What Houston's Reading

Article by Jeremy

Getting your recommendations helps us do our jobs better. Brazos owners, publishers' sales reps, teachers, friends and customers have pitched in to create this list. See what they have to say about the books below, and let us know what you're reading. Blurbs are welcome but not required -- a title and your name will work just fine.
Senseless Panic: How Washington Failed America Cover Image
$24.95
ISBN: 9780470640364
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Wiley - June 1st, 2010

Why did the massive failure of banks and thrifts from 1980 to 1991, so serious a crisis that the FDIC developed a contingency plan to nationalize our major banks, cause no financial panic, no economic depression?

Bill Isaac, Chairman of the FDIC during the very difficult times of the 1980s savings and loans/banking crises, provides a personal, readable, educated, non-partisan answer. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker's forward to Isaac's Senseless Panic provides insight into the history of the FDIC and Isaac's wealth of experience, abilities, devotion to public service, vigor, self-assuredness, personal strength, and prescience. The forward is a tribute to experience, judgement, and character.

In some 150 pages, Mr. Isaac compares the massive problems and crises of the 1980s and the tough calls he and others made with the financial panic of fall 2008,  and the enormous costs associated with the fall 2008 decisions, explaining his opposition to the Troubled Asset Relief Program. We learn that many of Isaac's proposals for immediate relief were eventually adopted post-official comments of financial Armageddon, post-erosion of public confidence, post-TARP, and post-financial panic.

After analyzing years of policy mistakes and serious errors in judgement, Mr. Issac offers solutions to prevent recurrence of disaster. Recognizing that greed is a "force of nature," government should implement measures to control it. Cease the over-reliance on markets and models leading to loss of reliance on judgement needed to restore lending and tamp volatility; eliminate pro-cyclical (exaggerating market swings) rules. Establish a strong, independent Systemic Risk Council (don't allow a council to be staffed and run by the agencies which led us into crises). Restore the basics of Glass-Stegall, separating investment from commercial banking. Consolidate and strengthen bank supervision. Increase capital reserve and liquidity requirements.

The reader finds analysis of Security and Exchange Commission mistakes including miserable failures at policing investment scams and allowances of massive leverage increases with subsequent removal of Depression-era protections against short-selling abuses. Mr. Isaac includes proposals to strengthen the FDIC, repair the SEC, and fix the unaccountable disaster known as the Financial Accounting Standards Board. The FASB and SEC receive heavy criticism for imposing pro-cyclical mark to market accounting rules post-Savings and Loan crisis, "a very significant contributor to the panic of 2008 and ensuing severe recession."

And, as our financial system has moved in the last several decades to a "shadow" banking system not subject to the extensive regulations governing depository institutions, Mr. Isaac sounds the call for an FDIC style resolution system for true emergencies, with plenty of safequards to prevent permanent bail out activities, since laws "must ensure that shareholders and other responsible parties take losses to protect taxpayers and minimize moral hazards." Along the way, we learn of scams (recognized in the 1980s) by money brokers protected by taxpayer funded pass-through insurance, still playing a mighty role in the banking crisis, addressed only when a bank becomes a "problem." Congress has yet to eliminate pass-though deposit insurance coverage.

Optimistically, Mr, Issac calls for election of "people we can trust to put the government's fiscal house in order and bring proper regulation to the financial sector." Idealistic readers can hope we find more people of character, judgement, and experience devoted to public service. Cynics can join the idealists in appreciating the clear lessons of history and harms of repeating it.

- Barbara Ann Radnofsky, June 2011


A Call for Judgment: Sensible Finance for a Dynamic Economy Cover Image
$29.95
ISBN: 9780199756070
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Oxford University Press, USA - October 7th, 2010

"Since October 2008, many have written about the financial meltdown that sparked the Great Recession. Most books and articles were about "what" happened; very few attempted to write about "why" it happened.

