NEW YORK, NY, United States | Member Since 2010
This book is the bizarre child of a history textbook and a police thriller. It starts as a detailed historical description of Peking just before WWII and then begins focusing on the more specific event of the ferocious murder of a young white woman, of the likes history has never seen before. In an unusual way of narration, the book meticulously progresses from the facts of the investigation, through the various players that participate to it and the facts that they uncover. The facts themselves seemed to have been drawn from the imagination of a fiction novelist but they are all true, but, at the same time, the book reads like a history book without any of the experiential narration that comes with novels.
To be honest, I would have preferred that the dramatization be more novel-like and the style can get dry and boring at times. The problem with the historical narration is that the author is extremely distant to what is happening and most of the psychological angle is entirely lost. But the research, and the facts themselves are, on their own, enough to capture the imagination.
Many might remember Fukuyama from over-the-top opinions about the democratic model but fewer, probably, have read his books. Democracy is not the main theme of this book, as most of the analysis takes place before the development of modern universal-suffrage democracy. The main theme is, instead, whether common forces explain the rise (and decay) of institutions. This involves answering the following questions:
Were institutions created by modern humans or did they pre-exist in pre-human times?
Are there natural or behavioral factors that naturally decay existing institutions?
Which institutional principles are more effective at preventing decay?
How do more modern institutions emerge in the first place?
In answering these difficult questions, Fukuyama takes the route of comparative history, that of scientists seeking truth from the observed behavior of societies, from ancient China, India, the Middle-East to continental Europe and the anglo-saxon world. This gives the theory that he builds a solid grounding on fact. Further, a unique research design is its focus on a historical timeline, as we see the overlying theory driving a society throughout the ages.
So, what causes the creation and decay of institutions? The second part is where Fukuyama gets the cleanest answer. The institution of family (or kin) is the original institution of pre-human times, with solidarity within the family and the method of conflict and violence for those outside. This is Fukuyama's answer to what the state of nature is and, to support this fact, provides evidence from chimps and ancient societies. It is a surprising answer that rejects the myth of the isolated men of both Hobbes and Rousseau but, at the same time, reconciles the benevolent Rousseauian and the brutal Hobbesian savages.
This starting point is taken to the next step, looking at the emergence of non-family based institutions. Interestingly, kin-based ties, sometimes we hear them described as "nepotism", gradually wear-off the basic principles of these institutions, from the fairness across non-controlling families to the selection of the most competent elites. Institutions take measures against the decay, of which we see a number of examples, such as celibacy among priests, non-married slave soldiers in the Middle-East or eunuchs in the East, but because these measures weaken but do not wholly extinguish the human nature toward kins, the rules are always gradually lifted.
So there is, strictly speaking, no decay of institution in society, but a return to the most natural institution of human nature, that of caring for one's own family. This is the place where the exposition weakens as, while the source of decay is well-documented, the source of creation of non-family institutions remains murky. The historical record is itself full of hesitation: is it the result of the power of one competent or benevolent person (like Pope Gregory)? Is it the principle of the survival of the fittest society? (like industrial Europe?) Is it an exogenous social shock? (like religious movements?) Fukuyama errs toward ideas, as the fundamental cause of institutions, but one is left wondering what IS an idea, whether it is the man that spoke it, or the society that made it possible.
This is perhaps where my main criticism lies, that the lack of understanding of the creation of institutions puts the onus on decay and against family, even though the force of decay is a very slow-acting one with many beneficial aspects, while the force of creation is fast and probably first-order. For reasons that I do not know, Fukuyama makes almost no reference to modern economics research on efficiency as a cause for institutions, except for a few grossly misrepresented theories of the state as a rent-extracting mafia which do not represent, in any way, the current state of economic theories on this matter. Economists have a lot of learn from his research, but so does he from them.
"Capital" is, deep inside, the love child of years of careful research trying to measure wealth across and within nations. That it should be mass-marketed as a best seller remains somewhat of a mystery, however. While Capital certainly spends less space on methodology than an academic text, it makes very little compromise otherwise. Except for a few brief winks toward economic ideas, that Piketty quickly dismisses as being generally ambiguous for all practical purposes, the tome spends its time running through never-ending statistics, often repeating the analysis for different countries, for different periods, for different measures, etc. This is a difficult book to read; in fact, noting that readers have mostly highlighted the first passages of the book, the WSJ suggests that it is one of the least read books of the year among its buyers.
This is a necessary preamble to anyone who is approaching this book as a relaxed reading that would be comparable to the writings of other economists like Krugman or Stiglitz, which it is not. And, given the press coverage as well as some unfortunate reviews, let me stress that this not a book of fresh political debate. It is a book about scientific facts, or rather, the best current approximation of these facts. And the one main documented fact is, on its own, not that surprising; namely, that free markets tend to a rising unequal distribution of wealth. Hence, it is other mechanisms, such as war or the welfare state, that moderate this inequality. Actual policy recommendations, based on the assumption that inequality carries unbearable social costs, come only in the final chapters. Naturally, a reader may agree or disagree with this assumption, hence with the implied recommendations, but this does not, in any way, devalue the contribution of the book.
