One important rule of thumb about book reviews (I assume) is that you should finish the book before reviewing it. That seems wise. On the other hand, when reviewing a book that seems bad in the first 110 pages, it seems like a waste of time to continue. I read the first part more than a year ago, and figured I’d go back, (I’m a completionist most of the time) but I never did.
This should be the perfect novel for me to enjoy. The author is clearly obsessed with the 2008 Financial Crisis. Me too.1 The premise of Mandibles is that, post-financial crisis, people in the United States lives in a kind of Venezuelan-crisis mode of shortages.
Action takes place in Brooklyn, a place I’ve lived in and loved. Brooklyn, finance…count me in, right?
Another good rule of thumb (besides the finish-the-book rule) is that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Well, sorry. I’ve already broken that many times before in these book reviews.2
The problems I had with the book began early, and continued. They stem directly from the finance theme as well as the Brooklyn-based action. The dialogue about finance is not character dialogue – it’s carefully scripted diatribes about financial theory. This character presents one view on trade and international finance. This other character mouth-pieces the connection between debt and a financial crisis. I suppose if one never reads the paper or took an economics class this would be informative? It’s definitely not believable conversation. Nor is it interesting.
Also, Brooklyn. It should be fun to read satirical takes on what I assume are the author’s neighbors, with their twee styles and overly precious concerns. Who doesn’t like a good satire? Having moved away from Brooklyn a while ago, however, I found the satire and obsession very inward-focused. I kept thinking: Did the author and the editor have a good chuckle over the sendup of preciousness, but then forget that most people don’t live in Brooklyn? Sorry, I found it unfinish-able. Maybe someone can tell me how it ends.
Luca Pesaro’s Zero Alternative is a Dan Brown-style thriller, with a ruthless conspiracy of high-financiers chasing an ultra-effective prediction algorithm, a foreign-legion enforcer with a sadistic bent, a nihilistic hacker group, the chain-smoking derivatives-trading hero hoping to walk away from high finance after one last big trade, and a hot stripper who may or may not have a heart of gold (or maybe just shouldn’t be trusted.)
My favorite part of the novel may not be other people’s favorite. I particularly enjoyed the early chapters, tracking a tense morning of options trading and political infighting with our hero Scott Walker. The author traded options for a living. As a result, he doesn’t do hand-waving fake Wall Street-stuff with his trading descriptions. He has clearly sweated (and I assume chain-smoked through) these same P&L swings, the fights with managers, the adrenaline surge, the banter with subordinates, clients, and competitors.
With even a cursory knowledge of the finance world we recognize fictional stand-ins for Goldman Sachs,1 Wikileaks, Blackwater, George Soros,2 and the protagonist’s bank, which I’m going to guess is Deutsche Bank.3
Interestingly, since the driving element of Zero Alternative is a hunt for ultra-predictive-software, the novel’s plot predicts by a couple of years the market turmoil caused this Summer by Brexit. Both the author and the protagonist Scott Walter are Italian, so the EU-departing country is Italy, but the effect is the same. Pesaro and protagonist Walker share a few other biographical similarities, beyond nationality. They also went to the same high school.
Which makes this a good time to mention that Pesaro and I also went to high school together. I’m pretty sure we haven’t met up in 25 years, but our school The United World College of the American West – including the famous Montezuma Castle – makes an appearance in the crucial final fight scene of the novel. I’m guessing Pesaro hasn’t been on campus for 15 years, because he left the Castle in Zero Alternative in the unrenovated state of disrepair it was in when we attended the school, suitable only for forbidden late-night haunted-castle raids with headlamps and illegal bottles of hooch. Or maybe he has been back, and took literary license because it added to the spookiness of the scene.
Also interestingly, unbeknownst to me, Pesaro and I shared a kind of similar path. Like almost everyone from our school in that time – an idealistic, somewhat anti-capitalistic culture – we share mixed feelings about high finance. There’s the thrill and the attraction to it, including appreciating colleagues, adrenaline rushes, pay, meritocracy, and the essentiality of it all. But there’s also the sense that things can get off track systemically, as well as maybe a corruption at the level of the individual soul. I don’t think I’m reading too much into Luca’s novel to think he’d agree with that. In his acknowledgments page he thanks “all the good, weird and interesting people I’ve met through all my years in Finance – bankers are not all bad, believe me.”
Nickel and Dimed – On Not Getting By In America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Want to understand what it’s like to be part of the structurally poor in America? No? Well you won’t ever see it depicted in mainstream media, but here’s a good place to start.
