Wednesday, January 25, 2012

HELPLESS by Daniel Palmer

There's no time like January for a good beach read.  The writing is fair, but the plot is a winner.  This was one of those books that I looked forward to resuming every night.  Tom Hawkins is a girls' soccer coach whose daughter Jill is the star player, but her mother has so poisoned Jill's opinion of Tom that the extent of most of her text messages is "Green," meaning that all is well.  Now that Jill's mother/Tom's ex-wife has died under mysterious circumstances, Tom hopes for some sort of reconciliation with Jill.  However, due to a plethora of incriminating evidence, Tom has come under suspicion of trafficking in child pornography and of having sexual relations with Jill's best friend Lindsey.  This dark cloud threatens the progress of Tom and Jill's bonding but also costs him his job and reputation.  Obviously, Tom will eventually be exonerated, but I was still curious how everything would unravel.  Tom's sadistic army buddy's wife, Adriana, bails Tom out of jail, leaving me thirsty to find out what motive lurks under her sugary sweet exterior.  There's also a burgeoning attraction between our former Navy Seal hero and a female FBI agent who tries, somewhat unsuccessfully, to subdue her secret hope that Tom will somehow turn out to be innocent.  The fact that this book is hitting the market in the wake of the Penn State child abuse scandal is no doubt coincidental, but it's certainly fortuitous.  In Tom's case, there are no eyewitness accounts—just a lot of technological shenanigans and an over-zealous cop with an axe to grind.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I wasn't sure I could handle 738 pages of college debauchery, and this book's length is really my only complaint.  The title refers to the mantra of a freshman from the mountains of North Carolina, attending elite (fictitious) DuPont University in Pennsylvania on scholarship.  Culture shock is immediate in her coed dorm, where she finds that the reassurances from the resident assistant about sex and drinking are all bunk.  For the first half of her first semester, Charlotte sticks to her principles, burying herself in her studies, and yet wallowing in her loneliness.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your perspective, Charlotte is pretty. Her smarts, looks, and frankness attract an assortment of guys, including a basketball player (JoJo), a Rhodes Scholar wannabe (Adam), and a handsome frat boy (Hoyt).  Adam is linked to her other two suitors in that Adam is JoJo's tutor, and Adam, as a writer for the school newspaper, wants to print a story about Hoyt, in which Hoyt and a friend stumbled upon the California governor in a compromising situation.  To me, the book is about seduction and how these four characters veer from the paths to their goals.  JoJo is seduced (well, sort of) by the adulation of groupies after he has become more academically-oriented, and he loses his edge on the court when he feels threatened by a new recruit.  Adam is seduced by JoJo, who, before JoJo earned the nickname Socrates, compelled Adam to write a massive research paper for him overnight.  More obviously, Adam is seduced by Professor Quat, but I don't want to give too much away with regard to that relationship.  Hoyt, who has visions of becoming an investment banker, is starting to sweat the slippage of his grades, due to over-indulging in partying.  And Charlotte, literally seduced by Hoyt, loses her self-respect and is ultimately seduced by notoriety, after initially being mortified and depressed by it.  Charlotte's experiences churned up both thrilling and supremely embarrassing memories of my college days.  Once again, Tom Wolfe does not disappoint.  He may have exaggerated some aspects of campus life but probably not that much.  It is indeed a time for experimentation and recovering from one's mistakes, and I would venture to say that no one comes away unscathed.

Friday, January 13, 2012

THE BIG SHORT by Michael Lewis

Leave it to Michael Lewis to explain the sub-prime mortgage meltdown in terms that we laymen can understand.  More importantly, he chronicles the steps that three financial entities took to gamble that a debacle was coming and therefore profit from it.  These guys all recognized that the so-called financial experts weren't.  The real culprits, though, seem to have been the ratings agencies, Moody and Standard & Poor, who were feeding the frenzy with ridiculous AAA ratings on financial products made up of mortgages obtained by consumers who couldn't possibly afford them.  As always, Michael Lewis has examples that will blow your mind.  So how did anyone profit from the collapse of the bond market?  They bought insurance against it, in the form of a product called a credit default swap.  And, you ask, who would sell insurance on risky mortgages?  AIG, of course!  The three profiteers are a 3-man group called Cornwall Capital whose only investors were themselves, plus 2 hedge funds.  There's actually one more guy, Greg Lippmann, a trader at Deutsche Bank, who also foresaw what was about to go down, and bought some credit default swaps also.  He persevered in wooing one of the hedge funds, whose principals kept asking, "How are you going to f--- me?"  In short, the credit default swap buyers were very nervous that this opportunity couldn't possibly be real but invested millions anyway.  They reaped many more millions in returns.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

SUPERFREAKNOMICS by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Levitt and Dubner are back with more social behavior phenomena in this follow-up to Freakonomics.  Once again we have a fascinating mishmash of topics.  One segment delves into the topic of how to identify a terrorist before he strikes by examining the money trail of some known terrorists before they were apprehended.  Another describes several of the many projects and patents being pursued by a group of scientists that formed the company Intellectual Ventures.  Their various solutions to global warming involve atmospheric tinkering, but the authors raise the question as to why this is considered so repugnant, given that we obviously have no qualms about depleting natural resources.  If we can take away, why can't we give back?  The authors keep coming back to the treatise that the simplest solution is often the best, citing the huge safety impact of seat belts in automobiles and the marginal, at best, impact of car seats for children over the age of two.  My favorite is the segment that debunks Adam Smith's centuries-old claim that animals cannot be made to understand the concept of exchanging goods for the benefit of both parties.  This experiment with the use of money by monkeys is fascinating.  The adage that prostitution is the oldest profession rings true.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


