The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

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And the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to…

It turns out the novel is alive and well and living in, of all places, Hollywood. Who would have thought? As recently as 1998, all five finalists for the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay drew on novels for their source material, but by 2014 not a single Oscar nomination went to a screenplay adapted from a novel. Last year, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice was the lone work of fiction in a field of sources dominated by biography, autobiography, and, weirdly, a short film.

This trend sent me into Mr. Gloomy mode last year when I wrote:
(T)he novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better yet, something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
What a difference a year makes. This year, for some unknowable reason, Hollywood screenwriters mined novels — from the shamelessly commercial to the highly literary — for four of the five adapted screenplays that garnered Oscar nominations. (The fifth nomination went to the team of Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for their adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book, The Big Short.)

What happened? Did some pixie slip a vial of smart powder into the L.A drinking water? Did someone in Hollywood start a book club for screenwriters? Since there’s no way to parse the reading habits of Tinseltown, let’s cut straight to the nominees. Here, in chronological order of their release dates, are the four movies with scripts based on novels that are up for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar on Feb. 28:

1. Brooklyn

It seems that the Irish writer Colm Tóibín (pronounced Col-um toe-BEAN) wrote this 2009 novel with sepia ink — and without a worry that his pacing and hushed tone might put some readers to sleep. But readers who stick with the novel will be rewarded by a story that accumulates a fierce power. It’s the story of Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) Lacey, a plain Irish girl who leaves her mother and sister in the provincial Irish town of Enniscorthy and emigrates to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, a world of shocking sights and sounds and customs, where she overcomes crippling homesickness and haltingly makes her way toward financial independence and even manages to find a decent man who loves her. But a return trip to Ireland after her sister’s sudden death will threaten to rip apart Eilis’s fragile chance at happiness. This is no potboiler, obviously. The drama takes place inside Eilis’s head and heart.

How to turn such interiority into a compelling movie? Mainly by hiring talented actors who can convey deep emotions through the slightest facial gesture or body movement. Saoirse Ronan (pronounced Sur-sha Row-nin) was an inspired choice to play Eilis, and her portrayal of a plain young woman’s blossoming has justly won a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar.

Equally important to the movie’s success was the choice of screenwriter. The mission of a writer who sets out to transport words from page to screen is both simple and devilishly difficult: be always faithful to the spirit of the novel without ever being slavish to it. For this reason, it’s usually better for a novelist to stay in the wings when the screenwriting assignment gets doled out. Most novelists are too close to their own material not to be enslaved by it.

Tóibín never considered adapting his own novel, instead suggesting to the producer, Finola Dwyer, that she hire Nick Hornby, who is both an accomplished novelist (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and screenwriter (An Education, Wild).

“And I soon realized that nobody wanted me around,” Tóibín told The New York Times. “Nick was doing it. He didn’t ask any questions, never even got in touch. And I thought that was perfectly reasonable. It was the only way it could work. He took the central spine of the novel — the romantic story and the immigration, the two things that really matter — and left other things off to the side. But he wasn’t trying to tell a new story. He was faithful to the book within the constraints of film.”

And that’s why the movie works every bit as well as the novel.

2. Carol

In adapting Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy remained faithful to the book within the constraints of film. The result is a spellbinding script for a movie that was renamed Carol — just one of numerous instances when the movie strays from the letter of the novel without betraying its spirit.

Like Hornby, Nagy left out some things and changed others but preserved the central spine of the novel — the story of forbidden love between a radiant but unfulfilled suburban housewife named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and a plain New York City shop girl named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Nagy has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer into an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled time sequences. But what she left intact, most crucially, is Highsmith’s unhurried unfolding of the romantic love between the two women, a story that plays out against a backdrop of impeccable 1950s period details, from cars and fashions to interiors and even the way women move.

Nagy’s writing has certainly benefited from the high quality of the production it serves. The movie is up for six Oscars, including Blanchett for Best Actress, Mara for Best Supporting Actress, and the cinematographer Edward Lachman, who gives an appropriately gauzy look to a story about infatuation amid fuzzy moral boundaries.

