- For Sayonara, Gangsters by Genichiro Takahashi: “Sayonara, Gangsters is one of those rare books that actually defies description… It’s funny, sure. And beautiful. And slightly insane. And haunting. And heart-breaking. But all those words miss the point. The point is you have to read it. So read it.”
- For The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy: “A beautiful, deeply moving story of a family. The more I read, the more I felt the family was mine.”
- For It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick: “This novel is huge — in size, ambition, intelligence, and heart.”
- For The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done by Sandra Newman: “Sandra Newman has an original way of thinking. The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done is often hysterically funny, profoundly strange, and unbearably beautiful. Often all at once.”
- For My Life with Corpses by Wylene Dunbar: “My Life with Corpses is overwhelming: in its beauty, emotional force, and uniqueness. While I finished the book a few weeks ago already, I have the strange feeling that I’m still reading it — it’s that resonant.”
- For Please Don’t Kill the Freshman by Zoe Trope: “I am in awe of Zoe Trope. This book is more than the kind of good story we’ve become satisfied with. It’s more than interesting. It’s art.”
- For The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs: “The Know-It-All is funny, original, and strangely heroic. I found myself rooting on Jacobs’s quixotic, totally endearing quest.”
- For The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian: “The Noodle Maker is hugely entertaining and deeply serious. It’s something to celebrate.”
Every so often in a reader's life, he stumbles upon two books that complement each other like red meat and red wine. Such a happy accident befell me last month, when I happened to read Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker hard on the heels of Thomas Frank's One Market Under God.The Frank book, an evisceration of the free-market discourse and management culture of the 90s, was a fine read on its own: funny, incisive, and angry. And yet, in its argumentation, it at first struck me as inferior to Frank's more recent What's the Matter With Kansas? Like Lewis Lapham, who published excerpts from both books in Harper's, Frank has a tendency to preach to the choir. This often doesn't bother me; I sit right in the middle of that choir. When Frank demonstrates the tension between a free market and economic democracy, I say "Amen." When he decries the commodification of the counterculture, I shout "Hallelujah."When Frank gets down to naming names, however, I get uneasy. One Market Under God does not hesitate to lay the sorry state of the world at the feet of specific, individual evildoers, and I, raised to try to see the best in people, prefer to blame systemic ills. And so I'm not sure if Frank's depiction of scheming, iniquitous fat cats is a workable belief or a bit of populist wishful thinking.Or I wasn't sure, until I picked up Liar's Poker. Here Michael Lewis, himself a former stockbroker, takes us inside Salomon Brothers, the investment bank where he worked in the rip-roaring 80s. Lewis establishes his centrist credentials early and often, and generally eschews editorializing. It is especially appalling, then, (if weirdly engrossing) to discover that Salomon Brothers is full of...scheming, iniquitous fat cats!Liar's Poker is like a nonfiction version of Oliver Stone's Wall Street (IMDb). The visionary salesmen and traders of Solomon Brothers screw the little guy at every turn, and we get to see every dirty detail. They rip off investors, lie to the public, devalue successful companies, inflate worthless ones, lay off employees, throw phones at underlings, grope secretaries, consume conspicuously, and generally turn themselves into caricatures of the worst kind of capitalist exploitation. The free-market they promote is, in fact, far from free.In an ideal marketplace, knowledge is symmetrical. The vulgar version: buyer and seller are in possession of the same set of facts, and prices reach equilibrium according to the law of supply and demand. This is why there are laws against rolling back odometers, and against making false claims in advertisements. But investment banks, as Lewis portrays them, rely on the market's inefficiency at distributing information - its tendency to allow those most heavily invested in a market to control the flow of knowledge within and about that market - to buy below fair-market value, and to sell well above it.Of course, we are assured, such excesses have since been curbed by regulation. (This is part of the 90s market populism analyzed in One Market Under God, wherein Wall Street is brought to heel by Main Street.) Insider trading laws are now stringent, we are told; firewalls have arisen between the trading floors where commodities are sold and the equity departments where they are underwritten. But Wall Street is still raking it in, while Main Street drifts and eddies on stagnant wages.Perhaps the current investment bank bonanza is merely the financial industry's reward for its own newfound virtuousness. Still, the next time you hear an I-banker lamenting the regulatory climate, or claiming that Sarbanes-Oxley is driving all the moneymen to London, ask him what kind of bonus he got last year, and whether he's still living in New York. Then tell him you've got a bridge you're looking to sell...See also: Max's review of Liar's Poker
