Archive for May, 2010

The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing, by Daniel Bergner   2 comments

Posted at 1:12 pm in Book review

Even very good progressives tend to assume that some topics do not merit  discussion, that there is only one side to the story. That side is often described as evil. Evil has always struck me as a not entirely useful idea: all human behavior is part of a spectrum–even if at the outer limits thereof–and to deny that is to remove the possibility of an explanation, and with it, the possibility of a solution.

Human carnality very definitely occupies this spectrum, and in The Other Side of Desire:  Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing, Daniel Bergner explores some of its further outposts, examining foot fetishists, sadists, pedophiles and amputee fetishes.

While making no excuses for criminal or harmful behavior, he demonstrates that these “devotees” are often driven by extreme and nigh-uncontrollable  impulses.  Bergner manages to show the humanity of people to whom it is often denied, never simplifying or demonizing. Of the paraphiliacs he depicts, only the sadistic fashion designer (of strikingly ugly latex clothes) comes off as wholly unsympathetic.

At the harmless, foot fetish end of the spectrum, he suggests there may be real advantages: people whose desire is intensely focused in one area may have a capacity for a kind of joy that eludes most people. This does not prevent the foot fetishist described in the book from being utterly tormented by his desires. Curiously (and unnecessarily) he appears no less tormented than the pedophiles depicted in a later chapter.

Bergner makes clear that even harmful behavior can be disturbingly close to the normal part of the spectrum. He cites a study in which twenty-one percent of participating men described an attraction to small children, and seven percent said that they would abuse a child if assured of not being caught. This is clearly a far higher percentage of the population than just those convicted of crimes against children.

The definition of perversion has shifted a great deal over the centuries.  Many practices once considered barbaric are now entirely accepted, and vice versa. (Bergner observes that until the late nineteenth century, the legal age of consent was ten.) Bergner believes pedophilia to be harmful, but does not otherwise take a position on the morality of these practices.  The sadistic designer claims that her services to her clients–including, in one extreme case, roasting a man over hot coals–are therapeutic;  Bergner leaves it to the reader to decide whether she is dangerous or merely eccentric. (Either way, she is highly unusual: most paraphiliacs are men.)

Of the four categories, I found amputee fetishes, unexpectedly, the most unsettling.  The ethicist Gilbert Mailaender describes the sense we have of the body as something whole and sacred (Larissa MacFarquhar discussed this in the New Yorker, with reference to the horror many feel at voluntary kidney donation), and I think that this is true. So the paraphiliacs’ explanations don’t quite convince: a preference for amputees does not to me appear equivalent to another man’s preference for blond hair. Bergner’s attempts  to humanize his subjects would have succeeded better here, had he explained–if it is possible to explain–what it is that deadens this instinct in some people.

While occasionally harrowing, and not for the faint of heart, this is a fascinating and enlightening tour of the netherworlds of sexuality–which ultimately suggests that we may all have more in common than we think.

Note: Why is this not more detailed?  Oh please.  My parents might read it!

Written by Lorin on May 28th, 2010

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Double Negative, by David Carkeet   1 comment

Posted at 9:24 pm in Book review

Academia has long been excellent fodder for fiction, from David Lodge to Amanda Cross.  In Double Negative, David Carkeet–somewhere in between these two writers, though less gifted than Lodge and, happily, less cerebral than Cross–draws a highly entertaining picture of a quarrelsome group of linguists who study language development in children. They work at an institute that doubles as a day care center, where they record every utterance of their small charges.

The resident social misfit genius is Jeremy Cook, eternally irritated by his colleagues and convinced that the feeling is mutual.  The colleague who is his chief rival with the female graduate students who arrive every summer draws his particular ire.  Nerdy in the extreme, Cook subsists off revolting but efficient “grunt meals” so as not to lose any research time.

The institute’s uneasy peace is shattered when a linguist dies under suspicious circumstances, and Cook is framed for the murder. As he tries to extricate himself–even occasionally interrupting his studies of toddlers’ use of made-up words–he is distracted by a beautiful graduate student, his irritating colleagues (who appreciate him more than he imagines), and an idiosyncratic police detective.

By the end, Cook–an interesting and likable, if flaky, character–has learned something about relationships, and, mercifully, food. The solution to the mystery is truly original and clever, as is the entire novel.  It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. Double Negative is the first volume in a trilogy: I am looking forward to reading the other two.

