Books Read in the First Half of 2021

As a reference, my grading scale is:

Two Stars: Not recommended, except for those very interested in the subject.

Three Stars: Recommended, may cover too niche a topic to get a stronger recommendation for a broad audience, is only high-level coverage of its theme, or just moderately interesting fiction.

Four Stars: Recommended, well-written, and covers material I think most people would find useful or interesting.

Five Stars: Strongly recommended to everyone.

Additionally, I pick one book every six months as the “best book I’ve read” during that time period.

Themes from these six months:

  • Con Artists
  • Product Management
  • Poker and Las Vegas
  • Chess
  • Debt
  • TV Sitcom Family Ties
  • Amazon
  • Venture Capital
  • CRISPR and Gene Editing

Two Stars

Anticipate: The Architecture of Small Team Innovation and Product Success – by Ronald Brown

Three Stars:

Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Five Days – by Jake Knapp with John Keratsky and Braden Kowitz

Based on the team’s experience at Google and consulting with startups, the authors assembled a guide for a new way to generate and test new ideas. While it isn’t a guide to delivering fully baked products, and focuses more on design and user experience than making anything functionally work, it does provoke the reader to think about his or her team could be always moving more quickly, more efficiently toward solutions customers will actually care about, not what you think they do.

No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality – by Michael J. Fox

I grew up watching the sitcom Family Ties after school on TV Land, or on Nick at Nite, I’m not sure which. It was my first introduction to Michael J. Fox as the high school yuppie capitalist Alex P. Keaton. This was a character I related to at a young age, which should’ve been concerning to my parents.

Fox’s most recent memoir tells the story of his life since he left the show Spin City in the 90s, as his Parkinson’s disease escalated to debilitating levels, at least to the point of interfering with his ability to fulfill his acting obligations.

Despite losing some control of his motor skills, he has not lost his voice or sense of humor. Unlike some celebrity bios which can feel ghostwritten, this feels like it was actually written by Fox, or at least recited to someone for typing. His unique, playful, youthful humor still shines through both his age and life experiences.

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

Duke has made her living off her decision-making abilities as a professional poker player. Here she’s compiled a collection of thoughts based on her extensive reading into both the natural and social science academic work on the topic. My enjoyment was held back by her use of a couple examples I quibble with, specifically opening the book with the controversial Pete Carroll Super Bowl 49 play-call (which I don’t believe was nearly as clear-cut a good or bad call as she presents). Still, this is a good overview of mental models for improved decision making.

Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy and How to Make Them Work For You

Don’t Fall for It: A Short History of Financial Scams – by Ben Carlson

The Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It – by Scott Kupor

Ask Your Developer: How to Harness the Power of Software Developers and Win in the 21st Century – by Jeff Lawson

Lawson, founder of highly successful software business Twilio, has written a combination of his personal story and Twilio’s, which are inextricably linked. Memoirs of his experiences (as cofounder of a failed dotcom startup then early product manager at Amazon Web Services) map to lessons he would later apply in his philosophy at Twilio. In this regard, I’d probably use a similar format if I one day wrote my own business biography.

Some key tenants being: Software engineers should be increasingly treated as leaders of business decisions (not as robotic resources), the average software engineer nowadays is not the 80s white male nerd stereotype, and the people doing the work will know best what tools they should use to get things done.

Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work That Matters – by Ryan SingerFame: The Hijacking of Reality – by Justine Bateman

Basecamp, a small but vocal web software company, is known for publishing books on its opinionated way of working. The latest in its series is by its head of product, Singer, about their product development process. Readers can always count on Basecamp to present experimental ideas. I would call them innovative but it may be premature to call them decisively successful.

From a practical standpoint, there are two ideas here that stood out as unique: eliminating the concept of “backlogs” (if an idea is important, it’ll naturally be brought up often enough that consensus will converge on agreement) and structuring project work in six-week segments.

