Summer Reading I

Summer is sort of half over, so in addition to feeding my junk sci-fi habit, I have also been consuming some more serious stuff.  Let me recommend for you interest and pleasure the following:

The Farmer’s Son by John Connell

What a marvelous, moving, and interesting short memoir.  Having left the farm to pursue his international career as a writer (among other things), a failed romance and deep depression brought him back a decade later to the family farm in County Longford.  Coming home meant interacting with his father – a relationship that was a large part of leaving the farm in the first place.  But returning also meant reintegrating with farm life, the care and feeding of the cows, sheep, ducks, and various other daily chores.  It also meant facing his own depression, that deep, dark, black hole that makes getting up in the morning so horribly difficult and erodes self-confidence in big, mighty chunks.

Connell brings all this together with deft touch of language – bringing the reader along on his chores, in his disagreements with his father (and his increasing understanding) and with the hidden love his clearly has for the farm, the farm’s place in the county, and farming’s place in the word.

I was intrigued the whole way through, particularly with the few touches with high technology, modern veterinary medicine combined with the hands-on, all-by-yourself requirement of taking care of the individual animal in immediate distress.

Connell also brings an almost existential perspective to the tasks and day-to-day reality of farm life.  He clearly sees this as a spiritual, as well as physical process (and wow, is it ever a physical process) that he intertwines with his reflections on his relationship with his Catholicism and does so subtly and effectively.

I will not spoil the experience for you any further….read this for yourself.

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice
by Bill Browder

Who said finance couldn’t be exciting?  Well, Bill Browder joins Michael Lewis (The Big Short, Liar’s Poker) as one of the few writers that can tell true-life stories of finance with intrigue, adventure, and high levels of anticipation.

Bill Browder is the grand son of Earl Browder, the head of the American Communist Party and two-time Presidential candidate.  It is with no lack of understanding the irony that Bill Browder goes into investment banking, learning the art of Capitalism first at Stanford (MBA) and then at the Boston Consulting Group and subsequently, the Russian desk at Salomon Brothers.  In 1996, he left Salomon and along with Edmond Safra and Benny Steinmetz’s $25 million in seed money (for a good time, look those two up on Wikipedia), started Hermitage Capital Management.  The period of 1996 to 2006 was the period of mass privatization in Russia, the rise of the Oligarchs and the rise of Vladimir Putin.  As the oligarchs got rich, Browder was the guy with the early understanding of how to benefit from the insanity.  Imagine, every citizen received vouchers with which to invest in any or all of the state-owned companies being privatized.  Of course, after 70+ years of Soviet state control and the bashing of the capitalist west, no one had a clue as to the value of these companies, and thus the oligarchs and Browder’s Hermitage Capital (and a few others) got rich buying vouchers cheap using them to buy the companies even cheaper, as only the insiders actually had a clue as to the real value.

Of course, the oligarchs resorted to criminal behavior to protect what they had accumulated through intimidation and cheating as they became multi-billionaires.  And Hermitage Capital ended up with like $100 billion in assets.

And then, the Politicos started sniffing at the billions, and the oligarchs gladly gave up some ownership to maintain their oligarchies…until they got into politics…and then Vladimir Putin started to pay attention.

The moral of the story is you do not want Vladimir Putin to be paying attention.  Browder fell victim to believing he could out the political guys and Putin for their criminal theft.  He couldn’t really.

What happened?  Hermitage “invested” in Gazprom, the Russian oil giant, and protested loudly about the systematic looting of that company.  As the suspected gains of that looking were accruing (supposedly) to Putin and friends, Browder puts himself in the crosshairs and his company is destroyed by claims of tax evasion, his Russian employees harassed by the police and FSB, his friends lives threatened, his lawyer beaten, and then Browder being kicked out of the country, being blacklisted permanently. Browder’s claim is that he did what other companies did, and it was not illegal.

One of his employees (his auditor) Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested for tax-evasion, jailed, systematically tortured for 11 months, and finally died of medical complications not treated.

Browder gets some revenge on a few of the most obvious crooks (as they are finally outed so publicly that even Putin needs to do something) and takes the case of Sergei Magnitsky to both the US Congress and European Union.  The US passed the Magnitsky act, preventing those officials complicit in the affair from entering the United States and the European Parliament, for the first time ever, voted sanctions on 30 Russian officials but according to Wikipedia, it was only advisory to the European Commission, which did not act on the measure.

The Russians convicted Browder in absentia and sentenced him to 9 years.  Interpol arrested Browder, but upon investigation released him and then refused to honor further Russian requests for enforcement.   The Russians also tried Sergei Magnitsky, finding the dead man guilty of Fraud.  The Financial Times reported that this trial was the first in Russian history that included a dead defendant (Wikipedia).

I have simplified, synthesized, and paraphrased.  The actual is much more complex and much more astonishing.  I have never been excited by the prospect of doing business in Russia, and this book took away any thoughts of even visiting.  Read this book, then read the Wikipedia entries for Bill Browder and Sergei Magnitsky.  Prepare to be horrified and scandalized.


American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I picked up American Gods some years ago and quit reading it after a bit.  I know the exact place in the book where I gave up (I know this because I just finished reading the entire book).  Back then, I gave up when a mid-level character declared he was a leprechaun.

Maybe I have mellowed, but my re-read of American Gods fared much better than my first attempt.  The concept is a very cool one – the immigrants to the US, along with the native Americans all had gods that accompanied them.  The Nordics brought Odin, Loki and others, the Africans brought Vodun & Voodoo; the Native Americans had the Great Spirit and the Buffalo, the Greeks brought the Olympians.  Pagans, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims; Jains, Buddhists, and Shinto and others all contributed something or someone to the pantheon of ‘American Gods.’ Over time, our worship of these gods waned, and in parallel, do did the power of the gods, in direct proportion.

The old gods were diminished because of both the apathy of the masses and by the creation of new gods like technology, media, money, etc., and the new gods are tired of the old….and a conflict is coming.

The story centers around Shadow, a recently released felon hired immediately upon exit by the strange character known as Mr. Wednesday, as a driver and bodyguard.  Mr. Wednesday is set on rallying the old gods to defend themselves.

And then the story gets kind of weird.  But interesting.  And, in some ways, a very sophisticated commentary about life in contemporary America (even if it’s the 10th anniversary for the novel).

I have not watched the TV adaptation of this book, but with Ian McShane (of Deadwood fame), I might have to start.

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