Written by Lorin on May 26th, 2010

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Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett   no comments

Posted at 9:13 pm in Book review

Bel Canto–which means “beautiful singing” in Italian–takes place in the grand house of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country. An illustrious and international set of guests has been enticed there by the host country, which has hopes of foreign investment. The guests have ostensibly come to celebrate the birthday of a successful Japanese businessman, but really want to hear Roxane Coss, the most celebrated soprano in the world, sing. (She is strikingly, though apparently accidentally, like Renee Fleming.)

The house is taken over by terrorists, who, frustrated in their attempts to kidnap the President, take the guests hostage instead. Thus begins a long process of terrorists and hostages trying to live together in the same house–and in some cases, coming to respect and like each other. This constitutes what I suspect is a very good depiction of Stockholm syndrome*.

The characters–the Vice President, who comes into his element serving as host to his fellow hostages, terrorists (mostly but not entirely male), a clutch of international businessmen and diplomats, the opera singer, who sings daily, casting a kind of spell over the house, a laconic Swiss Red Cross officer, and a brilliant young Japanese translator, who in admirable-Crichton fashion becomes the most useful and sought-after person in the group–are credibly and fascinatingly drawn, with no one wholly admirable or not. Bel Canto ends in the same vein: not all good and not entirely bad; with opera and tragedy closely intertwined.

*The novel’s events are loosely based on an actual terrorist takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima in 1996. The term “Lima syndrome,” which describes abductors being fond of their hostages, was coined from it.

Written by Lorin on May 26th, 2010

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Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge   2 comments

Posted at 4:24 pm in Book review

Desmond Bates is, on the face of it, a recognizable David Lodge character–a hapless retired professor of linguistics at a fictional northern university–but both he and Deaf Sentence, Lodge’s fourteenth novel in which he stars, are, while still funny, more melancholy than Lodge’s previous work.

Desmond left the university when a departmental reorganization, along with his increasing deafness (which mirrors Lodge’s own hearing loss), made retirement appear to be a good idea. Four years later, he is increasingly restless and plagued by physical problems. By contrast, his wife Fred is running a successful interior design shop; and having updated her appearance to befit an upscale shop owner, she now looks younger and more beautiful than ever. To Desmond, the eight-year gap between their ages–which hadn’t seemed very large–appears to be an ever-widening chasm, exacerbated by the fact that he finds it more and more difficult to hear his wife.

Into this rather fraught situation comes Alex Loom, a graduate student working on the linguistics of suicide notes, whom Desmond has unwittingly agreed to meet. (The novel opens on Desmond pretending to follow what Alex is saying at a noisy and crowded party.) As Desmond becomes her unofficial thesis adviser, she is gradually revealed to be both mendacious and unstable, in a way that threatens to unravel Desmond’s quiet existence.

As the pun of the title suggests, Deaf Sentence makes much of the humor of deafness. Blindness is tragic and deafness comic, Desmond explains, and there are a number of deeply funny situations in which he misunderstands what he is hearing. Milton’s lament: “Oh dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon/Irrecoverably dark, without all hope of day” doesn’t have quite the same pathos when applied to deafness, he notes: “Oh deaf, deaf, deaf, amid the noise of noon…”

But deafness is in fact tragic. Desmond speaks movingly of Beethoven and Philip Larkin’s loss of hearing, and often refers to the similarity between the words ‘deaf’ and ‘dead’, in both wordplay and more serious allusions to the eternal silence that looms over him. Gradually, Desmond achieves a kind of acceptance of both.

Deaf Sentence is not all it could be: the Alex Loom story peters out rather than being resolved more effectively. But it is funny and profound and full of lovely and fascinating allusions to linguistics and art and literature; to my mind, it is Lodge’s most successful novel since Small World.

Written by Lorin on May 17th, 2010

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Some extremely good books that not enough people have read   no comments

Posted at 1:02 pm in Book review

Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World*, by Paul Collins

Paul Collins, whom I first encountered in Believer Magazine, writing about Anna Sewell and Lucy Grealy, here tells a wonderful story of thirteen people who appeared destined for greatness but ended up entirely forgotten.  “Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books,” his account of a year that he and his wife spent in a book-mad Welsh town, is also delightful.

