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Bearly There

No Bears 4No Bears by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Leila Ridge (Candlewick Press, 32 pages, $15.99)

This is a novel children’s book written by Meg McKinlay, and illustrated by Leila Ridge.   It’s about a girl named Ella.   Ella loves books but is tired of reading stories that are filled with bears.   As she says, “I’m tired of bears.   Every time you read a book, it’s just BEARS BEARS BEARS…”   So she designs a story with pretty things, a princess, a castle, a monster and a giant.   Oh, and also a fairy godmother with magical powers that might be needed to save the princess from the monster.

This 32-page Candlewick Press book is wonderfully illustrated, and throws in a lot of cool, sneaky references to well-known children’s tales (young readers will have fun discovering such things as the Owl and the Pussycat).   It’s a great early reader because it includes standard phrases such as Once upon a time, Happily ever after, and The End.   And it’s relaxing and unique especially because there are said to be NO BEARS in it.   Not even one!

Written for readers aged 3 and up, and a few bright 2-year-olds.   Toddlers who love animals will appreciate it; especially as they find that there are actually a few loveable bears hidden in its pages.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

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A review of the children’s book No Bears by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Leila Ridge.No Bears 3

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Oil is the Word

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne (Harper Perennial)

“I’m not a sexy dancer despite my athletic skills.”

“To want what we have / To take what we’re given with grace…”  Larry John McNally

If only all 292 pages of Kapitoil were as entertaining as its first 130 pages, it would be an easy call to make this a highly recommended book.   But there seems to be a new virus going around, one that causes very good (and generally new) authors to write novels that begin like a house on fire, before sputtering out like a miniature flame easily dosed with a garden hose.   I Thought You Were Dead was a recent example of this, now joined in this non-envious genre by Kapitoil.   Still, don’t get me wrong, despite its flaws this novel by first-time Teddy Wayne is a bit of fun.

This is the story of one Karim Issar who comes to New York City from the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, circa 1999.   He’s a computer programming whiz who views himself as a talented racquetball player, despite the fact that the sport is out of favor by this date.   Karim is in the U.S. to work out Y2K solutions for Shrub Equities.   This is pretty boring work so Karim decides to spend his time creating the Kapitoil computer program.   Kapitoil uses news events to predict oil futures.   If it is successful, which it proves to be, Karim’s program will make an immense amount of money for his employer.

This set-up does not sound like the basis for a humorous story, but it is because Karim is an utterly literal person and his limited understanding of English phrases and slang often causes him to be confused.   For example, when a date tells him, “Let’s see if we can’t do it more often…”   He responds, “I would enjoy that.   But let us see if we can do it more often.”   Why Americans use negative terms like “can’t” when their intention is to be positive is completely puzzling to Karim.

Karim begins keeping a daily journal of unclear English terms with his definitions of what the words and phrases actually mean (His supervisor’s requests for a major league favor = a significant favor; buying a round = purchasing alcoholic drinks in bulk for several people).   Yet he’s often tempted to correct his co-workers’ grammatical mistakes.   When one says to him, “You tell me one million times”, he corrects her:  “You have told me one million times.”

Karim is such an alien to NYC culture that in reading this I was sometimes reminded of the role that Jeff Bridges played in the film Starman.   Seeing the confusing world of humans through the totally logical eyes of the Starman was highly entertaining and enlightening.   The same can be said for our protagonist in the first half of this novel.

The reader will soon guess, however, that the fun of following a befuddled if clearly brilliant Karim around the Big Apple is going to be diminished once his computer program proves to be successful.   Then the seriousness kicks in – and the fun quickly departs – because Karim has created something very valuable and there are many schemers who want to take him away from his goose that lays golden eggs.

Can Karim learn, in the space of just three months, who he can trust and who cannot be trusted?   How will he balance his need for acclaim and riches against a new girlfriend of a different culture (she’s Jewish) and less successful than he?   How will he address the needs of his beloved but ill younger sister – and his overly gruff widower father, back in Qatar.   It all winds up in an unexpected fashion, which this reviewer suspects will make many readers less than happy.

