With recent postings devoted to the second Litblog Co-op pick, Steve Stern’s Angel of Forgetfulness, the LBC Blog is living up to its promise. This weekend, Stern’s editor Paul Slovak posted his comments about the book and also delved into details about some of the other writers he works with including T.C. Boyle and William T. Vollmann. Also making a guest appearance was Stern himself, who responded to the dialogue about his book that Derik and Dan had going last week.
Buzz Poole's Madonna of the Toast documents the mysterious appearance of icons sacred and profane, in rock formations, housewares, and foodstuffs the world over. A potato chip shaped like Bob Hope? It's here. Vladimir Lenin on a shower curtain? Likewise. And it wouldn't very well be Madonna of the Toast without the titular grilled cheese, which - you guessed it - NEVER GOES BAD.Poole has launched a blog where observers of related paranormal phenomena can document their encounters. If you've recently run across a Charlotte Bronte-shaped underarm stain, or a puddle that looks like William Shatner, we can only suggest you head over to the blog and share your experience... Inquiring minds, after all, want to know.
It is of passing interest to me when a site like Gawker gets bookish. So they did on Saturday in a typically hard -to-peg post about Ben Kunkel's piece in this weekend's NY Times Book Review in which the "it-novelist" discussed the new Nirvana biography, Nirvana: The Biography, by Everett True. I often have no idea what is being said on Gawker. Are their writers simply sarcastic, or are they being cleverly sarcastic about their use of sarcasm?My best guess is that the gawkers generally dug the review. To the extent that this assessment is accurate, I concur. The new Nirvana book sounds a little lackluster. How many biographies of Nirvana can we as a culture absorb? I myself have read two, Michael Azerrad's Come As You Are, and Christopher Sandford's Kurt Cobain. What I have taken away from these books, and what Kunkel articulates in his review, is that Nirvana is a tough nut to crack: "What does 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' sound like when you're in your 30s, as Kurt Cobain, dead at 27, of course will never be?" It sounds to me like the epitome of artistic-commercial conflict, but I'm only 29. To wit, Nirvana, the ferocious guitar-pulverizing punk band, sounded best on an unplugged album. Not surprisingly Ben Kunkel, who cut his literary teeth chewing on twenty-something angst, sounds pretty good discussing the band.
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Goodreads is a vibrant and feisty place - if you can even call an online community a place. Its slogan boasts, "it's what your friends are reading!" and perhaps that's true: the site's more dedicated members are so busy posting the books they've read, and want to read, or are currently reading, that you might assume they no longer have time to actually read. But the opposite is true for me - since joining the site, and becoming obsessed with it, I've been reading quite voraciously. Chalk it up to a pure-hearted love of sharing my thoughts about literature; or to some illusory sense of accountability ("Everyone's breathlessly awaiting my opinion of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao!"); or to my desire to read a novel as soon as it's lauded by a friend ("Wow, Katie gave 5 stars to The Dud Avocado, I must see what's so great about it!"). Or maybe it's just a primitive lust to build up my roster of books read, to assert myself as the most bookish.Goodreads allows you to organize your books in self-created bookshelves (mine include "Theory" and "Tried but Failed to Read"), and to see if you and a friend have similar reading tastes (apparently, my taste is 100% similar to the aforementioned Katie's, which is just creepy). Most importantly, the site lets you rate books on a star system, one star signifying "I didn't like it," and five signifying, "It was amazing." The fact that there isn't an "I hated this piece of crap" option suggests that Goodreads is generally promoting a positive reaction to books. You can, however, say whatever you want in your reviews, and your friends can respond as they wish in the comments section. On my page, for instance, there's a 33-comment thread that covers Jonathan Lethem (the original subject of my review), Haruki Murakami, Miranda July, Michael Chabon, hipsters, blonde women, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford (that is, who's hotter), Rushmore, irony, Colson Whitehead, and more. Another friend's two-star rating (denoting "It was okay") of On The Road caused another friend to comment, "You also gave two stars to The Stranger, you tool. For that I should bypass this comment box and toss a flaming bag of shit at your house." This, unsurprisingly, led to a heated ping-ponging of comments. My, my, reading is more fun than I thought.I'd say more, but I must get back to that Junot Diaz novel - which is definitely already 4 stars-good, if not 5.
Exiled Kenyan Novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o was in San Francisco promoting his novel Wizard of the Crow and staying at the Hotel Vitale. According to a report in a Kenyan paper, the author was sitting in a common area of the hotel and was confronted by a hotel employee who said, "This place is for guests of the hotel. You must leave."The worker would hear none of the professor's explanation that he was a guest. He insisted that he must leave immediately.After it was established that indeed Ngugi was a distinguished guest of the hotel, the management apologised by offering some complimentary whisky.The incident is being talked about in other corners of the Web but has yet to be picked up by any US papers. The hotel is already trying to cover its tracks by saying that it was the action of an individual who "under review, as is the hotel's diversity training program," according to an email reprinted at this hotel review site (scroll down).At the blog Black Looks, where another email from hotel management has been reprinted (scroll down to the comments), demands are being made for a public apology in "to be placed in a Bay Area newspaper, no later than the end of this month."It seems likely that this was indeed the isolated stupidity of one person at the hotel. The hotel itself, meanwhile, is now in serious backpedaling mode. It just goes to show that even in what is considered one of the more "enlightened" cities in the world, we haven't made as much progress as we think.
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.
Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow "Year in Reading" contributor Meghan O'Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I'm thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate's audio podcasts. Future interviews, we're told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
As I recall there was a brief burst of interest in Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo when the movie came out in 2002. It makes sense because the movie does a good job of capturing this story of intrigue and revenge, and, in fact, the novel lends itself well to the screen because it is so packed full of brilliant schemes and vivid characters. At the start of the book Edmond Dantes, a young French sailor, gets unwittingly wrapped up in the political machinations of his day, and ends up getting hauled off to the Chateau d'If, an island prison as sinister as it sounds. At this point, though we feel sorry for Dantes, we are treated to 50 or so pages of his struggle against hopelessness and his friendship with a priest named Faria. Dumas' account of Dantes time in prison is thrilling both for its emotional weight and for the ingenious plans that Dantes and Faria concoct. By the next stage of the book, when the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo begins stirring up trouble among the Parisian elite, you wonder what else could be in store, since so many adventures have already occurred. But it turns out there's a whole lot more. Dozens of characters are introduced, and though at times it becomes a bit overwhelming trying to remember who is romantically involved with whom and who is trying to kill whom, the whole massive web manages to untangle itself wonderfully in the end. The book is a real joy to read and Monte Cristo is a brilliant character. You will find him to be both enthralling and terrifying.