Archive for the ‘Sunday Book Review’ Category

The Great Read-cession, Part II

Too Big To FailIt’s Part II of John’s attempt to read every single book on the financial crisis of 2008. Check out Part I here if you missed yesterday’s introduction. Today we talk about the two most famous books the crisis produced.

Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save The Financial System—And Themselves*

by Andrew Ross Sorkin, 2009

 

*See? I warned you about those subtitles…

The first book I read was probably the most famous book on the subject of the financial disaster. Sorkin’s book was an award-winning best seller, and it was adapted into an HBO film. It also has the most iconic name.

It’s easy to understand why TBTF was such a hit: The book is essentially a thriller, depicting the days and months of greatest turmoil. It’s not so much about the causes of the crisis as it is about the disastrous results.

Sorkin embraces the thriller-quality of his narrative, and he does it very well. The book is excellent at setting scenes and introducing a myriad of characters. His scenes are short—rarely more than two pages long—and colorful, with lots of detail and dialogue. Although there are over 150 people introduced (there is a helpful eight-page Cast List in the front of the book), Sorkin does an excellent job of making them all seem unique—a difficult task, since almost all are rich, middle-aged white guys. He includes just enough backstory to provide context and make them seem like real people, without weighing down his narrative.

The narrative begins in March 2008, with the bailout of Bear Stearns. Sorkin doesn’t spend much time on the specifics of that deal—in which the Fed guaranteed $30 billion of assets in exchange for JP Morgan buying the firm for $2 a share*—but instead focuses on the ripple effect of the deal. There is some irony, of course, in this ripple effect: The main reason the Fed intervened in the Bear Stearns failure was to prevent the failure from infecting other firms. Instead, all the Fed did was replace one ripple effect with another. Continue reading

The Democracy Project: An Occupy Manifesto

The Democracy Project

An OWS Manifesto

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” —Karl Marx

What ever happened to Occupy Wall Street? Only 18 months after the camps in Zuccotti Park and across the country were being compared to the Arab Spring, people now remember the movement with the same dismissive nostalgia usually reserved for lesser Backstreet Boys. Cynics wonder what the movement ever accomplished, as if OWS fizzled out on its own accord as opposed to being brutally, aggressively, and covertly evicted in a coordinated, nationwide campaign of repression.

Of course, the reality is that OWS never really went away—it only became less visible and therefore easier to ignore after the evictions. Even when OWS couldn’t be ignored, it was always easier to make fun of it than to try to understand it. The lack of concrete demands, the weird hand gestures, and the eclectic mix of people all made the movement impossible to fit neatly into the ubiquitous “Democrat vs. Republican” narrative, and so it was generally viewed as a sideshow or a “liberal Tea Party” by the mainstream media.

But OWS was always better understood in the context of history than in the context of American politics—the entire premise of the movement was that American politics were fundamentally broken in the first place. David Graeber’s new book, The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement aims to place OWS in that historical context. It’s something of a tricky task, since the movement is only two years old, and its long-term effects are still unclear. Continue reading

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: The Life and Times of David Foster Wallace


“We’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that goes around feeling like missing somebody we’ve never even met?”—David Foster Wallace

 

The hagiography around David Foster Wallace—one I’ve devoutly consumed and even added to—has grown to somewhat absurd proportions in the four years since his death. It is thus possible to view D.T. Max’s new biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, as yet another contribution to the cult of DFW; this, however, would miss the substance of Max’s book. Every Love Story… actually goes to great lengths to debunk many of the myths that have grown around Wallace since his death. And although Max is clearly sympathetic towards Wallace, the book doesn’t shy away from being honest about him.

One of the ways Max establishes credibility in this regard is by making clear how unreliable a source Wallace himself is. Indeed, Wallace told a remarkable number of lies about himself: lies about whether or not he had read Thomas Pynchon, lies about who he’d slept with, lies to editors about where he’d been published, lies to friends about graduate school applications, lies to women and family members and interviewers, often about things that hardly seem worth lying over. On some level, this is consistent with the popular image of Wallace as someone intensely afraid of revealing himself to people. But it is frankly troubling to read about how dodgy, immature, and narcissistic he could be at times, and Max doesn’t shy away from these unflattering details. Continue reading

The Art of Fielding and Fictionalizing History

“What happened to Steve Blass? Nobody knows, but some speculation is permissible—indeed, is perhaps demanded of anyone who is even faintly aware of the qualities of Steve Blass and the depth of his suffering. Professional sports have a powerful hold on us because they display and glorify remarkable physical capacities, and because the artificial demands of games played for very high rewards produce vivid responses. But sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only a man—only ourself. We are no longer at a game.”

