Oracle Bones is another excellent book from Peter Hessler. He writes from a unique and insightful perspective. He has lived in China for many years; beginning as an English teacher at a Chinese college. He has remained in close touch with his former students, whose own experiences in working after graduation in the ???New China??? form an important part of the book. Mr. Hessler has also been accredited as a foreign correspondent in China for the New Yorker magazine. As a writer of magazine articles, he has been free to develop stories and themes at much greater length and depth than would have been possible as a reporter for a daily newspaper. In my view that is a big plus for his readers.
His books reflect first hand experiences and conversations with Chinese residents (not all of them native Chinese, by the way) from various walks of life, many of whom he can consider good friends. They also reflect extensive interview notes, some scholarly research, and a whimsical eye for things comic and ironic in everyday life. Mr. Hessler also shares poignant conversations with Chinese who experienced the trials and terrors of the 1960???s ???Cultural Revolution??? and the earlier ???Anti-Rightist??? campaign of the late 1950???s.
As readers we are fortunate that Mr. Hessler has developed considerable literary talent. The writing is clear, suited to the humor or poignancy of the events or conversations he is describing, and has a personal tone that allows us to share his fascination and feelings in what he is seeing and hearing.
I have read a number of books on the 2008 Financial Crisis, and yet learned a lot from Mr. Geithner’s book. He emphasizes two key points that are critical for understanding why things became so serious:
1. The financial institutions that fueled the “subprime” crisis were highly leveraged. I already knew that, but had not appreciated the point that they were leveraged by means of extremely short-term debt—“overnight” repos in many cases. Thus, once confidence left the financial markets, these institutions were literally hours away from running out of money to pay their debts as they came due. Also important here is the fact that the most important players in the subprime market frenzy were “Wall Street” institutions outside the traditional banking system and thus outside the extensive examination and reporting requirements imposed on the traditional banks.
2. The financial markets were gripped by "Panic" once the players woke up and actually appreciated the fact that the subprime loans were not supported by any realistic credit review, but merely by the expectation that US real estate values would continue to rise and allow the loans to be refinanced. Once panic set in, investors wanted out period. They were not ready to analyze distinctions in credit quality, they simply wanted to avoid losses. That set in motion a vicious self-fulfilling cycle in which all tranches of CDO portfolios fell in value, buyers disappeared, and forced sales of securities through margin calls or funding obligations led to sales at “fire sale” prices and serious capital losses.
Mr. Geithner also addresses a point that most people (myself included) found very troubling in the government’s response to the financial crisis: the government’s approach of throwing lots of money and government guarantees at institutions who were clearly guilty of highly irresponsible management practices. In other words, these were institutions that deserved a punch in the jaw rather than taxpayer cash in their wallets. Geithner points out quite persuasively that although such sentiments are fully justified they are not useful responses to a financial crisis that endangers the whole economic system. “When the neighborhood is on fire, the focus should be getting the fire contained and out, rather than chasing down the arsonists who started the fire,” or words to that effect, is how he frames the issue.
I will add one point of serious criticism I have about the book. Mr. Geithner touches only very briefly and superficially on his role as head of the New York Fed in failing to
supervise properly the lending practices of Citibank and Citigroup in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Citi was the only traditional banking institution (though it combined a large securities trading operation after the merger with Smith Barney) that had such large subprime loan exposures on its books that it has to be classified as one of the principal culprits in the irresponsible subprime lending frenzy. How did the NY Fed miss its exposures and why? There are no doubt important “lessons learned” from those questions that Mr. Geithner might have explored in depth but did not.
Here is another example of a masterful storyteller and historian at work. The Massie histories read like personal biographies—amply supported by contemporary letters and memoirs, they furnish memorable and personal accounts of the time. You will be much enriched by this book, as well as all others that Massie has authored.
Here one learns a number of unforgettable and vivid stories about Peter the Great. For example, his frequent habit of traveling abroad “incognito” in order to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about the technology and culture of the lands he visited without the waste of time and needless formality that he would have encountered on an official visit as Czar of Russia. A man of restless energy and great ambition, he recognized early on that Russia must learn from the West, rather than stay isolated in its own traditions (a lesson the current leader, Mr. Putin, might well ponder anew). We also learn that Peter was a man of good luck. His great victory over the Swedish King Karl XII was nearly thrown away two years later when the Ottoman Turks in loose alliance with the Swedes were in a position to destroy the bulk of Peter’s army and likely would have had Karl been on the scene. Instead, a very mild peace was agreed by a Turkish commander who did not fully understand the strength of his position.
You will enjoy this book for the many great insights on the period brought alive by personal stories, apt descriptions, and extremely well informed commentary of Mr. Massie, all supported by meticulous research and a very rare talent for interesting and engaging writing.
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.
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