The Orenda – Joseph Boyden

“We had magic before the crows came…And we understood our magic.  We understood what the orenda implied.”

The orenda is a spiritual energy present in all natural things—humans, animals, plants, rocks, storms. If a hunter did well, his or her orenda was stronger than that of the game: a shaman had great personal orenda.

The Orenda is the story of three people: a Huron warrior; an Iroquois girl captured by the warrior; and a crow, a French missionary sent by his leaders to the Huron village. As the tale of early interaction between Huron and French is told, each of the three struggles wrestles to adapt and accommodate differences, with the two foreigners (Iroquois and French) each forcing the village to change in response to their presence.

Boyden carefully makes his characters complex: none of them are purely good or pure bad, but instead each has their blind spots and flaws. The Orenda takes events that many Canadians may be broadly familiar with and makes them visceral, giving us characters we can empathize with, even understand. The one odd note for me was the detailed descriptions of torture: though I appreciate he wanted to get historical facts right, I found I largely skipped through those sections, particularly after the first one.

The other note he strikes, one which has been controversial, is the issue of roles. He doesn’t paint the First Nations as solely victims: at one point, the narrator asks “what role did I play in the troubles that surround me?” There is a sequence of back-and-forth throughout the novel, as individuals wrong others and are wronged in turn—sometimes they forgive and grow past it, sometimes not.

I read this book in almost one sitting: I’d highly recommend it, though I might also recommend skipping the torture scenes. It won the 2014 Canada Reads Competition.

Winning the Brain Game – Matthew E. May

“I intended this book to be a mindful guide–complete with a super-curated set of battle-tested tools–for using our minds to win the games our brains are hardwired to play on us…this struggle of mind over matter is the brain game.”

When you’re confronted with a problem, is the first thing you do brainstorm solutions? That’s not a bad approach, but you might be able to do better. Winning the Brain Game suggests starting with ‘framestorming’ – before you generate solutions, try to generate as many different frames of the problem as possible, so that you don’t get trapped in one line of thinking.

Winning the Brain Game aims to identify the fatal mental flaws we are subject to, and ways we can overcome them. It is written very much from an applied perspective: May compares himself to a ‘jeweler trying to fix a broken wristwatch, not a philosopher pontificating on time’.

Reframing is May’s solution to the first flaw: leaping to the solution without understanding the problem. He identifies six others: overthinking things, getting fixed on specific ideas, satisficing, focusing on an easier but different problem, rejecting ideas that aren’t our own, and self-censoring. For each, he also presents a mindset that can help us overcome that flaw, giving the book a nice problem-solution structure.

Where the book loses steam is in categorizing the errors. He opens each chapter with a motivating story, and it isn’t always clear how the anecdote supports his point. It’s not a clear a marathon runner who doesn’t know their own limits, and so excels, is an example of someone who refuses to downgrade a problem to make it easier, for example. His categories also sometimes seem to overlap or contradict each other: overthinking is both a flaw and a solution in the sense of using system 2 instead of system 1.

Overall, some compelling examples and nice applied structure, but it could have done with a bit more care in setting out the flaws in thinking, and to catch a few small errors such as mistaken citations – he mistakenly suggests Schwartz conducted the famous jam study on choice, for example, instead of Iyengar and Lepper.

Disclosure: I read the book as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: Winning the Brain Game.

The New Russia – Mikhail Gorbachev

“You, M. Diderot, propose sweeping changes, but you write on paper, which is very durable, whereas I must write on human skin, and that is very sensitive.” – Catherine the Great, to Diderot

Gorbachev is a titanic figure in modern history. American stories of victory aside, it takes two to end a war peacefully, and Gorbachev played that role in the USSR. Without him the outcome, though possibly the same in the end, could have been much more violent.

