The Bamboo Stalk

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“My name is José. In the Philippines it’s pronounced the English way, with an h sound at the start. In Arabic, rather like in Spanish, it begins with a kh sound. In Portuguese, through it’s written the same way, it opens with a j, as in Joseph. All these versions are completely different from my name here in Kuwait, where I’m known as Isa.”

This novel by Saud Alsanousi started off a little slow for me, but after about sixty pages it caught hold and became compelling. It is an émigré novel:  about cultural displacement and the failure of socio-economic acceptance. José or Isa, is a mulatto. The son of a wealthy Kuwaiti father and his Philippine maid mother, who while in the employ of this leading Kuwati family, unusually, but temporarily, becomes a wife. As the marriage would create a scandal, there is a quick divorce, forced by his father’s mother. His father vows to support Isa and to have him return to Kuwait when he is older. Like the author, Isa’s father was a journalist and activist. He is killed during Iraq’s invasion and temporary conquest of Kuwait.

” I was more like a bamboo plant, which doesn’t belong anywhere in particular. You can cut off a piece of that stalk and plant it without roots in any piece of ground. Before long the stalk sprouts new roots and starts to grow again in the new ground, with no past, no memory. It doesn’t notice that people have different names for it – kawayan in the Philippines,  khaizuran in Kuwait, and bamboo in many places.”

At first Isa believes he can find comfort and acceptance through religion. He explores Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. He found that he did not need icons or miracles to find faith.

“Religions are bigger than these adherents. That’s what I’ve concluded. Devotion to tangible things no longer matters as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to be like my mother, who only pray to a cross, as if God lived in it. I don’t want to be like one of the Ifugao and never take a step unless it is sanctioned by anito statues, which help my work prosper, protect my crops and save me from evil spirits at night. I don’t want to be like Inang Choleng, tying my relationship to God to a favourite statue of Buddha. I don’t want to seek baraka from a statue of a white horse with wings and the head of a woman, as some Muslims do in the Philippines.”

The novel is not flattering to Kuwait, particularly its upper social strata. They are trapped more by their maintenance of their social status than by their religion. The author does not paint them with one brush. There are differences, but in the end, the country remains insular. It suffers from passively created wealth. There is a secular shallowness from drilling, in spite of, or compounded by, strong religious beliefs. José ultimately finds his humanity in himself, despite Isa’s disillusionment with his Kuwaiti dream.

This novel was the recipient of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It was translated by Jonathan Wright. It is worth your time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A God in Every Stone

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Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone is a beautifully crafted work of literature that captures the history of conquest, exploration, and colonialism from Darius to Gandhi. The venue is Peshawar, prior to and after the First World War, when it was part of India and under British colonial rule. For Vivian Rose Spencer, an intrepid English young woman who has been taught archaeology by her much older Turkish/Armenian mentor and subsequent surreptitious husband, the holy grail becomes the search for a circlet of figs given by Darius to the ancient Greek explorer Scylax and lost to history since 334 B.C. According to Herodotus, Darius I had Scylax explore the Indus river to determine where it reached the sea. Scylax set out from Caspatyrus, which is now near Peshawar, but then Pactyike. Upon reaching the sea he sailed across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea and then returned to Darius. Southwestern Turkey, called Caria at the time of Scylax, was captured by the Hecatomnids. They treated the Circlet as a prized possession and stamped its image on their coins. In 334 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Caria.

Separated during the First World War, Tahsin Bey, Ms. Spencer’s husband, writes her that the  Circlet might be in Peshawar. She travels there and develops a life-long relationship with a young boy, Najeeb, who becomes her local guide and secret archaeology student. His education by Ms. Spencer becomes problematic for Najeeb’s mother, as a Pathan would not be alone with a woman and Najeeb was ignoring his Islamic teachings. Najeeb’s brother Qayyum, a loyal soldier to the Crown as a member of the 40th Pathans, returns home from England where he learned the prejudice of colonial Britain toward its Pashtun, Dogras and Punjabis soldiers while recovering in an English hospital after a war injury. The drama of the novel is captured by the disintegration of colonial India through the peaceful revolution of the Congress Party under Gandhi, as played out in Peshawar by Ms. Spencer, Najeeb and Qayyum.

The author imparts the cultures, prejudices, and landscape of Peshawar throughout the novel. On his initial guide through Peshawar Najeeb takes Ms. Spencer down all the lanes of the city: the famed Street of Storytellers, the Street of Dentists, The Street of Potters, The Street of Money-Changers, the Street of Partridge Lovers.

