The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

shortA few years ago, I was a teaching assistant for a third-year geography course that dedicated one week to the cause and effects of the financial crisis. I remember doing the readings and trying to organize a tutorial for that week in a blur of confusion amidst terms like ‘mortgage-backed security’ and ‘subprime loans’. With only a thin grasp of what actually occurred in 2008, I somehow squeaked through the tutorial and managed to convince the class that I knew what I was talking about. It has always bothered me that I didn’t understand the events that led to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression and when my husband, P, bought The Big Short, by Michael Lewis, I thought this was my chance to rectify the situation. As it turns out, things were much more complex than the readings for my geography course had led me to believe. On top of the aforementioned terms I already had trouble with, I was confronted with even more confusing ones: collateralized debt obligation, credit default swap, mezzanine CDO, and the concept of ‘shorting’, which although I think I understand I’m not sure I could actually convince someone that I did (and I won’t attempt that feat here!). As it turns out, I don’t even really understand what a bond is (there’s a reason P does all the household finances!). As a result, it took me several months to read this book. The strange thing is, although I had to read many paragraphs several times, then ask for clarification from P, I really enjoyed the book. The story of the events that led to the final meltdown of the financial system and the massive bailout of the big investment banks by the U.S. government, was told creatively and skillfully by Lewis through the eyes of a few people who saw the whole thing coming years in advance. The events are demented, and it should be shocking to anyone that it was allowed to happen. Surely even the staunchest free market capitalist would question his own convictions after really understanding how greed and self-interest caused such a dramatic collapse of our system, to the detriment of millions of people. A highly recommended book to anyone with an interest in the financial crisis as Lewis’ journalistic skills shine through the telling of the disaster using the perspectives of these perceptive insiders, who are entertaining characters in their own right.

At Day’s Close, by Roger Ekirch

days closeI feel an enormous sense of accomplishment having completed this book. It was a slog. It was a slog in the same way that some of the readings I had to do during my undergrad were a slog: dry, overly academic, little sense that they were written with any consideration for the person who would have to learn something from it. This book was so dry it actually made me angry because it had so much potential! The subtitle of the book is “Night in Times Past.” Now I’m not much of a history buff but I do have a fascination with pre-industrial times: hygiene, crazy diseases and their even crazier “cures”, dentistry, the class system, and generally how difficult life must have been back then. When I read a (positive) review of At Day’s Close in The Globe and Mail awhile back, it struck me that I’d never considered how different nights would have been before the invention of artificial light. It seems obvious but torches and fires can only do so much. How did people spend their nights, once the sun was down? What kind of socializing occurred? What was crime like? These questions are addressed, albeit in the most boring way possible. Ekirch has clearly done his research, but he is so wrapped up in presenting his findings in as much detail as possible that he forgets to weave in a narrative. For example, he refers many times to a man named ‘Pepys’ but gives no introduction for who this man was other than mentioning that he kept a highly detailed diary. Here is a golden opportunity to discuss what nights might have been like through the eyes of a person who actually lived them! Instead, Ekirch chooses to insert seemingly random quotes and passages from Pepys’ diary that almost always seemed to appear out of nowhere. He uses material from other surviving diaries and correspondences as well but again, no introduction or explanation of who these people were is given.

All this being said, I did glean some interesting information, particularly from the last few chapters, which for some reason were a lot more coherent. For instance, much time is spent discussing the idea of ‘two sleeps’, wherein a person would awake midway through the night for a period of time – perhaps an hour or two – before lapsing back into a second sleep. This apparently was very common before the advent of artificial light and Ekirch suggests that this might be a more natural way for humans to sleep. Another tidbit of information: roads were very dangerous in early modern times, particularly at night. Writes Ekirch, “Gibbets with human corpses littered the early modern countryside. These were tall wooden posts with one or more arms from which hung the decomposing remains of executed felons, though trees provided handy substitutes. Often corpses would remain suspended in an iron cage or chains for months, warning prey and predator alike.” As gruesome as that is, this is the kind of thing I want to read about! Unfortunately, these descriptions were few and far between throughout the book.

If you are writing a paper about life in the pre-industrial era, this would be an excellent resource for you. However if you are looking for a non-fiction bedtime read, I’d probably give this a pass.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht

