Yesterday, the mayor, who doesn’t bear much resemblance to Fitzwilliam Darcy, announced that the latest “One Book, One Chicago” selection is Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. Now, I have no problem with Jane Austen, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book in high school or whenever it was, but this strikes me as just about the blandest, safest pick you can make for one of these “one book, one city” programs. It’s hard to see the point of these citywide reading initiatives if all they do is push their way through a high school reading list. Much more valuable would be a book that would get the city buzzing. The program could also be a platform to introduce Chicagoans to a less well-known writer, or, failing that, the “one Book” selection might hinge upon issues more pressing to present day Chicago. That they got it right with the last selection, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s dark Western novel The Oxbow Incident, a book that is both far more underappreciated and which asks much tougher questions than Pride and Prejudice, makes the latest selection even more disappointing. Link: One Book, One Chicago.
From the far side of the Great Financial Meltdown, 1994’s Speed, ostensibly just another popcorn flick, starts to look instead like a brilliant allegory. Pop quiz, hot shot:
Dennis Hopper: “The airport. Gunman with one hostage. He’s using her for cover. He’s almost to a plane. You’re a hundred feet away.”
Keanu Reeves: “Shoot the hostage.”
Don’t see it yet? Consider: Keanu is the government, Hopper is the neoliberal consensus, the crazy person waving the Glock around is the financial industry, the bullet is two trillion dollars in losses, and the poor schmo being jerked hither and yon is you and me.
Readers concerned to further understand the dynamics of our own particular hostage crisis would do well to look at a couple of more recent documents: The Big Short and Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager. Their charms are complementary. In the former, Michael Lewis, a Salomon Brothers alum, brings an insider’s savvy to the subprime crisis. In the latter, N+1 (in the person of Keith Gessen) lends an outsider’s ear to the brilliant disquisitions of a guy caught in the middle of it all. And read side-by-side these books do something even more valuable. They suggest that our captivity is at least partly in the mind – that even the most astute critics of what Lewis calls “The Doomsday Machine” have internalized some of the premises that made it possible.
In the case of The Big Short, that suggestion feels accidental. Lewis (also the author of The Blind Side, among other bestsellers) knows that every good story needs someone to root for, and so, against the big New York investment banks, he fields a kind of Magnificent Seven of scrappy smaller investors. (Smaller is a relative term, of course; most of these guys have tens of millions of dollars of assets under management.) Most compelling is his central character, Mike Burry, a California-based hedge-fund principal with a glass eye and Asperger’s syndrome. Burry, as Lewis tells it, was one of the only people in America with the acumen – and, thanks to the Asperger’s, the patience – to evaluate the actual mortgage tranches underlying those now infamous “toxic assets.” And, with our American admiration for an underdog, we cheer Burry on as he tries to find a way to monetize his discoveries before the subprime market collapses.
Lewis explains with great lucidity how, via the esoteric financial instruments Burry engineers (or rather, has Goldman Sachs engineer) theoretically endless profits can be manufactured from a single piece of subprime paper, like Xeroxes from an original. What he never quite spells out, though, is that the huge profits Burry amasses shorting the subprime market also represent huge losses for his counterparties – and thus (by way of bailouts and layoffs) to taxpayers all over the world. Perhaps this is why the The Big Short, in the end, lacks a sense of moral payoff. It’s as if the Wall Street Journal narrative of enterprise as an end in itself has gained traction not only with Burry, but with Lewis. At the very least, it says something that he takes as his hero of the financial crisis…a hedge-fund guy.
Gessen is more explicit about the amorality of postmodern finance. In an introductory note about the anonymous hedge fund manager who is his subject (henceforth, and in the book, HFM), he laments “that a mind so excellent, so generous, so curious, should spend all its time on relative trading in foreign jurisdictions and yelling at people who refuse to pay him back. . . .” But in this note, as in the interviews that follow, we can feel him being seduced, as we are, by HFM’s formidable intellect. Indeed, Gessen wants us to feel that seduction. HFM’s mind is “excellent” – and makes for excellent reading. Listening to him discourse on capital flows, currency speculation, real estate, literature, and hedge-fund folkways is like taking a terrific college elective, minus the final exam:
There’s some people who think the problem is so bad that if you actually recognize the losses, that it’s akin to smashing the equipment in the factory. Because these institutions can’t exist anymore, right? That for a bank, if you say, “Look, you can’t exist anymore. You’re so deeply insolvent that everybody’s fired and everybody’s got to leave,” at that point financial intermediation won’t work anymore. It doesn’t matter that you’ve marked everything down to the level that makes sense – you don’t have a financial system anymore. And a lot of people think that’s one of the reasons the Great Depression was so difficult to get out of, that the financial machinery was smashed. So I think which camp you fall into depends a little on how bad you think the damage is.
