• Dark Towers by David Enrich *** (of 4)

    In a marvelous job of explaining obscure ways of making money, David Enrich details how Deutsche Bank grew from a sleepy, domestic, German lender into the largest bank of the world. The secret mix was greed, testosterone, and a willingness to ignore irrational risks. Banks make money in one of two basic ways. They either lend you money and ask you to pay it back with interest. Or they sell you a financial product – say, a collection of mortgages or loans they’ve made to other people, asking you to share in their profits when their lend-ees repay their debts. The back and forth between customers and vendors is no different then avocados hawked in a Honduran farmer’s market or cars on a lot. The difference comes in the magnitude of the transactions. Hundreds of millions of dollars can move on each interaction (hence, the thrill enjoyed by caffeinated, macho young men) and therein lies the fundamental conundrum of loans.

    If you owe the bank $1000 that you don’t really have, the bank owns you (or at least all of your salable possessions.) But if you owe the bank $100 million that you don’t really have, and the bank in its haste to score your business (and finance your new hotel) wasn’t wise enough to tabulate whether your possessions are worth that much, in essence, you own the bank. No one played that system of promoting a deal better than Donald Trump. He borrowed, and defaulted, on hundreds of millions of dollars, going bankrupt numerous times. Nevertheless, Deutsche Bank in its headlong rush to make money grew so quickly and adored profit to such a sickening degree that it had branches of its bank overlook issues of collateral or the law.

    There is no finer example of the problem of profit over people than the saga of Deutsche Bank. No one played the game of profit over people more effectively than Donal Trump who used Deutsche Bank as a hapless piggy bank on his way to securing the highest CEO job in the world.

  • Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz *** (of 4)

    kosherHow does a food receive kosher approval?  For some items, like the prohibition of pork, the Torah is comparatively clear.  But what about a more modern food like Jell-O which contains gelatin, a substance derived from forbidden bones and hides of animals, but has been turned into a chemical that no longer has much, if any, relationship to its origin?  Some rabbis would give Jell-O a kosher stamp.  Now, what if the hide used to make the chemical called gelatin was a pig’s?  Kosher USA if nothing else is provocative and at its best points to centuries of rabbinic debate still alive as food becomes more and more processed.  Horowitz’s academic style and heavy emphasis on the political interplay of corporations and rabbis are sparsely balanced by personal anecdotes, which in many instances, are more captivating than the long passages of textbook-like replays of angry letters between generally conservative rabbis supporting modernization and orthodox rabbis insistent upon glatt kosher laws that adhere to Torah but are indifferent to animal suffering or worker rights.

  • Ninety Percent of Everything by Rose George ** (of 4)

    shipsI loved Rose George’s, The Big Necessity about toilets and the lack of them around the world.  I’m also fascinated by the sea and even once talked my way onto a container ship transiting the Panama Canal so I had high hopes for “Ninety Percent of Everything.”  Unfortunately, the title just about says it all, and the subtitle finishes the task: “Invisible shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate.”  The rest of the book consists of George’s multi-week trip aboard a freighter traveling from England to Singapore.  Along the way she scrounges up facts about shipping with a particular focus on the unusual and dangerous pointing to particularly heinous acts of piracy, unscrupulous ship owners, and wrecked cargo vessels, their poor workers abandoned to the sea.  But it all feels like a stretch, as if someone wrote a book about the airline industry largely overlooking the hundreds of thousands of uneventful daily flights to focus instead on the one crash decades ago in the Andes where the passengers cannibalized one another to survive.  In the end, shipping is a business and working aboard ships is no more glamorous than driving a truck, slaughtering beef, or manufacturing sneakers.  We demand the products and Rose George makes us think hard about where they come from and how they get to us, but it never quite amounts to a full book’s worth of information.

