On September 15, 2008, the morning banking giant Lehman Brothers filed the largest bankruptcy case in U.S. history, business reporters, historians, ex-finance mavens, and business-savvy novelists across New York City awoke to find themselves in a high-stakes race to be the first out with a book on the Panic of 2008. Anyone who has spent time in the business section of Barnes & Noble lately knows who won this race: Too Big to Fail, New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin’s account of the frenzied weeks leading up to the Lehman bankruptcy, published in October 2009. The HBO miniseries of Sorkin’s book, starring William Hurt, Ed Asner, Paul Giamatti, and, apparently, half the white male population of Hollywood, also looks to win the race for first film out of the gate when it premieres tonight, May 23. But if Sorkin’s lightning-quick fingers, and his formidable resources as chief of the Times’ DealBook blog, put him first across the finish line, that doesn’t mean he has written the best book on the crisis. As a New Yorker with an interest in board room intrigue and a taste for schadenfreude, I’ve done my best to read every book on the banking crisis that has come out since the Lehman filing. What follows is my handicapping of the race for the best book on the subject:
Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: No one else even comes close. Anyone who has followed Lewis’ career, starting with Liar’s Poker, his account of his adventures selling bonds at Salomon Brothers in the go-go 1980s, knows that his books hew to a timeworn formula: he follows a quirky, sometimes half-mad contrarian, using his hero’s off-center view on his subject to show how a complex, often abstruse market functions. In The Big Short, he focuses on a crew of oddball hedge fund managers who “short” – that is, bet against – the exploding market for subprime mortgages in the years before the crash. Lewis is a world-class storyteller and he can be very, very funny, but what sets his books apart is that he combines these skills with a genuine understanding of the brain-melting complexity of the economic systems he is describing. In his hands, all those abstract terms you’ve been puzzling over on the news – credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, mortgage-backed securities, and so on – become real as you watch his plucky band of misfits slowly figure out that the emperor has no clothes. When the money starts rolling in, you cheer, not just because the little guys are winning, but because their triumph is a victory for common sense over gold-plated, government-backed flim flam.
Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail: In the news room, the front-page article that gives reader a breathless, blow-by-blow account of a newsworthy event is called a “ticktock,” and Too Big to Fail is essentially a 539-page ticktock. Plainly modeled on Bob Woodward’s thrillerish accounts of bureaucratic infighting in the nation’s capital, Too Big to Fail tells the story of the 2008 financial crash through the eyes of the banking CEOs and federal regulators who brought the world’s largest economy to the brink and wrenched it back just before it careened off the cliff. Sorkin takes readers inside the chandeliered conference rooms at the New York Federal Reserve building in September 2008 as the CEOs of America’s largest banks roll up the sleeves of their Charles Tyrwitt shirts and pull all-nighters like a bunch of panicked college kids during finals week. But as with Woodward’s tomes, the virtues of Too Big to Fail are also its failings. Sorkin, arguably the best business-beat reporter in American daily journalism, has fantastic sources and he offers a crystal clear picture of what happened, but very little sense of why. Unlike Lewis, who sides with the outsiders, Sorkin’s sources are, for the most part, the same bespoke-suited bejillionaires who blew up the economy in the first place. Sorkin makes an effort to offer a broader perspective, but ultimately he is a prisoner of his sources, to whom the financial crisis of 2008 was a natural disaster, an act of God over which they had little control.
Roger Lowenstein’s The End of Wall Street: The third-place finish is unfair because Lowenstein’s main stumbling block is that he wasn’t first. Lowenstein’s book, published in 2010, is 250 pages shorter than Too Big to Fail and yet it offers more insight into the causes of the collapse than Sorkin’s does. A former Wall Street Journal reporter who has made a career of writing books on financial crises starting with the 1998 collapse of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund, Lowenstein is able to draw on reporting going back to the 1970s and ’80s to titrate the toxic brew of federal banking deregulation and financial innovation that created the boom in subprime mortgages. But ultimately the drama of the book falls on the same frantic calls between CEOs trying to save their tottering banks and coffee-fueled all-nighters at the Fed building that drive Too Big to Fail. Because Lowenstein wasn’t as quick out of the gate and doesn’t have Sorkin’s magic Rolodex, his book suffers by comparison.
