Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace ---------------------- 5 Stars

I have never read a book quite like David Foster Wallace's (DFW) Infinite Jest. It is without a doubt the most challenging, confusing, mind expanding, fascinating, and longest book I have ever read.  It is also unparalleled in modern fiction, and, without a doubt, earns a full 5 stars.

Where to even begin?  How do I even try to do justice to this book or attempt to explain it?  For those that have read it, I am sure you can sympathize and understand.  For those that have yet to take the plunge, I'll do my best to summarize as many aspects around, and about this book as I can.

Let's start with the first and most obvious thing when you first see this book or download it: it's size.  I believe it's over 1,000 paper pages (I read the Kindle version) which includes a couple hundred pages of footnotes.  First important thing to know, DFW loved footnotes and there is a trove of interesting, though sometimes useless, information in the footnotes.  Anyway, the book is very, very long.  I started in June and, though I read a couple other short books during this time, it still took me around 6 months to finish (this includes some long summer months were I was really focused on it). 

Now, to make even more difficult, the book is very, very challenging to. Really, in two areas.  First, the vocabulary and way DFW writes is pretty overwhelming.  It literally felt like at least once a page I'd have to look up a word (thanks goodness for the built in Kindle dictionary).  Additionally, DFW has very long, and often complex sentences that sometimes could go on for an entire page.  Second, and perhaps more challenging and annoying (though ultimately more worthwhile?), the book is not a linear narrative.  In fact, it jumps all over the place.  Compound this by the large number of different characters and the seeming disconnectedness with the multiple plot lines, and one can get easily overwhelmed (see: me).

SO, how is it possible that, with all the weaknesses noted above, can this book earn a coveted 5 star rating?  Well, the answer is the book is simply incredible.  There is nothing else quite like it.  Why? Let's start with all that was written above.  All of that difficulty, the length, the vocabulary, the complexity of language and characters and structure, makes the reader really earn it.  You can't just pick this up and half pay attention with the game on; no, you have to make a concerted effort to focus and really understand what's going on. But when you do, you start to realize just how great DFW is as a writer.  There were oftentimes reading the book for long periods of time, stopping, going back through and realizing that I just read 20 pages, had no idea what happened but loved the text I had just read. 

What else? The characters - their crazy.  Their interesting, and weird, and different, and lovable, and deeply flawed -- really they are quite human.   Plus there are so many of them.  Even as the book is coming to a close, and the reader is starting to get annoyed about a perceived lack of resolution, DFW is still introducing new characters and fascinating biographies about them.

Finally, what about the plot?  Many people say that this is the hardest thing to explain about the book.  Their right.  This book is about A LOT and covers A LOT yet, at the same time, it sometimes feels like nothing happened.  In it, the world and government is different than today, the calendar has changed and that helps confuse things further.  There are a few main characters and groups - there is a tennis facility with teenage prodigies with a few main characters, there is a group of military folks looking for something, there is a drug rehab house with a man and woman who end up being major characters.  Sounds pretty lame, right?  Well, to make it even more potentially confusing, much of the book is about addiction (drug, sex, media/entertainment) and this plays out in the very seemingly disconnected, but really interrelated, lives of many of these people. 

The plot piece, to me, was the most confusing part of the book when finished.  Thank goodness for the Internet.  After finishing the book yesterday, I spent a large part of a day googling and trying to understand the various plot elements.  Needless to say, I missed a lot but I also learned just how much depth this book truly has.  I certainly felt very frustrated and annoyed when I finished the book but now realize just how incredible this book truly is; what an absolute genius DFW was.   In many ways, the book reminds of the TV show Lost (except, this ending is better).  Often, it's confusing and the perception is that much of it does not make sense, but after digging and spending more time reflecting, one realizes just how interesting it can be.

This is one of the longer reviews I have ever written, and I really feel like I could go on all day writing about Infinite Jest.  If you know nothing about the book or David Foster Wallace, you owe it to yourself to at least learn a bit more about either (or both).  DFW committed suicide about 7-8 years ago after battling with depression.  Many believe, and I am one of them, that he is the greatest author of his generation.  While the book has often been classified as "post-modern", and certainly does not follow a "typical" model of fiction, it is without a doubt an amazing piece of literature.