Eagle-eyed readers looking at the cover of the soon-to-be-released paperback edition of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King may have noticed the words "With Four Previously Unpublished Scenes." While we haven't seen all of the new scenes, from the example below, which we obtained from publisher Little, Brown, it appears that this extra material did not neatly correspond with the finished book but nonetheless may offer some additional context. The scenes will apparently be packaged as part of a "Reading Guide" in the new edition of the book. The first paragraph below is an explanation provided by the publisher, followed by one of the four new scenes, in full. This scene with Claude Sylvanshine and Charles Lehrl together as roommates does not align with details of the character Merrill Errol Lehrl elsewhere in the book. But its evocation of a childhood in semirural Peoria adds to the picture of that place assembled elsewhere. Charles Lehrl grew up not in Peoria but in nearby Decatur, home of Archer Dentists Midland and Lehrl said a city of such relentless uninteresting squalor and poverty that Peorians point with genuine pride at their city’s failure to be as bad as Decatur, whose air stank either of hog processing or burnt corn depending on the wind, whose patrician class distinguished itself by chewing gum with their front teeth. Lehrl’s narrative was that he had grown up in a mobile home the color of rotten fruit across a drainage culvert from Self-Storage Parkway, an interstate spur once built for an A. E. Staley subsidiary that had closed down when the bottom had fallen out of the pork belly market and now home to mosquitoes, conferva, shattercane, and an abundance of volunteer weeds gone hypertrophic in the outwash of nitrogen fertilizers that summertime pets disappeared in. What had kept his father from being an actual alcoholic was that being an actual alcoholic would have taken too much effort. Mr. and Mrs. Lehrl had not just allowed but encouraged the children to play in the road. The neighborhood’s only going concerns were 3.4 acres of U-Lock It self-storage units and a small rendering-plant owned by a large family of albinos that seemed constantly to grow without any sort of non-albino genetic refreshment and between all eighty-seven of them could not handle more than one animal at a time. Mr. Lehrl spent the bulk of Charles’s childhood lying on the couch with his arm over his eyes. Lehrl spoke of Decatur in the summer as if he’d grown up aloft: the flannel plains and alphabets of irrigation pipes laid down in the bean fields — Peoria and Lake James and Pekin were corn, Decatur and Springfield soybeans for the Japanese — fields simmering shrilly, blind and creamy blue skies untouched by the ADM stacks whose output was invisible but redolent and, according to rumor, flammable, mosquitoes rising as one body from the system of ditches at dusk — and detailed the highlight of those summer days, which consisted of Lehrl, his brother, and his tiny sister negotiating the ditches and fences and crossing Self-Storage Parkway to climb a Big Boy restaurant’s billboard’s support and peer through the hole that was the Big Boy icon’s (a big smiling boy in a fast food cup bearing a tray’s) left incisor to watch the rendering plant’s lone cow or swine, standing chained in the crabgrass as four or more demented albino children threw rocks and broken glass at it until whatever systems inside were in place and the animal was led into a chutelike pen at whose sides several older albinos stood on cinder blocks with hammers and small-caliber rifles, at which time Lehrl and his brother and sister would climb down and try to get back across the expressway to play in the road outside their mobile home. Often Lehrl, who had grown up not in Decatur but in Chadwick, a comfortable bedroom community outside Springfield where his father had been a finance officer in the Highway and Transit Commission and his mother a five-term Recorder of Deeds, liked to reminisce about his childhood as he and Sylvanshine relaxed with one Dorfmurderer Onion lager each during Lehrl’s half-hour unwinding period (10:40–11:10) before making his preparation to go to sleep, and Sylvanshine liked to listen, interrupting only to ask small questions or express alarm at appropriate places, if only because it aroused a kind of tenderness in him that the something manifest but inexpressible in the hydraulics of Lehrl’s smile made it so paternally clear when what he was saying was not literally true. There were an enormous number of little variables and compensations that evened out their dynamics, a kind of complex mortise-and-tenon congruity to their assets and liabilities as men and ages, and though Sylvanshine had never consciously realized it, this was one reason they had become such great friends and so preferred each other’s company to anyone else’s that they had taken the step in Philadelphia of living together, despite the appearance and consequences of this appearance to which this move subjected them. It was because Lehrl was ambitious but not in a conventional way that he had suggested the arrangement, and Sylvanshine would be forced to admit that the unconventionality of Lehrl’s ambition, and the odd self-destructive quality to many of his career decisions — despite extraordinary administrative talents and uniformly high ratings from DDs in every place he’d been posted, Charles Lehrl was still a G-2 and