House of Cards by William D. Cohan: House of Cards too often reads like the author was running late for a train. Focusing on the March 2008 collapse of Bear Stearns, the first of the big banking dominoes to fall, House of Cards has no shortage of colorful characters or outlandishly stupid financial stratagems. But built as it is around the epic battle for control of the firm between old-school banker Ace Greenberg and the bridge-obsessed stockbroker Jimmy Cayne, the book suffers from some rather long-winded rehashing of old news. It doesn’t help that Bear Stearns, though worth billions, was a relatively small player among the New York banking behemoths, and when it had to be sold for pennies on the dollar to JP Morgan Chase, its demise only foreshadowed the far greater mayhem to come when Lehman fell in September.
The Buyout of America by Josh Kosman: The Buyout of America, about the secretive private-equity business, has all the ingredients of a Zeitgeist-puncturing work of muckraking journalism in the mold of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Nick Reding’s Methland. Private equity firms collect vast pots of money from wealthy financiers and institutional investors like universities and pension plans, and use the money – along with even bigger pots of borrowed cash – to buy underperforming companies. (If you remember the Richard Gere character in Pretty Woman, you have the basic idea.) In a best-case scenario, private equity firms perform a valuable and necessary service by taking risks on companies no one else wants, but in practice, Kosman says, these firms take fewer risks than they claim and can cause grievous harm to the companies they buy, cutting costs and firing valuable employees to get their target companies out from under mountains of debt. This was especially true in the first years of the new century because borrowing costs were so low and the buyout market was so overheated. Kosman predicts the excesses of the private equity boom will begin to sour over the next eighteen months, leading to “the likely collapse of half of the 3,188 American companies PE firms bought from 2000 to 2008.”
Sounds like great stuff, which is why I plunked down my $26.95 to buy The Buyout of America in hardback days after it came out in 2009. But Kosman, a senior reporter for the trade publication Buyouts Newsletter, just doesn’t deliver the goods. For one thing, with a few notorious exceptions, the outlook for buyouts looks to be improving in 2011, not cratering as Kosman predicted. To make matters worse, Kosman never quite pierces the cone of silence that surrounds the private equity world and much of the book ends up rehashing old cases of private equity perfidy you can read about elsewhere.
Horses of a Different Color:
Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges & Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic: Neither Dee nor Haslett is writing directly about the 2008 crash – indeed, Haslett’s book is set largely in Boston – but both nevertheless offer excellent windows onto the perverse workings of the Wall Street mind. Dee’s novel, The Privileges, centers on the family of Adam Morey, a private equity guru who engineers an illegal insider trading network, earning millions of dollars that he socks away at an offshore bank. The book gradually reveals itself to be a satire of über-rich New Yorkers, but you could easily miss the darts Dee is aiming at his characters because he so rarely steps outside the cosseted, self-justifying world the Moreys have built around themselves. Even more daringly, Dee doesn’t punish Morey for his sins. By flouting conventional dramatic rules, Dee robs his story of a morally satisfying ending, but his bold move frees him to create a devastatingly honest portrait of the rot at the center of the American culture of success.
Union Atlantic is more conventional in its plotting, pitting a nearly sociopathically ambitious young banker against a dotty old high school history teacher named Charlotte Graves, who represents dying Old Yankee values. In lesser hands, this would end up the potted morality tale it is designed to be (her name is Graves – get it?), but Haslett, author of the luminous book of stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, has a gift for language and for conveying people’s inner lives. Haslett has a journeyman’s understanding of finance, and some of the minor characters read as though they stumbled in from a Tom Wolfe pastiche, but the central figures are richly imagined and the climax, when it comes, is deeply satisfying.
Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance: Finally, if you want to take the long view on financial crises, you can do no better than Lords of Finance, which traces the causes of the global economic depression following 1929 stock market crash. In this remarkable book, Ahamed retells the story of how the fallout from World War I led inexorably to Hitler’s Germany, not through the conventional lens of the era’s politicians and generals, but through the eyes of the central bankers of America, Britain, France and Germany, the four main powers at Versailles in 1919. What comes through is how the decisions of a few powerful men can affect the lives of millions, and just how catastrophic the effects can be when those in power act foolishly.
