Sunday, October 24, 2010

Page 43: Finding Nouf

I'm doing this in reverse.  I have already read and blogged City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris which is her second book.  Finding Nouf was her first.  In Finding Nouf we are introduced to two of the characters who also appear in City of Veils.  Nayir, the desert guide who is Palestinian, but often mistaken for a Bedouin because of his knowledge of the desert, and Katya who works in the medical examiners office.  They both become involved in the investigation of the death of Nouf, a young girl who disappears from her family home.

The story begins with Nayir leading a team in the desert searching for Nouf.  All they know is that a pickup truck is missing from her family compound as well as one of the camels from the stable.  Nouf's brother Othman asks Nayir to find out what happened to his sister.  The search is fruitless at first, but eventually Nouf's body is found in the desert and taken to the medical examiners office.  The surprising result is that the cause of death appears to be from drowning.  The clues eventually lead Nayir to believe she was caught in a sudden rainstorm that filled the wadi she was in, and the force of the water knocked her off her feet and carried her along causing her death.  This is just the beginning of the story.

Again, the author takes us inside Saudi society and family life.  Nayir is a traditional man who tries not to look at a woman's face unless circumstances require him.  When he first meets Katya in the medical examiners office he looks everywhere except at her.  His religious beliefs are part of who he is, and become part of the story.  Katya is trying to break free of the traditional repression of women, and has gone to work.  Even though women do work, many of them stay home and lead very sheltered lives.

Nayir eventually overcomes his reluctance to work with Katya.  He discovers she is engaged to his friend Othman, but that does not present an obstacle since Othman encourages him to continue the investigation even if it means he will be working with Katya.  The evidence leads them to some startling facts that will change both of them by the end of the story.

Finding Nouf won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; pretty good for a first novel.  If you liked City of Veils, you will find this book to be very similar in providing a fascinating look inside Saudi society.  This is the back story of how Nayir and Katya first met and worked together.  If you have not read either book yet, I would suggest reading Finding Nouf first and then City of Veils.  Both novels stand alone and may be read in any order, but it makes sense to me to read them in order, and not in reverse like I did.

Here are a couple of reviews for you:

"Engrossing . . . yanks the veil off Saudi Arabian culture while unraveling a compelling murder mystery."
"A literary detective novel that balances the pleasures of plot with finely milled prose."
  --San Francisco Chronicle
Ferraris stakes her own claim on the world map, opening Saudi Arabia up for mystery fans to reveal the true minds and hearts of its denizens."
  --Los Angeles Times

Monday, October 18, 2010

Page 42: Bridge of Sighs

I am late to discover the great writing of Richard Russo.  I think Bridge of Sighs is one of his better novels.  This very complex novel is set in a small town in upstate New York north of Albany.  The story begins quite simply as an attempt by the main character to write down the events of his life before he and his wife embark on a trip to Italy.  Lou became known as Lucy every since his Kindergarten teacher made the mistake of reading his name as Lou C. Lynch.  You can pretty much surmise what happened after that.  The name stuck with him for the rest of his days.

Thomaston, NY is the fictional setting for the novel.  The other characters that play major roles are his parents, Big Lou and Teresa, Sarah Berg, Bobby Marconi, and his uncle Dec.  Lou and his father are the eternal optimists even though the stream running through town is loaded with carcinogens from the local tannery.  The town is divided by class (what town is not?) into four sections: The Hill (blacks), West End (poor whites), East End (middle class whites) and a separate section of new homes for wealthier whites.  The blacks are stuck in The Hill with no chance to move out so they remain as segregated in their housing as those in the south at the time.  Lou's parents have manage to avoid financial disaster when his father loses his job as a milkman.  They buy a local corner store, very much opposed by his mother, and have to depend on the meager income from that and his mother's work as a bookkeeper.

The book takes you back in forth in time, provides the perspectives of more than one character for the same event, and gives you new revelations that did not seem possible earlier in the story.  Part of the book is in Venice where Bobby has become a famous artist and is preparing for a show in New York.  He left Thomaston right after his senior year in high school thirty years before and has never returned.  A childhood trauma at the hands of local bullies has left Lou with "spells" that cause him to lose track of time and become listless until he recovers.  These last well into adulthood.

It may be difficult to track the story at times since it moves from Thomaston to Venice and then back again several times.  Also, the chronology is mixed so you have different characters giving their perception of the same event, but not in the same part of the novel.  In spite of this, Russo carries it off by giving us a great story with real characters who are both kind and flawed while others are downright mean and nasty.  The novel examines three main families: the Lynches, the Marconis, and the Bergs.  Their stories are interconnected and provide the wonderful material that makes this novel so great.

