Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Panic : The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, edited by Michael Lewis

The Age of Financial Unreason began with the 1987 stock market crash, according to Michael Lewis, author of the bestselling Liar's Poker, who was a bond salesman in London at the time: "It was striking how little control we had of events, particularly in view of how assiduously we cultivated the appearance of being in charge by smoking big cigars and saying fuck all the time." All of the major modern panics are here, including the Asian currency crisis and Russia's financial meltdown, but the best essays are about Black Monday, the internet bubble (when a company merely had to announce it had a new website for its stocks to rise 973%) and the dreaded sub-prime mortgage disaster. Some of it is dry stuff, unless you thrill to talk of structured investment vehicles or master-liquidity enhancement conduits, but there is a helpful glossary for those who can't tell a bear from a bull. Computerised global capitalism leads to faster booms and busts, Lewis says, but it isn't the end of the world, so try not to panic.

To the Castle and Back by Václav Havel

When the dissident playwright Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he soon discovered that there is a world of difference between wanting to run a country and actually running it. This book - an engaging remix of diary entries, interviews and tetchy memos to his staff at Prague Castle - is Havel's response to his critics in the Czech media, who never forgave him for not living up to his own ideals. He tries to explain why he let them down in his dealings with the communists and the secret police, in his relations with the old enemy, Germany, and in being powerless to prevent the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Havel is probably too hard on himself, although his greatest crime in Czech eyes appears to have been marrying a young actress shortly after his wife died. Politicians must flirt with theatricality, he concludes, but whereas one can depend on dramatists to tell a good story, politics is slippery and unreliable and has no narrative. This is a frank and disillusioned account of what happens when idealism meets realpolitik.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Crashaw Prize update

After many sleepless nights, I have decided to withdraw from the Crashaw Prize.

It was an extraordinarily difficult decision and I'd like to thank Chris Hamilton-Emery at Salt for his generosity of spirit and understanding.

Michael Schmidt and Judith Willson at Carcanet have also been very kind and supportive.

Look out for the Crashaw Prize-winners in April/June. They are:

Tom Chivers, How to Build a City
Abi Curtis, Unexpected Weather
Jamey Dunham, The Bible of Lost Pets
Jared Stanley, Book Made of Forest

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Muqtada al-Sadr and the Shia insurgency in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn

Lazily described as a "firebrand cleric" by the western media, Muqtada al-Sadr is in fact an intelligent politician who mixes puritanical Shia Islam with anti-imperialism and populism to mobilise great masses of angry young men, says Patrick Cockburn in this important book. Cockburn explains how the al-Sadr family's history of resistance to Saddam Hussein has given Muqtada an almost semi-divine status among pious Shias, yet westerners remain baffled by the inner religious life of Iraqis and are ignorant of the rich history of Shiism in Iraq. They do not understand why Shia religious leaders draw parallels between the US occupation and a battle that took place in AD680, but Cockburn does, and he has little time for the "bovine" Paul Bremer, former US administrator in Iraq, who predictably compared Muqtada to Hitler. A new afterword covers the Battle of Basra in March last year, the first major confrontation between Iraqi troops and the Mehdi Army, and concludes that Muqtada remains a force to be reckoned with.

Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler by Margarete Buber-Neumann

One might say that Margarete Buber-Neumann had a charmed life, had it not been so horrible. She was fortunate - if that is the word - to be sent to a Soviet labour camp in 1939, during a momentary lull in the mass shooting of prisoners. Handed over to the Nazis in 1940, she was similarly lucky to be released from an SS concentration camp in 1945, just days before the remaining prisoners were forced on evacuation marches ending in death. It is a measure of the dismal times she lived through that such events marked her as fortunate, and it is a testament to her skill as a writer that this thoughtful, humane memoir (published in English in 1949) became an international bestseller. From the very first page we are with her, scurrying through Moscow surrounded by images of Stalin. We accompany her throughout the gruelling years ahead, encountering a host of characters, good and bad, and share in her dogged attempt to make sense of the madness of totalitarianism. This revised text is the definitive edition.