3. Room

This movie is proof that most novelists should follow Tóibín’s lead and leave it to others to adapt their work for the screen. In adapting her own novel, Room, Emma Donoghue made the mistake of following the text almost to the letter — then leaving out the wrong parts, the very parts that would have given the movie heft and drama. Both novel and movie open with an enthralling setup — a woman has been imprisoned in an 11-foot-by-11-foot shed for seven years, where she gave birth five years ago to a boy named Jack. The revelation that this loving, seemingly happy pair are actually being held prisoners by a monster named Nick is handled, in novel and movie, with supreme assurance. It’s perfectly horrible.

The trouble begins when Ma (Brie Larson) helps Jack (Jacob Tremblay) escape, and suddenly they’re thrust into the outside world that’s utterly foreign to the boy — and far from welcoming to his traumatized mother. In the novel, they’re hounded by the ravenous news media and by medical professionals who are less than sympathetic to their ordeal and its lingering effects. This tension is gone from the movie, and instead we get Ma coming unglued and fighting with her own mother (Joan Allen), while her father (William H. Macy) puts in a pointless cameo. Jack, meanwhile, wanders through something that passes for healing. It’s all drift. I have a hunch that a screenwriter who wasn’t so close to the source material would not have made these missteps. Just a hunch. 

4. The Martian

Andy Weir went to work as a computer programmer for a national laboratory at the age of 15 and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He’s also a self-proclaimed space nerd who’s into relativistic physics, astronomy, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. How do you spell geek? In this case, you spell it n-o-v-e-l-i-s-t.

Weir’s first novel, The Martian, became a bestseller and fodder for a big-budget Hollywood production with Matt Damon in the lead role of Mark Watney, a botanist on a Mars mission who gets abandoned by his crew when a freak storm blows up and they mistakenly believe he’s dead. And voilà, we have a high concept: Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Red Planet.

Actually, Weir’s book is less a novel than a blueprint for a movie. Just as no one will question Weir’s scientific bona fides — he wrote his own software to make the physics of space travel as accurate as possible — no one will accuse him of being a graceful writer. The novel is full of junior high prose like this: “They gathered. Everywhere on Earth they gathered. In Trafalgar Square and Tiananmen Square and Times Square, they watched on giant screens. In offices, they huddled around computer monitors. In bars, they stared silently at the TV in the corner. In homes, they sat breathlessly on their couches, their eyes glued to the story playing out.” But people don’t read books like this for the artful prose; they read them for the ingenious setup and the brisk storytelling.

Screenwriter Drew Goddard has connected the dots from Weir’s novel to create a script that’s seamless and irresistible. The movie winds up being superior to the novel because it’s comfortable being what it is — a thriller that manipulates the audience without shame, an entertainment that wants nothing more than to please its audience at all times. You can hear Goddard pulling the levers — or is that the sound of him painting by numbers? — but you’re having too much fun to care. This is partly due to the deft direction of Ridley Scott, who is most at home in outer space, and strong performances by Damon and a supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Weir’s book is a novel that wants to be a movie. The movie is content to be a big, fat, satisfying, popcorn thrill-fest. What’s wrong with being comfortable inside your own skin?

And the Oscar For Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to…

Phyllis Nagy for CAROL!!!

Now that justice has been served, for once, I’m hoping that when Nagy gets up onstage and finishes thanking her agent and her producer and her mom and Todd and Cate and Rooney and her Jack Russell terrier, she’ll have the decency to hoist her statue to the heavens and give a shout-out to the novelist who made this terrific movie possible — that princess of darkness, the diabolically great Patricia Highsmith.

Image Credit: Flickr/Dave_B_.

Father’s Day Books for Dads Who Actually Read

Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father’s Day just a week and a half away, you’re leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don’t know what book to get him.

Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book.

Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20.

1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad
A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt — as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day.

Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada.

2. Literary Fiction Dad
He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War.

But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic.

3. Big Bad Noir Daddy
Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages.

But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read.

4. Politically Incorrect Dad
He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask.

Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight.

5. World War II Buff Dad
Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe or Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater.

A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill.

6. Civil War Buff Dad
Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders.

This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page.

7. Business Maven Dad
If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent.

But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages.

8. True Crime Dad
Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways.

Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence.

