Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice

Author: Bill Browder

The story starts out innocently enough – a smart guy finds his footing in the investment world by stumbling upon Eastern European privatizations after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Then it gets a little more interesting as he must compete with the local Russian “investors” who covet the same assets and play by a different set of rules. These Russians are the oligarchs, and there are other great stories written about how they basically stole Russia in the 90s. (this one is good)

But then things get hairy. As Vladimir Putin brings the oligarchs to heel, his interests are suddenly aligned with theirs. Aligned against the impetuous Western foreigner who keeps trying to extract investment profits from Russia.

And so begins the real story of this book – the story of Russians at their scummiest. A conspiracy born of and shielded by government officials from local police all the way up to President Vladimir Putin. Stealing hundreds of millions of tax revenue from the government, torturing and eventually murdering the mid-level Russian tax lawyer who discovered the fraud, and working tirelessly to ignore all evidence and stand behind the cover-up. Yikes.

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City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Author: Gary Krist

If you’re not interested in Chicago history, skip this book.

For those of you still with me, there’s a lot to learn from this story.

The author sheds light on a short period of time in 1919 when a lot of things happened. I knew about none of them before reading.

Here’s some highlights:

  • A hydrogen blimp exploded over downtown, crashing into one of the largest banks in the city and killing and injuring a many people.
  • A little girl is reported missing, leading to a city-wide search and the arrest of a very suspicious suspect. Also the rest of the city’s parents start paying close attention to adults who hang around children.
  • And probably most important – a week of race riots turn the city into a war zone. The mayor delays calling in the state militia for way too long. The governor avoids sending them in directly for political reasons. It’s bad.

If you’ve made it this far you may want to pick this one up.

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The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

Author: Ben Macintyre

This is not the author’s first time writing a thrilling true-life spy book – and once again he delivers a phenomenal story full of intrigue, insight, spycraft the all-important details. 

Set against the backdrop of the cold war, the story revolves around KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky. Born into a KGB family where his father and brother both loyally served the state, he joined the bureaucracy and began diligently working to build a career. Like the lyrics to Eminem song Guilty Conscience, “he has a sudden change of heart, and suddenly his conscience comes into play” when he witnesses the Soviet Union put down the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. 

He had an ideological break with the Soviet Union, and left himself open for recruitment by the west. MI6 took the opportunity and over a long period of time cultivated him as a double-agent.

Gordievsky was eventually posted to the Londen rezidentura (KGB office within the consulate) where he delivered some of the most impactful and high-level intelligence of the Cold War.

If you like spy stories, this book is a must read. Also check out author Ben Macintyre’s other excellent work about a British officer who spied for the Soviets: A Spy Among Friends.

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The Lessons of History

Authors: Will Durant, Ariel Durant

Will and Arial Durant are historians who spent five decades studying world history and creating an 11-volume Story of Civilization. From Wikipedia: “It totals four million words across nearly 10,000 pages, but is incomplete.” This is a much shorter version of that content, interspersed with actual interview recordings of the Durants from the ‘50s – ‘70s. It begins with a great disclaimer: “Only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.”

Of interest to me is that this content is already 40ish years old, and yet extremely relevant to understanding today’s world and, I think, the future world as well.

The Durants explain the cycles of human behavior that lead to repetition among our outcomes. From orderly civilization to disorderly chaos and back. From religious underpinning that bind behavior to unregulated societies and back. This is a quote, not from this book, but from one of the longer volumes: “For barbarism is always around civilization, amid it and beneath it, ready to engulf it by arms, or mass migration, or unchecked fertility. Barbarism is like the jungle; it never admits its defeat; it waits patiently for centuries to recover the territory it has lost.”

I found one part especially interesting: as a young man Durant has disdain for organized religion. When interviewed in his advanced years, though, he believed his youthful view was the wrong attitude. Instead, he sees religion as very useful for the benefits it bestows on constraining man’s actions. Without this, how could we ever form societies of cooperation?

