One of the staples of this blog has been my book reviews. Whether anyone gives a toss is by the by. I’ve read a few recently, so here goes a run-through of some:
American Prometheus – The Triumph And Tragedy Of J Robert Oppenheimer by Sherwin & Bird – A fantastic book, well-researched, in-depth and a fascinating tour through the life of a thoroughly absorbing individual. Now, if I told you an Anglo-Italian dance music collective brought me to this book, it would be scarcely believable, but it’s true. Planet Funk sample Oppenheimer’s most famous utterance in their track “Tears After The Rain” and I became drawn to the individual. This seemed the best book to read.
It covers what I knew a little about – the development of the Atomic Bomb, Manhattan Project and Trinty, and the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki detonations, but where the book was most fascinating were the details of his development, selection, political leanings and interactions, which when the consequences of the atomic bomb faced an uncertain world, were turned against him. The persecution and attempted discrediting of Oppenheimer make up the most fascinating tracts of the very lengthy tome. It shows 1950s America in its true persecution light. It is brilliant. Dramatic. And in the world we live in with the Snowden revelations, prophetic and haunting. This isn’t a hero worship of Oppenheimer, but it certainly falls on one side at the end. This is a portrait of a highly intelligent, but deeply flawed man. He is no less of a hero because of his flaws.
A magnificent book, worth the effort to read, and a gateway to further exploration of an area of history I barely know, despite it being so recent. 4 and 3/4 stars.
24 Days – How Two Wall Street Journal Reporters Uncovered The Lies That Destroyed Faith in Corporate America – By Smith & Emshwiller – This is a curious book, written in a curious style. It is often third person, and often paints the two authors as competitors as well as colleagues. If this was done to make the book “more real” it needn’t have been. This is an excellent piece of financial investigation meets entertaining story-telling. I have another book to read on the demise of Enron, called, funnily enough, The Smartest Guys In The Room, when the company’s fall from grace was, according to this, anything but the act of smart people.
As reinforcement of prejudice goes, this works. Short-cuts taken for big rewards; rules being something to be avoided, not followed, because the law of the jungle trumps the law of the land; head honchos being appointed because of how much they make, not what legacy and foundations they build, and the cult of personality, which in this case seemed to be the “brilliance” of Jeffrey Skilling, the amazing stewardship of Kenneth Lay, and the financial alchemy of Andy Fastow. Once the deck of cards started to fall, with the mysterious resignation of Skilling, followed by wave after wave of evidence of cover-ups, financial hocus-pocus, auditing irregularities, related party transactions and false presentation of accounts, it never stopped. This book casts the story in the eyes of two Wall Street Journal journalists, based in San Francisco, who worked on the story.
It’s a gripping read, quite easy to follow in most places (gets a bit tricky with the account structures that Enron had in place) and I read it very quickly. As I say, that’s always a good sign. However, the title of the book, as history has shown, was extremely presumptuous. The lessons were never learned and people still had faith in corporate America. In many ways, they still do.
A good read, if a little grinding with the writing style, but don’t judge it too harshly on that. As a guide through a complex maze, and a story, it works very, very well. 4 and a quarter stars.
Talking of financial malfeasance…
Griftopia – By Matt Taibbi – For the uninitiated, Matt Taibbi is a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, who focuses a large part of his remit on the financial machinations and political linkages on the other side of the Pond. The right wing loathe him, and the lefty magazine he works for. Their tactics in dealing with him are to ignore him. Put him down as a polemicist, prone to incoherent ranting and not worth listening to. However, one phrase of his has never been ignored, and is now synonymous with the name Goldman Sachs. Taibbi coined the phrase “Vampire Squid” for that bank.
This book is a wander through the financial crisis. It is often stark, insulting, a rant, a head-scratcher, the raging of a man who just doesn’t understand how the world let happen what happened. He despairs at weak politicians, in bed with the people who caused the financial crisis, active participants in the demise, and the chief recipients of blame despite the endless pumping of other people’s money into the vessels of failure which still sees Dimon and Blankfein in post and doing very well, thank you. It rails against AIG, the housing market scam, and all the gubbins. It is a magnificent work of anger. I loved it, of course. It preaches to me like a pastor does to a religious man.
Taibbi is often dismissed for being “wrong” on so much that he lacks credibility. Au contraire. If Taibbi is just 10% correct in this book, then we should be ashamed of ourselves for standing by and watching ourselves and our kin burn. I fear he’s right a lot more than he is wrong. It may be “gonzo writing” whatever that is, but he packs a punch. Read it. Get angrier.