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.
It’s not every day that a callow, romantic writer transforms into a trailblazing, acute, realistic observer, right in front of your very eyes.In autumn 1849, Gustave Flaubert, 27 and full of poetic longing, left northern France for Egypt. Accompanied by his compatriot Max and with a servant or two in tow, Flaubert would spend that winter and most of the following year traveling the Nile from the Mediterranean to the Sudanese border, then up again pausing for a quick jaunt through the desert to the Red Sea.Journals were diligently kept, both by Flaubert and Max; letters were written – guarded, wistful ones to Flaubert’s mother, and more exuberantly bawdy ones to his friends.Flaubert In Egypt pulls together these various strands and stands at once as 19th century Egyptian travelogue, youthful memoir, geopolitical Middle Eastern history, and literary artifact – the nexus of Flaubert the youthful romantic and Flaubert the keen-eyed realist. His journal writing honed his critical eye. Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education were still years ahead of him, but their seeds were sown here.It was a romantic Gustave who hesitantly left the family cocoon. So reluctant was he to embark on this epic journey that, on the train from Rouen to Paris, he contemplated canceling all his plans and returning home. He envisioned the look on his mother’s face, her surprise and joy. Fortunately for us, he resisted this temptation.Once in Egypt, his romantic imagination was put to the test, challenged by the reality around him. In a letter home, he claimed to be little impressed by Egypt’s sun and sand, but greatly impressed by its cities and people. And why? Because Flaubert had previously given more thought to nature. Consequently, this wound up being more of a rediscovery, and it didn’t particularly surpass what had been in his head. However, he’d given no prior thought to people and cities – so this was new, an awakening. And above all, he was fascinated by what he called “the grotesque.” This he hadn’t counted on at all – slaves, thieves, pimps, hawkers and whores. These fascinated him. Egypt, he wrote, “is a great place for contrasts: splendid things gleam in the dust.”In a letter to his mother, he poses the question whether Egypt is what he imagined it to be? Yes, and more, he responds. It extends beyond his narrow presumptions. Facts have taken the place of suppositions. There’s a passage written four years before the trip, written entirely from his imagination, about climbing a pyramid. This is juxtaposed with an excerpt from his Egyptian journals. The realistic on-the-spot description stands in stark contrast with the romantic poetry of the early passage.We also get a glimpse of Gustave the son, when in a letter home he broaches the subject of getting a job, something his mother has long lobbied for. Then he launches into a lengthy response detailing precisely why this would be inadvisable, why he was ill-suited to anything that would likely please his family. It’s a marvelous piece of argumentative prose. If I had read this when I was in college, I would likely have cribbed it and sent it off to every adult member of my family.In addition to reading this as personal memoir, travelogue, and history – both geopolitical and literary, as if that wasn’t enough, there is yet another level of reality that hits you when you read this. At one point, in mentioning the Sudan, Flaubert mentions Darfur. Immediately, I was thrown out of the 19th century narrative and into Sudan’s modern hell. Curious, this. A writer does his best to tightly weave his narrative to keep his faithful reader in his clutches. He knows there will be various layers of subtext. He must also know that, especially for future readers, something written might unintentionally trigger this momentary escape from the writer’s narrative to the reader’s reality. I suppose all he can do is make damn sure his writing is gripping enough to lure him back. And fast.Flaubert In Egypt also contains some of the earliest photos I’ve ever seen. Flaubert’s friend Max traveled with a “photographic apparatus,” to the amusement and amazement of Flaubert, and a half-dozen shots from 1850 are included in the book.One quibble: there is no map, at least not in the Penguin edition that I have. And for an obsessive map-aholic such as myself, this oversight borders on the criminal. Fortunately, one of my trusty atlases allowed me to chart Flaubert’s course, chapter for chapter. But I mean really… no map? What were the editors thinking?Still, for a book that I didn’t even know existed, that I stumbled on and unearthed in a second-hand book shop, Flaubert In Egypt is a hell of a find. Splendid things gleaming in the dust, indeed.
Scott of Conversational Reading invited me to participate in his “Reading the World” series this month. My contribution was reading and posting about Per Petterson’s In the Wake.I don’t read enough fiction in translation, maybe a couple of books per year. When I do the experience elicits one of two reactions. Either the book is so rooted in its place and culture that I can’t imagine it being written in another language, or the book, despite its overseas origins, shows that there are universals in literature, no matter the language in which a book was conceived. Norwegian Per Petterson’s In the Wake falls mostly into the latter camp, as it draws from the grand tradition of books about ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads.Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day comes to mind, and Richard Ford has made a career out of this type of book. But my favorite example from this crowded genre is Walker Percy’s pitch perfect The Moviegoer.Read the rest of the review at Conversational reading.Also of Note: Petterson just won the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his book Out Stealing Horses. We took a look at the IMPAC shortlist in April.
Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O’Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly’s first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren’t so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.