Thursday, June 30, 2016

1776, by David McCullough

This week I'm reviewing another book from David McCullough and in the front matter the author actually states he meant this book to be a sort of supplement to his biography of John Adams, which I talked about here. And I will say that this book definitely feels like a supplement rather than a full text in its own right. The subject matter is a chronological history starting with King George III's declaration to Parliament in October of 1775 that the colonies were officially considered to be in rebellion and a resounding vote approving necessary war measures. The book then follows the military struggles of both the Americans under George Washington and the British under William Howe. The book wraps up with Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton in late December and early January of 1777, affirming that this war, like so many others, would not be a quick and easy victory for either side but drag on for many years.

The focus, as I mentioned, is largely on the military campaigns of 1776. The Declaration of Independence and the Continental Congress's deliberations, as well as the deliberations in Parliament and the opposition to Lord North's war policy, are mentioned in passing but do not receive a tenth of the focus that Washington, Howe, and their armies receive. So in that way I can see how this book is more of a supplement than a full text in its own right. It seems to me that while he was performing research for his biography on John Adams, McCullough probably came across quite a lot of research material, especially with the Siege of Boston in late 1775 and early 1776 near Adams's home in Braintree. However as it doesn't really fit with the narrative of Adams's life, him being occupied with a variety of other things at the time, if McCullough wanted to talk about it he had to create another book.

By focusing on just the military campaigns, especially the northern campaign, McCullough keeps the focus extremely narrow. Clinton's failed expedition to South Carolina is mentioned, but only in passing and not in any great detail. On the one hand this is very good because it keeps the narrative tight and focused without branching out into too many things and trying to do too much in too little space. But on the other hand, it feels kind of odd to keep the focus so narrow and almost ignore so many other things happening during such an auspicious year for Americans. If you want a text that goes into great detail about the northern campaigns of the American Revolution in 1776, then this is an excellent text for that. Otherwise most things fall outside of its purview.

A few of the primary sources utilized by McCullough I was already familiar with, having encountered them in Chernow's Washington: A Life and the events were familiar to me from that text as well. The book talks about Washington assuming command in late 1775 of the American forces entrenched around Boston and keeping the British bottled up, and Henry Knox's amazing achievement of hauling cannon from Fort Ticonderoga hundreds of miles in the dead of winter to fortify high ground outside Boston overnight. The British had already been planning to leave Boston, but the arrival of Knox's artillery made Howe's mind for him and the British were forced to retreat to Nova Scotia. The success of Boston was to be short lived and Washington soon had his army on the march for New York City, correctly assuming it would be the target of the next British attack. What follows is the disasters of Long Island and Brooklyn, Washington's miraculous but ignomious retreat across the East River, and the eventual loss of New York to the British followed by the disasters of Forts Lee and Washington on the Hudson River. Faced with criticism by his opponents and his army completely disintegrating at the end of the year, Washington gambles everything on a surprise raid at Trenton and manages to restore morale and hope to the ''Glorious Cause''.

Overall the book's pretty good, even if I found it rather short and extremely limited in its scope. As I said, if you want a book that focuses on the northern campaigns of 1776, this is a pretty good resource. Beyond that narrow focus it's very limited so you'll have to look elsewhere if you want more information on those subjects. But it's a short and informative read.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Death Troopers, by Joe Schreiber

This week I'm taking a look at Death Troopers, which when I first saw it come out years ago I remember it being billed as ''Star Wars, but with zombies!'' And while I'm not terribly big on zombies as a monster or genre (zombies count as a genre, right?) I am happy to read or in this case listen to things in the Star Wars universe that take a slightly different approach than some of the more traditional Expanded Universe stories. In this case the book was pretty good, although the ending had some problems as far as I was concerned, but more about that later.

As some of you might remember, earlier this year I reviewed another audio book within the Star Wars EU, Allegiance by Timothy Zahn. One of the things I liked most about Allegiance and which holds true for Death Troopers as well, is the high production quality which is put into the audio books. I haven't been mentioning it much in my reviews and partly that's because I've been listening to non-fiction books that don't really require sound effects or musical accompaniment, or even multiple voices for characters. However, in some of the fiction books that I've listened to, Dune especially, I've found myself questioning some of the decisions regarding voice actors and use of music which seems haphazard at best. Death Troopers however, has distinct voices for numerous characters, incorporates music from the film franchise, and makes good use of sound effects to flesh out the narrative. So from a production quality standpoint alone these books have so far been an absolute delight.