Here is a review by Jeffrey Frank:
From Publishers Weekly
"SignatureReviewed by Jeffrey FrankRichard Russo's portraits of smalltown life may be read not only as fine novels but as invaluable guides to the economic decline of the American Northeast. Russo was reared in Gloversville, N.Y. (which got its name from the gloves no longer manufactured there), and a lot of mid–20th-century Gloversville can be found in his earlier fiction (MohawkThe Risk Pool). It reappears in Bridge of Sighs, Russo's splendid chronicle of life in the hollowed-out town of Thomaston, N.Y., where a tannery's runoff is slowly spreading carcinogenic ruin.At the novel's center is Lou C. Lynch (his middle initial wins him the unfortunate, lasting nickname Lucy), but the narrative, which covers more than a half-century, also unfolds through the eyes of Lou's somewhat distant and tormented friend, Bobby Marconi, as well as Sarah Berg, a gifted artist who Lou marries and who loves Bobby, too. The lives of the Lynches, the Bergs and the Marconis intersect in various ways, few of them happy; each family has its share of woe. Lou's father, a genial milkman, is bound for obsolescence and leads his wife into a life of shopkeeping; Bobby's family is being damaged by an abusive father. Sarah moves between two parents: a schoolteacher father with grandiose literary dreams and a scandal in his past and a mother who lives in Long Island and leads a life that is far from exemplary. Russo weaves all of this together with great sureness, expertly planting clues—and explosives, too—knowing just when and how they will be discovered or detonate at the proper time. Incidents from youth—a savage beating, a misunderstood homosexual advance, a loveless seduction—have repercussions that last far into adulthood. Thomaston itself becomes a sort of extended family, whose unhappy members include the owners of the tannery who eventually face ruin.Bridge of Sighs is a melancholy book; the title refers to a painting that Bobby is making (he becomes a celebrated artist) and the Venetian landmark, but also to the sadness that pervades even the most contented lives. Lou, writing about himself and his dying, blue-collar town, thinks that the loss of a place isn't really so different from the loss of a person. Both disappear without permission, leaving the self diminished, in need of testimony and evidence. If there are false notes, they come with Russo's portrayal of African-Americans, who too often speak like stock characters: (Doan be given me that hairy eyeball like you doan believe, 'cause I know better, says one). But Russo has a deep and real understanding of stifled ambitions and the secrets people keep, sometimes forever. Bridge of Sighs, on every page, is largehearted, vividly populated and filled with life from America's recent, still vanishing past.Jeffrey Frank's books include The Columnist and Bad Publicity. His novel, Trudy Hopedale, was published in July by Simon & Schuster. 

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition"

Page 41: That Old Cape Magic

Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls and many others, likes to explore personal relationships.  He does this in That Old Cape Magic by exploring the influence on Jack Griffin of his parents and their annual vacations to Cape Cod.  Much of the story is contained in flashbacks yet remains very coherent throughout.  Russo plays Freud at times, but manages to include enough humor to offset the angst of the main characters.  The parents are both Ivy League graduates, but end up teaching in, what they consider to be, second rate colleges in the Midwest.  One of their lifelong goals is to land a teaching position in the Ivy League.  Of course, they never do.  With two academic snobs for parents, it appears that Jack doesn't have a chance to succeed in life, but he does and becomes a screenwriter in Hollywood, and then a college professor at a New England college his parents would have died for.

Jack's marriage is heading for the rocks and he is on a collision course with his own breakdown while at the same time carrying his father's ashes in the trunk of his car, and enduring phone calls from his overbearing mother.  It is pretty easy to feel sorry for Jack.  Jack and his wife eventually split and toward the end of the book attend their daughter's wedding, each with a date.  The wedding and all the disasters that accompany it are very funny if you have a warped sense of humor.  But don't we all?

Others have summarized this book quite well, so here is a good summary of the book from Amazon.

"Following Bridge of Sighs—a national best seller hailed by The Boston Globe as “an astounding achievement” and “a masterpiece”—Richard Russo gives us the story of a marriage, and of all the other ties that bind, from parents and in-laws to children and the promises of youth.
Griffin has been tooling around for nearly a year with his father’s ashes in the trunk, but his mother is very much alive and not shy about calling on his cell phone. She does so as he drives down to Cape Cod, where he and his wife, Joy, will celebrate the marriage of their daughter Laura’s best friend. For Griffin this is akin to driving into the past, since he took his childhood summer vacations here, his parents’ respite from the hated Midwest. And the Cape is where he and Joy honeymooned, in the course of which they drafted the Great Truro Accord, a plan for their lives together that’s now thirty years old and has largely come true. He’d left screenwriting and Los Angeles behind for the sort of New England college his snobby academic parents had always aspired to in vain; they’d moved into an old house full of character; and they’d started a family. Check, check and check.
But be careful what you pray for, especially if you manage to achieve it. By the end of this perfectly lovely weekend, the past has so thoroughly swamped the present that the future suddenly hangs in the balance. And when, a year later, a far more important wedding takes place, their beloved Laura’s, on the coast of Maine, Griffin’s chauffeuring two urns of ashes as he contends once more with Joy and her large, unruly family, and both he and she have brought dates along. How in the world could this have happened?
That Old Cape Magic is a novel of deep introspection and every family feeling imaginable, with a middle-aged man confronting his parents and their failed marriage, his own troubled one, his daughter’s new life and, finally, what it was he thought he wanted and what in fact he has. The storytelling is flawless throughout, moments of great comedy and even hilarity alternating with others of rueful understanding and heart-stopping sadness, and its ending is at once surprising, uplifting and unlike anything this Pulitzer Prize winner has ever written."

