Sunday, June 30, 2013

Street Freak: Money and Madness at Lehman Brothers

by Jared Dillian

An account of the author’s experiences as a trader and, to a lesser degree, the bipolar disorder that got him hospitalized and, ultimately, drove him to leave the industry to become a writer of market reports. Fresh out of the Coast Guard, wearing the wrong clothes and a graduate of the wrong school, Dillian was a fish out of water but soon started getting the respect of his peers with his manic trading, even as his fits of temper and rookie mistakes continue to draw unwanted attention. His account is both brutally honest about his own faults and mental health, as well as a scathing depiction of trader culture. From the mountains of wasted takeout food to the flop sweat and flatulence on the floor, Dillian brings it all to life: the extreme meritocracy where employees are given free rein to do nearly anything to make money, which leads to a shallow culture where dollar amounts are the only standard by which to measure a person’s value, and those with the most money take the least risk.

Dillian has a way with a descriptive line and wry wit: a chief trader is “a walking molecule of testosterone,” the mass exodus to the Hamptons is a useless exercise in sitting through traffic just to “hang around with the same douchebags that I saw at work every day.” Still, to me, by far the most interesting part of the book is Dillian’s account of his stay in a mental hospital after a mental breakdown and attempted suicide. It is only here, taking a break from the endless oceans of trader jargon (which, frustratingly, he never explains), Dillian shows his true self: confused, craving something real, becoming inspired. For most of the rest of the book, Dillian may think he’s lampooning Wall Street, but to me, his misogynistic, egotistical prose shows he’s part of the problem, no different from those testosterone molecules looking down on everyone making less than he does.

four stars

Monday, June 24, 2013

Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year Of Living With Joy

by Susan Spencer-Wendel with Bret Witter

The author, a journalist in Florida and mother of three, was diagnosed with ALS at 44 years old. Deciding that she had about a year of health, more or less, left, she decided to live it with joy and pack it with as much travel, family time, friends, and fun as possible. She takes her Asperger’s son to swim with dolphins, has her 14-year-old daughter try on wedding dresses at Kleinfeld’s (on the premise that she will not live to see the real thing), finds her roots in Cyprus, tries to see the northern lights in the Yukon, and vacations in the Bahamas. She also writes a book, of course, tapping it out with her thumb on an iPhone.

This is an extraordinary journal of positivity, adventure, hope, and love. It’s absolutely tear-jerking in some places, and only a bitter curmudgeon would criticize it. So here I go. First and foremost, this is a family diary; it is a tribute to herself, for her children. I don’t question in the least the need for this tribute for her family, but I’m not sure that there’s a wider purpose here beyond family closure, as there was with the similar The Last Lecture. And I certainly could have been content for her family euphemism for defecation, “stink pickle,” to stay in the family. There’s also a disjointed chronology which means some parts get told twice; surely her co-writer could have tightened this up? Finally, this may be needlessly picky, but Spencer-Wendel seems incredibly na├»ve about a lot of things, which distracts from the book’s main point. How can an award-winning journalist in her forties, a mother of three with a master’s degree, not have ever even heard of ALS or Asperger’s, much less Cyprus’ Green Line? I found that very odd. Okay, heartless criticism over. Spencer-Wendel’s an undeniably brave woman, and her Buddhist-like wisdom (remove needless want, and you remove pain; don’t fear merely possible negative repercussions, but embrace adventure) is inspiring; I’m glad for her that she got a movie and book deal for her family’s security, even if I find the book a bit too personal to be truly affecting.

three stars

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Because Of Winn-Dixie

by Kate DiCamillo

India Opal Buloni (DiCamillo has a fondness for zany names), a preacher’s daughter newly arrived in town, has trouble dealing with the empty space left by her mother, who left the family seven years previously. One day she adopts a stray dog she finds making trouble in a Winn-Dixie. Having an overly attached, inquisitive dog puts India in new situations which lead her to meet some interesting townsfolk, like the good-natured old librarian with plenty of stories, a woman rumored to be a witch (another DiCamillan name: Gloria Dump), and a guitar-playing ex-con pet store clerk. Getting to know these complex characters helps India realize that the “perfect” girl she views from a distance is also dealing with loss and sadness, and the “bullies” she verbally spars with are basically friendly kids.