—Roger Angell, “Gone for Good,” June 1975

Nobody knows. Even 35 years later, nobody knows what happened to Steve Blass, why, after his best season in the major leagues, Steve Blass lost the ability to pitch. Blass was, historically speaking, the first in a list of infamous players that now includes Mackey Sasser, Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel—baseball players who suddenly and inexplicably could no longer do simple tasks that they had long ago perfected.

Sports, as Chad Harbach points out at one point in The Art of Fielding, create a strange paradox between the art they aspire to and the artless, thoughtless repetition required to best attain it. Baseball, just like any other sport, relies heavily on muscle memory and on keeping your brain as far out of your physical movements as possible. KISS, we all hear at some Little League practice: keep it simple, stupid.

Harbach’s much-anticipated debut novel—it isn’t often first-timers get six-figure advances these days—adds another name to that ignominious list with Henry Skrimshander, a balletic shortstop for Division III Westish College in lakeshore Wisconsin. Harbach’s novel essentially takes its cue from Roger Angell’s oft-praised (and deservedly so) profile of Blass from 1975: What happens to a baseball player when he loses the ability to play baseball? What happens when your self-definition dissolves?*

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The Captain and the Art of Mythmaking

The Captain

 

“The greatest enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” —JFK

 

As Derek Jeter is poised to make history this weekend, his career is in a very unusual place. On the one hand, he is standing on the cusp of history, poised to become the first Yankee to reach 3,000 hits. On the other hand, he is following up 2010, the worst season of his career, with an even worse year. The Yankees played their best stretch of baseball with him on the DL, leading some to wonder if the team is better off without him. And he remains under contract through at least 2013.

So why release a biography of Jeter now, at such an uncertain crossroads in his career? Writing a biography of Jeter that culminates in the 2009 season—squeezing his dreadful ’10 and his contentious contract negotiations this off-season into the epilogue—is like writing a biography of Julius Caesar that ends on March 14th.

Ian O’Connor’s new book, The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter, is bound to be incomplete. So why did he write it? It seems clear that the primary motive O’Connor had for writing this book was not to bring new light to Jeter’s career, but to enhance the myths already surrounding it. The Captain is, above all else, an exercise in mythmaking. Continue reading

The Pale King and the Absence of Finality

DFW's Unfinished Novel

“He felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops. Lock a fellow in a windowless room to perform rote tasks just tricky enough to make him have to think, but still rote, tasks involving numbers that connected to nothing he’d ever see or care about, a stack of tasks that never went down, and nail a clock to the wall where he can see it, and just leave the man there to his mind’s own devices.”

“The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater. The grand gesture, the moment of choice, the mortal danger, the external foe, the climactic battle whose outcome resolves all—all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience[…]Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

After David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008, his former literary agent, along with his widow and his editor, ventured into his office to find a 250-page manuscript left on the center of his desk, as if Wallace were offering one last gift to the literary world. As Bonnie Nadell, the agent, told The New York Times, “If there had been a spotlight on those pages, it could not have been more obvious.”

The Pale King is being greeted as a kind of swan song for Wallace, one of the greatest writers in American history. In that respect, it is doomed to fail for a few basic reasons. First, I would be very surprised if The Pale King is indeed the last work that is published under Wallace’s name. Since Wallace’s death in 2008, publishers have managed to find very creative ways to release his older works* and even the inside flap of The Pale King seems to imply that there is more to come (“He died in 2008, leaving behind unpublished work of which The Pale King is a part.”).

* These have ranged from good-faith attempts to expose an unpublished work, to rushed efforts to feed the growing demand for his voice, to downright exploitive attempts to turn his work into a mass-market self-help book.

The other main reason that The Pale King can’t really grant “closure” to his fans is that the work itself lacks closure—the novel remains unfinished. Continue reading

The Best Book of 2010: Paul Murray’s “Skippy Dies”

“We’re too old

We’re not old at all.”

“Bear,” The Antlers

In the opening scene of Skippy Dies, in which the climactic and eponymous action of Paul Murray’s novel occurs on the floor of Ed’s Doughnut House, Daniel “Skippy” Juster attempts to scribble, with jelly as his ink, his final message to the world. “Tell Lori” is all he manages, but the intention seems clear. “Tell Lori you love her? Is that it?” his friend Ruprecht asks desperately, and Skippy exhales, smiles, and passes away.

Set in Seabrook, a fictional all-boys’ Irish secondary school, Murray’s second novel is best described as an attempt to fill in the blanks—those left by Skippy’s final message (was his final smile an affirmation of Ruprecht’s clichéd hypothesis or simply an acceptance of his death?), by his death, by lives that don’t correlate to the expected narrative arcs we seek, and by this quizzical and evolving universe around us. How exactly do we explain ourselves? Indeed, Murray quickly makes an analogy between the Big Bang and puberty: “[E]verything that is, everything that has ever been…all crammed into one dimensionless point where no rules or laws apply, waiting to fly out and become the future,” in the words of Ruprecht.

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