One-Minute Book Reviews

November 5, 2009

Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’ – Cursed by the ‘Genius Grant’?

Paranoia with a side of wasabi cashews

Chronic City: A Novel. By Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 467 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Do MacArthur Fellowships have a counterpart to the “curse of the Nobel” said to keep writers from doing their best work after they become laureates? You might think so after reading the latest novel by the “genius grant” winner Jonathan Lethem.

Chronic City draws on an idea that science-fiction writers have used for decades: simulated-worlds theory, which says that computers will someday become powerful enough to create a facsimile of the universe, full of people who really believe they’re alive – they don’t know they’re fakes. Lethem brings the idea to literary fiction in a surrealistic fable about Manhattan during the economic meltdown: You’re never certain whether his characters are real or created by forces beyond their ken. This premise might seem ideally pitched to novel born of a financial crisis that has caused many people to think: This is can’t be real. But the idea holds a trap: If you invent characters soulless enough to have been created by computer, how do you keep them human enough to support a novel?

Lethem doesn’t avoid that danger in this tale of two friends whose lives intersect with those of a billionaire mayor and others who can still afford cocktails with wasabi cashews and “a nice black-market unpasteurized  fromage.” Chase Insteadman is a semi-retired actor, a man whose work involves selling illusions, whose fiancée is an astronaut trapped with Russians at a space station threatened by Chinese mines. Perkus Tooth is a paranoid stoner and former culture critic who believes New York has become unreal, a simulation of itself. Yes, those twee names are typical of this novel in which words seem to run away with Lethem.

The plot turns partly on Perkus’s efforts to ease his anxieties by enlisting Chase and others in his quest to obtain rare ceramics called chaldrons that may have magical powers. A subplot weaves in phantasmagorical elements such as a giant escaped tiger that is ravaging the Upper East Side, that bastion of old money and property. Many undergraduate theses will be written about all symbols-within-symbols in this novel. (Sample title: “Different Stripes: The Meaning of the Question ‘Who Made This Tiger?’ in William Blake’s Poem ‘The Tiger’ and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City.) And worthy questions underlie its cat’s-cradle of pop-cultural references, including: Who owns New York? Those references support a theme that Chase’s fiancée suggests in one of her letters home from outer space: “we’ve defaulted to an illusion of substance.” She’s talking about the deteriorating condition of the trapped astronauts, but her words describe New York as a whole: In the novel the city has only “an illusion of substance.” The condition is chronic.

Yet Chronic City reads more like a simulation of a novel than the real thing. It has a turgid pace almost no conflict, suspense, or heart. Most characters appear soulless. And the writing is repetitive to the point of bloat and, at times, graceless. Critics have compared Lethem’s early novels to the works of contemporary titans, but Chronic City has more in common with Herman Melville’s numbing final novel, The Confidence-Man. Even a mayoral aide’s sexual encounter – described as “wildly odd and erotic” – fails to supply the missing spark. Lethem writes: “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” A bit, perhaps, like the itching you may feel to put aside this book after many pages of sentences like that one.

Best line: “His mind’s landscape was epic, dotted with towering figures like Easter Island heads.”

Worst line: No. 1 (quoted above): “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” No. 2: “It was my first green chaldron. (Like sexual positions or travel to distant locales, I’d been semiconsciously cataloguing seminal moments, breakthroughs.)” No. 3: “I wanted Oona in the morning. I could still conjure her slippery smoothness in my arms (and divergent cuppable breasts in my palms, where they left ghost trails of a peach’s weight), but Oona kept dunning lights and pulling curtains, and dressing and undressing stealthily, while I was at the sink or refrigerator, or asleep.” No. 4: “My shame took its place in a vast backdrop of shames – oxygen-starved astronauts, war-exiled orphans, dwindling and displaced species – against which I puttered through daily life, attending parties and combating hangovers, recording voice-overs and granting interviews to obscure fan sites, drinking coffee and smoking joints with Perkus, and making contact with real feeling unpredictably and at random, at funeral receptions, under rain-sheeted doorways.” No. 5: “Richard’s unrestrained sarcastic inflection of this last word served not only to reinforce what a poor selection he thought I’d made in Strabo Blandiana but to assuage Perkins that the two of them still spoke above my head, and so his promise of future listening was sincere.”  [Note: As opposed to a promise of past listening?]