Deceptively lightweight, it’s a book that deals with deep, important feelings – friendship, loss, hope, acceptance, and new beginnings – in DiCamillo’s usual minimalist prose. I enjoyed this book a great deal and plan on reading it to my class; this is a story of coping with life, not wishing for fairy-tale endings. In the book’s only trace of non-realism, there’s a fictional candy, Littmus Lozenges, which taste sweet but also deeply melancholy for those who have experienced loss. An apt description of the book itself.

five stars

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Night Gardener

by George Pelecanos

The body of a black teen is found with one shot to the head in a community garden. MPD homicide detective Gus Ramone’s own teen son knew the boy, and Ramone is driven to solve the case. Two ex-cops – one who quit under morals charges and one a retired legend – think this murder might be related to a series of killings twenty years earlier in which the victims were all left in gardens, and take it upon themselves to investigate, though they have no authority. In a subplot, a young banger, inspired by the legend of ‘70s bad guy Red Fury (from the Pelecanos novel What it Was), wants to go on a spree that will have people saying his name for years to come – but he may have stolen from the wrong bad guys.

This is another hard-boiled, gritty, seamy-side-of-the-city crime novel from an established master. Engaging, suspenseful, and intricate, this is a page-turner from beginning to end. Phrases I’ve used to sing the praises of Pelecanos’ unflinching prose in earlier novels also apply here: he “creates a grim tableau of the modern city and its culture of poverty, crime, and drugs;” he “delivers the seedy underbelly of DC without rose-colored glasses or glorification;” he “knows DC streets, restaurant culture, the way criminals move and talk, types of weapons, and all the other little details that bring characters and plots to life.” I repeat myself because with every book, he proves again that he can deliver the human side of crime: the problems in the school system that foster cycles of ignorance and violence, the culture of expensive clothes and hyper-masculinity where appearance and reputation are king; the economic disparity; the undercurrent of race resentment, always bubbling near the surface. His minor characters are richly drawn and have an air of tragedy because Pelecanos knows that even drug addicts and gangsters have dreams and goals. In this book, Pelecanos tones down his irritating foible of defining masculinity in his work, though the stupid line “he checked out her backside, because he was a man” (which I found needless in Soul Circus) is here as well, and his nearly defensive preference for voluptuous women results in cartoonishly predictable body shapes for characters, as if this were a Disney cartoon: curvy women, whether wife or whore, have a lust for life and good heart, and slim hips are a near-sure sign that that woman is a humorless prude. I know this is nitpicking; I just continue to find it odd that an author who can bring empathy to killers and corrupt police can’t seem to shake his neurosis about manliness and body shape.

four stars

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Tale Dark And Grimm

by Adam Gidwitz

An amalgamation of Grimm tales, using Hansel and Gretel as the protagonist for nearly all. The brother and sister, here the children of a king a queen, run away from home after discovering their parents have committed a crime against them (though they don’t know the whole story). They arrive at the well-known candy house of the child-eating witch, but when that story ends, their adventures continue, in adaptations of “Brother And Sister” (in which the brother turns into a beast of the forest), “The Devil And His Grandmother,” “The Seven Ravens,” and others. Throughout, Gidwitz inserts his authorical voice to comment, using an ironically exaggerated concerned tone for “little kids” and their delicate sensibilities, warning of gory sections in the book; he also breaks into the story to lecture about bravery and forgiveness and coming through troubles as a better person.

It’s a well-done conceit, this consolidation of several Grimm tales into one shakily linear plot with an over-arching challenge and a resolution. Gidwitz reshapes the stories into suspenseful tales, in which both girl and boy are heroic and brave. I do think he over-uses the third-wall narrative device a bit, but older kids probably enjoy being addressed directly as if over the heads of younger ones. I read this to see if it could be a read-aloud in my class; the answer is unequivocally no. The author is a teacher of first and second graders and seems to think his tales are appropriate for them; I might even give a pass on the gore and violence (some of which is directed at children), but there’s a couple of rather creepy scenes – an evil, charismatic man whom Gretel has a crush on sucks the blood off of her head wound, for example. Yes, so I wouldn’t read this to fourth graders in a school. For older kids and adults, though, it’s a pretty clever horror/morality tale.

four stars