Category Archives: Book Review

Three Recent Books On Happiness

Everyone wants to be happy, but few people seem to be happy. Even people who are, and have every reason to be happy, still want to be even happier. There is an infinite desire for happiness, and, not coincidently, there is a huge industry in telling people how to be happy. Religions have served this market for millennia. Nowadays, there are apps for it, too.

I thought I would sample some of the recent offerings.

OK, I admit it. I was motivated by the release of Paula Poundstone’s entry in the genre, which I really wanted to read. In the spirit of her “unscientific study”, and the eternal maternal principle that you have to eat your vegetables before you get dessert, I tackled two other recent books on the topic, the sublime, the ridiculous, and the real.

So I (tried to) read all these:

  1. The Book of Joy (2016) by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams (The Sublime)
  2. Solve For Happy (2017) by Mo Gawdat (The Ridiculous)
  3. The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness (2017) by Paula Poundstone (The Real)

Each of these books tackles similar questions (“what can I do to be happy?”), and actually advocate the same array of techniques (e.g., getting a grip on negative thinking, focusing on others, not focusing on “more stuff”). The differences lie in how they tell the story, and especially, how they seek to inspire you, the reader.

These differences are important, both abstractly (are they correct?) and pragmatically, because even the same story told differently captures different readers.

Inevitably, I found myself arguing with the authors, especially where they make claims about science. I cant say that criticizing books about how to be happy made me especially happy, but its what I do.

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Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Startup” by Doree Shafrir

Startup by Doree Shafrir

Yet more Revenge of the English Majors  (and also  this, this)

Silicon Valley has grabbed vast amount of mental and cultural capital, especially among the best and brightest youngsters. World champion self congratulators, the Valley crew has made enemies on many fronts, not least among the hordes of talented people sucked into the startup culture.

Amazingly enough, the new way of work doesn’t look as great from bottom as from the top. And now we are getting a stream of stinging cultural commentary from disenchanted English Majors and others.

And many of there are-gasp-girls!

Shafrir’s novel is a highly realistic description of Startup life in NYC. There is little need to exaggerate, much of this stuff is self-satirizing. Shafrir is a frequent reporter and commentator on tech life, so she has plenty to draw on, and she doesn’t seem terribly sympathetic.

The setting is a tech company about to get VC funding for its pointless app, and also a media company in the same building, obsessed with traffic and twitter mentions. The details are fictional, but I’m sure many people easily recognize the real life nonsense of the new economy.

Much of the story involves the hazards of sexual politics in the office. “New economy” or not, Boys and girls are still boys and girls, and trouble is likely to ensue. This book is, unfortunately, a pretty realistic rendition of what kind of trouble can ensure. In places, it’s basically a text book for what not to do.

This story is definitely focused on several female protagonists who all face the double standards and icky pressures dealing with male bosses, colleagues, and significant others. Shafrir is almost certainly writing autobiography here.

These women are neither trivial nor superheroes.  They all have flaws and make mistakes.  And they are all struggling to make it, what ever that means.

One of the best features of the story is that Shafrir gives reasonable amounts of sympathy to many of the male characters. Even when they are being hypocritical and/or clueless bastards , she lets us see some depth and a glimmer of likability

On the other hand, the business school twats get little sympathy. Shafrir has sympathy for imperfect and naïve people who are creating something. She has less sympathy for people who are just moving money or selling stuff. One suspects that this, too, may be passed on personal experience.

There is a certain amount of whining about how NYC is just as good as Silicon Valley, and how SV steals all the talent, and so on. The vast majority of us really don’t care about this competition, and many of use hate the tech industry on both coasts.

There quite a bit of sighing and complaining about these feckless twenty somethings, who aren’t the way we were when we were 26—ten years ago. Kids today have no respect, they dress like bums, and their music—its just noise. They certainly have no clue about raising kids.  All this from thirty somethings.

I suppose this is supposed to be  humorous social comment, but it wasn’t all that entertaining for those of us in even older demographics. You are all feckless kids to me.

Finally, I have to say that there are places that are outright preachy and boring. Actually, quite a few places. Shafrir has some messages about the fate of journalism, sexual harassment, and other serious topics, and she has here characters lecture us about them. I agree with a lot of what she is driving at, but its not that interesting to read.

Overall, this is yet another in the growing shelf of contemporary fiction set in the nutty world of the new economy.   She leaves the whole story hanging, so perhaps there is a sequel coming.

  1. Doree Shafrir, Startup, New York Little, Brown and Company, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Off Rock” by Kieran Shea

Off Rock by Kieran Shea

Shea’s third novel isn’t quite as punch-em-up as his earlier stories, but he’s still out there on the ‘gratuitous violence’ spectrum (heralded by one blurb as ‘king of badass’). Don’t expect deep and meaningful.