I highly recommend, at some point in your life, you consider reading the book.  Know that it will take a long time, and know that you will have to labor through it, and know that you may not understand/like large parts of it, and know that you may need the help of others (i.e. the Internet) to help you.  But, also know that you will be a better person for reading it and, hopefully, you will be as entertained and pleased as I am now after finishing. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children Can Succeed -- Jessica Lahey ----------------------- 3 Stars

I've spent a lot of time thinking about Jessica Lahey's new book, The Gift of Failure. I've read it cover to cover, created questions for two different book club meetings, and will be hearing her speak at a work event next week. Her book has a very clear and overarching premise: parents are not letting kids fail often enough and that is badly  undermining their future successes in life.  Is this true? Well, you should read it to make your own opinion, but I'll pass on a few tidbits below.

Lahey's book makes a fairly convincing argument for why the pendulum in our society has swung "too far" in one direction and why it's critical to move it back to the middle. Oddly, I find the book started off incredibly interesting and each passing chapter was slightly less exciting. To begin, she talks about the history of parenting in America and how we got to where we are today. As I mentioned above, she makes the case that the pendulum is too far in one direction and must move back. This well researched opening chapter was a good lead in to the rest of the book as she then stakes out her claims. Unfortunately, by the final chapters, the book turned very "self-helpy" while she also flip-flopped a few times with a couple of views.

On a positive, the book is a very easy read, and she has interesting and easily connectable anecdotes from her own time as a teacher and parent. Perhaps most noteworthy, she does make a very strong case for why parents (and teachers) need to allow students to have more independence and opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. The first half of the book is a strong vindication of many of the educational and parenting ideas that I have seen been effective.

However, and I can't tell if she truly believes this, or is just making an argument to push the envelope, but she REALLY espouses letting kids fail.  In some case, perhaps to the detriment to the child. Again, I am not sure if she really believes it or is pushing it because it gets good press and being "in the middle" doesn't sell books.  Regardless, you should take a read and see what you think. Other concerns? I'm not sure how well referenced the book is. She certainly has a lot of anecdotes and personal "facts" but I'm not sure if they are researched.  And, as I mentioned earlier, the book turns a lot into a self-help book about parenting near the end.

I do suggest that each of you check out the book and read it for yourself. Even if you are not a parent, you were a child once (I think) and her suggestions for how one should raise kids is certainly interesting and probably has some nugget of truth in it.  The big question is: how much truth? 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania -- Erik Larson -------------------- 4 Stars

The Lusitania.  What do you know about it?  Nothing?  It's a boat?  Something about World War I or II?  It got the U.S. into World War I?  Well, if you weren't sure about some of those questions, it's probably worth taking the time to pick up Erik Larson's new fascinating novel titled Dead Wake.

Dead Wake is a fun book as it reads like a piece of fiction but every part of it is highly researched and accurate historically.  You really should read the book to learn more about, but to whet your appetite, know that the Lusitania was a giant cruise ship that sailed in 1915 between England the U.S. and was very similar to the Titanic.  It was indeed sunk and eventually (though not immediately as many people believe) led to the U.S. joining to fight in World War II.

So that is a very short description of the book but the story is so much more than that.  It's a story of people; individuals that played decisive parts in others lives and the movement of history.  The book is told in short snippets from a few different directions.  There is the Lusitania captain who is in change of this massive floating city.  There is the German submarine captain off the coasts of England.  Then, there are the numerous individuals that are riding the Lusitania.  Family members, rich businessmen, etc. who we learn more about on their voyage.

Okay, enough about plot.  Why should you read the book?  Because it's a fascinating story.  The author does an amazing job going back about a century and reviewing a ton of materials to create this wonderful tale for the reader.  By the end of the book, you really have a good sense of the different individual characters in the book and what motivates them.  And, because it is such a fascinating story, as good as any fictional novel, you can't help but feel connected with book.

Are there any downsides?  Yes, a few.  The book is slow from time to time and drags along a bit.  Some details are a bit to needless and, while perhaps the author finds them interesting, I found they did not actually add to the story.  The story is also quite sad.  I mean, you know what you are getting into when you start reading it but when you get to the end and find out what happens to all these people you've now connected with, it's kind of tough to hear.

