Books Read in the First Half of 2014

My previous book review posts have been some of my most popular, so I’ll continue to post reviews every six months. This time around I’ll add some context for how I designate my ratings:

One Star: I would not recommend to anyone for any number of reasons (poorly written, lack of content, or plain unreadable).

Two Stars: Generally would not recommend, but tends to have a few worthwhile moments that would merit skimming.

Three Stars: Recommended, but either covers too niche a topic to get a stronger recommendation for a broad audience or doesn’t offer enough depth to be really interesting.

Four Stars: Recommended, well-written, and covers material I think most people would find useful or interesting.

Five Stars: Strongly recommended due to superb writing or research material. These books could expertly appeal to a wide audience or cover their source subject so thoroughly to be authoritative accounts of their topic.

As I’ve done previously, I’ll continue to pick one book as my “Best Book Read in the Past Six Months”, which is generally the Five Star book which I loved and feel others could connect with as well.

Last note: I typically exclude textbooks. The line between non-fiction and textbook is grey. When it comes to defining something as a non-fiction, non-textbook, I respond as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once did: “I know it when I see it.”

Here the books I’ve read thus far in 2014.

Two Stars:

Trading with the Enemy: Seduction and Betrayal on Jim Cramer’s Wall Street by Nicholas Maier -

I’m generally a fan of Jim Cramer’s (having met him briefly and taking his show with a shaker of salt). Hearing a book by an ex-employee was published claiming Cramer’s hedge fund committed nefarious market manipulation and front-running in the 90s, it was only fair of me to read it and weigh it against my bias. Sadly, the story is thin (read the whole thing in a couple hours!) and the writing is high school amateurism. I was entertained, but if the Maier’s intent was to whisteblow on Cramer’s potentially unethical activities, one would think he’d approach it with more professionalism.

Three Stars:

The New New Thing by Michael Lewis -

The weakest of the Michael Lewis books I’ve read. The New New Thing chronicles the experiences of technology entrepreneur Jim Clark as he comes from nowhere to become one of the central figures of the dot-com boom. Published in 2000 just before the crash, the book seeps optimism for the new economy and its new new things. What keeps this book from being as interesting as Lewis’s others is that Jim Clark himself is mostly not as interesting as Michael Oher in The Blind Side, Billy Beane in Moneyball, or the short-sellers in The Big Short. Lewis loses focus midway through the book with chapters on Clark’s high-tech yacht. Despite understanding that it’s really a metaphor for Clark’s vision and ambitions, it’s doesn’t hold your attention. The bulk of the character development is saved for the final chapter, which gives The New New Thing a strong finish, but in a character-driven story, it means most of the book lacks all the intrigue which gets shoehorned in at the end.

No Regrets by n+1 -

This second roundtable discussion from the growing literary magazine’s staff focuses on two questions: What do we regret in our youth, and what should the relationship between women and literature be? As in the previously reviewed “What We Should Have Known”, the editors are simultaneously insightful and relatable. Compared to the aforementioned book, No Regrets wasn’t as relatable to me personally due to the feminine focus. A worthwhile read for men regardless.

How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams -

“Nothing in this book should be seen as advice. It’s never a good idea to take advice from cartoonists,” writes the Dilbert creator. He probably wrote that knowing that he had essentially written a self-help book. I typically avoid the genre, but who wouldn’t want to hear how to become rich and happy from one of the most famous and hilarious comic creators in history? It doesn’t hurt that he’s an entertaining writer outside of comic strip boxes too. Most of what he writes is truly valuable, giving his anecdotal experiences with low carb diets, weightlifting, and generally being lucky (and unlucky) in life.

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis -

Lewis still knows how to make complex, high stakes, and high finance stories entertaining. This book still follows the structure of most of his books: A disenchanted industry insider makes radical moves to reshape his part of an industry. Flash Boys’s failing is that, while Lewis explains the problems with high-frequency trading well, he doesn’t really present in the book enough content from what goes on inside those firms. Other than listing Citadel, Virtu Financial, and some talk of big bank dark pools, he doesn’t turn any of them into a real villain. Whether that’s due to a lack of access to insiders or more interest in telling a different story, I’m not sure.

Four Stars:

Young Money: Inside the World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits by Kevin Roose -

In an impressive piece of journalism, Roose follows almost a dozen recent college grads over multiple years in New York City as they live the investment banker lifestyle post-financial crisis. Roose does a solid job of painting a picture of an industry still living more lavishly than it deserves, yet slowly rotting from the inside as new recruits start to jade and question their lives sooner.

The Everything Store by Brad Stone -

This biography of Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, is a solid piece of modern internet business journalism. Despite spending limited time on Amazon’s initial growth (the company goes from $0 to $1 billion in sales in what seems like twenty pages), Stone’s writing vividly expresses Bezos’s early understanding of the Internet’s potential and ruthless drive toward a digital future.