Still, like Burry’s, and perhaps even Lewis’, HFM’s is a captive mind. For all his candor about the causes of the financial crisis, he speaks from within a framework of essentially Friedmanite, free-market fundamentalism. As he’s speculating about martial law and breadlines, his biggest worry remains not widespread unemployment, but…the possibility of inflation and its effect on currency values. (His concessions to Keynesianism seem to evaporate as the immediate crisis of the Lehman Brothers collapse recedes.) Nor does HFM appear to see the shenanigans of the financial sector as systemic, rather than as tokens of personal fraudulence on the part of unsavory “dirtbags.” Gessen’s interviewing strategy – to present himself as a novice in search of instruction – succeeds brilliantly, in that it gets HFM to open up in all kinds of compelling and admirable ways. On the other hand, it means that his macroeconomic premises tend to go unchallenged.
Narratives about the horrors of stimulative deficit spending, in particular, have lately become a viral element in the body politic. As with New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, or the various currency collapses of the 1990s, the public is being set up to choose between punishment at the hand of “bond vigilantes” or draconian “austerity measures” designed to ward off default. Notice, though, that those bond vigilantes are the very people who got us into this mess in the first place. Notice that the rate of inflation reported a few days ago was essentially 0%. And notice that, if we accept the choice as it is being framed for us, the hostage is screwed either way. I invite you to think back to Speed. One of the first questions we’re trained to ask about any narrative is whether the narrator is reliable. And if history has taught us anything, people, it’s that Dennis Hopper is f-ing crazy.
Among the first to announce their lists of best books of the year is the CS Monitor, which delivers a solid but unsurprising batch of books. Here’s fiction and here’s nonfiction. Am I just out of the loop or was this year’s crop generally lacking in books by exciting, young authors? Was 2004 the year of the old reliable?
I just got back from the Baltimore Orioles game, my first at Camden Yards in several years. I had forgotten how close, compared to Dodger Stadium, the fans sit to the field. Even when I sat in the “Dugout Club” field level seats at Dodger Stadium, I didn’t feel as involved in the game as I do at Camden Yards. It’s much more a city park surrounded by tall buildings, compared to Dodger Stadium’s desert crater feel.Tomorrow I head up to New York on the train. There is wedding planning to be done with Miss Millions, but hopefully some diversions as well.This morning, at a local bookstore, I saw McSweeney’s 13. It’s amazing looking. I’ve got a copy on its way in the mail. Also in book news, Bill Clinton’s keynote speech at Book Expo was well-received, and retailers are salivating over the expected sales numbers for his memoir. And for the Brits, check out this awesome deal being offered by The Times. When you buy a copy of the newspaper you get a bestselling paperback for 99 pence. Now that’s a great reading initiative. (Better than “One Book, One City” anyway)
A few posts back I touched upon the idea of the “style guide.” As a newly minted journalism student, I have been taught that these guides are essential for creating the “clean copy” that my editors will want to see. They are fascinating books in a way. In my AP Stylebook some entries are brief, just one word: tiptop says one, instructing me not hyphenate. Other entries go on for a few pages like the one for possessives, which explains how to deal with “nouns the same in singular and plural,” “special expressions,” and “quasi possessives.” I know, exciting. One of the undercurrents of journalism school seems to be that writing is a lot more than just putting words on paper. There are rules to be followed and facts to be vetted. The rules are covered by the Stylebook, but vetting the facts can often be done with The World Almanac and Book of Facts, where one might discover a daily astronomy calendar, a list of popes, and the name of every town in Alabama with more than 5,000 people. Armed with these two books, I ought to have much of the guidance I need, but I have also been known to refer to a couple of my favorite writing reference books when necessary. The Elements of Style is a thin, little book that is so elegant and efficient in teaching proper usage it supersedes many of the fatter, drier grammar books you may have encountered in your studies. I also love my The Synonym Finder, which I bought when I worked at the book store after a customer became misty when describing her devotion to it. I’m glad I bought it. Every time I go looking for a synonym, I find one so good that it feels like I’m cheating somehow. My reference library is by no means complete, however. I’m still looking for that perfect dictionary (any recommendations?). And though I’m always dropping hints that I’d love to get a nice hefty atlas for a gift, I still haven’t received one.
