Sorry for the inactivity. Been twittering and working on other projects. But will be back soon.
Michael Lewis: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
Michael Lewis explains the 2008 financial crisis in the form of a deeply reported and elegantly written parable. He tells the story of a handful of marginal traders who predicted the meltdown and placed their own bets against the system. They made hundreds of millions in the ensuing subprime mortgage collapse, but remained bitter that no one listened to them, and no one is doing anything to prevent it happening again. Lewis closes with a quiet sermon directed at the public, the politicians, the regulators and the Wall Street manipulators. Nothing has been fixed. Nothing has changed. Time is running out.
Alexander Stille: Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic
Brilliant piece of reporting and writing about the heroic efforts of local Sicilian prosecutors to take on organized crime and political corruption. In the U.S., these prosecutors would get elected governor or mayor, in Sicily they get blown up. Read it as part of my ongoing Sicilian researches, which started with Denis Mack Smith's History of Sicily. Have also read Stille's excellent Berlusconi book, The Sack of Rome, which is sort of a sequel to Excellent Cadavers.
Andrea Camilleri: The Shape of Water
The first of more than a dozen Inspector Montalbano mysteries, all set in contemporary Sicily. I visited Sicily for a week last year, and was recently feeling nostalgic, so I tried one of these. As soon as I finished it, I bought the next one, which is endorsement enough. Here's a question: Why do left wing European authors always want to write about society through the eyes of heroic cops? Camilleri, Steig Larsson, Henning Mankell, Per Wahloo... It's an interesting phenom.
Geoff Dyer: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
Is this a highly imaginative novel, a faithful travel memoir, or both? This is my first experience with the Dyer's very popular work, and I'm sold. He's dark, bleak, funny, and strangely uplifting. He's a great reporter, though his ambitions go much deeper than "mere" journalism. A bitter, hack journalist goes to Venice to cover the Biennale and falls in love. Then someone named Geoff goes to Varanasi where he experiences a strange spiritual crisis and, maybe, never leaves. That's the whole book. Not sure why it works, but it does. You figure it out.
George Gilder: The Israel Test
Here's a guilty pleasure. I thought I was pretty pro-Israel, but Gilder is so militant he accuses Jeffrey Goldberg and Alan Dershowitz of being insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state. That's hardcore. But his arguments about Jewish exceptionalism and the importance of the Israeli tech industry to global capitalism (not to mention Jewish contributions to the American economy) are provocative and compelling.
Richard Rayner: A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age
The urban corruption that permeates so many Warners crime films and subsequent noir film classics wasn't inspired by New York or Chicago so much as Hollywood's own backyard. Rayner documents how Los Angeles became a major metropolis during the 20s, with all the dark underbelly that that implies. Raymond Chandler's novels and the Chandleresque film Chinatown were all set during the 30s because the clothes and cars looked better, but in fact the scandals they are all based on took place more than a decade earlier, back when Chandler was still working as a local oil executive.
Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner: SuperFreakonomics
A sequel to one of the craziest success stories in publishing, this time the two Steves are a bit more policy-oriented, prescribing provocative microeconomic solutions to global warming, health care, and terrorism. Small levers, big results. At least that's the idea. But these books aren't popular just because they are smart, or because they are going to change the world; they are popular because they are smart and funny and neatly divided, chpater by chapter, into tasty, bite-size morsels.
Joseph Kanon: Stardust
No, not Neil Gaiman's Stardust. This is a new novel about Los Angeles in 1946, a psychological thriller set amidst the intersecting world of the Hollywood studios and the German emigres who arrived in L.A. after fleeing Hitler. I have no idea why this book didn't get more attention. It's a very fine and original novel. For one thing, I've never seen anyone get the inner workings of a Hollywood studio so well; and the conceit of writing a noir thriller set in Hollywood just as Hollywood was starting to perfect the noir movie genre, is pretty sweet. Of course, the roots of Hollywood noir can be found in German films of the 20s, whose creators emigrated to California, carrying Weimar's chiaroscuro and weltschmerz with them. They also brought their politics, which eventually attracted the attention of the House Un-American Affairs Committee. Complications ensue. You get the idea.
