Born to Run is a best seller and came highly recommended. I was excited about the book's premise, expecting to learn the secrets of those who don't crash at 26.2. The book's byline refers to the "Greatest Race the World has Never Seen" - however, by the time we reach this "greatest race", the author has already spoken about a few that seem as great.Christopher McDougall is a contributor to Men's Health and some of the material here has been pulled together from articles he has written over the years. The book begins with his search for a cure to the pain he started experiencing in his foot while running. After the best sports doctors had examined and given him the same advice ("give up running"), Mr McDougall discovered the lost tribe of the Tarahumara. It is clear the Tarahumara are a secretive tribe of free living, peace loving, superathletes who want nothing to do with the world and Mr. McDougall idolizes them. The author has a lot of stories to share and running long distances seems to attract funny, interesting and inspiring characters. The author does a great job of narrating these stories. There were times while reading the book when I wanted to set the book aside, pick up my running shoes (ahem, not ready to run barefoot yet) and go run. The book presents a passionate argument of the idea that all of us were made to run. Heck,the author seems to believe the ability to run long distances is a distinguishing characteristic of the human species, almost as critical to our success on the planet as the opposable thumb.Even though I enjoyed many of the stories in the book, it is what the author leaves out that is most disappointing. The book reads and feels like a collection of chronologically arranged magazine articles and not as a consistent whole. There is no clear theme - is it the Tarahumara? Is it ultra marathon running? Is it the runners? Or is it the story of McDougall's journey from being advised to give up running to finishing the 'greatest race'? We get glimpses of each of those books in this relatively short volume (280 pages). Read it but keep your expectations in check.
Stones Into Schools is Greg Morenson's follow up to his immensely successful Three Cups of Tea, which I read about two years ago. Mortenson is older here and has a bigger cast of supporting characters but the stories told are no less amazing. Just like in Three Cups of Tea, Mr. Mortensen weaves his story around a promise, made to a group of Kirghiz horsemen, to build a schoool for their sons and daughters in a valley in the Pamir mountains. A decade passes between the promise and the construction of the school, and Stones into Schools is really the story of that decade. Greg Mortensen with a dozen or so helpers spread out in Pakistan and Afghanistan has been responsible for building over 130 schools, serving thousands of children, a big portion of whom are girls. The author manages to convey the tragedy of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the severe effects of the Afganistan war, horror stories of opium addiction and the abject poverty of the people Mr.Mortensen serves. This is an inspiring story. Highly recommended.
The one consistently recurring theme in The Quants is gambling. Ed Thorp, who according to Scott Patterson is the godfather of a quantitative based approach to investing is alos the author of the Blackjack card counting classic, Beat the Dealer and the subsequent primer on a quantitative approach to investing - Beat the Market. Scott Patterson is a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal and in The Quants he tells the story of several different men (and a couple of women) who used their incredible quantitative skills to build some of the most powerful hedge funds of our times. The book begins (and ends) with what looks and sounds like a set piece, the Wall Street Poker Night Tournament, starring the kings of the quantitative universe - Peter Muller of PDT, Ken Griffin of Citadel Investment Group, Cliff Asness of AQR Capital Management and Boaz Weinstein of Saba. Each of these men has made hundreds of millions of dollars on Wall Street using their mathematics backgrounds and each has a fascination bordering on obsession with poker. The way the book is set up, you get the impression this story will be told through this selected cast of characters, much like how in The Big Short Michael Lewis focuses his attentions on a small group of hedge funds managers to tell the story of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. Unfortunately, Mr. Patterson is not quite as skillful a story teller as Mr. Lewis. I quickly lost track of the main characters, as Mr. Patterson moves the spotlight to a long list of supporting cast members. There is Ed Thorp as I already mentioned, Jim Simons of Renaissance Technologies, Aaron Brown, Paul Wilmott, Benoit Mandelbrot, Bill Gross and others who are given attention is such a way as to interfere with the flow of the narrative. Another flaw of Mr. Patterson's style is that he does not seem to maintain a consistent style - there are some chapters where all the main protagonists are covered, there are some focused on a specific person and then there are some that are descriptive of a situation without focusing on any one character. This muddled style leads to an unsatisfying reading experience. Since I'm on a roll here, let me add one more criticism - The Quants manages to give only glimpses of the mechanics of how money is made by the Citadels of the world. It does not get technical, unfortunately.In spite of my overall disappointment with the book, I recommend reading it. It is a good introduction to the stars of the quantitative hedge fund world and at about 300 pages not irksome in length.