Unwholesomely, my “office” is the campus studio apartment where I also eat and sleep, and there are more days than I’d like when I don’t leave it at all. Today was such a day – and for all my self-cloistering, it was a day of little progress on my wretched heap of dissertation. And this reminds me of a passage from Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub:Whatever Reader desires to have a thorow Comprehension of an Author’s Thoughts, cannot take a better Method, than by putting himself into the Circumstances and Postures of Life, that the Writer was in, upon every important Passage as it flow’d from his Pen; For this will introduce a Parity and strict Correspondence of Idea’s between the Reader and the Author. Now, to assist the diligent Reader in so delicate an Affair, as far as brevity will permit, I have recollected, that the shrewdest Pieces of this Treatise, were conceived in Bed, in a Garret: At other times (for a Reason best known to my self) I thought fit to sharpen my Invention with Hunger; and in general, the whole Work was begun, continued, and ended, under a long Course of Physick, and a great want of Money.I offer this miscellany of shards from my lost day:Coyahoga: Not just a nonsense word made up by R.E.M. (Buckeyes are laughing at me): it is the Iroquois name of a winding Ohio river that feeds into Lake Erie and had a nasty habit of catching on fire in the first half of the twentieth century (a fact that seems to have been a spur to the environmentalist movement).The iTunes Essentials 1989: Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”. White Lion’s “When the Children Cry”. Oh, and more (Martika – Roxette – Phil Collins). Quite the walk down memory lane for those who remember the San Francisco Earthquake interrupting the World Series at Candlestick Park, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Berlin Wall coming down.Hillsborough disaster: Another from 1989, but across the pond: 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough stadium during an FA cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Investigations of the incident have never fully explained how the crush happened. I’ve been watching the British crime drama “Cracker”, starring Robbie Coltrain (the actor who plays Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies) and Christopher Eccleston, and one of its episodes was almost impossible to follow without background on Hillsborough.The death of Orpheus: Considered by the ancients the first among poets and musicians, Orpheus was said to charm beasts and fish with his song, and even to make rocks and trees dance. With his music he could restore Edenic harmony to the natural world, and through the Renaissance he was a sort culture hero – a benevolent, civilizing influence – a mythic bringer of tranquility and joy. After the death of his wife Eurydice, Orpheus took a vow of chastity. The Maenads, a group of women votaries of Bacchus, saw Orpheus and, taken with his beauty, wanted him to join in their Bacchanalian orgies. Orpheus refused and they tore him limb from limb. His head washed up on the shores of Lesbos, and so the people of that island were said to be endowed with the gift of song. (There’s a great John William Waterhouse painting of two nymphs finding Orpheus’ head.) Swift refers to this death by dismemberment in The Tale, and Milton, in “Lycidas“, describes Orpheus as he,Whom Universal nature did lament, [ 60 ]When by the rout that made the hideous roar,His goary visage down the stream was sent,Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.Such are the disastrous fragments of my day.
The book that sent the most people to this site this week via the search engines was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book and the flap surrounding it has been a huge story on sports radio so it’s no surprise that there are quite a few people looking for more info. The new books that have people talking this week are not a big surprise. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek a noted presidential biographer, revealed the news that JFK had an ongoing ralationship with an 19 year old intern codenamed “Mimi.” “Mimi” then broke her 40 year silence and went to the press. Don’t be surprised if her book shows up soon. The other book in the news is The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal which is, according to the reviews I’ve read unabashed in annointing the Clinton years as paradise on earth. The book I talked about most this week was The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. It is by far the best book I have read in a long time, and now that several friends have read it, our new hobby seems to be speculating on the whereabouts of the mysterious Maqroll the Gaviero. Read it…Judge a book by its coverI have come to notice during my time at the bookstore that, compared to the Brits, American book cover design is pretty dull. It seems that publishers are convinced that the only way to sell books to Americans is to make the covers as bland and non-threatening as possible. Compare the American cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s new book to the British one and you’ll see what I mean.
Likely aware that most of us are now jaded to the astronomical sales numbers that the Harry Potter books put up, Amazon has grabbed shoppers’ attention with an interesting ploy. The site is now looking to inspire further frenzies of buying by pitting town against town. “The Harry-est Town in America” is the American city or town that pre-orders the most copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and with that honor comes a $5,000 gift certificate to be donated by Amazon to a charity of the city’s choice. Unsurprisingly, suburban locales make up pretty much all of the top 100 “Harry-est” towns in America, and the D.C.-area suburbs of Northern Virginia appear to have a particular affinity for the boy wizard. Also, following up on yesterday’s “limited edition” post, a new box set of Potter books (pictured above) has been announced. It features “a collectible trunk-like box with sturdy handles and privacy lock” and “decorative stickers.”
Nicole Krauss is back with her first novel in seven years. Forest Dark “interweaves the stories of two disparate individuals — an older lawyer and a young novelist — whose transcendental search leads them to the same Israeli desert.” The cover of Krauss’s new offering sports cool blue waves (dunes?) and the now-ubiquitous yellow, centering a truly killer blurb from Philip Roth. Krauss was a National Book Award and Orange Prize finalist for Great House, and The History of Love won the Saroyan Prize for International Literature. Forest Dark will be published by HarperCollins on September 12.