This story involves the not-especially-plausible escapades on an asteroid mine (or comet or moon—some small rock). During clean up, aging miner Jimmy discovers a valuable load apparently missed by mining operations. He decides to try to sneak it “off rock”, as a retirement stake.

Are you out of your mind, Jimmy??

This cunning plan becomes tangled with several other individuals, including a hit woman and his ex. Stuff happens. Fights. Explosions. Lucky escapes. Etc.

The plot moves along pretty well., The shallow characters and “action packed” story were OK. After all, what do you expect?

I had some serious problems with the future technology, though. This is supposed to be hundreds of years from now. Yet the tech was less advanced than the original Star Trek. The IT is basically the same as in any office today. That’s pretty silly for SF.

There are other massive implausibilities. This mining operation is not only not 100% robotic, but has a crew of dozens if not hundreds. That’s just insane, both technically and economically.

The plot hinges on the supposed value of the seam of gold that Jimmy finds. I’m finding it hard to believe that an economy that is harvesting asteroids for centuries will still care about gold or any other specific metal. Frankly, I took the chunk of gold to be a symbolic “big, valuable thing”.

I guess I’m telling you that this isn’t deep stuff.

On the other hand, we kind of like Jimmy are kind of rooting for him, even if nothing makes much sense.

  1. Kieran Shea, Off Rock, London, Titan Books, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Lenin on the Train” by Catherine Merridale

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

This is the centennial of one of the most dramatic and iconic episodes of the twentieth century, Lenin’s return to Russia from exile in Switzerland. Permitted and aided by the Germans, the great radical Lenin was injected into the seething revolution that had already deposed the Tsar and was threatening to knock Russia out of the war.

Lenin was transported through hostile Germany in a “sealed train”, which is a marvelous image, and led irresistibly to thoughts of a virulent virus being delivered as a weapon. At the same time, the Soviet state’s cult of Lenin had no interest in gritty details of what really happened.

Merridale revisits this episode both historically and in person. She traced the actual route north through Germany, across to Sweden, north to the border crossing to Finland, and there south to Petrograd.

Most of the book is about the context for this remarkable trip, the successful Petrograd uprising, and the wild turbulence immediately after the fall of the Romanovs. Russia was at the end of its tether, starving and bled by the war. The revolution raised hopes for peace and bread, but no one knew how to deliver, or to govern in any meaningful sense.

Foreign powers had a huge stake in Russia’s future. The allies wanted Russia to keep fighting Germany, the axis hoped for Russia to make a separate piece. Not surprisingly, all these powers sought to stir the pot and influence the new government with money and propaganda.

Lenin was a hard liner, instant on immediate peace in order to pursue revolution and civil war. This position was what Germany desired, and the allies feared.

As the revolution unfolded, thousands of émigrés and exiles sought to return to Russia. This was nearly impossible because of the war. The various warring powers prevented many from returning, fearing their own interests would be damaged. For Lenin, this mean that he could not return via France or Italy, because the allies

In this environment, the German decided that letting Lenin return would suit their goals. It had to be done delicately, because anyone obviously sponsored by Germany would be suspected of collusion with the enemy.

For this reason, Lenin sought to appear at arms length from German influence, demanding that the train by treated as if it were extra-territorial, “sealed” from contact with Germans. Later versions in the West told this as Germany seeking to isolate Lenin from contact with their own people. Maybe that was part of the idea, but it wasn’t the main point. In any case, the train was only symbolically sealed. At one point, there was a chalk line demarking the “Russian” section from the “German” section of the car.

Merridale gives us a great sense of the many “what ifs” around this trip. In particular, what if he had been intercepted and disappeared? The crossing point into Finland was a wild west of war-time intrigue, awash with spies, smugglers, and ne’er-do-wells of all sorts. As she says, it would have been easy for Lenin to disappear into the cold mists and no one would have known.

But allied intelligence dis not act, nor did Russian rival stop him. So he came through and arrived in his famous scene at the Finland Station. (This book makes clear why that was the place he was arriving—just look at the map.) This began his leadership of the radical Bolshevik party, and ultimate total victory in the civil war he preached.

Much of the book recounts the various factions and leaders of the revolution. With the distance of time, Merridale recounts how the radicals in Russia and oversees were not only surprised by the rebellion, but actively counseled against it. When handed power, most of them did not know what to do, and many did not seem to want to govern for real.

Lenin himself did know what he wanted to do, and was prepared to do whatever was necessary. He was not especially popular, and his program was radical to the point of lunacy. But his ruthless determination won out.

In another huge “what if”, Lenin was dogged with accusations that he was a German agent. He certainly accepted German help to get home, and it is widely suspected that the Bolsheviks received money from German intelligence. At one point, he was investigated and could have been arrested as a traitor. But the evidence was weak, and there were many false claims, and he escaped.