Another thing that was really good about this book was it set the atmosphere very well. The plot involves an imperial prison barge which comes across an Imperial Star Destroyer floating adrift in deep space. A team goes across to scavenge spare parts but when they come back almost all of the boarding party appears to be afflicted by a mysterious illness which soon sweeps through the ship. Schreiber does a really good job with the pacing and expressing just how creepy finding a derelict ship, especially one as big as a Star Destroyer, can be. The one thing that I think really undermined the creepiness factor was at every chapter the narrator would state the chapter title and then another voice would sort of whisper-scream it. Like you know those creepy voices that show up on tape in horror movies? Sort of like that. I felt like it was just trying too hard at that point and came across as kind of silly. Otherwise, it did a very good job at being creepy.

The issues I had with the book really came towards the end. I didn't really mind Han Solo and Chewbacca showing up towards the middle of the book, even if it didn't make terribly much sense from a plot perspective. I'm sure it was like a requirement or something that characters from the movie be included in some capacity. But, I think the book could have stood fine on its own without Han and Chewie. There was one character who's supposed to be an unabashed psychopath but he actually came across as less so than some ''heroic'' characters I've encountered in the past. Plus he goes through a whole redemption arc which I felt undermined his being a psychopath because psychopaths don't feel remorse, but that's just me. There were also some deus ex machina bits towards the end that wrapped the plot up neatly which probably explains why there isn't a zombie-infested Star Destroyer mentioned anywhere else in the universe.

Overall I think the book was okay. As an audio book it's pretty enjoyable and the tension is very well done. I just had some issues with how it was wrapped up.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sharpe's Prey, by Bernard Cornwell

This week I'm returning to my guilty pleasure, the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, which I've long since given up fretting about the Forrest Gump effect and I'm coming to learn to just accept it. This week I'm continuing in chronological order with Sharpe's Prey, a book set during the 1807 British expedition to Denmark which resulted in the shelling of Copenhagen and the seizure of the Danish fleet by the British. To provide a very, very short explanation of historic context: after Trafalgar in 1805 little Denmark was the only country with a navy large enough to challenge the Royal Navy of Britain. Denmark was officially neutral but Napoleon was exerting considerable pressure to get the Danes to turn their fleet over to the French. (And in a treaty between France and Russia, Russia had graciously granted the Danish fleet to the French, something which Denmark had not been appraised of whatsoever.)

Britain responded by requesting, rather forcefully, that Denmark hand their fleet over to the Royal Navy's protective custody. Denmark flatly refused, much as they had every right to do, it being their navy, and the British responded with a military invasion which resulted in the events mentioned above. Denmark was driven into an alliance with France, but with their navy gone they were largely irrelevant in the ensuing campaigns. Cornwell admits that this is an event not often remembered by the British and widely regarded as a bit of an embarrassment. After all, shelling a city and specifically attacking civilian targets would be regarded as a war crime today so you can understand why the British may be reluctant to talk about it. However I feel, despite it being a work of fiction, that Cornwell manages to talk about the events with a certain amount of respect and dismay at the needless casualties and destruction.

Aside from the historical material, I feel like this is very much an in-between book that kind of ties between the earlier stories of Sharpe's experiences in India, which were pretty interesting in their own right, and Sharpe's later adventures in the European theaters of the Napoleonic Wars. (Although this and the previous four books were actually written after some of the later books.) There are a lot of developments between the last book, Sharpe's Trafalgar, and this one, which I feel are things that should have been shown to us rather than told.

Sharpe finally joins his new regiment, the 95th Rifles, which I have the benefit of knowing he's going to stick with through Waterloo. However once again he's snubbed by the aristocratic officers and assigned the odious duty of quartermaster, left feeling like he'll never fit in. On top of that he get to enjoy a few months of bliss with Lady Grace before she, and their child, die leaving him alone and, thanks to lawyers, poor once again and looking for a way to make some money and get out of the army. These are all important events in the life of Richard Sharpe and I feel like we should have seen at least some of them, but instead they're just told to us in the book. It left me feeling somewhat disoriented and like I missed a book. Maybe there's a short story that I missed that helps bridge this gap, but otherwise it's something we should have been shown instead of told.

