It’s officially been summer for coming up on two weeks, which means that, in accordance with typical publishing and bookselling practices, near the front of the bookstore there will be stacks of books by new and unknown authors all vying to become this summer’s “breakout hit.” Last year the winner of the “breakout hit” lottery was won by Alice Sebold whose book, The Lovely Bones, was much purchased and enjoyed by the majority and vehemently despised by the minority of readers who are not willing to shut off the part of the brain that determines what is tasteful and what is not. What’s funny about this way of selling books is that every bookstore that you walk into will try to make its customers think that their staff personally discovered these new authors and that the customers are among the lucky first few to enjoy these newcomers. In reality, the candidates for “breakout hit” are chosen months in advance by the publishing companies and aggressively marketed much in the same way that one would market a film. In a sense The Lovely Bones is not very different from The Hulk. In my opinion this year’s winner has already been declared: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is already the book that recreational readers ask for by name when looking for a summer reading distraction. This non-threateningly clever, historical thriller acheived success in a couple of ways. First, like all of the other “breakout hit” candidates it is engagingly written and also contains a “hook,” in this case the idea is that embedded within da Vinci’s famous artwork are hidden clues that can solve a present day murder mystery while at the same time unravelling some of humanity’s great unsolved conundrums. Very Indiana Jones. Secondly, in the weeks leading up to the release of The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday reps blitzed bookstores to talk up the book, hand out advance copies, and put up teaser posters. Finally Doubleday’s publicists were able to get the book mentioned in all the weekly newsmags and grocery store aisle gossip rags. Voila! Breakout hit… There are lots of books sitting on either side of The Da Vinci Code on the “breakout hit” display, all are almost as heavily marketed but some might be a bit more rewarding: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is narrated by a 15 year old autistic math savant who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes and tries to find out who murdered his neighbor’s dog. Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy is an example of what a multi-generational saga can look like when written by a young writer. Bangkok 8 is a debut by John Burdett. This one is perfect for those who like thrillers in exotic locals. (In this case, a U.S. Marine is dead in Thailand. Great cover art, too). Finally, Benjamin Cavell’s Rumble, Young Man, Rumble and Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians are two much lauded short story collections. Bye now…
In the New Yorker, Ian Frazier shares some stories about how the modern novel is threatening to bring down the American economy.Right now, it’s costing me forty-five dollars to fill up my 4Runner, which is about two novels. Tough decisions are going to have to be made. I’m used to having a newly released hardcover on the dash of my vehicle, another in the back seat for the kids. At home, we’ve got a novel in each bedroom, two in the family room, one in the laundry room for my wife when she’s down there, and a novella in the john. We go through a couple of dozen novels in a year without even noticing. I hate to say it, but this can’t go on.
Mrs. Millions has decided that if I’m going to do all this blogging she should get something out of it, too. She reads a lot, and it seems that I’m always digging through our bookshelves looking for another book for her to read. Well, I’m running out of ideas, so she’s decided to bypass me and go straight to you guys. She has thoughtfully provided her recent reading preferences to help you select something to her liking. You’ll notice here, as well, the attention Mrs. Millions pays to the look and feel of the books she reads, so you may want to factor that in.Like Max, I look forward to vacation because it demands that vast amounts of time be spent reading. Unlike Max, I do not have a reading queue but instead rely upon recommendations (always Max’s) for what to read next, or I search for an appealing title and cover from the Millions library, letting chance encounters determine my next choice. But now, Max is kindly letting me use the blog to place a request for suggestions… I call it “What’s next for Mrs. Millions?”My most recent read is Small Island by Andrea Levy, which I am presently halfway through and am enjoying because it is fiction that weaves itself through history without being too tightly bound to it. Levy’s book also has an incredibly intentional feel to it and it is filled with vivid detail. The book is printed on paper that is like newsprint with rough edges – the tactility of a book impresses me as much as the content. Prior to this was Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. This was not among my favorites, primarily because the story was too neat with not enough depth, and it’s a hardcover with bookjacket (which I immediately removed, as I often do). But it had a tough act to follow: The World According to Garp by John Irving is messy and endearing, pressing all the wrong and right buttons. Ours is an older copy, used before we acquired it which seemed in step with the novel – I even kept this one’s jacket on. And before that was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, my favorite among this group.With that brief history in mind, please send Max your suggestions sothat I will be kept from interrupting his reading time. ; ]So got any ideas? Help me out here folks. Leave your suggestions in the comments below.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is known as much for its content as for the story surrounding its creation: Kerouac wrote in a frenzied three weeks, typing furiously on a continuous scroll of paper, or so the story goes. The truth is though, while there is indeed a scroll – it has toured the country for years, stopping at various museums and libraries – On the Road’s creation is more complicated than that, as a recent NPR segment discussed.In fact, On the Road wasn’t written in a three week rush, it was half formed in Kerouac’s notebooks before ending up on the scroll and went through many drafts afterward. Furthermore, the version on the scroll isn’t what we’ve read, as the novel evolved in future drafts and was fairly heavily edited before Viking finally published the book in 1957. Not only that, the end of the scroll is missing – eaten by a dog supposedly – so it’s not entirely clear what Kerouac’s original intention was for the end of the novel.Still, the On the Road scroll is a powerful thing symbolically, and it may be closer to what Kerouac intended the novel to be than what was published originally. In recognition of that, for the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, Viking (now a part of Penguin) is publishing the scroll (in book form, of course) with an ending taken from other early drafts of On the Road.For those who prefer the On the Road that we grew up reading (watered down though it may be), a standard 50th Anniversary edition is on its way as well. You can shelve it alongside the 40th Anniversary edition you bought ten years ago.