Perhaps these can’t and shouldn’t be applied to all products and businesses, but it succeeds in making you rethink your assumptions about how product organizations should work.

Fame: The Hijacking of Reality – by Justine Bateman

This was not what I expected, which was either a celebrity memoir (for those not in the know, Justine was mega-famous for her starring role on the 80s sitcom Family Ties) or an academic analysis attempting to define the concept of “fame.”. Upfront, she makes explicit that the book won’t be either of those things. What we get instead is an interesting semi-stream-of-consciousness explaining the emotional roller coaster of life before, during, and after fFame. It’s short, energetic, and conveys what should be an obvious message but apparently isn’t based on people’s behavior: fame is not as important as you think it is.

VC: An American History – by Tom Nicholas

Harvard Professor Nicholas has written a compelling chronicling of the history of Venture Capital, back to its pre-Silicon Valley roots of wealthy families investing in 19th century whaling expeditions. My main takeaway is how inextricably linked the present is with the past, and not just because a historian has presented it as such. The wealthy families of the East Coast Industrial Revolution directly translated into being the major investors who ended up funding the development of Silicon Valley, along with government policies and funding which succeeded in supporting small business innovation.

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win – by Maria Konnikova

You can picture the publisher pitch: A psychologist-slash-journalist with an academic background in decision-making asks a poker champion to take her on as a mentee with a one-year plan to go from novice to competitor in next year’s World Series of Poker.

It plays out mostly as you’d expect. Much of her poker story is relaying the wisdom of her mentor, Eric Seidel, and other poker pros she meets along her journey. That journey is typical enough: start playing online poker games to learn the rules and pace, up to the small local casinos, before getting into the bigtime tournaments, and lastly world travel.

Along the way, she weaves her lessons in poker with her past research into chance and human perception of it. Much of that information I found less informative, given I’ve read and reviewed a lot of other books on the subject.

That said, given the predictability (pun intended), Konnikova’s story weaves together a gaming action-thriller with the philosophy of luck in an engaging, readable way.

The Queen’s Gambit: A Novel – by Walter Tevis

I read this book because I didn’t want to leave the story when the Netflix series ended. That’s the bias disclaimer.

Now having read the series, the mini-series structure was perfect for adapting the material to the screen. Tevis writes with a quick pace, incredibly covering huge swaths of time (more than could’ve been covered in a movie) without the reader feeling like it lacks detail.

The main differences between the show and the book are the Cold War overtones (lessened on Netflix, more of a foreboding undercurrent in the book) and the mother (played up for flashbacks in the show which aren’t in the book). This makes sense, given the time in which Tevis was writing compared to what may be relevant to the modern TV viewer.

From the perspective of someone who watched the show first, you don’t need to read the book, but you won’t regret it either if you, like me, want to spend a little more time in Beth Harmon’s world.

Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins – by Garry Kasparov with Mig Greengard

Kasparov, once the world chess champion, signed Deep Thinking for me when he was promoting it at the 2017 Techcrunch Disrupt conference in NYC. For four years, this autographed copy sat on my shelf. With The Queen’s Gambit renewing my (and many others) interest in chess, I finally cracked this open.

For those unaware, what makes Kasparov unique among the long line of world chess champions was his high-profile loss to Deep Blue, an IBM chess computer which was the first to beat the reigning human champion in a tournament match (and presumably inspired the title of this book). Here, Kasparov writes what are two parallel biographies: the history of chess computers competing against humans up until his fateful 1997 clash with Deep Blue, and the broader implications for artificial intelligence along the way.

Greengard, a longtime English writing accomplice for the Russia-born Kasparov, spins Garry’s tales into poetic prose. The reader feels, with a combined gravity and humanity, Kasparov’s unique combination of legendary intellectual skill and human frailty once it is pitted against the truly superhuman.

The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives – Lisa Servon

Servon, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in poverty and urban development, joins a payday loan business to get a journalistic-like inside scoop on the highly controversial industry. What she discovers surprises her. Both the business and the customers seem to have a much more respect for one another than she anticipated.