“The Street of Englishwomen?’

“They buy and sell Englishwomen there. We will try to avoid it”

“Take a detour through the Street of Inventive Guides if you must”

“He looked delighted to be caught out, and she found she was delighted to have been teased.”

She learns that he speaks Pashto, but at home they speak Hindko.

“We are more Peshawari than Pathan, but we’re also Pathan. Buy everyone here speaks both Hindko and Pashto and many people Urdu and also English and every language of the world someone here can speak. This is Peshawar.”

Ms Shamsie’s novel is a tapestry upon which a page-turning story rests. It was shortlisted for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015, because it has a bevy of strong English and Peshawari  women breaking free from the mores of their time and religion.

I was originally searching for Ms. Shamsie’s previous novel Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction. I will look for that novel even more now. This exquisite novel is a very worthwhile read.

 

 

 

 

 

Parrot & Olivier in America

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Peter Carey employs Parrot, an orphan boy saved by servitude to French nobility, and Olivier, a fictionalized Alexis de Tocqueville, to recreate his life and to create a vignette from his Democracy in America. It juxtaposes the cultural and religious prejudices of French aristocracy with that of the nascent American mercantile and gentleman farmer class of the 1830s. Olivier, a product of inborn status in France, becomes supplicant to the entrepreneurial Parrot, who ostensibly acts as his Secretary, while being paid to spy on Olivier by Olivier’s mother in France. The overriding theme is that America offers upward mobility, while France can’t evolve from the upheaval of the French Revolution, Napoleon and the Second Revolution. Olivier, like de Tocqueville, came to America on the pretext of examining America’s penal system. This permits a peak at the underbelly of America, through its prisons and Parrot and his painter wife’s climb up the economic ladder.

Carey captures the aristocratic ambivalence of de Tocqueville toward the will of the majority in America. For him, it creates a race to the bottom, both politically and culturely. He feels that Parrot’s wife’s art is plebeian, unworthy of some acclaim she receives in America. Politically, he presages the Age of Jackson. Parrot, on the other hand, sees America, like himself, as a work in progress. America of the 1830s is optimistic, France is not.

“Yes, and you will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals, the only theatre gaudy spectacles, the paintings made to please that vulgar class of bankers, men of no moral character, half-bourgeois and half-criminal, who will affect the tastes of an aristocracy but will compete with each other like wrestlers at a fair, wishing only to pay the highest price for the most fashionable artist. Do not laugh, sir. Listen. I have traveled widely. I have seen this country in its infancy. I tell you what it will become. The public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare.”

There is some truth to Olivier’s soliloquy, but it was too early to for him to witness the impact of immigration on America.

The novel is an entertaining read, that remains as truthful to the portion of de Tocqueville’s life that it captures. Through well-drawn characters it reflects the time and place of the period in France and America. It would be a good companion to Democracy in America.

 

Dictator

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In the last book in Robert Harris’ Ancient Rome Trilogy, Dictator, captures the House of Cards that was Rome in the period beginning in the last half of 1 BC. The Dictators are Gaius Julius Caesar, Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) and Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian (aka Augustus), following the failures of the  first (Caesar, Pompey and Marcus Crassus) and second (Octavian, Antony and Marcus Lepidus) Triumvirates. The novel is drawn from Cicero’s secretary Tiro imagined biography of Cicero during the final fifteen years of his life. It is principally political fiction, focusing on Cicero as statesman and lawyer and not as philosopher. The focus is on Cicero, the Republican savior. The biography is after Cicero served as Consul and instituted martial law to avert the overthrow of the Republic and his assassination by the Catiline conspirators. In an ironic twist, it is Caesar who argues for life imprisonment of the conspirators, fearing the precedent that Cicero and the Senate would set by instituting the death penalty without any judicial intervention.

History is replete with familiar and political intrigue, so the backdrop for this historical fiction makes the novel a political thriller. The prose is modern prose. This is not literary fiction. The intent is to reveal the history and the politics in a fast paced novel, and in this it succeeds. The historical base for the biography is Plutarch’s Parallel Livers  (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Cicero*.html

Plutarch drew upon the discovery of Cicero’s letters. Dictator adds imagined dialogue to the history. As with Plutarch’s Lives, this novel is also a study of human characters on a world stage.

The novel is a reminder that hypocrisy is a function of power. It would be an excellent companion to a secondary school course covering ancient history. If you enjoy history or politics, you will find it entertaining.

