Friday, July 23, 2010

The Devil's Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers

Inside. Vicky Ward’s contribution to the growing shelf of books about the recent financial crisis is titled, The Devil's Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers. She interviewed scores of people inside and outside Lehman and assembled the information she gathered into what’s essentially a morality tale. From Ward’s point of view, the villain in the decline of Lehman Brothers was Joe Gregory. Ward presents impressions of the key people, and uses those impressions to construct scenarios about the ways in which those people contributed to the downfall of a company. Real insiders may dispute her views; general readers will enjoy the ways in which she dramatizes the events.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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I Know I Am, But What Are You?

Funny. Samantha Bee’s new book, I Know I Am, But What Are You?, capitalizes on her Jon Stewart Show visibility, and offers a very concentrated dose of her humor, most of which she pokes at herself. I found enough of the book to tweak my funny bone that I plowed through to the end. On too many pages, though, I winced rather than laughed, and found little humor in her subject or treatment. Readers may want to sample a few pages before making a commitment. After all, humor is a matter of taste, or the tasteless.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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The Cookbook Collector

Pairs. Allegra Goodman’s novel, The Cookbook Collector, tells the story of two sisters, one driven, the other dreamy. The contrasts of their lives and fortunes provide the raw material for exploring values, the dot-com bubble, terrorism, and the range of relationships. The dual stories are engaging and will provide entertainment for most readers, especially those who like romantic comedy paired with current events. At over 400 pages, there’s enough relaxing reading here to last for a day at the beach, and then some.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates

Divergence. Two young men from similar backgrounds living in the same area at the same time were nudged down different paths at what became critical turning points in their lives. Both men are named Wes Moore. One is the author of the book, The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. He was a Rhodes scholar and an assistant to Condoleezza Rice, and has been an investment banker. The other Wes Moore is in jail. The gripping story of these two men reads like a novel, and contains valuable insights for any reader.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth

Sustainability. Changing personal habits requires attentiveness to behavior, and a desire to change from one way of doing things to another. Changing collective behavior becomes even more complicated, as systems are established to support expected behavior. Boston College professor Juliet Schor’s new book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, offers readers an opportunity to think about behavior and detecting when enough is enough. To achieve sustainability especially of our natural resources, certain behaviors need to change. Schor presents ways in which we can think differently about how we live.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance

Context. Nouriel Roubini provides at least two important perspectives for readers of his book, Crisis Economics. First, he provides a context from the 19th and 20th centuries for understanding financial markets, and especially the ways in which bankers and governments deal with markets. Second, he uses that context to explain the recent financial crisis in terms that are easily understood, and prescribes ways of using the crisis to make key changes in regulation and in behavior.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Grounded. Disasters can have a scale that overwhelms observers and that can obscure the meaning of events to individuals. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reminded me that I’ve had a book in my reading queue about Hurricane Katrina that I hadn’t gotten around to reading. Dave Eggers’ book, Zeitoun, presents the life of Syrian immigrant Abdulrahman Zeitoun before and after Katrina, with a focus on the days following the storm and how Zeitoun was treated. This is a tragic story than personalizes and grounds a region-wide disaster into terms that become alive on a personal level. Eggers’ writing soars on these pages, and the gripping story moved and angered me.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System---and Themselves

Inside. There’s no shortage of books about the current financial crisis. Contrary to my usual brisk reading pace, I found myself slowing down to savor the 600+ pages of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail. This finely written book reveals the inside story: specific details about people and meetings that bring the players and policies to life. This is the work of a skilled journalist with many sources, and the perspective to pull all the pieces together into a play-by-play narrative that made me feel like I was in the room as he describes what happened.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Concentration. I had enjoyed reading Nicholas Carr’s cover story in The Atlantic titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and I was a bit apprehensive that his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, might be nothing more than a ballooning of the earlier essay into a book with nothing new to offer readers. I was pleasantly surprised to find enough new content to satisfy most readers, especially neurological information. I especially liked the interesting digressions that Carr placed between chapters. Any reader looking to read a book that will stimulate thinking will find satisfaction from these pages.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity

Cranky. I sat down to read Richard Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset, with the expectation that he’d provide interesting data and insight into the aftermath of the current economic crisis. By the time I reached page 20, I tired of his capitalization of “Reset” as if that were a recognized proper noun, and when he used the capitalized phrase, “the First Reset,” I knew my patience was at an end, so I gave up and closed the book. While I felt a little like a cranky Andy Rooney, I decided it just wasn’t worth the energy to read a social science book that created its own terminology as if it were generally accepted. More patient readers than I might give this book a chance, but Florida turned me off early in the book, and it was easier to stop reading than to plow ahead.

