The other day I found a fascinating blog devoted to words, linguistics, languages and other related topics called Languagehat. I have been meaning to mention it for a while, and today I have good reason to. I don’t often talk about reference books on The Millions even though I use them every day. Lucky for us, Languaghat keeps track of these sorts of things. Today, he posts links to interesting reviews of new editions of two popular reference books, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.
I went back home to Istanbul for my cousin's wedding (yes, a lot of weddings indeed, fun nevertheless, and may all of them be happy) and there picked up Tuna Kiremitci's third novel Yolda Uc Kisi (Three People on the Road). I had briefly mentioned Tuna Kiremitci's first two novels in my Year in Reading for 2004. I had found both very pop but at the same time sincere and interesting. Yolda Uc Kisi has an interesting storyline, but it does not explore feelings, ideas, conflicts, and desires as strongly as its predecessors. The author's involvement as the narrator was also too cheap and easy at times, helping Kiremitci to skim over facts that could well make the novel more interesting. I understand that he is a poet and would rather take the short cut, but Yolda Uc Kisi was a disappointing read with certain highlights and no identifiable resolution. I would recommend Orhan Pamuk's Sessiz Ev (also reviewed last year) for those interested in the divide between the understanding of revolutionaries and consumers, as well as young and old, and the political life in Turkey before the military coup of 1980, it goes much deeper than Yolda Uc Kisi, and actually presents a full story.Funny book given as present by my friend Roland at the Virginia wedding: In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot by Graham Roumieu. Absolutely hilarious, from the myth to pop culture, everything that Bigfoot presents in his broken English puts a smile on your face or makes you laugh out loud. You will read the whole book in 5 minutes and then rush over to your friends to read what you thought was the funniest, realizing soon thereafter that you have read the whole thing to them, too. Go to a bookstore, pick it up, and see if it makes you smile. [Ed. Note: I'm also a big fan of the Bigfoot book. Go here to get a taste of Roumieu's art.]Next I turned to Danyel Smith's Bliss, which hit the shelves on July 12 to great acclaim. Smith takes the reader through the booming world of hip hop in the late '80s and the '90s, through the experiences, ambitions, and personal conflicts of Eva Glenn, a successful executive at Roadshow Records. Although fairly well concentrated on her career and personal freedom, Eva actually has little time to focus on her real problems as she juggles Sunny, her successful, multi-platinum artist; Ron Lil' John, her rival record executive and part-time lover; Dart, Sunny's manic-depressive brother and manager; and all other rivals in the cut-throat recording industry. Bliss is very pop and fun to read: Eva's constant musings over songs - relating developments in her life through verses from artists like the Temptations and Tupac - her constant inner dialogue, which explains the real motivations behind her actions, and stories of making mixed tapes from radio broadcasts make for a novel that captivates the reader. Bliss is very similar to Syrup by Maxx Barry in both style and context. I had enjoyed Syrup a lot when I read it and think that it covers personal vice and dynamics of a cut-throat industry - marketing in this instance - stronger than Bliss does. Nevertheless, it was really entertaining to read about the recording industry especially when the story is of success, competition, music. If you are headed to the beach before the summer is over, or have a sweet life like Eva Glenn and will be traveling to an exotic island, take Bliss with you and marvel at how, maybe one day, your life can be like that too.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3
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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.
If you haven't seen the action in the comments of Garth's reply to n+1's column on litblogs, it's worth a look, as the discussion has, shall we say, flowed onward. Mark, meanwhile, has begun posting "an irregular featurette" called "The n+1 Letters" in which he revisits the correspondence he has had with the magazine in question. Here at The Millions we tend to take a more dispassionate view the literary scuffles that crop up from time to time, but being in the middle of this one hasn't been entirely unpleasant. It's entertaining at the very least.Update: Scott has expressed his queasiness with the tack Mark is taking, and I'll admit to sharing that discomfort. (I would not republish private correspondence without permission.) Also, n+1 editor Keith Gessen has now left a comment at the original post.
I've been having a really good time following the race for the Democratic nomination. As is usually the case with me and politics, I'm far more interested as an observer than as a participant. The daily maneuvering makes for good reading. I've mostly been following the action at The Note, the daily column put together by ABC News' political unit. It's a great behind-the-scenes look at the process. All of this politicking has got me thinking about one of my all time favorite books. Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 combines, in a way that only Thompson can, political reporting with author's deteriorating ability to keep it all together. I enjoy this book the most out of all of Thompson's books because it provides a terrific outsider's look at the mealy insides of American politics. Thompson sharing the back of a limo with Nixon on a ride from Boston to Manchester is priceless. But it is also amazing because it comes at an odd moment in Thompson's career, the point of transition from the clear-headed, idealistic recklessness of Hell's Angels to the addled egotism of his later work. The book got me excited about politics, but I was frustrated that Thompson wasn't able to keep writing at this level for the rest of his career. Still, it remains a fantastic book for anyone who is interested in history or politics, especially if you have taste for Thompson's singular, stylistic flair.
This week's New Yorker gives word of two more new new books that I am excited about. Robert Polidori is an architectural photographer by trade. If you look at his photographs, though, you will see that he is also something more. He is gifted in his ability to draw out the stunning colors that lay dormant within his subjects as an astronomer might reveal fantastical nebulae somehow hidden from the naked eye. His last book, Havana, is an exploration of the wilted beauty of a crumbling city (click here for some photos). His new book, Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl, is a study in the deadlier decay of one of the twentieth century's greatest disasters.I've often thought to myself that Knopf would do well to put out a comprehensive collection of John Updike's short stories, and it appears as though this will come to pass this fall in the form of The Early Stories, 1953-1975. There are many who have claim to the mantle of best American Short Story writer, and Updike is incontrovertibly among them.