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 29, 2009

Remembering Oct. 29, 1929 — A Crowd ‘Wild-Eyed With Fear’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:06 am
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How did New Yorkers react when the market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929? Catherine Gourley writes:

“On that overcast autumn morning in New York City, rumors swirled through the narrow streets like wind. Something had gone terribly wrong. The stock values weren’t just dropping. They were crashing. America’s banks and businesses were losing money. By afternoon ten thousand people had jammed the streets and sidewalks. Some had climbed onto the statue of Alexander Hamilton outside the stock exchange building because it was the only space left to stand and wait. A reporter for the New York Times described the crowd as ‘wild-eyed’ with fear. Men wept. A few days ago they had been wealthy. Now they were penniless.”

From Gourley’s “Black Tuesday” in War, Women, and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover the World War II (Atheneum, $21.99, ages 10–14, 2007), a nonfiction book about great war correspondents.

This post first appeared in 2008.

(c) 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

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

September 22, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Steve Fraser’s New ‘Wall Street’

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:58 pm
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How long will it take Americans to recover from the latest upheavals on Wall Street? Steve Fraser makes a useful distinction between psychic and economic recovery his new Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace (Yale University Press, 200 pp., $22), a brief history of the Street yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300117554. After the Crash of 1929, Fraser writes: “Psychic recovery took longer than economic rebirth. A national preoccupation with security and an aversion to risk lasted for a long generation.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 15, 2008

Remembering ‘Black Tuesday,’ Oct. 29, 1929, on Wall Street and a Crowd ‘Wild-Eyed’ With Fear — How Much Worse Could It Get Than Today’s 500-Point Stock Market Drop?

Filed under: Quotes of the Day,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:46 pm
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Today’s 504.48-point stock market plunge may stir fears of another “Black Tuesday.” How did New Yorkers react when the market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929? Catherine Gourley writes:

“On that overcast autumn morning in New York City, rumors swirled through the narrow streets like wind. Something had gone terribly wrong. The stock values weren’t just dropping. They were crashing. America’s banks and businesses were losing money. By afternoon ten thousand people had jammed the streets and sidewalks. Some had climbed onto the statue of Alexander Hamilton outside the stock exchange building because it was the only space left to stand and wait. A reporter for the New York Times described the crowd as ‘wild-eyed’ with fear. Men wept. A few days ago they had been wealthy. Now they were penniless.”

Catherine Gourley on “Black Tuesday” in War, Women, and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover the World War II (Atheneum, $21.99, ages 10–14, 2007) www.simonsayskids.com, a nonfiction book about some of the country’s greatest war correspondents.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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