Falling Man

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This iconic photo by Richard Drew of the Associated Press captured an unidentified man falling from the North Tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11. It is estimated that at least 200 people followed suit that day. Even for those who did not witness the event, the image is seared in the mind. That morning as I was walking away from the WTC area on Water Street, there was a woman in near hysterics. She had actually saw these falling people. The terror in her eyes remained with me when I saw the this photo published in the New York Times. The image raises so many questions.

“Falling Man” by Don DeLillo, is part aftermath, part performance art. The latter is a man who unexpectedly turns up in New York City in a reenactment of a man falling from heights as onlookers watch believing he will die. Unseen until the act is done, he is tethered inelastically. He incurs bodily damage by doing so, but he is not in search of notoriety.  His personal history is unknown.

The principal is Keith, an employee who worked in the WTC and survived. He goes to his estranged wife Lianne and his son Keith immediately after leaving the scene.

“When he appeared at the door it was not possible, a man come out of an ash storm, all blood and slag, reeking of burnt matter, with pinpoint glints of slivered glass in his face. He looked immense, in the doorway, with a gaze that had no focus on it…. She turned off the TV set, not sure why, protecting him from the news he’d just walked out of, that’s why, protecting him from the news he’d just walked out of, that’s why, and then went into the kitchen.”

Life, mortality and God are looked at from different viewpoints. Keith is not resurrected. He revels in his isolation, becoming a semi-professional itinerant poker player. Lianne half-heartedly believes in maintaining the family even in an atomic state. Her mother, Nina, a moral hypocrite, never believed in Keith and warns against him. Justin, still in elementary school, with his peers detach from adults and search the skies. The perspectives of the terrorists are also considered.

“But the system doesn’t justify this. Islam renounces this,” he said.

“If you call it God, then it’s God. God is whatever God allows.”

Lianne looks at pictures of old passports framed on Nina’s wall. Her married boyfriend, an art dealer, gave them to her.

“There was something in the premeditation of these photographs, the bureaucratic intent, the straightforward poses that brought her paradoxically into the lives of the subjects. Maybe what she saw was human ordeal set against the rigor of the state. She saw people fleeing, there to here, with darkest hardship pressing the edges of the frame.”

Lianne, first flails against her arab neighbor. Subsequently she seeks out a mosque.

“She ran early mornings and came home and stripped and showered. God would consume her. God would de-create her and she was too small and tame to resist. That’s why she was resisting now. Because think about it. Because once you believe such a thing, God is, then how can you escape, how survive the power of it, and was and ever shall be.”

Don DeLillo is one of America’s best authors, but this is the first novel by him that I have read. A new novel by him will be released this May.

He is an interesting writer and this is an a good book that realistically describes 9/11 and the period thereafter.

 

Ways of Going Home

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I had been looking forward to read Alejandro Zambra. He is appreciated by his Latin American peers who have created a beachhead in the U.S. market. I heard a few of them at the Brooklyn Book Fair last Fall. Unlike Valeria Luiselli, whose novel I recently reviewed, Mr. Zambra’s command of English is fairly weak, so “Ways of Going Home” is translated by Megan McDowell.

These young novelists are trying to convince U.S. publishers that magic realism is not what is written nor read by most authors and readers in Latin and South America. What I have noticed about this cadre of writers is that their works often contain references to works by their peers. The few works by them that I have read are also partly autobiographical.

This is the case with “Ways of Going Home”. It is a novel about relationships during and after the Pinochet regime in Chile. The principal relationship is between the narrator, an unnamed boy of 9, and Claudia, a 12-year-old neighbor. She has him spy on her uncle Raul but does not tell him why. The boy remains infatuated with her and when they are adults their relationship is reignited. The boy, now an adult novelist, also tries to rekindle his relationship with his ex-wife and muse, Eme. The back drop of the novel, is the impact that the Dirty War years had on familiar relationships. Although the author claims the novel is not a love story, its stronger elements are his insights about relationships.

His better known novel is “Bonsai”, which earned him the best novel Chilean Critics Award. Part of “Ways of Going Home” had appeared in Granta. I found this surprising as it is a novella in size. The book was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a very reputable publisher. Given this, I was surprised to find an editorial error. Dialogue is repeated nearly verbatim on pages 64 and 109. It is not stylistic.

Although Mr. Zambra is a capable writer, I felt that he was going through the motions in writing this novella. It is not a bad novel, but I felt that he was turning out a product to please his publisher. It is a decent quick read, but I think he should demand more from himself.