Published: October 2009

Furthermore: A good analysis of the pop-cultural references in Chronic City and of some of Lethem’s influences appeared in a review in Bookforum. Novelist Mark Lindquist says he loves the novel but warns in a Seattle Times review, “You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album.”  

About the author: Lethem has written seven novels, including The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. He received a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a “genius grant, in 2005.

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted more of her thoughts on Chronic City.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 21, 2009

Kate Kelly’s ‘Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street’

As a rule, the business of business books is anything but good writing. But the Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt from a new book by one of its reporters, Kate Kelly’s Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street (Portfolio, 256 pp., $26.95), that had sprightlier writing than most in the category. And Tim Rutten quotes a telling paragraph from this hour-by-hour account of the last days of the Bear Stearns investment bank in his Los Angeles Times review:

“Regulators may never know what really happened [to cause Bear Stearns to collapse in 2008]. But one thing is clear: Once confidence in a company falls away on such a grand scale, it can never recover. Bear started that week with more than $18 billion in capital, its largest cash position ever. Three days later, negative headlines, a stock drop, lender reticence and big withdrawals from client accounts had cut those capital levels in half. Eight hours later, it was nearly dead.”

The first sentence of that paragraph, Rutten rightly notes, is chilling: “Regulators may never know what really happened.” He adds:

“ … this was a situation so threatening to the fabric and substance of global finance that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would subsequently insist that, absent government intervention to essentially force the deal with JPMorgan, Bear would have gone into bankruptcy, causing a ‘chaotic unwinding’ of investments in all the American markets.

“Yet regulators may never know what really happened.

“That’s the intolerable fact of public policy on which this whole mess turns, along with all the pain it set rippling through the nation’s human economy, the one where ordinary people struggle to pay the deceptive mortgages that backed all those derivatives and where women and men who’ve lost jobs as a consequence of this calamity now scratch to find new livings.

“There are timeless human failings to ponder anew in Kelly’s artful narrative journalism — ego, hubris, venality and folly, the whole sad crew. They, unfortunately, will always be with us, consequences of our fallen nature. What we need not tolerate is a federal regulatory structure that is blind to the operations of those who wheel and deal at the very center of the global economy and federal officials who are so uncertain of their aims and prerogatives that they fumble in the face of crisis.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 16, 2009

In the Land of the Jane Fonda Urinal Target — ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America’

[You can find some of my comments on the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books, which will be announced Monday, at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.]

How ignoring the economy and lifting up wedge issues got us into a mess

What’s the Matter With Kansas? By Thomas Frank. How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Holt, 336 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Why did the Republican Party for years attract so many Americans who recently have lost their homes, jobs or life savings to its policies? How did the GOP recast itself as the party of working-class voters, who for generations had lined up behind the Democrats?

Thomas Frank gives bracing and witty answers in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a former New York Times bestseller that is still one of the best books on the political roots of the current fiscal mess. Frank argues that for decades, Republicans have been eroding the traditional Democratic base by focusing on wedge issues such as abortion, gun control, and “filth” in the media, not on the economic policies that separate the parties. And since the Clinton administration, the Democratic Leadership Council has played into their hands by promoting “triangulation,” a business-friendly stance that downplays its differences with the GOP.

The result: The line between the parties blurred, and year after year Americans elected Republicans whose laissez-faire economic policies eventually would wipe out their 401(k)s.

Frank refracts the changes through his native Kansas, once a hotbed of progressive ideals, a state that has paid a scalper’s price for its march to the right. A portent of the American economic meltdown occurred when the attacks of Sept. 11 halted the orders to the Boeing, a mainstay of the Wichita economy. The aircraft manufacturer laid off many union workers and said that, this time, their jobs wouldn’t be coming back.

“In the summer of 2003, unemployment in Wichita passed 7 percent and foreclosures on homes spiked as these disasters reverberated through the local economy,” Frank writes.

But Kansans didn’t seem blame the Republican union-busting policies exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking air traffic controllers. The state went for George Bush in 2004. And Frank’s pessimism about its political climate seems well-founded, if not prophetic, given the economic free fall that has occurred since the publication of his book. Even as the recession was spreading around the world, Kansas voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election.

Best line: At Kansas Vietnam Veterans reunion in 2002, trinket vendors sold “such items as the Jane Fonda urinal target.