She places much of the blame for issues with the industry and the reason it exists on the big banks (who have abused overdraft fees which cost people as much as the interest payments on payday loans) and racism (society shutting out minorities from mainstream employment and financial options forces them to alternatives).

How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy – by Mehrsa Baradaran

This was a hot book in the socioeconomic scene when it hit in 2015. Author and professor Baradaran tells the story of the other side of the “too big to fail” coin following the 2008 financial crisis: while big banks were getting bailed out, individuals were on their own. But we shouldn’t have been surprised. Baradaran spends the first half of the book untangling the long intertwined history banking and governments have had since both their inceptions.

I was most surprised that the book is less about how the poor bank (see The Unbanking of America for that) and generally about how the retreat of big banks from serving the poor created a boom in alternative financial institutions. The conclusion is not one I expected (advocacy for “postal banking”, a.k.a post offices providing bank accounts). I’m glad though, it’s a well-researched history of government-banking relations and the under-pursued alternatives to our current system.

A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution – by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg

This is the book on the state of gene editing by one of last year’s Nobel Prize winners (Doudna) and one of her chief proteges (Sternberg). It’s a little slow going as the writing gets occasionally bogged down in the scientific details, and the ethical discussion in the later chapters is covered well in other books by more experienced journalistic writers. Of course, it’s still important to read about these topics from one of the pioneers of the field.

Four Stars

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams – by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister

Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon – by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr

Two Amazon executives (one was Bezos’s Chief of Staff and the other ran Prime Video) have come together to write a practical handbook for how to run a business the Amazon way. Working Backwards is split in two parts: the first half is the guide, the second is examples of the ideas at work in building some of Amazon’s most popular products (Kindle, Prime, and Web Services).

Stories about the history of product creation in the second book sometimes veer a little more into Amazon storytelling (as opposed to the first half’s straightforward advice) than I would like, but I took way more notes than expected. This is a good guide if you want to understand how Amazonians operate.

Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos – by Jeff Bezos with Introduction by Walter Isaacson

Isaacson, known primarily as a biographer, works here as a compiler of Jeff Bezos’s writing and speeches. The content gets a bit repetitive (I would have organized the book a bit more like Lawrence Cunningham’s compilation of Warren Buffett’s writing — by theme, not chronology), but Bezos is one of the best business minds of our lifetimes, so it’s really hard to overrate the best of what he’s said.

Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman, and the Race to Own Las Vegas – by Christina Brinkley

There was once a man who had the idea to build a city out of a desert stop-over for GI’s on their way to the West Coast. And that man’s name was Bugsy Siegel and that city was Las Vegas.

Half a century later, the once roaring Vegas known for Sinatra had, by the late 80s, fallen into disrepair and lost its glamorous luster. This provided the opportunity of a lifetime for those bold enough to bet on their instincts and a belief that a strip of desert land could be something special.

Thus began the war, hotly contested from the mid-1990s to mid-2010s, of Vegas’s resurgence with a vengeance. Steve Wynn and Kirk Kerkorian, through their own friendly rivalry, rebuilt Vegas into a family-friendly Disney World of indulgence, with theme park style hotels, expensive shows with celebrity residencies, and luxury art and cuisine that we come to associate with Vegas today. And Gary Loveman used the non-Vegas casino chain Harrah’s lucrative regional riverboat business to vault himself to the top of the Vegas gambling business with an expensive gambit to takeover the legendary Caesar’s Palace.

This is an entertaining modern history of the most infamous city in the world.

Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire – by Brad Stone

From the author of The Everything Store, a biography of Amazon’s founding, comes this sequel telling the Amazon story since his last book left off around 2010. In the decade since, Amazon has added a trillion dollars in market value to its stock by launching major new businesses such as Amazon Web Services and Prime Video. In parallel, founder Jeff Bezos expanded his personal empire by buying The Washington Post and starting space tech company Blue Origin.