"Humane slaughterhouse" may sound like an oxymoron, but Temple Grandin has made it her specialty.  She has found that her autism gives her special insight into the way animals think, because apparently autistic humans and animals have some brain similarities that cause them to see too much detail rather than the big picture.  Consequently, a cow can become nervous about reflective puddles, stray paper cups, yellow raincoats, and changes in light intensity.  Her checklist for rating a slaughterhouse has only a handful of items, all measurable and all related to animal handling, not construction and layout.  This book is chock-full of information about how animals think and behave and how to know if an animal is going to be smart and flighty or dim and calm.  (Hint:  We now refer to our cat as a low-fear, big-boned girl.)  Oddly enough, high-fear animals are also more curious and will cautiously check out new items in their environments.  And it should be obvious, but it's somehow counterintuitive that bigger animals, such as cows and horses, are prey animals, and they have different behavior motivations from predators, such as dogs and cats.  Some of the most fascinating passages had to do with selective breeding, which can have unexpected negative results, such as belligerent roosters and less intelligent collies.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

WHAT THE DOG SAW by Malcolm Gladwell

At least one of the essays in this collection was expanded into a book that I'd already read, and one about the Dog Whisperer was reminiscent of Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation, but most of this was new material for me.  Now I'll always know the difference between panicking and choking.  When you panic, you forget to think, and when you choke, your over-analyzing keeps you from relying on your instincts and muscle memory.  Gladwell also has an unusual perspective on copyright infringement.  I think he sees it more as flattery than theft.  I loved his analysis of Enron's collapse.  Apparently their leaders valued talent over anything else, promoting the brightest and giving them free rein to do whatever they liked.  Successful companies, like Southwest Airlines and Procter & Gamble, emphasize organizational strengths.

Monday, January 9, 2012

THE BLIND SIDE by Michael Lewis

Actually, it's been a few months since I listened to the audio version of this book.  All I have to do is remember Sandra Bullock touting her NRA membership to residents of a Memphis ghetto to recall what this book is about, right?  Well, not exactly.  The subtitle of the book is Evolution of a Game.  Lewis interweaves the heart-warming story of Michael Oher's adoption by the Tuohy family with football history, starting with the addition of the forward pass.  I may not totally understand the spread offense, but now I do understand how Lawrence Taylor, a bulldozer of a linebacker for the NY Giants, made the left tackle's role vital and lucrative.  We all know that Michael Oher went on to become a left tackle at Ole Miss and then with the Baltimore Ravens, but did you know that he was the state runner-up discus thrower in high school?  He may have looked like a shot putter, but he taught himself to spin and throw the discus at his first track meet.  That was an early indication that his agility would set him apart from other athletes of comparable physical size.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


In Nova Scotia in the 1940s, Wyatt becomes a teenage orphan when his parents jump to their deaths on separate bridges.  Both mother and father were in love with the same female switchboard operator, and, although this might seem humorous, the novel is dead serious.  From this point onward, Wyatt seems to be buffeted from one unfortunate situation to another without sufficient backbone to extricate himself.  His role in the novel's pivotal event has a huge negative impact on his life, particularly his relationship with Tilda, his beautiful cousin who is adopted and therefore not a blood relative.  He might have succeeded in winning Tilda's favor had he been a little more forthcoming in declaring his intentions, and if Hans, a German college student, had not appeared on the scene.  Now we have another love triangle of sorts, and the consequences are just as dire.  Tilda's father, addicted to war reports on the radio, cannot abide Tilda's love for Hans, and his hatred of Germans intensifies when a U-boat attacks a Newfoundland ferry.  I read this book in a hurry, and the rush may have reduced my enjoyment a bit, but I think I would have found it frustrating anyway.  The book is structured as a series of letters from Wyatt to his daughter Marlais, and I had hoped that the reader would become aware of her reaction.  No such luck.  It's basically an outpouring of Wyatt's life, perhaps to atone for his absence, but I couldn't glean an explanation for why he hadn't made some effort to insert himself into her life.  Instead, he relies on Cornelia, a baker in his hometown, to give him second-hand news from Denmark, where Marlais grew up.  Perhaps his two main occupations provide a clue.  For a while he was apprenticed to Tilda's father, building sleds and toboggans.  Now, these are vehicles without rudders (I think) and perhaps a metaphor for Wyatt's uncharted life in which he doesn't seem to steer in a particular direction.  Later he becomes a harbor gaffer, collecting shipwreck debris, all of which has to be accounted for.  In one case, he and his co-worker rescue soggy volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica, which the co-worker keeps for her children to use.  My take on this is that the encyclopedia represents Marlais, the one thing worth hanging on to from the crumbs of Wyatt's past.