Over the years, there have been many fairy tales, but little solid evidence of direct German aid can be found today. Given that Lenin was following his long-held policies, he scarcely needed Germans to pay him. But his party did need money, so who knows what clandestine flows might have happened?

IN the end, the centennial year of the Lenin’s trip is distinctly ambiguous. Outside of Russia, few now or care about these long past events. Within Russia, the decades of Lenin worship have ended, and the current government is more interested in rehabilitating the Romanov era than celebrating the discredited revolution.

Lenin’s radicalism doesn’t sit well in contemporary Russia, and his advocacy of local self-determination is antithetical to the current government’s programs. His fire-breathing advocacy for direct democracy and appropriation of property probably don’t sit well either.

Still, while much of the twentieth century ahs been erased, Lenin himself cannot be disappeared so easily. When Vladimir Putin (accurately) criticized Lenin’s support for national autonomy, particularly in Ukraine, undermined Russian unity, the push back was intense and forced a climb down. “Lenin has a charisma that still holds many Russians in its grip.” (p. 289)

This is an interesting book, and it is probably important that it was written now, before the past is further effaced by time and contemporary politics. The Russian revolution, world communism, and the cold war have been powerful, polarizing forces in their time, and views of Lenin and his rail trek have been viewed differently through these lenses. Today, after the collapse of communism and rise of Putin in Russia, we have yet another perspective,

This is still one of the great romantic episodes of history, and certainly one of the great “what ifs”. What would Russian and the world be like, if Lenin had not made it through?

As a child of the 70s, I certainly felt familiar with the swirling waters of radical politics. Lot’s of naïve enthusiasm, plenty of words, murky loyalties, too much theory and too loose grasp on real life politics and governing. Enough time has passed now that we can see and sympathize a bit with all the actors, the Russians, exiles, foreign meddlers.

It was a blazing bright moment, when anything was possible. But we also know what was coming, and how things played out. What if.

  1. Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Wrong Dead Guy” by Richard Kadrey

The Wrong Dead Guy by Richard Kadrey

The Wrong Dead Guy is a sequel to The Everything Box, which I liked. The latest story is even better, in my view.

At the end of TEB, Coop was shanghaied into the US government Department of Peculiar Science and reunited with his old sweetie Giselle (who works for DPS).

When a run down museum brings a sort of famous mummy to town, professional thief Coop is called upon to extract it for DPS. It seems simple enough, but things don’t go as planned, and Coop is cursed by the mummy.

Events ensue, many of them magical and/or bureaucratic.

Kadrey revels in clever banter and goofy images of supernatural LA. We like Coop, Giselle, and their posse of friends. Along the way we meet quite a few other interesting characters, including crooks, various government experts, museum staff, used car dealer, fortune teller, a hapless band of animal rights guerillas who are determined to “friendmancipate” oppressed animals, or I should say “beings”.

Coop and company have to overcome the rogue mummy who, of course,  is out to resurrect his old love, raise an army of the dead, and take over the world. Coop also has to deal with treacherous enemies and the auditors within the department, and the general randomness of life in LA.

The good news is that things seem really great at home with Giselle, which we are all happy to see.

As I suggested before, this is one of the contemporary flourish of supernatural noir fantasy, much of which is set in California. (The book jacket features endorsements by Christopher Moore, which is fine company to keep.) Kadrey is certainly good at likable (if weird) characters and snappy dialog.

‘Nuf said

It’s good.

  1. Richard Kadrey, The Wrong Dead Guy, New York, HarperCollins, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Spider Network” by David Enright

The Spider Network by David Enright

One of the numerous outrageous financial machinations of the early twenty first was the infamous manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate, LIBOR. This statistic is intended to reflect day to day fluctuations in the interest rates banks in London paid for borrowing. Similar statistics proliferated, for other financial centers and different currencies.

In order to serve us better, all kinds of interest rates became pegged to these benchmarks. So, for no apparent reason, and certainly no consent, businesses, consumers, institutions, and governments interest payments rose and fell with LIBOR or other similar number.

That’s annoying and possibly bad policy, but the big problem is that financial institutions also manufactured various derivatives tied to LIBOR. Tiny movements in this daily mark could mean millions in gains or losses in derivatives. Already, there has to be a problem, since these derivatives are amplifying the “signal” that is really not that precise.

It gets worse, of course. The same banks that are setting the daily LIBOR via their reports were and are dealing in these derivatives. Yes, that is a conflict of interest. There is a temptation to fiddle the reports, which could nudge the official rate up or down, in order to benefit the bank’s own trading position or other interests. And, by the say, when the bank “wins”, generally everybody else loses money, including pension funds, local governments, companies, and the general public.

