After the Music Stopped by Alan S. Blinder

For some reason I remember Lehman Day (September 15, 2008) pretty well. I was reading the New York Times online in between teaching classes when the news popped up on the screen. It isn’t that I’m particularly interested in business news although I make an effort to keep up with international economics for my classes. But that day stayed with me because I remember feeling completely bewildered by what was happening. To me it was obvious that all heck was going to break loose, but it didn’t seem to be obvious to our political leaders. After 8 years of fundamentally disagreeing  with most of our leadership’s policies, it seemed like this was the outgoing middle finger to America.

Once the great recession started I wished someone would or could just sit down and explain everything. Trying to decipher the news at that time (and wade through the partisan BS) was impossible. You could get bits and pieces, but no solid explanations were readily available. In this chronicle of the events leading up to and after the crash of 2008, Blinder has tried to fill that gap and he does a fabulous job. While a basic understanding of economics and finance is helpful, he defines complex terms and presents difficult information in a clear way. And I mean that when I say clear. He is almost conversational in tone, but it doesn’t sound condescending. Only one or two chapters were a bit tough to get through (the one on spreads was a bit brutal), but the rest honestly reads like a thriller. Except it is scarier because you know this is all real and your next door neighbor did lose his house and job and you lost your retirement funds.

I also really appreciated this book because it corrects much of the collective amnesia that infects this country. Things like:

  • The government gave a away cash to the banks! (WRONG: The government made loans and investments.)
  • The government lost all of that taxpayer money through TARP (WRONG: the government made a profit.)
  • TARP and the stimulus were the same thing (WRONG WRONG WRONG)
  • This all happened on President Obama’s watch (…….wtf?!)

Not that anyone will remember this tomorrow …

But not to give you the wrong impression. He stays away from partisan politics and focuses on what both sides did wrong. When he writes that President Obama’s biggest issue was not staying on message and communicating plans effectively, I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately the President has allowed others to frame the issues (typically framed in lies–see above) and thereby set the agenda. It is frustrating to watch, but maybe, just maybe Michelle will have given him this book for Christmas and he will take heed. One can hope.

And if not we will have all forgotten it in another 8 years.

Books! Hot Lava #cbr5

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Woodcut of Krakatoa

After reading Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, I am embarrassed to admit that I learned about the volcano only after hearing the B-52’s song Hot Lava sometime in my college years. I’m ashamed because Winchester says many times that Krakatoa was the volcanic event that everybody learns about and remembers. Well, not this gal. Thank you Fred Schneider and company for sending me to the encyclopedia to look that word up (these were the days before Wikipedia, although not pre-Internet, thank you very much).

I picked the book up because I have a strange obsession with disaster stories, Into Thin Air being a favorite. Winchester’s book is much more than just a chronicle of the 1883 volcanic explosion though. He deftly combines natural history, geology, political sociology, history and more to create a full picture of Krakatoa’s place and importance. Each chapter takes on a different piece of the story, from the colonial history of what would become Indonesia, to the development of the Wallace Line, to an excellent chapter on the discovery of plate tectonics and much more. While he of course chronicles the disaster itself he does so as a detective trying to piece together the exact happenings rather than sensationalizing the events.

The only place he falters slightly is in the political history. He argues that Krakatoa’s eruption helped to create the conditions that led to the rise of anti-Western Muslim fundamentalism, but honestly I think the Dutch and the colonial project did that just fine without Krakatoa’s help. While the eruption definitely created chaos that destroyed daily life, many factors went into the widespread anti-colonial insurgencies throughout Asia. Luckily he reins it in before drawing direct causation, but this chapter was the weakest. As the book was written and published after the Bali bombings in 2002, he was probably trying to draw in a wider audience.

My other criticism is why I give the book four our of five stars on Goodreads. I appreciate a good map, even in location-heavy fiction, but especially in nonfiction. The maps in the paperback version of this book are horrendous (I only hope they are better in the hardback). For example, the map of Indonesia doesn’t even have Krakatoa labeled! I had to go to Google to figure out where the island was located. I would overlook one editorial mistake but the rest of the maps are equally as bad (no legends, difficult to read). I guess they were going for a period (Victorian) look by having them hand-drawn. That is what I like to believe at least.

Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite books of the year. It is very well-written and covers extremely difficult science in an understandable way. Although he covers a wide-range of topics, he weaves them together to form a very coherent story of a volcano.

PS: After reading this book I now know why the lyric is “Krakatoa, East of Java” (when Krakatoa is west of Java). They may have been fans of the film, Krakatoa, East of Java.