Rating: Shelf of Ennui
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Rules of Betrayal

Alliances. Christopher Reich presents a third installment in his “Rules” series of spy thrillers titled, Rules of Betrayal. Doctor Jonathan Ransom and his wife Emma the spy return in another fast-paced heart-stopping thriller. In this installment, there’s more Jonathan than Emma, and more questions about loyalty and who works for whom. As in the earlier novels, the efforts of well-developed characters can seem superhuman, but their emotions are familiar. Those readers who enjoy spy novels and thrillers are most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Celebrity. Chuck Palahniuk’s Tell-All is an odd book that may have limited appeal for most readers. Palahniuk is a talented writer, and his skill shows on these pages. I enjoyed many aspects of this clever take on movie celebrity: the structure as visual scenes as if in a movie; the bold-faced names of celebrities as if they were appearing in a gossip column; and the larger-than-life behavior of protagonist Miss Kathie. After forty or fifty pages of this exposition, I found myself tiring of it all, and as if I were sitting in a movie theater, I let the pages turn and waited for the end. Any reader who loves movie celebrities, especially from decades ago, will appreciate this book.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Relations. Helen Simonson’s debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is the quintessential summer book. A reader need only sit back, relax, and allow the full cast of characters to become real and endearing. Simonson draws out all the tension of multiple relationships, especially those within families involving expectations, assumptions, and cultural norms. Set in an English village, Edgecombe St. Mary, there’s also a motif about class that highlights societal ways of inclusion and exclusion. Simonson packs a lot in less than 400 pages, and time flew by as I relaxed and became immersed in a gentle and well-told story.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It

Scary. If on the off chance any reader is running short of things to be worried about, pick up a copy of the latest book by former national security advisor Richard Clarke titled, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It. This frightening book explores all the ways in which we are vulnerable to cyber warfare, and how much needs to be done to shore up our defenses. I read this while watching how the Gulf oil spill brought a way of life to a halt for so many Gulf residents. I couldn’t help but imagine the nightmare of how our dependence on the Internet could disrupt our lives if a cyber attack succeeded in critical areas. Readers who want to be both scared and informed will find a lot on these pages.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Private Life

Marriage. Jane Smiley has once again offered readers great bounty in her new novel titled, Private Life. Smiley riffs on a key question: what does a marriage mean? While set mostly in the early 20th century, when marriage may have seemed different from today, the feelings and action come through as both real and contemporary. Protagonist Margaret Mayfield marries Andrew Early and subordinates herself to him, leaving Missouri for California, and following his lead in building a life together. Margaret’s gradual awakening to who Andrew is occurs at a pace that allows the action of the novel to absorb a reader into a life and a relationship that comes alive on these pages.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Happy Now?

Loss. Short story writer Katherine Shonk’s first novel is titled Happy Now? and in it she presents a well-developed character, Claire Kessler, in the months following the Valentine’s Day suicide of her husband, Jay. Claire’s confusion, shock and disorientation become supported by the cast of characters who try to provide her with support as she searches for understanding and some way to live again. While few readers face such dramatic tragedy in our own lives, the way in which Shonk presents family relationships will resonate with most readers, and the fine writing encourages readers to empathize with Claire and with those who are proving her support in her grief.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Craft. I paid no attention to Paul Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers, until it won the Pulitzer prize, when it roused my curiosity. Harding’s talent soars in his choice of language and in his creation of a tone and setting that never misses a beat. As George Crosby lies dying, his memories provide the novel’s momentum, and the lives and relationships of every character come to live thanks to Harding’s fine craftsmanship. Any reader who enjoys the art of fine writing will especially appreciate this novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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