Michael Lewis launched his successful career as an author with his book Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, which is both a youthful memoir and a journalistic look at the inner workings of Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street firm that grew fat trading bonds and then crashed and burned. The book takes place, roughly, between the years 1984 and 1987, and so I wasn’t surprised that the book reminded me of the movie Wall Street – just replace Gordon Gecko with Salomon’s head John Gutfreund. At the beginning of the book, Lewis has just been hired, quite unexpectedly, by Salomon, and he takes us through his trajectory at the company, from the cut-throat training process to his days as a bond trader in London. From this vantage point, Lewis was able to watch the company, emboldened by spectacular success in the 1980s, become a symbol of corporate gluttony. Along the way, Lewis profiles many of the company’s outsized personalities. He also delves into the intricacies of the bond market in such a way that the arcane becomes pretty readable. The book is also filled with anecdotes about the conspicuous consumption of those times and the raucous, inelegant trading floor, filled with foul-mouthed traders who threw phones and insults and reveled in their gluttony. Lewis’ revelation was that the company (and its competitors) made profits at the expense of its customers, and, while the period that Lewis chronicles is interesting in its own right, its impact is somewhat diminished by the many corporate scandals and Wall Street improprieties that have occurred since the book was first published. Against this backdrop, Liar’s Poker is no longer an exceptional story that defined an era, it is merely another moment in the cycle of Wall Street corruption and ensuing retribution that continues today.
Here in Sioux Falls, one of our local Lutheran private colleges puts on a library book sale. In name, it’s a sale of epic proportions. In actuality, it’s just a clever way for literary junkies and bibliophiles to stock up their collections and appear smarter than they are while the library clears out horribly outdated editions of unread literature.And it works – I’ll never read the Autobiography of Mark Twain, and I’ll probably skip W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, but I’ll be damned if I’m leaving them off of my bookshelf. Think of how intelligent I’ll look!Admittedly, though, the books I buy and subsequently read tend to be all over the radar, and book sales of this sort truly fit my fancy. I mean, at fifty cents a book, you’d be surprised how willing you’d be to pick up some book that you may have heard of, or a book that you swear to have some vague recollection of a former college coffee buddy raving about – a willingness that wouldn’t be as strong if it was spotted at Barnes and Noble for $13.99 plus tax.So my book stacks grow. Some of the authors are well known. Others are barely recognizable. And in time, I’ve found that I rarely – no, I’d say never – seem to find a real stinker of a book. Some are disappointing, yes. But never bad. Maybe I’m just really lucky, or I’m smart enough to take suggestions from those who already like the same books I do. Or maybe I’m like a literary garbage disposal, grabbing everything I read and devouring it with the same gusto I would a handful of vegetable scraps.So it came as quite a surprise when I finally picked up Atonement – Ian McEwan’s tale of childhood misunderstanding and wartime barbarics – at the Augustana College Book Sale. Sure, I’d heard of him. Sure, I needed the book. I realized, rather shamefully, that I hadn’t read anything by McEwan, one of the literary world’s darlings, in my entire life. I didn’t know what to expect – was he going to be wordy, an intelligent but inaccessible cacophony of allusions and pomp? Was he going to be so brilliant that I’d never look at literature the same way? Was he going to be just another English twit, barred from my life forever because of a critical over-acclaim? How could I continue to write a monthly book column (which I then condense into a smaller and more jovial version for this very website) and not have read McEwan?Would they take away my library card?Well, no. They wouldn’t. But I figured I’d better read Atonement before it was too late. And here’s the best part: he’s actually good. Initially, I was simply pleased with what I was presented: a well worded, brilliantly researched account of high-class English life in the 1930s, followed by a gruesome account of retreat during World War II. Of course, it only got better as I fell further and further into its pages.Atonement is set out as a narrative: Briony, a ten-year-old girl who is committed to a life of writing, her sister Cecilia, and the son of their family’s hired help, Robbie, prepare for company. Over one day, Cecilia and Robbie rekindle a flame while Briony, without knowing, extinguishes it – possibly forever. From this day, we jump ahead to World War II and the British retreat from Dunkirk. Then, it’s a jump forward to 1999 – nearly 70 years after the first fateful day.McEwan’s novel isn’t just a “symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness,” as the back cover so brightly puts it. It’s a book that accurately recreates the mind of a child – Briony, in this case – and puts weight behind her thoughts and actions. The ideals of children are real, and Atonement illustrates this notion by showing us the consequences of an immature jealousy and unfounded protection. Through this, lives are forever changed because of Briony’s unwavering account of a violent crime – the rape of