Laurel writes to tell us about a fiction contest that she’s involved with at Verb. Stories up to 5,000 words are eligible and the winner receives $1,000 and publication in an issue of Verb. The judge for the contest is Thisbe Nissen who wrote Osprey Island and once helped my friends find an apartment in Iowa City. Verb isn’t your typical literary magazine, by the way. Laurel says: “Verb is the first audioquarterly, which means that you’ll be recording your story for distribution through audible.com, and to subscribers on a CD! If you would prefer, an actor may record in your stead. Past contributors include Robert Olen Butler, Stuart Dybek, Peter Case, Julianna Baggott, Ha Jin, and many others.”
Last week, Max directed our attention to a major new piece of reporting on the financial crisis: a Portfolio article by Millions favorite Michael Lewis. The author of Liar’s Poker, among other books, Lewis is a gifted explainer of an industry badly in need of explanations. In the Portfolio piece, for example, he immerses us in the world of short-sellers who saw the subprime meltdown coming. However, the key paragraph – wherein trader Steve Eisman has an epiphany about how investment banks are leveraging subprime bonds – resorts to a sports metaphor, and thus fails to demystify an elusive instrument at the center of the financial crisis: the credit default swap (CDS).”When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats,” Lewis writes.But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. ‘They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,’ Eisman says. ‘They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses are so much greater than the loans.’I’ve heard financial insiders inveigh against peons who “don’t know a credit-default swap from a turnip,” but how are we to wise up, if explanations only come in the form of metaphors (athletic or agricultural)? Grabbing a fig leaf from the N+1 playbook, as it were, I decided to ask a friend in finance to explain the Peyton Manning analogy, as simply as possible. Here’s what he had to say (wait for “the rub”):Assume the following: Eisman buys a crappy mortgage security (say, a $1,000 bond from a mortgage given to a strawberry picker who makes $14,000 dollars per year). Say the mortgage rate the strawberry picker pays is 15%. This means he’s agreed to pay $150 a year to Eisman. But Eisman is worried that the strawberry picker will default because the guy’s house value has collapsed and his income is drying up. Thus, Eisman wants to buy insurance on the $1,000 he’s loaned. The way he does this is via a credit default swap.A CDS is essentially an insurance policy on a loan, and here’s how it works. Eisman finds a counterparty willing to sell him insurance on his loan (a big investment bank like Lehman Brothers). Eisman agrees to pay the bank a fixed rate every year for protection of the mortgage security he owns (the crappier the loan, the higher the rate). Let’s say for the $1,000 loan to the strawberry picker, his rate will be 10%. The bank pays him nothing on a regular basis, BUT, if the borrower defaults, they pay him the full $1,000.So: if times are good and everyone makes payments on time, the payments are structured as follows: The strawberry picker pays $150 per year to Eisman; Eisman pays $100 per year to Lehman (which then uses some of the cash to provision for losses, and uses the rest to make more loans). The strawberry picker gets to keep his house, Eisman keeps $50 per year (loan payment from strawberry picker minus the insurance premium he pays to Lehman), and Lehman gets $100.Got the structure? Now here’s the rub.Imagine Eisman never actually had exposure to the loan in the first place. Being the brilliant skeptic he is, Eisman would never lend $1,000 to a strawberry picker with little income. He thinks that strawberry man is doomed to default on that loan, and he actually wants to bet AGAINST him. So instead of giving the loan and buying insurance, he just buys the insurance (hence the often used and rarely understood term “side bet”). To do this, Eisman still has to pay the “premium” for the insurance he’s bought, and since it’s a risky loan, the rate is high (e.g. $100 per year in the example above). [Though he stands to win $1,000 if the loan defaults.] In effect, Eisman is paying a “subprime-like” interest rate to Lehman every year! That’s what Lewis was getting at.I would have used a different metaphor. I would have said it’s like a New Yorker buying a bunch of home insurance policies in New Orleans because you are expecting that there will be a massive hurricane coming to wreck them. Now lets say that the insurance company took the money you were giving it, didn’t provision for the coming doom, and instead, used that money to lend to more people building and buying houses in New Orleans.That’s leverage upon leverage upon leverage. And that’s the mess that is unraveling before us.