So, do yourself a favor and pick up this interesting piece of history.  It tells of a time that is quite different from today and a world with different people with different interest and lives but it certainly is quite interesting and will, no doubt, hold your attention.  Enjoy!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Think like a Freak - Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner --------------- 3.5 Stars

Like my last blog, this is another example of a follow up book trying to mimic the original in basic premise and form.  Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner's first book, Freakonomics, is an absolutely great book that I highly recommend. So, did Think Like a Freak equal the original?  Not quite but pretty close.

This book was sufficiently interesting and entertaining.  Good subjects, interesting questions, cool stories and nice writing style.  Unlike Freakonomics though, I've read this type of book so many times by now that it has kind of lost it's luster.

The general premise of the book, as the title suggests, is to look at the world and think differently.  They suggest not looking at giant problems, but start small and redefine how you look at a problem.  Pretty decent premise  and the follow through was not too bad.  Through some pretty interesting stories, the authors are pretty convincing about ways to re-acclimate yourself to the world around you.  I actually appreciated some of their take-aways; things like: admitting you don't know something, look at a problem like a child might and why quitting is not a bad thing.

The writing style is fun to read and easy to follow.  I really enjoyed most of the chapters and the stories that are included.  Although they would move quickly from subject to subject and story to story (sometimes as short as a only a page or two on each), they did have a common theme within each that would pull together the chapter.  In fact, some of the chapters were absolutely fascinating (one titled "What do King Solomon and David Lee Roth have in common" was particularly interesting. )

One other great take-away from the book is to always be willing to ask tough questions and take a stand for something even if you stick out.  In other words, it's okay to be a freak sometimes.  Freaks are the ones that often change the world.

Overall, I do suggest you check this book out and learn to better think like a Freak.  Even if you don't really want to you'll enjoy the stories along the way!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home -- Dan Ariely ------------- 2 Stars

The Upside of Irrationality is basically a sequel to Ariely's first book, Predictably Irrational, which I reviewed kindly.    I don't know what happened with this follow-up.  Perhaps it was me?  I read the first book nearly five years ago when behavioral economics and thought was a new concept to me.  Now I am a grizzled veteran of behavioral economics and perhaps I expect a bit more.  Or, perhaps this book was just not very good.

So, the basic premise of the book is that people should think more about making irrational choices.  He also argues that we often are making what we believe to be smart, logical choices that actually are not in our best interest.  Some of the questions he goes into include: why don't bonuses work in jobs? why people like revenge? why we value things we make so much?   The book also goes into interesting subjects like online dating and emotions.

For me, the premise of the book sounded great and I loved the idea of thinking about our daily lives differently.  The big problem with the book, however, is that it just did not deliver.  I am not sure I have any idea after finishing it what exactly the 'upside' is to the irrational choices we are making.  I guess one might have a better sense of how to evaluate and think about one's actions but I mostly left bored and confused.

I think the biggest problem with the book is that the specific experiments and stories Ariely uses to make his points just simply were not as interesting as either his last book or some of the more interesting texts from authors like Malcolm Gladwell.  In addition, he took way too long explaining the experiments, going into depth about each specific part of the experiment, etc.  Then, the conclusions of many of the experiments were pretty obvious.  Like the idea that we value things more when we have a history or personal connection to them.  I didn't need to read dozens pages of completed experiments to know that was true.  Yes, understanding that and making shifts in ones life knowing about it might be good but to have to read about a boring experiment only to get to a fairly obvious conclusion is not my idea of a good book.  In fact, I would often skim the breakdown of the experiment (which I usually find most interpreting in books like this and the bulk of the book) just to get to the conclusion but the point made was often so minimal or obvious that it became frustrating.

In general, this book has still got a few interesting chapters and ideas to present.  However, Ariely's writing style, although informal and familiar, is a bit too simple for one to get excited about.  And unlike his last book, the take-aways are not nearly as exciting.   While some people may find this book interesting, I would take a pass if I were you and trust that most of your logic is pretty sound to begin with. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bossypants - Tina Fey ----------------- 2.5 Stars

Another short review, as there is not much to this book. 

Bossypants is a comedy book by Tina Fey.  It's pretty funny but not that great.  It's sort of half autobiography and half jokes interwoven together.  The problem I have found with comedy books is that so much of comedy is timing and seeing it and hearing it.  My voice was the comedian when reading this and I'm not that funny.

