Gather.com, the folks who put together a chat with Jonathan Safran Foer not too long ago, have announced a new writing contest. Online writing contests are a dime a dozen, but the cool thing about this one is that the four winning short pieces (fiction or non-fiction) will be “published and sold on Amazon Shorts,” which would undoubtedly be a terrific venue for any aspiring writer. In fact, it’s along the lines of what I hoped Amazon would do with its Shorts program.
Every time the stock market crashes, someone gets famous for having predicted it. Though some will argue that there’s always somebody arguing that armageddon is right around the corner (and that even a stopped clock is right twice a day), one of the voices who predicted our current economic crisis – banker and economic historian Charles R. Morris – is getting quite a bit of praise on Wall Street and his recently released book, The Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash, is selling like hotcakes.Thanks to our 24-hour news cycle, newsworthy events (9/11, Katrina, elections, the Red Sox winning the World Series, etc.) often spawn books that are rushed into print so that they can be in front of readers before the next headline has taken the spotlight. Morris’ book is unique in that it’s not a rush job, he began formulating the ideas behind it back in 2005, basing his pessimistic view on the activities of hedge funds and other Wall Street firms. As a recent NPR interview put it, “He ran a company that created the software investment banks and hedge funds use to build these new, exotic credit instruments. And he saw how they used his software, and thought, ‘This is crazy,’ he says. ‘I was sure that people weren’t keeping track of the trends so they had proper margins and collateral and so forth.'”For those interested in the topic, the NPR interview linked above is good, as is The Economist’s review, which explains just how far back the roots of the crisis go, in Morris’ estimation, “Mr Morris deftly joins the dots between the Keynesian liberalism of the 1960s, the crippling stagflation of the 1970s and the free-market experimentation of the 1980s and 1990s, before entering the world of ultra-cheap money and financial innovation gone mad.”At Foreign Policy Morris has offered up an 8-step explanation for what exactly went wrong and gives some insight into what happens next. Despite some technical terminology, this article should prove quite illuminating for those bewildered by our current economic crisis.
I have a Bloglines account. Since you’re reading this blog, you probably know what I’m talking about, but in case you don’t, I’ll explain. Bloglines takes all the blogs and websites you read everyday and bundles them together in one place, so you can check them without getting repetitive stress disorder from your web browser. Bloglines is like the newspaper of stuff I care about. There is no real estate section in my paper, no classifieds, only sports, food, the occasional political rant, and then an extensive cultural section that includes the blog you’re reading now, and more than a few others that cover film, music and celebrity gossip (the lifeblood of the modern news media).For the last couple of months, my “newspaper” has included a metro section, and that section has been dominated by the Homicide Report, written by Los Angeles Times crime reporter Jill Leovy. The Homicide Report is a straightforward, factual account of every homicide in Los Angeles County. It runs five days a week. Most of the homicides only a get a line or two, a simple description of the facts, under a stark and pointed headline (“Man shot working on a car”; “Teacher Found Killed”), but more importantly, whenever possible, the identity of the victim is revealed. For most homicides, this is a few lines more recognition than they would get in the Los Angeles Times or in any newspaper, for that matter. As Leovy says, “The media often covers homicide as a statistic story, marking up-and-down jags in the rates.” In an interview with the blog LA Observed (another of my daily reads) she explains some of her motivation for starting the blog:”At the very least, seeing all the homicides arrayed in a list like this will give readers a much more real view of who is dying, and how often. And for me, it means no longer having to confront weeping mothers who say their sons’ deaths were never covered by the press.”It seems fitting that LA would lead the way with a blog about murder (Note: other cities have followed suit; just this week the Houston Chronicle launched its own homicide blog (via bloghouston.net)). After all, this is the city of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler, of Michael Connelly and Joseph Wambaugh, of Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. Crime is woven into the fabric of the city and its culture in a way that doesn’t seem to be the case in the other American cities (except maybe Baltimore). While the classic noirists and the masters of the procedural used crime in the city to tell stories of the evil that lurked within it, the Homicide Report seems determined to tell of the innocence, as well. It remains to be seen what effect the blog will have on crime rates, if any, but it already raises my awareness on a daily basis.