Brad Stone does an exceptional job in providing a balanced perspective. Amazon dislikes unions partially for the valid reasons that unions have historically prevented Amazon from shipping packages as fast to customers as possible, counter to Amazon’s “customer first” approach. At the same time, Amazon seemingly does not always “work backwards” (as they like to say) from the customer’s perspective considering most of the major pivotal decisions at Amazon still stem from the mind and energy of the founder at the top.

Additionally, Stone’s journalistic efforts are clear, with this book providing unique scoops on who the Alexa voice actress is and sordid details of the Bezos mistress affair. All these factors combined make for a definitive account of the world’s richest man and one of the world’s most powerful companies. If The Everything Store was a startup story or Godfather 1, this is Godfather 2.

Quick Cash: The Story of the Loan Shark by Robert Mayer

Professor Mayer has written a compelling history and critique of the American loan shark, spanning many different types of financial products we would all wrap under the label of “payday lending”. Remarkably, Mayer presents comprehensive arguments for all constituents in the payday debates: the lenders, regulators, consumers, and ancillary financial institutions such as big banks and credit unions. As someone who works in the subprime lending industry, why personal loans exists, who benefits, and who is hurt is a nuanced conversation that is rarely treated as such.

It is academic without being dry, but most importantly, it’s intellectually balanced while still allowing the author to put forth his position in a logical way that’s derived from first principles (primarily prohibiting payday loans).

The Caesar’s Palace Coup: How a Billionaire Brawl Over the Famous Casino Exposed the Power and Greed of Wall Street – by Max Frumes and Sujeet Indap

Not since Barbarians at the Gate has complex corporate financial transactions been explained in such intricate detail without losing the story’s suspense. Whereas that book chronicled the buildup of a leveraged buy-out, The Caesar’s Palace Coup explains the modern aftermath.

The famous casino company got dismantled by greedy investors in the past couple decades. Without spoiling the financial twists, the innovative legal approaches the equity (“stock”) investors took to extract money from the business while attempting to force their creditors and bankers to lose money is shocking to those trained in the classical idea that those who lend money have more control over their debtors than vice versa.

This book can get more technical in parts that I could see boring the non-accountant readers. But for those intrigued by the 3D chess games that are financial markets and corporate strategy at the most white-collar level, the Caesar’s story is a thriller.

The Gambler: How Penniless Dropout Kirk Kerkorian Became the Greatest Deal Maker in Capitalist History – by William Rempel

Author Rempel wrote this biography after his subject, Kerkorian, passed away a few years ago. Oddly enough, Kerkorian’s death is a day I remember distinctly for texting a friend in finance when I heard the news. Kerkorian was such a significant a figure in the history of American business, and one of the least well-known in my generation.

Perhaps no other American billionaire in the last 100 years has had quite the same set of traits as Kerkorian: truly self-made from nothing, and an ability to parlay success in one industry (starting with his own airline after World War 2) into an even bigger success in different industries (branching into Las Vegas casinos, the MGM movie studio, and significant holdings in carmaker Chrysler).

Less known to me going into this story was his profusive philanthropy, especially the tens of millions donated back to his war-torn homeland of Armenia. It’s hard to tell if this book is a hagiography, or if Kerkorian really was the most beloved billionaire.

The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, The Financial Genius Behind A Century of Wall Street Scandals – by Frank Partnoy

My seventh grade history teacher of mine always said, “Times change, people don’t.” This phrase comes to my mind whenever I hear people shocked by the news of a Jeffrey Epstein island, a Bernie Madoff scheme, or Elon Musk’s outlandish antics.

A century before them all was Ivar Kreuger, who in relative terms for his era, reached greater heights as measured by political power than them all. Summarized, his scheme was to take a reasonably boring business, making matches (the kind for lighting cigarettes, not dating), and expand the business into a global match monopoly by raising millions (billions today) from investors via stocks, bonds, and a variety of financial instruments that were original innovations of their time and have since become mainstays in finance. 

