The Robert Gates memoir is highly candid and thoughtful. It sets forth without sugarcoating the challenges and frustrations facing a thoughtful and highly competent policymaker in the highest levels of US Government. Many of the frustrations he cites are rather alarming if not fully surprising—e.g., irresponsible US politicians focused simply on political favor at home; unrealistic policy goals; bureaucratic inflexibility in the face of clearly urgent priorities at the war front; allies that are allied in name only. It is not surprising that Mr. Gates considered his time as Defense Secretary during both the Iraq and Afghan Wars as anything but a joy. The one exception he cites is the inspiration he received from meeting and visiting with young soldiers, sailors, marines and members of the Air Force throughout his term of office.
I highly recommend the book for a very realistic look at the behind the scenes realities of making policy at the Cabinet level in the US Government and of dealing with allies and adversaries throughout the world on security issues. It is not a pretty picture, but I commend Mr. Gates for writing a “reality check” that we can all profit from reading.
The reason to buy this book is for the detailed insights you gain as to how Goldman (alone among the major Wall Street banks) actually prospered during the financial crisis of 2007-2008. The author has done a fine job of describing the key events and decisions that started in December 2006: the push by its mortgage trading desk for authority to put on large short positions when it recognized early signs of serious problems ahead; actions by top management to move early and decisively to reduce long exposure in the subprime mortgage market; and the discipline and focus on risk management at top management levels that forced realistic “mark to market” prices for the mortgage backed securities on its books. As one of the people the author interviewed in research for the book put it, had the other Wall Street banks taken actions similar to what Goldman did, we would not have had a financial crisis in 2008. (That comment, by the way, does not in my view absolve Goldman in any way of irresponsibility for being a large marketer and seller of “subprime” mortgage backed securities prior to 2007. Such securities were based on underlying collateral that was frankly ridiculous and a lasting shame to the parties who originated them, the Wall Street banks who sold them, the ratings agencies who gave them absurd “AAA” ratings, and the federal regulators who simply sat back and watched it all happen.)
The rest of the book is not of the same quality, although it does have a good overview of the history and evolution of Goldman Sachs, including a number of the major leadership figures in the firm over its history as well as bumps in the road it has had to navigate over time. He also includes a number of less well documented impressions of Goldman gathered from competitors, the press, and Congress—many of whom are frankly somewhat dubious sources as to the actual facts. Such sources do, however, serve as good illustrations of why Goldman has suffered some major blows to its public reputation over the past few years.
Hard to fathom that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the de facto economic transformation of China that there still exists in North Korea an extreme Stalinist-model dictatorship. Not quite Stalinist of course, since the North Korean regime seems to follow a “royalist” model, with the Supreme Leader passing the baton to a son as successor. This book shows in a wealth of everyday detail and very engaging personal stories exactly how terrible such a regime makes life for ordinary people who are unfortunate enough to live there. The author is skilled enough that we not only learn the facts about life in everyday North Korea, but also identify with the characters whose stories she presents. In that respect the book reads like a novel and not just a news article. Very informative and worthwhile.
My only quibble about the book is the quality of the narration. While the narrator is lively enough and has a pleasing enough voice, on many occasions her reading was not in proper context. That is, she accented the wrong phrase or failed to accent the right phrase in a sentence, or failed to make a clear transition through a pause or other means from one thought to the next. Suggest she do her homework a bit more thoroughly next time.
Malcolm Gladwell typically provides highly interesting insights and food for thought challenging popular perceptions. The best example in this book is the title story of David and Goliath. He shows quite persuasively that David was no innocent shepherd boy, but a highly skilled variant of a well-known military fighter of his time: the “slinger” who attacked his opponent from a distance with well-directed and lethal stones from a slingshot. He caught Goliath by surprise, but his weapon and role were not that great a surprise.
That said, Mr. Gladwell does make a couple of claims in this book that in my mind were not well-founded. The first related to the supposed strategic mistakes made by the British Army in Northern Ireland in the early 1970’s in trying to bring peace to that troubled region. The second is his claim that the California “Three Strikes” law eventually proved harmful to the state. I think the Northern Ireland conclusion is overdrawn. Yes, the British made many mistakes in that peacekeeping role. However, I do not believe they were the strategic dunderheads that Mr. Gladwell suggests they were. They had a very difficult problem, with IRA terrorists on one side and extremist Ulster “orangemen” on the other. In the case of the California “Three Strikes” law, I live in California. I voted for Three Strikes and believe it has played an important role in bringing down California crime rates. Has it been too severe in particular cases? Yes. Does it have room for improvement? Also yes. But has it been a mistake overall? I think not and respectfully disagree with Mr. Gladwell on his conclusion.