9. Sports Nut Dad
As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate.

To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading.

10. Vinyl Collector Dad
The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix.

Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear.

11. Aspiring Writer Dad
If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary.

But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry.

Image Credit: The Athenaeum.

A Story is Worth a Thousand Data Points: Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys

In the early years of the digital age, it was common to hear dire warnings about “the death of narrative.” Storytelling, the thinking ran, is an artifact of a world where every bit of information requires its own patch of physical space – on a page, on film, in someone’s memory – that must be located and read separately. This quickly becomes unmanageable, so for millennia authors have organized information into little cause-and-effect narratives that helped audiences make sense of complex sets of facts.

But as early technologists pointed out, with the web browser making vast swathes of information instantly accessible, narrative becomes less crucial. Readers can find what they need by following links, bouncing from, say, a Wikipedia profile of George Clooney to TMZ posts on his sexy new girlfriend Amal Alamuddin to YouTube clips of him looking young and foxy on old episodes of ER. Twenty years ago, such a search would have required sifting through piles of clippings and old video tapes – or, more likely, reading a biography of George Clooney in which an author did the sifting for you and organized it in the form of a story.

Digital connectivity enables us to find and manage huge amounts of information, and we now spend our lives immersed in it, on Wikipedia and social networking sites and on our work computers that crunch the data we need to do our jobs. But as bestselling author Michael Lewis recently demonstrated with his new book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, narrative still trumps hyperlinking when it comes to hugely complex sets of information – especially when powerful inside interests are working to make sure we can’t understand what that information means.

Flash Boys, after all, breaks little new ground journalistically. The high-frequency trading (HFT) strategies the book describes have been part of the Wall Street landscape for a decade and HFT firms have been siphoning tens of billions of dollars from the exchanges that we all depend on to grow our retirement accounts for nearly as long. Major newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have been on the story from the start, and Lewis himself name-checks two earlier books on the subject, Scott Patterson’s Dark Pools and Broken Markets by Sal Arnuk and Joseph Saluzzi.

We had the information, but very few of us could make sense of what we were seeing. The facts were just too abstruse to take in. HFT firms use super-fast computer connections and complex mathematical algorithms to predict the intentions of Wall Street players and trade ahead of them, snapping up stocks before the slower players can get to them and then selling them back to the slow-movers at inflated prices. This doesn’t sound good even to the uninitiated, but it also sounds technical and complicated, and, well, kind of boring. Before we know it, we’re back looking at those pics of George Clooney and his hot new lawyer girlfriend on TMZ.

This is why we need a storyteller like Lewis, the author of twelve books, including bestsellers Moneyball and The Blind Side, to help us see what HFT firms are doing and why we should care. Essentially, Lewis says, HFT firms offer to buy or sell small numbers – typically 100 shares – of huge numbers of publicly traded stocks.  When a big bank or mutual fund expresses interest in a stock, the trade on those first 100 shares triggers a lightning-fast reaction in which the HFT firm buys up the stock elsewhere in the system before the bigger, slower trader can, and pockets the difference between the price the big trader was willing to pay and the actual price of the stock on the open market.

High-frequency traders can do this because their systems for connecting their computers to the stock exchanges – there are 45 of them now in the U.S. – are faster than the less specialized programs used by big banks and mutual funds. How much faster? Sometimes it’s just a few thousands of a second, but that’s enough time to enable HFT firms to skim tens of billions of dollars, penny by penny, out of the market. “It was like a broken slot machine in a casino that pays off every time,” Lewis writes of the system. “It would keep paying off until someone said something about it; but no one who played the slot machine had any interest in pointing out that it was broken.”

Part of the problem, Lewis writes, is that the American financial system has ceased to be imaginable on a human scale. Most people, he notes, when they imagine the stock market still see “a ticker tape run[ning] across the bottom of some cable TV screen, and alpha males in color-coded jackets stand[ing] in trading pits, hollering at each other. That picture is dated; the world it depicts is dead. …The U.S. stock market now trades inside black boxes, in heavily guarded buildings in New Jersey and Chicago.”

