I'm going to digress from the book talk here, if I may. I've been blogging for a couple of years now, and I really enjoy it. I post when I feel like it, I write about books, and a handful of people visit every day. Discussions ensue; it's all very fun. But when I see folks blogging in Iraq and other dangerous locales, I wonder if I would join the fray in a situation where blogging is more than a diversion or a hobby - where blogging is an act of courage or defiance.Lately, I've been following the situation in Nepal. The king has dissolved the government and basically shut down the press. I was curious to see if any blogs in Nepal are defying the press ban, and I found this one: a group blog called United We Blog! The most recent post from the blog's administrator concludes with this warning, "Do Not Blog About Political Matters for the time being," but a previous post puts it this way, "Because of my basic human rights, like right to express, speak and writing, are suspended and I am in no position to express my feeling or opinion regarding the royal takeover. Here in Nepal, press freedom is being curtailed and, according to the government, our website can't report on political issues."He also says this about the ban: "For the first time in my life, I knew the importance of this site, a place to express myself, ourself... A great forum to share ideas."Part of me wants to write to these guys to let them know that their words, despite the censorship, are reaching us, but at the same time, I would not want to encourage them to put themselves in danger by communicating with us. I think, perhaps, the larger point I'm trying to make is that - thanks to blogs - we can now peer behind walls of censorship to see the people oppressed by it. If anyone else stumbles onto any more Nepalese blogs, please let us know.
A couple of weeks ago I started a new job doing internet marketing for Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, CA. At about the same time, the president of Vroman's, Allison Hill, left for the Beijing Book Fair as part of a delegation of American and British booksellers. Considering it took place on the other side of the globe, the Beijing Book Fair has generated a fair amount of heat here in the US. Among the other American delegates, Karl Pohrt, from Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, MI, blogged about the fair for three percent, a blog about international literature from the University of Rochester. Yet another of the delegates, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company blogged about the experience for Publishers Weekly.Allison isn't quite as bloggy as her compatriots, but she did sit down with me for a conversation about Beijing once she got back. Among the most interesting nuggets:One store we went to, the owner asked how we make do with a staff of only 120 or so people. His store employs 500 people. When I saw the store, I understood why. It was 355,000 square feet! I asked about the buying strategy, and they told me they buy every single book published in Chinese.For the complete interview, check out the Vroman's blog.
I'm going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat's Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan ("The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way."); Galapagos ("A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race."); Hocus Pocus ("A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga... and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college."); Welcome to the Monkey House ("This collection of Vonnegut's short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision."); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater ("Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature... with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.")
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
Over the past few years, I've read a good amount of twentieth century Russian history, and I've come to wonder, with dismay, why the Soviet regime - especially during Stalin's reign - is not acknowledged as one of the great horrors in human history. One does not see memorials and museums to this tragedy in cities around the world, nor even in Russia. This view was reinforced in me by books like Anne Applebaum's Gulag and Martin Amis' Koba the Dread. Now Millions reader Brian has read another book about Stalin's reign and sent in his thoughts:I just read Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore-- One of the most intense and fascinating books I've ever read in my life. Wow. Focuses mostly on Stalin's life after Lenin's death and the lives of the Russian magnates that surrounded him. At about pg. 200 the Great Terror kicks in, leading into negotiations and subsequent war with Germany and... it is indescribable. Truly. We all know about Stalin, but I never really understood...- There is one scene in this book, the Russians had 17,000 Poles imprisoned. Stalin ordered 7,000 of them killed. Blohkin was the man to do it. At various times during the Terror he was denounced by Yezhov or Beria, but Stalin wouldn't let him be killed as nobody could murder with such speed or efficiency. Moreover, like Stalin, it didn't jangle Blohkin's nerves; he didn't turn to excessive drink, decadent sex, or lose him mind. (Although his mother, years later, recalled that he would come home, throw himself at her feet, and sob uncontrollably) - so, on the abovementioned night, Blohkin put on his rubber butcher's apron, a cap, and took a German pistol (blame it on the Nazis if the crime was discovered) and personally shot 250 poles. He did this - 250 murders a night - for 28 nights. It is the single largest (known) mass murder by one individual in history.- Montefiore provides day by day descriptions of life in the Kremlin, the intrigues amongst Stalin's 'court', the denunciations, confessions, and sexual liaisons amongst the men and women at the 'top' (one of Stalin's favorite things, which he did over and over, was to order the murder of a top official's wife and then force the official to hang around (and, possibly take orders from) her murderer); the meetings between Molotov and Hitler, Stalin and Ribbentrop, FDR, Churchill, etc. - he gives actual confessions, testimonies, and descriptions of Stalin's right hand men being beaten so hard that their eyeballs pop out of their heads (for some reason this is mentioned frequently -- what must be done to a man or woman's head to have an eyeball pushed, not picked, out?) by their former best friends, and, at times, their sons or brothers. Seriously.The paperback came out last week. A must read.
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I discovered the other day that an ambitious project to publish the complete run of Charles Shulz's seminal comic, Peanuts, has begun. The books are very attractive and they have rounded up some notable folks to pen the introductions. The first volume, which covers 1950-1952, includes an introduction by Garrison Keillor and is already in book stores. Volume two (1953-1954) will be released this fall with an introduction by Walter Cronkite. According to the publisher, Fantagraphics, the 25 book series will span the full 50 year run of the comic and the books will be released at a rate of two books per year. When it is all said and done, the collection (along with the introductions within) should provide an interesting look into the second half of the twentieth century in America.