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.
Rating:

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

Soccer Spectating Report 2-9 January


For the new year, I’m giving up coming up with a new, clever title each week for my soccer-blogging. With that said, let’s dive into the game reports:

Fulham 3:0 West Bromwich Albion (4 January 2011)

An entertaining match at Craven Cottage saw Fulham earn their first win at home since October and may be the best game thus far in the season.  Goals included a scorching long-range shot off the keeper’s hands by Simon Davies and very similar headers from a corner kick by the USA’s Clint Dempsey and Brede Hangeland.

Everton 2:1 Tottenham Hotspur (5 January 2011)

Speaking of best games of the seasons, Everton earned a very satisfying win at Goodison Park (first home win since October) against the 4th-place Spurs.  With Tim Cahill on international duty, Everton played two men up top with great success.  Louis Saha scored on a brilliant strike early in the first minutes of the match.  Van der Vaart equalized for Tottenham a few minutes later.  Things went back and forth with good chances for both sides until the 74th minute when a Saha shot rebounded off the keeper and Seamus Coleman headed it into the net.  Perhaps one of the most exciting moments of the EPL season for me thus far.

Palermo 3:0 Sampdoria (6 January 2011)

The flamingo-pink Sicilians dominated their Genoan guests with goals from captain Fabrizio Miccoli, Giulio Migliaccio, and Massimo Maccarone.  Not bad when facing one of Serie A’s strongest defenses.  And all that offense kept the ball from finding the back of their own net as well.

Scunthorpe United 1:5 Everton (8 January 2011)

I’ve never watched a FA Cup match before but I’d heard a lot of the lore.  I only caught a small portion of this game so if you went by what I saw (end of first half, beginning of second half) it was a 1-1  draw.  I like that the game was played in a tiny old-fashioned stadium that held a little more than 9,000 spectators (although it’s not as old as I thought as it was built in 1988).  It must be a real treat for fans in lower divisions to have Premier League teams come to visit, especially when the home side scores as Scunthorpe United did in the opening moments of the second half.  The rest of the match was all Everton and the Blues advance to the 4th round with a match at home against (gulp) Chelsea.

It was a good week for the teams I follow.  I’m beginning to see how football sets one up for false hopes and heartbreak.  After a big win against Tottenham Hotspur, I look at the table and see that Everton are only 10 points out of a spot in European competition.  A strong second half of the season and maybe just maybe.  Of course, Everton are also just five points above relegation.  I guess I didn’t realize that even if the same 3-4 teams always win that the rest of the pack stays pretty close together.

Previous posts:

Benjamin Franklin’s 305th Birthday


This coming Monday is the holiday where we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I encourage one and all to celebrate the life of Dr. King and put in some volunteer service time.

But, Monday is also the birthday of another great American leader, Benjamin Franklin, who was born in Boston on January 17, 1706 [O.S. January 6, 1705].  Come learn more about this Son of Boston on a Boston By Foot tour lead by knowledgeable Boston By Foot guides (including yours truly).  The tour visits sites associated with Ben Franklin’s life in Boston from his birth in a house on Milk Street until the age of 17 when he ran away from his home town after a falling-out with his older brother.  This tour is unique in that since Franklin spent much of his long life elsewhere – Philadelphia, London, and Paris for starters – the sites often offer a launch point for talking about Franklin’s varied careers in printing, science, invention, postal services, public service and as a founding father.

The tour meets in the public park at the corner of Washington and School Streets by the Irish Famine Memorial and Borders Book Store.  The cost is $15 per person ($5 for Boston By Foot members) and the 90-minute walking tour departs at 2 pm on Monday, January 17th, 2011.  More information is available on the Boston By Foot Meetup Group web page.

Click photo to see more images of sites visited on this tour.

Official tour description:

Celebrate and learn the life of Benjamin Franklin by walking among the sites of his homes and haunts in Colonial Boston. In his day, Benjamin Franklin was America’s greatest scientist, inventor, diplomat, humorist, statesman, and entrepreneur. Ben was born in Boston, came of age in Philadelphia, and was the darling of Paris. From his many inventions, creation of civic, philanthropic, and educational institutions, to his his roles in the founding of America, his legacy is immeasurable.

Soccer Holiday


I don’t have much to report on as in the past couple of weeks I’ve been distracted by holiday activities.  The European leagues have also been on holiday break and/or had games canceled by winter weather so I haven’t missed much.  Seeing the rash of snow and ice postponements makes me think that there’s actually wisdom in the USA’s summer soccer tradition.

Manchester City 1:2 Everton (20 Dec)

Here’s a game that can get one’s hopes up.  Everton gets there first win in forever on the road against a team sitting near the top of the table.  Leighton Baines and Tim Cahill were the heroes with goals in the 4th and 19th minutes respectively.  Then the Toffees managed to defend against some strong City attacks even after they went a man down when Victor Anichebe drew a second yellow card.  Sure, it’s probably one of those fluke things, but it does make me hope that Everton might turn this season around.

Related posts:

2010 Year in Review: Favorite Books


Here’s my annual list of my ten favorite books read in the year.  As always, this is merely the best books I read this year not books published in 2010.  For previous years see 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006. You may also want to check out My Favorite Books of All Time or see Every Book I’ve Ever Read cataloged in Library Thing.

  1. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  2. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
  3. A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin
  4. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  5. Netherland by Joseph O’Brien
  6. Coop : a year of poultry, pigs, and parenting by Michael Perry
  7. A City So Grand by Steven Puleo
  8. Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
  9. Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg (A)
  10. From the Pews in Back: Young Women and Catholicism by Kate Dugan and Jennifer Owens

Every Book I Read in 2010

Books published in 2010 in bold. (A) is for audiobook.

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

2010 in review (according to WordPress)


The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

About 3 million people visit the Taj Mahal every year. This blog was viewed about 45,000 times in 2010. If it were the Taj Mahal, it would take about 5 days for that many people to see it.

 

In 2010, there were 231 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 1172 posts. There were 390 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 396mb. That’s about 1 pictures per day.

The busiest day of the year was October 28th with 247 views. The most popular post that day was Book Review: The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, google.com, books.google.com, twitter.com, and search.aol.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for favorite books of all time, the blind side book summary, the blind side book review, jesus before christianity, and cadillac mountain.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Book Review: The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis October 2008
7 comments

2

100 Favorite Books of All Time (10-1) March 2009
3 comments

3

Book Review: Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan, O.P. March 2008
5 comments

4

Book Review: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham January 2007
4 comments

5

Saint Brigid February 2007
1 comment