  • Black and White and Dead All Over by John Darnton *** (of 5)

    nytA despised editor of a very thinly disguised New York Times is found spread-eagled and more than dead in the basement of the paper’s headquarters.  An editor’s spike is hammered into his chest with a taunting note appended.  An investigative journalist from the paper’s staff is handed the story and an upstart female officer of the NYPD is assigned the case.  More murders, lots of clues, red herrings, and way too many characters to keep track of populate the mystery.  The author, a Times reporter, feels compelled to include every editor, publisher, writer, columnist, and assistant who works at a paper so you learn a lot about how the news is assembled.  Moreover, the timing of the story in the late 2000s when print media was under deep threat from the Internet, bloggers, bundlers, and tweeters is an interesting reminder of how much has changed in the delivery of the news.  It is a case of wrenching the Old Gray Lady into the new century.  There are some very funny bits about stories that find their way into the news to sell papers — styles of the young and hipsterish, gossip, cooking videos — and neither gore, nor action prevail.  Best if read as a period piece about the nature and value of traditional news reporting.

  • Going Clear by Lawrence Wright **** (of 5)

    scientologyIt took great courage to write this book.  Anyone that has ever crossed the Church of Scientology has, pursuant to church ideology, been hounded by goons, lawsuits (enough to bankrupt nearly anyone), private investigators, and vicious media attacks.  Lawrence Wright had to know it was coming when he started the book, but then again he did win the Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of Al Qaeda.  There are three major components to Going Clear.  The first is a thorough biography of its founder L. Ron Hubbard and there is no escaping the conclusion that the man was a lying, delusional, paranoid schizophrenic.  Part 2 describes the Church of Scientology’s doctrines as created by Hubbard and embodied by long-time leader David Miscavige.  Wright focuses much of his attention on the upper echelons of the Church — the Sea Org — and its alleged human rights abuses of its parishioners: kidnapping, isolation, physical and mental subjugation.  The other area of interest for both Wright and the Church is its courtship of celebrities like Kirstie Allie, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise.  Part 3 is a summary of abuses particularly as they are laid upon former members trying to escape the Church’s “Billion Year Contract.”  The footnotes are as interesting as the text in that every allegation is categorically denied by the Church creating a dichotomy of, “Wright says vs. The Church Says.”  Even if one-tenth of the Church’s accuser’s stories are valid the Church would have an awful lot of explaining to do.  Wright does not dwell on any benefits the Church provides.  Surely there must be many for anyone to even consider joining.  Others may react to the book by quickly concluding that Hubbard was a nutter and so are Scientologists.  On the other hand I found myself with my jaw dropping wider with every chapter at the absurdity and viciousness of the Church’s behavior.  That’s good writing.

  • A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers *** (of 4)

    In this rewrite of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, aptly named Alan Clay, a former salesman of Schwinn bicycles finds himself in Saudi Arabia trying to sell the King a new technology for holographic communications.  Clay has a fragile exterior: he doesn’t really understand holograms or computers, his ex-wife is annoying, his financial debts are insurmountable, his college-aged daughter is directionless, he hasn’t been in a substantive relationship with a woman, or even a male colleague, for nearly a decade, and he has a lump on his neck he is certain is cancerous.  Now he is in sprinting as best he can in the Arabian desert of a globalized economy trying to make one last sale he hopes will alleviate all his worries.  Only Saudi Arabia is not what his guidebook led him to expect.  Women flirt, men drink, and cities in the sand sometimes don’t live up to expectations.  Neither does the book, I’m afraid.  As strong a writer as Eggers is, it’s hard not to feel as despondent as Alan Clay.  His demise seems preordained and who wants to spend forever reading about that?

  • No One Would Listen by Harry Markopolos *** (of 4)

    Markopolos is the guy who figured out Bernard Madoff.  He did it by calculating Madoff’s the impossibility of his returns:  nearly identical positive payoffs for 77 months, regardless of the performance of the market.  He tracked Madoff for years and reported him to the SEC at least three times.  While Markopolos is more than a little full of himself and repetitive, his indictment of the SEC’s ineptitude is rewarding.  Likewise, his underlying suggestion that human greed will lead investors to continue to believe the impossible even when presented with credible evidence of fraudulence makes for an exceptional cautionary tale.

  • The Coffee Trader by David Liss *** (of 4)

    A Jewish escapee from the Spanish Inquisition makes his living on the Amsterdam stock market, where shrewd trading skills run up to the border of legality, morality, and safety. The book’s strength is its insight into the lives of Jews trying to maintain their religious and economic identity with the memory of Spanish persecution fresh in their minds. Moreover, the description of how stocks, in this case coffee is making its very first appearance in Europe, are bought and sold is fascinating. The plot is rather ordinary, however. It is a quick read. April 2007.