I caught a few minutes of Fresh Air on NPR while I was out running a quick errand today. Terri Gross was interviewing David Denby, the New Yorker film critic who has a new book out. The book is called American Sucker and it is a memoir of the boom years. In 2000 Denby and his wife split, and he decided that he wanted to keep the Upper West Side apartment that had been their home for many years. In order to do this, Denby hatched a plan to buy out his wife’s share of the apartment. Lacking the funds to make the apartment his and cast adrift by the collapse of his marriage, Denby threw himself wholeheartedly into the mania of the stock market boom with the hopes that he, like so many others seemed to be doing, could hit it big. It would be the solution to all of his problems. A sort of addiction to his quest set in and American Sucker was the result. Today, Terri Gross, in her way, was trying to get him to relate his experience to some classic gambling films, Denby being a film critic and all. Denby, however, begged off and mentioned two interesting books that he feels are most analogous to the way he felt during his ordeal. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and a somewhat forgotten Victorian classic by Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, to Denby’s mind, best portray a sense of monetary desperation in the midst of a boom. I’m hoping that over the next few years there will be more books that look at the boom of the late nineties through a literary lens. It was a strange and fascinating time. Denby’s colleague at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has penned a less personal book about business and money called The Wisdom of Crowds which is slated to come out at the end of May. A quick look reveals that Surowiecki has put together a readable tome meant to illustrate a principle that many economists hold dear: the idea that decisions can be made, problems can be solved, and the future can be predicted by the market. Imagine the Nasdaq but replace companies with possible outcomes. At the end of the day the outcome that is trading at the highest level is probably the correct answer to whatever problem was trying to be solved. Using markets you can, as Surowiecki terms it, unlock the “wisdom of crowds.” Last summer there was much public outcry when it was announced that one of our government agencies was considering setting a market that was meant to predict future terrorist attacks. The idea of people profiting off of this sort of speculation was abhorrent to many people and the plans were shelved, but, in The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki will likely argue that the plan would have worked.
Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow “Year in Reading” contributor Meghan O’Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I’m thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate’s audio podcasts. Future interviews, we’re told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
One of my roommates moved out last summer, but he hasn’t changed his address so we still get a lot of his mail. Every month or so he comes by to pick up another mound of ephemera. It seems mostly to be junk mail and cell phone bills, but the occasional magazine can be found jutting from the pile. Today, in fact, I couldn’t help but notice the corner of the most recent issue of Esquire peeking out from under envelopes and circulars, and on that corner of glossy magazine cover I could see the words “The Best Books of 2003,” so, naturally, I took a gander. It’s not much of a list. They asked eight of their writers to name their favorite book of the year, so there are eight random books on the page, each with a blurb. Still, it gives us something to talk about. Here they are (with my comments, of course): Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown: I had forgotten about this book, but I remember when it came out it sounded very interesting. In the book, Brown, a literature professor at UC Berkeley, tries to discover the truth behind the legend of Stagger Lee, a quasi-mythical figure who is the inspiration for hundreds of versions of the seminal blues song of the same name. It sounds like a really interesting book, full of folklore and roots music. The book’s official website offers up a couple dozen versions of the song (along with a neat map showing when and where they originated) for your listening pleasure.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I feel like I spent most of the summer talking about this book. If you’ve been lurking around here for that long you’ll remember. Several folks have called it “the book of the year,” and it’s hard to argue otherwise. The book is extremely compelling on many levels, even for a non-baseball fan, as it delves into psychology and economics and business. For a baseball fan the book approaches divine.What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller: I think I’ve mentioned this one, too. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In it, a prudish, old schoolteacher recounts the indiscretions of a younger colleague’s dalliances with a 15-year-old student. What starts as a clearcut case, slowly turns itself inside out.Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Hmmm… didn’t this book come out last year? Anyway, this one won the Booker in 2002 and has been a slow burn sensation. It was released to modest acclaim, began to sell well on word of mouth, won the Booker, and never looked back. The paperback edition still appears on many major bestseller lists. I, for one, am still dying to read it, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Everyone I know who has read it (including my grandmother who is one of the “best” readers I know) adores this book about a boy and a tiger.BBQ USA: 425 Fiery Recipes from All Across America by Steve Raichlen: Mmmmm, BBQ. Actually, BBQ is a major American cultural artifact, with countless versions (at least 425) betraying the rich regional diversity of American cooking, which reminds me, some friends of mine have been working for over a year now on a BBQ documentary called Barbecue is a Noun. Sounds pretty tasty.Platform by Michel Houellebecq: Somehow it seems inevitable that Esquire would name this among the best books of the year. I know that there are some serious Houellebecq fanatics out there, but I’m afraid I don’t get it.Rumble, Young Man, Rumble by Benjamin Clavell: Released last spring to stellar reviews, this book surely ranks among the top two or three short story collections released this year.Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers by Katy Lederer: I hadn’t really heard of this one, but it’s one of those “f’d-up-childhood” memoirs, but this time it’s not about being the child of shrinks or mobsters, but gamblers instead. This sort of book has really become a genre of its own and is therefore getting somewhat tiresome; on the other hand, the jacket of this particular book features a blurb from none other than the late, great George Plimpton so it must be good.Actually, that list turned out to be pretty fun.
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…
India’s economy is growing at a tremendous clip with its expanding, highly educated workforce competing for jobs with Western economies. Pakistan, whose President-General is allied with the U.S., in many ways has become a crucial partner (and some say a liability) in America’s adventures and misadventures overseas since 9/11. Both countries have made the world nervous with nuclear posturing over the last decade or so. So it is natural that on the sixtieth anniversary of both countries’ creation via bloody partition, a number of books have recently been published chronicling this pivotal moment in recent history. I’ve listed five of these books on the birth of Pakistan below (Please use the comments to let us know about any I’ve missed.)Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann – New Yorker review; excerptIndia After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha – San Francisco Chronicle reviewThe Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future by Martha C. Nussbaum – NYRB review; excerpt (pdf)Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India by Stanley Wolpert – Times of India reviewThe Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan by Yasmin Khan – The Economist review; excerptThe Great Partition and Indian Summer seem to be getting the most press, with both being discussed in a recent Slate article.