This a good one, but wait until the next review.  Bridge of Sighs coming up.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Page 40: The Big Short

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis is one of those books you need to read if you want to find out what really happened two years ago when the big Wall Street banking houses fell like dominoes and the government had to bail them out to prevent a depression. A few very smart people saw it coming, told Wall Street it was going to happen, and were ignored.  Happily for them, they made a ton of money shorting sub prime mortgage debt instruments, but didn't feel much joy when the entire economy nearly collapsed on itself.

Some of the characters in the book involved in shorting the debt instruments and the banks include Steve Eisman, Michael Burry, Greg Lippmann, Vincent Daniel, Gene Park and Howie Hubler.  Never heard of these guys?  Don't feel bad.  Unless you were a Wall Street insider you would not be expected.  The big names you have heard: Paulson, Geitner, and Bernanke.  They were involved in saving a sinking ship, the other guys were betting heavily that it would sink even before the leaks appeared and the ship's hull ruptured completely.

I don't know about most of you, but I have always been fascinated by our financial system.  This is probably because I don't understand it, but continue to try.  Michael Lewis, as he has in his other books, gives us a very well written story that is compelling and hard to break off from reading.  In this case I should say listening to since I "read" the Audible version.  Jesse Boggs was the narrator and he does an excellent job.

Why don't some of us understand Wall Street, especially the whole subject of how mortgages were sliced and diced and ended up as AA rated bonds purchased by the major banks, retirement funds, and other big boys?  What is so difficult to understand about collatoralized debt obligations (CDOs), AA rated tranches of CDOs, mezzanine level bonds, and credit default swaps (CDSs)? The answer is simple.  We aren't supposed to understand.  We are just supposed to get screwed so the bond people could make millions on selling the debt instruments created from the mortgages.  Apparently giving mortgages to people who could not afford them, and would eventually lose their homes was all right as long as somebody made money on the process.  Just hearing an explanation of how mortgages of average home owners in this country were magically transformed into sub prime mortgage bonds that became CDOs is mind boggling.  To make this even more interesting, mortgages of different ratings were combined together in CDOs and, 'presto', came out to have an overall rating of AA.  No investor questioned a AA rating by Moody's or Standard and Poors.  Yes, the ratings agencies were involved up to their necks in the insanity.

In spite of the subject matter, the book has great characters, humor, and some very high paid yet clueless people who should have known better.  If you still have any faith in our bond markets, it will definitely be shaken after reading this book, but read it you should.  We all need to know what really happened to Wall Street that caused it to implode on itself.  After all, they have been bailed out with our money and still used it to pay their big fat bonuses after the meltdown. When is the last time any of us were paid a bonus for screwing up?

Here are a couple reviews of the book:

From Publisher's Weekly

"Although Lewis is perhaps best known for his sports-related nonfiction (including The Blind Side), his first book was the autobiographical Liar's Poker, in which he chronicled his disillusionment as a young gun on Wall Street in the greed is good 1980s. He returns to his financial roots to excavate the crisis of 2007–2008, employing his trademark technique of casting a microcosmic lens on the personal histories of several Wall Street outsiders who were betting against the grain—to shed light on the macrocosmic tale of greed and fear. Although Lewis reads the book's introduction, narration duties are assumed by Jesse Boggs, a veteran narrator of business titles (including Lewis's own 2008 book Panic!). Boggs's rich baritone is well suited to the task and trips lightly through a maze of financial jargon (CDOs, derivatives, mid-prime lending) and a dizzying cast of characters. Lewis returns on the final disc for a 10-minute interview about the crisis's aftermath, including a savvy assessment of the wisdom of the financial bailout and where-are-they-now updates on the book's various heroes and villains." A Norton hardcover. (Mar.) 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

From Bookmarks Magazine

"Michael Lewis has written from the perspective of a financial insider for more than 20 years. His first book, Liar's Poker, was a warts-and-all account of Wall Street culture in the 1980s, when Lewis worked at the investment bank Salomon Brothers. Everything Lewis has touched since has turned to gold, and The Big Short seems to be another of those books, combining an incendiary, timely topic with the author's solid, insightful, and witty investigative reporting. Only the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette criticized what it felt was a rush job of writing and a failure to integrate the individual stories. Few readers will care for the message here (despite laugh-out-loud moments of absurdity), but Lewis is a capable guide into the world of CDOs, subprime mortgages, head-in-the-sand investments, inflated egos--and the big short. However, as Entertainment Weekly points at, if you're only going to read one book on the topic, perhaps this should not be the one."