The plot otherwise involves Sharpe traveling with Captain Lavisser, who's been dispatched to Denmark with over forty-thousand guineas in advance of the main fleet with the hope the Danish will peacefully hand their fleet over without bloodshed. No such expedition occurred, at least as far as we know, (although according to Cornwell the British spent millions on bribes during this era) but it provides a convenient excuse to get Sharpe into the right place at the right time. Although in an interesting aversion to what I've noticed in earlier books, beyond providing some basic intelligence for his superiors, Sharpe doesn't really do anything that affects the outcome of the attack on Copenhagen. He's really wrapped up in his cloak-and-daggers plot that moves him off of the battlefield and into the shadowy world of diplomacy. A world where he doesn't feel entirely comfortable if he's being honest. It's like Sharpe gets his own story and the Denmark expedition and bombardment of Copenhagen is just a convenient backdrop more than an integral part of the story. It's not bad. In fact on reflection I kind of enjoy it, but it's definitely different.

I'm left, though, with the feeling that Cornwell, and Sharpe for that matter, are just killing time until the serious business starts. And it makes me wonder why this book was written at all, beyond Cornwell just deciding to do something different and talk about an often overlooked event in history. Sharpe's already made it back to England after Trafalgar, and he's already joined the 95th by the events of the next book, Sharpe's Rifles. It's like there was an embarrassing gap in Sharpe's military record where it looked like he wasn't really doing anything and it needed to be filled in by something to make it look better. Sort of like the Pratchett jokes about towns being on maps only to help fill up embarrassingly large blank areas. It's an interesting diversion, but ultimately still a diversion.

Overall, much like the rest of this series it was pretty enjoyable for me. I'm a weird fan of military fiction and I like how Cornwell's able to show his research and make Sharpe's world, two centuries gone, really come to life. I think I really liked how Sharpe didn't save the day in any spectacular fashion, but I'm sure that he'll go back to meddling with history soon enough.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, by Andrea Wulf

Today I'm taking a look at Chasing Venus, a book about the transits of Venus across the sun in the eighteenth century, which was a major astronomical event and a huge research opportunity. But I guess I should explain what a transit of Venus is. Basically once in a very long while the planet Venus comes between Earth and the Sun and so Venus can be observed travelling across the face of the sun from Earth. Due to the orbits of the respective planets involved, this always happens in pairs eight years apart, and these pairs are about a hundred odd years apart. So any astronomer lucky enough to be alive when a transit occurs will do almost anything to be able to observe one. (Also sorry everyone, the last ones happened in 2004 and 2012. We won't see another one until 2117.)

But why is this a big deal, and specifically why were the transits in 1761 and 1769 such a big deal? Well as Wulf explains you have to put everything into the proper context. The transits of Venus in the eighteenth century were smack dab in the middle of the Enlightenment era, where Europeans were sailing across the world, meeting new and interesting people, stealing their countries, and making breakthroughs in science including astronomy. Astronomy was particularly important because ocean navigation was incredibly tied up with utilizing the sun, moon, and stars to help find latitude. Longitude was somewhat trickier and would remain a problem, but scientists were busily working on that all through the 1700's. The transit of Venus across the Sun was simply one in a large number of astronomical events astronomers were eager to observe.

However, the transit was also important because astronomers could use it to calculate just how big the solar system was. Astronomers had already crunched the numbers and had a pretty good idea on the relative distances between the planets, measured in Astronomical Units (AU) which was defined as the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The problem, however, was nobody had more than a rough guess of exactly how bit an AU was. But astronomers knew if they took a variety of measurements of the transit and did some insane trigonometry, they might be able to get a better idea.

The chief challenge was getting astronomers in locations where they'd be able to make observations. Some locations, such as upper Scandinavia, were fairly close but still very difficult to get to. Other locations such as Siberia, Canada, India, St. Helena, and Tahiti were far more remote but observations from these locations would be absolutely essential if scientists were to determine the distance between the Earth and the Sun. And the amazing thing? They actually managed to do it.

There were numerous obstacles to this endeavor, as Wulf points out in her book. The first problem was getting scientists from all across Europe to cooperate in taking measurements and sharing their research data. (Although that was fairly simple by comparison, and I'll go more into that in a minute.) Furthermore astronomers had to go to remote locations, with complex and delicate instruments like telescopes, barometers, chronometers, and quadrants, all across the world and then take accurate measurements. Numerous astronomers actually died on their expeditions and in some cases it's amazing we got any results at all. It's truly a testament to human endeavor that scientists were able to work together in a great scientific cause.