Worst line: Frank describes how the national swerve to the right affected his hometown, the affluent Mission Hills, Kansas, and says you “can observe the same changes” in Shaker Heights, Ohio. No, you can’t. Parts of Shaker Heights — where I lived for 11 of the years when those changes supposed to be occurring — may look like Mission Hills with its castellated stone fortresses. But the Cleveland suburb is 10 times the size of Mission Hills, has a far more diverse population, and for other reasons does not fit the pattern he describes. Shaker Heights has lost enough of its cachet in the past several decades that the elite suburbs now lie farther to the east. Those suburbs include Hunting Valley, which more closely resembles his hometown.

Editor: Sara Bershtel

Published: June 2004 (hardcover), April 2005 (paperback).

Furthermore: Frank’s latest book is The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 19, 2009

‘The Story of America in Pictures’ – The Inauguration of FDR

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:50 pm
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Alan C. Collins’s long out-of-print The Story of America in Pictures gives a panoramic history of the nation — from the early Indian buffalo hunts through the inauguration of John F. Kennedy — in captioned black-and-white drawings, paintings, engravings, photographs and political cartoons. And it suggests how much we’ll lose if books disappear: You might have to download hundreds of images (or bookmark as many sites) to compile a visual record as rich as using only the Internet

The caption for a photograph of the inauguration of FDR that appears in The Story of America in Pictures says in part:

“The New Deal arrived March 4, 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated. As with Lincoln, his term began during a national crisis with the added burden that 12,000,000 were unemployed throughout the land. The country was in the midst of a banking panic which the Republicans have since claimed might have been averted had the incoming president not refused to cooperate in efforts to stem it. With every bank in the country closed, general panic was averted by Roosevelt’s use of the radio to carry into America homes his assurance that the banks would reopen shortly, and a new phase of national life would be entered that would lead out of the economic quagmire.”

Since reading this passage, I’ve been asking friends: Did you know that all the banks in the country were closed on the day FDR was inaugurated? I didn’t. And despite the many parallels that columnists have drawn between the present and the 1930s, I haven’t found anyone else who did, either. What does this say about our historical literacy? What else have we forgotten about the Depression?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 1, 2008

Books About Financial Crashes, Panics, Bailouts and Meltdowns

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:06 pm
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Back in October, Martin Mayer described his five favorite books on financial meltdowns to the Wall Street Journal. One that has since remained timely: Irvine H. Sprague’s Bailout (Basic Books, 1986). Mayer told the Journal:

“Bailout is a superbly honest first-person account of the big bank traumas of the 1980s, written by a long-term director of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Irvine H. Sprague lived through it all – the collapse of Commonwealth Bank of Detroit, First Pennsylvania of Philadelphia, Penn Square of Oklahoma City, Seafirst of Seattle, Commonwealth of Chicago. … He wrote the book, he says, to show how banking regulators make decisions, and after reading Bailout we do in fact know more about how the sausage got to be sausage. He leaves us with a question: ‘Should megabanks continue to receive favored treatment?’”

Mayer also recommended Charles P. Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics, and Crashes (Basic Books, 1978), Stephen Fay’s Beyond Greed (Viking, 1982), Roger Lowenstein’s When Genius Failed (Random House, 2000) and James Grant’s The Trouble With Prosperity at online.wsj.com/article/SB122367719361224329.html. And Steve Fraser deals with financial crashes and panics as part of his brief and well-written new history of Wall Street Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace (Yale University Press, 2008) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/10/27/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 27, 2008

Steve Fraser’s ‘Wall Street’ – From the Panic of 1792 to Gordon Gekko and Beyond

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:01 am
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Remembering financial crises and how they grew

The roller-coaster history of Wall Street in 200 pages

Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace (Icons of America Series). By Steve Fraser. Series editor: Mark Crispin Miller. Yale University Press, 200 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

A few years ago, Yale University Press launched a series of brief histories of what its editors call American “icons” — Fred Astaire, the hamburger, the Marlboro Man. Don’t let the clichéd use of icon put you off: On the evidence of Wall Street, this series has as much to offer as the fine “Penguin Lives” biographical line that it resembles.

In this book Steven Fraser condenses the roller-coaster history of Wall Street into 200 brisk pages that begin with the panic of 1792 and end shortly before the current financial crisis. Each chapter focuses on one of four archetypes in life or art whom Fraser believes have shaped the financial markets and their image — “the aristocrat,” “the confidence man,” “the hero” and “the immoralist.”