The Spider Network is about an infamous case of such manipulation, one of the few brought to trial. Enrich makes pretty clear that conflict of interest was rife and lots of parties were fiddling away with LIBOR and friends. Bosses and higher-ups knew and encouraged it. Dicey payoffs of various kinds were exchanged.

Business as usual. Too bad for all you losers out there.

The particular case involved Tom Hayes, a borderline-autistic wizard trader who, among other things, cajoled various LIBOR submitters to nudge the number to favor his complex trading positions, and delivered payoffs in various forms including fake trades that generated generous fees to the traders involved.

Hayes was caught, confessed, pled ‘not guilty’ (after confessing!), was convicted and then sentenced to years of prison. He clearly did it, but the story is both complicated and sad, because he is essentially the only one who was punished, despite all the other participants.

Furthermore, Enrich makes a clear case that Hayes is probably a bit autistic. He is phenomenal at math, but oblivious to people, and not good at parsing hazy rules. This combination made him phenomenally good at making money and blind to ethical boundaries, but it also made him unpopular and politically naive: a perfect fall guy. Many of his “friends” were back stabbing rats, and, of course top management was happy to screw him over and blame him for everything.

Hayes was his own worst enemy in many ways. He never concealed his behavior, at least partly because he thought is was normal and expected. His bosses knew and encouraged him, so he assumed it was OK. All his trading partners knew and were profiting from the same stuff, so how was he doing something wrong?

It’s all very sad. We honestly sympathize with Hayes, who didn’t get it, and was mercilessly exploited by his colleagues, and then thrown under the bus. (He also got poor legal advice, and ignored the good advice he did get, even from his lawyer wife.)

Enrich has a less than completely worshipful attitude towards the financial regulators and enforcers involved in the episode. The regulators seem incompetent and negligent, pursuant to the intention of the governments at the time. When they finally do step into action, there are turf battles, show boating, and astonishing fumbles.

We learn that the US “bad cops” help drive British citizens in to the arms of HM own prosecutors, the “good cops”. In this case, there was an unsightly queue of UK defense attorneys begging for their clients to be prosecuted (and even convicted) in the UK, in order to avoid extradition to the US. In the Hayes case, the Americans even developed a lot of the evidence, which the lackadaisical Brits picked up and used. Nevertheless, the Crown achieved very little.

Hayes’ own trial was a shambles. After cooperating with the prosecutors and delivering reams of self-incriminating evidence, he changed his mind. He decided that it wasn’t fair to prosecute him while everyone else got off. Once he reneged on the plea deal—after a detailed confession—the prosecution hammered him as hard as possible. Not only did the Crown not follow up on the evidence they had, they withheld evidence from Hayes. In the end, he was hit with a long prison sentence.  It’s sad.

Enrich give us the whole gory story, with a cast of hundreds. Literally. The front matter lists a “Cast of Characters” with 80 some people. And plenty more individuals appear here and there in the 400+ pages of this report. Who can keep track? Not I.

This is the huge weakness in the book.. Enrich goes on and on, weaving in tiny incident after tiny incident. I lost track of who all these people were, and how these incidents were related. In fact, many of them are not related to the main story of Hayes. So why were they included?

I think the book really would be better if it were condensed to a quarter of the length.

As it is, this book was an awful slog to get through, even though the writing about the arcane finance was pretty good.

  1. David Enright, The Spider Network, New York, HarperCollins, 2017.


Sunday Book  Reviews

Book Review: “Earthly Remains” by Donna Leon

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

Yet another installment in Sonna Leon’s the long running and beloved Venetian stories.

Like the author and many of her readers, Commissario Brunetti is aging. The thoughtful and introspective detective grows ever more thoughtful and introspective as time goes by. (If you are hoping for swashbuckling cinematic excitement, these stories are not the droids you are looking for! :-))

As Brunetti faces his own eventual retirement and mortality, he acutely observes other older people. He also worries about the past and the future, and what will be left for the children.

In the last decade, Brunetti has watched his beloved city of Venice become overrun with tourists, touristy junk, mega cruise ships, and all the other horrors. He has also had to watch the slow degradation of the fragile coastal environment under the pressure of industry and human activities.

This story involves the death of an old man Brunetti is staying with, which may or may not have been an accident. The Commissario cannot let it lie without finding the truth of the matter. This requires uncovering the old man’s life, including dramatic events in his past, grief follow the death of his wife, and the slow death of the Laguna, including his colonies of bees.

(It’s not all about old people—Brunetti’s younger colleagues are fascinating as always.)

It’s all a rather sad story, beautifully told in Leon’s understated style.

As I said in an earlier review,

Reading Lean makes me want to live a little more “Venetian”. Not indolent luxury, but gently caring for my home town and the people who live here.

And, of course, “I wish I could write this well!

  1. Donna Leon, Earthly Remains, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews