After the Music Stopped by Alan S. Blinder

For some reason I remember Lehman Day (September 15, 2008) pretty well. I was reading the New York Times online in between teaching classes when the news popped up on the screen. It isn’t that I’m particularly interested in business news although I make an effort to keep up with international economics for my classes. But that day stayed with me because I remember feeling completely bewildered by what was happening. To me it was obvious that all heck was going to break loose, but it didn’t seem to be obvious to our political leaders. After 8 years of fundamentally disagreeing  with most of our leadership’s policies, it seemed like this was the outgoing middle finger to America.

Once the great recession started I wished someone would or could just sit down and explain everything. Trying to decipher the news at that time (and wade through the partisan BS) was impossible. You could get bits and pieces, but no solid explanations were readily available. In this chronicle of the events leading up to and after the crash of 2008, Blinder has tried to fill that gap and he does a fabulous job. While a basic understanding of economics and finance is helpful, he defines complex terms and presents difficult information in a clear way. And I mean that when I say clear. He is almost conversational in tone, but it doesn’t sound condescending. Only one or two chapters were a bit tough to get through (the one on spreads was a bit brutal), but the rest honestly reads like a thriller. Except it is scarier because you know this is all real and your next door neighbor did lose his house and job and you lost your retirement funds.

I also really appreciated this book because it corrects much of the collective amnesia that infects this country. Things like:

  • The government gave a away cash to the banks! (WRONG: The government made loans and investments.)
  • The government lost all of that taxpayer money through TARP (WRONG: the government made a profit.)
  • TARP and the stimulus were the same thing (WRONG WRONG WRONG)
  • This all happened on President Obama’s watch (…….wtf?!)

Not that anyone will remember this tomorrow …

But not to give you the wrong impression. He stays away from partisan politics and focuses on what both sides did wrong. When he writes that President Obama’s biggest issue was not staying on message and communicating plans effectively, I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately the President has allowed others to frame the issues (typically framed in lies–see above) and thereby set the agenda. It is frustrating to watch, but maybe, just maybe Michelle will have given him this book for Christmas and he will take heed. One can hope.

And if not we will have all forgotten it in another 8 years.

Why I love the stories

I’ve been remiss in reflecting on my profession and work lately. Partly this is because I’ve been working … a lot … and haven’t found the time. Now that the semester is slowing down I’m more interested in just having some fun. But thinking about the release of the Desolation of Smauggggg (fun!) got me mulling over the role of the story in my life and how freaking powerful stories have been. So, in the spirit of seasonal reflection, here is why I love the stories.



First, a little background. On September 10, 2001 I received news that completely changed the trajectory of my life. I don’t need or want to share it, but was honestly devastating. I felt like my life had ended and I wasn’t sure where the future was headed. The next morning I woke up to one of the most tragic but also surreal events in my young life. Two months later I moved away from a place that had become my home to start a new life. One of the first things I did was to go see The Fellowship of the Ring. It is difficult to express exactly how much I think that movie saved me. I know it is meant to stir emotions through score and dialogue (film critic, blah blah blah), but, you know what? It worked. It made me feel like no matter what I was going through or the country was experiencing or how crazymaking our President was, everything would be OK. No matter how much crap there is in the world, there is always still hope.

In January 2002 I moved to Croatia and had a wonderful time. After nine months though I became extremely sick with pneumonia. I spent my last month in the country trying to heal, and during that time I re-read the Lord of the Rings. Again the story kept me from feeling like a big ball of despair.

As you can imagine, I’ve been looking forward to The Hobbit for a long, long time.

Granted “fantasy” is not for everyone, but genre isn’t the point. The point is how powerful,  meaningful, and healing those stories are for me. They are like personal touchstones. I only need to think about them and I know the world can be right and good (if only in my head).

I don’t think it needs to be a particular type of literature or even fiction versus nonfiction. Some of my favorite nonfiction writers, like Tony Horwitz, are able to engage the reader by telling a powerful story. I also don’t think it has to be about books all the time. I personally could not get into the Harry Potter books because of Rowling’s writing style, but I love the movies. They are truly almost (dare I say it) magical. They transport you. They make you feel OK again.

So, I am excited about vacation and having time to engage with the stories I find emotionally resonant. I am also excited about the movie coming out. I know it isn’t the  original narrative, but I don’t care. It will still be wonderful. It will still be my story.

I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and lots of time with your stories.

