Friday, August 17, 2007


A lord of the flies.

Simon Leys, The Wreck Of The Batavia: A True Story (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005).

In 1629, the Batavia was the pride of the Dutch East Indies Company, en route from Holland to Indonesia by way of the Cape of Good Hope, when it ran aground one night on a reef near some small islands well off Australia's west coast. Most of the 300+ aboard survived the wreck, and a small crew took the one seaworthy vessel that survived in the hopes of travelling more than a thousand miles to find help. The tragedy that followed was a human one, a frightening story of depravity among those that remained. In its day, the tale of the Batavia was as well known as the Titanic's was in the last century. The Batavia has resurfaced of late, and its physical remains are in a museum in Fremantle. Simon Leys began researching its story many years ago, but he took to long to write his book, and in the meantime, he says, another author beat him to the punch with the definitive account. If you want a 500-page account, read the other book. Leys' take is an elegant 60 pages, which was enough for me.

Also included is his account of a voyage on a French fishing boat in the 1950s, one of the last sailboats fishing for tuna.

Leys describe another Dutch wreck found on Australia's west coast.

This is a short little book, and I would have been grumpy had I paid for it what Amazon wants, like many of the commenters there. Happily, I found it remaindered for $5.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Mani, Corfu, Rhodes, and all over.

"Mani Towers," by Flickr user cantaloupe99

Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani (NYRB, 2006).
Mani is the most remote part of mainland Greece, the middle of three peninsulas jutting south from the Peloponnese, and when Fermor visited it in early 1950s, it was unconnected by road to the rest of the country and relatively untouched by modernity. Having fought on Crete with partisans during World War II, Fermor was well suited to travelling throughout Mani on foot and by small boat, and was in his element visiting remote villages. An autodidact, Fermor cannot turn around without seeing signs of the past. From the ancient Greece of myth to Byzantine painting to Frankish castles to the struggles with Ottoman rulers, Mani's history lives on in Fermor's eyes. Alone, either his sympathy for Mani's inhabitants and his engagement his its past would be remarkable, but the combined effect makes Fermor an unparalleled guide. Reading Mani leaves me wanting to visit Mani, but I'm not the autodidact that Fermor is.

Here is Fermor on the trail of a gorgon, and here he describes a particularly cultured Athenian cat.

Lawrence Durrell, Prospero's Cell (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1960).
Lawrence Durrell, Reflections On A Marine Venus (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1960).
In the middle of Mani, I found an old volume with two of Lawrence Durrell's travel books about Greece. Prospero's Cell is an impressionistic account of Durrell's time in Corfu before World War II, while Reflections On A Marine Venus describes the two years he spent on Rhodes after the war. These are pleasant books, but the curse for me is that I read them after reading Fermor. Durrell was less interested in the local history, particularly on Corfu, although he ran with a cultured crowd and relates their interests in such matters. Compared to most travel writers, he comes across as relatively engaged with ancient history, but not relative to Fermor. Likewise, there is a culture gulf between most of the islands' residents and Durrell, and his anecdotes about the peasants smack of a certain scorn. They add local color, but he does not seem to have much respect or use for them as people. But then, who can compare with Fermor? Read Durrell first, and he likely will impress.

Durrell describes the Corfiot taste for water here. This passage is from Durrell's account of the festival of St. Soulas. Fermor visited Durrell on Rhodes, and had this to say about it.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels With Herodotus (Knopf, 2007).

Kapuscinski travelled the world as a Polish foreign correspondent, and he has written some terrific accounts of his travels. Of those that I've read, this is the least of them. Early in his career, Kapuscinski was given a copy of Herodotus's Histories, which he carried with him hither and yon. The Histories are wonderful, but too much of this work is a retelling of Herodotus, with fairly few stories from Kapuscinski's career, perhaps some odd anecdotes that didn't fit into other books. Here, for example, is his account of seeing Louis Armstrong play Khartoum. Good stuff. Good stuff, but not enough of it. Sadly, Kapuscinski died last January, a real loss. Happily, a little Googling suggests that he has several other works that haven't been translated into English, and maybe some of these were written when he was younger and still peripatic.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


What have I been reading?

My original plan with this blog was to keep account of what I was reading, and to force myself to think through what I made of a book by writing about it at the end. Thomas Pynchon's two most recent novels dashed these plans, both because they took so long for me to read that they put the blog on indefinite hiatus for months at a spell, and because it was so hard for me to article thoughts about them. Be that as it may, now it's long past time to work through the backlog.

Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (Henry Holt & Co., 1997).
The most human of Pynchon's books, full of America's promise. George Washington and a parade of others come and go, but the story's arc follows the lives of Mason and Dixon.

