December 30th, 2010



Many of the hotshots of high finance enjoyed playing high-stakes poker, bridge, and other games of chance, and the quants among them worked out strategies for beating the casino that worked precisely because there's an upper bound on the number of cards the house deals, and an event out at seven standard deviations from the mean is so unlikely as to be effectively impossible. But when those gambling strategies become the basis of investment strategies, it is the nature of complex adaptive systems that events beyond the second standard deviation occur, sometimes much more frequently than any gambling-based model can handle. If you have a run of events several standard deviations above the mean, and you've played your financial cards right, you're rich, but if those events start coming in below the mean, down comes your house of cards.

And thus William D. Cohan's House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street, Book Review No. 42. The focus is on Bear Stearns, a company full of aggressive personalities who became so dizzy with their own success that they held extremely dangerous positions, antagonized many customers, and whose troubles in March 2008 were the first warning of the great financial crash to come.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

Books 66 - 68

Just a couple more days for the year, especially as New Zealand is one of the first places to usher in 2011, and a couple more books completed, but so many pages left. Ah well.

Book 66 and 68 were by Jasper Fforde, whose work I am enjoying very much. Shades of Grey was set in a slightly dystopian future in which homo colouris is judged on the ability to see colours. The lowest ranked societal group can only see grey. An imaginantive setting. The Fourth Bear varied the Tuesday Next literary detective theme to have the Nursery Crimes Division, but the setting was still Reading, England. There is a fascinating puzzle involving the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and hence the title, but it is a plot spoiler.

In the middle of these novels I finished a book I was given for Christmas, Desmond Morris' The Soccer Tribe, which is dated but still fascinating. I have a couple of books I'd love to finish before the end of the year, but I don't know if I can.
Still, last year was a poor one in several respects, and in terms of reading I only managed 51 books and 17,658 pages, while this year I have 68 and 20,159 pages.

Book 143: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Book 143: The Finkler Question.
Author: Howard Jacobson, 2010.
Genre: Contemporary. Comedy-Drama.
Other Details: Hardback. 320 pages.

This superb novel focuses on the lives of three men living in modern day London. Julian Treslove is a 49-year-old embittered former BBC employee, who now makes his living as a professional look-alike. His old school friend is Sam Finkler, a Jewish philosopher who has found fame and fortune as the author of a series of popular self-help books based on philosophy (his titles include “Descartes and Dating” and "The Socratic Flirt: How to Reason Your Way into a Better Sex Life.”). The two have a prickly relationship and live very different lives, yet they have remained in touch through the years. The third man is their former teacher, Libor Sevick, a 90-year old Czechoslovakian Jew, who had been a gossip columnist and intimate of the stars in Hollywood during its Golden Age and later turned to teaching.

Both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, having lost their wives within a month of each other. Treslove has had a series of unsuccessful relationships with women and so considers himself an honorary third widower. One evening they dine at Libor's grand, central London apartment and Treslove elects to walk home. He takes a moment to stop and look in the window of a music shop and at this point he is mugged. Based on something his attacker may or may not have said, Treslove comes to believe that the attack was motivated by anti-Semitism. However, as he is not Jewish it sends him into an identity crises.

In a sense all three men are searching for their identifies. For Treslove, a Gentile with no direction in his life seeks to embrace a Jewish identity and to answer the question of what it means to be a Jew in modern day Britain. Libor is seeking meaning in his life after the death of his beloved wife. Finkler becomes an outspoken member of the ASHamed Jews, an organisation that decries the actions of Israel in Gaza. Jacobson explores the issue of Zionism through an on-going debate between Finkler and Libor, who is a passionate supporter of Israel. Added to this is material on historical and contemporary anti-Semitism.

When I read it back in September as part of the Man Booker Shadowing Group, I described it as a perfect Man Booker candidate. The reason was that it is both intellectual and literary in its style and yet remains accessible. Jacobson is not afraid to explore deep emotional and spiritual themes alongside political and social ones. So it is a novel which deals with issues of friendship, ageing, bereavement, life, death, love, loss, belonging, cultural and religious identity, and much, much more. It is also brimming with humour, warmth and insight alongside deep pathos.

OK, its themes are not going to appeal to all readers and I was not all that enthusiastic before I started reading it. Still, I soon revised my opinion. While it wasn't my favourite of the 2010 Man Booker short-listed titles, its intelligence and sensitivity made it a very fitting winner.
Reading feet

Book 43 of 2010

rating scale
Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
Rating: 3

I would say this review contains spoilers, but it's hard to call them spoilers when the book is over 150 years old. But if you really know nothing about this book and don't want to, don't read the rest of this.

For those of you who do not know, "Little Women" was originally two books: "Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy" and "Good Wives". There is an obvious split in the middle of "Little Women" where three years go by with not a word said about them. I must say, I really did not care for the first part when they are children - it dragged on and on and on and on, and they were too perfect as children (even Jo was more good than all the children I know, I dare say) and they were just ... boring. Although the world of the March family is quaint and happy, I find it hard to believe that even the worst children are really very well behaved. Especially good children are even more boring than regular children! The only part of the first part that really interested me is when Meg goes to the party and learns many lessons and Laurie says he doesn't care for her like that.

Beth annoyed the crap out of me, and as far as I could tell she was an utterly useless character (though I feel bad saying that, since she is almost exactly the author's sister, and it just feels wrong to say any real person is a useless character - but I do think in books all characters should have a purpose in the book, unlike life in general).

I had heard she dies (because I watch "Friends") and I must admit I was somewhat disappointed when she didn't (well at first, she does eventually but blah). It sounds horrible, but I really think it would have been an improvement to the book. It's not as if she did much between her recovery and her death, even though there were 6 years between. And also, I think the lessons learned by the other girls due to Beth's illness may have stuck better.

I had also heard that Laurie and Jo do not end up together in the end, and that he ends up with Amy of all people (my least favorite of the sisters, if you don't count Beth, which I don't). When I heard this, I was aghast and upset by it and thought the book ruined. But I kept reading and it turns out I was very happy with that turn of events and how it happened, and I liked the "realness" of Laurie's unrequited love for Jo, Jo's reaction, her decision to leave and give him some time (though it didn't help), his behavior up until he fell in love with Amy... it was all wonderful.

I also especially liked seeing Meg and John at the beginning of their marriage. I think it would benefit many people to read that part of the book. There is a lot of good stuff there, and it rings true.

A lot of people complain about the "Christian" messages. Yes, it's true, there are some fairly religious sections to the book. But you have to realize when it was written. That was very common, and it gives you a sense of the times and how much religion meant to people then. There is also a section when Jo is a nanny with the philosophers going against religion, so it is not as if the author is unaware or unwilling to admit other views exist (of course, religion wins out in the end, here). There is also Jo admitting that she lead a very sheltered life and was completely unaware of the awful things going on in the city around her, and she found the need to go take them all in for her writing.

Overall - I didn't care for the book at first, but it got better and better. It bothers me that some parts of the book are taken almost exactly from the author's life (word for word from her diary some parts, you can find them on the internet, especially dealing with Beth's death). But the lessons learned about love and marriage are timeless and it's certainly worth the read.
El Corazon

256. Memoirs of a Book Snake...

Memoirs of a Book Snake: Forty Years of Seeking and Saving Old Books
by David Meyer

Started: December 28, 2010
Finished: December 29, 2010

I'm a sucker for books by and about book collectors. This was a pretty good one. Meyer shows a true love for reading and book collecting in his quick read. 152 pages. Grade: A-
Total # of Books Read in 2010: 256
Total # of Pages Read in 2010: 63,360