Saturday, July 25, 2009

Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street

Denial. Kate Kelly expanded her 2008 reporting on the fall of Bear Stearns for The Wall Street Journal into a book titled Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street. The hour-by-hour structure of the book increases the intensity of the action Kelly describes. The context she creates by references to earlier times allows the tension to relax periodically. Throughout, Kelly highlights the many ways in which CEO Alan Schwartz and Chairman Jimmy Cayne ignored or denied the gravity of the situation the company was in. By the time reality sank in, there were few options remaining. Kelly dedicates the book to the 14,000 people who worked for Bear Stearns, and those potential readers won’t like a lot of her explanation of what happened. The rapid demise of Bear was surprising at the time, and understandable in the context that Kelly presents. I wanted to learn more about many of the conversations that Kelly referenced as happening, but doesn’t elaborate. While JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon seemed to be on the phone constantly about a deal, Kelly doesn’t provide much insight into the details. I wondered a lot about the progression of Dimon’s conversations, especially with Tim Geithner. Nonetheless, Street Fighters provides fast reading about the final hours of a once-successful company, and most readers will find the story captivating.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

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Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life

Character. Index fund pioneer Jack Bogle has always marched with confidence to the beat of a drummer different from that followed by his competitors. His approach of charging the lowest possible fees for mutual funds led him toward building Vanguard as a market leader, and put less money in his own pocket that that received by his peers whose fees enriched their personal fortunes. In his latest book, Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life, Bogle describes the good fortune of his own life, and presents a manifesto of sorts for financial executives to lead through a return to fundamental personal values, a return to trust, and the foundation of strong moral character. The title refers to a reported conversation between Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller while they were attending a party hosted by a billionaire. After Vonnegut tells Heller that their host earns more in a day that Heller ever earned from his successful novel Catch-22, Heller replied that he has something that the billionaire will never have: enough. Enough is a preachy treatise that may alienate some readers, while for others it may be inspirational. Because of Bogle’s straightforward writing style, I highly recommend Enough to any reader willing to consider alternative ways of measuring success and achievement.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

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Lost in the Meritocracy

Misfit. I found myself stuck between laughing and crying as I read Walter Kirn’s memoir, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. The book covers Kirn’s school years through Princeton, and along the way, Walter learned to win prizes, but missed most other elements in the acquisition of what would be considered a quality education. To those who say education is wasted on the young, this book can become a bible. Kirn learns the sounds to create the impression of being educated, and that leads him to awards and recognition. He’s a misfit at Princeton, and the bulk of Lost in the Meritocracy covers those years of drug-induced malaise and disconnection. Kirn’s fine writing proves that somewhere along the way he has acquired many of the elements of what we consider education. Like many of us, he may not have acquired those elements from the expected places, like fine schools.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

In the Kitchen

Breakdown. The protagonist of Monica Ali’s new novel In the Kitchen is chef Gabriel Lightfoot, a character who becomes increasingly difficult to spend time with as he delves deeper into a nervous breakdown over the 436 pages of the book. Gabriel is the executive chef at the once-grand Imperial Hotel in London, and he leads a kitchen crew of hard workers from many countries. Gabriel’s life is packed with changes: his father is dying; he proposes marriage to Charlie, a jazz singer; he’s agreed to leave the Imperial and open a new restaurant with two partners that will be named “Lightfoot’s.” Following the death of a kitchen porter, Gabriel is haunted by a recurring dream and his life begins to spiral out of control. Gabriel wants to know who he is and what is meant to do in life. Ali’s descriptions of kitchen life capture the humor, challenging work conditions, and dictatorial nature of this environment. Her writing throughout the novel is excellent, in dialogue, description and language. A side plot about the exploitation of immigrant workers allows for some structure to the novel, but seems somewhat out of place in what is basically a psychological novel about a midlife crisis with concurrent erratic behavior and a nervous breakdown. In the Kitchen is finely written, gloomy, and may appeal most to readers who are willing to spend time admiring a writer’s skill no matter what the plot or how hard it is to spend time with as unsympathetic a protagonist as Gabriel Lightfoot.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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The Way Home

Reform. George Pelecanos has a message for readers of his new novel, The Way Home: the juvenile criminal justice system needs to change. To deliver the message, Pelecanos creates 26-year-old protagonist Chris Flynn, who after spending time in juvenile detention, now works for his father as a carpet installer. A wider cast of characters include former offenders, and Pelecanos’ description of the trajectory of different lives reveals the shortcomings of the system. The father-son relationship Pelecanos presents seemed shallow and predictable to me. Most of the characters were so one-dimensional that they strained any credibility. Much of the plot is thrilling and will keep many readers engaged. The setting in and around Washington, D.C. will appeal to many readers. I found the plot too implausible at enough points to actually laugh at some of the action. The Way Home provides entertainment with an agenda; the result is less entertaining than most readers would want to receive from an action novel.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)

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