These "what" and "why" attempts informed me but I learned little to draw lessons for corrective actions and for the future. These authors were like the proverbial blind men trying to describe the elephant by touching/feeling its different parts. Additionally these authors were academicians, journalists and financial engineers who wrote from limited perspectives of their own domain expertise or experience, mostly in finance, economics and financial journalism. These authors provided subjective views of a vested or inadvertent participant in the creation of the financial bubble.

I needed a detailed, objective view to learn about why financial meltdown came about and how it could be avoided in the future.  Amar Bhidé's Call for Judgment went a long way in satiating that thirst.

Amar Bhide is Schmidheiny Professor at Fletcher School, and has served as Glaubinger Professor of Business at Columbia University. His book is expansive in its scope.

It has broad content, drawing from scholarship and research in Economics, Finance, Government Regulation, Quantitative Sciences, and Innovation. Bhidé uses his deep knowledge of theory and practice in these seemingly disconnected disciplines to support and tear apart deeply rooted contentions and practices.

Additionally, it is expansive in its time horizons. Bhidé is a credible business researcher and historian. He goes as far back as is necessary, sometimes several centuries, to provide details that evolved and contributed to our current situation. It reveals human frailties, how our collective memories can also diminish with age. Moreover, Bhidé is objective. He displays not only intellectual honesty but also intellectual bravery. He is not afraid to take on some of the sacred idols and expose their contributions to current debacle. Furthermore, he is not scared of the devil that resides in the details. His approach has logical and systematic rigor.

Bhidé contends that there were several contributors to the debacle. At the top of his list is that Finance had become centralized, mechanistic and detached from its local customers and conditions. Flawed quant models catalyzed centralized decision-making, with microscopic contributions from local judgment.

The centerpiece of this centralized financial decision-making had some fundamental faults in the way their "mathematical economics" foundation and pillars treated "risk" and Knightian "uncertainty". Pursuit of mathematical elegance required some shortcuts that took economics into untestable territories, where hypotheses were unfalsifiable but implausible, with unimagined consequences.

Separately, banking deregulation, cheered on by prevailing economic theories and certifications from the SEC, allowed banks and investment firms to morph into publicly traded monoliths. These firms were led by inactive, arms-length stockholders management, who paid little attention to increasing risk at their firms. This led to a perverse "Heads we win, tails public stockholders lose" attitude to prevail in the industry. The risk appetite of financial firms went up and with it the share of trading at these firms. On the other side, threatened banks, whose market share had declined, were now forced to look for alternative sources of profits. They created highly profitable and risky products such as derivatives and Credit Default Swaps.

Aided by these factors, the imprudence or chicanery of a few individuals unraveled several firms and caused widespread damage to the global economy

Bhidé has "A Modest Proposal" to pull us out of this morass. It can be summarized by former Citibank CEO John Reed's comment, "I would compartmentalize the industry for the same reason we compartmentalize ships. If you have a leak, the leak doesn't spread and sink the whole vessel." He recommends that we reinstate Glass-Steagall's wall between investment and commercial banking, to reduce collateral damage from future speculative bubbles.

His fervor for local touch points between banks and borrowers is not lost. He recommends that we reinstate old-fashioned banking where bankers know their customers. Consequently, we would have to decentralize oversight of banking and finance so that conditions, relations and decision-making can be monitored locally.

His proposal allows "casino bankers" (investment firms) to innovate and speculate but with an arm's length from "utility banks". Bhidé does anticipate that the unwinding and fragmentation of megabanks will be difficult-97% of more than $200 Trillion in derivatives are held by five US banks: J.P Morgan, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Wells Fargo.

Additionally, government-led solutions to the current crisis may take a long time. The 2,300-page Dodd-Frank bill may appear to some as "refurbishing regulators' deck chairs from the Titanic." However, as historical examples from previous financial crises show, "a weak first bill doesn't have to be the last word" and "reform delayed isn't reform denied!"

I could see why eminent people such as Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker and Nobel Laureate (Economics) Edmund Phelps and many others recommended the book. A Call to Arms has great content and is a treat to read. The material, in lesser hands, could have been boring and tedious. Bhidé strikes a great balance between dryness of the subject and popular writing, with subtle, tongue-in-cheek strokes that are rare in such scholarly tomes.