Charles Clerc, Mason & Dixon & Pynchon (University Press of America, 2000).
Not without some useful insights, but if I thought there was any money in academic publishing I'd suspect that Clerc dashed this off to be the first to be able to sell a Mason & Dixon book to university libraries.

Brooke Horvath and Irving Malin, eds., Pynchon and Mason & Dixon (University of Delaware Press, 2000).
The first essays in this volume were much appreciated as I tried to make sense of Mason & Dixon, but then my copy disappeared, and when it finally emerged from behind the couch I had moved on.

Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer (HarperCollins, 2006).
I eagerly snap up books on the craft of writing, but they leave no impression. Am I any wiser or smarter for having read this book? The thought that it increased my capabilities, however imperceptibly, will fuel me to go read the next one.

Here is Prose on gesture.

Thomas Pynchon, Against The Day (Penguin, 2006).
The scope and scale of this novel is overwhelming, but it is well worth it. A neighbor is a fairly well known book reviewer, and I mentioned to her that I was engrossed in Against The Day. She made a face, and suggested that it was just too big and inaccessible for a mass audience, for her audience. But she relented some when I suggested that it was terrific that Pynchon could find a publisher for such a work, be it from those of us who paid full freight (n.b. -- a hardcover copy can be had for $7 on [eta: or could be recently -- now I'm not seeing it]) or from the boost to sales of his other works. Against The Day did not win a particularly favorable critical reaction, but many of the reviewers seemed to have internalized their expectations of how the mass audience would react, rather than trying to come to turns with it on its own terms. For those willing to devote themselves to it (for example, John Clute), Against The Day has its rewards.

Roberto Bolaño, By Night In Chile (New Directions, 2003).
The deathbed confession cum memoir of a Chilean priest whose examination of his life includes a reconsideration of his complicity in Pinochet's regime. Bolaño writes like a song, but does this book deserve the posthumous praise he has received? It certainly left me wanting to read The Savage Detectives.

P.V. Glob, The Bog People (NYRB, 2004).
It's amazing what experts can do with 2000-year-old human remains found in Danish bogs, how much they can tell from so little. This book was written four decades ago, and I bet today's experts have learned even more, but they don't seem to be writing for us non-experts.

Haruki Murakami, After Dark (Knopf, 2007).
The events in Murakami's latest novel occur in the space of one night and weave together a motley cast of Tokyo characters. Whether it was the compressed duration of the story or the way he divided the focus between a number of characters, After Dark felt lacking to me compared to many of his earlier novels. That said, after I'd finished it, moments in it would come back to me later.

Ruy Castro, Rio de Janeiro (Bloomsbury USA, 2004).
A short little book, much cheaper than a trip to Rio but, sadly, much less fun.

Jim Thompson, Wild Town (Corgi Books (UK), 1989).
An entertainment, but perhaps not one of Thompson's best. It took me longer than it should have to figure out that the novel's center of attention is not its protagonist. Good beach reading.

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came To The End (Little, Brown, 2007).
An excellent first novel, told in the first person plural, the voice of the underlings at a failing Chicago ad agency. A reader who hasn't worked in a traditional office may miss some of the resonances of, e.g., the machinations that surround office chairs when someone leaves the company. About two-thirds of the way in, there was a shift in the narrative voice which confused me and made me fear that Ferris couldn't sustain the promise of the early chapters, but he pulled it all together with an ending that at once was bittersweet and made sense of the earlier shift. Not many books make me laugh out loud on public transportation. Thanks to the folks at The Elegant Variation for recommending this one.

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
A graphic memoir, which is to say a memoir of Bechdel's childhood and particularly her relationship with her father, told in the format of a graphic novel. Just tremendous, for its realization of a novel form, for its structure, for its use of allusion and repeated motifs, and for its emotional impact. Highly recommended, and it takes only a few hours to read, so you really have no excuse.

John Lukacs, Confessions Of An Original Sinner (Ticknor & Fields, 1990). Lukacs grew up in Budapest, almost too young to serve in World War II, and emigrated to the United States not long after the end of the war. He soon found a teaching position at a small Catholic commuter school in the Philadelphia suburbs, and although he seems to have toiled in some measure of professional obscurity for many years, he has found a broad audience for his work. Characteristically, he does not dwell on his professional success. I have always enjoyed Lukacs' histories, and while his memoir does not match the best of them (in my eyes, Five Days In London), it does give a more personal perspective on what he has written elsewhere.

Here is Lukacs on Hungarian populists of the 1930s.

