The emergence of the New York Review of Books publishing arm has been a treasure. They have managed, with this line of books, to package the feeling of falling suddenly in love with a book that you only even opened on a whim, perhaps being drawn in by an intriguing cover or title. They have hand selected the most deserving of the unknown and the out of print and returned them to bookshelves. Among the hundred or so titles that they have put out in their four or fve years is the book that I will keep mentioning until everyone on the planet has read it: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. Thanks to the Book Expo’s being in town this weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to Edwin Frank the editor of the New York Review of Books series. We discussed Maqroll at length, of course, trading theories as to whether or not the Gaviero will appear in print again, or whether it is up to us readers to track down his further adventures on our own. (Read the book; you’ll understand). We also talked about uncovering lost treasures in used bookstores, at good will, and at sidewalk book stalls. We also discussed several of the other titles in the series. When I asked him for the hidden gem among the hidden gems, he passed this title my way: To Each His Own, a Sicilian mystery by Leonardo Sciascia. He rated this one among the very best of the series, and since he’s the one who picks the books, I can’t help but trust him.
Last night, caught in some sort of TV doldrums, Mrs. Millions and I ended up watching "The National Scrabble Championships" on ESPN2. Two pasty guys hunched over a table doesn't typically qualify as a sport, but we figured we'd allow ESPN2 this digression from its usual content. Or maybe since the poker shows have been such a hit, they're trying to introduce more "seated around a table" activities to their lineup. Regardless, since we're known to whip out the Scrabble board, we watched. It was mildly entertaining. One of the commentators was Stefan Fatsis, sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal and author of Word Freak, a look into the odd world of competitive Scrabble. A couple of years ago I gave the book to Mrs. Millions, and let her know that I'd like to read it when she was done. She ripped through it, and started talking about "bingos" and "combos" and other strange things. She read the book so intently that the it literally fell apart - torn binding, pages scattered everywhere - totally unreadable. So, I've never read the book. And she's beaten me at Scrabble ever since.
If you're a New Yorker obsessive like I am, then you'll love the new feature at Emdashes. Emily has lined up a pair of librarians who work at the New Yorker to answer questions about the magazine, and as one might expect, they are very thorough in their responses. The first installment covers A.J. Liebling's start at the magazine, spot illustrations, typewriters, Calvin Trillin's food writing, movie reviews, and fact-checking cartoons. There will be more installments to come, so send in your questions.
Gogol's The Overcoat and Flaubert's A Simple Heart have in common narrators who are, at least initially, satisfied with what I think many would consider very meager lives. They are both poor, single, friendless, both workers whose work (a clerk who copies documents in a Russian government office, and a maid of all work in a French bourgeois household) does not seem particularly meaningful or interesting. And yet they are both content. Deeply content: "After working to his heart's content, he would go to bed, smiling at the thought of the next day and wondering what God would send him to copy. So flowed on the peaceful life of a man who knew how to be content with his fate." This is Gogol describing his hero, but the description easily applies to Flaubert's Felicité.Teaching these stories this week, I was not surprised exactly, but bemused, by the various shades of contempt my students showed toward these characters' lives - By and large, they found Akaky and Felicité sad, pathetic, depressing. These brightest of the bright seemed to view with horror the notion of being satisfied with so little, with such colorless, pleasureless lives. And who can blame them, when their own lives have already delivered so much more?Hobbes wrote, "For as to have no desire, is to be Dead." And I can see that the sort of lean, desire-less lives that Flaubert and Gogol's heroes live are a sort of death-in-life. But I also envy their contentment. Contentment - the state of having all you want - is so rare. The peacefulness of such a state seems incomprehensible to me and somewhat otherworldly. It also seems that the possession of such a state erases, for the possessor at least, what appears from the outside to be small and sad life. ("There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," as Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.)A final note on these questions, in the form of an anecdote: Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived by choice as a beggar and rejected all concepts of property, manners, and social and political organization, was visited one day by Alexander the Great. Diogenes was sunning himself on a hillside as Alexander approached and when Alexander asked if there was anything he could offer the philosopher, Diogenes replied: "Stand out of my sunlight." According to Plutarch, Alexander then declared: "If I was not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes."
