Book Review - The Elephanta Suite
by Paul Theroux
I'm not as much a fan of Paul Theroux' fiction as I am of his travel writings but I wanted to read The Elephanta Suite for its cover photograph. What's so special about the cover you ask? It shows a vista that has now been crudely obscured by an ugly, if necessary flyover. The photograph shows Mohammed Ali Road, a center of Muslim life in Mumbai, scene of glorious mayhem, food and people, cars and scooters, everyone jostling for space. It is the neighborhood my dad grew up in and which I regularly visited all through my childhood. To the right is the Minara Masjid, where I have prayed with my dad, in the bottom right corner is Suleman Usman Mithaiwala, where I have shopped for sweets, and further down the street is Noble Opticians, my optometerists for twenty years. Unfortunately, Mohammed Ali Road has nothing to do with the book itself. The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas, each set in a different section of India with only the slightest passing reference to each other. The three locations as separated by space as by culture. The first story takes place in an exotic mountainside spa, the second alternates between the posh hotels and seedy slums of Mumbai while the third unravels in Sai Baba's ashram and a call center in Bangalore. I'm not sure if I'm saying this as an interested party but I found Mr. Theroux' depiction of Indians less than fair. Admittedly, I don't have the perspective of an American in the Indian situations described by Mr. Theroux. However, the caricature of almost every Indian his American characters come across as money grubbing, self centered or sexually desperate seems quite harsh. The American characters are relatively more sympathetic, but no less pitiful - which begs the question, is this book just an exaggerated expression of Mr. Theroux' dour view of the world? I find it hard to conclude otherwise.
I found the first novella weak but the denouement of the latter two is quite satisfying. Recommended.
Book Review - The Quants
by Scott Patterson
The one consistently recurring theme in The Quants is gambling. Ed Thorp, who according to Scott Patterson is the godfather of a quantitative based approach to investing is also the author of the Blackjack card counting classic, Beat the Dealer and the subsequent primer on a quantitative approach to investing - Beat the Market. Scott Patterson is a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal and in The Quants he tells the story of several different men (and a couple of women) who used their incredible quantitative skills to build some of the most powerful hedge funds of our times. The book begins (and ends) with what looks and sounds like a set piece, the Wall Street Poker Night Tournament, starring the kings of the quantitative universe - Peter Muller of PDT, Ken Griffin of Citadel Investment Group, Cliff Asness of AQR Capital Management and Boaz Weinstein of Saba. Each of these men has made hundreds of millions of dollars on Wall Street using their mathematics backgrounds and each has a fascination bordering on obsession with poker. The way the book is set up, you get the impression this story will be told through this selected cast of characters, much like how in The Big Short Michael Lewis focuses his attentions on a small group of hedge funds managers to tell the story of the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. Unfortunately, Mr. Patterson is not quite as skillful a story teller as Mr. Lewis. I quickly lost track of the main characters, as Mr. Patterson moves the spotlight to a long list of supporting cast members. There is Ed Thorp as I already mentioned, Jim Simons of Renaissance Technologies, Aaron Brown, Paul Wilmott, Benoit Mandelbrot, Bill Gross and others who are given attention is such a way as to interfere with the flow of the narrative. Another flaw of Mr. Patterson's style is that he does not seem to maintain a consistent style - there are some chapters where all the main protagonists are covered, there are some focused on a specific person and then there are some that are descriptive of a situation without focusing on any one character. This muddled style leads to an unsatisfying reading experience. Since I'm on a roll here, let me add one more criticism - The Quants manages to give only glimpses of the mechanics of how money is made by the Citadels of the world. It does not get technical, unfortunately.
In spite of my overall disappointment with the book, I recommend reading it. It is a good introduction to the stars of the quantitative hedge fund world and at about 300 pages not irksome in length.