tigerIt is not often that I feel the simultaneous urge to both read a book at a voracious pace and discontinue reading it altogether. The Tiger’s Wife may be the first. This seeming paradox was achieved by Obreht’s beautiful writing and the intriguing story she creates, coupled with the intense and disturbing violence riddled throughout the novel. I actually had to skim a few sections – something I can’t recall ever doing in a novel. Luckily Obreht’s main character, Natalia, was someone I connected with immediately. Natalia is a young doctor, trying to inoculate young children in a war-torn region. The story takes place in an unnamed country in the Balkans, but through the various descriptions and invented place-names, images of Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo come to mind. I liked that Obreht chose a fictional place for her novel; there was never any pressure to read up on the history, culture, geography of the place, since it didn’t exist (I often feel this urge when I’m reading about a place I’m not familiar with). All you need is a passing knowledge of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and actually, you could probably get away with not knowing anything at all.The main crux of the story is that Natalia’s grandfather turns up dead in a remote town and no one knows how he got there or why he was there in the first place. About a third of the book centres around Natalia trying to figure out this mystery; the other two-thirds are comprised mainly of Natalia recalling some of the stories her grandfather often told her. I’m not one for a story-within-a-story. Normally I find it a fairly annoying format. However the two major stories, that of The Deathless Man and The Tiger’s Wife, are so interesting and wrapped in a good layer of magical realism, that I became completely absorbed in them. Obreht manages to create a very dark world but also one that is mystical and bordering on the absurd. It’s hauntingly beautiful. Except for the violence. It’s hard to ignore the violence. As a vegetarian I didn’t particularly enjoy the graphic descriptions of animals being butchered and their bodies cut apart. But the worst by far were the terribly brutal scenes of a young deaf-mute girl being beaten by her husband. I could only get through it by skimming. I guess the violence – both animal and human – are meant to represent the savageness of war and what years of conflict can do to a people. I appreciate the point of the violence, I just didn’t enjoy reading it. However if you can make it past those difficult sections, you are rewarded with a well-crafted story and very high-quality writing.

As an aside, Obreht was only 25 years old when this novel was published. It’s astonishing that a 25-year-old could write something so sophisticated, dark, and teeming with wisdom. I don’t know who to be more jealous of: Téa Obreht or Eleanor Catton. Sigh.

Delancey, by Molly Wizenberg

delanceyBefore we had a baby, my husband and I would throw dinner parties on a regular basis. Sometimes these were small affairs, with just one other couple, but once a month we’d have a group of ten friends over for dinner and a movie. On these occasions we’d spend most of the day shopping, preparing, and cooking, and most of the next morning cleaning up the disastrous mess that we were too lazy to deal with the night before.  While fun and rewarding, the amount of effort required to prepare a homemade meal for even a small group of friends is significant. For this reason, I’ve been fascinated with restaurant culture, in particular the sheer amount of work it takes to not only serve presentable and delicious dishes but to keep the restaurant to a high standard of cleanliness (certainly higher than my own kitchen!). I’ve not read many books about restaurants but it was with much excitement that I received an unexpected package at my door a few weeks ago, containing the book Delancey: a gift from my friend Lindsey. A few years ago, Lindsey introduced me to Molly Wizenberg, via her first book, A Homemade Life. It’s a collection of recipes and their related stories and inspirations, which was a surprisingly engaging format. I became a wee bit obsessed with Molly after I finished it and as I discovered the extension of the book: her wonderful blog, Orangette. I felt I could really relate to Molly and I could see a bit of myself in her (notably her disillusionment with her PhD).

But back to Delancey. The book chronicles the conceptualization and development of Molly and her husband’s pizza restaurant, Delancey. As I mentioned earlier, I think owning and operating a restaurant must be among the most demanding jobs out there. I was eager for a first-hand account from someone I could relate to (ie. not a celebrity chef like Anthony Bourdain). Disappointingly, the first few chapters of the book I found rather dry and impersonal: a step-by-step description of how the idea for the restaurant came to Brandon, Molly’s husband. While there were moments of interest, like a description of how Brandon developed his pizza dough, things didn’t get much more interesting until the midway point, when Molly finally acknowledges out loud to Brandon that she doesn’t want this restaurant. Up until this point, she’d been operating on the assumption that Delancey was another of Brandon’s many pie-in-the-sky ideas that would not actually materialize in the real world. Once they sign a lease on a space though, Molly must confront the fact that Delancey might actually come to exist sometime in the near future and, to put it mildly, she freaks out. This is the story I wanted to read about. How does a young couple, with very little restaurant experience, navigate the many overwhelming challenges involved in opening their own restaurant while keeping their marriage intact? From reading Orangette you do get the impression that Molly and Brandon are a bit of a super-couple who can open not one but two restaurants (since the writing of Delancey, Molly and Brandon have opened a bar next door) and raise a child (June was born in 2012). However reading the latter half of Delancey you realize, with relief, that Molly and Brandon are indeed human and struggle through exhaustion, multiple problems, and related marital strife in getting Delancey off the ground. The book cements my inclination that I could not (and indeed should not) own, operate, or indeed, even work in, a restaurant.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

window2This novel, whose title I’ll shorten to The 1oo-Year-Old Man, is perhaps hardly worth reviewing here as it’s become enormously popular since it was released in 2009. I suspect most of my readers have either at least heard of it or read it themselves. The story is absurd. In the opening pages, 100-year-old Allan Karlsson climbs out of his window at his seniors’ residence, having decided he wants to live a bit longer but not in the confines of the boring and dictatorial home. What ensues is a wild adventure, interspersed with a chronological narrative detailing Allan’s even wilder adventures from his youth. Imagine the film Forrest Gump if Forrest was extremely intelligent and by happenstance got to meet most of the world’s most famous or notorious leaders between the years 1930-2000.It’s entertaining if you forgo rationality. Like I said, it’s absurd.

