and error she has developed a very different approach to the typical keep-tidy books. This approach, the ‘KonMari Method’, provides a route map to rethinking what relationship one wants to have with our stuff. This leads one down to having much less stuff in a way that is easy to keep organised. It works – I’ve found it very powerful and useful. Watching some of the videos available online and Netflix do help to bring her techniques more to life.

What I also found interesting was – incredibly – how similar the core of Kondo’s techniques were to Kleine’s outcomes based budget approach. How so? Both are absolutely clear that nothing else matters in what they write if one cannot agree a clear sense of what the outcome you are seeking to achieve is. Obvious perhaps, but hard and it’s far too often that work sets underway before that clarity on outcome is achieved.

notes from JK

Booklog: The myth of the strong leader

The myth of the strong leader – Archie Brown

On the fundamental argument of this book, I completely agree. In short, Brown’s core argument is that far too much emphasis is placed by the media and political analysts on ‘heroic leaders’ being the source of success and change for their parties and governments. Indeed their influence on election results and delivering change is far less than many think is perhaps the most compelling case made in the book’s opening chapters. Then sadly this thread is lost as the author gives us his potted histories and opinions on a number of world leaders of the last century or so. 

While I found some of these parts to have some interest from a historical perspective, and being well written, they undermine the book’s case by barely mentioning the teams of people that worked with the leaders reviewed. Also the book verges on becoming more of a trot through the 20th century’s geopolitics – as seen by the author – than a book on leadership.

With a third of the pages and a greater focus on the core argument this book would have been far more powerful. Too much time is spent reviewing leaders’ histories and a typology of leaders without doing the leg work of explaining how they were part of much wider teams and collaborations.

notes from JK

Booklog: Scripts People Live and We Do Things Differently

Scripts People Live – Claude Steiner (2nd ed)

Wow. What a powerful, optimistic book. I wish I had had a chance to meet Claude Steiner as based on this, and his other books I’ve read, he was a humble and clear thinker pushing forward radical ideas. His obituaries give a hint of his impact. 

From some reviews and the introductory chapters one might be lulled into thinking that this is a theoretical work for practitioners, but it most certainly isn’t. It is in many respects a manifesto for helping oneself and others towards living a “good life” based on principles of honesty, equality and cooperation. 

Yes there is theory in there, and a range of common scripts people live, which are fascinating to explore in one’s own life context. But on finishing the book I felt they had just been the necessary building blocks for the concluding sections which argue powerfully for a harmonious way of living in our communities and how to raise children to ensure their autonomy, intuition and judgement. 

We Do Things Differently – Mark Stevenson

At the outset I worried this book could turn into an extended Wired magazine puff piece where a ‘heroic leader’ (nb that’s not a compliment in my lexicon) is going to solve a world problem with nothing but their charisma and amazing startup. There are moments in this book where it could go that way, but Stevenson is wise to such temptations. The book combines a travelogue, potted histories of major developments (e.g energy grids, industrialised agriculture), interviews with genuinely interesting people, new ideas and technologies along with inspirational projects which do give me hope for some of the intractable problems we face today.

Stevenson’s nifty wordsmithing and humility have crafted an uplifting book which manages to romp joyfully through the failings of drug trials by corporate pharma, crowd sourcing cures to TB, boosting rice yields organically, using air for power and cooling, local renewable power generation and storage, urban farming, participatory budgeting and schools reform. I finished the last page feeling uplifted and curious to learn more.