Overall, the book has some very interesting anecdotes.  Tina starts with her childhood and works through to her time on SNL and 30 Rock.  I found the more recent stuff much more interesting than her time growing up.

In general, I find the book was not funny about 90% of the time, which seems high, but remember it's a book trying to tell jokes; not the best way to do it.  However, the 10% of the time when a joke was funny, it was really funny.  There were a few jokes that I was literally laughing out loud and felt the need to tell someone about the joke.

I would recommend this book to any people who are big Tina Fey fans.  If you like her, or liked 30 Rock, you will probably enjoy this book.  That being said, I fall into that group and did not find this book that enjoyable.  It is an easy read and short, so it won't take up much of your time, but as the majority of it not funny, you are really spending most of your time reading about Tina Fey's life, which frankly, ain't all that interesting.  However, when she does hit her jokes right, it's pretty funny.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Art Forger - B.A. Shapiro ---------------- 3 Stars

This will not be a very long review.  First, I am tired.  Second, I finished this book like 3 weeks ago but forgot about writing a blog because of how busy I am.  Third, there is not a ton to say.

The Art Forger is a pretty fun, fictional read very loosely based on real art forgery stuff.  It tells the story of a down on her luck girl who is an art forger (legitimately) who gets into doing some forgeries (not legitimate).  It also tells three stories in parallel: current day  events, about 10 years ago telling the story that made this down on her luck, down on her luck, a story about a century ago about this famous piece of art the story is based on.

On a positive, the story is a pretty easy read.  Good plot and action.  Good dialogues and keeps the reader engaged for nearly the entire novel.  I also learned a lot more about art, in general, and much, much more about art forgeries.  Art forging is actually really interesting and, so the novel says, approximately 40% of all art sales each year are forgeries (the best forgeries are actually in museums).  The book had a cute ending and was decent, overall.

The bad -- well, the whole book is still about art; not my favorite subject.  I think the biggest problem I had with the book was how contrived the entire story is.  It kind of reminded me of one of those John Grisham books that I used to be into when I was young and thought they were amazing (before realizing how impossible they actually were).  This book was kind of like that; fun and entertaining but not really all that realistic. 

So, The Art Forger is worth reading if you've got some time.  It's a nice book and not much more.  Good plot and interesting ending.  You actually will probably learn a lot more about art forging than you planned, but it's pretty interesting.  Just know that you're getting into a story that's a bit hard to believe (even for a piece of fiction). 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

This is Where I Leave You -- Jonathan Tropper --------------- 3 Stars

This is Where I Leave You is a kind of an odd novel.  As you may be aware, it was recently made into a major motion picture (which I would love to see but have not had the time yet), starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and others.  What I found odd about the novel though is how I really felt I didn't like it for most of the book, but then finished it and though it was much better, but, now a week later am thinking back and sort of not liking it again.  Let my try to explain.

First, the book is a very entertaining read.  It's got some great characters and has some truly laugh out loud moments.  There is a lot of crisp, quick dialogue and great deals of sarcasm (I can totally get the Bateman/Fey choices for the movie).  The book also takes place in a fairly quick 7 day period following the death of the main character's farther.  Basically, the 35 year old main character, who just broke up with his adulterer wife, comes back home with his 3 siblings, mother, and family friends to sit shiva for his father.  Obviously, hilarious ensues...really it does.

Ok, so you got the premise.  Around half way into it though, I am realizing that although it's funny and an enjoyable read, I am really not buying it.  First, some of the stuff is so over the top that it doesn't seem very realistic.  Second, I was really not liking all the characters as much as the start.   They didn't seem that there was much depth too them and certainly were 'broken' in many ways; maybe I shouldn't judge?  Third, the book is chalk full of inappropriate language and sexual situations (like, alot).  Normally, I wouldn't mind much, and some of the sex related parts are funny, but I actually thought it was so much that it distracted from the overall arc of the story.  So, I was kind of getting to a point near the novel end that I was just not enjoying it as much as previously.

Then, I finish the book and am back in a good place.  Cute ending, wrapped a few characters and the story, no major departures from the logic of the story... not too bad.  The author also did a nice job of bringing back the characters to where you thought they should be.  Some frustrated relationships were reconciled, some people who were being fake returned to who they truly are, etc.  So, about a week ago I was pretty pumped on the finish.