An astute reader can probably guess where this leading without me having to spoil Kreuger’s fate.

As with all corporate fraud stories, they are only able to succeed because they’re built on some small foundation that’s real. Enron’s pipelines moved real oil and gas. If Theranos’s technology actually worked, it would’ve been as valuable as they claimed. And for Swedish Match, well, everyone understands what a match is and thought it could be a real business.

At the Kreuger story’s core is an often unknowable question: When someone commits a white-collar crime destroying millions of people’s lives by taking their money, were they a well-intentioned idiot, or were they purposely stealing all along?


The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet – by John Green

John (and his brother Hank) Green are fiction authors I’ve heard are popular but whose content (books or their popular podcast) I’ve never consumed. I didn’t even know John had a new book out until I saw its colorful cover on the shelf of my neighborhood bookstore. The inside flap sold me on it; it’s his first published collection of non-fiction.

The book has a delightful premise. Green applies the method of 5-star reviews, made mainstream by the internet, to various aspects of his life and modernity. The format is more framework than gimmick, as Green’s gift is the ability to amplify the pleasures of life from the little things. Having never read his novels, I suspect this is what people enjoy about them.

Even the negatives of the book, primarily its overuse of quotes, is self-acknowledged without seeming disingenuous.

And personally, I was surprised at how many things he reviewed that I have a particular affinity for:

  • The Great Gatsby: My favorite novel.
  • Dr. Pepper: My favorite soda.
  • The Yips: A fascinating phenomena with a great name which I never hear outside of sports radio.
  • Mario Kart: John is more than a decade older than I am, but the feeling of playing these videogames seems universal and unconstrained by time.

Five Stars

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century – by Jessica Bruder

The 2008 financial crisis irreparably altered the livelihoods of millions of Americans. Nomadland is the story of this group of people and the grit and ingenuity they’ve shown in surviving in a world that does little to help them.

Nomadland’s specific demographic journalist Bruder embedded herself in is the movement of modern migrant manual laborers. These folks, often elder Americans whose wealth was destroyed in 2008, live in their RVs, which they drive across the country to whatever hourly work will take them and park in “workamps” (essentially trailer parks near work sites). Much of the story also covers the rise of Amazon as a massive employer for this population. Bruder handles this topic fairly, split between Amazon’s grueling warehouse work environment with the fact that its pay and constant need for workers provides an option for those without many.

As the population of people in this situation has grown over the past decade, they’ve formed communities, camaraderie, and second nomadic families based on their shared experience. Bruder generates warm feelings throughout the book right up until the last couple chapters where the reality of the situation comes crashing down. People will die in their cars in a society that has marked them as outcasts. Even for the libertarian among us, it will leave you thinking that there must be a better way we can support everyone in society.

The Dao of Capital: Austrian Investing in a Distorted World – by Mark Spitznagel

Filing this under “books I wish I’d written”, hedge fund manager Spitznagel provides a history of the Austrian school of economics (whose tenets I won’t list here and instead direct you to this book), including its forerunners in Asian philosophy, before extending the ideas into his own simple, practical investing framework. This will be insightful for anyone new to Austrian economics and looking for a twist on how they think about investing and markets.

The Great A&P: And The Struggle for Small Business in America – by Marc Levinson

The A&P is a name I’d vaguely heard of, either from old TV shows or grandma’s stories. But when I had heard that Jeff Bezos recommended this book to his staff, the business infovore in me had to read it.

When I used to think of the most powerful retail stores of the past century, the names that come to mind are Sears and Walmart. Arguably though, the great A&P was greater than either of them. At least measured by the length of its reign on top, which spanned from roughly 1910 to 1960 as the world’s biggest retailer as measured by revenue and store count.