actually subordinate in grade to many of the people he supervised — was a big leveling — and tenderness — mechanism, since Sylvanshine’s career itself wasn’t exactly on the fast track, though once he passed the CPA exam as he surely would, he would himself be promoted to G-2 and able at least to pay exactly half of their communal expenses, an equity about which Sylvanshine fantasized as he sat alone in his leather slippers and plaid robe waiting for the inevitable third piss that every one lager equaled to assemble itself and be passed so he could go to sleep without worrying that he was just going to have to get up again just as his thoughts got pictorial and loosely associated and often toned with sepia or even a kind of salmon/yellowy visual filter, which was usually a sign that he was genuinely falling asleep and not merely kidding himself out of a fear of insomnia and the terrible fear of what sleep-deprivation often did to his alertness and concentration the next day. There is very little room in any branch of accounting for fuzziness, sluggishness, or any sort of abstraction in one’s faculties or approach to the problems at hand. It is a pursuit of exacting care and metal-minded clarity and precision. This much Sylvanshine knew for sure.
Back in 1996, Imani Josey wrote a 60-page draft of a story she called “The Secret Cave,” about three girls who travel to an alternate universe and discover they are fairie princesses. Josey now cites this the first draft of The Blazing Star, a young adult fantasy novel about three black girls who time-travel to ancient Egypt that she self-published last fall. For years after that draft, though, Josey didn’t write publicly. She was busy being a student and a beauty queen—she was crowned both Miss Chicago and Miss Black Illinois USA—as well as a dancer. She still wrote, keeping journals, penning stories for her friends, and composing fan fiction that, she says will “never see the light of day.” She did her writing privately until, around 2011, she felt ready to dive back in. The story on her mind? That same one from 1996, the one that had stuck with her through all the years and would blossom into her debut novel in 2016. Josey has written before about the importance of black girl magic, and her novel features three black female protagonists, which, in 2017, is still unusual, even while books featuring black girls and women continue to prove themselves in the marketplace (Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, for example, has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 21 weeks now). Josey felt passionately that her girls’ stories deserved to be told. “It’s important to tell black girls’ stories with agency because it normalizes blackness,” she says. “These stories ensure we’re not ‘othered.’” She added that her parents surrounded her, in childhood, with images of black girls being normal, through dolls and books with black protagonists. “These images showed me that I could be a well-rounded, complex person with likes and dislikes and experiences that matter like anyone else’s, and who knew her black skin was beautiful just the way it was,” she said. “It was my parents’ mission to ground my normalcy in my agency, not in my proximity to whiteness.” So, in her book, Josey gives her girls agency. The Blazing Star is the first book in a projected trilogy, with each book written from the point of view of one of the main characters. The Falling Star, its sequel, will be released in February 2018. The book is published by Wise Ink, an self-publishing company. Josey said she originally tried to go the traditional publishing route, but was rejected by countless agents. Nonetheless, she believed in her story, her characters, and her mission, and says her confidence paid off: the book sold out on release day. “I was hell-bent on my book series doing what traditional pub is dragging its feet to do—fixing the representation gap—a major component of why I went indie,” she said. “I’m not sure how many other black girls are on the cover of YA fantasy book series, and I’m not sure how many lead their own stories as protagonists. But judging by Lee & Low’s annual research, the number is incredibly low.” In fact, Lee & Low wrote a blog post in March of this year revealing that, while the number of protagonists of color is increasing, the number of authors of color is not: last year, “Black, Latinx, and Native authors combined wrote just 6% of new children’s books published,” the post reports. Josey gave a bit of advice for white allies who wish to support the work of black creators: make use of their privilege to ensure black writers get their voices heard: “It means being vocal advocates, suggesting marginalized authors for mainstream events, giving their books as gifts and signal boosting crowdfunding projects,” she said, “as well as supporting marginalized traditional and independent authors.” Josey said she loves that self-publishing allowed her the “freedom to make [the book] exactly how I wanted,” but adds that the self-publishing road is hard. She said it’s been a struggle, especially when it comes to marketing and large-scale distribution. But she considers herself a fighter, a tough person, traits she partially attributes to her pageant history. “Pageants made me tougher,” she said. “[They] taught me about scrutiny and rejection...They taught me about marketing. They taught me about chasing big dreams, even when you don’t know if everything will turn out alright.”
