• WisBusiness

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Book review: "Catastrophe: The Story of Bernard L. Madoff, The Man Who Swindled the World"


By Terri Schlichenmeyer
by Deborah and Gerald Strober c.2009, Phoenix Books $14.95 / $16.95 256 pages
Ever play "Chutes and Ladders"?

"Chutes and Ladders", of course, was (and still is) a board game for small children. If you land on a square with a ladder, you move up the board quickly. If you land on a square with a chute, you slide back down just as fast. First to the top wins.

And that pretty much sums up the stock market lately. Up the ladder, down the chute, and few winners.

But some investors lost everything to someone authors Deborah and Gerald Strober say has been called the most hated man in New York. In the new book "Catastrophe", you'll read about Bernie Madoff, his scams, and his victims.

Bernard Madoff was born in 1938 in New York and was raised in Queens. Although he attended a close-knit high school, surprisingly few of his classmates remember him from then. His acumen with money wasn't obvious when he was in high school, but in 1960, he took $5,000, invested it, and founded Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, LLC, or BMIS.

Almost quietly, he began making his fortune. Madoff was doing things that few brokers were doing; some later called him a "pioneer" and a "financial wizard". Few experts had even heard of him prior to the 1980s. No one seems to know for sure when he started his Ponzi scheme.

When the scandal broke and Madoff was arrested, people were horrified to learn that the man they trusted was "a thief". Some lost millions of dollars; others lost everything, having turned over their nest-egg or their entire retirement fund to Madoff for investing. Most question whether he actually invested anything at all.

The list of victims reads like a Society Page: a senator, a filmmaker, actors, playwrights, Palm Beach residents, sports team owners. Madoff even swindled a 90-year-old man who considered Madoff "as a son".

But you know all -- or most -- of this. So why read the book?

Authors Deborah and Gerald Strober doggedly interviewed dozens of people who were victims of or knew Bernard Madoff, people who were affected by his actions, and a few who were able to see past his "charm". Although it dips into the melodramatic and sometimes reads like a supermarket tabloid, pulling all this information into one place makes this book an as-comprehensive-as-possible explanation of what transpired, given that we may never know for sure.

Surprisingly, religion comes into play a lot in "Catastrophe", and not just because Madoff is Jewish, as are many of his victims. The authors explore forgiveness, which is interesting since they include irate quotations pulled from other sources, as well as plenty of angry blog entries in this book.

In their afterword, they discuss how this happened, and they offer scenarios for what comes next in this drama and in the way we do financial business.

If you love to play the stock market, gambol in gambling, or otherwise sport with your savings, pick up "Catastrophe". This cautionary (true) tale proves that the game of finance is no game at all.

-- Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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