Amar Bhidé's A Call for Judgment is a clarion call for us to be aware and beware of the current structure of the financial-banking and investment-industry. Global governments and investors need to listen to Bhidé and heed his call to action because we are not out of the woods yet. The insightful book has probably been targeted at researchers, scholars and policy wonks but the rest of us can benefit from this brilliant work too. I know I did."

Pradeep Anand - October 2010


Ruthless: How Enraged Investors Reclaimed Their Investments and Beat Wall Street Cover Image
$27.95
ISBN: 9780470579893
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Wiley - September 28th, 2010

"Why do some laudable efforts to bring fraudsters to justice fail and others succeed?

Ruthless provides  answers (additional to don't swindle intelligent,resourceful, respected journalists). A victim of the 'Auction Rate Securities' (ARS) fraud, author Phil Trupp candidly discloses how he and 146,500 individuals and major institutions believed reassuring misrepresentations that their ARS investments were 'just like cash' in liquidity. Only when the investors were told the then-$336 billion market was 'frozen' in early 2008 did investors learn that it was a scam; underlying bonds and preferred stocks were not liquid at all, but distressingly long term. If all was well, the investors' granchildren, decades later, would be paid. Meanwhile, issuers and banks fared well, timely paid for issuance and holding auctions, some of which never happened.

The story of action by companies and investors catastrophically damaged by the massive liquidity crisis is summarized nicely by Phil Trupp's subtitle: 'How enraged investors reclaimed their investments...and beat Wall Street.' If you've not heard much about the Auction Rates Securities 2008 scandal, you are not alone; the book offers interesting explanation why there was little coverage for a fraud of breathtaking scope. Enjoy this honest, readable explanation and story, with a cast of bizarre characters including infamous personality and newsmaker 'Radioactive Man,' providing a diversion into the Kennedy and King assasinations after the major Bush Administration figure explains the President was 'actually aware' of all the (ARS) problems, and that 'Government jumping in - well it can only make matters worse.'"

Barbara Ann Radnofsky - August 2010


Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street Cover Image
$24.00
ISBN: 9781439183120
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Howard Books - January 5th, 2010

"Jim Wallis is a thoughtful, progressive and widely respected clergyman/activist."

John Ramsey - August 2010


The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 Cover Image
$29.99
ISBN: 9780316004091
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Little, Brown and Company - April 1st, 2010

"Evan is a friend (but doesn't give me freebees!) and this is his latest book.  He's been out promoting the book, speaking in D.C. bookstores and on TV.  He's entertaining."

John Ramsey - August 2010


Super Sad True Love Story Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9781400066407
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Random House - July 27th, 2010

"This is a newly released novel by a brilliant and top selling young writer (the satirist of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook) who has a lot to say and in a funny way.  This will be a big book and very topical."

John Ramsey - August 2010


Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece Cover Image
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9781586488000
Availability: Out of Print - Not Available for Order
Published: PublicAffairs - October 5th, 2010

"This wonderfully written and meticulously researched book tells the story of the great 15th century artist Jan van Eyck and "The Ghent Altarpiece".  The recoverers of Nazi-stolen treasures regarded this massive 12-piece altarpiece as the most valuable, important piece to recover.  The masterpiece had been top of Hitler's list to procure.

The book is more than a fascinating history of art plunder, notions of preservation, great artistry, Christian thought as the Middle Ages became the Renaissance, and centuries of European military, economic, social and political history anchored by the world's most stolen piece of art, "the size of a barn wall and the weight of an elephant."

In developing the myriad stories surrounding this fabled piece of art, Mr. Charney provides each reader a unique opportunity for reflection on applications beyond a great work of art. We are forced to consider treasure as battlestandard and the role of war through the ages. We are provoked into additional thought as we learn why this artwork is considered pre-eminent in importance.

Charney's  genius is making the art history lesson as vibrant, thought provoking and personal an experience as great art; each reader experiences his own views, thoughts, and imaginings. Charney's style urges you on to perspective and reflection. The experience stays with you long after the reading. 

