The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

Paperback, 320 pages
Published November 16th 2015 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published November 2009)
 

 From the author of The Blind Side and Moneyball, The Big Short tells the story of four outsiders in the world of high-finance who predict the credit and housing bubble collapse before anyone else. The film adaptation by Adam McKay (Anchorman I and II, The Other Guys) features Academy Award® winners Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei; Academy Award® nominees Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling.

When the crash of the U.S. stock market became public knowledge in the fall of 2008, it was already old news. The real crash, the silent crash, had taken place over the previous year, in bizarre feeder markets where the sun doesn’t shine and the SEC doesn’t dare, or bother, to tread. Who understood the risk inherent in the assumption of ever-rising real estate prices, a risk compounded daily by the creation of those arcane, artificial securities loosely based on piles of doubtful mortgages? In this fitting sequel to Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis answers that question in a narrative brimming with indignation and dark humor.

…there’s a difference between an old-fashioned financial panic and what had happened on Wall Street in 2008. In an old-fashioned panic, perception creates its own reality: Someone shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater and the audience crushes each other to death in its rush for the exits. On Wall Street in 2008 the reality finally overwhelmed perceptions: A crowded theater burned down with a lot of people still in their seats. Every major firm on Wall Street was either bankrupt or fatally intertwined with a bankrupt system. The problem wasn’t that [they] had been allowed to fail. The problem was that [they] had been allowed to succeed.

I must just have a thing for any work having to do with the “Doomsday Machine” that was our economy at and around the Great Recession. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book–and learned a hell of a lot from it as well, but I also would put Carousel Court, a fictional account of the Great Recession, in my top 5 reads of 2016.

There are 2 major reasons for why I’m so enthralled by this phenomenon that occurred in our country and had ripple effects throughout the world economy: 1) When this was happening in 2007 and 2008, I was in college. Just another undergraduate student with big dreams and small money. I didn’t notice what was going on, as so many around me didn’t, because I was used to living off of Ramen noodles and Red Bull, me and 5 of my friends piling into my sedan to go to parties, then still holding down jobs we hated on top of it all. The struggle was real–and it was normalized at that point in our lives, so, at that time, it didn’t occur to me that what was going on around me was not the norm. But now, in retrospect, with the sharpened eyes and heightened cultural awareness I have now, it enthralls me for another reason too (2): because the greed, stupidity and raging capitalism that brought this country to its knees (only for our taxpaying dollars to bail it out and pick it back up again, of course) is what I came to understand that we are widely known for and understood as the world over during my time living overseas. Not the Recession itself, but the mentality that got us there. To see it here, to experience it as close to the inside as I can be, so many years removed, through Michael Lewis’ The Big Short is to understand what has become our weakness and our strength (depending on who you ask) and a global caricature of our mores, our values and our very personalities: greed to the point of raging ignorance.

Don’t worry, I won’t soapbox here unless you ask me to.

The basic idea here stemmed from what we already know of America: it is a land where quite often the rich do get richer while the poor do get poorer, and, because of that, there opened up a market for subprime lending like a yet-undiscovered sea full of plentiful fish just waiting to be pillaged and plundered by Wall Street and the big banks. Not only that, but the big banks functioned like dope boys, essentially, flipping their profits at the buyers’ expense, destroying their surroundings as they did so–only, these flips yielded billions upon billions, and the companies lost billions upon billions as well. The system was set up to profit from others’ losses: as homeowners went into default, homes were lost and lives derailed, there was always someone else there on the other side of the bet (or swap) to get rich off of their loss by buying and betting on the debts of average Americans.

The subprime market tapped a segment of the American public that did not typically have anything to do with Wall Street: the tranche between the fifth and twenty-ninth percentile in their credit ratings. That is, the lenders were making loans to people who were less creditworthy than 71 percent of the population.

I can’t even go into the ratings companies, Moody’s and S&P, who should have been policing this, but were instead lining their own pockets by selling AAA ratings for fees and looking the other way. And, I won’t even further comment on how the mortgage bond market was born and allowed to grow to the size that the U.S. economy came to depend on its stability, all out of greed and ripping of subprime borrowers. Nope, won’t do it–but what I will do is say that anyone who’s never read this book, anyone who is still scratching their heads and trying to figure out, “What the hell was that about?” should pick up this book and read it.

Not only was it a phenomenal read–wholly entertaining, comedic even–but it was also very insightful. I guarantee you, love this country though we do, you’ll understand the next time you’re abroad and you get the side-eye glance from the natives. Our reputations precede us, and this is only one of a million reasons why. An easily earned, happily given 5 stars. *****

*To see more reviews, follow The Navi Review on Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour and on Twitter @thenavireview

Michael   LewisMichael Lewis, the best-selling author of Liar’s Poker, The Money Culture, The New New Thing, Moneyball, The Blind Side, Panic, Home Game, The Big Short, and Boomerang, among other works, lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and three children.