Tremor of Intent

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Two young boys from Protestant England are deposited on scholarship at a mostly day Catholic school in Bradcaster on the eve of World Water II. Roper, irreverent in his search for a unified theory of creation, is matched by the socially mature Hillier, in a challenge of Catholic orthodoxy at the school. The first chapter of Anthony Burgess’, parody of spy novels, is unfortunately the best. Roper, to the displeasure of Father Beauchamp, challenges God and breaks down the Eucharist into its molecular structure.

Unfortunately the War intervenes. Hillier making use of his Slavonic language skills joins her Majesty’s intelligence service. Roper is sent off to Germany to fight and develops an affinity for all things teutonic. Reflecting Russian infiltration of England’s spy network, Hillier ultimately defects to Russia during the Cold War. It is up to Hillier, in his last assignment before retirement, to return Roper to England.

The parody is more of Ian Fleming spy novels, then of Le Carre. Written in 1966, the novel feels a bit dated. As one reviewer noted, in writing a satire, Burgess wrote a mediocre spy novel. After the first chapter the humor is flat, and as a satire, there is no suspense.

Read the first chapter for a laugh, then find another book to read.

The Miniaturist

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Jessie Burton’s wonderful novel opens with a brilliant description of Protestant, capitalist Amsterdam in 1686. It is a high period for the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Johannes Brandt is one of the most successful of these merchants, conceivably earning 40,000 guilders a year. He takes as a bride, a much younger country girl with a good family name but no assets. Petronella Oortman is the main character in this novel, which is flush with principal female characters. After their marriage, Johannes buys Nella a miniature doll-house. She initially finds it belittling, but it is no insignificant present.

This doll-house is based on the real cabinet house of Petronella Oortman which is in The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The historical Mrs. Oortman was a wealthy widow. The cabinet house with 700 miniatures which real Johannes Brandt owned was purportedly priced sell to Peter the Great for 30,000 guilders. He found it too expensive and declined.

The novel has an appendix that provides comparable prices for goods and services at that time. A string of diamonds would be valued at 2,000 guilders. Even for a wealthy merchant, the fictional Mr. Brandt was making an extravagant gift to his new bride.

This novel is a page-turner, with many twists and well drawn characters. Some of the twists may be more modern than what would be expected in one household, but it is not beyond possibility. The interplay of wealth and organized religion, fundamental beliefs and prejudices, are thematic without interfering with the flow of the plot.

Ms. Burton is a gifted story-teller and this is an enjoyable book to read.

After the Music Stopped

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Two events of my life linger with me. One is 9/11 and the other is the financial crisis of 2008. For the first I watched a plane bank over New York harbor and followed it all the way into Tower II. For the second I watched on TV, while I was on business in Zurich, Congress deciding whether to approve TARP. On the one hand I knew U.S. taxpayers were saving scoundrels. On the other hand I knew it had to be passed otherwise the world economy would plunge into a depression. Like many Americans I swallowed hard and hoped Congress would do what was necessary.

Earlier that Fall I had attended an annual M&A Conference at a major NYC law firm. It draws major players in the insurance industry and on that day many had returned from a meeting with the government about providing the initial bailout of AIG. They were given a loan with interest that had too many points above Libor. The Libor rate was spiking as there was no trust left in the markets. I ran across the head of the law firm’s insurance section and he smirked when I asked them whether the intent was to drive AIG into bankruptcy. Unlike the banks, there was no moral hazard involved in loaning to the AIG holding company, although Warren Buffett did provide support to Swiss Re (which also dabbled in the same markets as AIG) and Munich Re. Subsequently, Hank Greenberg, the dethroned fabled head of AIG, sued the Federal government, ostensibly because the government was using AIG to help fund other bailouts. Many of the bailouts were of foreign banks (who did not take a haircut). There was some truth to Greenberg’s belief, particularly after Lehman, whose bankruptcy the author believes was a defining moment in the crisis and a major error on the part of the Fed and Treasury.

I have not read any other books about the 2008 financial crisis besides Alan Blinder’s “After the Music Stopped”. I have no point of comparison. The book provides a good survey of the crisis for laymen, particularly offering a basic understanding of monetary policy. I commend that you read “The Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World” as a companion read. It discusses the role of Central Bankers in the period leading up to the Great Depression. It is a cautionary tale for today, particularly because Fed Chairperson Yellen has not ruled out negative interest rates by the Fed (deflation was a concern during the job-loss recovery after the 2001 recession). Reading “The Lords of Finance” makes me wonder whether Chairman Bernanke was truly a student of the Great Depression, or if he chose to look away, as the Fed doled out funds without strings attached to major money center banks.