I'm more of a carnivore than I am an omnivore and I approached Mr.Pollan's book with a some skepticism. I did not expect to like it as much as I did. The book has its flaws but should be required reading for anyone who eats. At least it should be required reading for anyone who eats in America because many of the challenges Mr.Pollan discuses are directly related to America's unique food culture. The Omnivore's Dilemma is divided into three parts, each one the story of a meal. Corn is the star and the villain of the first part - Industrial/Corn. Mr. Pollan is perhaps at his most sermonizing in the first section, liberally anthropomorphizing corn and building it up into a sentient cross generational plotter. I was irritated to the point of wanting to give up on the book. The central point, that there is too much corn produced in the United States and it shows up in too many places it shouldn't, is indisputable. The story of corn ends with a meal from that much vilified icon of American culture, McDonald's, with a particularly discomfiting description of chicken nuggets. For the record, I can't stand McDonald's - I've only eaten there under extreme circumstances. Organic has gone mainstream and has therefore also adopted industrial techniques without which a store like Whole Foods would be impossible. Mr.Pollan visits a free range chicken farm and reveals what "free range" actually equates to - two tiny doors at either end of a shed the size of football field, carpeted with twenty thousand chickens. As Mr.Pollan pulls away the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Organic Oz it is hard not to question paying the premiums regularly charged at your friendly neighborhood organic grocery store. There is a brighter side to the narrative - the organic non-industrial meal, grown the old fashioned way. The author profiles Joel Salatin, a "grass farmer" who runs Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley. William Salatin started the farm in the 1960s and his son Joel carries on, building on and perfecting the older Salatin's techniques that make his farm a model of sustainable agriculture. It is obvious however, that the amount of effort put into farming by Joel Salatin is unlikely to win many converts. The industrial production of food is much too efficient at producing calories - albeit in the abstracted form of corn. In the final section of the book, Mr.Pollan acquires a gun and goes hunting. The author freely acknowledges this is the least practical way to put food on the table, but following him around on his hunter gatherer quest makes for excellent reading. Chapter Seventeen delves into the ethics of eating animals and its justification. I've eaten meat all my life and I don't expect to ever give that up, but it is undeniable that the cruelty of feed lots and all the other techniques involved in the industrial production of meat is simply indefensible. The Omnivore's Dilemma is educational and thought provoking. Highly recommended.
The last great Indian novel I enjoyed reading was Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, and that was a long time ago. I bought The Story of my Assassins at the Mumbai International (okay, Chhatrapati Shivaji International) Airport last January, not quite sure if I would read it, but I wanted to have the option. I finally dived into the book a couple of weeks ago and was initially not impressed. I found a cast of formula characters, the hinglish speaking protagonist, the bleeding heart social worker, the corrupt politicians, the incompetent police, the idealistic journalist, the wisdom spewing guru and the ineffectual wife. It all started off like a classic b-grade Hindi movie and I braced for disappointment. I'm glad I persisted. The cheesy plot got really twisted, the writing got less gimmicky and the characters started to pulsate with real life. If Midnight's Children and A Fine Balance are the classic novels of Bombay, then The Story of My Assassins is the classic North Indian novel. My comfort with English has unfortunately meant I have very exposure to the great writers in Hindi and Urdu which has in turn meant I have almost no exposure to the stories of the Indian heartland. Tarun Tejpal has done a commendable job of telling some of those stories in this fine work. Recommended.
In this semi-autobiographical work of fiction (I hesitate to call it 'novel'), David Mitchell's 13 year old protagonist navigates the many delights and humiliations of a teenager's life in the village of Black Swan Green. Like his other books, the writing is fantastic and a lot more accessible than Cloud Atlas. Recommended.