The biggest problem I have with this book, though, is I feel like Wulf misrepresents the context of the eighteenth century. A very big deal is made of the Seven Year's War which hampered expeditions for the 1761 transit, especially between British and French scientists. Certainly the rivalry between Britain and France was deep rooted, by the competition in the eighteenth century was hardly ideological. The eighteenth century after all is the era of ''gentlemanly'' warfare, where today's enemy could be tomorrow's ally. After all, the British-French and Austrian-Prussian rivalries switched partners between the War of Austrian Succession (France and Prussia vs. Austria and Britain) and the Seven Year's War (Britain and Prussia vs. Austria and France.) So I don't think it should come as any surprise that European scientists were able to put national identities aside in the pursuit of a greater cause.

I think Wulf also could have done a better job of talking about how nations lavished funds on their scientific societies during the eighteenth century as well. Aside from their more practical benefits, scientific societies were a matter of prestige for a modern ''enlightened'' state. Wulf does a good job of explaining how Catherine the Great of Russia and the American colonies worked to promote their own scientific societies to prove they were not provincial backwaters but rather members of the club of ''civilized'' nations. The fact that great sums of money were spent by monarchs on scientific expeditions at this time should hardly come as a surprise. It was simply a matter of national honor and prestige to have a good scientific society. Much like how in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it became a matter of national honor and prestige to have colonies and battleships. I think Wulf makes the decision to fund these expeditions far more incredible than it is if you look at the historical context.

Overall this book is okay. Personally I actually found it a little boring but I think that may have just been the reader who didn't seem to get terribly excited by anything happening in the book. It was all delivered in a rather flat monotone. If you're interested in astronomy this may be a good book to read, but I can't find anything really compelling about it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Red Magician, by Lisa Goldstein

This week's review is going to be kind of short because the book I'm reviewing, The Red Magician is fairly short and more a novella than a proper full-length novel. Which as usual runs into some of the issues I have with shorter works, but I'll talk about that later. The Red Magician is a fantasy novel by Lisa Goldstein set in a small, Jewish village in Hungary in the 1940's. The main character, Kicsi, is a girl entering her teenage years and like all teenagers is bored with the life of the small village where she's lived her entire life and wants to see distant and exotic places. Kicsi gets a glimpse at life on the outside when she meets Vörös, a mysterious redheaded stranger who is able to do magic and comes with dire warnings for her family and the village at large.

Since this is a work of fiction about Jews in Europe in the 1940's you've probably inevitably guessed what's going to happen: Nazis. Surprisingly Kicsi's entire experience actually makes up a fairly small portion of the book. The Nazis themselves don't turn up until after the halfway mark and the last quarter of the book they're gone just as quickly. For a work of Holocaust fiction I thought Kicsi's experience and survival would be a much larger part of the work, instead of the fairly short amount of time it gets.

This ties, of course, into my inevitable complaints about novellas, which is that they're too darn short. That's really my main complaint with this book because there are a lot of cool ideas and Goldstein clearly draws on a variety of traditions to create a world rich with magic and mystery, but the result is it isn't terribly well developed. Even if this book's meant for a younger audience, which it very well may be, I think with the variety of ideas and concepts that Goldstein explores could be explored in greater detail without alienating audiences. I believe there may be other books that tie into this one and perhaps expand on her ideas further, but for the subject matter and the world that Goldstein presents this book just feels too darn short.

Overall the book is good and interesting and I recommend it, my main hang up with it is just the fact that it's too short. Which is a feeling I get after reading a lot of novellas. Maybe I'm spoiled by big long books that have time to explore issues in depth, but I'm also a voracious reader.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Waterloo: The True Story of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles, by Bernard Cornwell

This week I'm taking a look at another book about the historic battle of Waterloo, in this case a book from historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. Before I get into the review I should preface this by saying that although Cornwell is the creator of the famous Sharpe series and does write a novel in which Richard Sharpe fights at the Battle of Waterloo, this book is not a historical novel. Instead it is a historical text, albeit somewhat short, in which Cornwell makes use of his considerable research to talk about one of the most studied battles in history. Cornwell himself somewhat undermines his book in the preface by stating that the subject of Waterloo's been studied numerous times and there have been perhaps countless books written on the subject before. However Cornwell argues that because Waterloo is such a fascinating battle he believes retelling the story is well worth the effort.