Scott Berg stopped by the store yesterday to sign some copies of his most recent book Kate Remembered. Signed books sell well during the holidays so lots of local authors have been dropping by to make their books slightly more “gift-worthy” by putting their names on them. Kate Remembered was quite a sensation in LA this past year. It is, more or less, a collection of conversations that Berg had with Katherine Hepburn over the last ten years. She spoke on the record on the condition that the book not be released until after her death, and so a few weeks after she passed away the book hit shelves and Hollywood folks raced in to see what Hepburn might have revealed about her long life. Berg, though very much entrenched in the Hollywood world, is perhaps better-known by the general reading public as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Lindbergh, an illuminating portrait of one of America’s great tragic heroes. I asked him what he’s working on now, and he said that his next book will not be about Hollywood, but instead he is making a foray into presidential biography. He is currently deep into his sixty volume set of the collected papers of Woodrow Wilson, researching a biography he hopes to complete by 2009. You heard it here first.Jeff Bridges, meanwhile, stopped by to sign copies of his new book Pictures, a charming collection of photographs that he’s taken on various film sets over the years. The book itself is very attractive and the photographs are surprisingly accomplished.
In their quest to add more and more arcane content to every page, Amazon recently added Statistically Improbable Phrases to their pages for books that have the “Search inside…” feature. Apparently, Amazon is using an algorithm to determine which phrases in particular books are less likely to appear in other books with some interesting, though not terribly useful, results. Or so it would seem to me. (Although there is the prospect of a third party using this data to come up with some interesting applications). Anyway, to see it in action, let’s look at the page for Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, and you’ll see this near the top of the page: ” SIPs: consultant caste, executive intern, snoring issue, head intern, dominant village,” those, apparently, being some of the Statistically Improbable Phrases contained within the book. Then, if you want you can click on one of the SIPs to see other books that contain it. Here’s the short list of books that contain the phrase “snoring issue.”
Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
And just like that, my Los Angeles chapter has been brought to a quick and frenzied close. After a marathon of packing and a lot of time spent trying to make all of the junk we acquired over the last few years disappear, Ms. Millions and I set off east through the desert, nine and a half hours behind schedule but determined to make up the time. Unlike four years ago when we spent three weeks driving five thousand miles, pausing often, here and there, when we found a place that held our interest, this trip was a delirium of driving, hundreds of miles between stops, trying to keep the needle of the speedometer above 90 as we traversed desolate stretches of highway in New Mexico and Texas. But now I am in Washington, DC, which will be my base of sorts for the summer, leading up to and beyond my wedding until it is time to move to Chicago. I no longer have a fantastic book store at my disposal, but I am hoping to offer some insight, now purely as a reader, even though my bookselling days are behind me. Another thing I would like to do this summer, between wedding planning and hopefully a little traveling, is work. If anyone out there knows of or can offer me an internship for the summer, preferably in journalism, let me know. I don’t need to be paid much or at all, really; just looking for some experience and for something to do. Email me if you can help. But enough of that, on to some books.While on the road, I received an email from Steve from Virginia containing a couple of recommendations. First, noting my interest in the books of the British war historian, John Keegan, he suggested that I endeavor to read The Mask of Command as it is, in his opinion, Keegan’s best. Also of note: Keegan’s latest, The Iraq War, will be released soon. It will be interesting to see how a man of Keegan’s expertise analyses such a modern and non-traditional conflict. Steve also wrote in suggesting that I take a look at Nicholas Rankin’s Telegram from Guernica, a book about George Steer, the South African war correspondent who broke the story of the firebombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Thanks for the recommendations, Steve!As I was packing up to go, I heard on the radio an interview with the author of a new book called, Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle. Jad Adams, the British journalist behind this book, wanted to explore the curious hold that this beverage had on generations of artists and writers who were looking for inspiration.Finally, I caught this amusing little story about the intersection of fiction, marketing, and copywrites. The cover of Tom Perotta’s Little Children will be switched from goldfish to cookies sometime soon.
Very clever of The Morning News to do this whole bracket competition with their Tournament of Books, because here I am writing about it again. I can’t help myself, especially with the palpable frisson of being tied for first. In all seriousness, though, I’ve greatly enjoyed both the write ups by the various judges and the attendant banter by Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner. Today’s installment, pitting Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day against Pride of Baghdad, a graphic novel by Brian K. Vaughn and Niko Henrichon was, as judged by Anthony Doerr, particularly entertaining. The whole exercise has served as reminder, especially in light of recent controversies, that engaging with books in this fun and perhaps silly way can be just as worthwhile as “serious” criticism, especially if one counts among his goals getting more people to read more good books.Regardless of the merits of TMN’s endeavors, though, I am in it to win this thing, and I remain tied with the formidable Condalmo. I fear, however, that I may be peaking early in this contest. The “zombie round” may yet give me new life, but as it stands now, my two finalists, Apex Hides the Hurt and The Echo Maker, are out of the competition.