Have you heard of this guy Charles Dickens? Wrote novels. And I'm very glad I read this one: the characters are extremely realized, the story is origi...moreHave you heard of this guy Charles Dickens? Wrote novels. And I'm very glad I read this one: the characters are extremely realized, the story is original and memorable, and the author's dry wit makes for some of the funniest observations I've read.
For the sake of summarizing: Pip is a boy who lives with his sister and her husband east of London. He's apprenticed to his brother in law to become a blacksmith. They live a simple life, until Pip is called to visit a decrepit old mansion and entertain its chief inhabitant, the elderly and wealthy Miss Haversham, who wears a yellowed wedding dress and keeps an ancient wedding cake (now more of a wedding spiderweb sculpture) in the center of her dining room table -- monuments to her interrupted and never completed ceremony from years before.
If that isn't strange enough, one day Pip meets a peculiar lawyer who bears unexpected news: a mysterious benefactor has left Pip money and would like for him to give up training to be a blacksmith and instead become a gentleman.
To say more would spoil the fun, but after reading this I can see why Dickens novels remain so popular.(less)
Sure, the style is a little dry and factual, with only occasional forays into emotion and sensation. I found it particularly hard to keep track of all...moreSure, the style is a little dry and factual, with only occasional forays into emotion and sensation. I found it particularly hard to keep track of all the people - so hard that the authors provide a cheat sheet at the beginning of the book. "These are the people, these are the events, and this is how they unfolded," Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein seem to be telling us.
But the story of Watergate between 1971 and 1974, told through the filter of Woodward and Bernstein's Washington Post investigation, is nevertheless a compelling read. It's shocking that these events actually happened, that a presidential administration was so culturally brainwashed and paranoid that they ran an operation of surveillance and burglary that would have made the Kremlin blush. Shocking also that they thought this operation was necessary: they assumed, despite their political success in 1968 and Nixon's consistently high poll numbers, that they were nevertheless under constant fire - and also, that everyone else in politics must be equally corrupt. After living through the first decade of this century, the reactions of those inside the Nixon administration to seeing their names in print, to encountering criticism, to being held accountable for their actions while in public office, serve as eerie an echo from the past of the misinformation and squirming we saw in the events surrounding the Iraq War.
Nixon's people reserved particular ire for the Washington Post, and to a lesser degree Time magazine and the New York Times. The three years of this book are peppered with outbursts from administration officials, from press secretary Ron Ziegler to the president himself, to the effect that these publications were "out to get the president." And of course, within weeks of these outbursts it frequently happened that the papers' claims were verified, vindicated. You almost feel embarrassed for these federal officials, reading their "non-denial denials" and knowing what will surely come next.
The sense that this administration thought itself constantly under siege by treasonous outsiders when it was only really threatened by its own behavior, is emblematic of modern American conservatism when it finds itself in executive power. But the abuses of power here transcend political ideology. Read this book.(less)
A couple days ago two people separately got my attention, gestured to the book I was reading, and said they loved it.
This is really a spectacular nove...moreA couple days ago two people separately got my attention, gestured to the book I was reading, and said they loved it.
This is really a spectacular novel -- really a collection of novellas, thematically linked and ... well, I don't want to ruin it for anyone. Let's just say that if you enjoy novels, this one should be on your list.(less)
This is possibly the best science book I've ever read. Far from being about the Big Bang specifically, and without asking the reader to take any of th...moreThis is possibly the best science book I've ever read. Far from being about the Big Bang specifically, and without asking the reader to take any of the case for this amazing theory for granted, Singh takes his usual knack for explaining complex concepts to the layperson and tunes it up to eleven, effectively building the case for the Big Bang from first principles. We start with Ptolemy and the Greeks, move into the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and so on, and along the way we put together the whole of cosmology and theoretical physics as if from a Lego kit.
If there is anything you might have doubted about the Big Bang, it's covered here, and the evidence is pretty thoroughly detailed. Highly recommended.
Update 2013: I read an article on rereading. Then, to show I was serious, I read that article again. I realized that (a) it's true that reading a book multiple times is more immersive and lasting than reading it and casting it aside forever, and that (b) I hadn't reread a book in a long time.
