Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Laser Pants Books Of The Month Club Revue: January

Each month in 2009, I am reading two books (minimum), and posting reviews. One of these books must be "real," in that it cannot be about zombies or musicians.

I will rank the books on a zero to five Laser Pants Bookie Icon scale, zero being the nadir of the written word.

This month: Bad Money by Kevin Phillips, and State by State, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey.
Look for an independent bookstore at which to purchase these tomes here. I like Atomic Books in Baltimore best.

Bad Money
Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism
256 pages
by Kevin Phillips

Laser Pants Bookie Rating (0 to 5):

As you may have heard, the American economy is in El Shitter, as they say. What Kevin Phillips--ex-Nixon staffer, conservative economic shaman, and pontificator extraordinaire--has to say about it is sobering, fascinating and (potentially) pants-shittingly terrifying.

Before I get to his econo-doomsaying, I gotta call him out on one prediction: Phillips claimed that the rise on the right of empty-headed Jesus freaks would ruin this earth; thankfully, that didn't pan out, proving that people are not totally retarded (mostly), and he somewhat takes the foul on that call. But that inability of analysts and economists to predict just what crazy shit people will do and believe, especially over time, does provide a reason to take all this with a grain of salt.

Still, the rest of his grim predictions--backed up with lots of unnerving facts and analyses that frankly I wish I had neglected to ever be reminded of--have come true, appartently (a fact he is more than happy to reinforce, a bit too often).

So, basically, we're dead, and it all has something to do with going off the gold standard, which Nixon did, so . . . is this Phillips' fault? I got lost. Frankly, economics is vicious territory for me (think pasty-northern European in southeast Asia vicious), and has always seemed too much like alchemy + algebra + psychology, which seems like an inherently doomed endeavor.

There are a lot of augurs of doom here that ring nauseatingly true; I won't go into them all, but suffice it to say that going off the gold standard, plus getting OPEC nations to peg their sales to the U.S. greenback, plus the U.S. banking industry going into the debt reshuffling business rather than the banking business, plus the dearth of manufacturing, plus stupid people, plus Europeans going along with it, plus some other shit, all means that we = fucked. And things should get grimmer, barring massive change of the sort that never happens. Even President Hopey Obama and his gang of hopeful idea-kateers probably won't be able to change the course of this doomed luxury liner.

Still, though Phillips has a grimly admirable track record for waving the red flag before the financial bloodlettings of the past, I can't completely agree with some of the linkages he makes. For instance, he makes strong cases that the American Oil-Dependent Dominance (my term) is bound to fail, just as the Dutch Wind-Dependent Dominance and the British Coal-Dependence did, each brought down by the next Resource-Dependent regime (the Dutch succumbed to the British who succumbed to the Americans).

Somehow, I just can't get behind this idea, mostly because the "next" resource (nuclear cars? solar container ships?) will never exist, I think. Also, the weird linked-ness of everything these days (without getting all Thomas Freidman-y--and hey, here's his ginormous house!), I am not sure that things have not changed enough to make this historical trend a bit less of a sure-thing. Does he make the case that a Chinese Oil-Dependent Dominance can come to pass? Yes, but that doesn't jibe with his theory, exactly, because they are still using oil (which they are totally grabbing as fast as they can). And the inherent artificiality of the Chinese (and the Russkie) economic systems is something that I'd like to read more about, because I think the false pretenses of the Potemkin Economies they set up--ones where, at the whim of the Politburo or Putinburo, white can be declared black, loss can be declared profit, and companies can be giveth and takethen away on a whim--can't last as long as the awesome American one. Doing business with those sorts of economies drives real economies (and the EU) crazy. Though the Germans and Eastern Europeans have to put up with this churlish crap for now, I don't think this sort of weirdness can last. Or maybe it can. I am one bet-hedging bastard these days, huh?

Anyway, read this excerpt, then pour a bourbon and get your glum on.