This organizing principle isn’t perfect. Some of the archetypes overlap and, because all have existed in every era, Wall Street shuttles back and forth in time. But Fraser’s approach humanizes a story that could have been as dry as the fine print on a prospectus. His chapter on “immoralists” is broad enough to sweep in the railroad magnate Jay Gould, “a living insult to all the Victorian pieties and sentimental illusions that polite society found so necessary to veil its own mercenary ardor,” and Gordon Gekko, the cinematic hero believed to have been inspired partly by the arbitrageur Ivan Boesky.

Wall Street is a chiefly about men. But Fraser nods to the influence of women on the markets by mentioning Edith Wharton and media stars like Abby Joseph Cohen of Goldman Sachs, who has preached against what she calls “FUDD – fear, uncertainty, doubt, despair.” He also shows how socialites helped set the tone for the Gilded Age: “Mrs. Hamilton Fish hosted a party for her friends’ dogs in which the ‘guests’ were presented with diamond necklace party favors and a place of honor at the table was reserved for an ape.” And you thought the swag bags at the Oscars went over the top.

Best line: One describes the aftermath of the Crash of 1929: “Psychic recovery took longer than economic rebirth. A national preoccupation with security and an aversion to risk lasted for a long generation.”

Worst line: The structure of Wall Street fosters narrative discontinuities. Fraser writes of World War I: ”In four years the United States went from being a leading debtor nation to the world’s chief creditor.” He doesn’t follow through and note that the balance shifted back during the Reagan administration, when the U.S. went from being the world’s largest creditor to the world’s largest debtor, although much of Wall Street involves those years. Fraser also says that Richard Whitney, a president of the New York Stock Exchange in the 1930s, belonged to the Harvard’s “Porceleian Club.” He means the Porcellian Club.

Recommendation? A good gift for a serious reader who works in the financial services industry or has a strong interest in the markets.

Caveat lector: On pages 92–93 Fraser deals with “the inherent conflict of interest between commercial and investment banking operations housed with the same enterprise.” Written before the current financial crisis, this section has become outdated by decision by the last two major investing banking firms, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, to submit to more regulation www.nytimes.com/2008/09/22/business/22bank.html.

Published: April 2008 yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300117554

Furthermore: Fraser is a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania who also wrote Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers, authors, agents or others. It is an independent site created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 13, 2008

Muriel Spark’s ‘The Goose’ – A Poem for the Financial Crisis

The poem "The Goose" works as a parable for a time when the "golden eggs" are golden parachutes for CEOs.

Muriel Spark’s brief, wry poem “The Goose” isn’t about a worldwide financial meltdown. And it’s not one of those buck-you-up poems like Rudyard Kipling’s “If –” that reminds you that if you can keep your head when all others are losing theirs, you can recover from that double-digit loss to your (401)k plan.

But “The Goose” speaks memorably to surviving financial hardship. Spark wrote the poem around 1960 — the exact date is unknown — or less than a decade after Britain ended the food rationing adopted in World War II. “The Goose” has just eight lines, which begin:

Do you want to know why I am alive today?
I will tell you.

The speaker says that in a food shortage, “Some of us were miraculously presented” with a goose that laid a golden egg. The narrator admits to having killed and eaten the goose. The poem then ends with the lines:

Alas, many and many of the other recipients
Died of gold-dust poisoning.

You can interpret “The Goose” in several ways. Spark had survived food shortages, and you can read the poem as an autobiographical commentary on her life and work. Or you can read it as a Catholic writer’s religious allegory that uses “goose that laid a golden egg” ironically: The goose is spiritual food or, more specifically, the Eucharist, that others rejected.

The poem also works as a parable about the follies of chasing financial or other golden eggs, whether in the form of junk bonds, subprime mortgages or golden parachutes for executives of bankrupt companies. If you read it that way, “The Goose” is about valuing survival ahead of the promise of future riches. How many financial institutions have died of “gold-dust poisoning” because they put wealth ahead of staying alive?

Postscript:

Copyright laws don’t permit quoting “The Goose” in full here. But it appears in All the Poems of Muriel Spark (New Directions, 130 pp., $13.95, paperback), a collection of all of Spark’s light and other verse. And Ian Sansom quotes the full text of “The Goose” in a 2004 Guardian review of the book books.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,5082333-110738,00.html. The Complete Review has posted its own review at
www.complete-review.com/reviews/sparkm/alltheps.htm#ours.

You can read about the Edinburgh-born Muriel Spark (1918–2006) in the attractive online Spark archive National Library of Scotland www.nls.uk/murielsptheark/index.html. A review of Spark’s best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, appears at
www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/09/27/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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