In The New Russia, Gorbachev looks back on Russia’s recent history. His key message is the importance of dialogue and cooperation, the same notes that led to the end of the Cold War. Gradualism and a middle path, he suggests, are fundamental to achieving real, sustainable change, in contrast to the shock therapy in Russia in the 90s, or the Arab Spring today. He also emphasizes the cost to people: he quotes Catherine the Great above as a reason to be careful in making changes, least the changes hurt those who can handle it least.

He issues a clarion call for democracy: one built on the cultural characteristics, traditions, mentality and national character of the relevant nation, but one that also has certain basic features. He highlights regular honest elections, a stable constitutional order, a balance of power between the three orders of government, competition between political parties, respect for basic human rights, a just and impartial legal system, and a developed civil society as essential to a successful democracy, no matter where.

The New Russia underscores one of the fundamental tensions between the US and Russia today. Russia sees itself as a great power, one that should be consulted at every turn: indeed, for most of history it has been. In the last twenty years, however, it has not been, and its pride is deeply wounded. Were positions reversed, and the USA a declining power, I suspect it would feel identically. Unfortunately, this pride and belief in its own exceptionalism leads to a scrabble for power that, even when as in Syria it works, can be enormously costly to the world.

The only weakness for me was the limited discussion of Ukraine and Syria. Having written a book about the need for dialogue and cooperation, Russia’s interventions in both countries appear only at the end, and are not well discussed or analyzed. It would have been fascinating to hear his thoughts on both.

The New Russia is a little longer than it needs to be. Like many politicians, Gorbachev remains wounded by some hurts he took while in power, and he discusses them at more length than necessary, making parts of the book a bit slow. Still, given Russia’s recent surge in activity, a book worth reading.

Disclosure: I read this book as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: The New Russia.

Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City – Philip Mansel

“What is left of Aleppo has become a city of bread queues, electricity and water cuts, rationing and road-blocks. Rubble and rubbish fill the streets…Aleppo had once carried a message: that different races and religions can coexist in the same city.”

When I visited Aleppo ten years ago, its citadel towered over the city, and the souqs below it sprawled in a fascinating adventure. It wasn’t a tourist hub, but perhaps for that reason people were tremendously friendly, as they were across Syria. All of that is effectively gone, and Syria is undergoing a heartbreaking loss of memory. For that reason, books like Aleppo are tremendously timely.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world: humans have lived there since the 5th millennium BC. Standing as it does between the Middle East and Europe, it has served as a cultural melting pot for almost that long, prizing diversity as a means to trade. When one sultan was asked to expel the Jews, he responded that flowers were shown to best advantage when mixed with others of different colours, and refused.

Aleppo focuses on the history of the city under the Ottoman Empire, when it was a major economic hub. Camels and caravans from India, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Erzurum, Damascus, and the Arabian Peninsula stopped at Aleppo before heading to the Mediterranean and Europe, meeting merchants from Venice, England, France, and across Europe going the other way. Lawrence of Arabia would remember it as a place of coexistence, shaped by the civilization that had wheeled around it without being overtaken by them. Today, its population has fallen from two million to less than a quarter of that.

Having introduced the history in its first half, Aleppo’s second half is excerpts of travel diaries from travelers who visited it during the Ottoman period. I found these a bit disappointing, since a number of them are difficult to follow without considerable background knowledge. They do have highlights, however: there is a particularly thoughtful essay by Francis William Newman, younger brother of the future cardinal, and Gertrude Bell’s comments are also very good. The diaries do not shy from detail: one striking passage explains attempts to avoid Aleppo Button, which caused nasty boils, by taking a person already badly infected and taking some of the boil and injecting it into someone as a vaccination.

My favourite part, however, are the Aleppine proverbs the author shares, almost all of them trade-related. If you do business with a dog, you should call him sir; excess is obnoxious, even in religious worship; the piaster equips its owner with seven languages; the greatest blessing is in things concealed from view.

The book isn’t perfect, and its structure can be a bit hard to follow or absorb. It does, however, provide an important reminder of the happy and glorious history Syria has had, and for people interested in the city, it’s a fun and interesting read.

