Thursday, November 24, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

As author of books like The Blind Side and Moneyball, Michael Lewis is no stranger to success as a nonfiction writer. He has a talent for covering stories in ways that play up their humanity, giving niche topics like economics and sports a universal appeal. But despite his knack for reading and reflecting public sentiment, even he couldn't have foreseen the push his latest effort, The Big Short, would receive from the zeitgeist. The Big Short takes readers on a thrilling, fast-paced and sometimes baffling ride through the swell and burst of the subprime mortgage bubble. He's already written one book exposing the inner workings of Wall Street – Liar's Poker covered the greed, incompetence and corruption that ran rampant in the big firms of the 1980s - so when he tackled his second Wall Street opus, he was uniquely positioned to understand the complicated market machinery and labyrinthine logic driving the subprime mortgage crisis and triggering The Great Recession.

Sure, it's a bit of dense information and economic terminology, but he delivers it quickly; and given that some of the brightest minds on Wall Street couldn't make sense of the complicated mess surrounding subprime mortgages, readers should forgive themselves if they get a little lost in the details. At any rate, he works these technicalities into the story well enough that they don't break the narrative’s momentum.

Lewis also introduces readers to the real people making the trades, swaps and bets that left nations teetering. He takes us into the lives of those who inflated the value of investment portfolios containing subprime mortgages and disguised their risk, as well as those who discovered the risk and bet against them. Spoiler alert: the ratings agencies (like Moody's and S&P) do not come off at all well. Moving chronologically from the early 2000s, his prose builds a mix of disbelief, dread and outrage as events race toward the conclusions with which we're all now too familiar. Characters in the real-life drama range from iconoclastic to downright devious and smarmy, and the tale of how they manufactured investments that looked to be made of gold from groups of losing loans is riveting and angering to say the least. Even more interesting are the stories of those who identified the problem, bet against the subprime mortgages, and tried to warn others. For readers itching to know more about the events feeding the rage driving the Occupy protests, there is probably no more absorbing, enraging crash course available than Lewis' The Big Short.

This review appeared in The Stratford Gazette on November 24th. Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.

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