Books! When Germany waited and a man fell from a mountain #cbr5

I tend to read books in pairs. I get restless with one so I need something different to switch my focus. I thought it might be fun to write about the two I just finished even though I can’t find much in common between them. The two from this week are dissimilar on so many levels.

I just finished In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. I enjoyed Larson’s Devil in the White City quite a bit, so I was excited to see a new book from him. I read a few negative and lukewarm reviews but considering it was Larson I thought it had to be good. He’s a great writer! Well, I was wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me, Larson’s writing is a pleasure to read. The problem is the subject matter. Larson is focusing all of his excellent writing ability on an American family that moves to Germany after the father becomes the first American ambassador in Hitler’s world. They arrive in the mid-1930s, right when things start going downhill. This is a great set up, right?! But what happens? Not a darn thing. They go to parties. They drive around. The daughter has sex with everyone and supposedly (maybe, not really) becomes a potential Russian spy (we think). The father pines for his farm and his unwritten masterpiece on the Old South. To his credit, he tries to warn the US that something is going to happen, but is ignored. The mother perseveres in the face of the stupidity around her and then dies. A cast of German (to be) killers passes in front of us looking like a bunch of clowns and buffoons for the most part. Basically it is the chronicle of when Germany waited…and waited…for something to happen.

There are moments when it becomes more exciting. The Night of the Long Knives is the most interesting part of the book. The problem is that this episode came after I had read through 2/3rds of the book. As my husband said, no one should have to wait that long before getting to something interesting. I kept with it because I like Larson. If I hadn’t read him before I might have given up like so many others. If you are really interested in Hitler’s Germany and REALLY want to know what the American ambassador was doing then (and who his daughter was doing), this is a book for you.

Sad to say, but I got so bored with this book that I kept picking up Sanctus by Simon Toyne. While I’m not a fan of religious conspiracy thrillers, I have read my share of them (cast offs from my mother and yes I will read most anything). I have to say this one is pretty good. In the story, a man throws himself off of a mountain monastery in an ancient city in Turkey and it goes live on television. Through some convoluted detective work they find his long lost sister in America who journeys to Turkey to find out what happened to her brother. She then becomes the central character in an attempt by the monastery to cover up everything (and basically kill off anyone involved). Ultimately the monks are covering up the true nature of the Sacrament inside the walls of the monastery, which if uncovered would change the world. Basically it is the set up for his next book in which the sister gains some bad-ass powers and stuff happens (haven’t read it yet).

In comparison to In the Garden, this one kept my attention. He has the Dan Brownesque style where each chapter is a ‘scene’ and drives the momentum of the reader. In contrast Toyne tends to make things up whereas Dan Brown “reinterprets” already existing reality. So, for example, the town in which all the action takes place is fictional and there are other elements created to suit his purpose. With the exception of a few groan-worthy moments (I won’t give them away), he does a pretty good job of inventing a mythology and keeping the reader invested in the action. If you like religious conspiracy action novels and are looking for a fun beach read, this is definitely one to find at your local public library.

I will leave you with this. As un-PC as this is, apparently there is a Hitler is bored video meme. I leave you with “Hitler and the bunker are really bored”. He must have read In the Garden.

Books! Black helicopters?! Um, No.

I doubt this book will be the most popular entry for Cannonball Read, but I’m counting it as one of my 52. Get over it.

Of course everyone wants to know all there is to know about the United Nations. Or rather, I wish more people knew more about the UN. The United Nations by Sven Bernhard Gareis is called an introductory textbook, but it is pretty hefty and goes into incredible detail about the major UN functions. However, the chapters on peacekeeping and reform are good introductions to those topics. The chapters on collective security are a bit of slog and could use with some editing and reorganization.

The author reiterates throughout that the failings and successes of the UN fall squarely on the shoulders of the states that make it up. Without the member states, especially the P5, there is no UN. There is a tendency for students to judge the UN as an entity without considering that its failings cannot be easily separated from the actions of states. The actions we take in the US have a direct effect on the efficacy of the UN as an institution.

The book would be great for someone teaching an entire class on the United Nations or International Organizations as the chapters can easily be separated out for class readings. I definitely recommend for higher level courses though and not as an introductory text. For the individual reader, be sure you have a strong interest in the functioning of the UN. You will need it.

But! If when you think of the UN all you think about are black helicopters or Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust, then this probably a book you should put on your list. At least read the introduction. Please.

Books! The ethics of savior siblings #cbr4

I would have never picked up The Match by Beth Whitehouse on my own. I read it as part of our Friends of the Libraries book discussion group. They read three books each semester and I try to read most of them. The Match is eye-opening, but definitely not a book to approach lightly.

