Thursday, June 10, 2010

Recent Reads - June 2010

The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis

This was a revelation to me, a well researched account of how a large number of US citizens fell out of the frying pan of the Great Depression into the fire of Stalin's Russia. These economic migrants were welcomed and feted initially but soon they began, one by one, to fall prey to the paranoia that prevailed under Stalin. The US embassy washed their hands of those who looked to them for succour - presumably viewing them as traitors for deserting their country. Aside from the great ogre Stalin, the villain of the piece is the US ambassador Joseph Davies who, in addition to ignoring the plight of his trapped fellow countrymen, sent glowing reports back to Roosevelt about the state of the Soviet Empire. Davies attended the Stalinist show trials and alone of all Western observers saw nothing untoward in these farcical proceedings. His main preoccupation was buying up Russian art treasures and shipping them back to the US. A monster of appetite and self-regard.

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

While a lot of this was too technical for me, I think I got the message. And can even explain what a credit default swap is. While the world's economy was going down the toilet thanks to the reckless packaging and selling of sub-prime mortgage bonds, certain clever boys (and they were all boys) were betting against these bonds and making billions from their inevitable failure. The brazen effrontery of the financial institutions who marketed these scrofulous bonds and who, in some cases, also bet against them is a wonder to behold. And we thought we had poor regulation over here. The book is good on the personalities who populate this freakish enclave - a lot of them seem to suffer from Aspberger's Syndrome .

Solar by Ian McEwan

A light-weight comic offering by a man who in his early days suffered from a certain portentiousness. This is an amusing confection for the beach - and why not. In Michael Beard McEwan has created a character to rival Nick Cave's Bunny Munro or Martin Amis's John Self. He's ostensibly a scientist but his glory days are over. His main concern is indulging his appetite for drink, food and women - strictly in that order. The plot is replete with cod science and there's an unlikely murder scenario, but that makes no difference. Enjoy the fun of the set pieces - especially the frozen penis episode. If you don't laugh out loud at that I'll refund your money.

At the Same Time by Susan Sontag

I picked this up at a car boot sale in Dun Laoghaire. I noticed that the flyleaf was neatly inscribed with the signature of Sinead O'Connor. A common enough name of course but I hope she's not down on her luck. Or maybe it was just spring cleaning. This is Sontag's final book of essays published three years after her death in 2004. It contains her famous (or infamous) New Yorker article following 9/11 where she bravely bucked the trend. She's a true intellectual hero who, while sometimes priggish and gratuitously esoteric, expands our horizons and challenges our smug assumptions. The best essay in this book is about Leonid Tsypkin a Russian doctor who wrote just one novel - Summer in Baden Baden. It's a labour of love.