Book Review June 2010
I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone
and No One Can Pay
Author: John Lanchester
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2010
For the past couple of years, you’ve watched everything rise except the amount of your paycheck: gasoline prices, airline fees, and the cost of consumer goods. You’d like to see the Law of Gravity meet the Law of Your Bankbook, but you’re not holding your breath. How did we get this way, really? Maybe we can prevent it from happening again. That may be impossible, author John Lanchester says in his book I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.
We all want to make major amounts of money, but you can’t do so without involving a certain amount of risk. Invest your cash, and risk market and investment volatility. Make a bet in Las Vegas and cross your fingers. Or, at the very basic level, put your money in a high-yielding bank account and let the bank take the risk. Well-run banks, says Lanchester, are moneymaking machines on which economies depend heavily. If a bank collapses, it’s like a bad dominoes game. To avoid problems, checks and balances exist to keep banks from taking bad risks, but anything can happen. Case in point: giving huge mortgages to people who have little-to-no real possibility of paying them off is an exceedingly bad risk, but for far too long, such risks were all but ignored.
To be fair, the world’s economic mess wasn’t entirely the banks’ fault. Credit was easy and consumers spent wildly. In retrospect, the federal government’s prime interest rate became a problem. Wall Street was on a roll. Too many brazen people were playing with what was, essentially, virtual money and massaged numbers. Enron, one of the most infamous examples, “bought things from itself at made-up prices.” And we all forgot, says Lanchester, that “money does not always cost the same.”
So how do we ensure that an economic disaster of this magnitude doesn’t occur again? It’s possible that we can’t, Lanchester indicates. Boom and bust happens cyclically, and we always recover…eventually. But, he says, we do need to re-assess.
It’s a really good thing I.O.U. is a hardcover book. Hardcover books can take a beating, and you’ll repeatedly throw this one across the room in anger and frustration at what you’ll learn. The story of the world’s current financial situation is complicated, though Lanchester tries valiantly to make it less so. Your head will swim while you read this book. Lanchester will make you smile with metaphors and blunt language that entertains between the heavy-duty information he imparts. If you’re inured to the depletion of your dollars but you’re still wondering what happened, this book may fill in the blanks.
The World Has Changed: Conversations with Alice Walker
Edited with an Introduction by Rudolph. P. Byrd
The New Press, May 2010
$25.95, 368 pp.
Alice Walker may be best known for her novel The Color Purple, a remarkable story of womanly courage and liberation. Before she became the first African-American woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, however, Walker had written several poems and short stories that would serve as the foundation to her becoming a pioneer in American literature. From her first collection of poems, titled Once, published in 1968, to the writing of The Temple of My Familiar (1989) to We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness (2006), Walker has presented a profound sense of activism in her work. In The World Has Changed, Rudolph P. Byrd, a professor at Emory University, has culled interviews with the celebrated author to shed light upon the manner in which her fierce genius, impassioned spirituality and uncompromising sociopolitical convictions have shaped Walker’s prolific career.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze
By Maaza Mengiste
W.W. Norton & Co., January 2010
$24.95, 305 pp.
Maaza Mengiste’s gripping debut novel is set in her homeland of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1974. She imagines the lives of a family living at the time of Emperor Haile Selassie’s fall and the turbulence that followed. The tale begins with Dr. Hailu, who is faced with removing a bullet from a student protester and cannot help thinking of his own son who has joined an underground revolutionary group. At home, Hailu’s life is under emotional strain: his wife is ailing and his sons, Yonas and Dawit, are at odds. What unfolds is a story about the strength of family love and friendship. In Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, Mengiste writes with vivid detail and expressive dialogue as she not only describes the family’s trials but also final moments with Selassie as his 40-year rule approaches its end. Mengiste joins the list of several new and talented writers who have crafted absorbing stories of postcolonial Africa.