Inevitably, I am going to be contrasting Cornwell's work with the book written by Hamilton-Williams which I reviewed some time ago. One of the biggest contrasts I saw was that Hamilton-Williams puts a large amount of emphasis on the scale model of the Battle of Waterloo which he asserts has greatly influenced historical interpretation of the Battle in the years since. Cornwell mentions the model towards the end of the book and says Wellington believed it actually overstated the importance of the Prussians at the battle. But Cornwell points out that by the time the model was created Wellington had soured somewhat and so was willing to downplay the achievements of his erstwhile allies and take all the credit for winning the battle for himself.

In the key historical points Cornwell and Hamilton-Williams are in agreement, and it's very difficult to argue those anyway. Napoleon and his armies managed to defeat the Prussians at Ligny and fought the British, Dutch, and German forces to a draw at Quatre Bras on the same day, with one of Napoleon's corps marching between battles all day and playing no part in either. The Prussians, under Gebhard von Bluecher withdrew to Favre in the north with an intention of linking up with Wellington rather than retreating east back towards Prussia. Wellington also withdrew to the north, his position at Quatre Bras now exposed on two fronts, and took up a defensive position on a ridge south of the village of Waterloo which would allow Bluecher to join him, concentrate, and then fight Napoleon with a distinct numerical advantage.

On 18 June, 1815, Napoleon joined Marshal Ney's forces, who attacked Wellington's position on the ridge while Marshal Grouchy, under vague orders from Napoleon, marched towards Favre and engaged with the Prussian rearguard, a battle which he eventually won. However instead of tying down the entire Prussian army, most of it managed to march through back roads and eventually joined Wellington's forces in the afternoon, drawing off Napoleon's much needed reserves and eventually giving the allies the numerical advantage necessary to win the battle.

The main argument then comes as to why the allies won and Napoleon lost. Napoleon and many other French sources have long blamed Marshal Grouchy and other of Napoleon's subordinates who did not follow his orders properly. The standard British school of thought has given the lion's share of credit to the British and the King's German Legion forces there, while the other allies present have supported their own countries. And of course the Prussians, led by Bluecher's chief of staff Gneisenau, have stated the entire battle would have been lost without the Prussian contribution. The truth, as Cornwell states is somewhat more complex and for the most part Cornwell says we probably will never know the exact truth. The metaphor of a ball, apparently once used by Wellington, is repeated often in the book. Everyone will remember what happened to them and what they saw, but they will not have been everywhere and have seen everything. Everyone's individual account will vary depending on their location and their own opinions and memories. Some general facts may be agreed upon, but the specifics will be far more difficult to sort out.

For the most part, I think Cornwell does a good job talking about the whole story, keeping in mind the entire time that people's perspectives will of course be rather limited or downright wrong, especially on an early nineteenth century battlefield where the noise and smoke making seeing a few yards in front of you difficult and anything beyond that almost impossible. Cornwell works to incorporate a number of sources, although his perspective from Wellington's army is almost entirely British and only rarely mentions the Dutch, Belgian, or German allies. However, Cornwell does state that in their accounts the British charge their allies with cowardice, and the other allies charge the British with cowardice so the truth is they probably all performed admirably. However he does suggest the Dutch, Belgian, and German troops, who were more likely to be raw recruits compared to their British allies, were more likely to break, which suggests a slight hint of bias.

If there is any reason why Napoleon lost at Waterloo, Cornwell blames it on a combination of Napoleon's decision to wait until the ground was dry for use of his artillery, his decision to assault Wellington head on which only played to Wellington's strengths, his ambiguously worded orders, and some of Marshal Ney's decisions, who was making a very bad mess of things that day. Cornwell also states unambiguously that the Prussians arrived in time to help Wellington, whose army was at the breaking point, win the day and drew off much needed troops from Napoleon's reserves. Perhaps more importantly the Prussians, despite marching since the previous night, continued the pursuit of the French and ensured the complete destruction of Napoleon's army in the following night. If Cornwell's account is from a largely British perspective, it at least seems a rather even-handed if somewhat brief account of the battles.

