One-Minute Book Reviews

May 12, 2010

Jonathan Dee’s Novel ‘The Privileges’ — Looking at ‘Moral Invertebrates’ Through the Glass Walls of a Diorama

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:53 pm
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Will a New York couple’s marriage suffer when the husband veers into insider trading?

The Privileges: A Novel. By Jonathan Dee. Random House, 258 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

Adam and Cynthia Morey – young, rich New Yorkers with two beautiful children – are the marital equivalent of a highly profitable but closely held company: two chillingly self-sufficient people who show little need for the family, friends, and faith of their youth. They are also, in the fine phrase of James Wood of The New Yorker, “moral invertebrates.” You can read their marriage as a metaphor for Wall Street in the age of deregulation – it makes its own rules. So you can’t assume that the Moreys or their children will suffer after Adam becomes the prime mover of an insider-trading scheme that exploits information picked up at his private-equity firm.

This uncertainly lends a modicum of suspense to this tale of the first 23 years of the couple’s marriage. But The Privileges is a low-energy and somewhat exposition-heavy novel that has an appeal more intellectual than emotional. The Moreys resemble figures in the carpet of a certain New York social world instead of fully realized characters. And many of their actions are unearned, including some of Cynthia’s cruelties to others and Adam’s abrupt tossing of a Patek Philippe watch into the Hudson River during a charity benefit on a ship.

Jonathan Dee is an intelligent and graceful writer who never trivializes his subjects. And he shows you what this novel might have been in a climatic scene in a hospice that brings in two characters from the sidelines who finally make you feel all you ought to feel for the Moreys’ victims. Elsewhere, if Adam and Cynthia are moral invertebrates, Dee leaves you looking at them through the glass walls of a diorama and not, as you would like to be, standing inside it with them.

Best line: No. 1: “After four years at Morgan Stanley, an operation so vast that Adam’s true bosses existed mostly on the level of gossip and rumor, a feeling of toxic stasis had begun to provoke him in the mornings when he arrived at work.” No. 2: “‘If you’re ever hard up for money, just fly the family to LA, and both kids will have agents before they’re out of baggage claim,’ Conrad said.”

Worst line: “Unconsciously she pulls at the neckline of her bridesmaid’s dress to try to keep her tattoo covered.”If she’s trying to keep her tattoo covered, is the movement really “unconscious”?

Published: January 2010. The paperback edition of The Privileges is due out in October.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to this book: Michael Dahlie’s award-winning novel, A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living,which deals more effectively with monied New Yorkers.

About the author: Dee is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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

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