Books! a ghost in joyland #cbr5

I haven’t read a Stephen King novel in many years. Probably the last was It. Even that is hard to say 13596166because he is so prolific. My favorite work was always “The Body” in Different Seasons. Admittedly Pet Cemetery  and Misery were much scarier, but The Body is a beautiful atmospheric coming of age story with a bit of the creepiness (and the basis for Stand by Me). With his new novel, Joyland, part of the Hard Case Crime series, King creates another fine story about the fall of innocence.

Joyland is about a young college student in the 1970s who decides to spend a summer away from his northern university and his lukewarm girlfriend. He gets a job at an amusement park called Joyland (more like a carnival) in North Carolina that also happens to have a dark story lurking in its horror house along with a ghost.  After the summer season, he decides to take a break from school (and seeing his ex) and stays on at the park. In the meantime he meets a local family that has a big impact on his life and on Joyland.

Again, this is the atmospheric coming of age Stephen King at his best. It is nicely edited, the perfect length, and avoids most of the typical King excesses (see It).  Not much more I can say beyond that you should read it.

Book! the white princess #cbr5

My first negative review of the year was for a Philipa Gregory novel, The Kingmaker’s Daughter (The Cousins’ War #4)Keep in mind that I’m not a Gregory hater, but I fully realize that she is a certain type of historical novelist and there are certainly better writers out there. She can spin a decent yarn and they go by quickly.  This one just goes quickly.

So, The White Princess is the newest in the series. I had to finish out The Cousins’ War series just because I can be a purist. The Cousins War is a fictional retelling of the War of the Roses from the perspective of the primary women–Jacquetta, Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, and Elizabeth of York–each book dealing with a different woman. Elizabeth of  York who marries Henry VII is the subject of The White Princess. Apparently there will be one more book on Margaret Pole, Elizabeth of York’s sister.

While Elizabeth of York is a much more compelling character than Margaret Beaufort (windbag) and Anne Neville (dull, dull, dull), there are some definite flaws in the telling. For one thing, Elizabeth constantly talks about how she was born to rule and Henry VII wasn’t and yet she seems amazed that a king in a troubled kingdom might want to dispose of some pesky rival heirs to his throne.  Plus she seems amazed to find out that, yes, her mother, Elizabeth Woodville probably did scheme against Henry VII. Even if you could overlook Elizabeth of York’s lack of worldliness, the paltry love story doesn’t hold much interest for them or the reader. I didn’t even feel sorry for Elizabeth and Henry when they finally realize they hate each other. Basically I could see why.

I applaud Gregory’s tenacity in wanting to tell the story from all sides, but some historical figures just don’t make for interesting reading. Elizabeth of York in The Kingmaker’s Daughter was an interesting minor character, especially when she begins her affair with King Richard III. But after she marries Henry VII she turns into a mind-numbing doorpost. She’s just there to help tell the larger story and, oh, to have Henry VIII. That’s it.



Beach read. Maybe. Goes by quickly.

Books! TransAtlantic #cbr5

Writing about the books I love the most is difficult. I feel like I can’t convey the way it made 16085517me feel to read such an amazing book. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is definitely one of those. Although I loved Bring up the Bodies I think this is by far my favorite novel of 2013.

To be honest I am not one of those readers who can sit and read a book all day, who stays up all night trying to get through one more chapter, and one more. I read in short spurts because my mind wanders and my body gets restless. But McCann’s novel grabbed onto my pathetic attention span and wouldn’t let go. I stayed up late reading from sheer enjoyment for the first time in ages.

The beauty and economy of his language grab you first. He can say in 10 words what I would say in 60. Plus his language is gorgeous and I couldn’t stop reading it. It flows like a poem with every word chosen for its perfection.

The characters are the second highlight. In a sense this is historical fiction because his four main characters in the first half of the book are prominent figures–George Mitchell (diplomat of the Good Friday Accords), Frederick Douglass, Alcock and Brown (pilots of the first non-stop Transatlantic flight)–but it is amazing how human he makes them. George Mitchell was especially an accomplishment considering he is still alive and able to tell his own stories. The second half of the book focuses on a fabulous family of women whose lives touched and intersected with these famous men.

Finally there is the story. He is describing the crossings and connections in our lives, in terms of our transatlantic heritage (huge academic buzz word nowadays), but also how individuals influence and impact each other. While at times it seems he stretching a bit to make these lives intertwine, I liked the people and wanted to know what would happen so much that I was willing to go along. The last chapter in particular felt a bit slow because he is trying to set up a new crossing, but by then I was willing to let him take me wherever.