“Tell me what you eat,” wrote Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, “and I will tell you what you are.” His magnum opus, The Physiology of Taste , was gastronomy’s answer to Diderot’s Encyclopedia or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: technique by technique, principle by principle, Brillat-Savarin relentlessly marches through the catalog of la gourmanidse and lays out, in his words, nothing less than the “eternal foundation” for “a new science”—the science of gastronomy—that would “nourish, restore, preserve, persuade, and console us; a science which, not content with strewing flowers in the path of the individual, also contributes in no small measure to the strength and prosperity of empires.”
In many ways, The Physiology of Taste applied the essence of Enlightenment thought to food, cooking, and eating. It is a massive and thorough discourse written by an author supremely confident in his ability to know himself and all of his faculties, from consumption to cognition, in perfect detail. Brillat-Savarin sought to train mankind’s collective palate and teach everyone the joys of cooking and dining through the science of gastronomy. But that science is strangely limited in scope as well. According to Brillat-Savarin, gourmandism is a science of pleasure-making, training in aesthetic judgment, the gifts of the muse Gasterea—and nothing else.
Even though Brillat-Savarin used the language and structure of Enlightenment thought, he followed the dictum of the Greek philosopher Epictetus: “do not discourse how people ought to eat; but eat as you ought.”
In fact, food writers have taken that advice to heart since Brillat-Savarin’s time. They have felt free to recall, meditate, and describe, from Marcel Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine to Julia Child’s sole meunière, but they never connected food with morality, only competing tastes. The topic even blunted the sharpest pens of the nineteenth century. H.L. Mencken reminisced about oyster fritters and soft-shell crabs in “The Baltimore of The Eighties,” but made only a passing mention of the pollution that would later render the Patapsco River one of the first identified marine dead zones in the world. Likewise, Mark Twain wrote enough about food to fill a book, though it’s probably too much of a stretch to call him a “locavore,”, since it sounds like Twain’s preference for local food was more of a logistical rather than a moral issue.
It took socialists to first convince people that food issues extended well beyond the dinner plate. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle famously exposed the near-complete lack of concern for food safety in the meatpacking industry, and George Orwell spent a surprising amount of his literary life defending roast beef, bread-and-drippings, and the English way of making tea from the encroachment of margarine and tin cans. “We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun,” he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, without any irony whatsoever: he believed that industrialism meant the decline of man’s moral, intellectual, and physical health, and nowhere was this decline more apparent than in the English kitchen.
Still, these books were intended to be more like John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and less like Fast Food Nation—that is, arguments for the justice and moral rectitude of socialism, not merely calls for better food regulation. As Sinclair later complained, “I aimed for the nation’s heart and hit its stomach.”
After World War II, as the world grew accustomed to frozen vegetables and Jell-O molds, the vast majority of food writing turned anodyne. Food essays tended to resemble extended essays, a sort of verbal channeling of the Platonic form of a particular dish or technique. It was, and still is, the most common kind of food writing, produced by critics and chefs alike, from James Beard to Nigella Lawson. Entertaining (and appetite-whetting) though these may books might be, all of them are fairly low-risk and low-stakes. Most examples are panegyrics to one dish or ingredient or technique, and the rest are simply culinary relativism, an attempt to show that one thing is better than another. It’s the same ground that Brillat-Savarin had covered a century prior.
But a few writers have always aspired to more. In the 60s and 70s, travel writers showed that the “went there, ate that” travelogue could, in fact, have a point beyond mere description: Paul Theroux, for instance, found that the dismal dining cars in the Orient Express mirrored the famous route’s general decline. British food columnist Jane Grigson, meanwhile, wrote miniature biographies of vegetables in an attempt to sketch the outlines of what are now, a bit awkwardly, called “foodways”; her London Times counterpart, Michael Bateman, agitated for better school lunches and exposed food industry malpractices before launching the Campaign for Real Bread, which championed local bakers over the “technological bread” of industrial plants.
Still, most modern American food writers see themselves not as the heirs of these gastronomical torch-bearers, but as the descendants of the ecological movement. It’s no surprise that the name Rachel Carson pops up again and again, from Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish to the pages of Vegetarian Times magazine; after all, many of these writers are trying to expose the environmental damaged caused by agribusiness or commercial fishing in the same way that Carson showed what pesticides were doing to wildlife.
Of course, food matters to most of us far more than water management, wildlife preservation, or even global warming: whether it’s three squares a day or the “efficient, joyless eating” of Dr. Oz, we are forced to see, smell, taste, and think about food every single day.