Per Wahloo & Maj Sjowall: The Laughing Policeman
Reread this 70s Swedish classic as part of my deep Swedish mystery massage, inspired by Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This new Vintage edition features an intro by Jonathan Franzen, of all people. He turns out to be a longtime fan.
Henning Mankell: Faceless Killers
Inspired by Stieg Larsson, I read this, the first of Henning Mankell's police procedurals. If you liked the Sjowall/Wahloo Martin Beck procedurals of the 70s, then Mankell's Wallander is a worthy heir. (What is it with Sweden and all these amazing detective novels, all of which seem to become global bestsellers? There have been recent articles in the WSJ and other places trying to explain it, but they focus on the Swedish origins, not the international appeal.)
Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Since the U.S. edition isn't due until mid-2010, I ordered the UK edition of the final volume in the series. As satisfying as the others, and as bittersweet, since there will be no further sequels, Larsson having died at the age of 50 after completing this, his third and final novel. (I note that the UK publisher is Christopher MacLehose, who I met twice while researching articles about Patrick O'Brian and George Macdonald Fraser.)
Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who Played with Fire
Volume two of the Millennium series, the late Stieg Larsson's reinvention of the sophisticated Swedish procedural made famous by writers like Henning Mankell, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, with a few irresistable dollops of Le Carre and Orwell thrown in for good measure. Completely satisfying, wonderfully imagined thrillers. Incidentally, the Swedish film made of the first novel is excellent, but the second, which I watched last night, is just plain bad. I guess the Hollywood remakes planned by Sony aren't as bad an idea as I thought they were when I first heard the idea. Still haven't see the third Swedish film, which is already Torrentable. But it seems that the heavily-plotted second and third volumes may simply be too dense for simple cinematic reduction. Something gets lost. Not sure if Hollywood can do any better.
Thomas Pynchon: Against the Day
As part of my Pynchon research for Wired, I forced my self to finish Against the Day, which I had abandoned midstream when it came out. A truly insane novel: parts boys adventure fantasy, alternative history, science fiction, American labor history, love story. It's a 1000-page nineteenth-century triple decker that takes place in Telluride, Venice, Los Angeles, New York, London, and lost cities deep beneath the surface of the earth... did I mention it is truly insane?
Thomas Pynchon: Gravity's Rainbow
While preparing a piece on Pynchon's Inherent Vice for Wired, I took it upon myself to reread as much Pynchon as I could, including Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow. The first 100+ pages of GR seem as ravishing and original as when I read them in high school in 1973, the year it was published. The book now makes much more sense as a true 60s novel. (That can now be said of all of Pynchon, I guess.) The dumb puns, the paranoia, the drugs, and the Norman O. Brown-style political psychologizing. Much easier to read than it was supposed to be; easier than Joyce, I think, who is clearly a major (if not the major) influence on Pynchon's inimitable style.
Salman Rushdie: The Moor's Last Sigh
Inspired by his latest novel, see below, I dug out another Rushdie classic that had been languishing, unread, on our bookshelf. Possibly his most Bombay-centric novel, which may be why I liked it so much.Because his reputation is over-defined by the success of Midnight's Children and the infamy of the Satanic Verses fatwa, I have to be reminded again and again that Rushdie really is a great all-round writer. The peculiar curse of all superstars!
Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of Florence
Rushdie's latest is an intriguing conceit. He ties the story of Akbar the Great, the Islamic conqueror who wed a Hindu princess and united 16th-century India, to a parallel tale set in Renaissance Italy. Akbar is also the subject of a fantastic recent Bollywood epic, Jodhaa Akbar. The Mughal emperor has become a popular symbol of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation, the utopian dream that runs through all of Rushdie's novels and permeates a lot of Bollywood films these days. It's a charming and strangely moving popular response to to the reality of terrorism and war in India and Pakistan right now.