This is my favorite book of 2013 so far. I’ve been recommending it to everyone. Worth the read and it is not a trilogy.

Books! The life of a “Tongue”

I came across The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak while 11149173browsing a Goodreads list of new historical fiction. Even though it had some strong praise from the Washington Post and others, the cover was a bit bodice-ripper looking for me and I almost passed it up. But I’m glad I did not.

Stachniak tells the story of the rise of Catherine, who becomes Great, through the eyes of Varvara, a young ward of Empress Elizabeth. Varvara comes to live at court as an orphan and is recruited by the Russian Chancellor to become a “tongue” or a spy. Her job is to be the eyes and ears for Empress Elizabeth in the large and unruly court that surrounds her. When Catherine arrives to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter, and subsequently is used and abused (by everyone), Varvara allies herself with the young (future) Grand Duchess.

Stachniak descriptions of the court are well-written and imaginable. In some historical fiction works, the research seems laid on top of the narrative without the two meshing well. Stachniak interweaves what is obviously a tremendous amount of research with a strong and engaging tale. She does this not only with the chronological history but also the “set” in St. Petersburg. During the story, the palace is undergoing renovations that will make it into the grand Winter Palace. Her narrative makes it easy to imagine their surroundings.

I think the book does not have the correct title though as in many ways it is more about the life of Empress Elizabeth than Catherine. Because it is focused on Catherine’s early years and because it takes a really long time for her to become Empress, at the close of the book I felt I knew more about Elizabeth as a character than I did Catherine. I even know the name of Elizabeth’s cats. This may partly be intentional because the story is told from Varvara’s perspective and Varvara is ultimately burnt by her benefactress. In other words, we only know as much as Varvara does and in the end she doesn’t seem to know enough about Catherine and the power of court intrigue.

If you like historical fiction, this one is a keeper. Intrigue, power, sex, and … cats, lots of cats.

PS: Just noticed that it is listed on Goodreads as Catherine #1. Oh dear, another trilogy …

Books! Hot Lava #cbr5


Woodcut of Krakatoa

After reading Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, I am embarrassed to admit that I learned about the volcano only after hearing the B-52′s song Hot Lava sometime in my college years. I’m ashamed because Winchester says many times that Krakatoa was the volcanic event that everybody learns about and remembers. Well, not this gal. Thank you Fred Schneider and company for sending me to the encyclopedia to look that word up (these were the days before Wikipedia, although not pre-Internet, thank you very much).

I picked the book up because I have a strange obsession with disaster stories, Into Thin Air being a favorite. Winchester’s book is much more than just a chronicle of the 1883 volcanic explosion though. He deftly combines natural history, geology, political sociology, history and more to create a full picture of Krakatoa’s place and importance. Each chapter takes on a different piece of the story, from the colonial history of what would become Indonesia, to the development of the Wallace Line, to an excellent chapter on the discovery of plate tectonics and much more. While he of course chronicles the disaster itself he does so as a detective trying to piece together the exact happenings rather than sensationalizing the events.

The only place he falters slightly is in the political history. He argues that Krakatoa’s eruption helped to create the conditions that led to the rise of anti-Western Muslim fundamentalism, but honestly I think the Dutch and the colonial project did that just fine without Krakatoa’s help. While the eruption definitely created chaos that destroyed daily life, many factors went into the widespread anti-colonial insurgencies throughout Asia. Luckily he reins it in before drawing direct causation, but this chapter was the weakest. As the book was written and published after the Bali bombings in 2002, he was probably trying to draw in a wider audience.

My other criticism is why I give the book four our of five stars on Goodreads. I appreciate a good map, even in location-heavy fiction, but especially in nonfiction. The maps in the paperback version of this book are horrendous (I only hope they are better in the hardback). For example, the map of Indonesia doesn’t even have Krakatoa labeled! I had to go to Google to figure out where the island was located. I would overlook one editorial mistake but the rest of the maps are equally as bad (no legends, difficult to read). I guess they were going for a period (Victorian) look by having them hand-drawn. That is what I like to believe at least.

Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite books of the year. It is very well-written and covers extremely difficult science in an understandable way. Although he covers a wide-range of topics, he weaves them together to form a very coherent story of a volcano.

PS: After reading this book I now know why the lyric is “Krakatoa, East of Java” (when Krakatoa is west of Java). They may have been fans of the film, Krakatoa, East of Java.