Big Bang is a great candidate for a book to reread. It's chock full of scientific discovery, yet the discoveries it elucidates are linear and logically connected to a larger goal, making for a great narrative, so I found it worthwhile to remind myself of every link in the chain. In particular I'm glad to have been reminded of the contributions of Tycho Brahe, Johnannes Kepler and Edwin Hubble. My original review still expresses my enthusiasm for this book: this is probably the best book on physics for the layperson I've encountered.(less)
What struck me most about the first two books, Red Mars and Green Mars, is how little they read like science fiction novels. Sci-fi usually has deeply...moreWhat struck me most about the first two books, Red Mars and Green Mars, is how little they read like science fiction novels. Sci-fi usually has deeply conceptual hooks, which are part of what makes me enjoy the genre. The first books of the Mars trilogy, by contrast, read more like a history of the future: there are believable, well conceived characters living amid technologies that do not stretch the imagination like most tales of space exploration I've encountered before.
That changes a bit in this third volume, with terraforming projects in a diaspora of worlds. In the wake of an ecological catastrophe on Earth, humanity finally reaches beyond Mars, moving to the Galilean moons and Uranus, and even beyond the solar system. But because we have already experienced two centuries of future history, starting in the very near future, these more exotic events follow smoothly from what came before. You can see the full timeline, stretching forward from now, and I really like this.
As usual the characters are a joy, and this time there's a bit less inner scientific dialogue, a bit more interaction, and conflict resolution. This third book, though very long, is definitely the masterpiece of the trilogy, and pulls the whole saga together.(less)
An absolute joy, this historical fiction novel mixes Internet intrigue, Wold War II cryptography and an engaging multi-generational story. It's the qu...moreAn absolute joy, this historical fiction novel mixes Internet intrigue, Wold War II cryptography and an engaging multi-generational story. It's the quickest 900+ pages you're ever likely to read.(less)
I should have read this book a long time ago. For a pre-moon-landing take on lunar colonization, it's really ahead of its time, and a lot of fun to re...moreI should have read this book a long time ago. For a pre-moon-landing take on lunar colonization, it's really ahead of its time, and a lot of fun to read. The writing style is leagues beyond most everything else I've read from 60s sci-fi, and aside from computery/networky details it's reasonably solid by even today's standards.
One thing that struck me is how much this book must have influenced Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, which presents colonization, blue-sky social reinvention, and revolution in somewhat similar ways. (Really, the main differences with Robinson are a lack of libertarianism and more details about rocks.)(less)
I found this book to be truly wonderful, one of the most realized uses of point of view that I've encountered. Another such book, incidentally, is Whe...moreI found this book to be truly wonderful, one of the most realized uses of point of view that I've encountered. Another such book, incidentally, is When We Were Orphans, and there are many similarities between the two Ishiguro novels. In Orphans the main character is a famous British detective, and in this novel it is a British butler, but the genius of both is not just how much we understand the identity of the protagonist through his narrative, but how much we come to doubt his objectivity. Ishiguro uses this trick to different effect in each book, and I prefer the more subtle treatment of this novel.
Oh, and bonus points for making a book about the experiences of a butler, including his preferences of silver polish and musings on conducting his work with dignity, somehow page-turningly enjoyable.(less)
What happened, a meteor crash? A war? No one seems to know, and the details remain ambiguous, but the landscape of an ash-covered America in which the...moreWhat happened, a meteor crash? A war? No one seems to know, and the details remain ambiguous, but the landscape of an ash-covered America in which the few remaining people resort to cannibalism or scavenging to survive in a world where nothing grows will haunt your imagination long after you've put the book down.(less)
This book's scope represents a blind spot in my knowledge of science history that I'm pleased to have filled, and it's written with a flair that keeps...moreThis book's scope represents a blind spot in my knowledge of science history that I'm pleased to have filled, and it's written with a flair that keeps it enjoyable despite its hefty weight. I'll have to read more from Richard Holmes.