Finally, I am writing this nearly a week later and thinking back to the book with not as great memories.  Sure, I still remember it as a fun read with an engaging story.  I definitely remember the pretty screwed up characters and their attempts to improve their lives.  But I also remember not much coming with me after finishing.  No great thoughts or ideas.  No admiration for these individuals as entertaining as they might be.  In whole, I really enjoyed the book while reading it but take little with me.

Now we are at a sort of interesting reviewing question.  Should the my rating be based on my mindset when directly finished or after some time to resonate?   I've never thought about it before.  There are probably plenty of books that I have read that actually get better with the passing of time and thinking back on them.  This one happened to get worst.  What should I make of it?  I guess I'll split the difference and go with 3 stars.  Immediately after the book ended I was at a 4, now I'm at a 2.  Average it out for a 3.  If I were you though, you should read it yourself and make up your own mind... just give it a few weeks before you finalize that decision.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking -- Susan Cain ------------------- 4 Stars

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking 
has been a book on my list to read for a while.  I've heard quite good things about it, though it's taken a while to get around to checking it out.  What a truly interesting and fascinating read about a subject that effects nearly every person each day.

This book does its best to explain everything there is to do with the idea of introverts, and by association, extroverts.  The premise, as you can probably glean from the title, is about how underrated and actually quite important and powerful introverts are in our society.

In the past few years, I have done a lot to better understand who I am as a person.  I have taken Myers-Briggs test, Predictive Indexes, and other tests to better understand my strengths and weaknesses and needs.  To that end, introversion is an important part in understanding people's personalities.  (Interestingly, I fall pretty much in the middle between extroversion and introversion which they call 'ambivert').  As such, I was really intrigued in this book.  First, it's a really easy ready.  Cain has a great style that is very comfortable and easy to read but is still very informative.  Second, the book covers a ton of ground.  To begin with, I think her introduction framing the importance of better understanding introverts while she argues how much extroverts are valued in our American society is really quite neat.  After, she moves through all kinds of information covering history, psychology, sociology, etc.  Third, the book finishes with some really useful and practical information about how to better approach people and even yourself depending upon the type of personality you have.  Honestly, it's hard to read the book and not walk away with practical, legitimate actions to better improve relationships.  While the book reads like a typical Gladwell text (overarching theme, good anecdotes, nice writing style, etc.), unlike Gladwell, there are actual takeaways that can make a real difference.

It's hard to poke any real holes in the overall book.  It's really a pretty enjoyable read. I guess the reason it did not get 4.5 or 5 stars it that it's still a one note type of book.  Don't get me wrong, the argument about the undervalued nature of introversion is pretty awesome, but it still is a bit slow at times.  Additionally, it's a bit repetitive.  While I think Cain makes some superb arguments to support her viewpoints, I bought in pretty early so a lot of the later chapters just seemed like a lot of icing.

In general, I think this book would be enjoyed by nearly everyone and nearly every person could take away something from it.  If you haven't spent a lot of time looking at or learning more about your own personality or people around you, I think this book could have even more benefit.  When you think about it, finding ways to communicate and have better relationships with people is paramount and this book actually provides a pretty good blueprint both for how to do it and why it's so important to do so. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling -- David Shoemaker ---------------- 3.5 Stars

I have a confession: I loved watching wrestling growing up.  To be clear, this is not legit, Greco-Roman real wrestling; this is WWF fake wrastlin'.  So, when I saw a highly rated book about the history of wrestling titled The Squared Circle, I figured I should give it a try.  Boy was I happy I did; the nostalgia oozed from the pages.

When I was young I was super into watching WWF.  It had just started to hit it big culturally and a guy named Hulk Hogan had just come into the national conversation.  While only a little guy, I got into for probably a decade starting in the mid-80s and had action figures, championship belts, and even wrestling bed sheets.  This book was a real fun read.  I probably remembered about 2/3rds of it and the other 1/3rd (either older stuff or some of the newer people) was pretty interesting to me.

