For most of the book, I wanted to crawl between the pages and live there. It is delightfully funny and incredibly apt. Having learned or learned of En...moreFor most of the book, I wanted to crawl between the pages and live there. It is delightfully funny and incredibly apt. Having learned or learned of English cultural traditions, idioms, foibles, etc., as an outsider myself over my years of living there, I found Fox's approach of "discovering" them to be like a witty echo of my own observational experience (with none of the fear, painful experimentation and rejection that can come with actual expatriate living). Wonderfully enjoyable.
Then, around the chapter on modes of dress, she started to sound a bit like an irrelevant, smug newspaper columnist writing about what the silly youth are up to these days (with no attempt to distinguish this from what the silly youth are up to in other cultures, which would have excused her), and she lost me. The rest felt a bit tired, like the parts of a term paper that are written the night before deadline.
Still, that occurred late enough in the book that it shouldn't put anyone off.(less)
In my expectation for this book, I mistakenly conflated two related but distinct concepts: defense of atheism (as its own creed, as it were - seculari...moreIn my expectation for this book, I mistakenly conflated two related but distinct concepts: defense of atheism (as its own creed, as it were - secularism, if you like), and attack on theism (and religion). I expected the latter, and found it in spades, but was surprised that there wasn't much of the former, which was a shame, because I think that added dimension would have given Hitchens's argument a bit more of an open-door feel (something many believers appreciate about religion, incidentally).
I can't blame Hitchens for that, though; he set out to make the case against religion, not to write Secularism for Dummies, and this should have been clear from the subtitle: the book is about all the ways in which religion is bad. Having defined his scope thus, he launches from the opening into a catalog of atrocities, large and small, that can be laid at the feet of religion: holy wars and religious killings; dietary restrictions; interference in sexual conduct and sexual health; the holding hostage of reason by faith; the spread of false information about our origins and the attendant obstruction of the pursuit of scientific knowledge. With this as context, he then presents brief, damning biographies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, before moving on to argue religion's systemically poisonous nature, on a number of fronts.
In a delightfully catty dispute over the nature of evolutionary psychology, Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, "If we define poetic justice as defeat by one's own favored devices - Robespierre before the guillotine or Midas in golden starvation - then we might be intrigued to find Steven Pinker, a linguist by training, upended by his own use of words." One could make a similar case against Hitchens (although I don't think he is upended completely, just limited): a disciple or even evangelist of reason, he set for himself a task that reason could not achieve - to show that religion poisons everything. (This claim isn't limited to the book's subtitle; it is repeated as a refrain throughout.) This is plainly impossible (not least because one can't make a list of everything), and so the endless cataloging of evil and hypocrisy comes off as grasping, instead of what it should rightly be, horrifying.
At times, Hitchens's impulse to condemn faith and the faithful gets in the way of a perfectly obvious point of reason. In the chapter entitled "Does Religion Make People Behave Better?", he describes a debate in which an atheist says to a bishop that he sees no evidence for the existence of a god, to which the bishop replies, "Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality." Surely the best response to this is simply, "And yet I do not, so evidently belief is not necessary for morality." But Hitchens leaps over this (I think obvious) point to call out the bishop's statement as an insult and then to suggest that this means the bishop himself would lead an immoral life if he were "freed from the restraints of doctrine." This is a clever turn of logic, but not thoroughly convincing on the question of whether belief necessarily engenders morality, or whether morality exists in the absence of belief, both of which are worth addressing in earnest. The truth is that in some cases, people do extraordinarily good things not only in spite of but because of their belief in a higher being, and Hitchens isn't able to square this with the unsavory human tendencies that religion often exploits, so he simply skips over it. "The first thing to be said," he states, "is that virtuous behavior by a believer is no proof at all of - indeed is not even an argument for - the truth of his belief." No indeed, but his thesis isn't that religion is untrue, it's that religion poisons everything (italics his). The point of all this being that Hitchens makes a very good case, but ultimately not the case he promised he would make.
The concluding chapters are titled "A Finer Tradition: The Resistance of the Rational" and "The Need for a New Enlightenment," and it is here that I would have hoped for a celebration of reason, inquiry, irreligious morality and of course secularism. And I guess that's what he was going for, too, but unfortunately for the reader, he must have felt like the inventory of religious iniquity hadn't been satisfactorily completed in the preceding chapters, because it bleeds into these sections as well. At the end of which, one has the impression that these noble, non-faith-based pursuits are more about the fight against belief than anything else, which is a discredit to them.