Some extra discussion should also be given to a few unfair criticisms, often made by those who have only read its cover. First, this is no modern Marx: the book does not predict that inequalities would necessarily grow so large to explode the social order - in fact, references to the "Belle Epoque" make it quite clear that high degrees of inequality can be very sustainable - that the working class will rise and challenge greedy bourgeois or that some kind of great reshaping of the state should occur. Beyond this, it is saddening that, at this age, some would still lower themselves to any form of Reductio ad Marx. Second, some commentators have questioned a few methodological assumptions of the research which is, undoubtedly, a good thing and in the way of healthy dialogue. However, it is intellectually dishonest to use a couple of (very debatable) side debates to draw judgment on the book which is almost entirely unrelated to these assumptions. Third, this is not an attempt at philosophy or economic theory. Very little progress is made in terms of conceptually defining capital. Capital is what we can measure and what we can measure is capital; for this reason, the largely un-measurable human capital is not included as capital, for better or for worse. Lastly, the thesis is not nearly as controversial as one might think: certainly, if we remove any notion of the state except for the protection of property rights, it is quite plausible that inequalities might increase over time. There is controversy somewhere, but it is more subtle. That is, should a person or family have the right to preserve wealth across generations to preserve all of descendants from any kind of want OR is it unbearable to imagine a future society where a portion of its people toil for the wants of others whose sole claim to wealth is successful ancestry.
I do not offer to give an opinion on this question, and neither does the author. It is not the function of economists to decide on the right model of society. However, it is their function to document the facts and the available tools to get to alternative models of society. This is the great treasure that is to be found here.
The French Revolution is this two-headed historical anomaly. On the one hand, a brutal repression (think: off with your head) followed by the most devastating wars until the 20th century. On the other hand, it is the first spread of democratic ideals and human rights in continental Europe. The point is not to judge but to try explain the commonality between those two, very different, interpretations and, perhaps, draw more philosophical lessons on the price paid for liberties we enjoy idea.
The book delivers a set of answers to this question and it is of course, nearly impossible to summarize those answers in a few sentences or without the historical context. Yet, I'd like to try to phrase the most contemporary insight that comes out of it. Human progress, as it seems, appears to be driven between the forces of tradition and order (conservatism) vs. the forces of idealism and change (liberalism). Where tradition is based on concrete practices, inherited from parents and ancestors, idealism posits fresh beliefs and ideas. Where order emphasizes social peace, change values the destruction of whatever came before.
Perhaps this one-time event in history is teaching us the value of moderation, of a middle-way. That even idealistic improvements to human conditions, where applied brutally with no respect for existing institutions and context, are portent of ill consequences. The end does not justify the means. It also tells us that unrestricted reverence for a set of traditions without any consideration of their social consequences is a dangerous route. In summary, it tells us about the value of slowly evolving, adaptative institutions.
No simple war is an impressive about the history of World War II which, uniquely, manages to simultaneously pay homage to the courage of the soldiers fighting on the wrong side of the moral line and document the many darker acts committed by these same soldiers.
Although the book is rich in detail and goes through all the parties involved in the conflict, there are two special places were the study deserves special praise and goes far beyond what other books in the area have done.
- The book takes special attention to describe the unknown German heroes of the war. These are the soldiers that won battles on two fronts, against sometimes impossible odds. Many of these soldiers had nothing to do with what was happening on the political front and were (soon enough) fighting, and dying, for Germany's survival. Few books document that well the German ordeal on the Eastern front, in particular, how this was all very different from a well-equipped and organized army.
- Second, the book is one of the few to be honest about a fact of the war, that it was mainly fought, and won, by the Russians with the allied mostly creeping in as a sideshow. But this was not easy and while the Russians numerous, it boggles the mind to imagine how they could transform from a second-class world power to one that could push back a major industrial power. According to the narrative, this was accomplished mainly by the Russian grit never to give up and fight until death.
No simple victory is marketed as a tale of the war atrocities committed by the victors but this is just a part of the story. More than this, the book tries to explain how we came to this by defining what "total war" really is. It is also a cautionary tale about a kind of war that might have occurred only once in the history of humanity.
As a new parent, I felt like reading about children even though I find the general purpose of this unclear given that knowing what to do is the easier, but doing it is a different story.
NurtureShock is sold off as "new thinking" but, to be honest, there's nothing very new about anything there and I was telling a friend about what the book said and that person wasn't surprised. Certainly, praising a child's intelligence might increase the fear of failing. Sure, indifference can be worse than fight. And, yes, it's good to interact/speak with baby.