Despite the novel’s popularity, I suspect this is not a book for everyone. The prose is very matter-of-fact, almost as if you’re reading a journalist’s account of the story, and as a result the characters feel very two dimensional. An example (pulled at random): “In the distance stood a hot-dog stand. Julius promised Allan that if he made it to the hot-dog stand, then Julius would treat him – he could afford it – and then he would find a solution to the transport problem. Allan replied that never in his life had he complained over a bit of discomfort, and that he wasn’t going to start now, but that a hot-dog would hit the spot.” Much of the book is written in this fashion, with actual dialogue being replaced with an arm’s length account of the conversation instead. Admittedly it takes some getting used to, but I found this style of writing refreshingly different. While the characters do feel lifted from the pages of a comic in their fantasticality, I still found the story engrossing. I have heard complaints that the book is too political (Allan meets famous leaders from Stalin to Mao Tse-tung) but I certainly was not bothered by the (pretty tame) political themes of the book. Although I wouldn’t go out of my way to read anything else by Jonasson, the 100-Year-Old Man is definitely a memorable read!

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

rosieThe Rosie Project is a sweet, funny, fairly predictable, yet somehow clever story. The protagonist in this first-person narrative is Don Tillman, a genetics professor, who is clearly extremely intelligent but suffers from odd behaviours and an inability to interact with other people in a ‘normal’ way. As a result he has only two living friends and has never had a girlfriend. To remedy this latter problem, Don embarks on a quest he calls the Wife Project, which involves potential candidates filling out an extensive questionnaire, in an effort to filter out anyone who would be incompatible with Don’s curious behaviours and lifestyle. In the course of this project, a woman named Rosie shows up one day in Don’s office, who Don assumes is an applicant for the Wife Project. One thing leads to another and Don ends up spearheading the Father Project, an attempt to discover the identity of Rosie’s biological father.

The first-person narrative of this story is really what elevates it above the level of silly romantic comedy. Don’s social ineptitudes are quite funny and he often finds himself in tricky but amusing situations. It becomes clear fairly early on that he probably lands somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum or at least has a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel until the last three chapters, which unfold in a very predictable way. Still, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to see what else Mr. Simsion has written. To my surprise I discovered that The Rosie Project is his first and only novel. The other publications to his credit are all peer-reviewed publications; Simsion has a PhD in data modelling. From the acknowledgement section I read that Simsion wrote The Rosie Project as part of a novel-writing course he was taking and that it actually started out as a screenplay. I also learned (thank you, Wikipedia) that Simsion won an award for the book – the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award – and that he has earned $1.8 million after the rights to it were sold internationally. Since then the book has been optioned to Sony Entertainment and has been published in over 30 languages! This guy fascinates me. He’s got a PhD in a very technical subject area, yet decides one day to write a lighthearted, comedic novel that ends up being a bestseller and a film! I am filled with envy. Soon as I finish this post I’m looking up novel-writing courses at my local fine arts college.

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

vacancyI am a huge Harry Potter fan; the kind who wept upon finishing the final book in the series – it felt truly like the end of an era. When Rowling came out with her next project after Harry Potter, an adult novel, I wasn’t terribly interested. I loved Harry Potter for the imaginative new world that Rowling had created coupled with an amazing sense of suspense! I never thought the writing itself was that great and figured an adult novel wouldn’t have that imaginative quality to it. So why did I pick it up at all? I had just finished one rather disturbing novel and half-read two others that I put down because they were either too sad (The Goldfinch) or too boring (The Blind Assassin). Essentially I was keen to read a piece of fluff and I was somewhat curious as to what Rowling would write for an adult audience. Well I certainly got my piece of fluff. The novel chronicles the goings-on in Pagford, a small British town, after the sudden death of the universally loved local councillor, Barry Fairbrother. Before he died, Barry was instrumental in the struggle to keep ‘The Fields’ in Pagford, the poorest area of town where those on social assistance live government housing. While Barry is portrayed as kind and compassionate, his death reveals that he was an anomaly among local residents and his fellow councillors. The novel features about ten or so different characters, rotating perspectives to reveal their relationship to Barry, their views on The Fields controversy, and the mini-drama that is their individual lives. It is a long, meandering read. There were times when I stopped to try to ascertain the point of it all. While the decision on what would happen to The Fields was clearly the apex of the story, it was unclear as to why Rowling required 503 pages to get there. Midway through I decided to stop being frustrated by this and instead read the novel like I would watch a soap opera: with a detached, vague interest in what happens to the various characters. I’m not sure if it was Rowling’s intention that the reader dislike every character (with the notable exception of Krystal Weedon), but if so, then it was a job well done. I heaved a sigh of relief when I finally reached the end. While I did not enjoy the novel very much, it certainly strengthened my resolve to never live in a small town.

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