Wendy’s Word

Not your mama’s blog….

The Big Short, by Michael Lewis July 18, 2010

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 8:33 pm

The Big Short is Michael Lewis’ story of the few people who not only predicted the financial crisis we’re now in, but made a fortune betting on it.  Michael Lewis is an entertaining writer.  I enjoyed Liar’s Poker and The Blind Side, and The Big Short is good in the same way.  As in his other books, Lewis introduces us to the characters betting against the market, so we get to know them and even sympathize with them.  At the same time, he educates us about the subprime mortgage market and how those markets were shorted.

Because the very concept of enticing people to take out bad loans just so banks can bundle and sell them and because Lewis does such a good job of drawing out his characters, I found myself wondering whether Lewis’s subjects were good guys or bad guys.  On the one hand, they seem like the good guys.  Regular, albeit very smart, guys who can clearly see that a bunch of no-documentation loans with low teaser rates are going to have a high default rate once the interest rates goes up in two years.  They’re particularly shocked that these funds can get good ratings from the rating agencies, which come off as stupid at best and corrupt in their motivation of greed and self interest at worst.  I was almost rooting for the loans to go bad so our heroes who are basically saying that the emperor has no clothes can be proven right.  But then I remember that these investors are becoming filthy rich off of people losing their homes and I come back to my senses.  It’s one thing to be a whistle blower, but another to capitalize upon the crazy subprime mortgage market, to the point that investment banks were buying bundled mortgages and betting against them at the same time.

Lewis’ book was an informative and enjoyable read.  But because it’s so clear, it makes me all the more angry about what financial institutions will do to make the next buck and the lack of regulation that allows them to do it.

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Ragtime, by E.L. Doctorow July 2, 2010

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 8:46 pm

Never saw the movie, don’t know the musical.  But I did enjoy Doctorow’s other books, Billy Bathgate and The Waterworks, so I thought I should read his best-known novel.  Ragtime intersperses historical figures — Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, and others — with fictional characters.  The early part of the book focuses on the historical figures, particularly the love triangle between Evelyn Nesbit, Henry Thaw, and Sanford White, and introduces us to the fictional characters.  The interaction between the two is fun, although did I really want to read the erotic scene between Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman, the idol of my youth??  Not really.  The story takes off when a black pianist enters the life of the family that the novel centers on.  The pianist suffers an injustice and much action ensures.  As with Doctorow’s other novels, New York City is a character as well, as the novel gives a strong sense of turn of the century New York, from the wealthy businessmen to the downtrodden immigrants living in tenements.  Ragtime was a quick and enjoyable read, and now I can see the movie guilt-free!

 

Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam June 18, 2010

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 10:13 pm
Tags: , ,

You can take the professor out of the university, but you can’t take the university out of the professor.  Or so I thought when reading Bowling Alone, the latest selection for our public health book club.  (and since I suggested it, I have no one to blame but myself!)  Bowling Alone would have been great if assigned as part of a college course, but was a slog as a book to read for pleasure.  However, it made for an excellent book club discussion.

Putnam postulates that social capital, the connectedness we feel with others resulting in an implicit expectation of reciprocity, has been declining over the years, and this has negative consequences for education, employment, health, and democracy.  He has loads of data demonstrating the decline, as well as graphs that show the correlation between civic engagement and positive health and educational outcomes.  He also explores the reasons for decline in engagement, such as two-parent working households (or more specifically, women in the workforce, since women tend to be more socially connected than men), mobility and sprawl, and technology (I love that TV is heavily implicated!  Yes!  I’m finally vindicated for not having cable!).

The “what can we do about it” section was weak.  The suggestions seemed ivory tower to me and not at all realistic.  In fact, the book seemed naive at times, for which the writer was not at fault.  The book was written in 2000, eons ago by technology standards, and social media like Facebook and Twitter (or blogs, for that matter!) were not around yet.  Now, technology serves as a means of social connectedness in a way that it didn’t when the book was written.  This led to a lively book club discussion about whether social media like Facebook really connects us or just connects us in a superficial way that substitutes for actual face-to-face interaction.  (No definitive answer on that one.)

Despite the book’s flaws, it resonated with me.  I’m pretty social and have done my fair share of volunteering.  My volunteer work has put me in contact with lots of people who are now friend/acquaintances (meaning that I don’t have them over for dinner, but we have lovely chats at the farmers’ market or Trader Joe’s) which makes me feel very connected to my community.  I frequently serve as a pollworker (don’t laud my virtue here, my job requires me to do it) and I love the civic aspect of it as well as the social aspect of seeing all my neighbors.  Reading Bowling Alone made me realize that I miss volunteering, so I volunteered last weekend for a music fundraiser at my daughter’s school, and caught up with friends I haven’t seen in a while.  I even scored a party invitation out of it!  I hope that I am serving as a good role model for my children and they will become involved with their communities or causes when they’re older.  (or maybe that’s just a rationalization for not spending enough time at home with them after school!!)