Levinson did an incredible job telling multiple stories at once without any of them feeling disjointed. The history of the Hartford family from humble 1800s beginnings to becoming the robber barons of America in the post-Industrial age, the evolution of grocery store technology from the roots of tin and aluminum cans through refrigeration and the automobile.

It is no wonder Bezos loves this book: it’s an entrepreneurial story about a business that thrived through its own reinvention and adaptation to technology over the owners’ entire lifetimes. And how government intervention through lawsuits, legislation, and public relations distracted them from their business, leading to its demise.

It’s a tremendously American story where no one side is clearly right and wrong. The idea of one dominant retailer, the ultimate middleman, sitting in between individual consumers, small business owners, product supply chains, and the government has persisted since A&P’s rise to prominence one hundred years ago.

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA – by James Watson

This legendary book written by a legendary scientist tells a legendary story in a completely compelling and approachable manner. Watson’s story about their co-discovery of DNA is a brilliant thriller, only matched in the annals of science stories by Feynman. 

As someone with a little knowledge about Watson’s offensive statements about women and minorities but not much about his scientific career, I was immersed in the story from the get-go. Watson’s wit and energy are electrifying, a funnier Bill Nye for an earlier time. He succinctly conveys all the critical pieces that led to him and Crick’s big breakthrough while still in their 20s and early 30s, primarily the competition between competing schools (both geographically and intellectually). It’s the race to the finish line that keeps the book moving, with just enough science so the reader understands the various perspectives but not so much to slow things down.

There are absolutely segments of this book that will not read well for a modern audience, specifically his objectification of women. However, it’s no wonder that a story this important to the history of humanity, told with humor and a heart-racing pace, inspired generations of young scientists.

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It Every Time – by Maria Konnikova

As some readers may know, my own father is/was a con artist who disappeared from my life after forcing our family to declare bankruptcy. Thus life experience has led me to read everything I can on the subject.

Konnikova’s coverage of con artists is the most well-rounded I’ve found. It’s structured as a guidebook to the steps con artists take in luring in victims, extracting what they want, and figuratively disposing of the bodies. The contents of the individual chapters is a mix of academic psychology, historical examples of similar cons repeating over time, and personal retellings of cons gone wrong (for both the artists and their subjects).

Confidence Game tells stories of the dark sides of humanity without the reader ever feeling the depressing weight of reality. Rather, the underlying message (that con artistry works because the majority of humans are optimists) leaves you upbeat, despite what you’ve read.

Best Book Read in the First Half of 2021

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race – by Walter Isaacson

I’m naturally biased to highly rate books about “big” ideas. As cliche as it sounds, there are so many problems in the world and humanity must remain vigilant in constantly addressing them.

Famed biographer Walter Isaacson has undertaken the heavy task of telling the history of genetic engineering through the lens of Jennifer Doudna, the co-winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Her work (and her collaborators) unlocked the ability for humans to easily edit our genes and the genes of all life on Earth.

Nearly any story of such a powerful tool is going to be worth reading, as there have been few technologies created or discovered by humans that are as profound in their implications.

What sets Isaacson’s book apart is painting the portrait of how scientific progress is made, which is the hard work of individuals. While the technology may be cold and logical, the people who make it are not. Competition, sexism, and greed are characteristics of scientists as they are in any field. Jennifer may serve as a centralizing force and thrust for the story, Isaacson’s legendary biographical skills are humming as he chronicles the arc of the biochemistry community at large over the last century.

The hard science itself is explain superbly; simple enough for you to feel the gravity of the discoveries without feeling lost in the complexity to which these experts have devoted their lives.

Far better than his Steve Jobs biography, Isaacson’s writing here succeeds in the trope “making something difficult look easy.” Code Breaker is energetic, educational, and emotional, without losing the reader to tonal shifts or banal academic meandering. 

There’s not a stronger recommendation that I can give than to say that this is the book everyone alive today must read to understand the most important technological development of our time.