I think I may have mentioned the USA Today bestseller list before. It’s fun because it ranks the top 150 books, not just the top 20 like most lists, and I also like it because it doesn’t separate books by category, so you can see how those self-help books stack up against those mystery novels. I also think it’s interesting to see which classic novels make appearances on the list. For example, this week – barring classics making the list due to movie tie-ins – we’ve got Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at 93. I also recently noticed that you can use the search box at the top of the list to search its entire ten year history. For example, I now know that Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which happens to be next to me on the shelf) was on the list for six weeks in late 2003, peaking at 108. Interesting.
As we adjust to new economic realities, Michael Lewis is emerging as the financial meltdown’s most important voice. His Portfolio piece “The End” told us how we got here but it also illuminated his own failure, in the 1980s, to get the point across with his book Liar’s Poker. Meant to be a cautionary tale, it became instead an inspiration.But Lewis appears unwilling to let “The End” be his final, confessional comment on the matter. This weekend, as a new year and new administration are gearing up, Lewis has delivered another far more aggressive piece, this time in the New York Times (Part 1, Part 2). In it, he calls out, more strenuously than before, the fraud, incompetence, and willful ignorance behind the financial crisis and makes it clear that this fall’s efforts to resolve it were flawed at best. He also makes several direct, clear-eyed proposals to set things back on the right course. One hopes Obama is watching. One also notices that Lewis, in these pieces, is no longer acting as a journalist or even a columnist. He has thrust himself into the center of this issue, as if looking to finish what he tried to accomplish more than 20 years ago.But Lewis has grown up too. Liar’s Poker didn’t wake up the world to Wall Street’s ills because its tone was too glib and too incredulous. We were meant to marvel at the goings on at Solomon Brothers just as the young Lewis had. That tone is gone now, and Lewis has returned to the task with a fierce seriousness. Whether or not you agree with everything that Lewis is writing in these pieces, his tone, backed up by his more than 30 years of writing about Wall Street, will give even the most optimistic observers pause.Interestingly, Lewis’ co-author for the two New York Times pieces is David Einhorn, a hedge fund manager who doesn’t exactly have a pristine reputation. Einhorn heads up Greenlight Capital, which racked up average annualized returns of 25.5% from May 1996 through mid-2008, according to New York Times, though his funds, like many on Wall Street, have struggled since. He’s also a serious poker player. In 2006, he placed 18th in the World Series of Poker’s main event, winning more than $650 thousand that he donated to charity.Einhorn made headlines this year for his very vocal bearish stance on now defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers. Einhorn eventually went public with discrepancies that he and his analysts had found in Lehman’s numbers. Believed to be short (i.e. placing bets that the stock would go down) Lehman and other financial names, Einhorn was excoriated in a war of words on Wall Street as regulators targeted short selling among financial stocks. Lewis and Einhorn make it clear where they stand on that issue, calling short sellers, “the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.”After much confusion as the crisis played out in 2008, it may be that we are seeing whistle-blowers like Lewis and Einhorn emerge from the mess to take control of the discussion. In time we will see if they have the ear anyone in power.
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.
Tomorrow is Frank Wilson’s final day as book editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. This is notable not just because fragile book sections can ill afford to lose advocates like Wilson and not just because of the boisterous and popular link blog, Books, Inq, that Wilson ran on the side (and has hinted he will continue.) It is notable because as much as anyone in the literary world, Wilson embodies the positive changes that have gone on among both the media and the masses in the discourse surrounding books.About a year ago, in taking stock of book blogs’ place in the world, I noted that “though there has sometimes been an unhealthy ‘us against them’ mentality between bloggers and professional critics, in many ways this friction has melted away as critics have become bloggers themselves and as a number of talented bloggers have begun to invade the book pages, providing a pool of talent and a new voice to book review sections that were shrinking and stultified.”In this last regard, Wilson was key. While some of his colleagues looked upon bloggers warily, concerned that these “enthusiasts” would squeeze them out by doing their work for free, Wilson was prescient enough to recognize the enthusiasm and talent of quite a few bloggers. Though he was not the first to look to the blogs, he was perhaps the most fervent in tapping this new pool of talent, giving people like Ed, Scott, and Levi the wider audiences that they deserved.All of this is also important in the context of what’s going on in the newspaper industry. Wilson has not announced the particulars of his departure – which to this observer seemed sudden – but the Inquirer is as embattled as any newspaper out there. Late last month, Jim Romenesko reported, “Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News chief Brian Tierney told his unions… that there will be ‘a dire situation’ by summer or fall if the company can’t find ways to cut costs by 10%.” However, while many of Wilson’s colleagues across the country rail against the fate of the industry, Wilson tried something new, both with his blog and by reaching outside of the normal circles for writers.Finally, as a fairly recent transplant to Philadelphia (one who has quickly come to love the city), I will feel Wilson’s departure more personally. In a once great newspaper town, Wilson was something to hold onto, even amid the “dire” warnings of the Inquirer and the Daily News. Luckily not everything is so dire. Though Wilson will leave behind his book section, he will continue to be part of a literary conversation that it is as vibrant as it has ever been. Fueled by readers, this conversation has migrated from book club meetings and bookstore aisles out into the open, amongst all the blogs, newspapers, and magazines that choose to take part.
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.