Edmund Wilson, To The Finland Station (NYRB, 2003).
An intellectual history of revolutionary thinkers after the French Revolution and before the Russian Revolution. Wilson spends a bit of time clearing his throat about French thinkers of the 19th century who do not seem to interest him much except as they suggest that non-communist thinking had reached a cul de sac of sorts by the end of the century. The bulk of the book chronicles Marx and Engels, and he does a masterful job lending texture and context to a life often -- unfairly -- reduced to slogans. Marx owed early intellectual debts to German philosophers and later material debts to Engels, who himself was a surprisingly engaging fellow. Wilson displays Marx's formidable academic mind, but sometimes falters in depicting his failure to lead other people. Even Marx, however, seems to be but a prelude for Wilson to the main act, Lenin. And yet the greatest flaw of the book, as Louis Menand suggests in the introduction, is Wilson's blindness to Lenin's brutality once in power. Indeed, Lenin doesn't fit the mold of the thinkers to whom Wilson has devoted the rest of the book, as he saw ideas as a tool to grab power, and not as an end in themselves.

Here Wilson sees Prometheus in Marx, and here he describes American socialists.

Alan Furst, The Foreign Correspondent (Random House, 2007).

Another thriller from Furst, capturing the last years before World War II, this time from the perspective of an Italian emigre living in Paris, where he reports for Reuters and helps to publish an anti-Fascist newspaper. I've written before about what Furst does well, and it's all here again, including some suspense. Most of his books have sections where the protagonist's peril has me wanting to skim ahead to find out what happens, even though thinks usually work out, more or less, at least for the moment.

That doesn't catch me up, but it gets me closer . . . .

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Down and out in America.

David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible In America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

Being poor is a lot of work, so even the people who David Shipler met while he wrote this book who aren’t working are still working hard. Shipler used to be a reporter for The New York Times, and it would appear that he left so that he could devote himself to deeper, more sustained reportage that can appear in even a good newspaper. For this book, Shipler spent serious time on the ground with people whose stories don’t often make it into the Times, and he often got them to open up to him.

Some of the early chapters are the best. Shipler captures the way that the lack of access to transportation, health care, social capital, and other resources all feed on each other, and he does it by telling individuals’ stories. There’s plenty of humanity, but no pity. The chapter on immigrants is strong. Some of the later chapters fall a little flat, since Shipler can’t always find people to open up to him. This is true with his chapters on education, where he has a hard time getting beyond the classroom, and on substance abuse, where he tells the stories of some who have been down and have made it back up, stories that sometimes sound just a little too affirming and heart-warming.

The book closes with an attempt to identify policy solutions to the conditions of the poor. While the impulse to translate recognition into action is entirely understandable, Shipler’s discussion of policy is short, abstract, and out of touch with how things actually work – the polar opposite of the rest of the book.

Here’s one excerpt from The Working Poor, and here’s another that prompted me to find out more about Reach Out and Read on the internet and give them money.

Monday, January 08, 2007


Living in books.

Carlos Maria Dominguez, The House Of Paper (Harcourt, 2005).

A little novella about those of us who grow too passionate about books as possessions rather than things to read. The arresting image at the heart of this work is of a house on a lagoon in Uruguay, built of books:
”But he did take his books to Rocha with him. To the strip of sand between the lagoon and sea. It was an expensive move, because the books had to travel more than two hundred kilometers in covered trucks. They had to go in along the earth road and then be taken across the dunes by cart, until, finally, they arrived at the lean-to shack almost on the beach.

“Then what do you think he did with them? He set about finding a local out-of-work laborer, one of those men who are as competent working with wood as they are with cement, who can put in a window or thatch a roof, hammer in nails as big as your finger, drill for water or chisel stone, although you can never be sure of the results. The kind of man who asks no questions but follows instructions, whatever they may be, providing he gets paid, because he won’t have to live there.

“Brauer told his laborer to build the supports for the windows and two doors on the sand. He got him to build a stone wall, and a chimney. Once the chimney was built at the side of the shack, and the door and window frames completed, he asked him to put in a cement floor. And on that floor—you can imagine the horror that fills me as I say this—he told him to turn his books into bricks. . . .

“I can see Carlos sitting, hands on his lap, in a chair between the huge pile of books the cart had left and the shoreline, wearing a straw hat to protect him from the fierce Rocha sun, listening to the sound of the laborer’s trowel on the backs of books whose margins he had scrawled on with useless references to other works, commentaries he could never again check, consult, or cast light on with a further reading. He is neither happy nor sad, more dumbstruck by his own brutal act, and lulled by the laborer’s whistle, the radio playing, or the ocean waves breaking on the shore, the gulls on the beach.
pp. 69-71.

Must one be a bibliophile to surmise that this doesn’t end well? A cautionary tale, if you will, of living in books.

Peter Sis, whose work I adore, illustrated this book, and my chief complaint would be that his illustrations are too small, though I suppose it’s a function of publishing such a cute, little book.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Early Frayn.

