The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

Michael Lewis fan-girl here. Seriously crushing on the way this guy can take complex ideas and break it down into enjoyable reading. Sports and finance– joined at the hip by the magic of stats. (If you haven’t read his article on Shane Battier, get thee thither.
This was a quick read that dove deep into the 2007-2010(?) financial crisis and its causes. My biggest takeaway is a general sadness that the US economy got so inflated during this period without actually creating anything of value. Phantom wealth that made a handful of folks wealthy, but nothing was created. The constant consumption and arrogance of our financial system make me want to step back, withdraw, and create. Draw, paint, write, sing, smile, whatever. To create something in order to fill the void left by financial vultures. But I digress.
Lewis breaks down the cause of the meltdown: mortgage backed securities based on subprime mortgage loans, rated as AAA bonds by Moodys and S&P. This, plus people who had no idea what they were doing were running the show on Wall Street, allowing traders (Morgan Stanley’s Howie Hubler) to amass $16 billion in risk without asking a single question. Mindless drones. No analysis of risk or potential for blowing up. What exactly did Wall Street analysts do all day?
The book follows the story of a couple of traders who smelled disaster coming and who cashed in on it: Michael Burry (discovered he had Aspergers during the ordeal), Steve Eisman (in your face, lacking tact, NY based hedge fund manager who vocally challenged inane fund managers), Greg Lippmann (Deutsche Bank salesman notorious for saying “Fuck you, I’m short your house” when challenged about his negative outlook on the US housing market), the Cornwall Capital folks (Charlie, Jamie, Ben).

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

My enjoyment of this book was hampered by the fact that I mistakenly ordered the Large Print version from the library reservation system. The whole time I felt like it was shouting at me. Overlooking my own mistake, this was an enjoyable read. I like Bryson’s way of exaggerating to the nth degree– leaving no room for doubt that it is an exaggeration, but also conveying the original intent.
This is a peek back into the idyllic 1950s, where fun was something you saved up for, where television shows were crap, and movies contained zero nudity or suggestion of sex. Due to his chronic absenteeism, Bryson missed out on numerous days of atomic bomb drills at school, and thus during the first one he experienced where his non-participation went unnoticed, he determined that he could simply read comic books whilst everyone else quivered uncomfortably with butts up, heads down under their desks.
Bryson interweaves other facts into the story, bemoaning the loss of family farms, wishing for a return to halcyon days where quality mattered, not cost (the gorgeously built elementary school a testament to craftmanship), a look into conspicuous consumption and the need to buy beyond our means.

All Quiet on the Western Front

German title: Im Westen nichts Neues. I would unpoetically translate that to “Nothing new from the West.” Translated from German quite lyrically by AW Wheen.
The perspective of a German soldier through the long years of trench warfare during the First World War. Truly excellent book; billed as the “Greatest War Novel of all Time” and I’m inclined to let the hyperbole stand. Paul and his classmates volunteer for the army at the urging of their schoolmaster, get thrown into the muck and mire of seeing people get bits blown off, fighting rats for bread, watching their numbers dwindle to nothing. Taking leave once a year to travel home is even harder than the front line, having to hear the civilians tell him he doesn’t know anything about the big picture, persistent questions about how it was, it’s bad right?
Philosophical questions about what will happen to them after the war… they are damaged goods, no one will understand it who didn’t go through it. The older generation will slide back into their pre-war life, the younger generation will shove them aside and not understand.
Excellent classic. Reminded me of Sartre’s The Reprieve, written about the time between WWI and WWII.

A Time To Keep Silence

Grr. Once again, tricked into finishing (er, skimming) a book that I thought would be vastly better than it was. Recommended by a now-forgotten blog source, I was intrigued by the idea of this 1950s account of a writer who visits monasteries across Europe as an economical way to work on his writing and live cheaply. The idea of silence is so foreign to today’s constant jangle of cellphone, radio, TV, internet.
Great concept, but awful writing. Apparently taken from letters that he penned at the time to a correspondent who would become his wife, he makes no effort to write well. Or he’s already an “established writer” therefore he doesn’t try. I also might have a small bias against people with 3 names. And forgive me, but I happen to need French & Latin translated into English. An example of the writing that made my head hurt (notice the constant interruption before he makes a single point):

For, in the seclusion of a cell – an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods – the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.

