One of the guests on Fresh Air today was former cop named Edward Conlon, a Harvard grad and fourth generation NYPD officer who used to pen an anonymous column in the New Yorker. Now he has a new book called Blue Blood in which he recounts his life as a beat cop. It looks to be a literary take on macabre subject matter. Speaking of which, Ian McEwan, most recently the author of Atonement, a book adored by both readers and critics, has revealed some details about his forthcoming book. According to this Reuters story, it appears as though McEwan will return to the more visceral subject matter of his earlier novels with a book that centers on the life of a brain surgeon. He will finish it “within months.” This new McEwan book will almost certainly be reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, where, after much skeptical anticipation, Sam Tanenhaus has been appointed as editor. As beatrice.com pointed out yesterday, some in the literary world are skipping the grace period and sticking with the skepticism, cf. David Kipen’s San Francisco Chronicle piece. This changing of the guard, you may remember, was a topic a few months back here at The Millions.
Chin Music Press has put together a nice-looking blog to chronicle the long, lingering aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans:After Katrina and its horrible aftermath, Chin Music Press felt compelled to shine its wobbly flashlight on New Orleans. This effort resulted in our second book, Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? Along the way, we met a community of passionate, eloquent writers who care deeply about what happens to the Big Easy. This blog became a natural extension of the book. It’s our way of adding voices to the unfolding story of New Orleans.
So perhaps you’ve seen the latest bell (or whistle) to come out of Google HQ. It’s called Google Trends and it lets you look at the search volume over time for different keywords. It also shows you which regions search for a particular term the most. Initially, I was most interested in that geographic data. I figured perhaps this could settle that tiresome debate about which city is “most literary.” Here are the resultsDelhi, IndiaChennai, IndiaAustinPortland (Oregon, I’m assuming)ChicagoSeattleNew YorkDenverMinneapolisPhiladelphiaI was, and still am, a curious about the two Indian cities at the top of the list, but I did recently write a post about the MV Doulos (Ship of Books) being docked in Chennai. But, anyway, to get to the more serious issue, by this metric our most literary city is Austin, and New York (pretender to the crown) comes in at number five, while our venerable Californian cities don’t even make the list. Before we get too riled lets remember that these cities are just guesses. From the FAQ: “Google Trends uses IP address information from our server logs to make a best guess about where queries originated.”Regardless of Google’s guestimates, I was curious about some other bookish searches. “Harry Potter” shows a preponderance of international searches, and the series’ impressive ability to stay in the news. Or you can see how the young wizard compares to pretender to the throne, “The Da Vinci Code.” If you ever doubted how popular Harry Potter is, that graph should convince you. Getting back to Da Vinci Code, though, to those of you who have grown weary of hearing about Dan Brown’s book, would it surprise you to find out that, according to Google, the book is more popular than ever?Moving on to scandals, it turns out an Oprah tie in can help you in that department, too. Observe James Frey’s drubbing of JT Leroy. Kaavya Viswanathan, meanwhile, hasn’t generated enough of a scandal to register.Turning to awards, remember when the National Book Award generated a stir in 2004 by nominating five women from New York as finalists, looks like it paid off (in search traffic anyway). And here’s all the prizes I could think of going head to head (I’ll call the Booker the winner, since the Pulitzer includes all those journalists).
A brand new blog called The Happy Booker has arrived on the litblog scene, and its proprietor Wendi is wasting no time jumping in to the fray. Also worth noting: I Read a Short Story Today in which Patrick reads and discusses a new short story (almost) every day. It’s pretty entertaining so far, but he should add comment functionality so we can get some discussion going.
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.
Flip to the back of a new book. What do you see? Blurbs. Line after line of praise, proclamations, and predictions. Tucked in a small corner square is an author’s photo, a passport-size acknowledgment of the face behind the book. Often those faces are hidden inside a jacket flap.
Bring back the book jacket photo.
Bring back those full-page portraits that pronounced I wrote a book, damn it.