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Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Paperback, Reissue, 256 pages
Published February 6th 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1952)

“…that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption…there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar…”

Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, a recently discharged twenty-something war vet who returns home to Tennessee to find the town abandoned and his childhood home dilapidated and deserted. So, he leaves the town behind and takes a train to Taulkinham, where he meets the crude, ignorant and possibly OCD/mentally ill Enoch Emery. Together, they encounter a blind preacher turned sometimes street beggar, Asa Hawks, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath (her name in itself an ironic play on the themes of this novel). Motes becomes entangled with the Hawks’ as he embarks on the notion of atheism and—fully embracing it partially out of resistance to Asa Hawks’ idea that Motes needs to repent for his sins—starts his own church, the Church Without Christ. As he starts preaching his message of salvation through truth from the nose of his old car, he encounters a street-preaching swindler, Hoover Shoats, who steals Motes’ idea of the Church Without Christ and uses it to get rich, also preaching a varied version of that message on the streets, which effectively pushes Motes out of his own market and idea. When he finds out that Asa Hawks is also a crook, he takes up with his daughter, who proclaims of him:“I said look at those pee-can eyes and go crazy, girl! That innocent look don’t hide a thing, he’s just pure filthy right down to the guts, like me. The only difference is I like being that way and he don’t.Soon after, Motes’ disillusionment starts its descent into completeness, as a series of events pushes him to enraged murder and finally to self-mutilization and recluseness. Meanwhile, Enoch Emery’s story line branches off into him becoming enamored with, and then literally turning into, a gorilla, which came off as a little slapstick in its presentation and fell flat for me as a whole.

Wise Blood seemed to hit the ground running toward something definite and profound from the very first page. Rushing toward an abandoned home in Tennessee, then rushing toward Hazel Motes’ warped coming-of-age prophecy of atheism and a “new jesus” (yes, lowercase). O’Connor hit on salient, hard-hitting moments of ironic verity and outright cultural authenticity in true Southern Gothic fashion: Christianity versus atheism in the post-war South, Christian hypocrisy, redemption, isolation, and coming of age. In that way, it had its moments of dazzling literary insight. The characters were, for the most part, well realized, each offering a necessary ingredient to this Gothic tradition. And yet.

A little-known fact of this this novel is that it was originally not a novel at all but a collection of short stories (published in various publications). The first chapter of Wise Blood was an expanded version of Flannery O’Connor’s Master’s thesis, and several of the other chapters were reworked versions that she revised so that they could all fit together as a novel. Hence, Wise Blood was born, but the thing is, it didn’t work 100% as a fluid work of literature. For the most part, it did. For the most part, this novel read as a cohesive story with fully realized narrative arcs and satirical if not poignant realizations throughout. Yet, Enoch Emery’s character dragged down the latter part of the novel, because the short story that he derived from, “Enoch and the Gorilla,” did not fit with the theme of the rest of the novel. It felt disparate, like it didn’t belong, which, of course, is true since it was originally a separate short story, but it should not have felt that way to the reader.

O’Connor’s use of vernacular was spectacular.

The sense of setting was complete.

And yet, though we make a habit of saying here in the South, “One monkey don’t stop no show,” in this case, it certainly did. 3.5 stars ***

11/22/63 by Stephen King

11_22_63_Stephen King

 

Hardcover, 849 pages
Published November 8th 2011 by Scribner

Stephen King’s 11/22/63 was a behemoth of a work with more layers than a Chicagoan in December. The premise in itself was exhilarating, and the execution was near flawless. Another chef-d’oeuvre from Ole’ Uncle Stevie. This one was a novel that absolutely could not have been tackled by just anyone and may have fallen flat on its face if handled by a less experienced craftsman. The worlds on both sides of the time-travel line were utterly realistic, but where King really showed his masterful hand was with the threads throughout the novel that wove it all together, from the Yellow Card Man to the janitor’s father to JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald themselves. No character was superfluous, and despite the massive word count on this one, there wasn’t a single phrase that was either. Even characters who were fleeting left their mark, shocking me, tickling me, and provoking thought along the way.
The jargon that King used to color the various neighborhoods and scenes from Maine to Florida to Texas was deliciously realistic—he has a knack for that and it was on full display here—and I felt that I was fully immersed in the world that he painted. This one gave me goosebumps in more than one place and food for thought in several others. And, refreshingly, King resisted painting the 50s as a happy-go-lucky time of just sock-hops and poodle skirts and gave the 60s the gritty air that it deserved. He infused this glimpse at this time period with realistic strokes of segregation and poverty in his portrayal—truly showing us the world through King-colored glasses. 11/22/63 shifted voices between characters in an effortless way that’s hard to execute. From backwoods Maine lingo to deep Southern vernacular, the voices were masterfully done and the characters were all fully realized. There are biblical references and historical facts—and distortions of them that allowed for his own creative riff on the past—Gothic elements galore and grit. True, unflinching grit.
This one came full circle in various parts of the novel, not just in the end in that formulaic way that we are all oh-so-familiar with, showing how all of the pieces connected hand-in-hand to tell one larger story. Quite the narrative tool for building suspense and tension. I’ll admit that there were times when the full-circle aspect of this one hit me too squarely on the head, when it was too dead on, towards the end, and that pulled me out of the world briefly while I wrestled with my annoyance at being dowsed with that unnecessary, cold splash of water. But the sheer gravity of this novel and unimpeachable hand that resonated through to the very last page overrode those small annoyances. I resist giving this one 4 ½ stars to pay for that annoyance that I experienced, because the rest of the work was so masterfully done that it would honestly border on being petty. JIMLA! Five stars *****