The task Lewis sets for himself in Flash Boys is to pry the American financial system loose from those black boxes and reimagine it for us on a human scale. And to do that, he tells a story. If you have read Lewis’s earlier books, the plot of this one will sound familiar: a ragtag bunch of colorful geeks and misfits, armed only with their superior intelligence and moral rectitude, take on a corrupt system – and win! That this is essentially the plot of Lewis’ last bestseller, The Big Short, about the mortgage crisis, and eerily reminiscent of the plots of Moneyball, about the use of statistical analysis in baseball, and The New New Thing, about the early days of Silicon Valley, is frankly something of a worry. After reading a bunch of Lewis’s books, you begin to wonder just how many colorful geeks and misfits there really are out there, and how willing you are to believe a set of complex facts just because you want the good guys to win.

This is the danger of narrative as a tool for spreading information. A tale well-told taps into the primal need we all have for an emotionally satisfying story of good triumphing over evil. If we like the central characters and want them to win, we stop thinking and start feeling. Lewis, a supremely gifted storyteller, understands this and deftly transforms an office full of well-educated bankers and software experts into the motley crew of quirky outsiders and warped idealists he needs to tell a satisfying story.

Lewis never speaks to the high-frequency traders that the book’s hero, Brad Katsuyama, a former Royal Bank of Canada equities trader, is battling against (most likely, they wouldn’t talk to him). So the central events of the book are seen through the eyes of Katsuyama and his merry band of insurgents, who range from computer geeks who keep oiled Rubik’s cubes under their desks to executives like John Schwall, whose moral prism is shaped by his working-class background as son and grandson of Staten Island firefighters. “It just really pissed me off,” Schwall says of the HFT trading strategies. “That people set out this way to make money from everyone else’s retirement account. I knew who was being screwed, people like my mom and pop, and I became hell-bent on figuring out who was doing the screwing.”

As will be the case in the movie that will surely be made of Flash Boys, upon discovering that shadowy outfits using algorithms written by Russian-born computer programmers are stealing from Wall Street, Katsuyama assembles a team and concocts a crazily ambitious plan to combat the thievery – namely, a new private exchange, called IEX, designed to eliminate the advantages of high-speed trading. “I feel like I’m an expert in something that badly needs to changed,” Katsuyama tells his wife, Ashley, one night. “I think there’s only a few people in the world who can do anything about this. If I don’t do something right now – me, Brad Katsuyama – there’s no one to call.”

Right. And the next morning, he puts on his blue suit and big red cape and flies to work.

There is too much of this kind of comic-book hero-making in Flash Boys, especially in its later sections, but does it invalidate the book? Here, I think, context is all. On March 30, before Flash Boys appeared, few outside Wall Street had heard of high-frequency trading, and even many people in finance had little idea how HFT really works. Now, thanks to Flash Boys, and a high-profile rollout that included an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine and a feature on 60 Minutes, federal investigations into high-frequency trading have picked up steam and trading volume on Katsuyama’s IEX is up 40% in just two weeks.

All systems for delivering information are imperfect because the human mind can only hold so much at one time, and when things get complicated, something important always gets left out. As it happens, this has been a running sub-theme of Lewis’s own reporting for his last several books: what happens when two different systems of collecting and analyzing information clash. At the heart of Moneyball, about the 2002 Oakland A’s, is a disconnect between an older, mostly narrative-based system of player evaluation favored by the team’s grizzled scouting team and a newer data-driven system favored by its stats geeks. The Big Short, about the mortgage crisis, is similarly about two different ways of reading the abundant data about the state of the mortgage market in the lead-up to the 2008 crash.

What’s interesting is that, unlike a lot of less sharp-eyed observers of commerce in the age of data, Lewis never makes the mistake of thinking that the one with the most data wins. The bankers who drove the economy off the cliff in 2008 had more than enough data to demonstrate that the bets they were making made no sense, but they told themselves a story that, while fanciful, allowed them to ignore evidence that would have gotten between them and their fat year-end bonuses. In the end, though, they were wrong. The market crashed, banks went bankrupt or were sold at fire-sale prices, and many bankers – though not nearly enough – lost their jobs.

