Some thoughts on the books I read in the first quarter of 2022
Here are the books that I read in the first quarter of 2022, along with brief commentary. In a few cases, I wrote longer book reviews during the quarter, but I always read more books than I write about. Particularly when it comes to fiction, I find it difficult to write “reviews” because I am not a literary critic. In other cases, I simply do not have much to say. I have never believed that it makes sense to try to merely summarize a book, so if I have nothing meaningful to add, I don’t write about it at length, and just save it for inclusion in these periodic lists.
War and Peace
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Year of publication: 1867
Length: 1,615 pages (divided into three volumes)
When I started reading War and Peace on New Year’s Eve, I had no idea that I would finish the third and final volume of the book four days before Russia invaded Ukraine. It certainly felt like a weird and surreal coincidence.
This classic of Russian literature has been on my “bucket list” of books to read for years and it finally made the cut when I planned my reading for 2022. The sense of trepidation I had when thinking about War and Peace was misplaced. The English translation by Louise and Alymer Maude is very readable. The book is indeed very long, but the three volume Everyman’s Library box set makes it less intimidating.
Tolstoy wrote a book about a war that took place more than half a century earlier, in a world that already looked far removed from the Russian society he lived in. He refused to characterize his work as either fiction or history, but in my opinion the book is best thought of as historical fiction. Tolstoy obviously did his best to describe key battles, including the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 and the Battle of Borodino in 1812, and he does this very well. We meet historical characters, including Napoleon himself, but the main protagonists and antagonists are fictional. We meet those characters first in the aristocratic social world of Russian society in 1805 and watch them evolve over time, culminating in the trauma of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.
One of the issues I had with the Everyman’s Library edition is that it includes what they call an “Introduction” to the book that actually contains numerous spoilers. One gets the sense that the author of the introduction assumes that the reader is already familiar with the storyline. Well, I was not! Even though I prematurely knew how some of the events would turn out in the lives of the main families in the book, I still enjoyed their journey through history. I won’t provide any spoilers here, but will urge those who feel intimidated by this book to give it a try. My advice is to not read introductions to classic works. Read the book first and then the introduction.
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Year of publication: 1878
Length: 998 pages
As I approached the end of War and Peace, I knew that I wanted to read more of Tolstoy’s work, so I ended up ordering Anna Karenina, again picking the Everyman’s Library edition translated to English by Louise and Alymer Maude.
Anna Karenina is a very different book, set in the contemporary aristocratic scene that Tolstoy inhabited. Here, the world is far more modern than in War and Peace, most notably with the introduction of railroads which end up being a prominent feature in the arc of the storyline. Throughout the book, we start to get a sense of the social unrest that was bubbling up in Russian society in the late nineteenth century, a little over a decade following the end of serfdom.
However, Anna Karenina is not historical fiction. It is fiction, and Tolstoy characterized it as his first full-length novel. At its core, Anna Karenina is a story of imperfect human beings living in an imperfect society who struggle mightily to reconcile their instinctive desires with the social mores of the society in which they live.
At a surface level, the book is about adultery, but this is only the lens through which we learn about human nature. It would be easy to suppose that the characters in this novel would have a better outcome in the less morally constrained twenty-first century world, but I suspect that Anna and Vronsky would still find ways to be miserable, Oblonsky would remain a happy-go-lucky serial philanderer, and Levin would still be conflicted but eventually find his path in life.
The Lords of Easy Money
Author: Christopher Leonard
Year of publication: 2022
Length: 319 pages
Christopher Leonard’s book documents the increasingly unconventional monetary policy decisions made by the Federal Reserve in the years since the global financial crisis of 2007-09. One of the Fed’s primary goals, and the reason it was created in the first place, is to promote stability and confidence in the financial system. During periods of crisis, the Fed is expected to step in to ensure that markets continue to function properly. This is supposed to reduce the chances of full-blown financial panics that can result in major economic dislocations harming the real economy. In reality, the Fed has fallen short and contributed to instability, as Leonard documents.
Read my full book review of The Lords of Easy Money
The Final Days
Authors: Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Year of publication: 1976
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became famous for their Washington Post coverage of Watergate and their book, All The President’s Men, which was published less than two months before Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974. That book covered the first part of the scandal. The Final Days, published in 1976, contains the rest of the story including an exhaustive day-by-day account of the final weeks of the Nixon presidency.
Additional commentary on The Final Days
Early Bird: The Power of Investing Young
Authors: Maya Peterson and Soren Peterson
Year of publication: 2021 (second edition)
Length: 228 pages
In 2018, I reviewed the first edition of Early Bird written by Maya Peterson who was just fifteen years old at the time. The first edition was a great introduction to investing for young people.
In the second edition, Soren Peterson contributes content including a new interview with Ian Cassel, a well-known investor in the micro-cap field, and the author of The Intelligent Fanatics Project.
Young people have a major advantage when it comes to investing because they have much more time for compounding to work its magic. Financial literacy is abysmal in the United States, and it is great to see young people like Maya and Soren take it upon themselves to educate their peers.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Year of publication: 2011
Length: 485 pages
Siddhartha Mukherjee has a rare talent for documenting history and complex medical topics while also telling the very human stories about lives impacted by cancer.
As a practicing cancer physician, Mukherjee explains how our understanding of cancer has evolved over time, the advances in surgery, chemotherapy, radiology, and immunotherapies, and generally equips us to be better informed patients in the event of a diagnosis. Knowledge is power, especially when dealing with scary situations.
Understanding the tradeoffs involved in various forms of treatment, the prospect of a cure or long-term remission, and when a situation can best be dealt with in a palliative manner are topics best approached before a crisis.
Becoming Trader Joe
Author: Joe Coulombe
Year of publication: 2021 (published posthumously)
Length: 251 pages
Running a grocery store is a constant exercise of daily blocking and tackling needed to keep an assortment of well-priced inventory on the shelves. But it was the combination of two major insights that Joe Coulombe had in the 1960s that set Trader Joe’s distinctive strategy for decades to come.
First, he realized that the population of highly educated consumers was growing rapidly due to the surge of young people entering college after the Second World War because of the G.I. Bill.
Second, he noted that many of these increasingly affluent young people were traveling more frequently and that the introduction of the Boeing 747 in 1970 was likely to accelerate this trend. Coulombe believed that well-traveled people were likely to be more adventurous when it comes to food choices.
Read my full book review of Becoming Trader Joe
A Shot to Save the World
Author: Gregory Zuckerman
Year of publication: 2021
Length: 343 pages
At the beginning of the pandemic, few thought that it would be possible to have vaccines available for the public in a matter of months rather than years, but that’s precisely what happened. The story of how it happened is the subject of Gregory Zuckerman’s book.
Many readers will be familiar with Mr. Zuckerman’s work as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. His previous books include The Man Who Solved the Market, a biography of Jim Simons that I reviewed in 2019.
Writing a book about a scientific topic intended for the general public is a very tough job, and this is particularly true when the subject is complicated and the technological advances culminating in success span multiple decades. Mr. Zuckerman succeeds in delivering an important and timely book that can be understood by any intelligent reader.
Read my full book review of A Shot to Save the World