However! It was easier to put my objections into words than my praises, and I do think this book deserves its four (well, three and a half, if I could) stars. Hitchens is an incredibly good writer, who makes the turn of phrase an art and is as clever with words as powerful. And imperfect though the book may be, it's pleasing to read something (even a polemic) that is so literate, that so clearly appreciates the genius of past writers, philosophers and scientists, and that so strongly rises to the debate (even if, as I believe, it overreaches to its own detriment). As I was reading this, it struck me that there are not a lot of interesting, highly literate public intellectuals left in America. Incendiary though it may be, Christopher Hitchens's voice is a challenging and enjoyable one.(less)
Lewis is an addictive writer. You never want to put his stuff down, and he is often riotously funny. But I did come away from this (and from The Blind...moreLewis is an addictive writer. You never want to put his stuff down, and he is often riotously funny. But I did come away from this (and from The Blind Side) with the feeling that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The individual episodes are fantastic, but at the end you realize that it's a little weak as a single long narrative. Lewis isn't great at keeping to linear explanation, and at times that fails his purpose.
I don't want to let that dissuade anyone from reading this, though. The first third of the book alone is worth the list price and it's awfully readable the whole way through.(less)
Michael Lewis sometimes does this thing that bothers me: he starts a thread, then leaves it hanging; starts another, and leaves that one hanging; and you feel like all these loose threads are going to combine into a fantastic ending, but in fact he's just done with them. In other words he's like a phenomenal magazine writer who finds some difficulty in combining pieces into a book-length narrative. But I didn't find that to be the case with this book at all. Aside from some annoying repetition, which Chris pointed out in the comments before I wrote this review, all the pieces come together in a satisfying way.
Of the three main narratives, each takes place at a slightly different remove from the crisis's epicenter, but all have the same anticipatory feel, which leaves you with the feeling that you could TOTALLY have known the financial bloodbath was coming, if you'd had access to the right data. Which, in fact, is kind of the point; anyone who bothered to look into these securities (which were slightly foul-smelling even from a distance) found a surfeit of reasons to expect them to blow up.
This book has the gratifying quality of not seeming smug about having the benefit of hindsight - a quality conspicuously lacking in most of the public discourse, particularly in things like congressional hearings and speeches in late 2008 and 2009. One gets the distinct impression most of the politicians condemning greed on Wall Street couldn't have explained the connection between a Main Street home equity loan and a CDS on CDOs even after the subject became widely written about, let alone in advance of the fall in house prices when many of them wouldn't have been caught dead saying any American wasn't qualified to take out a mortgage to buy a new home.
In stark contrast, The Big Short is all about the few people who not only understood the vast, complex financial universe that fed on mortgages, but also understood its many risks and weaknesses - and yet, the tone of the book is not, as it might easily have been, "I told you so." I guess this is because you don't have to say something when it's so readily apparent. (A direct example of this is Eisman's flippant comment to the JPM CFO when the CDO market crashed, and his - Eisman's - immediate regret at having not left the obvious unsaid.)
Lewis has a unique vantage point - current writer but former bond salesman - and rare talent for educating the uninitiated (whether it's about baseball scouting, football formations or financial securities) which make him more or less the perfect person to tackle this subject, a task at which he succeeds pretty brilliantly.
ADDENDUM: I now realize my review makes it sound like I think the book is perfect. I don't. It's the most readable (not necessarily the best full stop) book about the financial crisis (not about the wider issues like the housing bubble, the connection with the real economy, etc.). But beyond that, I'm just too lazy to go into more detail, and it's pretty damn good, so I'm leaving it there.(less)
I'll never end up reading this whole book, because I don't own it and I'm not interested enough to buy it. But I read about a third of my mother's cop...moreI'll never end up reading this whole book, because I don't own it and I'm not interested enough to buy it. But I read about a third of my mother's copy while visiting, and the subject matter is very interesting. It's about prion diseases - the most famous of which is mad cow, but scrapie (the disease that makes sheep think their backs are so itchy that they rub them against posts until they are raw (and then they die)) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease are others.
The hereditary disease referenced in the title is particularly haunting. It's referred to as fatal familial insomnia (FFI) and for most of the world, the chances of having it are one in, I think, several million. But if you belong to one of the approximately forty families in the world affected by it, your chances of getting it are one in two. If you get it, you will become afflicted in middle age and die slowly, painfully and without losing consciousness or awareness. It essentially puts the body into "fight or flight" mode at all times, so that the sufferer is continually in overdrive; and then it prevents the person from being able to sleep. This goes on for about fifteen months, with the victim never sleeping and always in extreme anxiety, and never becoming irrational (so he/she is never numbed to the torture), until death occurs.