The best parts of the book are in the lead up to the bailouts, rather than the aftermath of remedies. The author does not name one perpetrator of the crisis or of the slow recovery. There are many.

The house of cards began in the 1990s and continued through 2007. It was based on “asset-price bubbles, exaggerated by irresponsible leverage, encouraged by crazy compensation schemes and excessive complexity, and aided and abetted by embarrassingly bad underwriting standards, dismissal performance by statistical rating agencies and lax financial regulation.” The author was Vice-Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors from 1994-96 and a member of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors.

The reason for financial crisis are generally the same: too much leverage (without requisite collateral/capital); insufficient transparency; and not enough time to combat irrational contagion (insufficient circuit breakers). At the meeting I attended at that law firm, the concern of all the players was that they all had too many conflicts of interest. They were afraid of being sued. These fears were necessarily ignored, as was the law, as rationales were spun from air. The Fed first expanded its reach using Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act to make emergency loans to “any individual, partnership or corporation” under “unusual and exigent circumstances”. It went beyond this to buy from J.P. Morgan a portfolio of mortgage assets that the bank felt was too risky to hold for its shareholders. Then came shareholding of AIG, through Fed and Treasury action. Then the use of the Exchange Stabilization Fund (meant for stabilizing the U.S. dollar in the currency markets) to support money market funds after the “buck had been broken”. This was critical because losses at money market funds was causing a crisis in commercial paper (short-term borrowing by corporations to meet cash flow needs). A collapse of the commercial paper market would transfer the crisis Wall Street to Main Street, as did the near collapse of GM.  Crises demand action. Players “expanding” the law know there is more personal safety through collective action. Means and  results are necessarily ugly in a crisis.

Government remedies were often callous; protecting the balance sheets of the debtor financial institutions and the ultimate returns of the U.S. government, rather than those homeowners subject to foreclosure proceedings. There were no “haircuts” (principal reductions) on the mortgages. Any discount was marginalized. Reduced interest payments were delayed, but with recoupment through balloons in the end. Courts were not aggressive in holding the banks accountable for their transgressions. Regulators ultimately penalized these institutions through fines, but most of these went into state coffers, rather than to homeowners. Shareholders of these institutions (and some insurers) bore the cost of these fines, not the executives who walked away with often walked away with large bonuses, even though they bore paper losses on stock options.

The book is replete with interesting historical facts and statistics. From 1991 to the 1st quarter of 2007 losses on mortgages were flat (mostly a .25 loss rate save for 2001 when it rose to .5). Between 2007-09 it spiked to about 2.75%. Mortgage backed securities were often modeled on 3 years of default data which was insufficient (subprime mortgages grew from 7% of all mortgages in 2001 to 20% by 2005, and only 20% of these were issued by regularly supervised financial institutions). Such models failed to account for catastrophic spikes (so-called fat tails). But even these default spikes should not have led to catastrophic cascading panic without excessive leverage in the markets. Derivatives (particularly CDS, most of which were naked and not hedges) contributed to this. Banks were under-capitalized as well (even today, if banks had to hold capital equivalent the percentage of collateral often asked of consumers of home mortgages they would not survive).

While I believe that for better or worse, those who worked to try to right the ship under extraordinary pressures and time constraints are all heroes in terms of personal sacrifice, there is only one regulator that stands out as being close to a hero in actual terms. This was the head of the FDIC, Sheila Bard. She tried to put teeth into loans and was generally rebuffed or ignored by the Fed Chair, the Secretary of the Treasury, and other boys in the club. There was plenty of  subterfuge to go around. Secretary Paulson pulled a bait and switch on Congress, who believed TARP was to be used to inject capital into the banks and to help distressed homeowners. There was no such language in the 451 page Bill that created Tarp. In lieu of such capital language the Bill Congress passed allowed the Treasury Secretary, after consultation with the Chairman of the Fed, to purchase “any other financial instrument that the Secretary… determines the purchase of which is necessary to promote financial market stability.” Capital was injected into the banks without strings attached and they did not loan nor modify principal on toxic assets (syndication of these assets made it more difficult to do). All real estate is cyclical, so Congress directly purchasing these toxic assets at their low might have been a better investment for taxpayers and provide more relief to homeowners rather than as TARP funds were employed. Nonetheless, TARP itself was an illusion. Although $700 billion was authorized, the most ever disbursed was $430 billion, and at any one time no more than $360 billion was outstanding. Treasury and the Fed also did the same with the TALF program, which had a limit of $1 trillion, but only used $70 billion. A bit of smoke and mirrors to alter perception and create confidence. Unfortunately, foreclosure mitigation never saw much money at all. In the end the TARP $700 billion did not cost the U.S. taxpayers money, although this is not likely heard in political circles (it was authorized to be 4.7% of GDP, but never lent out more than 3%, and returned all principal with interest). Was it misdirected- little doubt.