Kapitoil is a first fun and then serious tale of self-discovery.   At its conclusion, our protagonist has discovered who he is and what he values.   It is a morality play that is uniquely structured; entertaining and yet less than what it could have been.

Take Away:   Teddy Wayne has written a novel that reads like a teddy bear before it turns into an overly serious grizzly bear.   Let’s hope his next story is fun, fun, fun all the way through.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Less Really is More

Street Fighters by Kate Kelly (Portfolio, 245 pages)

On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System by Henry M. (Hank) Paulson, Jr. (Business Plus, 496 pages)

“Bear Sterns, as it turned out, was only the first in a long string of financial firms to suffer mortal harm.  …By September 2008, just six months after Bear’s sale to J. P. Morgan, the investment banking industry had effectively ceased to exist.”   Kate Kelly

Kate Kelly’s book, subtitled The Last 72 Hours of Bear Sterns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street, proves once again that less can be more.   This is a riveting, fly on the wall, account of the rapid demise of the once-powerful Bear Sterns investment firm.   Sterns was Wall Street’s fifth-largest investment bank with a market value of $25 billion dollars – with a “b.”   It was virtually given to J. P. Morgan for the fire sale price of $236 million – with an “m.”

Kelly’s book, an expansion of a three-part series of articles that she wrote for The Wall Street Journal, tells us how this all came to pass in less than half a week in March of 2008.   These were mad-crazy times, the beginning of this country’s fiscal implosion and she covers it in a manner that brings to mind Robert (Bob) Woodward’s reporting.   As with Woodward, Kelly interviewed hundreds of individuals who were present at the meetings and events described here and quoted them without attribution.   But in some instances the reader can clearly tell who the source was, as in cases where an underling criticizes a supervisor.   However, Kelly’s style is smoother and less choppy than Woodward’s first drafts of history.

Street Fighters has 229 pages of actual content and it appears to be just right.   The typical reader will finish the true tale thinking that everything essential was told and little was left out.   There’s both a new preface and a prologue to the trade paperback edition for those who don’t choose to supplement the account with Google searches.

That the length appears to be just right is not something that can be said of On the Brink, the loveable Hank Paulson’s 496 page account of the U.S. and the world’s financial meltdown.   If the mention of 500 pages doesn’t make the point, consider that it takes 13 full CDs to contain the unabridged audiobook version.   Apparently no editors were employed to deliver this effort.

What’s mind-boggling, and often frustrating, about Paulson’s account is that he appears to cover every meeting, every phone call, every thought over a period of weeks and months with dozens of important figures.   Yet he tells the reader that he does not maintain briefing papers, nor ask his staff members to do so, and does not keep records (including e-mails) other than phone call and meeting logs.   From this, he’s recreated virtually everything that happened from an apparently perfect memory – or could it be that recordings were used?   It doesn’t really matter.   It’s just that there is so much detail that this reviewer was worn out less than a third of the way through.

There are also some contradictions apparent in Paulson’s telling.   He gives us several of his seemingly expert opinions about the financial events of the last two years before reminding us that, “I’m not an economist.”   This has the same effect as someone writing about brain surgery and then stating, “I am not a physician.”   He also tells us that he’s not a sentimental person, but he writes of the often-criticized Tim Geithner like a father writing about his favorite son.   One half expects to read that Geithner solved the financial crisis by walking on water.

For those looking for an explanation as to why the U.S. government saved or bailed out some companies but not others, the explanation is not here.   Why did the government ensure that Morgan purchased Bear while permitting Lehman Brothers to fail?   All that can be said is that Paulson provides a few non-explanatory explanations.   In the end they just do not add up.

And lastly, as Bob Seger might have warned, what to leave out is just as important as what to leave in.   Kate Kelly in her nonfiction account nailed it.   Paulson was not even close.

Take Away:  Street Fighters is highly recommended.  

A copy of Street Fighters was purchased by the reviewer.   A copy of On the Brink was provided by the publisher.

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