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Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Author: Jack Weatherford

I loved this book because it opened my eyes to a perspective and an account of history that I’m rarely exposed to. I had some idea of who Genghis Khan was, but the more I read this book the more I realized that my ideas were limited and often inaccurate.

A lot of reference material comes from The Secret History that was recently uncovered and translated. It was a set of records kept by warrior’s family that was specifically for their use and education. This obviously comes with some risks, but considering the other accounts available are generally western and often completely fabricated based on myth.

Some interesting learnings from this book:

• One reason that the advance of the Mongol armies was stopped: their arrows didn’t fly as straight when the climate was more humid.
• The Silk Road and its accompanying laws created the best environment for free trade until that time in history.
• Descendants of the Khan family continued to rule some territories until 1920!

I absolutely recommend this book for anyone interested in history!

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Built from Scratch: How a Couple of Regular Guys Grew The Home Depot from Nothing to $30 Billion

Authors: Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, Bob Andelman

I was very excited to read the founding story of The Home Depot! Though I have never had an inside look before, I always believed this was a remarkable company. Everywhere I looked while growing up, there was a Home Depot. When I was in the contracting business, our guys in the field would swing by one for supplies seemingly daily. In my adult life, the company’s stores have plainly been a fact of life. In one word: ubiquitous.

As with most memoirs written by successful entrepreneurs, a big chunk of the book is used for self-back-patting and my-side-of-the-story-context. As readers, we must forgive this because the authors have indeed built something great.

I loved learning about the turbulent beginnings of The Home Depot, the deals that fell apart, and the ones that ultimately catapulted the company toward greatness. The story should be an inspiration to any entrepreneur, as well as a keen insight into Home Depot for those who works in retail or the buildings materials industry.

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Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

History, as its taught in US schools, looks upon Lincoln quite favorably. After all, he led the Union to win the Civil War, freeing the slaves in the process. From this book, I learned how the sausage was made. First, his ascent to the presidency was almost a fluke of history (except that he worked his ass off to outmaneuver his competitors) because he was relatively unknown on the national stage. Once elected, he maneuvered to get all of his former rivals into his administration and cabinet. It is by leveraging their relative talents and his strong sense of popular timing that he was able to win the war and free the slaves. A recommended read for any history buff. (View on Amazon)

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

This was like a funnier, South African version of Hillbilly Elegy. I like Trevor Noah, I think he’s funny, and this was a nice window into his childhood. He tells stories of growing up as a semi-delinquent, and uses them to share broader info about South Africa, its cultural profile, the different neighborhoods he was exposed to, and of course apartheid. There are many serious topics, and Noah always finds a way to bring out the humor in some and be good humored about others. (View on Amazon)

Hillbilly Elegy

JD Vance does a nice job of story-telling in this book about his hillbilly family and their cultural origins. He really gives a voice to his people that we “urban elites” are unlikely to have seen firsthand. Though I felt like I understood where he was coming from for a variety of personal reasons, the reality is I did not experience anywhere near the level of dysfunction that his family & their peers did. One question that he managed to answer for me in this book – why don’t the people in these going-nowhere towns just leave? I guess their reasoning is that their home equity is negative. While I don’t know if this is logically sound, it does help me empathize with their position. (View on Amazon)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

There’s a lot to be learned from Benjamin Franklin. It’s nice to learn it from the man himself. Not a thorough autobiography by any means. It stops abruptly, long before the American Revolution. Franklin would often engage in public projects for the benefit of his city (Philadelphia). When gathering support and funding for these projects, he learned to minimize his involvement by feigning to represent a group who asked for his help rather than “owning” the project. Nevertheless, he was always the one who seemed to initiate or expedite civic projects. One way he was able to accomplish this was by focusing himself on his 13 “virtues”, which he ingrained as habit by way of his 13 week journal. The book ends with a story about “paying too much for the whistle”, an error he committed and learned from early in life. (View on Amazon)