Surely, high-frequency trading is more complicated than the Manichean portrait of it Lewis draws of it in Flash Boys, but if he hadn’t found a way to boil down this highly technical issue to an emotionally satisfying tale of good vs. evil, most of us would never have known it existed. Thanks in part to Lewis’ storytelling, a system hidden away in black boxes in heavily guarded buildings in New Jersey and Chicago has been dragged into the light. Now, comes the interesting part. Will Brad Katsuyama’s IEX solve the problem, or will the high-frequency traders lure their customers back despite the disclosures in Lewis’s book? The truth lies neither in data nor in stories, but in results. How all this plays out will tell the tale.

A Year in Reading: John Williams (The Second Pass)

This year I finally read Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, which a friend had been recommending for years as tailor-made for me. The friend was right. I also read Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, which I enjoyed nearly as much, and several pieces in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a new collection of his work. In short, I became a big Dyer fan in 2011.

I normally devour Michael Lewis’ books as soon as they’re published, but for some reason I didn’t get around to The Big Short until it was in paperback. While you’re reading it, you feel you understand collateralized debt obligations, which is no mean trick.

John Gray’s The Immortalization Commission reads far more smoothly than its inelegant title. It recounts two movements to confront and transcend mortality — the psychic researchers of the 19th century (William James and Henri Bergson among them) and the “God-building” Bolsheviks of Russia who pursued the end of death for man, among other utopian goals. These two main sections are fairly narrow historical slices of the overlap between science and spirit in intellectual life, but Gray builds upon them to write a sweeping, impassioned conclusion that argues against the fetishizing of science’s solutions and for a humble, even inspiring acceptance of death’s finality.

Simon Reynolds’ Retromania brings a lot of intelligence and cultural breadth to bear on a thesis I only partially agree with about the stale dominance of established musical genres. I interviewed him about it here.

But two books left the deepest impression on me in the year almost past. Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling was first published in 1966 and reissued in 2009 by NYRB Classics. Set in the Pacific Northwest, it’s about gambling, drinking, prison, and an unlikely but believably rendered relationship between two unlucky men. It’s a hard-boiled existentialist novel, and ultimately unlike any other I’ve read.

The other, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, follows the friendship of the two famous southern writers, who first met in their early teens. Many years of Percy’s letters weren’t saved, so the first 130 pages or so only feature Foote’s side of the conversation. He comes across as funny and spirited, but so arrogant early on — and the type who tries to hide it under jokes about arrogance, just making it worse — that you wonder how Percy withstood it. To his credit, Foote later in life reached the same conclusion. Reading over their letters, he says, “I was amazed to observe how didactic I was over the years — I don’t see how you managed the grace to put up with it all that time.” Percy is widely considered the better fiction writer, but got a much later jump than Foote, who adopted the tone of mentor throughout their correspondence. What lingers most clearly in the end is not shop talk (though there’s plenty of that) or even the evolution of a friendship (ditto), but Foote’s voice. Mostly commanding, sometimes conciliatory, his outsize enthusiasms and dictates dominate the book even after Percy’s letters start appearing. He urged Percy time and again to read Proust, Plato, Dante, and many others. (“Don’t underrate Shelley. He’s a kind of a sort of a shithead in an ideological way, but he sure as hell burned with a gemlike flame.”) He cautioned his friend to avoid seeing fiction as pamphleteering — to keep neat and orderly prescriptions out of his stories. And he talked incessantly about his own projects, including an ambitious novel called Two Gates to the City that he worked on periodically for more than 30 years, never completing.

I’m about halfway through James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, a single volume history of the Civil War, at the moment. It’s safe to say it will also end up being one of the best things I read this year, and I’m lining up a few other books about that period in history. Foote’s massive trilogy about the war is his best-known work, and I imagine at least the first installment of it will be on my reading schedule in 2012.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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Boom! Crash!: A Handicapper’s Guide to Panic Lit

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:

Win:
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. 

Place:
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.

Show:
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.

Also rans:
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.

Tuesday New Releases: Russell, Brockmeier, Hale, and More

New this week are Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace (the pen name of singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding), and buzzed about debut The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. On the nonfiction side is a new biography, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall. And new in paperback is Millions Hall of Famer The Big Short by Michael Lewis.

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