State by State
A Panoramic Portrait of America: 50 Writers on 50 States
608 pages
Edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey

Laser Pants Bookie Rating (0 to 5):

There's a link here to Bad Money: Back during the last Giant Fetid Economic Turd Time, thee Great Depression, one of the things the WPA did in the 1930s was to send writers to the (then 48) states and write about them, their people, their amusing parochial quirks and ticks (like lynching and inbreeding), and then publish these studies. It was called the WPA American Guide series, and it was pretty swell, and some 6,000 writers and designers and artists churned out the resulting tomes. This new book is an updated version of that idea; though done with much less firepower; two editors and fifty writers. There are also some photos, all supplied by the writers, one for each state. Hey, times are tight now!

Overall, this thing is a pretty big success, and is so because not only do the expected writers hit the home runs you expect them to, but some weird and surprising utility players come off the bench and knock a few out of the park. Sometimes, the essay does nothing to dissolve presuppositions of a state, but is so good it doesn't matter; other times, the writer grabbed a great idea that might not have been totally obvious and did such a great job with it that it works unexpectedly. The few stumbles are also, unsurprisingly, from some name writers, and also from some states which would seem to be destined to produce great pieces but which instead offer up something less than satisfying.

The expected All-Stars and related name players here who earn their reps are California, by William T. Vollman (which is as thick with words and ideas as you would expect); Connecticut, by Rick Moody (great stories of Ice Storm-era CT); Georgia, by Ha Jin (one of the many good "America through the eyes of a non-American" pieces); Massachusetts, by John Hodgman (funny in expected and unexpected ways); Michigan, by Mohammed Naseehu Ali (another great piece with clarity provided by foreignness); Nebraksa, by Alexander Payne (a secret Greek!); New Jersey, by Anthony Bourdain (like a beloved cheesesteak, it is what it is); New York, by Johnathan Franzen (a concept that could have been gag-inducing that instead came off nicely); North Carolina, by Randall Kenan (hogs); Rhode Island, by Jhumpa Lahiri (good because it is both through the prism of Indian family life and also New England-savvy eyes); South Carolina, by Jack Hitt (completely Charleston-centric but aware of the folly of it); South Dakota, by Said Sayrafiezadeh (I hated this one at first--hapless vegan LES Manhattanites head to South Dakota on a whim to go fishing and camping? Ugh--and then loved it when they, without pretense, loved South Dakota); Virginia, by Tony Horwitz (Virginia is for lovers, and is also a Civil War charnel house), and Wyoming, by Alexandra Fuller (which contains the wisdom given by a cowboy on a cattle drive tripping his balls off). Of that lengthy list, my favorites were by Moody, Ali, Payne, Kenan, Lahiri, Hitt, and Sayrafiezadeh--all great pieces in very different ways, from no-nonsense (Kenan) to full-nonsense (Sayrafiezadeh).

There were only a few deflating pieces; these include those by big-name authors who really seemed to just dial it in (Ohio, Susan Orlean) and regurgitate too much of the old WPA write-ups; those who seemed too cranky for the job (Mississippi, Barry Hannah); and those who told personal tales that were just not that interesting (West Virginia, Jayne Anne Phillips; Wisconsin, Daphne Beal). Hannah's begrudgingly-scrawled Mississippi tale was but seven pages; Phillips' West Virginia family epic dragged on for 14.

The book also has 30 tables at the end, ranking the states in everything from incarceration to roller coasters per capita and suicide rate; these make for good ammo for arguments with relations and friends in, say, Florida, which ranks #48 in "Classic Movie Theaters and Drive-Ins per capita" (Maryland is #32, so nyah).

My only other complaint with this book--and it's probably going to be congenital in something like this--is that too many of the authors grew up in the safe boring suburbs of a state's major city, and did little to transcend that narrow experience by, say, returning to the state for some research. Some writers had great material from that past; others did not and used it anyway.

But, all in all, it's a winner, and worth reading.

1 comment:

S. said...

I enjoyed Amazon's condensation of Ms. Hilton's tome, breaking it down into the essential elements --Confessions-Heiress-Tongue-Chic-Behind.