I attended a book reading and signing by Pete Dexter on Thursday night. It was a very entertaining evening. Dexter is an old newspaper guy from Philadelphia and he had a ton of great stories. One was about a guy he knew who would always invite people to punch him in the stomach. By flexing his powerful stomach muscles he was able to stop the puncher’s fist cold. Not the most impressive trick, but good for a few laughs. Well, all was going fine until one day he invited the then unknown Sonny Liston to slug him in the gut and was promptly sent flying across the room. Dexter had several stories like this which kept people in stitches. He also read from the beginning of his latest book, Train, which is very good by the way. I had him sign a copy of his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout, and while I was standing there I asked him which of his books he thought I should read next. He recommended both Deadwood and Brotherly Love. I’ll have to look for those.
We’re moving this summer. I’m already dreading the packing, loading, moving, unpacking part, but other than that, I’m pretty excited. In July we’ll be departing for temporary digs in the Washington, DC area as we figure out our final destination. One thing’s for sure, though, our short stint in the Midwest is coming to an end. I never quite fell for Chicago, not the way I did for LA, anyway, but I have come to see why this place has a particular hold on people. I think part of it is the way the city wears its history on its sleeve. The city also has a rich literary history that is still very much being added to.All of this brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to the Riverhead catalog, which is next in the stack that I got from Penguin not too long ago. A couple of books in there – paperbacks of hardcovers that are already out – are worth sharing, one of which is a worthy addition to Chicago’s literature. Adam Langer’s The Washington Story brings readers back to West Rogers Park, a thickly multicultural neighborhood not far from where I live. The book is named after Harold Washington, who was mayor of Chicago during the 1980s, when the book takes place. The Washington Story is the sequel to Crossing California, Langer’s much praised debut (which is in the queue). The hardcover has been out since last August and the paperback comes out in September.Also coming out in September is the hilarious The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman. Hodgeman is now a regular on the Daily Show, where he does a nerdy expert shtick that is pitch-perfect, and he also appears in the new Mac commercials. The book – a compendium of fake facts, essentially – is perhaps most famous for the 700 hobo names contained within. You can hear Hodgman read the hobo names to music, and you can look at illustrations people have done of some of the hobos. Hodgman also has a blog. He ends all posts with “That is all.” The hardcover came out last October.Extras: From Penguin’s New American Library imprint comes The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right. The book is by Robert Lanham creator/editor of freewilliamsburg.com, and author of the Hipster Handbook. This time, Lanham turns his “anthropological eye” on conservative evangelical culture. The book comes out in September and would go well – or not – with this forthcoming “Compete Idiot’s” title. Finally, as if to prove that we’re all just one silly idea away from a book deal, the International Talk Like A Pirate Day guys have a book (which is already out, but I guess the publisher wants to remind booksellers to stock up each year in preparation for the lucrative Talk Like A Pirate Day shopping season).
In an article on Washington Post’s Outlook Sunday, book critic Ron Charles explores the Harry Potter phenomenon, dissects – rather unfavorably – J.K. Rowling’s writing and discusses issues that are larger than the teenage wizard. Yes, larger than Potter – if you can believe it.With the seventh installment hitting the shelves July 21, Potter-mania is reaching new heights. Charles points out that millions of people will receive or buy Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows in a single day, a great marketing success that also bonds readers across the world. But, Charles also points out, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, half of all Americans will not buy a single novel in 2007.The widespread belief that the Potter series is to books what marijuana is to drugs does not hold, Charles argues. He also reflects on his tenure as an English teacher, saying that he should have structured his courses to enable kids to craft their own taste in literature – instead of having them read all the classics. An interesting approach which, as an aspiring journalist, intrigues me as I think of how the media is trying to adapt – quite unsuccessfully – to the post-baby boomer generations’ habits in following news, or lack thereof.Slightly condescending and very witty, Charles’s funny reporting and commentary is worth your five minutes as you try to ease in to Monday. Check out “Harry Potter and the Death of Reading“, it’ll give you some good food for thought. Not to worry, if you are a Potter fan like me, you won’t be terribly turned off.See Also: The Grinch Who Hates Harry Potter
Nick Hornby, the British novelist and professional music fan who folks love to hate will have a new novel out in the US in June. Though Songbook is good bathroom reading, Hornby’s books are just too fluffy for me. At Yossarian’s Diary they’ve already had a look at the new book, and the prognosis isn’t good:April brings A Long Way Down, a new novel from Nick Hornby, and sadly I don’t think the showers will wash it away. Yossarian so wants to like Hornby’s fiction, but each book seems to be so much poorer than the last (although his non-fiction is always enjoyable to read)–and How to Be Good was a very poor work from such a high profile author. However, if you liked that book, then you’ll undoubtedly like this tale (known around here as The Pizza Suicides) of four strangers who meet on a roof as they all decide to end it all by jumping off. One of them, a pizza delivery boy, is an American. You can tell this by the way he says “man” a lot. Hmmmm.
If you like the New York Giants,Or just happen to live in New York and listen to sports radio;If you have heard how fickle Giants fans have treated their quarterback,Doubting his abilities with every unkind bounce of the ball;If you were subjected to any amount of Superbowl hypeIn which Eli Manning was measured without end against Tom Brady,never favorably;If you are a little brother, an upstart, or an underdog of any ilk;If you harbor any trace of a belief in the power of sports to thrill and inspire,Or have yourself been doubted and maligned;You will recognize these words of Rudyard KiplingHave uncanny meaning in the context of Sunday’s big game,In which young Eli became a Man(ning)
New Yorker writer, George Packer has written some impressive articles on the Iraq war over the past few years (rivaling those of another favorite, Jon Lee Anderson.) Of late, I’ve been hearing good things about Packer’s new book on the subject, The Assassins’ Gate. From a Washington Post review:How did this happen? How could the strongest power in modern history, going to war against a much lesser opponent at a time and place of its own choosing, find itself stuck a few years later, hemorrhaging blood and treasure amid increasing chaos? Americans will be debating the answer for decades, and as they do, they are unlikely to find a better guide than George Packer’s masterful new The Assassins’ Gate.The Post will also be hosting a live discussion with Packer today at 3pm Eastern.
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.
My dad’s family is from New Jersey, and they are proud of it. I lived there for a couple of years when I was younger. Folks from Jersey tend to have chips on their shoulders because New Jersey is the butt of a lot of jokes. They will strenuously claim that the state consists of more than just the Turnpike. They will describe the beaches and the countryside. Now they don’t have to bother with the arguments, they can just leave the Encyclopedia of New Jersey sitting out on the coffee table. With nearly 3,000 entries and lots of entertaining factual tidbits like “did you know that New Jersey was once divided into two parts — East Jersey and West Jersey?” perhaps this book will help Jersey join its rightful place among the states. Fittingly, the project was inspired by a classic case of New York envy. As this FOX News article recounts, Marc Mappen, head of the New Jersey Historical Commission, was perusing a popular encyclopedia of New York City and decided that New Jersey ought to have its own reference book. He worked with co-editor Maxine N. Lurie for ten years, and now the book has arrived. You can check out some sample entries hereMy sources are telling me that The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler is turning out to be something of a surprise hit. Two largely positive reviews from the New York Times, one in the daily and one in the Sunday Book Review, are helping. This sort of meta-fiction has proven quite successful in recent years; The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair are two examples. And believe it or not, a book that centers on a book club is seen as perfect for book clubs.