Robert Massie served a tour of duty onboard a US aircraft carrier. That may account in part for his remarkable ability to describe in vivid and insightful detail the weather conditions, shipboard activity, and battle capabilities of the naval vessels that took part in World War I. His eye for insightful detail extends to his descriptions of the high level strategic debates that took place in the British and German war cabinets and admirals’ councils that made the crucial decisions which in the end determined the outcome of the war. In particular, the German decision finally endorsed by the Kaiser in 1917 to authorize unrestricted submarine warfare against all neutral merchant shipping in an effort to bring Britain to its knees through lack of supplies and foodstuffs instead led to the decisive entry of the US into the war that year.
Most interesting throughout the book are the decisive roles played by minor incidents of incompetence, hesitation, miscommunication, or misjudgment based on human foibles or the confusion and fog of war. These include Admiral Milne’s failure to block the battle cruiser Goebben from escaping to the Dardanelles; Captain Thompson’s careless handling of critical intelligence that could have turned the tide in the Battle of Jutland; the failure of Admiral Beatty’s flag officer to assure clear and proper signaling of the Admiral’s orders; the British Admiralty’s failure to immediately pass on critical intelligence during the Battle of Jutland to Jellicoe because the communication room was left in the hands of a clueless low level officer.
All in all, a very interesting account that will provide a rich source of lessons on the critical decisions made by the naval leaders in World War I.
This is another very entertaining gem in the Vish Puri detective series. Besides the well thought out and well-paced mystery plot (actually, plots), the book features detailed and lively descriptions of everyday life in modern India—the food, the traffic jams, the religious practices, as well as insights into social customs and family life. As in the previous Vish Puri stories, there are particular social issues about India that are featured in this story. In this case the social themes are the changing views in India toward arranged marriages and toward the social caste system. These themes are woven naturally into the broader tale and treated at times with humor as well as from their serious side.
A word about the narrator, Sam Dastor. In my opinion the narration of this story makes it twice as enjoyable as a mere visual read would be. The narrator captures Indian accents and speaking mannerisms in a way that makes the story and characters come fully alive. I highly recommend this book on its merits alone. I doubly recommend it with Sam Dastor as the narrator.
This is a very worthwhile read for the very troubling questions it raises about the shaky moral foundations of modern civilization. Hannah Arendt was sharply criticized by many for her approach to this book, including the subtitle “… the banality of evil.” I fully agree with that particular criticism. She was referring to the banal personality of Adolf Eichmann, who does appear as a self-deluded individual who found recourse in empty, rather “banal” clichés to justify his conduct and defend himself as a fundamentally decent person. The evil depicted in the book is, however, anything but banal. It was the unfathomable and almost incomprehensible mass murder by the Nazi government of all Jews they could capture in Germany and in other European countries they dominated.
The troubling question raised by the Eichmann case is how he (and so many like him) as a decent German “everyman” could have so lost his moral bearings that he became a willing instrument of state-sponsored mass murder directed at innocent civilian populations. He justified himself as following the established German legal order as directed by a great leader (Hitler), that obedience to state authority was a sacred duty as a German citizen, that he did what he could to lessen the sufferings of those whom he was transporting to death camps, and that he did not personally dislike Jews nor ever kill anyone himself. He had seen the death camps. He knew what was going on. Still, his main frustrations and worries seemed to center on bureaucratic confusion and infighting, slights to his authority as chief SS officer for transportation to the death camps, and his slow rate of career advancement given all that he had contributed to a smooth implementation of the transportation aspects of the “final solution” policy.
How could a truly decent person adapt his career priorities, personal talents, and otherwise normal day to day concerns to an enterprise that was fundamentally an instrument of incalculable evil and of untold and immeasurable sufferings? The answer in Eichmann’s case seems to have been a perversion of his moral sense such that the supreme and overriding good was to follow the dictates of Nazi government policy despite its flagrant violation of fundamental tenets of right and wrong he must have known since childhood. Wartime conditions, post Versailles feelings of resentment in Germany, the “stab in the back” myth as a supposed explanation for the German surrender at the end of World War I, a long German and Austrian history of anti-semitism no doubt played important roles. However, those circumstances do not excuse nor fully explain Eichmann. His story suggests that all human beings are fallible, subject to corruption of their moral sense, and capable under certain conditions of becoming untroubled instruments of horrible crimes.