The story follows the Trebing family after their daughter is diagnosed with Diamond Blackfan anemia, a debilitating disease that requires monthly blood transfusions. Because the transfusions lead to a build up of iron in the heart and liver, her parents begin to search for alternative methods. They find out that the bone marrow of a sibling with the same genetic match as their daughter could cure her, but would require a potentially life-threatening transplant. They use several cutting edge procedures to give birth to a “savior sibling,” including preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and in vitro fertilization.

The book does a fine job bringing up the ethical issues of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and the idea of “savior sibling”. One question she discusses with doctors and ethicists is whether parents may use PGD to choose traits like eye color or intelligence. Another is the protection of the savior siblings and whether desperate parents wanting to save another child will consider fully the medical interests of the savior sibling. I can’t imagine any parent not loving their child,  treating them equally, and keeping them from as much harm as possible, but people are crazy (Toddlers in Tiaras are evidence of this).

Well-researched book about an extremely difficult subject. It is short and accessible though. I definitely recommend if you are interested in issues of medical ethics.

The Match

Books! Making of a President 1960 #cbr4

“For the President of the United States is not only the many men listed in the official catalogue of his powers–he is also the nation’s chief educator, the nation’s chief persuader, the nation’s master politician. Where he leads, his party, his instruments, above all his relectant people, must be persuaded to follow.”

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Published in 1961, Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960 is the seminal work on the 1960 campaign and election season. While White certainly expresses his overwhelming enthusiasm for Kennedy, he does a wonderful job highlighting the internal workings of both campaigns and the changing demographics of American society. This is a rich and extremely well-written work, so I can only highlight a few aspects.

First, reading this work with the hindsight of the 21st century is heartbreaking, especially when White projects into the future with statements like, “unless he does this, so portend the election results of 1960, he will be dramatically vulnerable to Republican counterattack in 1964.”

Second, it is amazing to see how dramatically the demographics of the American electorate have shifted since 1960. White lists the Southern states that went for Kennedy (Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas, etc) versus the states that were solidly Nixon (Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio). It makes you realize how much has changed both in America and in our two major parties.

In my favorite chapter White describes at length the sea-change in American demographics discovered in the 1960 Census (primarily with the emergence of the suburb and the death of the cities). Just one fun fact is that in 1950 11% of Americans owned a television whereas in 1960 88% owned one. He uses these statistics to highlight how critical the televised debates were to the election. And yes, he discusses those pesky debates!

Finally, I found fascinating his descriptions of the party conventions and how they served as sites of contestation rather than the crownings they now seem to be. I can’t think of a single convention in my voting life where we didn’t already know the name of the heir-apparent. Part of this is decided by the primary system, which was much more limited back then, but it made me long for a convention process that is actually contested, heated, and full of real debate. Heck, maybe I would actually watch them then.

This is a fantastic work to read in light of our recent election and perfect for anyone interested in the Kennedy-Nixon election as well as the continuing drama of American Presidential politics.

Books! Running with Murakami #cbr4

I have a hard time playing the favorites game. My absolute favorite book might depend on the genre or the time in my life I read it or my mood. However, I can say that Murakami is probably one author whose works I have enjoyed most consistently. I haven’t read everything, but Kafka on the Shore was my starting point and I’ve tried to slowly read through his works since then. I say slowly because I don’t want to binge read Murakami and suddenly have nothing left. Lately though I’ve started building up quite a pile of his books and have needed to work through them. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running is one I’ve had laying around for a while and I finally decided to tackle it.

I say tackle because I’m neither particularly interested in running nor keen on reading books abut running. I like running, but I’ve been stuck in the middle of a Couch to 2K for about 2 years (didn’t even know this state had a name until a month ago). I bought it because it is Murakami and he is a pretty interesting guy. Not many people just decide in their 20’s to open a jazz club and then when they turn 33 just as quickly decide to become a writer. Around his Jesus year he also decided to become a runner. And there you have it. Now he is a marathoner and triathelete who writes amazing books that deftly combine the mundane and the surreal.

What I Talk whose title is based on a Raymond Carver short story collection called What We Talk about When We Talk about Love chronicles Murakami’s path to becoming a runner and his preparation for the 2005 New York City marathon. He reflects somewhat on his writing, but for the most part he talks about running. This may disappoint some Murakami fans, but as he describes his obsession with running we see the familiar themes of alienation and independence, especially when he runs the mythological marathon route from Marathon to Athens and later during an ultramarathon in Hokkaido, Japan. I can’t even imagine the drive someone would need to push through so many solitary miles and so much blank time.

Expect a well-written memoir/travelogue about running from one of our contemporary treasures. Not my favorite Murakami ever but it would be difficult to choose just one anyway.