For The Reivers, William Faulkner stands in front of a bookshelf full of Modern Library titles. He wears a tie and suspenders, with The Philosophy of Nietzsche and Cities of the Plain at his back. He doesn’t look at us, but at the book open in his hands.
Framed in gold and set against black, Louise Erdrich’s photo for Tales of Burning Love feels pronounced. The novel begins: “Holy Saturday in an oil boomtown with no insurance. Toothache.” You can hear Erdrich, confident yet controlled, spin that yarn for us.
I’m a little afraid for Richard Ford on the back of Rock Springs, his collection of stories. Ford stands in the middle of a snow-lined Montana dirt road, against a backdrop of mountains. He doesn’t seem too concerned, and the pose matches the prose, after all. The first line of the title story is “Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.”
A novel is an accomplishment, something to be celebrated. Paradise by Toni Morrison got a fuller photo treatment than Beloved and Song of Solomon, and the author deserves it. Morrison’s countenance tells us: here is a story. Read it.
“Even a selected display of one’s early work,” John Cheever writes in the preface to The Stories of John Cheever, “will be a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.” Cheever, wearing an open-necked shirt and sport jacket, smiles on the back. He looks pleasantly resigned.
John Steinbeck channels Vincent Price on the back of The Winter of Our Discontent. Appropriate for the novel’s ominous epigraph: “Readers seeking to identify the fictional people and places here described would do better to inspect their own communities and search their own hearts, for this book is about a large part of America today.”
Published in 1992, Susan Minot’s shot on the back of Folly is early ’90s cool: hair up, back, and messed, with an unbuttoned denim jacket. An interesting contrast with a work of historical fiction prefaced by an endlessly appropriate quote from Blaise Pascal: “Man is so necessarily foolish that not to be a fool is merely a varied freak of folly.”
Previously: Edan Lepucki on Marion Ettlinger
Josh Ferris, who continues to do an admirable job filling in at TEV, noted today that Junot Diaz’s long-awaited novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finally has a street date.The reason I’m so excited about this is that Diaz’s story by the same title in the New Yorker’s 2000 end-of-year fiction issue was one of the best stories that’s appeared in the magazine in the ten years I’ve been reading it. It is a story so good that I still remember talking to various people about in my then home city of Los Angeles, people with whom I never before or after talked fiction. It was a story that got around. And now, finally, it has blossomed into a book.Unfortunately, since the story dates from the NYer’s stone age era, it’s not available online, but a brief excerpt is available. In addition, Ferris at TEV has pointed to an audio interview of Diaz.Separately, (and also not available online), The Economist has a short but fairly glowing review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the debut novel of Paul Torday. “Every so often,” the review begins,a novel comes along that is quite original; think of Yann Martel’s enchanting Life of Pi, for instance. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is another oddball piece of fiction that – despite being told through dry diary extracts, e-mails and reports – is an amusing satire on the tensions between the West and the Middle East, and a commentary on the value of belief to mankind.
From the WSJ, a story of how the Cuban government has licensed franchises of La Bodeguita del Medio, a watering hole where Ernest Hemingway supposedly once hung out. “The concept clicked, and La Bodeguita outlets spread across Latin America and European cities including Paris and Berlin. Even in former communist capitals like Prague — where some locals call the restaurants ‘McCastro’s’ — the Hemingway link attracts business.” It sounds like a Cuban Hard Rock Cafe that’s Hemingway-themed rather than aging rocker-themed. My favorite part of the story is the lead paragraph:A life-size likeness of Ernest Hemingway greets diners entering La Bodeguita del Medio bistro near Stanford University here. Patrons at La Bodeguita del Medio in Prague order The Old Man and the Seafood plate. And in London’s new version of the same restaurant, which opened last month, the owner says Hemingway novels will be available for perusal in the men’s room.Separately, and more seriously, an article about how The Nature Conservancy came to own Hemingway’s last house, in Ketchum, Idaho.