It's fascinating/horrifying. However, I found that the book itself was mediocre. The subject matter carries it a long way, and the writing itself is good, but in sections concerned with historical information for which there is obviously not much source material, the author becomes very speculative. Furthermore, he imposes a narrative on the progress of research around these diseases, which seems contrived since there was no concerted, sustained research effort until the latter half of the twentieth century, and all the progress made prior to that point was in occasional, unrelated bursts.
It is an easy read, and good for, say, plane flights, or killing time.(less)
A real shame that the second half is phoned in. The first half is brilliant; at once a wonderful, heartbreaking story about a real person, a...more3.5 stars.
A real shame that the second half is phoned in. The first half is brilliant; at once a wonderful, heartbreaking story about a real person, and a clean, clear look at the evolution of the passing game and the roles of pass rushers and left tackles. And I know what the West Coast offense is now!
In the end, I wanted more football. Without taking anything away from the story of Michael Oher, which was great, I wanted Lewis's crisp, clear style to explain the intricacies of this very complicated game. Ultimately, he set out to write about the left tackle position which, though important and though it did require a fair amount of background and explanation, is still a limited topic. What I want, I realized, is the Michael Lewis Big Book of Football. He's just so good at writing about sports. But oh well.
If you already have an interest in the book, do read it. It's worth it. If you don't like football, don't bother; it's not so broadly appealing that just anyone would appreciate it.(less)
Got this as a gift one or two Christmases ago and just got around to reading it, at someone's suggestion. It's a cute, poppy book, reads like a long S...moreGot this as a gift one or two Christmases ago and just got around to reading it, at someone's suggestion. It's a cute, poppy book, reads like a long Slate article, and raises one or two interesting topics, though it doesn't try too hard to get at the meat of them. Malcolm Gladwell is a self-promoter, and there are many mentions of Blink within Blink - e.g., "one of the many messages of Blink is that..." - which makes it feel more like a promo for a book, than an actual book. He also evidently places a lot of credence in anecdotes, which comprise the book entirely. After a while, an argument that illustrates each point with an amusing story starts to feel like answering questions with questions. Especially since his point near the end seemed like the opposite of the one he was trying to make in the beginning. But it only took a couple of hours to read, so I mean, if you're bored.(less)
3.5 stars. This book is really about the political trajectory of the Supreme Court over the past 30 years. Toobin seeks to show a gradual, unlikely sh...more3.5 stars. This book is really about the political trajectory of the Supreme Court over the past 30 years. Toobin seeks to show a gradual, unlikely shift leftward over the years of the Rehnquist Court (followed by a striking and uncharacteristically - for the institution - speedy swing back to the right since the Roberts and Alito confirmations).
Not exactly a work of rigorous scholarship, so don't read it if you want a primer on important cases (though Toobin does a good job describing, in plain English, most of the issues at stake). But it's diligently researched - obvious from the volume of material on the justices' personal lives and the many accounts of exchanges at oral arguments - and if Toobin's agenda is a bit obvious, his thorough profiles of the lead actors are wonderful, fair and rare.
I agree with reviewers who take issue with Toobin's seeming worship of Sandra Day O'Connor. At the risk of oversimplifying, I'd say he credits her swing vote for just about every 5-4 decision when he agrees with the outcome, while letting her off the hook when she swings the wrong way.
His coverage of Bush v. Gore is pretty good; he shows, I think adequately, that the Court's intervention in the Florida recount was a low in its history, not because of the outcome, but because it injected itself into a political drama that did not require or deserve its intervention. He rightly points out that the Court prides itself on moving slowly and staying above the political fray, but that in this case, it was so eager to jump into the debacle as to be unseemly, not to mention that events were moving too quickly for the Court even to keep up. One comes away feeling as embarrassed for the Court as angry.
The book is very readable. Toobin, notwithstanding his tendency to break paragraphs in odd places, is a good writer. I most enjoyed the anecdotes about the justices themselves. Things you may not know:
- Clarence Thomas is universally adored on a personal level. From justices to cafeteria workers, he is kind to everyone in the building.
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg's and Antonin Scalia's families celebrate every New Year together.
- David Souter, once mistaken for Stephen Breyer by a stranger, was asked what the best thing was about serving on the Supreme Court, and responded: "The privilege of serving with David Souter."
- William Rehnquist ran all the betting pools at the Court.
- There is a basketball court on one of the upper floors of the Supreme Court building. It is known as "the highest court in the land."(less)
For being about baseball, the boringest of all the ball games (unless you focus on your beer and hot dog) and one I know very little about, it's prett...moreFor being about baseball, the boringest of all the ball games (unless you focus on your beer and hot dog) and one I know very little about, it's pretty entertaining. I do like Bill Simmons.(less)