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Book Reviews - Portobello, The Futures—The Rise of the Speculator and the Origins of the World’s Biggest Markets,The Taliban

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Portobello by Ruth Rendell (Scribner, $26.00)
Ruth Rendell’s Portobello is more humor than intrigue, as she connects a disparate group of delightfully neurotic characters in a story that takes place in the Notting Hill section of London. She begins with fifty-year-old Eugene Wren finding a sum of money on the street and deciding to locate the owner by placing an ad on a lamppost. Wren, a respectable art dealer, has proudly conquered his weight problem and nicotine habit, but, alas, has developed a new addiction—to Chocorange candies. He hides them in cabinets, drawers, and coat pockets, living in fear that his fiancé, the lovely Ella Cotswold, M.D., might come across them and learn his shameful secret. Then there’s Lance Platt, a young miscreant with a penchant for breaking and entering, who takes a stab at claiming the lost cash but guesses the amount wrong. No problem: He can use the failed attempt to get the layout of Wren’s house for a future burglary. Platt occupies a room in the home of his uncle Gib, self-righteous ex-con, who’s found God and considers his errant, freeloading nephew the bane of his existence. Joel Roseman, the true owner of the lost money, keeps the shades drawn and the lights off as he has intense conversations with Mithras, whom no one else can see.
   Rendell fans looking for her customary dark mystery may be disappointed, until they find themselves laughing out loud at this entertaining page-turner.
—Tamara Shaffer

The Futures—The Rise of the Speculator and the Origins of the World’s Biggest Markets by Emily Lambert (Basic Books, $26.95).
This book could well be titled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about the Stock Market and Were Not Afraid to Ask.” Author Emily Lambert was not afraid to ask, and passed the information on to the reader.
  The Futures is a remarkable book, hard to put down, and made to order for those interested in finance, people, history, psychology, movers and shakers. We join the author and journey from the past to the present day. Among other events, we read of the horrendous Chicago fire in 1871 and the stock market crash in 1929.
  Familiar names leap from Lambert’s pages. We know these people. Alan Green-span. Colonel Sanders. Jimmy Carter. Richard Daley. Will Rogers. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hillary Clinton. Lambert also knows the language of her subject and uses it well. Many readers will be titillated by gossipy events in the financial world. We soon become accustomed to the author’s esoteric verbiage of the marketplace: corners, pits, derivatives, spreaders.
  The book takes us back to post-World War II Chicago, describing neighborhoods, workers, business people, and the stockyards. The “second city” is presented—warts and all. We see the strong rivalry between New York City and Chicago. Legendary traders with dominant personalities are on the scene along with born winners and losers. Each one in the pit has his special strategy. We learn about runners, floor brokers, clerks, buyers, sellers, Big Shots. The year 1968 was not a happy time. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. There were riots in Chicago and anti-war protests throughout the country. The times—they were a-changing. What will the future bring? Enter the computer. At first it was dismissed and barely tolerated in the financial world. Slowly those in charge realized that the computer was more efficient than hand signals. Old ways of doing business became outmoded. By now women were on the scene. Women!!
  Not interested in the stock market? A word to the wise. Don’t cheat yourself. Read the book. You will profit from it.
—Emily McCormack

The Taliban Shuffle—Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker (Doubleday, $25.00)
“Within four months, I was on a plane, flying into countries I had only read about. Getting overseas was really that easy.” Thus begins Kim Barker’s transformation from Chicago Tribune obituary writer to Chicago Tribune fledgling foreign correspondent.
  The foreign correspondent—the black and white image is of a male, maybe Bogart, in a wrinkly trench coat—a cigarette dangling from his lips. So 1940s Hollywood and yet, so 2011 as we sit comfortably watching yet another well-known TV face in freshly pressed Orvis safari-wear parachuted into a foreign country to play the role of foreign correspondent—for a day or two.
  The reality is Kim Barker, at the time a 30-year-old long drink-of-water from Montana with no linguistic skills and scant overseas experience who went to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2002 to act as fill-in foreign correspondent. With a keen eye, Barker cuts to the chase in her book to the reality of working abroad in an unforgiving foreign land. If war is hell, it also inspires dark humor. Barker notes the military’s penchant for acronyms, including the less well-known DBIED, for donkey-borne improvised explosive device. Unstintingly she points out why we, as Westerners, are out of our depth in a land that no amount of money can change. She
recounts the incident of the Afghan who unloads all of his bullets into a dead Afghani terrorist on a motorcycle—despite the
reality that bullets and weapons are in short supply. When asked why, the grinning man says, “The Taliban killed my brother. I really hate them.” In this land where the numerous tribes include unpronounceable names like Barakzais, Popalzais, Pashtuns, Durranis, Panjpais, Wardaks, Ziraks, etc., people carry 100-year grudges over drugs, family’s histories or “maybe a bad kebab.” We just don’t have a clue.
  Eminently readable, The Taliban Shuffle is a can’t-put-down book for those who want to know—what is it really like?
—Maggie Oakshot

