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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Avalanche by Oatrick McManus

This is the second Bo Tully story I have read and it's even more enjoyable than the first. The interplay between the characters, Bo father and ex-sheriff who made a fortune as a corrupt sheriff, Lurch, his CSI, Daisy, the secretary, and Herb, the under-sheriff, is charming and humorous.

Bo is called to a resort in the mountains to investigate the disappearance of the co-owner. On the way they are barely missed by an avalanche which we soon learn was deliberately aimed at his vehicle. No more spoilers. The series is a lot of fun, and I intend to read all of them. Reminiscent of the delightful "liturgical" mysteries by Mark Schweizer that are often laugh-out-loud funny.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Review: Afterthoughts by Lawrence Block

This is a collection of afterwords taken from an assortment of Block reissues in which Block (one of my favorite crime writers) discusses the genesis of many of his earlier works and includes autobiographical details that surround the writing.

If you have ever heard Block read one of his own books (he is a master narrator, by the way) you’ll hear his unique cadence even in some of these short essays.

Reading the book is like sitting with Block in a dimly lit bistro and having a lovely chat with an old friend.

Review: The Sledge Patrol: A WWII Epic of Escape, Survival, and Victory by David Howarth

The east coast of Greenland is a vast wasteland inhabited only by a few intrepid hunters. Technically a Danish colony, some 2200 miles away and geographically part of North America, the Greenland governor decided to cast the island’s lot with the allies, after Denmark was overrun by the Germans. It was of strategic importance to the United States and Britain who needed weather reports in order to predict weather over Europe. I didn’t realize just how far north the country is until I looked at a globe. It’s a forbidding country, uninhabited by only a few natives, and with severe weather.

A small group of Arctic-loving Norwegians and Danes protected the vital radio and weather equipment under very difficult circumstances. Ironically, the German captain sent to invade and seize the station was an Arctic climate lover himself and was sympathetic to those who lived and worked there. One cannot help but admire the hardiness of these folks who thought nothing of walking, often with hardly any supplies but a rifle to ward off polar bears, hundreds of miles in horrible conditions, thinking nothing of it.

The culture of these Arctic lovers and Eskimos was the antithesis of what was going on in the rest of the world. To survive they needed to be able to help each other and to count on that assistance. The prospect of shooting someone else or anything not for food was completely foreign to the Eskimos, especially, who had no comprehension of why the fighting was going on hundreds of miles away. The entire Greenland “army” consisted of nine (!) men tasked with patrolling an immense coastline. That they ever ran into anyone else is simply astonishing.

David Howarth has done a service of showing us how WW II was truly a *world* war and how it affected even desolate parts or the globe. Fascinating. I suspect some of it was fictionalized as the internal monologues and thinking of some of the participants must have been impossible to document.

N.B. The Wikipedia article on Greenland is quite interesting. It had been populated by people from Iceland until the Little Ice Age of the 13th and 14th centuries when settlements were abandoned. Study of bones shows the populace had been very malnourished. Growing anything must have been close to impossible. One theory, though, holds that they failed because of their Euro-centric thinking driven by the Church and large landowners, when to be successful they should have adopted the culture and ways of the Inuit. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenland The article on Greenland in WW II (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenland_in_World_War_II) provides additional detail and led me to Sloan Wilson’s Ice Brothers which I will start this afternoon. (Gotta love Kindle and credit cards.)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: The Blight Way by Patrick McManus

Charming police procedural of the cozy kind; a Steven Havill novel with more humor, if you will. McManus is a humor writer and this series departs from that genre, but the quirkiness of the characters has a subtle humor that helps you appreciate and like them.

The main character is Sheriff Bo Tully who is called by the local miscreant family to their ranch where a man has been found shot and draped over a fence. Realizing they would be the logical suspects, they thought it might be best to phone it in. Then, again, had they done it, the body would have been buried and not found. Tully knows that. Turns out Vern Littlefield's new wife and the new hands on his ranch (ostensibly he was switching from cattle to grapes!) may be part of something nasty. Tully bring his father along (the former sheriff) for curmudgeonly relief.

The timid among us who are fearful of being exposed to a "bad" word will appreciate McManus as with the Posadas County mysteries. I don't mind one way or the other. The book was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and I will read more in the series.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review: The Devil's Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers by Vicki Ward

A fascinating look at the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers, an investment bank that went bankrupt as a result of hubris and wild speculation in the real estate market and the people that rose and fell with it. I have read numerous books about the tragic effects of credit default swaps and other speculative financial “instruments” that, while the market continued to go up, made spectacular fortunes for people who came to believe they could do no wrong.

The author had access to the notes and journals of Joe Gregory (who ironically refused to be interviewed,) the company’s president. He began the journals in 2003 by encouraging executives to write up they perceptions of the history of the firm. He discovered a huge disparity (as any historian could have predicted) in their accounts and abandoned his goal of writing a history. Those piles of notes proved invaluable to the author.

The company, under its CEO Dick Fuld, who had worked his way up and was with them his whole forty year career, developed its own lavish lifestyle. "As a Lehman wife, you raised your kids by yourself. You had your babies by yourself in the hospital. And then you were supposed to be happy and pretty and smiling when there was an event, and you really would have liked to strangle somebody,” a senior executive's wife explained. Executives were told what to wear, what charities to donate to, how to spend their time, it was a nice little capitalistic oligarchy. " Lehman was the last of the Wall Street firms to go casual on Fridays.” They were extremely competitive and cutthroat. That single-mindedness lead Time to labeled Fuld as one of 25 executives in the country most responsible for the collapse of 2008.

Many people blame the catastrophe on the repeal of Glass-Steagal which had prohibited banks from speculating with their customer’s assets. That’s probably overly simplistic and hardly mentioned in this book that focuses more on the personalities than the precise speculative strategies that inevitably ballooned into an unsustainable bubble. All of Wall Street conspired to create more and more ways of loaning money and then turning those high-interest, often sub-prime, loans into ways of betting money. As long as prices went up everything was rosy; the collapse was spectacular.

The section on Paulson and Geitner’s roles in the “bail-out” is quite interesting. It probably won’t change any minds on whether Lehman should have been bailed out, too or not. And that’s probably my biggest complaint. I would have liked to see conclusions from the author (with evidence for or against) for whether it indeed should have been done. But then again, the book was more about Lehman and that would have widened the scope. It’s a fun, breezy, cautionary book about a sad time that hurt a lot of people but probably not those who should have been hurt. It was published in 2010 so don’t expect the longer view which I need to read.

The blame, however, ultimately belongs to all of us. We all want and need the stock market and Wall Street to thrive and support pension funds, etc., without which we would all be in terrible shape. That said, a return to more regulation would be in all our best interests.

And who said the monarchy was dead. It thrives in the business world. Trump should know.