I’m not about to join a bowling league (a la the title, Bowling Alone), but the book confirmed that being connected to friends, neighbors, and my community doesn’t just make me feel good, it’s good for all.

 

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali May 22, 2010

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 9:15 pm

Brick Lane is a beautiful book about fate.  The protagonist, Nanzeen, is born prematurely in a rural town in Bangladesh.  She is expected to die and is left to let fate decide whether she would live or not.  Fate decides in her favor.  The rest of the book is about the struggle over how much Nanzeen should take control of her own destiny or let fate decide for her.  She moves to London for an arranged marriage, and starts out as a traditional Bangladeshi housewife, rarely leaving the house.  She eventually ventures out, into the neighborhood, into the larger city, she gets a job and raises kids, and gets involved with a radical young man.  Tension builds as Nanzeen takes more and more control over her life, while at the same time, wondering whether she is wrong to challenge fate in this way.

Ali draws the world of Nanzeen’s insulated Bangladeshi neighborhood well — we can feel what it would be like to live there.  She also draws her characters well.  Nanzeen’s pompous but hapless husband is not one-dimensional.  His love for his wife and family and his frustration with not being able to succeed despite his educational ambition make him sympathetic and not just a caricature.  The book’s back story is about Nanzeen’s sister who has remained in Bangladesh.  She took control of her fate at a very early age, running away to marry a man she loved rather than enduring an arranged marriage.  Her decisions led her to a very difficult and almost hopeless life in Bangladesh, but in a way, Nanzeen envies her sister’s moxie for making her own decisions.

Although Nanzeen seems bland for much of the book, you will be rooting for her by the end as she faces tough decisions about herself and her family.

 

UCLA Festival of Books May 3, 2010

Filed under: Books,Food — wendy @ 9:37 pm
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Last weekend, I went to the UCLA Festival of Books, and now I feel extremely sanctimonious, like I’m part of intellectual LA.

Every year, I think about going, but I’ve only made it once before, when my now 12-year-old was still in a stroller.  I was worried that it would be mobbed and traffic and parking would be horrible, but it wasn’t bad.  I drove directly to a parking lot, paid my $10, and within minutes was in the midst of the action.

And alot of action it is.  It can be overwhelming.  Smart people check out the schedule in advance (it’s published in the LA Times a week before the festival) and plan out which authors they want to see.  Author lectures cost $1, and there are many book signings as well.  There are also free talks, demonstrations, and live music at the various stages around campus.  But advance planning is not in my nature.  I decided to go spur of the moment, mostly because my daughter wanted to meet some friends and see an author who’s her recent discovery.  I dropped my daughter off with her friends, and then other daughter and I wandered.

Not surprisingly, we ended up at the cooking stage where we saw Mark Peel cook tuna casserole.  I love Mark Peel.  Or I should say that I love his restaurant, Campanile.  It’s my husband’s and my favorite special occasion restaurant.  So I was excited to see Mark Peel, although extremely disappointed that all he made was tuna casserole.  This was not ordinary tuna casserole.  This involved making a tuna confit (c’mon dude, it’s tuna casserole – just open a can), making a roux and adding milk and good cheese.  It’s miles better than using mushroom soup concentrate, but really, it’s not that hard to make homemade mac and cheese (tuna casserole being a variant of mac and cheese).  Since it was hard to see from our front row seat and the sun was in our eyes, we left while the white sauce was still thickening.  So I never got to speak to Mark Peel, which I probably would have been able to do, being in the front row and all.

We then wandered around, and there are booths for the randomest things that don’t seem book-related.  Although I guess L. Ron Hubbard was a science fiction writer before founding dianetics.

My favorite part was showing my daughters around UCLA, since I went there for undergraduate and graduate school many moons ago.  It’s changed alot and I swear that they’ve renamed some of the buildings but I can still find my way around.  And if not, there are volunteers all over the place to help you.

On Monday, a few of my friends said that they had been there, and my daughters’ classmates said they had also been there.  So now I’m convinced that the UCLA Festival of Books is the place to be and I must not miss it.  Maybe I’ll even read the schedule in advance and see a few authors!