This is not so much new thinking, as mainly everybody knows what is there, but a question of whether parents are really willing to do it; as I said, knowing something does not mean you would like to do it. Most parents might want their kid to feel good about themselves, not maximize intellectual prowess, or do not want to be facing constant fights between siblings, or do not want to be constantly exchanging with baby. I am not saying that that these are good things, but that presenting these as grand insights are like teaching that eating burgers every day is probably not the best diet choice.
A good history book gives you the facts and weaves them into a consistent sustained narrative. A great history book catches the human element that pushes history forward. Pacific Crucible is a good history book. It is well-documented, well-paced and never boring but, unfortunately, is somewhat complacent in big picture grand strategic facts over the actual human experience of the war, who the people that fought were and why they chose to do what they did.
If one is to pick up a first book on this issue, I much strongly recommend "the Battle of Midway" by Craig Symonds, a far superior account on all fronts which, contrary to what one may suspect, is not solely about Midway but covers mostly the same period. Unlike Pacific Crucible, Symonds' text provides a much more fleshed out account of the human mistakes made on both sides and of the pilots and of the generals. It also avoids the pitfalls of heavily documenting the life of generals that were far from the fronts and whose role in 41-42 might have been real but is tactically far from obvious.
Readable, but a disappointment.
I'm a fan of Sawyer's books and I love how he is able to mix modern sci-fi and detective stories, as the true successor to Asimov. Sawyer's new novel has a lot going for it, Mars, a tight intrigue, and immortality. It's a great homage to the Robots of Asimov, to film noir, to Bradbury as well to standard Sawyer novels.
Unfortunately, the book is fine but not great. The environment is well-done and the story flows but there are a few problems that break with typical Sawyer's greatness. First, the characters are cartoonish, in a bad way. It is very difficult to stick to a stereotype that not only lacks substance but seems to have been pulled out of from a different author (i.e., Casablanca); other characters come and go with style but nothing behind it. Second, the intrigue is broken in two pieces, as if there wasn't enough material for one book and Sawyer added No.2 to this one. Not a great manner to create a rich enthralling intrigue. Third, the denouement is just not that surprising or great and there are few mysteries to discover.
It's still entertaining enough and the narrator is amazing at voice-acting. But nothing memorable.
The title says it all "A True Financial Thriller." This is not intended as an account of Madoff's fraud but as a thriller of a person in search of the world's largest fraud. Although entertaining, I have to say it fails completely as a personal biography or a thriller, let alone as an explanation of the fraud or the SEC investigation. The problem is that, right at the start, there is little Markopolos knew about Madoff, since he gathered most of what he knew from public sources. Except for the 'mathematical' proof, which should have triggered further investigations, most of the book is spent rambling about other's inability to push further. This also makes for a very poor topic for a thriller.
As a biography, Markopolos is too emotional about his own character to be convincing or interesting. It's initially amusing when he thinks he will get shot by Madoff or robbed by the SEC, without any actual events that would indicate that would happen, but it gets old quick and certainly is not a topic for an entire book. It's also amusing to poke fun at otherwise clueless "financier," i.e., elevated salesmen, but there is so much material there to build on.
Should Markopolos have testified about his experience with Madoff and the SEC? Yes, definitely. Should he had written a book? Not really, nothing to see there beyond what you can find in 5 minutes on the web.
This is really cool and well-paced fiction, with a kind of business twist to it. Wait a second, not fiction? I cannot believe it but wikipedia says indeed it is.
But, whether or not it is fiction, the story-telling is simply amazing. Written in a more personal tone than usual thrillers but keeps you on your toes for a 100% of the ride. If only more thrillers had been this way. The only minor disappointment is the ending, which lacks closure and stops in the run of it; it's a pretty minor thing though because the rest is history.
I admit it, I delayed reading the book; the Great Depression of the 30s and its preambles is a fascinating period but the inner workings of the Central banks seems the most boring place to watch history.
Not so! Ahamed makes a convincing case that a few people, namely the four heads of the major central banks, were central in the grand orchestra of the Great Depression. Their errors, perhaps a mix of poor economic training, selfishness and obstinacy, led to real consequences, prompting the world toward what would be the greatest disaster in human history.
You will find here a detailed account of the consequences of Britain joining the gold standard, France's policy toward gold hoarding, the well-intentioned but ultimately destructive support by the Fed toward European cheap credit and, lastly, the lacking attempts as everything unravels to take power away from these men.. too little too late.
There is one point where the author, apparently not an economist, appears overly naive and out of context. The book is about the errors of a few men in powers, but in places, the admiration for the economist John Maynard Keynes becomes blinding to the extent that it misrepresents both current attitude toward his theories or, even, at the time, whether his ideas would have worked his place. In a gratuitous manner, the book ridicules I. Fischer not on theoretical grounds but on silly comments he made, or completely fails to note that Keynes' work, falsely presented as the panacea that protected us from crises, collapsed during the decade of the 70s.
The book shines as a epic economic history of the times, not as a guide for future policy.
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