Disclosure: I read Aleppo as an Advance Reader Copy. It is released April 26th.

Simpler: The Future of Government – Cass R. Sunstein

This book is “about how governments can be much better, and do much better, if they make people’s lives easier and get rid of unnecessary complexity.” – Simpler

Regular readers will have noted I haven’t posted for several weeks – my apologies. I have just started a new job, and the adjustment period for getting up to speed has taken some time. It’s been busy! I am hoping to start getting back to a regular review schedule, however.

In the spirit of being busy, however, I thought I’d start with Simpler. The book’s point is an obvious one: we would be better off if the world was a little less complicated, and governments should do their part to help. Where it gets difficult, of course, is in the details.

Simpler opens with the charming story of Sunstein’s first date with Samantha Power, his future wife (and yes, the U.S. ambassador to the UN): when she asked him what his dream job was, he dreamily admitted it was to lead OIRA, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House. Not everybody’s dream job, but one he would end up having under Obama, overseeing the creation of regulations across government.

The book is a collection of the lessons Sunstein has learned serving in government and approaches he adopted at OIRA to improve regulation, from retrospective analysis to cost-benefit studies. He argues that governments fail to make things simple, whether because they neglect it to focus on other things, because they believe it doesn’t matter, or because they don’t realize that the laws they pass are not, in fact, simple. Adding simplicity can increase compliance, make people’s lives better, and ensure that the best possible policies are passed.

Unfortunately, simplicity is generally an uncontroversial good; the challenge is doing it, not wanting it. As a result, the book spends quite a bit of time discussing nudges, the subject of Sunstein’s last book, and it doesn’t add much to what was written there. I would have preferred more time spent on some of his experiences as head of OIRA trying to simplify, both successes and failures. The elephant in the room is also that many of Obama’s laws are not exactly simple: for all the benefits of the tools he argues for, alone they aren’t enough to enable simplicity.

Sunstein is clearly right. Simplicity is good, and the more we can base policies on evidence the better. If you already believe that, I’m not sure this book will push your understanding farther, and if you don’t, I suspect you won’t read the book. If what you want is a a brief overview of some useful regulatory approaches—experiments, retrospective analysis, cost-benefit, and others—then the book is not a bad place to start, however.

Frederick the Great – Tim Blanning

“He thinks like a philosopher but behaves like a king.” – Rousseau, referring to Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great played music with Bach, corresponded with Voltaire, and took a strong but second rate power—Prussia—and gave it a seat at the top table. During the Seven Years War, he would manage to hold off an alliance of all three great powers of continental Europe (France, Russia, and Austria), defeating and being defeated in turn but maintaining his hold on the rich farmlands of Silesia that provided the wealth Prussia needed.

His achievements are perhaps not as outwardly impressive as Napoleon. But Frederick the Great took a group of territories and managed to unite and hold them against all comers, creating the foundation of the modern German state. During and after his reign, he was both hero-worshipped and denigrated. Perhaps most shockingly to his contemporaries, he was devoutly secular, espousing complete freedom of religion and in his private notes repeatedly mocking religion. He was also likely homosexual, though concrete evidence does not exist either way.

Perhaps his most defining trait, however, was decisiveness, and that trait lay at the heart of his many military successes as well as some of his failures. He dismissed (with Voltaire) German as fit only for peasants and horses, called Rousseau a lunatic, and criticized Shakespeare. He wrote a paper arguing kings should avoid war when possible, and invaded a neighbouring state three months later. He was a complicated monarch, and it takes a deft hand to write his biography.

Blanning’s greatest strength is perhaps is ability to relate the events and ideals of Frederick’s life to more universal ones, not shying from telling a story not just of Frederick, but of fathers and sons, royalty, and officialdom more generally. At those points, the book is excellent, reaching beyond military biography to the personal in his consideration of Frederick’s relationship with his father, for example.