And that’s why the best food writing has a unique capacity to tell us something about our social norms and attitudes and even, at a stretch, that nebulous idea called the human condition. Sometimes it’s good: the chefs/civic boosters/cultural ambassadors that Anthony Bourdain manages to find around the world, from Caracas to Dubai; Tony Judt’s observation that European multiculturalism extended to his own dining table, too.
But food can also lead us to abandon reason in favor of pure hedonism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Greenberg’s Four Fish, which manages to find culprits everywhere. There’s the tuna fisherman who says, “I love these fish…but I love to catch them. God, I love to catch them. And I know you need some kind of catch limits because I’d catch all of them if I could.” Or the trochus diver on Cook Island who, when caught harvesting out-of-season, began to cry and asked, “Why? Why did you close the season? There are still some left!” And then there’s us, the fish-eating public, for whom a decade of pressure to pay attention to which fish we eat has amounted to exactly nothing, despite the best efforts of environmentalists, journalists, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The moral of the story is the same whether you’re talking about fast food, factory farming, big agribusiness…
Maybe this is why serious food writing has remained blissfully free of moral overtones for much of its existence. As much as we would like to think that we are all Aristotelians (in other words, that we do the right thing without being commanded), when it comes to food, we’ve shown ourselves to be equal parts insatiable and irrational; we’d really rather not think about anything that would threaten that visceral link between food and pleasure. (If anyone needs any further proof—last week, overwhelming consumer feedback forced Frito-Lay to replace its biodegradable Sun Chips bag with a non-biodegradable one simply because it was “too noisy.” Suddenly, we find ourselves fighting a rearguard action: as Michael Pollan shows, we’re cooking much less, we’re eating much worse, and we’re curiously ambivalent the whole thing.
So even though food writing has come a long way from Brillat-Savarin’s little epigrams (“dessert without cheese is like a pretty woman without one eye”), his most memorable claim—“tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”—is still true. We might like to think about food only in terms of how much pleasure it gives us, whether it’s the collective experience of a good meal or the personal satisfaction of a well-executed dish. But increasingly, food writing prompts us to look beyond the tips of our tongues, and to realize that food can bring out both the best and the worst in all of us.
(Image: Inspecting Tuna, Tokyo Fish Market, 1960s, from jaybergesen’s photostream)
It was a slow year for me as a reader. I’m not sure if it’s because I moved cross-country again, or because I was getting married, or because there were so many pictures of celebrities exposing themselves on the Internet, but I just didn’t get around to reading very many books. I had trouble starting new books, quit several books midstream, which is something I rarely do, and felt bored by the majority of what I read.That isn’t to say that there weren’t a few standouts in the field. Robert Baer’s terrific CIA memoir See No Evil, the first book I read this year, was excellent, in spite of having several key passages blacked out by CIA censors. My main man Somerset Maugham came through again with The Moon and Six Pence, his examination of the choices and sacrifices a man must make to become an artist. And Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, was good enough to make me wonder why I hadn’t read it back when I was living in Iowa City (Also, the edition I bought, which is the only one I’ve seen, fits in my pocket, literally. Isn’t that great? Shouldn’t more books fit in our pockets?).The best book I read in 2006 was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan examines three different modes of food production and distribution. His critique of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on corn (which he points out is present in nearly everything in the supermarket, including beef, gossip magazines, even the walls of the market itself), is damning if not all that original (many of the points are made in Fast Food Nation), but the rest of the book, which examines organic farming, self-sustaining grass farming, and modern hunter-gathers, is truly eye-opening. He takes Whole Foods to task for their somewhat misleading labeling, spends a week working on a grass farm in Virginia, and cooks a meal entirely from foods that he hunted, gathered, and grew himself. What’s great about Pollan’s writing is his ability to take pages of statistics and endless lists of ingredients and turn them into something that is not only fun to read, but fun to discuss. I can’t remember reading a book that gave me more cocktail party ammunition that the The Omnivore’s Dilemma. While this review on Slate points out some of the flaws in Pollan’s approach, I still highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in what they eat, and how they’ve come to eat it.Some non-book related best and worsts of the year:Best Movie: Brick (IMDb) It actually came out in 2005, but in 2005 I lived in Iowa, and movies don’t get to Iowa very quickly, so I didn’t see it until 2006. It won’t win any awards, which is surely a mark of its greatness.Worst Movie: Rumor Has It (IMDb) edging out Loverboy (IMDb). Both of these movies left me wondering not only how they got made, but how I was duped into seeing them.Worst Trends: Baseball general managers giving ludicrous contracts to borderline ballplayers. Juan Pierre? Gary Matthews Jr.? I’d be worth more money to a baseball team than either of these two out machines.
