Sunday, March 13, 2016

Short takes

Quickly on some books I've read recently:

Red Notice.  Hedge fund manager Bill Browder, who was robbed blind and kicked out of Russia by Putin some years ago, wrote this book about his own trajectory, but more about Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who was on his team and was pretty much killed in Russian prison but refused to repent or submit to pressure to lie. This is a good, not a great book, but it gives considerable insight into how business was done in Russia back in the day, and, more importantly, Browder shows himself to have been truly indefatigable in campaigning in DC for justice for Magnitsky and sanctions against the Putin regime by the US government. Also gives a pretty good window into how DC works, the importance of access to people who know people.  "Human capital," as it were.

The Last Girls, My dad idolized Lee Smith, really worshipped the ground she walked on. She represented all that he aspired to in the Hillsborough literary scene. And, as human a human being as he was, I figured I'd give her a shot, and I picked this book up at Nice Price in Durham one day when I took the kids there (just as he and my mom had always taken us to used book stores). This is a good novel, not mind-blowing, but a solid, humane, earnest piece of humanism geared at helping us understand how people grow and how they come to feel about the complex trajectories of their lives as they live them. As a plus, as the title states, it's mostly about women, a group of them, so as a male it's helpful to me in terms of getting women's perspectives on life.

And, for all the rigor mortis that successive waves of theory threw at literature and art in recent decades, this is a noble function, and not easy. I will read more Lee Smith. In this, as in many things, my dad was not wrong.

The Old Man and the Sea, I snagged this nugget of Hemingway in the PTA Thrift one day last year. We were in there and we ran into Juan, the father of Graham's classmate Jasper, who piped enthusiastically about having picked up a first edition of this book there. And then I saw this little volume at that PTA discount.

In contrast to the Lee Smith, and not surprisingly for old Earnest, this is a book about being a man. An old guy who hasn't caught anything for a long time goes out and hooks a big one and struggles mightily to bring it to shore, showing great respect for his adversary. It's a riff on Moby Dick.

A fine book, reminds me of the benefits of going back and re-reading the people I used to read (though this was my first time with this one). All too often I treat books like scalps or trophy kills, I want to bag them and put them on my wall. Why, after all, am I writing these little reviews?  In fact, there is much benefit in going back and revisiting things that used to seem meaningful.

Decoded, Ma Jia. I have no idea how this contemporary Chinese "mystery" novel came to my attention. At first it seemed good, kind of mythic in its ambition and scope. As it progressed it seemed to devolve into something infused with Socialist Realism. Sort of ham-handed. Honestly, I didn't finish it. Something in me wants to go back and finish it, but I probably won't.

The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, Jeff Connaughton. A decent, not a great book, by a guy who had a successful career in the revolving door of DC, mostly within the sphere of influence of Joe Biden.  He was alternately a staffer and a lobbyist. Basically his point is that Wall Street throws lots of money at getting heard in DC and gets heard loud and clear. For the last bit of his time in DC, Connaughton worked for Ted Kaufman, the guy who filled Biden's seat in DC after he ascended to become Obama's veep. Kaufman and Connaughton faught Wall Street's influence on some important matters but couldn't really notch that many victories, because there was too much to fight.

Once that was done, Connaughton took his substantial hard-earned cash, moved to Savannah, and wrote this book. So it's one of those: make your million, step out, criticize the system.

Connaughton in particular was not positive about Biden, viewing him as an opportunist user with a short memory for his footsoldiers (of whom Connaughton was one). That's why I was very pleased that Biden was so kind to Niklaus and Lucy when he came to Duke a month or so back.

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