Unfortunately the book can also at times be repetitious and somewhat disorganized. Reaching the end of Frederick’s empire-building by the middle of the book, it loses some of its flow: what interests historians is not always what interests readers, and unfortunately at points the book focuses too much on the former audience and not enough on the latter. Still, a worthy attempt to address what remains a complicated subject.

Disclosure: I read Frederick the Great as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: Frederick the Great. It is released March 29th.

Unaccountable – Kevin Page

“At its core, the parliamentary budget officer position as created in 2006 was to be responsible for forecasting the cost of purchases resulting from specific policies.” – Unaccountable

Budget Offices, whether congressional or parliamentary, serve to my mind a very important function. It is too easy for governments to fudge numbers: to take a trite example, the economy is always reported as doing well just before an election, but if another party wins they always conclude that it is actually doing terribly. Budget Offices provide essential analysis that helps support transparency and good decision-making.

Unfortunately, if that’s what you’re interested in, Unaccountable doesn’t add much. It is written almost entirely for partisans, and if you’re interested in economics, public policy, or budget offices, the book offers little in terms of details or facts. It focuses largely on the fact that when the PBO asked for information, the conservative government in power refused them. I’m sure that’s true, but having acknowledged that I would have liked the book to move on, not just repeat the same thing ad nauseam.

Kevin Page is a devoted civil servant and I suspect highly competent—he would have to be to have succeeded as PBO. I was disappointed, therefore, that this book didn’t provide more. He’s clearly very bitter about his experience, and perhaps that has affected his entire worldview. While leading the PBO, for example, he suggested the government intentionally misled Canadians. Though probably true he has no evidence for it, and I suspect making such claims without evidence only costed the PBO credibility. Throughout the book, because he doesn’t come across as unbiased or even self-aware, it’s hard to know how much credibility to give him.

Perhaps the strongest section is the final chapter, where he considers the future of the civil service. Even there, unfortunately, he skirts issues rather than engaging with them though: he argues that civil servants should provide information directly to Canadians, for example, but doesn’t mention how that fits with the Westminster model of a neutral civil service that serves the government of the day.

Smarter Faster Better – Charles Duhigg

“Productivity, put simply, is the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort.” – Smarter Faster Better

Google, being Google, spent considerable time trying to crunch the data on what makes teams work. Their results were surprisingly useful; that it is not who, but how, that matters. In the best teams members speak roughly in proportion, and members feel safe in contributing ideas and making mistakes without worrying about status or being criticized. Though it sounds trivial, it led to an extensive retraining for managers, who are now expected to model these behaviours, calling on quieter members and acknowledging mistakes of their own.

Smarter Faster Better’s broad point is that there are general strategies we can adopt to make ourselves and our teams more productive, whether it’s generating motivation by finding a decision we can control to start with, using clear mental models of how the work will be done, setting SMART and stretch goals, or learning to forecast the future better (that last one we learn by studying world class poker players, who, I must admit, do spend a lot of time thinking about how to predict the future).

The most compelling chapter for me was the one on agile management; Duhigg tracks the evolution of the management style, which involves decentralizing solving problems to those closest to the problem, through Toyota to Silicon Valley and even, in 2012, to the FBI’s design of their Sentinel IT system. Though it’s not a complicated concept, I think it has some principles my own life and work could benefit from. In an appendix, he also shares his application of the strategy to his writing of the book, and that was probably the most interesting part of the entire book.

Duhigg wrote the excellent Power of Habit, and this book takes much the same approach. It attempts to illustrate through anecdote conclusions he has drawn more generally. This book is not as strong as his first; it lacks the same clear organizing principle, and some of his productivity advice applies to firms, some to teams, and some to individuals. That isn’t bad, but it makes it feel a little more disorganized. That said, his first book was also particularly strong, and this one, though a little more light on content and perhaps more of a holiday read than the last, is still entertaining.