Next I read Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser. Summers are great for reading all the random and must-read books that have been sitting on your shelf for too long. I remember moving to New York a year after the publication of Schlosser’s study on fast food companies and how they affect the food industry. Everyone on the subway was reading it. When asked to comment, people usually said: “I’ll never eat McDonald’s again.” I wanted to keep eating McDonald’s (even Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me did not stop me), so I made a mental note to read Fast Food Nation when I decided to stop eating McDonald’s on my own volition. Well, that happened a while ago and my friend Annastacia conveniently finished reading Fast Food Nation as I finished Marabou Stork Nightmares during a boat trip. So, we swapped. Schlosser’s study and diligence are both highly commendable. Despite the great amount of detailed facts contained in Fast Food Nation, which – at times – make it a little textbook like, the book is still an interesting and entertaining read. My favorite parts were: “The Founding Fathers,” where Schlosser provides historical information about the spread of drive-in joints and burgers in the US (as well as the suburban lifestyle that was adopted in California and spread – in my opinion like a plague – throughout the country); “Why the Fries Taste Good,” where Schlosser explains the intricacies of food engineering through his travels around the New Jersey Turnpike, smelling and tasting final products in chemical form; and “The Most Dangerous Job,” in which Schlosser describes the working conditions in meat processing plants. Fast Food Nation does have disgusting parts, especially while describing the meatpacking industry. It also has heart breaking moments such as the demise of mid-level, all-American ranchers, and the aforementioned working conditions in meatpacking.I finished the book on the plane back to New York. I had been in Turkey for two and a half months and longed for a good burger. As soon as I dropped of my luggage at my friends’ house, I went straight to the Corner Bistro and ate a medium-rare burger. It was delicious. I did, however, think twice about my order for the first time in my life. Schlosser’s dramatic presentation does leave one wondering about the quality of food we put in our bodies. I heard that Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence is worse. I am intrigued. One final note, despite enjoying Schlosser’s work I think it would be more appropriate to title it “Low Cost Meat: Straight from the Shit Trough and onto your Buns.” I think the connection between the fast food companies and the food industry is good, but not strong and substantive enough to warrant the title Fast Food Nation. In the overall context, however, the title does remain relevant as Schlosser also examines the fast food companies’ successful efforts to prevent unionization, the decline in industry wages, the creation of an easily dispensable and readily replaceable workforce, and the fast food companies’ stronger influence on the food industry than Congress’.Continuing my obsession with food I am now reading Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling. My friend Serdar, who is a big time food lover as well as a graduate of the French Culinary institute in New York, gave the book to me and told me to become a journalist like Liebling. At this point I can only try. Liebling’s prose is entertaining and smooth. He talks about food with great expertise, and it is easy to see his vast understanding of fine dining and good wines. Hopefully I can, one day, be as decadent as Liebling too. From all I can gauge so far, Henry Miller would have penned Between Meals if he had been obsessed with food instead of sex. I am unsure if the opposite would apply to Liebling, but he is a connoisseur in his own field and shows, at every turn, how he acquired his knowledge over the years, beginning as a student. Between Meals is a light, entertaining and mouth watering read. I imagine that it would be perfect if you were on a plane to Paris and wanted nothing but to eat, drink, and be merry. Bon appetite!See Also: Part 1
You probably know about Eric Schlosser’s iconic book Fast Food Nation. In it Schlosser revealed the fatty, processed underbelly of the fast food industry, and it seems likely that all of the millions of people who read the wildly successful book thought twice before their next trip to the drive thru. What you may not know is that a movie based on the book and directed by Richard Linklater is set to come out later this year. (I first wrote about this on the blog way back in 2003, but had forgotten about it until recently.) According to IMDb, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, and Avril Lavigne are all part of an ensemble cast. There’s no official release date as yet.In the meantime, and perhaps in anticipation of the movie, a new version of Fast Food Nation has come out that’s aimed at 6th through 9th graders. Chew on This is basically a rewrite of Schlosser’s bestseller, but the idea here is that as big consumers of fast food, kids should hear Schlosser’s message too.