Before reading The Age of Wonder I knew a bit about William and Caroline Herschel, the dynamic sibling duo who built the best telescopes in the world and mapped the Northern skies (from Slough!) discovering Uranus -- the first new planet in a millennium -- as well as some comets and countless nebulae that Hubble later proved to be other galaxies. But I was woefully ignorant of Joseph Banks, an explorer of Tahiti and first president of the Royal Society, and Humphrey Davy, inhaler of nitrous oxide and inventor of a safety lamp that saved the lives of many miners. I also knew little about the ballooning craze of the late eighteenth century. This book is a fantastic look at a unique time, and a way of thinking, without which the world would be a great deal darker.(less)
Yes, it's a collection of bits and pieces recovered from his hard drive after his untimely death in 2001 ... but what a wonderful collection of random...moreYes, it's a collection of bits and pieces recovered from his hard drive after his untimely death in 2001 ... but what a wonderful collection of random thoughts it makes - a must read for any fan of his other books. Oh, and that section about how Americans don't understand the art of making a good cup of tea? That was from an e-mail he wrote to me in 1994. So I can't help but give it five stars.(less)
I'm giving this a five because of how significant the events it describes were, and how badly most of us who work outside Wall Street understand them...moreI'm giving this a five because of how significant the events it describes were, and how badly most of us who work outside Wall Street understand them even four years later. Of course, this book on the subprime mortgage crisis is an enjoyable read, but it's also a deadly serious critique. The critique may be flawed (in particular I don't entirely identify with the author's obsession with the conversion of Wall Street firms to publicly traded companies in the 1980s), but the system being criticized needs it badly.
But first, let me put my post-2008 political glasses on. There are two competing narratives of the 2008 financial crisis, and in the first, Wall Street created a system based on nothing and it collapsed through its own ineptitude, dishonesty and greed. Specifically, firms created confusing securities called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that were based upon "tranches" of subprime (i.e., risky) mortgages. These securities drove the demand for more floating rate mortgages from mortgage originators, who eagerly welcomed in new home buyers regardless of those buyers' future ability to pay. This wouldn't have worked if ratings agencies like Moody's and S&P hadn't evaluated subprime-backed CDOs as AAA (i.e., perfectly safe for investment) without actually understanding them. Or if the SEC, or even most people on Wall Street, had understood what Wall Street was selling.
The other narrative is that Congressman Barney Frank pushed for more low-income housing, leading to a market distortion, and the home buyers who took out these floating-rate loans effectively scammed Wall Street into doing the above.
To believe this second narrative you have to believe that a localized US policy caused a real estate crisis that was global in scope, and not limited to the US. You also have to believe that millions of independent low-income citizens banded together to scam Wall Street (i.e., so-called "predatory borrowing"). I do not believe we set policies in, for example, Spain, so this strikes me as implausible.
To believe the first narrative, on the other hand, you have to accept that home buyers didn't really understand the complex system of securitization above them -- that they just wanted to buy a house. And that mortgage originators, who told buyers they were ideal candidates for ownership, don't understand any of this either, but they didn't need to because Wall Street firms were privy to the same buyer information as they were, but were still talking on mortgages, so they must make some kind of sense, right? And you have to accept that Wall Street firms could delude themselves about the value of their own assets, and that ratings agencies were more concerned about keeping their customers than with doing painful asset research.
These claims don't stretch the imagination one iota, which is why I accept the first narrative.
Michael Lewis wisely chose to tell this story through the points of view of people who did their homework and predicted the downfall of the finance sector a few years in advance. They are:
- Mike Burry, a doctor with Asperger's who went into finance when he discovered he enjoyed reading into the minutiae of a bond prospectus in a way that only a person with Asperger's, or a Wall Street lawyer, can. - Steve Eisman of FrontPoint Partners, a Wall Street firebrand. - A trio of guys at Cornwall Capital, a firm they started with little over $100k that made millions. - Greg Lippman from Deutsche Bank.
These guys all did their research on CDOs and decided to buy credit default swaps (CDSs) against the CDOs.
One of the nice things about reading this book is that you'll actually have a good understanding of what that acronym salad means, but in a nutshell CDSs are like insurance policies on assets. But here's the funny twist: Wall Street will sell you one of these polices, for which you have to make regular payments, on something that you don't actually own. Read that again. As Lewis says, it's like being able to buy building insurance on a fire trap that belongs to someone else. And the people listed above bought as many of them as they could, because for a fairly large fee they stood to make hundreds of millions if the system collapsed.
This was the big finance event of our time. Read about it.(less)