MFA vs NYC by n+1 -

The latest essay collection from n+1 polls its various contributors for their thoughts on one of modern literature’s major questions: Is it better to go to grad school or work your way up through industry. In this case “grad school” means an MFA program and “industry” is the New York City publishing houses. This basic premise can really be expanded to other industries and the perspectives provided here could be helpful to anyone, not just aspiring writers.

Coders at Work by Peter Seibel -

I believe a good way to learn about a field of study is to read candid discussions between experts in said field. Coders at Work is a collection of Seibel’s interviews with some of the premier coders and computer scientists of our time. Despite being occasionally too technical for a casual reader, it contains so much wisdom for programming and project management that I’d still probably recommend it to non-programmers. Google whatever terms in the book you don’t understand.

The Secret Club that Runs the World: Inside the Fraternity of Commodity Traders by Kate Kelly -

After three years of interviews, tracking down quiet, powerful people worldwide, and learning an opaque industry, Kelly entertains and educates on a sector of the financial markets that, until recently, has largely escaped public scrutiny.

Five Stars:

Aristotle and an Aardvark go to Washington by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein -

If you’ve ever heard a politician speak and considered if assassinating a political figure would qualify as a public good, then this is the book for you. From the authors of the equally brilliant “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar”, “Aristotle and an Aardvark” teaches the philosophical concepts of logical fallacies with examples from United States politicians. I wish Cathcart and Klein could teach every academic subject. We’d all learn a lot more if our teachers were better jokesters.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin -

Few books I’ve ever read are as immediately impactful as Born Standing Up is within the first thirty pages. Martin, once atop the comedy business, opens his old wounds to readers, vividly teaching us the struggles required to earn greatness. Martin spends the majority of the story on the destitution of his twenties, only to quickly and quietly cover the lightning bolt that was his rise to fame. Few stories are as succinctly honest as Born Standing Up.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz -

Former entrepreneur and current venture capitalist Ben Horowitz compiles the lessons he’s learned in his business career. I particularly enjoyed this book more than most business books I read because of his very honest approach. I agree with his fundamental message: Every company is unique, which is what makes business difficult, so to claim there is one roadmap to business success for everyone is naive. All an advice-giver can give is personal anecdotes and lessons learned. That’s exactly what Horowitz does here, and it’s appreciated.

What Do You Care What Other People Think? by Richard Feynman -

I’ve yet to read something by Feynman which wasn’t brilliant. This particular collection of Feynman tales packs more emotional punch than most of his previous collections. The essay about his wife’s early death (from which the title is pulled) is the most heartbreaking story I’ve ever read. For the intellectuals, half the book is dedicated to Feynman’s fascinating work uncovering the cause of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. It concludes with his essay, “The Value of Science”, which should be made mandatory reading for all middle school science students. If I had read it at age 14, I’d have probably become a physicist. I’d have certainly become a better person.

When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss -

Biographers have perhaps the hardest jobs of all those who consider themselves writers. It must be tough to balance years of journalism (hunting down sources, engaging people in interviews over topics that have long since occurred, foraging for faded photographs from lost eras) and bring the research into a compelling story equal in size and scope to fictional novels. The biographer is aided by one reality: Often, truth is stranger than fiction.

Every winter, tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people witness the Super Bowl. Every year, the winner of that championship game hoists what’s called “the Lombardi Trophy”. Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize winner, opens up the Vince Lombardi legend with a level of journalistic research I have not read since All the President’s Men. Lombardi is both humanized and mythologized simultaneously. The highest praise I can give Maraniss and “When Pride Still Mattered” is that it takes a seemingly simple idea, the biography of a football coach, and use it as a piece of glass: a lens through which we can see the past and a mirror in which we see our present. Regardless of how you look at it, the image is never as clear as we want it to look.

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb -

A significant achievement in modern thought. In his magnum opus, Taleb culminates a lifetime of research and his unique insight into his concept of “antifragility”. Without explaining it in depth here, the book demonstrates experimentally, mathematically, and philosophically how systems and societies should be designed to improve from stress. Bending and growing from adversity, rather than breaking like so many things seem to do in our current era. Taleb commits a sort of philosophical biomimicry, taking most of his ideas either from his observations of nature (of the human variety and otherwise) or expanding upon past thinkers who did the same. If I could install a mandatory philosophy course into the school system, this would be required reading.

Best Book Read in the First Half of 2014:

Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life by John Bogle -

Bogle, the founder asset management firm The Vanguard Group, has written a manifesto for reforming the moral fiber of the United States. It’s important for those who have greatly benefited from the financial system to come out and say that it’s broken and should be smaller. He does that and more by extrapolating the problems of the financial sector as caused by a systemic breakdown in how our society conducts business at large. The chapters are short, to the point, and data supported. The chapter titles (such as “Too Much Cost, Not Enough Value” and “Too Much Business Conduct, Not Enough Professional Conduct”) should be printed out on a poster. Short of hanging that on your bedroom wall, you should at least read this book.