I think my only strong complaint would be Cornwell's decision to, at points, move the narrative into the present tense. This is only a temporary decision and it's usually done at chapter breaks to ''catch the reader up'' so to speak on events that are happening on the battlefield when we rejoin the narrative. It just seems weird to me, personally, to shift between tenses like that and it's not something I've run into in other historical texts. I think that may be the historical novelist in Cornwell coming out during the book.

Overall, this book is pretty good, if rather brief. It gives a nice overview of the battle and at least gives credit to both the British and Prussians at Waterloo, if perhaps once again the Dutch, Beligians, and other Germans are getting the short shift. It's certainly not as detailed as Hamilton-Williams work, but I think it manages to avoid the pitfalls that other book tends to fall into. And certainly Cornwell has done enough research on the subject matter.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Gemini Effect, by Chuck Grossart

This week I'm talking about a science-fiction/horror book titled The Gemini Effect, which apparently was really popular on Amazon and there were a lot of people who liked it. I can start this review off by saying that I really need to stop reading horror stories because they're just not quite my cup of tea. Obviously there's a huge market for it and it's very popular, but as I read more and more titles in the genre I'm left with the impression it's just something I'm not terribly interested in. Which is fine, but it's obviously going to color my review of the book a little.

I'll start off by saying that this book feels very much like the plot of a B movie or a Sci-Fi Original work. There initially is a problem, claiming to be the result of science gone awry and man meddling with things we were not meant to know. The world is placed in inevitable danger, and it's up to a band of heroes, or perhaps the entire American military, to find a way to save the day.

In this particular instance the threat is a biological warfare agent created during the dark days of the Cold War which was released from a United States research facility by accident in the 1960's. What was left was placed in the trunk of a car and taken to a Kansas City, Missouri scrapyard, where hopefully the car would be melted and the entire incident could be forgotten. Unfortunately for humanity the car was not melted and the result is a nasty biological agent that makes its escape some fifty years later. Soon large portions of Kansas City's population have disappeared overnight, attacked by something, and it's up to the military to try and figure out what's going on.  And the book makes it very clear in the beginning that humanity is not going to survive this intact, which gives the book a very dark tone throughout.

I will say that the author gives off a very distinct impression of being a military buff in the book. The majority of characters are or were military officers in the past and the author goes to great lengths describing some of the military vehicles and equipment used, including mentioning unofficial nicknames that have accumulated over the years. To be perfectly honest it almost comes off as an almost Michael Bay-esque fetishization and worship of the American military which definitely adds to the B Movie feeling of the novel. And perhaps I've grown a little soft in my old age, but such glorification and adoration makes me more than a little uncomfortable. Which isn't to diminish the sacrifices of our citizens in uniform or the work that they do, but I've found the people who most glorify the military are the ones who know the least about the true horrors of warfare.

There's also a secondary plot that may have been foreshadowed earlier in the book but it comes to the fore about halfway in the book and to me it felt like it just sort of came out of nowhere. Basically it turns out there's also a Soviet plot to infiltrate the highest levels of foreign governments and bring about nuclear armageddon so that Marx and Lenin's dream of a new utopia can be achieved. Personally it felt kind of weird and shoe-horned in like the author had two separate ideas and decided to put them into one book instead of creating two separate stories. I guess the two plots kind of work together and it would make sense for extremists to take advantage of an unstable situation, but it just feels kind of forced to include a second plot, in my opinion.

Overall I didn't care for this book, but as I said it's probably mostly a sci-fi/horror B movie in book form. Obviously there's a market for this sort of thing and if you like it I encourage you to read it, but for me it's just not really my sort of story.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Smartest Guys in the Room, by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind

This week I'm talking about a book that I actually found downright fascinating, The Smartest Guys in the Room, which goes into the story behind the incredible rise and equally incredible fall of Enron through the nineties and into 2002. Although I was alive when this happened and vaguely remember Enron collapsing, I was otherwise occupied at the time and couldn't tell you what all of it was about. And considering how quickly the company grew and then suddenly collapsed there's certainly a market for answers behind this disaster. Although Enron's probably become small potatoes compared to the meltdown of 2008 and what happened afterwards. But there's still a lot of material and I'm sure historians will be analyzing it for years to come.