The book delves into the first Quantitative Easing program by the Fed, Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule, stress testing of the banks, SIFIs, the various weak government foreclosure “mitigation” programs, and the Euro problem.

What is more telling for the near future are CBO’s US debt projections in October 2000 which shows the impact through 2070. It then showed the US going into deficit depending on whether the surplus at the time was saved in whole, in part, or not at all. This is the entitlement debate. It is a story about bad stewardship of government funds causing the depth of future deficits owing to demographic changes. Equally, interesting is that the Feds independence was political cover for Congress during the crisis. Congress was too slow to act and lacked the will. The Fed’s borrowing did not technically add to the government’s deficit, because banks technically own the shares in the Fed. Despite all the posturing those in Congress who wish for control over the Fed, should read this book and be careful what they wish for. Accounting is a form of alchemy.

All that truly happened during and after the crisis might be for historians to uncover, if any paper trails are left to be found. This book is an informative read and an interesting survey of the period, even if you lived through it.

The Story of My Teeth

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“As with any story, this one begins with the Beginning; and then comes the Middle, and then the End. The rest, as a friend of mine always says, is literature: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics. I don’t know what comes after that. Possibly ignominy, death, and finally, postmortem fame.”

Valeria Luiselli’s creative novella “The Story of My Teeth” is the imagined biography of the self-described world’s best auctioneer, the memorable Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, otherwise known as Highway.

“I explained that what I meant was that I could tell stories whose degree of deviation from the value of the conic section of their related objects was greater than zero. In other words, as the great Quintilian had once said, by means of my hyberbolics, I could restore an objects value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth.’ This meant that the stories I would tell about the lots would all be based on facts that were, occasionally, exaggerated or, to put it another way, better illuminated.

It is unclear why Ms. Luiselli had this novella translated into English by Christina MacSweeney. I saw her read from this novella at the Brooklyn Book Fair this past Fall and she seems to be fluent in English. Ms. MacSweeney adds a timeline at the conclusion of the English version of the novella. It is as tongue-and-cheek as the novella. It places Highway within a historic chronology of obscure events. It may add some insight into the creation of the story because it references the auction of Marilyn Monroe’s and Winston Churchill’s teeth.

The novella is the biography of Highway as reflected through the history of his teeth. The Afterward conveys the back-story about the author’s development of the novella- a collaboration between the author and workers at a juice factory in Mexico. In part, the novella is an homage to tobacco readers that existed in Cuban cigar factories in mid- 19th Century. The chronology, like the book, is having some fun with the reader, as it publicizes the works of fellow Latin American writers/poets (and friends) such as Guadalupe Nettel, Paula Abramo, Alejandro Zambra, and many others. The book also has a small photographic gallery of venues in the novella, with accompanying quotations of various writers.

Ms. Luiselli, unlike many authors, understood that at a book reading it is essential to entertain. Greater prose can fall flat when read. She selected from this novella’s Parabolics chapter the description of the “tent effect”: the pyramid that aroused men create with a blanket or sheet when awaking in the morning.

Johnny Cash’s “Highwayman” was a survivor and so is Highway. He is not a con man, he is a story-teller, creating value from nothing. A priest asks him to raise money for the church from its senile congregation. Highway auctions each tooth in his mouth, ascribing the tooth to notables in history, philosophy, literature and art. He ascribes life lessons to teachings of his relatives such as Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre. He is a good person and is taken advantage of by his son Siddhartha. A friend El Perro (also the name of a literary magazine) remains loyal to him. “Since then, I’ve always thought that hell is the people you one day become.” Highway does not change; finding beauty in everything. He gives value through his stories.

The book is funny and at times absurd. The weakest chapter is Allegorics. It seems to be the chapter that the workers collaborated on.

I was looking forward to reading this novella and was not disappointed. It is a different form of a novel- almost performance art. Her earlier novel, Faces in the Crowd was well received. She is an author worth paying attention to.

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