Michael Frayn, A Landing On The Sun (Picador, 2003).

Brian Jessel, an English civil servant, is asked to look into the untimely death of another civil servant years ago. Summerchild was found one morning, evidently having fallen to his death from a top floor of a ministry building, under puzzling circumstances. Jessel once knew Summerchild, and his life has come to parallel Summerchild’s in certain respects. Both became absorbed in their work, however humdrum and mundane, and both come to find their home lives to be unfulfilled and unfulfilling.

Jessel soon learns that Summerchild had been seconded to an odd, ad hoc project in the months before his demise, and and as the novel progresses he pieces together what Summerchild was doing and how it led to his death. Suffice it for these purposes to say that Summerchild carved out his own domain in an unexamined corner of the bureaucracy, but that he was unable to negotiate a separate peace.

A Landing On The Sun came recommended by a trusted source, and I have enjoyed Frayn’s later works quite a bit, but I never quite got the point. The story-within-a-story never paid off, in that Jessel’s own circumstances remained unresolved at the novel’s end. As an entertainment, it has its moments but is nowhere near as fun as Headlong. From an intellectual perspective, there was much less to chew on than there is in Copenhagen. All in all, a disappointment.

Saturday, December 02, 2006



Jonathan A. Knee, The Accidental Investment Banker (Oxford University Press, 2006).

In 1996, Jonathan Knee left United Airlines to join Goldman, Sachs, then and now the preeminent investment bank. Knee joined the London outpost, for one partner in particular. After a few years there and a transfer to the New York office, Knee left for Morgan Stanley, which would let him develop business in the publishing sector. He had some good years there, but the economic downturn in Bush's first term hit Morgan Stanley hard. Knee was a witness as Morgan bankers fought to avoid the axe.

Knee slipped into this line of work through the side door, and kept something of an outsider's perspective. The book sheds some light on what investment bankers do and on internal politics at Goldman and Morgan Stanley, including some background on former Goldman CEO and current Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. (White House chief of staff Josh Bolten rates a quick mention as a friend in Goldman's London office, but does not make the index. Obviously, the book was written before Paulson and Bolten assumed their present positions.) But this is not Liar's Poker. Knee is more interested in the banks' institutional decline in the last decade.

In the 1980s, investment banks were the center of the financial universe, but these days the hot talent heads for the hedge funds. Knee's focus is "[t]he fundamental shift in investment banking to a more aggressive, opportunistic, and transactional business model from one rooted in long-term client relationships and deeply held business values." As a result,
many of these institutions became unrecognizable from their former selves in the space of a few short years.

At one time, the investment bank viewed his interrelated obligations as to the client, the institution, and the markets. The client might have been with the firm for generations. The institution's reputation was viewed as its most important asset. Internal standards went well beyond any regulatory requirements to protect investors. And investment bankers advanced based largely on their success in simultaneously serving the client, preserving the franchise, and protecting the public.

In place of this idea a culture of contingency emerged, a sense not only that each day might be your last, but that your value was linked exclusively to how much revenue was generated for the firm on that day -- regardless of its source. . . .

The bankers who pressed . . . questionable telecom credits at Morgan in their quest for market share, fees, and internal status coined an acronym that could well be a rallying cry for what the entire investment banking industry had become more broadly. "IBG YBG" stood for "I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone." When a particularly troubling fact came up in due diligence on one of these companies, a whispered "IBG YBG" among the banking team members would ensure that a way would be found to do the business, even if investors, or Morgan Stanley itself, would pay the price down the road. Don't sweat it, was the implication, we'll all be long gone by then. (pp. xvi-xvii)
Some of the reasons for this shift were external -- in particular, the repeal of the Glass-Steagel Act in the mid-1990s left Goldman and the others with new, formidable competitors. But Knee suggests that the bigger problem was that the banks' culture shifted, that the banks suffered as bankers placed made themselves stars at the institutions' expense. With the riches to be made in the late 90's, i-bankers were no longer willing to subordinate personal short-term gain to their employer's long-term interests. These temptations surely were always been there, but the cultural and institutional antibodies to them were no longer up to the task.

Unlike the mercenaries who grew the most famous and rich, Knee was drawn to investment banking less for the money than by the prospect of advising senior executives, a doubtless rewarding role which is not nearly as lucrative for banks as the selling of the banks' various other products and services. As his account of these conflicts of interest continues, it becomes increasingly clear that Knee would have to leave Morgan Stanley, and the reader sheds no tears for him when he finally cuts the cord. Knee apparently has landed at a boutique investment bank, where perhaps he can give the sort of advice that Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley built their reputations on.

In this excerpt, Knee explains how Goldman kept all of its bankers thinking that they were outperforming their peers.

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