As we adjust to new economic realities, Michael Lewis is emerging as the financial meltdown's most important voice. His Portfolio piece "The End" told us how we got here but it also illuminated his own failure, in the 1980s, to get the point across with his book Liar's Poker. Meant to be a cautionary tale, it became instead an inspiration.But Lewis appears unwilling to let "The End" be his final, confessional comment on the matter. This weekend, as a new year and new administration are gearing up, Lewis has delivered another far more aggressive piece, this time in the New York Times (Part 1, Part 2). In it, he calls out, more strenuously than before, the fraud, incompetence, and willful ignorance behind the financial crisis and makes it clear that this fall's efforts to resolve it were flawed at best. He also makes several direct, clear-eyed proposals to set things back on the right course. One hopes Obama is watching. One also notices that Lewis, in these pieces, is no longer acting as a journalist or even a columnist. He has thrust himself into the center of this issue, as if looking to finish what he tried to accomplish more than 20 years ago.But Lewis has grown up too. Liar's Poker didn't wake up the world to Wall Street's ills because its tone was too glib and too incredulous. We were meant to marvel at the goings on at Solomon Brothers just as the young Lewis had. That tone is gone now, and Lewis has returned to the task with a fierce seriousness. Whether or not you agree with everything that Lewis is writing in these pieces, his tone, backed up by his more than 30 years of writing about Wall Street, will give even the most optimistic observers pause.Interestingly, Lewis' co-author for the two New York Times pieces is David Einhorn, a hedge fund manager who doesn't exactly have a pristine reputation. Einhorn heads up Greenlight Capital, which racked up average annualized returns of 25.5% from May 1996 through mid-2008, according to New York Times, though his funds, like many on Wall Street, have struggled since. He's also a serious poker player. In 2006, he placed 18th in the World Series of Poker's main event, winning more than $650 thousand that he donated to charity.Einhorn made headlines this year for his very vocal bearish stance on now defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers. Einhorn eventually went public with discrepancies that he and his analysts had found in Lehman's numbers. Believed to be short (i.e. placing bets that the stock would go down) Lehman and other financial names, Einhorn was excoriated in a war of words on Wall Street as regulators targeted short selling among financial stocks. Lewis and Einhorn make it clear where they stand on that issue, calling short sellers, "the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse."After much confusion as the crisis played out in 2008, it may be that we are seeing whistle-blowers like Lewis and Einhorn emerge from the mess to take control of the discussion. In time we will see if they have the ear anyone in power.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has spotted a debut novel called The Testing of Luther Albright by Mackenzie Bezos. Recognize that last name? Mackenzie is none other than the wife of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. The book doesn't come out until August, but an Amazon.com in house reviewer is already describing it as "a debut novel that heralds the beginning of what bodes to be a substantial writing career." PW reviews the book favorably as well. It'll be interesting to see how much review coverage this book gets when it comes out.
● ● ●
Millions contributor Rodger Jacobs is continuing his efforts to get a street in Los Angeles named after F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now, he's put together a short story competition to further commemorate the author. Here's the release:The film production and web publishing company responsible for the petition drive to name the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Hayworth Avenue in honor of the late F. Scott Fitzgerald has announced a short fiction competition to further commemorate the author on the sixty-fifth anniversary of his passing. At the time of his demise on December 21, 1940, the celebrated author of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night was living at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue in the home of gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Rodger Jacobs, President of 8763 Wonderland Ltd., is requesting works of original fiction of no more than four hundred words on the subject of F. Scott Fitzgerald's last days in Hollywood. "The stories can deal with Scott directly or indirectly," says Jacobs, "just as long as they somehow address F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood." Entries will be judged on originality and overall style. Prizes will be announced "sometime in the near future." The deadline for short fiction entries is August 1, 2005. Entries may be e-mailed to [email protected] There is no fee for entrants, though Pay Pal donations are suggested to help defray costs involved in mounting the continuing petition drive. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Memorial Petition can be viewed and electronically signed here.