*There’s a longer description here.

Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary, by Bill Holm

This is a magical series of essays on islands real and imaginary that Holm, a Minnesota poet, has visited. “Call Me Island. Or call me Holm. Same thing,” he begins, in one of the most beguiling introductions to an author I have ever read. Eccentric Islands is a wise, funny, warm-hearted masterpiece.

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill

Underhill is a kind of anthropologist of shopping, and this book is both an explanation of how we behave in stores, and an account of his decades investigating consumer behavior.  Deeply fascinating.



Written by Lorin on May 3rd, 2010

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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis   1 comment

Posted at 11:41 am in Book review

Remember that point, in recent years, when we all started to notice something strange? Houses were more and more expensive, interest rates were lower and lower, and most of us knew someone who had no money, but was still given a large mortgage. And then there were all the stories of people buying houses with no money down, and interest-only payments for three years. How exactly were these people expecting to make principal payments in three years? And why was anyone lending them money?

In The Big Short, Michael Lewis explains that all of this was just the tip of an iceberg: an iceberg floating in exceedingly murky water. There were reasons for all of the bad mortgages. The people making the mortgages were selling them, so they didn’t care how bad they were. The mortgages were being bought by companies that bundled them and turned them into bonds—which they were able to sell, so they didn’t care how bad the mortgages were either.

In order to be sold, the bonds had to be rated by one of three rating agencies. In a reasonable financial system, the most ambitious business students would aspire to be rating agency analysts. As it is, these analysts are some of the lowest-paid and least-respected employees in the financial world. The smartest and most talented people on Wall Street are never at the rating agencies. (They tend to become bond traders.) These agencies are paid to rate bonds by the very companies that produce the bonds. As mortgage bonds were a new kind of bond, they needed help understanding them. So the same companies also explained the bonds to the rating agencies. None of this was illegal: in fact, it is standard procedure.

Not surprisingly under the circumstances, a great many of these bonds (which increasingly consisted of utterly worthless mortgages) were rated triple A, the highest possible rating. Bonds consisting of the very worst mortgages received a triple B rating. But financial companies soon realized that triple B-rated mortgage bonds could in turn be bundled into another financial product, a collateralized debt obligation (CDO). Presented with CDOs, the rating agencies tended to give them triple A ratings—which suggested that they were as safe an investment as U.S. Treasury bonds. Shockingly, very few people, at any level of the financial world or U.S. government, understood that the ratings—and the bonds they described—were worthless.

This is a book about many things, but it is particularly a story of incentives, and the calamitous effects of incentivizing irresponsible behavior. In a system in which virtually everyone had an incentive to do the wrong thing, almost everyone did: and almost everyone, from mortgage lenders to the Fed, failed to understand that disaster was imminent. The Big Short describes the very small—and very eccentric—group of people who saw it coming.

The cast of characters begins with Steve Eisman, a socially inept hedge fund manager who turned cynic after witnessing a flagrant case of fraud on which the government refused to take action. Mike Burry is a brilliant hedge fund manager who is virtually incapable of human relationships, a problem which he blamed on his glass eye but turned out to be undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome. Charlie Ledley and Ben Hockett were two rather aimless friends who proved to have an uncanny ability to work the financial markets. Greg Lippmann was a cynical Deutsche Bank bond trader who realized that the market was unsustainable.

They shared a key insight: that the market was going to collapse, and therefore the only safe bet was a bet against it. (To short a bond is to bet that it will lose value.) Michael Lewis rivetingly describes how they first made, and then won, this bet, becoming extremely rich in the process.

Recently–at Politics & Prose Bookstore, at an entertaining event with Michael Lewis–Joel Achenbach said that this book had undermined his belief in capitalism, and asked if we should all become socialists. It was a joke, but it’s also a fair question. Lewis depicts a system in utter disarray, where financial products are too complex to be understood by either buyers or sellers; the agencies in charge of evaluating these products are both under-valued and embroiled in a serious conflict of interest; and there are no incentives to encourage responsible behavior. All of this links the health of the U.S. economy to a large gamble in which virtually no one has any idea what he is doing. It is to be hoped that this book will help foster a movement toward a sane financial system.

Written by Lorin on May 3rd, 2010

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