 

In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan April 24, 2010

Filed under: Books,Food — wendy @ 1:48 pm

I previously mentioned that I established a book club at my public health job, and that we were going to be reading In Defense of Food for our second meeting.  I thought that was pretty clever, since I frequently read books about food, to combine the food angle with the public health angle.  So imagine my disappointment when I found In Defense of Food to be rather boring and maybe a bit elitist.  However, by the end, the book had me angry and reconsidering how I eat.  My book club colleagues agreed that the book wasn’t the best read in the world but gave us much food (bad pun, sorry) for thought.  Subsequently, I saw the movie Food, Inc., which features Michael Pollan and which covers much of the same ground.

The bottom line of the book and movie is that a few large food agribusinesses have taken over our food supply in ways that we never see, and since we’re not aware of this, there’s very little the common person can do about it.  (This last sentiment expresses my own frustration, not the Pollan’s.  He actually has suggestions for things we can do about it.)  Large corporations’ goal is to produce as much food as they can, as cheaply as possible.  Therefore, fruits and vegetables are not allowed to ripen before being picked, robbing them of nutrients and flavor.  Cows are fed corn instead of their natural grass, which creates an additional market for corn growers and which introduces diseases like e. coli that would not otherwise occur.  Chickens are bred to have huge breasts, satisfying consumer preference for white meat, so they are so large they can barely move.  Wheat is stripped of its nutrients during processing and then vitamins and minerals are artificially added back in to the final products.

My summary is just scratching the surface of what the book and movie have to say.  The food industry has lobbied the FDA so they don’t make recommendations about what foods we should and shouldn’t eat but about what nutrients we should consume.  Talking about “nutrients” and “fat” instead of making direct recommendations about types of food such as meat or dairy makes it harder for people to understand.  Another infuriating fact is that corporations dictate what farmers can plant and what they can’t, placing farmers in legal jeopardy if they save seeds to plant in the next season.

My first reaction was to ask who gave companies permission to rob my food of its natural nutrients?  Even if I eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, I’m not getting the nutritional benefit that I would if they were not mass produced.  My next reaction is that food should be more expensive than it is.  Not that I want to pay more for food.  I often avoid the farmers’ market because I always spend a fortune.  And I won’t even go to Whole Foods anymore.  But I used to think that the high prices were a mark-up — now I realize that the relatively low supermarket prices are a mark-down.  Food is artificially subsidized by being mass produced and through the use of cheap sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup (another boon for corn growers).  Farmers’ market prices more accurately reflects the costs of growing and harvesting food properly.  My final reaction is one of semi-futility.  I have the luxury to buy my produce at the farmers’ market, because there’s a farmers’ market in walking distance of my house every Sunday.  I can afford grass-fed beef and free range chicken.  But so many people, in communities where obesity and diabetes rates are high, do not have access to fresh food and don’t have the money to buy high end food.  So are the agribusinesses right?  Does the subsidization of food make it more affordable for everyone?  As a society, the amount of money that we save on food, we spend on medical care for diseases such as diabetes.  However, those costs are not directly borne by the low income families that have to put food on the table every day.  My gut says mass produced food is wrong, but then again, easy for me to say.

 

Slab Rat, by Ted Heller

Filed under: Books — wendy @ 1:04 pm

The reviews compare Slab Rat to Nick Hornby and Bridget Jones’ Diary.  No and no.  Slab Rat is about Zachary Post, who reinvents himself to get a job at a magazine and whose only goals seem to be to get promoted, marry well, and move up in society.  Even Nick Hornby’s most superficial character, the protagonist in About a Boy, becomes introspective and is able, despite himself, to develop a close relationship with an awkward boy.  Bridget Jones might be superficial, but she’s so self-effacing and funny about it that it’s charming.  Zachary Post has no such charm.

The book that Slab Rat most reminded me of was Then They All Came to an End (reviewed on this blog; see book index) by Joshua Ferris.  Both books deal with absurd office politics in superficial industries (advertising, in the Ferris novel), both have young protagonists trying to succeed in the rat race, both have ice queen bosses, both have characters that threaten to go off the deep end in response to the story’s tensions.  But Then They All Came to an End is funnier, and has situations that anyone who works in an office can relate to.  Also, the main plot line, a company slowly downsizing in response to a bad economy, leaves the reader wondering who’s going to be next.  Slab Rat’s tension has to do with a new wunderkind who comes in and quickly moves up and kills any chance of advancement for the main characters.  Not as interesting.  And the worst part is that the main character is so superficial that I don’t really care that his career is being stymied.