Jerry A. Coyne: Why Evolution Is True
Hands down, one of the best introductions to evolution available, with special emphasis on the latest scientific advances, especially in genetics and evo devo (evolutionary developmental biology). Coyne is a real scientist, but he writes like an angel. His explanatory powers are positively Gouldian. The book is packaged as merely a polemical rebuttal to the creationist mob, but don't let that fool you. It's science writing at it's very best.
Lee Child: Persuader
This is one of the bestselling Jack Reacher novels that Lee Child has been churning out for years now. I figured I had to try one, and since they were offering it for free on the Kindle (as a teaser to get you to buy a newer one) I gave it a try. These are certainly well-written entertainment machines, but I found Reacher's near-super-human facility for violence and his indestructability a little too James Bond for my taste. But Reacher is certainly an appealing tough guy, and the extraordinarily brutal action is nonstop... if that's what you're looking for.
Richard Price: Lush Life
Miss HBO's The Wire and looking for a fix? Price wrote for the series, and there's a lot of the same feel in this literary procedural set on Manhattan's lower east side. Word of mouth on Lush Life was incredibly high, so I was a tad disappointed. But Price can write, and for nine bucks on a Kindle, the price can't be beat.
Jonathan Rabb: Shadow and Light
I'm always up for thrillers set in 20s and 30s Berlin, and I'm always a little disappointed. Philip Kerr, the best known writer in the genre, just isn't as good as you want him to be, so I was hoping this new entry by Jonathan Rabb would rise to the challenge. He gets the history and the atmosphere (and what's not to like about a subplot featuring Fritz Lang), but Robb eventually loses control of his own convoluted plot, leaving even the most attentive reader scratching his head. Can't really recommend this one.
Barcelona by Robert Hughes
Read while visiting Barcelona for the first time this fall. Hughes always writes like a dream. (Don't believe me? Check out his books on modern art, on Australia, on fishing...) Jennifer was reading Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and between us, we couldn't have been in better hands. The biography of a city is a genre I'm fascinated by. Can you write about a city as if it were a person, discovering its psychology and soul through its history? Short answer: Yes. Barcelona is exhibit A.
The Tree Where Man Was Born by Peter Matthiessen
I read Matthiessen's 1972 classic (originally a series of New Yorker pieces) while hiking and camping in Tanzania this summer. As I read his account of travels in East Africa a generation ago, I realized that, at times, I was in the exact same spot he was writing about. It's a classic of nature writing, deservedly so.
Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown by Paul Theroux
This is the travel book I read after returning from a two week trip to East Africa. Surely, it's the necessary antidote to the tourist tendency to over-romanticize the African landscape while ignoring the dysfunctional political and economic side of things. Theroux lived in Africa during the 60s, a time of great optimism, and is revisiting four decades later. He finds everything worse.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
A sublimely readable thriller set in Sweden. It features the unlikeliest pair of hero-investigators: a middle-aged male journalist and a 25-year-old female computer hacker. What's not to like? There are two more in the series, and the Larsson juggernaut, though already at full throttle in Europe, is still building here. Part of the author's developing legend centers on his sudden death at age 50, just after delivering all three manuscripts to his publisher. This month's Vanity Fair (Dec, 2009) speculates about foul play.
Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy by Lawrence Lessig
Professor Lessig's arguments should be familiar to Wired readers (he's a longtime contributor), but they still need to be made more familiar to everyone else. How many times does he have to explain the fact that technology has changed the rules, that antiquated copyright laws (or worse, draconian new copyright laws) are stifling creativity and holding back cultural and economic progress? This is essential reading for policy makers.
Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Busi- ness by Jeff Howe
What started as a piece in Wired last year is about to be the big business book of the Fall. Watch for it at the end of August.
Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking by Charles Seife
Seife is one of our favorite science writers (he also wrote Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea and Decoding the Universe). He's back in October with a hugely entertaining history of the follies and frauds surrounding the century-long search for cold fusion.There's a talk with Seife in issue 16.10.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Stephenson's first novel since The Baroque Cycle hits stores September 9th. He's one of the few people ever to grace Wired's cover twice, and he's written for us too. I've just started this 900-page doorstop, and I'm definitely in for the long haul. Steven Levy profiles Neal in the 16.9 issue of Wired.