Book Review: The Big Short by Michael Lewis

Author: Michael Lewis
Title: The Big Short
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton, c2010.
ISBN: 9780393072235

Other books read by same authorMoneyball and The Blind Side

Summary/Review:  While no amount of listening to NPR’s Planet Money prepared me to understand all the financial jibber-jabber in this book, Michael Lewis’ always engaging storytelling style made this book an enjoyable (if infuriating read). And central to this narrative is that few people understood the financial instruments that lead to the great collapse of 2008, even the CEO’s of Wall Street’s top financial firms.  The heroes of this book are the odd bunch of characters who saw the flaws of bundling subprime mortgages into triple-a-rated bonds and profited by betting on their eventual collapse.  The part of the book where one of Lewis’ subjects speaks at a Bear Stearns event at the same time that companies stocks are crashing is unbelievable and cinematic in its brilliance.  This is a must-read for anyone wanting to learn about the fiscal crisis and the evils of the Wall Street system.

Favorite Passages:

“That was Eisman’s logic: the logic of Wall Street’s pecking order.  Goldman Sachs was the big kid who ran the games in the neighborhood.  Merrill Lynch was the little fat kid assigned the least pleasant roles, just happy to be part of things.  The game, as Eisman saw it, was  crack the whip.” – p. 175

“The ability of Wall Street traders to see themselves in their success and their management in their failure would later be echoed, when their firms, which disdained the need for government regulation in good times, insisted on being rescued by government in bad times.  Success was individual achievement; failure was a social problem.” – p. 210

Recommended books: The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 by Paul Krugman, The drunkard’s walk : how randomness rules our lives by Leonard Mlodinow, and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Dead Hand by David E. Hoffman

Author: David E. Hoffman
TitleThe Dead Hand
Publication Info: Anchor (2010)
ISBN: 9781415965825
Summary/Review: This book is a history of the Cold War from ca. 1979 to collapse of the Soviet empire which draws on interviews, memoirs, and previously secret sources to present both the American and Soviet sides of the story.  It’s interesting to read about many of the top stories of my childhood from a historical perspective – Afghanistan, the Korean Air shoot down, Iran-Contra, Grenada, Reykjavik Summit, the Evil Empire and “We begin bombing Russia in five minutes,” Cherynobyl, Glasnost and Perestroika, Mathias Rust flying into Red Square and the Soviet Coup of 1991 are all recounted.  There are many surprises such as Ronald Reagan’s deep desire to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world which seemed contrary to his defense rhetoric of the time but also the rationale behind Reagan clinging to the Strategic Defense Initiative (even though it was never a reality and it proved a stumbling block in disarmament treaties).   Things on the Soviet side are even scarier as an incident in 1983 when a false alarm almost lead to the launch of a full-scale nuclear missile attack.  Hoffman also details the Soviets extensive and illegal biological weapons development. The last part of the book Hoffman discusses the danger of the remaining nuclear and biological weapons left over after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  While Hoffman’s point is that the danger of these weapons didn’t go away after 1991, this portion of the book  just isn’t as compelling as the earlier parts of the book and it feels kind of tacked on.  This is a fascinating look at recent history that I found both eye-opening and educational.

Recommended books: House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties by Craig Unger and The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower by Robert Baer.

Book Review: Revolutionaries by Jack Rakove

Author: Jack Rakove
Title: Revolutionaries
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2010.
ISBN: 9780618267460

Summary/Review: Subtitled “A New History of the Invention of America,” this historical look at the American Revolution and the framing of the United States Constitution does take a different approach than the typical popular history of the era.  Rakove tries to emphasize that founders of the United States were ordinary men who rose to the occasion to make the best of the opportunities that the revolution provided for nation-building.  He also emphasizes that these founding fathers rarely agreed.  The strength of this book is that if offers an intellectual history of the arguments that America’s founders and the compromises that they needed to agree to.  Rakove also deserves credit for including figures whose names rarely appear in popular history – such as George Mason, John Dickinson, Charles Carroll, John Jay, Henry and John Laurens, Richard Henry Lee and Robert Morris   –  alongside John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin.  The book systematically discusses the origins of the revolution, the decision for independence, the course of the war campaign, diplomatic missions in Europe, United States governance under the Articles of Confederation, the framing of the Constitution, and the successful establishment of the new government.  My main criticism of this book is that Rakove is often too generous in discussing the motivations of his subjects.  For example, most historical works interpret George Washington wearing a military uniform to the Continental Congress as a deliberate part of a campaign to gain the command of the army, but Rakove makes it seem like happenstance.  Regardless, this is a well-written and engaging history of the nation’s founding and I recommend it to anyone interested in the time period.

Other little tidbits I liked:

  • John Adams liked Rembrandt’s work, especially “The Prophetess Anna,” the portrait of his mother with a bible that my son liked at the Rijksmuseum.
  • In a letter written in 1784 to Samuel Mather, Benjamin Franklin expresses a desire to return to his childhood home of Boston and perhaps “lay my bones there.”

Favorite Passages:

“We think of happiness as a personal mood or state of mind.  In the eighteenth century its connotations were broader. . . Happiness was a condition that whole societies as well as individuals could enjoy.  It implied a state of social contentment and not merely personal cheeriness and good humor.  Happiness was one of those broad concepts that both private and public meanings, subject for philosophical inquiry rather than psychological babbling.  For Jefferson the concept of happiness was something to ponder as well as pursue.” – p. 300

“Traditionally, bills of rights were thought to operate as a restraint on government by providing people with a basis for knowing when their rulers were overstepping their power.  But that function no longer fit the political life of the republic.  ‘Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is the danger of oppression,” Madison observed.  “In our Governments the real  power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is cheifly to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.'” – p. 394

Recommended books: Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood, and Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman
Rating: *** 1/2

Book Review: Tinkers by Paul Harding

Author: Paul Harding
Title: Tinkers
Publication Info: Brilliance Audio on CD Unabridged (2010)
ISBN: 193413712X
Summary/Review:  This book is set around the visions of an elderly man on his deathbed remembering his childhood and his own father whom he hadn’t seen in 70 years.  This is not a straightforward narrative with visions and vignettes dominating in an asynchronous away.  For this reason alone I’d suggest that this book would be better read in print rather than listening to the audiobook like I did.  It’s a pretty book with lyrical writing and some scenes stand out (such as when the father returns covered in mud after an epileptic seizure to find his family holding supper for him) but overall this book didn’t grab me.
Favorite Passages:

“Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.”

Rating: **1/2