The following are four books that I enjoyed this year and still think about from time to time.
The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
A man named Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of an elite Vermont private boarding school, confesses to the police that he has murdered one of his students with whom he was having an affair. But this isn’t a murder mystery. It’s a story told from different perspectives about loss, grief, regrets, and a marriage that has fallen apart. The Headmaster’s Wife was this year’s quickest read. I read much of the book in a single sitting.
Check out this passage told from Arthur’s perspective as he thinks about his wife Elizabeth’s grief-stricken behavior over their son’s death:
“But if you learn anything in a marriage it is when to give up. I used to think that all marriages ran the same trajectory. They start with wanting to climb inside the other person and wear her skin as your own. They end with thinking that if the person across from you says another word, you will put a fork in her neck.
“That sounds darker than I mean it to, for it is a joke. The truth usually lies in between, and the most one can hope for is accommodation, that you learn to move around each other, and that when the shit hits the fan, there is someone to suffer with. That sounds dark, too, but I am sure you understand. There are few things in this life we are equipped to do alone is all I am trying to say.”
The Children Act by Ian McEwan
I’m a big Ian McEwan fan and have read most of his books. My favorites are Saturday, Enduring Love, and Sweet Tooth. The Children Act was also a quick read. It’s about a family court judge in London named Fiona Maye who must decide the fate of Adam, a seventeen-year-old boy who is refusing medical treatments for religious reasons. While dealing with her demanding profession and this challenging case, Fiona is also faced with domestic trouble: her husband Jack, after 35 years of being married, tells her that he wants to have an affair.
Check out this segment, which happens shortly after Fiona learns from her husband that he would like to have relations with another woman:
“Thus the engine of self-pity began to turn and she helplessly summoned various treats she’d arranged for him. The list was unhealthily long—surprise operas, trips to Paris and Dubrovnik, Vienna, Trieste, Keith Jarrett in Rome (Jack, knowing nothing, instructed to pack a small case and passport and meet her at the airport from work), tooled cowboy boots, engraved hip flask and, in recognition of his new passion for geology, a nineteenth-century explorer’s specimen hammer in a leather case. To bless his second adolescence on turning fifty, a trumpet that had once belonged to Guy Barker. These offerings represented only a fraction of the happiness she urged on him, and sex was only one part of that fraction, and only latterly a failure, elevated by him into a mighty injustice.
“Sorrow and the mounting details of grievances, while her true anger lay ahead. An abandoned fifty-nine-year-old woman, in the infancy of old age, just learning to crawl.”
The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Siberian Taiga by Sylvain Tesson
A French writer spends six months in solitude in the pristine natural environment of the Siberian Taiga. Stocked with books and cases of vodka, Tesson is kept company by two dogs and passes his time fishing, going on hikes, reading, watching the stars, and contemplating this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of living in solitude for an extended period of time. Not only solitude, but with little or no connection with the outside world—no television, no radio, no Internet, and no phone. How would I pass the time? What would each day feel like? How would I adapt? What books would I take with me?
There are some really beautiful lines throughout the memoir. Here are a couple:
“Between longing and regret, there is a spot called the present. Like jugglers who ply their trade while standing atop the neck of a bottle, we should train ourselves to balance in that sweet spot. The dogs manage it.”
“When you organize your life around the idea of possessing nothing—then you have everything you need.”
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz
I found this book incredibly helpful in helping me think about my own business and management approach. Horowitz tells the story of how he ran and grew his business Opsware, eventually selling it to Hewlett-Packard for $1.6 billion. He doesn’t spare details and talks about the harrowing moments when the company was on the brink of failure and also the many mistakes he made as CEO.
Big takeaways: think carefully about the flow of communication in a company; tell it like its, even if it’s bad news; every CEO makes thousands of mistakes—don’t take it personally; it’s incredibly important to have solid management processes for recruiting, hiring, compensation, and training.
I find myself going back to this book every few weeks whenever I’m facing a new set of decisions or refreshing myself on tips like how to interview for executive positions and what to ask when talking to employees one-on-one.