This must be some sign of the times: our friends at The New Yorker are currently offering the DVD-ROM set of “every page of every issue” at the fire sale price of $19.99 (and Amazon has it for as cheap as $16.72 as of this writing, though the sets for sale there may only be through 2005). It would seem that, during the time-intensive process of digitizing the New Yorker archive, technology outran itself. Shortly after the release of the boxed set, as we pointed out last year, “Every page of every issue” became available to subscribers at newyorker.com. That is to say, the DVD-ROM version is already obsolete. Still, there’s something amazing – even scandalous – about having the collected labor of White, Addams, Trow, Frazier et al. sitting in a svelte case on your desk. And heaven knows Condé Nast needs the revenue: The New Yorker was apparently its biggest ad-page loser last year, and we took note of a decidedly slimmer Winter Fiction Issue in September.
I'm excited to announce that I'll be appearing as a judge in this year's Morning News Tournament of Books. (Click through to see the other, far more distinguished, judges, as well) It's exciting to be a part of what just might be my favorite ongoing series on the web. Stayed tuned for my second-round judgment once the Tournament kicks off in a few weeks.And by all means, get your bracket (pdf) now and start handicapping.
Rick Atkinson, sometime reporter for the Washington Post and author of several books, most recently An Army at Dawn and In the Company of Soldiers, stopped by school today and gave a brief talk to a gathering of students and faculty. Atkinson describes himself as a narrative non-fiction writer and "recovering journalist," and he divided his writing into three categories: journalism, instant history and true history - or history's first, second and third drafts. He also said that great events like World War II are "bottomless" and thus can have no final draft. Atkinson called journalists "paid eyewitnesses."During the talk, he listed a series of books that are examples of first-hand accounts of war, several of which he encountered researching An Army at Dawn, which is about the Allied liberation of North Africa. Atkinson's list fits into that second category, instant history in the form of the battle memoir:The Battle is the Pay-Off by Ralph Ingersoll - WWII, North AfricaRoad to Tunis by David Rame - WWII, North AfricaBrave Men by Ernie Pyle - WWII, EuropeSlightly Out of Focus by Robert Capa (the famous war photographer) - WWII, North Africa and EuropeThe Road Back to Paris by A.J. Liebling (writing for the New Yorker) WWII, EuropeThe End in Africa by Alan Moorhead - WWII, North AfricaMartyr's Day: Chronicle of a Small War by Michael Kelly (who died in a humvee accident in Iraq in 2003) - Persian Gulf War
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. Bonus links: An excerpt from The Big Short A collection of HFM interviews from nplusonemag.com
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C.S. Forester's fictional naval hero, Horatio Hornblower (of the Hornblower series of adventure novels), has one of the more memorably silly names in literary history. So, British researchers were quite surprised when they found a real life Hornblower in centuries old census records. Other silly names uncovered: Boadicea Basher, Philadelphia Bunnyface, Faithful Cock, and many more.
After my brief service was completed I spent a week in Istanbul and returned to New York. In the meanwhile I picked up a collection of Yasar Kemal's short stories, Sari Sicak, Teneke ve Diger Hikayeler (Yellow Heat, Tin Can and Other Stories) from my parents' library. I was in between cities and about to quit my job, hence a collection proved perfect for the time. Kemal has a very distinct style that reflects an Anatolian tone and includes long depictions of nature and rural life and lengthy character analyses. The collection included some of his most famous pieces such as "Sari Sicak" ("Yellow Heat") and "Teneke" ("Tin Can"), which, as do most of the other stories, reflect on the difficulties of rural life in the southern towns and regions surrounding Adana, a city now known for its cotton farmers and back then for its rice plantations. The backwards methods of planting rice resulted in swamps and an increase in the number of mosquitoes, and therefore malaria. Kemal reflects on the ill approach of the government towards the rural population and the generous benefits it granted to landlords, who, without the slightest regard to the peasants, flooded villages, planted rice, created swamps and did not even wince at the death of hundreds of men, women and children due to malaria. Reading Kemal's stories, the reader easily identifies with the daily troubles of the villagers that believe in a just government and seek help, all to their dismay. Depictions of corrupt and impossible situations reach a new zenith in Kemal's stories, and, hold true even today - despite the changes in setting. Books by Yasar Kemal.Upon arriving in New York, I received four great books as birthday presents. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange from Sylvia and Noam Chomsky's Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky and The Best American Magazine Writing 2005 compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and published by The Columbia University Press from Selin and Siddhesh. I immediately started reading The Best American Magazine Writing 2005. I am currently reading stories at random and so far I read four out of the seventeen pieces in the collection: Seymour M. Hersch's "Torture at Abu Ghraib", Ned Zeman's "The Man Who Loved Grizzlies", Andrew Corsello's "The Wronged Man" and Samantha Power's Dying in Darfur. I am not sure if I agree one hundred percent with Nicholas Lemann's assertion that this specific collection comprises the best pieces of writing to come out of the U.S. in 2005, but nevertheless the stories are incredibly well written, insightful and fresh. I enjoyed the ones I read thus far and hope that the rest will be just as good.See also: Part 1, 3
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From the WSJ, a story of how the Cuban government has licensed franchises of La Bodeguita del Medio, a watering hole where Ernest Hemingway supposedly once hung out. "The concept clicked, and La Bodeguita outlets spread across Latin America and European cities including Paris and Berlin. Even in former communist capitals like Prague -- where some locals call the restaurants 'McCastro's' -- the Hemingway link attracts business." It sounds like a Cuban Hard Rock Cafe that's Hemingway-themed rather than aging rocker-themed. My favorite part of the story is the lead paragraph:A life-size likeness of Ernest Hemingway greets diners entering La Bodeguita del Medio bistro near Stanford University here. Patrons at La Bodeguita del Medio in Prague order The Old Man and the Seafood plate. And in London's new version of the same restaurant, which opened last month, the owner says Hemingway novels will be available for perusal in the men's room.Separately, and more seriously, an article about how The Nature Conservancy came to own Hemingway's last house, in Ketchum, Idaho.