This book takes a very holistic approach to analyzing Enron's collapse and the authors do a very good job of showing how it was a combination of things over time and gradual shifts that led to the eventual collapse rather than one specific decision or event. Certainly specific decisions had more influence than others, but it was a combination of decisions rather than just one choice. The authors also go into the lives of key figures such as Ken Lay, Jeff Skillings, and Andy Fastow and how their decisions, or lack thereof in some cases, influenced Enron's eventual, inevitable collapse. We get to watch as Enron grows from a natural gas pipeline company under Lay's leadership to the biggest energy trading company in the world, to a byword for corporate corruption and excess in the aftermath of its collapse.

So, what made Enron collapse? Well there's no one thing, but there are definitely a couple of things which made large influences. The title, The Smartest Guys in the Room, comes from the public perception of Enron's executives as the brightest people in the business world. To give him credit, Jeff Skillings effectively pioneered the creation of the natural gas commodity trading, something which just didn't exist previously. But, Skillings and other Enron executives assumed intelligence and mastery in one area would equate to intelligence and mastery in other areas. Skilling assumed that the principles he used for natural gas trading could easily be adapted to trading in electricity, water, pulp and paper, metals, broadband, and even financial instruments. And whenever anyone doubted that they could be successful, the doubters were simply written off as not being smart enough to ''get it''. Which created a sort of echo chamber where every idea Skilling had, no matter how improbable, must have been a good idea because he's the smart one and nobody wanted to be called stupid. Which only led Enron into a series of terrible, terrible business decisions which made the company hemorrhage money.

To understand why Enron's stock rose to such tremendous heights, you have to understand the nineties stock market. According to the authors, the only factor that mattered was earnings per share (EPS). If a company met or exceeded EPS, their stock would continue to rise with no apparent limit. This put a strong incentive on companies to manipulate how their EPS was reported to meet Wall Street's expectations and be rewarded with a higher stock price. Enron wasn't the only company that used a variety of tricks to make their earnings look prettier, but they were probably the most egregious abusers. It may have started innocently enough, but it very quickly grew into outright fraud and a lot of confusing double-speak that a large number of investors and analysts simply couldn't make heads or tails of. However, everyone wanted to get in on the next big thing and continued to sing Enron's praises despite their earnings reports not making any sense. It eventually got to the point where Enron was disguising loans as income on its balance sheet, and actually had an insane amount of debt, a significant amount hidden off the balance sheet, and a lot of it backed by the value of Enron stock. If the stock continued to rise then everything was okay, but once the stock took the slightest tumble things started going downhill and the entire structure collapsed under its own weight.

On top of that, Enron got a very bad reputation thanks to their involvement in the California energy market in the early 2000's. California decided to partially deregulate its energy economy and allow large companies to trade energy as a commodity, much like natural gas. However, as some of you might remember this very quickly turned into a situation where California was plagued by frequent blackouts and energy costs, instead of going down, continued to rise. Enron alone cannot be blamed for the problems however their decision to game the system as it existed to extract maximum returns for the company certainly did not help the situation in the least. And yes, people need to make money, I'm not arguing against that. But Enron's actions during this time period were focused entirely on making money with no thought for the consequences to the lives of ordinary people. Many people came to blame Enron, the strongest support of energy deregulation, for being responsible for the headaches that followed. And while they're not entirely responsible, their decisions to game the system certainly did not help in the least.

And finally there was just the culture of excess at Enron which almost boggles the mind. Ken Lay as CEO lived an extravagant lifestyle and his friends and family greatly benefitted from the use of Enron resources, including the use of a fleet of corporate jets pretty much any time they desired. This certainly set a bad example for the other corporate employees. Expense accounts were used to pay tabs at strip clubs, people ordered phones, computers, and other devices which were paid for by the company, pay was extravagant, and severance packages were extremely generous. As Enron drew towards the end, billions of dollars disappeared into severance packages for executives fleeing the sinking ship. And of course the best example is Andy Fastow, the CFO of the company for a number of years, who created a number of companies to help hide debt off of Enron's balance sheet and create the illusion of cashflow for Enron while at the same time picking the company's pocket for millions. With so many people raiding the till, it's a small surprise the company collapsed.

