Tuesday, August 23, 2016

BOOKLOG 57: The Big Short

Inside the Doomsday Machine
by Michael Lewis

After Thomas Wolfe there was Tom Wolfe, he of the white suits, writing about modern-day nonfictiony things, including The Right Stuff, on which was based the most excellent movie. After Bonfire of the Vanities, his satirical novel looking at the indulgences, though, I lost track of his work, for one reason or another. Somehow, his fiction just wasn’t as riveting as the nonfiction he wrote.

In the vein of the early Tom Wolfe is Michael Lewis, who’s written riveting nonfiction in the books you may have heard of from the movies made from them (Moneyball? Liar’s Poker? The Blind Side? Aw, c’mon. That last movie won Sandra Bullock an Oscar. You remember). Since I read Moneyball when it was referenced in an interview I was editing, at the magazine I worked at when it was first published (the book, not the magazine), I’ve been a Lewis fan. For someone with little interest in math or Wall Street, I’ve spent a large part of my life involved in both, and surprisingly (or not), reading about both.

Anyway, with The Big Short I actually saw the movie first, for once. The cast was intriguing enough, and the topic a challenge enough (talking about the derivative markets and making it understandable for the movie-going audience? This we had to see), that we had to check it out. And it worked! Complete with the actress of the moment Margot Robbie (you may know her as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, and the second wife in Wolf of Wall Street) in a bubbly bathtub explaining a complex bond tidbit. She was on screen for less than a minute, but it was memorable. (Do I remember specifically what her topic was? Of course not. But I did admire the conceit of having her explain it.)

But that’s not the book. (There are a number of asides like the one with Robbie to explain some detail, but that’s the one bizarre enough to stick.) Lewis explains the primary characters in a great big explosion that occurred on Wall Street—metaphorical, not literal—who at the beginning of the book don’t know each other. Lewis explains each, the characters, their backgrounds, and how they came about to be involved in the meltdown. If you’ve ever read The Bridge at San Luis Rey, in the same manner, you have unrelated folks involved at one moment in time and then, suddenly, they are related, in a way. If you like disaster movies, this is a disaster that doesn’t involve Michael Bay or Irwin Allen. Emotional disasters are a whole ‘nother thing, and Lewis details it all.

If you ever want an example of how getting involved in Wall Street isn’t good for anyone’s health in the long run, this book will make it clear.

Coming up: West of Everything by Jane Tompkins

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

BOOKLOG 56: The Book of Yokai

Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
by Michael Dylan Foster

Those of you who know me know that I co-present a series of workshops looking at myths and legends around the world and how each changes depending on region (for those curious, it’s the “Silk Road and Beyond” workshops, looking at dragons, vampires, werewolves/shapeshifters, angels, demons, ghosts, bigfeet, and even faeries, with “The Seven Seas” entry looking at water myths and creatures). The challenge on occasion has been finding reliable sources of information that doesn’t dip into someone’s gaming lore or comics or some such, all of which are inspired by but doesn’t necessarily adhere to the traditional lore. Fortunately, between my co-presenter Jacquie Rogers and me, we managed to find clean sources.

And only after all those workshops we scrimped and scraped for data did I discover this work. Timing is everything, and I don’t got it! But just in case this can help you, I’ll tell you about Michael Dylan Foster’s book. According to his bio, Foster is an associate professor of East Asian folklore at Indiana University. So he’s got academic chops in the topic (and I am so jealous!). He observes that the Japanese tend to hold their myths and lore closer to their lives than other cultures do, part of their everyday lives, so that in itself shapes the culture.

Foster dives into detail about the differences between two similar examples of folklore, separated by regional differences; considering that Japan isn’t that big a country, it’s remarkable the variations you can suss out if you look, and Foster looks. If you find yourself forgetting the great variations of nature and culture, this book will give you a great big honking reminder. A fun read overall. Highly recommended!

Coming up: The Big Short by Michael Lewis