Disclosure: I read it as an advance reader copy. You can preorder Smarter Faster Better here. It comes out March 3rd.

History’s People – Margaret MacMillan

“Our understanding and enjoyment of the past would be impoverished without its individuals, even though we know that history’s currents — its underlying forces and shifts, whether of technology or political structures or social values — must never be ignored.” – History’s People

In the 1980s, it was believed that stress caused ulcers. Dr. Barry Marshall, a relatively unknown internal medicine specialist in Australia, believed it was bacteria that caused ulcers and indeed most stomach cancers, but the medical establishment remained highly skeptical, as did the drug companies, which were making a considerable profit on antacids and antidepressants. To convince them, Marshall downed a mix made of bacteria from the stomach of one of his patients. He did indeed get ulcers. He took antibiotics and got better. And in 2005 he got the Nobel Prize for medicine. (He now works on flu vaccines).

Learning history by reading biographies is tricky; it is always hard to tell if the hero makes the times, or the times the hero. History’s People avoids that issue entirely, arguing that both clearly matter, but that regardless studying biography gives us insight into history in a way that more general studies can never do. She chooses 5 themes–leadership, hubris, daring, curiosity, and observation—and chooses a handful of figures from history, both Canadian and international, to illustrate and illuminate the idea.

MacMillan is one of the world’s preeminent historians, and as usual her writing is clear and compelling. History’s People is based on a series of radio lectures she gave (The Massey lectures), and rather than attempting to present full biographies, she introduces brief vignettes that give us a flavour of their lives and the trait she is trying to demonstrate. The method works very well, and manages to achieve both breadth and depth. This book won’t teach you history, but if you like history, you’ll relish reading it.

Memoirs – Brian Mulroney

“What would be said of a generation that sought the stars but permitted its lakes and streams to languish and die?” – Mulroney

Mulroney was the second-ever Conservative Canadian Prime Minister to be re-elected for a second term (the first was John A, Canada’s first PM). He was also deeply unpopular at several points during his time in office, and remains very controversial. He did, however, orchestrate a number of policies with lasting impact: the Free Trade Agreement with the US, introducing the GST, fighting South African Apartheid, encouraging Quebec to join La Francophonie, moderating spending after the large increase in national debt from Pierre Trudeau, and signing an acid rain agreement with the US.

His memoirs are not a post-politics, statesman’s view of his time in office, so if you’re looking for objectivity look elsewhere. He clearly still has strong feelings on some of the events that occurred, particularly what he sees as a betrayal by Pierre Trudeau when Trudeau violently opposed Mulroney’s attempt to get Quebec to agree to the Canadian constitution at Meech Lake – Trudeau brought in the Canadian constitution in 1982 without the approval of Quebec, and Mulroney believed that without a deal that brought Quebec in from the cold, separatism was a real threat. Whether that’s true or not remains disputed, and Trudeau argued that Mulroney was simply pandering to Quebec.

At some points it feels like he’s trying to rewrite history by putting his own views forward. He is also charmingly frank on some points, however, and comes across as a phenomenally gifted negotiator and master of interpersonal relations. Almost all his major successes were about negotiation, from international treaties and fighting apartheid in South Africa, to negotiating constitutional agreements with unanimous support from the provinces, something even Pierre Trudeau couldn’t manage. His relationships with others served Canada well at a number of junctures, including when the UK attempted to stop the expansion of the G-5 to include Canada, an attempt that almost succeeded until Reagan, who got along famously with Mulroney, stood up and refused to be part of a club that didn’t have Canada as a member. I would guess that’s why he is still angry about Trudeau: he took a perceived betrayal hard.

Perhaps his most enduring legacy, interestingly, has been the environment. In 2006 he was honoured as the Greenest PM in history: beyond signing the acid rain treaty, he created eight new national parks and brought in the environmental protection act, and remains vocal about global warming. Quite a contrast to more modern Conservative party positions.