The book has a pretty fun set up.  Basically, Shoemaker goes through the various eras from the start of wrestling in America nearly 100 years ago to today.  While going through, he does 4-5 page biographies of about 30 wrestlers.  I didn't realize until the end that they were all dead (a completely noteworthy and sad part of the overall wrestling narrative).  In the arc of the book, I truly enjoyed the middle 2/3rds as that was the era, and wrestlers, I remember quite well.  Interestingly, the author avoids many of the major stars (though many are represented) and, instead, emphasizes some less popular wrestlers that stood out for some specific reason.  Again, really quite interesting.

Drawbacks?  Sure, there were some.  I thought there was too much on the beginning of the sport. Nearly all those wrestlers are unknown and the sport was so different then.  I also didn't like how the book didn't include better visuals.  While there was a black and white photo over each wrestler covered, that was it.  If there was ever a book that would have been improved by a giant, color insert in the middle, it was this one.  While I appreciate that the author wanted to make it clear that 'kayfabe' is an integral part of wrestling (kayfabe is the rule that wrestlers always stay in character but occasionally gets broken), there was a lot of emphasis about how obvious it is to everyone that wrestling is fake and that's okay and actually a very important part of the overall sport.

Overall, this is a pretty enjoyable book if you enjoy wrestling.  If you are like me and grew up watching guys like Macho Man, Hogan, Jake the Snake, and Andre the Giant, take a read through this book.  While you may find yourself flipping through some of the early stuff, you also might find yourself pulling up old YouTube clips of matches from two decades ago.  Certainly this is not as good as a time machine, this book still did a pretty great job of bringing up the memories in my head.  Hopefully, it does for you as well!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Secret History -- Donna Tartt --------------------- 3.5 Stars

A couple of months ago, I read the Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  As you can see from my review, it was one of my favorite books read in a while and a nearly perfect novel.  Tartt's first book, The Secret History, I was told was very good as well.  Incredibly, Tarrt does about a book a decade, and this was written way back in 1992.  As you can see from my rating, it was a pretty good book but quite obviously nowhere near as good as The Goldfinch.

Like The Goldfinch, both books are pretty dark, have young boys as the lead characters, and focus on alot of drugs and alcohol.   This particular story tells the tale of 5 friends at a Northeast college who commit a murder.  FYI - I did not just give anything away; in fact, the murder is revealed in the first few pages.  Rather than being a whodunit, it's a whydunit.

Overall, it's a pretty captivating and interesting novel.  I read it in nearly 3 weeks, which is impressive as I don't have a ton of free time (though I do thank the snow days) and it's over 550 pages.  But, it's really a fun novel to get into.  Like The Goldfinch, there is some incredibly great lines and paragraphs that I re-read just to understand fully.  Also, it's got some great plot points that move the novel on pretty quickly, though it still does slow a bit from to time as the reader might go through 10 or 20 pages with nothing really happening.

The best part of the novel, however, are the amazing descriptions and interplay of the 5 main characters.  By the end, you truly get a very good sense of their motivations, interests, characteristics, etc.   In many ways, the plot is just the mechanism for Tartt to work through introducing, describing, and explaining why these people do what they do.  By the book's end, you really have a great investment in how everything will end up for these people.  (Side note: the book has a very interesting/odd Epilogue.  Basically, Tartt explains, with finality, what happens to nearly all (even minor) characters in the book.  While satisfying in some ways, it had kind of got a fake end of a movie feel).

It's hard for me not to compare and juxtapose this book with The Goldfinch.  Having enjoyed it so much and  finished it so recently, it was in the back of my head for most of the novel.  Basically, The Secret History is akin to Michael Jordan playing on the Bulls before Phil Jackson.  There was massive talent there and you could see he was going to be great but there were still a lot of things that needed to be put in place to be a champion.  I feel like Tartt was able to find her Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen for The Goldfinch.  Very cool, The Secret History had many of the great elements of that book but just not perfected yet.  I guess one question is, will Tartt be able to win 6 championships like Jordan?  Unfortunately for me, and maybe others, it may take another decade or two to find out knowing the author's pace... that would be worth it though if the next novel is as good as The Secret History or anything quite like The Goldfinch. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Big Short -- Michael Lewis ------------- 4 Stars

I think this is one of the stranger reviews and ratings I've done for a book.  It's safe to say that this is one of the most enjoyable books about something I did not understand.  In fact, I loved the book but again, didn't know what I was reading about half the time.  Alas, The Big Short is really worth the time if you are okay with you brain feeling a bit overwhelmed for much of it.