Charney teaches that, unlike many other masterful, historical works and other historically significant artists whose paths, innovations, techniques and improvements can be historically traced, van Eyck's style seen in this work "exploded out of thin air." Charney explains it represents a number of firsts (naturalistic details, identifiable faces in crowds, bodies truly depicted under clothing, painted haze to recreate aerial perspective, among others), brilliantly and beautifully executed. Van Eyck's Adam and Eve portraits, as part of the work, made this the first portrayal of the unidealized human nude. And the great artist, secret agent and Ambassador was the first to place objects with covert (and at times microscopic!) symbolism.

Certainly we learn this is the world's first major oil painting, and marked the opening of Renaissance painting. But the author gives us opportunity to reflect further. Here's one  comment, simply put: "It is one thing to be physically able to paint the pores on a man's skin; it is another to choose to do so, when no other artists had thought to."

And so we are reminded that in the march of great ideas and history, someone was first. This book allows us to celebrate genius and the explanation of firsts, without complete knowledge of how they came about. We marvel today at genius and excitement surrounding revolutionary, successful effort, while our curiosity seeks to answer how and why. 

Expect additional pilgrimages  to the cathedral in Ghent, Belgium upon October 2010 publication of Stealing the Mystic Lamb."

Barbara Ann Radnofsky - July 2010


Dancing with Mr. Darcy: Stories Inspired by Jane Austen and Chawton House Cover Image
$13.99
ISBN: 9780061999062
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: William Morrow & Company - October 19th, 2010

"We who love the works of Jane Austen appreciate these well written, compact stories even moreso than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  The key to each story: inspiration by Austen or Chawton House, the secure home offered by the novelist's brother. Upon settling in the Hampshire village, Austen shook off depression and flourished as a writer. Modern Chawton House Library awards annual Jane Austen Short Story prizes.

Cleverest by far is the first place prize winner by Victoria Oaks, placing our heroine in the docks of Hades, accused of unjust treatment by the older women in her novels. Jane Austen over the Styx is cleverest, yes, but not the most idealistic (Second Thoughts, focusing on Austen's change of heart upon accepting a proposal of marriage) or most modern (Jayne, a literate struggling semi-nude model bemoaning "financial security is very underrated."). You'll want to take up Sense and Sensibility .. or Persuasion.. or another great Austen novel again as soon as you finish the inspired works of the twenty women writers featured."

Barbara Ann Radnofsky - July 2010


Mockingbird Years: A Life in and Out of Therapy Cover Image
$14.00
ISBN: 9780465027286
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Basic Books (AZ) - January 1st, 2001

"I just read our own Emily Fox Gordon's Mockingbird Years - great insight and revelations about psychotherapy from the 50s onward. Simultaneously reading Lit by Mary Karr - so lots of psychological fun for me this summer!"

Kristi Beer, Inprint - June 2010 


The Historian Cover Image
$25.95
ISBN: 9780316011778
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Little, Brown and Company - June 1st, 2005

"A real page turner. I cannot put it down."

Sharon Reed, Upper School Librarian at the Kinkaid School - June 2010 


Dog on It Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781416585848
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Atria Books - September 29th, 2009

"Really cute and funny; a good, light summer read."

Sharon Reed, Upper School Librarian at the Kinkaid School - June 2010 


If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories Cover Image
$24.00
ISBN: 9781400068579
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Random House - March 30th, 2010

"Best collection of stories I have read in a year. She has beautiful insight into the mind and how we think. A stunning debut! If you like Olive Kitteridge, you will love this."

Gianna LaMorte, Random House


The Making of a Poem Cover Image
By Eavan Boland (Editor), Mark Strand (Editor)
$18.95
ISBN: 9780393321784
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - April 17th, 2001

Nick Flynn's class at the University of Houston


Ms. Hempel Chronicles Cover Image
$14.95
ISBN: 9780547247755
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Mariner Books - September 1st, 2009

Robert Boswell's class at the University of Houston


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