Best part of this book was the intro by Karen Armstrong. (“… you cannot read a sonnet by Shakespeare in the chatter and tumult of a party.”)

Gourmet Rhapsody

If you’ve asked for a book recommendation over the last six months, I’ve surely told you about The Elegance of the Hedgehog. With the wild success of Barbery’s Hedgehog, publishers quickly set out to republish her first book, Gourmet Rhapsody. Several of the characters are familiar from Hedgehog, but the main star is the dying food critic, Arthens (or simply, MaĆ®tre). The entire book is made up of his reminisces about food, as he tries to pinpoint that one last taste that he yearns for. Throughout his recollections, there are interspersed perspectives of those around him, from the beggar he always ignored to his unloved children to mistresses far & wide.

Overall impression- contains bursts of brilliance, but nothing like the sustained majesty of Hedgehog. You can tell the maturation of the writer from one book to the next. And don’t read this book if you’re hungry. Mouth-watering descriptions, reminiscent of MFK Fisher.
Examples of delicious prose below.

The linden tree:

Above all there was the linden tree. Immense and decorative, from one year to the next it threatened to submerge the house with its tentacular foliage, which my aunt obstinately refused to prune; any discussion was out of the question. During the hottest days of summer, the tree’s troublesome shade offered the most sweet-smelling of bowers. I would sit against the trunk on the little bench of worm-eaten wood and avidly inhale the scent of pure, velvety honey which came from the tree’s pale yellow flowers. A linden tree releasing its perfume at the end of the day is a rapture which leaves an indelible mark, and in the depths of our joy to be alive it traces a groove of happiness that the sweetness of a July evening alone cannot suffice to explain.

His introduction to whisky, or “DTH” (Down the Hatch)

To start with, the unfamiliar aroma unsettled me beyond anything I thought possible. Such formidable aggressiveness, such a muscular, abrupt explosion, dry and fruity at the same time, like a charge of adrenaline that has deserted the tissues where it ordinarily resides in order to evaporate upon the surface of the nose, a gaseous concentration of sensorial precipices… Stunned, I discovered that I liked this blunt whiff of incisive fermentation.
Like some ethereal marchioness, I cautiously ventured my lips into the peaty magma and… what a violent effect! An explosion of piquancy and seething elements suddenly detonates in my mouth; my organs no longer exist, no more palate or cheeks or saliva, only the ravaging sensation that some telluric warfare is raging inside me. In raptures, I allowed the first mouthful to linger for a moment on my tongue, while concentric undulations continued to engage it for a long while. That is the first way to drink whisky: absorb it ferociously, inhaling its pungent, unforgiving taste. The second swallow, on the other hand, was undertaken precipitously; as soon as it had gone down, it took a moment to warm my solar plexus – but what warmth it was!

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

A couple of really interesting observations out of this book:
* Nike knows it’s been wrecking our feet for the last 30 years with additional cushioning. Now it’s introduced shoes that have less support, which should technically be better for your feet.
* Your feet are highly sensitive instruments, adjusting how they hit the ground based on the firmness of the initial touch.
* Homo sapiens beat out Neanderthals because we evolved to run. We engaged in persistence hunting, running our meat down. Not fast, but endurance counts. Our ability to sweat away our heat keeps our engines cooled, while our prey has to release heat through breathing.
McDougall does a nice job interweaving his personal story of running with the Tarahumara Indians in Copper Canyon (Mexico), along with science, evolution, ultramarathoning.

The Unnamed

It doesn’t matter what you name your characters (Tim, Jane, Becka) if your writing is this good. Tim has a “condition”, tbd whether medical or mental, wherein he walks and walks and walks. When they are living in the suburbs, he’ll call Jane in the middle of the night to come retrieve him when the walk is over. There are reprieves between walking spells, sometimes lasting years. After the 2nd reprieve, they buy an apartment in the Village, settle down again. Then, walking takes over, and Tim hits the road without calling back for months. His body begins to break apart, losing fingers, toes to frostbite.
Jane is in the hospital dying from cancer, Tim walks across the country to come home to see her. His presence spurs her to recover. At her bedside, he keeps his backpack, still on the alert and ready to go walking whenever his legs get the itch. He’ll come back to her bedside and tell her about everything he’s seen, causing him to be more mindful when walking.
Poignant, devastating, quality work. Not as funny as And Then We Came to the End, but pretty good followup to an amazing first novel.