A bit of background, Michael Lewis is a pretty great author who wrote Moneyball, The Blind Side, and the original tale of Wall Street, Liar's Poker.  This book is sort of a take 2 on Liar's Poker.  It basically tells the story about the growth and eventual downfall of the housing crisis in the late 2000's.  To be even more clear, the book goes includes stories about a very small pool of people that were making systematic bets against the growth of the housing market.  These bets are calling 'shorting', hence the title, and can have great odds if they work out.  The final piece of info.: you make these bets against the housing market by buying collateralized debt obligations (or large numbers of mortgages put together into bonds).  Anyway, long summary short, Lewis walks you through how the housing book became so big, why no one was stopping it, why it was so easy to game (for the big banks), why those who bet against it were quite genius, and why, in the end, was it so sad for our society and country. 

The reason the book is so enjoyable, and earns such a high rating, relates to what I was joking about in the first paragraph.  What actually occurred was incredibly complex and confusing, and yet without even truly understand it, the reader (ME!) still gets a really good idea of what was happening and how absolutely crazy it was.  In some ways, it's kind of like a mystery novel, though with the ending already known.

Lewis does a great job of explaining why the banking machine was going so hard, so fast, and no one was asking questions and why the few that were asking questions were such outliers.  It also gave me such an amazing sense of the pressures of money on so many industries and especially on Wall Street.  The characters were also pretty fascinating.  While he doesn't go into great depth about them, he does describe about a dozen people that were absolutely critical in the process to short these companies and their investments in the housing market.

My only real complaint of the book (besides not actually understanding much of it) was that Lewis did not  explain the aftermath of many of the banks going belly up.  Although he writes briefly about the government step-ins and taking over of Freddie and Fannie, that's about it.  And though he does make it quite clear that there was huge mistakes in oversight by the government (e.g. Moody's which sets the 'ratings' for many of the collateralize mortgages, didn't know what they were doing and employed the meekest financial minds), you never really get a sense whose fault this is. He does mention how ridiculous it is that so many CEO's and VP's were highly compensated after losing millions of dollars, but I would have liked a final chapter explaining how to assure this never happens again.

Overall, it is a great story that is very well told and very illuminating.  You really get to better understand one of the largest black eye's in American financial history.  If you don't mind skipping over some things that just don't make sense to you, you're in for a real treat.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Wonder - R.J. Palacio --------------------- 3.5 Stars

Wonder, by R.J. Palacio, is really a kids book.  I guess to be more specific, it's a book for pre-adolescents.  It's has a fantastic reputation and is very well liked by nearly all that have read it; I too am happy to have given it a spin.

After reading it, you can see why this book appeals so much to the pre-teen crowd.  More than anything, it's written on their level.  I mean that both in the reading level of the book being very simplistic, but more so the themes of the book connecting to (pre and) pubescent boys and girls: schools, cliques, peer groups, mean kids, being different, trying to fit in, etc.  At the heart of the book is a boy named Auggie, who as you might have guessed from the cover, looks different.  No real description is ever clearly laid out but you understand that Auggie's physical appearance is the crux of many interactions in the book.

The story is told in a pretty fun way.  About 8 different chapters are written from the point of view of a few different people in the novel.  Of course, most is Auggie himself, but his friends, sister, and others take on small parts to better give you a more clear perspective on everyone's first person view of about a year's worth of events. 

Overall, it's a very nice book.  It's not going to blow your mind, at least not mine as an adult, but it's a great story to read and has some wonderful themes and take-aways.  What I actually appreciated most about reading it was just how difficult the middle school years can be.  Both working with this age population of students, and thinking back to my own time during those years, it was so nice to be reminded in such a vivid way about how critical peer relations are during this time period and how much emphasis is put on being 'normal'.  I can see why this book is such a hit with kids this age.  So many of the themes and ideas are so easy to identify with and so many of the characters play out in similar ways in middle schools all across the country.

Thankfully, a book like Wonder comes along and both kids and adults can enjoy some of the great lessons learned from this piece of literature.  I do urge you to pick it up to remind yourself why those lessons are important no matter what your age.