her cousin by a stranger.It’s wonderfully constructed, and McEwan writes at a level that’s detailed, yet not too much so. Some of the narratives seem superfluous, but upon finishing Atonement I realized how important each account was. Four different voices populate its pages, and each helps give a full panoramic picture of the story as it unfolds. The clever way it’s spelled out is central to the book, and it forced me to look at each character differently as the same scene was described again and again.Atonement shows how deeply an overactive imagination can quickly wreak havoc on those who are closest – how a misinterpreted event can lead to one person being thrown to the wolves, while another laments over a lost love. Themes run rampant throughout the book – too many to count, and much too much to write about in one column (if I could even pick them all out) – but even those who enjoy a good story, regardless of underlying themes and vague references, will enjoy McEwan’s novel.My favorite part, though, was the subtle little twist at the end – which I will hold back for those who have not read the book. It’s clever, and while many considered it an easy out, I thought it was brilliant. Atonement deserves all the praise it received – I felt the entire gamut of emotions while pouring through each of the characters. I was angry, I was despondent, and I was bitterly jealous. All because McEwan made each character feel as if they were a part of my own family.I scarcely think I need to ever visit the posh fields of England’s upper class. I’ve lived it already – right there where the river flows gracefully though the fields and a horrible crime can cause children to lie, adults to glaze over with adoration and relief, and the law enforcement to barely bother to find the truth. As long as that little darling says it’s true, it’s going to be true. How horrible. Literarily, though; how wonderful.Now, I wonder what W. Somerset Maugham would think of it all.Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll never know.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May
This is what happens when I don’t take notes. Two months ago, I sat down to read Yesterday’s People, a collection of eight short stories by Goran Simic. Born in Bosnia, Simic was already a noted author and poet when he immigrated to Canada ten years ago. I decided to write about these spare, haunting and haunted stories, many of them about life in Sarajevo in the mid 90s. But for reasons that now completely mystify me, I wasn’t making notes, which would have been fine had I begun writing this immediately. Two months and three or four novels later, I began to write and I hit a brick wall.While I remembered the images and the tone of the stories, damned if I could remember any names, or specific details. And the images that I did remember were beginning to blend into each other. I was in a haze. I had been immersed in that world. And then I was out. I had shifted through time and space into other worlds. I was in Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, then in Stephen Clarke’s contemporary Paris, and most memorably I was amongst Balzac’s characters in 1800s Loire Valley, as drunk on his words as I would be if I’d been one of his wine growers in the French countryside. The images of the Bosnian war had been overshadowed. I could never do them justice.So I began to re-read. I cracked open Simic’s collection and dove back in, revisiting the characters, and the horrors of war, and the resourcefulness and resilience of spirit that had moved me the first time.I revisited Nina. We were back in Sarajevo, during the war. A gothic wild west of thievery and morgues, where “we were all slowly going mad.” Nina and our narrator shared a past, and our narrator now spots her amongst the people lining up for water, “a shadow of what she used to be.”In “Minefield,” volunteer soldiers protect a ravine. Their initial Rambo bravado is shattered when one of them blows himself up with a grenade. They grow up fast. They begin doing deals with the other side: “as time passed and our ammunition dwindled, we shot less and swore more.” It’s trench warfare except the two sides volley benign insults and supplies. And then grim reality throws them a curve.In “The Story Of Sinan” we see the early days of the war when “we thought it all a brief private nightmare that the world had nothing to do with.” We meet Sinan whose daily routine has been inconvenienced by the war. To him, it’s an annoyance. He’s a gambler and carouser who lives by his wits. (He tells women, when he’s through with them, that his wife has been released unexpectedly from prison though she was supposed to have served five more years for murdering his ex-mistress). Then another curve, this time a sudden and unexpected act of kindness and selflessness.And as I re-read Yesterday’s People I noticed something that I hadn’t really picked up on the first time. I noticed that the stories are not just about Bosnians – then. They’re also about Canadians – now. In every story, a character either escapes to Canada or someone linked to him does. Sometimes the stories are actually written from the point of view of someone here, now, flashing back to his life there, then. There are photos throughout the stories, snapshots of the narrator’s past. The stories are about memory, about trying to remember and trying to forget. They’re about one’s tenuous link to one’s history. They’re war stories that don’t end in the trenches or in the long line-ups for water. They don’t end when the shooting stops. They’re brought up to date through the memory of the narrator. They’re immigrant stories.