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld (Riverhead Books, $26.95). The unsolved Wall Street bombing of September 16, 1920 is the launching point for this historical mystery, the second novel of Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld, who is also the husband of Amy Chua, a.k.a. The Tiger Mother.   Rubenfeld has dedicated The Death Instinct to their “brilliant daughters.”
  The novel jumps around frenetically during World War I between ravaged Europe and America. Perhaps no previous novel has featured so many spur-of-the-moment transatlantic ship crossings—with scenes in Washington, Paris, Prague, Bremen, and Vienna, in addition to New York. Primarily plot-driven, The Death Instinct incorporates much cutting-edge technology of the day, such as x-rays and the use of radium to drive cancer into remission. Various historical personages figure into the action, most notably Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud (also a character in Rubenfeld’s first novel, The Interpretation of Murder); the two stand out as the most plausible and successful characters in the action. Highly implausible are the three protagonists, war veteran Stratham Younger, police detective Jimmy Littlemore, and the cryptic young French woman Colette Rousseau.
  All three charge around, in and out of danger and back and forth across the ocean, with lightning rapidity and the apparent invulnerability of superheroes. In fact, so unlikely and often fatuous are their exploits that it’s hard to care much about these characters.  They seem no more real than Wile E. Coyote. The Death Instinct is very readable, though, and in its own way engrossing. A reader watches Freud psychoanalyze a war-traumatized young boy and observes Marie Curie, ill with radiation poisoning, battle the male hierarchy for some recognition. Rubenfeld’s prose is reasonably good, and his novel is an intriguing blend of fact and fiction, bringing to life the World War I era with a wealth of detail.  The novel’s title, as defined by Freud, refers to “the force of disunification, disintegration, destruction.” Rubenfeld uses this title to highlight the enormous destructiveness of World War I, both on the battlefield and in its aftermath, when so many lives were in shambles. The September, 1920 bombing with which The Death Instinct opens is itself a hideous act, one that kills and maims numerous people, and if it brings to mind that later 21st-century September bombing in lower Manhattan, that is of course, Rubenfeld’s intention. The omnipresence of the death instinct in human affairs is a constant motif of the novel. As Wilfred Owen, doomed young poet of The Great War put it, “Death never gives his squad a stand-at-ease.”
—Julie West Johnson

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale (Twelve, $25.99). Exactly what is it that makes us human asks first-time author Benjamin Hale. Is the mere acquisition and use of language sufficient? Or must one engage in typically-human behaviors such as falling in love, complex thought and being able to express preferences in food, literature and other areas?
  Bruno, Hale’s protagonist in The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, is, in fact, a chimp who has acquired language skills and is able to communicate with researchers at the fictional University of Chicago chimp laboratory.
  Drawing upon the work of linguistic theorist Noam Chomsky, the author explores the cognitive development of the pre-language mind preparing to acquire the tools of
grammar and language and the infinitely more complex process of fitting into human culture, for Bruno truly believes that he is human. Bruno eventually falls in love and is rescued by one of the researchers and the two
bond and become a genuine couple. An odd sort of adventure follows as the two are welcomed by and live with wealthy animal activists in Colorado. A life-threatening illness intervenes and Bruno becomes a New York underground actor. Wildly implausible and brilliantly written, this touching novel asks the reader to consider where we should draw the boundary between human and animal. Hale suggests that the line is much less
clear that we might have imagined.
—Susan E. Zinner

Published: June 13, 2011
Issue: Summer 2011