Overall I don't think I can recommend this book enough. I admit I don't really understand high finance all that well but I still have a strange fascination with it and I really enjoyed listening to this book. The authors do a pretty good job of explaining all of the confusing loopholes and chicanery that went on at Enron and perhaps more importantly it serves as a cautionary tale against future disasters. Although if history is any indicator, I'm sure there will be other disasters in the future which will appear equally obvious in hindsight. Even if it has an awful ending, it's a pretty fascinating story.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Please Don't Tell my Parents I'm a Supervillain, by Richard Roberts

This week we're taking another look at superhero parodies, my favorite kind of superhero stories, with the somewhat lengthy titled, Please Don't Tell my Parents I'm a Supervillain, by Richard Roberts. There is also a sequel titled Please Don't Tell my Parents I Blew Up the Moon which was different enough to intrigue me into investigating this series.

Our story focuses around twelve year old Penelope Akk, daughter of retired superheroes Brian and Barbara Akk. While Barbara, a.k.a. The Audit, is a regular, ordinary human with an incredibly uncanny knack for calculations which allowed her to constantly outthink criminals and supervillains, her father Brian ''Brainy Akk" is a full-blown superhuman with an ability to design and create technology well beyond what modern scientists or engineers are able to understand, much less replicate. With such an auspicious heritage, Penny is eager for her own powers to develop and eventually join the superhero community, as are her friends Claire Luta and Ray Vile. Much to her surprise, Penny manages to achieve a breakthrough in her powers and is soon developing all manner of super-science wizardry to help her and her friends. The title, though, comes from an initial misunderstanding where Penny and her friends end up picking a fight with a superhero sidekick, also a student at their school, which results in them being branded as a team of supervillain, much to Penny's dismay. And despite her repeated attempts to switch to the side of the good guys, Penny keeps ending up confirmed more and more as a villain. And with two of the smartest superheroes in existence as her parents, this is certainly not a pleasant situation to be in!

I kind of have mixed feelings about this book in general. On the one hand, I do like superhero parodies, which this is very much in the vein of. Although I get the feeling it plays most of the tropes straight more than it subverts or parodies, but I'm okay with that. Superhero stories are supposed to be fun, after all. Furthermore Roberts does a lot of world-building in the story, making it seem like the most logical thing in the world that superheroes and supervillains could coexist peacefully when they're not having epic battles in the streets.

Roberts also includes a lot of things that aren't fully explained, references to people or events which are important to the world but we don't always know what they are. When this is done improperly it can be super frustrating because you feel like the author isn't explaining enough and they've got this super-cool backstory that they've decided not to tell you about to be vague and mysterious. (Of course you can also go in the direction of too much information, which results in you using an encyclopedia to understand all the things included in the story. Looking at you, Tolkien and Herbert.) But in this case, Roberts manages to strike a good balance between explaining what's necessary, and leaving a certain number of things to the reader's imagination, resulting in a world that feels as deep and complicated as our own.

My reservations, however, center on the fact that despite Penny's protests  that she really doesn't want to be a supervillain, she doesn't seem to try terribly hard to get out of it once she starts. In fact, I was shouting at Penny at one point because it's very clear that Ray and Claire are responsible for dragging her deeper into the supervillain life, telling her to just focus on the science and let them focus on the morality. Which left me feeling like they weren't terribly good friends because they're letting you get into very serious trouble instead of helping you. I feel like it would have been much simpler for Penny to go to her parents to ask for help instead of continuing this charade, but of course what twelve-year old likes admitting to her parents that she needs help? So in a way it makes sense, but I'm not thrilled about it.

There's also a moment that took a very dark turn in my opinion, and it's when Penny and friends get put in very real danger by a security guard with a gun, which they were not prepared for in the least. It may be because I'm overly sensitive to this considering the number of items in the news lately about shootings here in the United States, but I feel like pulling a gun on what are very obviously twelve-year old children crosses a line somewhere. A line that I am intensely uncomfortable with. Yes, they are supervillains, but they're also still just children. It's something that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Overall this book is okay. It was at least interesting enough that it made me want to read the second book and see what happens. Penny isn't a bad person, she just unfortunately gets wrapped up in the ''fun'' of being a supervillain and all that it entails. I do like her as a character and she does bear some passing similarities with Agatha Heterodyne of Girl Genius, another mad scientist who I'm rather fond of.  I kind of wish that she'd been able to talk to her parents about it, but that'd just remove the conflict and then we wouldn't have a story, would we? If you like superheroes and the fun of superhero stories, then this one's definitely a good read.

- Kalpar