The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. This classic on urban planning policy from 1960 struck me as entirely relevant today. Jacobs writes convincingly on low-income housing policy, the problem with parks, the benefits of walkable cities, the importance of mixed uses, the essential nature of diversity in great cities.
Cities and the Wealth of Nations, by Jane Jacobs. By switching the economic unit of analysis from nations to cities, Jacobs offers still-relevant insights into development, inequality, currency regimes, and the decline of empire.
The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston. A review of thirty years of Trump’s businesses practices, associates, and personal style, from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered him over the years. I wouldn’t say I was surprised by the revelations, but the details are important. Not a book about ‘inequality’ per se. But not entirely unrelated to the theme either, in the broadest sense.
Capital In The Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. Sets the standard on data collection on wealth concentration in rich countries. Has a mathematical model that suggests ossification of aristocracy may be in our future, unless addressed through tax policy.
Words and Money, by Andre Schiffrin. A French-American from the traditional publishing world explains why for-profit behavior by media companies – in publishing, movies, book-selling, newspapers – are hurting society. Some proposed solutions which sound very European.
The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stigliz. I started out sympathetic to his politics but his style of argumentation – hammer, hammer, hammer – is tedious. Also made me more in favor of inequality, because I’m a contrarian cuss.
On Personal Finance
The Automatic Millionaire by David Bach. A surprisingly well-done book on what may be simplest first two principles of investing: First, you DO have enough to invest. And the second principle: You HAVE to do automatic deductions. Peace and Plenty, by Sarah Ban Breathnach. The worst personal finance book I’ve ever read, by the narcissistic, materialistic, unreflective author of Simple Abundance, a popular book from the 1990s endorsed by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey.
Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes, by Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich. The authors translate Behavioral Economics research with memorable anecdotes and illustrations to help us understand why we make sub-optimal personal finance decisions. The Richest Man In Babylon, by George Clason. “Babylonian” fables written in the 1920s that retain timeless wisdom about of thrift, savings, skepticism, and self-reliance.
Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill. This personal finance classic offers ‘the secret’ to getting wealthy, and has inspired the world’s Dale Carnegies, Tony Robbins, Guy Kiyosakis. The ‘secret’ is not so hidden, and the prose is cheesy, but I’m willing to concede that the book could put you in the right mind-set for building wealth.
A Random Walk Down Wall Street, by Burton Malkiel. The classic that launched the index fund market and popularized the efficient market theory. And its surprisingly interesting to read. You should read this!
Behavioral Investment Counseling by Nick Murray. Another Murray classic, directed at advisors, to convince them that client behavior matters more than anything, and therefore how an advisors time, effort, and talent should and should not be allocated.
Stocks For The Long Run, by Jeremy L. Siegel. A classic in which Siegel present the 200+ years of data to show the overwhelming advantage of stocks over ‘safe’ investments when it comes to building wealth.
If Your Money Talked What Secrets Would It Tell, by Gary Sirak. Sirak offers real-life illustrations of his 8 Principles of Money, based on his career as a financial advisor for the last 30 years. He also argues persuasively that most of our trouble with money is caused by our own personal beliefs about money. The Millionaire Next Door – Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy, by Thomas J. Stanley and William Danko. An influential (at least in my life) best-seller on the difference between having wealth and displaying wealth, and solid ideas on how to accumulate wealth.
My Vast Personal Fortune, by Andrew Tobias. Funny, quirky, and revealing anecdotes on real estate and advertising. Features Tobias’ obsession with auto-insurance.
Mathematics Standard Level for the International Baccalaureate, by Alan Wicks. I didn’t actually review this book, but just referred to it in my discussion of compound interest. The International Baccalaureate is how I learned about “Sequences and Series,” the mathematics behind compound interest. Also, this was written by my high school advisor and math teacher, so you should buy it!
The House of Morgan, by Ron Chernow. Fascinating history of the origins of JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank (which absorbed the UK’s Morgan Grenfell). Even does much more in a few short chapters on recent history to explain how Goldman Sachs “came to rule the world,” than does Cohan’s book by that title.
Money and Power – How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World, by William Cohan. Cohan doesn’t answer the question in the title, and he cherry-picks a series of embarrassing episodes from Goldman’s history to offer it up as a scapegoat. The one useful section is his chapter on the mortgage department, in the years just prior to Crisis of 2008.