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This is my very first entry on my very first blog. I want to use this as a place to put my writing "out there" into the world. I'll be writing about music, sports, art, politics, and my unremarkable (but deeply fascinating to me) daily life. To begin: It is a strange time right now. After months of banter and argument we attacked Iraq. In the long period that led up to this most folks quickly formed an opinion one way or the other and then as the barage of information and insights and new developments came to light, they adjusted their views many times. Some stayed at the extremes while others, like myself, wavered uncomfortably in the middle. I want to believe that we are doing the right thing, and so far I'm pretty sure that I'm not deluding myself. Here in Los Angeles, most folks are either uninformed and uninterested or are badly misinformed and delight in disseminating incorrect information and adding their own personal, implausible spin to things. A good example of this was the anti-CNN rally that took place at Sunset and Cahuenga today. I find it amusing and more than a little bit frightening that so many folks derive so much satisfaction from from deriding something like CNN. To claim that CNN spouts propaganda and is a puppet of the government betrays a fundamental disconnect about the very country in which these people live. If they believe that the current government is the bad guy, then, thanks to the protections of the Constitution, the competition between the multitudes of news sources out there, and the ability of every citizen to seek out news from whatever source he or she please, CNN is one of the good guys. In fact, they have no choice but to be the good guy. The Constitution grants them the freedom to report what they please, and even if the government tried to stifle a major news story, CNN would have too mcuh to gain by being the first to break the story. They would do their best to report accurately because it pays off for them in increased viewership. And in the end, they have the force of law behind them anyway. All that this protest in LA really accomplished was the closing down for the day of many retail establishments along Sunset, which I'm guessing resulted in lost wages for the people working in the Staples, Jack in the Box, and Bank of America among others. Not to mention the traffic that they backed up. Does this accomplish anything aside from negatively affecting the lives of your fellow citizens. I don't think so. I just hope that this is all over soon, and that we are doing the right thing.
A friend who has long since gotten out of the literary scholarship racket was once, briefly, quite intent on writing a dissertation entitled "Parrots, Pirates, and Prostheses." I have a vague recollection that the argument was to involve something about how pirates seem often to lose hands, legs, and eyes, and that along with their inanimate prosthetics (wooden legs, hooks, eye patches - if, indeed, eye patches count), they also have animate ones like parrots and monkeys. I am not quite sure where this argument was going. There was, however, an excellent plan to, at the defense of this unwritten dissertation, have a parrot, on the shoulder of the writer, declaim the defense.Though this dissertation (sadly) remains unwritten, it did generate a list of parrot books. Everyone's favorite genre! Behold:Flaubert's A Simple HeartKate Chopin's The AwakeningRobinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeCharles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Scrooge recalls Crusoe's Poll in the first stave)Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian BarnesVirgina Woolf's The Widow and the Parrot (this fable-like tale has been published as an illustrated children's book)Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (Cap'n Flint)20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (parrot hunting!)Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (Aunt March has a parrot who tells Laurie, "Go Away. No boys allowed here.")Gertrude Stein's "The Good Anna" in Three Lives briefly features a parrot.Saki's story "The Remoulding of Groby Lington"Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (which features a haunting scene of a parrot on fire)Willa Cather's beautiful Shadows on the Rock (Captain Pondaven's African parrot Coco, who sings songs and drinks brandy in warm water)Cather's Death Comes to the Archbishop (at least, I remember vaguely)