Sayed Kashua is an Israeli Arab (or is it Arab-Israeli?) writer who writes in Hebrew and has seemingly gained quite a following. I picked up Second Person Singular partly on whim and partly on the premise. I'm glad I did. Kashua tells the story of an Arab-Israeli lawyer, living in Jerusalem, trying to fit into Israeli society while serving his Palestinian clientele. The lawyer buys a used book and finds in it a note that he is certain was written by his wife. The discovery kicks off an obsessive search for the recipient of the note. The author does a terrific job of portraying jealousy and how trapped we are by our cultural moorings. There is much playing with ideas of identity and fitting into a culture different from the one you were raised in. As with any art originating in that part of the world, SPS has some political commentary, but it is nuanced and non-confrontational. In his portrayal of relationships between the Jewish and Arab peoples of Jerusalem, Kashua's writing reminded me of Naipaul's 'the world is what it is' perspective in A Bend in the River. There is much to like in this book, I'd rate it right up there with Intimacy by Hanif Kureshi and Kinshu: Autumn Brocade by Teru Miyamoto, two of my favorite 'relationship' novellas.
Dead Aid is a 150 page book with a 24 page bibliography - so it reads more like a long white paper than a book. Dambisa Moyo has an impressive resume, much alluded to in both the book jacket and the foreword by Niall Ferguson. The author has worked for the World Bank and Goldman Sachs and she has a PhD from Oxford University. Impressive no doubt. Even more impressive is the fact that she was born and raised in Zambia so her profile fits neatly into the "Solutions to Africa's problems by Africans" paradigm.The book itself makes its case almost clinically, backed up by statistics and research papers from an entire spectrum of economists. Dead Aid is divided in two sections, The World of Aid, which examines the 'aid-economy', the players and the harmful affects on African countries' dependence on western aid. The second section, A World Without Aid proposes several venues open to the developing countries in Africa to raise money and be independent - the most important being trade and raising capital from the markets. Ms. Moyo manages to connect a lot of different African ailments to aid, from corruption to dictatorship and she makes a convincing case. Her solutions make sense as well - at least to a strong believer in free trade like myself. The hopelessness of it all is that it is almost impossible to imagine the West will roll back its Aid of Africa model that has failed so consistently and for so long.The book's main weakness is that it makes for almost dreary reading. Ms. Moyo may be a brainy economist, she is not a writer. The book suffers from a dearth of wit and style. The author does try to indulge in a hypothetical by creating the composite African country of Dongo and examinig how the country may funciton if her suggestions were realized. But in the end her vision reads less like a fully realized painting and more like a stick figure drawing. I recommend reading the book, only because it serves as a starting point for examining the issue of tackling the many problems of the African continent.
I had mixed expectations from Too Big to Fail. Considering we are still very much in the thrall of one of the worst financial crises of the past century, it is unfair to expect a single book to provide a complete perspective. Andrew Ross Sorkin does not attempt to explain how or why we got into the events of 2008. The book's objective is very clear - to chronicle what was happening in the financial markets during 2008. At this task, the book succeeds. It has an impressive cast, from Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to the CEO of Lehman Brothers, Dick Fuld.About three quarters of the book is about the Lehman collapse. The author seems so focuse on the investment bank that you get almost no visibility into what was happening at say Citibank or AIG, though AIG does get some attention. The book refuses to be technical with Sorkin sticking to a journalistic tone. That I think is this account's greatest shortcoming - if you hope to understand what specific problems were being faced by Lehman Brothers before its failure, the reasons it found itself under attack by short sellers, you won't find the explanation here.Ultimately, this book is a good record of what happened but I think my reading list needs a lot more books to understand the why. I'd give the book a half hearted recommendation
I was disappointed in the almost universally admired and Pulitzer winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The book is long and the the story not particularly interesting (to me). Admittedly, it is fun to delve into the New York of 1940s and the book is a decent introduction to comics as art. The biggest weakness of the book is that it felt more as a collection of novellas (collectively weighing in at 630+ pages) and not a single work of fiction. There is the exciting story of escape from Nazi occupied Prague, a history of comics in 1940s New York, the immigrant experience, an adventure in Antarctica and the misery of being gay in mid-century America. However, all of these stories don't quite add up to a satisfying whole.