The ChickenShit Club:The Justice Department and Its Failure to Prosecute White-Collar Criminals, by Jesse Eisinger. Eisinger explains in detail why nobody went to jail as a result of the mortgage crisis, with specific focus on the weakening of the Justice Department’s will to aggressively prosecute individuals and companies after the Enron/Arthur Anderson debacles. The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham. My kids will be reading this when they get old enough, because, 65 years later, it’s still fresh, and it will still be fresh in another 15-20 years.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz. Horowitz led his company through harrowing crashes and extraordinary success. He describes the painful decisions and gut punches of being CEO during the bad times. The latter-half of the book is less interesting, but the first part is intertwining and useful.
Systems of Survival – A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, by Jane Jacobs. This isn’t about Wall Street, but rather about two interdependent systems of survival. Guardians (government functions) and Commercials (business functions) work well together but operate by separate precepts. Each has its own internally consistent moral code, but the breach and mixing of precepts can lead to monstrosities. I love this book as it practically explains everything you need to know about Left-Right/Democrat-Republican/Government-Business debates.
Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis. The original classic. Start your Wall Street reading here, about Lewis’ short stint as a bond salesman, at Solomon Brothers, in the mid-1980s.
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Redefining the metrics of startups, and a whole new way of thinking about them. Don’t start a company, instead start a series of experiments to test your business hypothesis.
Where Are The Customers’ Yachts? by Fred Schwed. I had not expected this to be as funny as it was. Somehow, it turns out I dig 1940s financial humor, with some sly lessons on how Wall Street really works.
The Green And The Black, by Gary Sernovitz. Funny, informed, complex – A great overview of the implications of the shale revolution, aka the fracking revolution in the United States.
Too Big To Fail, by Andrew Ross Sorkin. Should be titled “Too Connected to Criticize” as Sorkin protects his present and future sources – the Wall Street CEOS of 2008 – from any criticism or real analysis of their responsibility for 2008.
Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb explains how the unexpected tends to shape everything, and our models never see the unexpected before it’s too late. Also, his timing on this book, right before the 2008 crisis, was awesome.
Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb’s first book blasts the traditional Wall Street world-view with his empirical skepticism and brash, take-no-prisoners, style.
The Lives Of Animals, by J. M. Coetzee. A challenging, only semi-fictional philosophical exploration of the moral relativity of animals, compared to humans. Are we perpetuating an unthinking Holocaust on animals? Accompanying essays help flesh out the ideas. The Pickup, by Nadine Gordimer. A novel exploring the immigrant and emigrant experience, and maybe, the impossibility of true understanding between people. The Mystery of the Invisible Hand by Marshall Jevons. Two economists write this series of murder mysteries in which an economist applies economic theory to catch the criminal. This one takes place in San Antonio TX so I had to read and review it.
Capital, by John Lanchester. This book review, by Michael Lewis, contains great observations about English writing, and English attitudes towards capitalism.
A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss. Explore 18th Century London stock markets just prior to the crash of the South Sea Company, as proto-private eye Benjamin Weaver investigates stock fraud and the death of his father. Fun stuff!
The Earl Next Door: The Bachelor Lords of London by Charis Michaels. American heiress Piety Grey battles scheming relatives and a literally falling-down London townhouse, while navigating the romantic pull of the Trevor Rheese, the Earl next door who thinks he just wants to live alone, unencumbered by responsibility for others. Going Going by Naomi Shihab Nye. I reviewed this young adult novel in part because it takes place in my neighborhood and in part because it gave me a great excuse to discuss some meditations on what makes for a good city, and a good life.
The Turtle of Oman, by Naomi Shihab Nye. We brought this young adult novel on a trip to Big Bend National Park, which happens to be the perfect place to experience Oman. My older daughter and I enjoyed this tremendously.
The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope. A book review by a friend, of a favorite book and favorite author, featuring the 19th Century British Bernie Madoff.
Theory of Knowledge
An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, by Ali Almossawi. Almossawi’s online book is a pleasurably illustrated taxonomy of terrible logic, of the kind we so often hear from political pundits or members of the Financial Infotainment Industrial Complex.
Risk Savvy, by Gerd Gigerenzer. Ultimately disappointing book that has some points to make about the limitations of building complex risk models for highly complex systems. But too much seems to be culled from presentations to rooms full of doctors, or something, and I was bored. I’d prefer to go with Nate Silver any day.
Dark Age Ahead, by Jane Jacobs. One of my favorite authors, with a title that made me need to read it. Jacobs has a theory of what will break civilization apart, and its all plausible.
Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott. Not really related to finance or even theory of knowledge. Just a meditative book that struck me as important to read and review. I highly recommend it if you need a good cry.
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t, by Nate Silver. Silver argues that applying Bayesian probabilistic thinking to a wide range of complex phenomena like sports betting, weather, earthquakes, Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, and politics help us understand the present and forecast the future far more than most legacy models we work with.