We see such people today amongst the violent jihadists. We should best be on our guard against all political movements that seek to place some particular goal or policy above all considerations of right and wrong that have guided enlightened mankind throughout history.
I had an opportunity to visit St. Petersburg, Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, and the Hermitage this summer. During the trip we heard much about Catherine the Great, including this book recommendation. It did not disappoint. Massie does an excellent job of making 18th Century European history come alive. It is an improbable story: a princess from a small German principality and minor noble family emerges as the Czarina of Russia after the abdication and death of her husband, Peter III. Not only Czarina, but a most hard-working, capable, patriotic, and winsome head of Russia, known for her enlightened views and very able administrative and leadership qualities. For that reason she became known after her death as Catherine "the Great."
The book sets forth Catherine’s story in very personal terms, depicting her ambitions, hopes, loves, sufferings, frustrations, fears, and triumphs. As a story it makes the history and events of the time much more memorable and real, particularly as compared to the chronologies in which history is more typically presented. I found the book very enriching and greatly expanded my understanding of the era and the history of Russia.
The theme for this novel, which depicts some of the radical political movements that sprang up in late 19th Century Russia, is based on the Gospel account of the devils who asked Christ to expel them from a demon-possessed man into a herd of pigs. That is an interesting premise, but in my opinion did not lead to a particularly interesting novel. While Dostoevsky’s skill as a great writer in terms of depicting scenes and personalities are displayed throughout the work, in my view he applied his skills to a story lacking likable or interesting characters and without a clear or coherent plot line. Apart from a peasant woman one encounters near the end of the story, none of these characters appear to have good common sense. Many are detestable people. All the main characters are superficial and confused. The plot lacks a clear beginning, middle and end. It simply ends in a muddle, with the main characters either dead or unaccounted for. Frankly, I was glad to be finished with it, and have no intention of returning or recommending it to anyone I know.
In fairness, there may be something here for readers interested in how Russia could have fallen prey to the Communist extremists of 1917. If the violent scheming and political confusion depicted in this book are an accurate indication of the temper of the times in Russia during that period, the country was prey to all manner of extremist political movements.
It is hard for anyone who has grown up in fortunate circumstances in the West to grasp on a gut level the full horror of the Soviet Union under Stalin. This book lays bare in excruciating detail the workings of an unscrupulous leader who was crude, vicious, vile and ruthless. Unfortunately, he was also clever and resourceful enough to achieve near absolute power in the Soviet Union by 1938. Stalin and those he advanced in the Communist Party knew no bounds. He ordered the murders of former close associates; directed his secret police to extract false confessions from prisoners by torture in order to persecute them in “show trials” or to justify their summary execution after review by a corrupted kangaroo court. On a broader scale his program in the early ‘30s to collectivize agriculture led to massive famines, terrorist shootings and deportations that caused the deaths of millions. Later in the ‘30s the arbitrary arrests and forced confessions of his purges and campaigns against so-called “diversionists, spies, and Trotskyites” led to prison and death for further millions in the now infamous “archipelago” of labor camps.
The aim in all this was two-fold: eliminate all possible rivals to Stalin for supreme power in the Soviet Union and to force the public into compliance with directives from above through a regime of terror. Apparently, Stalin as well as others in the top echelons of the Bolshevik Party justified these methods to themselves, at least in part, as necessary for the greater good of moving society toward the ideal state envisioned by Marxist-Leninist theory. A criminal clique with vast political power who can justify their murders and cruelties by means of an extremist creed that squelches all qualms of conscience or moral restraint is a dangerous and fearful prospect. That certainly was the case in the Soviet Union from the 1930’s until Stalin’s death in 1953.
That said, this book reads more like an encyclopedia or a catalogue of crimes rather than a vivid account of individual horror stories. It does a good job of describing and documenting the overall scope of the horrors perpetrated by the Stalin regime and to some extent continued by his successors. It is not, however, great literature in the sense of graphically depicting life under these regimes. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” does that far better.
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