Off the Shelves
Screwing the Little Guy by Stanley Morgan
Nomi Prins, Other People’s Money: The Corporate Mugging of America (The New Press, 2004)
After all the press coverage of the Enron scandal of 2001, how many people know the details of what actually happened? The facts of the case, complicated as they are, are important for several reasons: First of all, the sophistication and broader economic impact of the company’s misdeeds make this far more than a simple case of corporate greed gone wild. Equally important, Enron’s story is but one chapter in the larger tale of how overzealous deregulation and cronyism fueled a huge wave of bankruptcies in the 90s and replaced a reasonably effective regulatory system with one that’s built for abuse.
Former Wall Street banker Nomi Prins is well positioned to describe how all this happened. Having worked at the top echelons of several Wall Street firms in the lead-up to the crash, she witnessed much of the chicanery up close. Other People’s Money: The Corporate Mugging of America describes in head-spinning (but compulsively readable) detail how Enron and other companies gamed the system, using labyrinthine networks of shell companies, astute political maneuvering, and outright fraud to make their officers incredibly rich, leaving everyone else to foot the bill.
The main culprit in Prins’s eyes was the repeal of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act. Glass-Steagall prohibited traditional banks from underwriting stocks and bonds (the domain of investment banks), thereby preventing them from hawking the securities of companies that they also lent money to. The dismantling of Glass-Steagall—Wall Street’s wet dream—created a group of superbanks that could virtually blackmail companies into issuing more and more bonds (which brought in whopping underwriting fees) in exchange for getting the loans they craved to fund acquisitions. This led to the issuance of mountains of debt and fueled expansion for its own sake. Since the interest rate a company has to pay to its bondholders is based on the company’s financial condition, this situation created an incentive for these companies to use sleight of hand to artificially prettify their books. The result: an epidemic of accounting fraud the likes of which the world has never seen.
Enron was no means the only company playing these games. The story of (former) telecommunications giants WorldCom and Global Crossing follows the same path: massive debt issuance, massive accounting fraud, massive gains for insiders, massive bankruptcy, and massive losses for the many suckers on the outside—including employees who’d been strong-armed into buying large quantities of company stock for their retirement accounts.
Another thing all these onetime highfliers had in common was access. None of these spectacular blowups could have happened without help from the “regulators” and lawmakers who are supposed to be preventing this kind of thing. For example, Robert Rubin moved from Goldman Sachs to the White House (as President Clinton’s treasury secretary) and then back to Wall Street, where he lobbied successfully for the repeal of Glass-Steagall on behalf of Citigroup and made a fortune doing it. Wendy Gramm, former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and wife of Texas senator Phil Gramm (the second-largest recipient of Enron campaign contributions), granted Enron an exemption from government disclosure rules at the company’s request; shortly afterward, she resigned from the CFTC and joined Enron’s board of directors.
In addition to the repeal of Glass-Steagall, deregulation of the energy and telecommunications industries themselves ran wild in the late 90s. One result of energy deregulation was the California energy crisis of 2000–2001, which saw consumers overcharged tens of billions of dollars for electricity as market manipulation ran amok. The 1996 deregulation of the telecommunications industry led to a frenzy of mergers and takeovers that cost millions of jobs; to maintain the illusion of profitability, these newly created telecom giants also booked billions of dollars in fraudulent transactions to artificially pump up revenues.
Predictably, the cost of these scams to their perpetrators has been minimal. According to Prins, Bernie Ebbers, the head of WorldCom (“the biggest fraud in world history at $11 billion and counting”) walked away from the company’s smoldering hulk with a severance package of $1.5 million a year for life. Gary Winnick left Global Crossing with a net worth of over $735 million. Other big players have been similarly “punished.” Is there no justice?
Well, no. But Prins has obviously put a lot of thought into the question of what can be done about it. She offers a whole chapter of suggested remedies for the kind of no-fault fraud that was freely perpetrated in the late 90s: reinstating Glass-Steagall, for example, or imposing more realistic fines on the guilty parties, or prodding the regulatory agencies, like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, that have been asleep at the wheel in the wildly business-friendly climate of the last decade.
But it’s going to be an uphill battle. After the mega-criminality of Enron et al. and the fecklessness of the regulatory agencies that Prins outlines in her meticulously researched book, two commissioners of the Securities and Exchange Commission recently came down against some of the relatively benign fines that the SEC has imposed, primarily because of their chilling effect on shareholders and potential investors. According to Commissioner Cindy Glassman, “When the boards and management are agreeing to these penalties, they’re agreeing to pay with other people’s money.”
Thanks for thinking of us, commissioner.
Stanley Morgan works on Wall Street.
Pretty in Pink by Jesse Dorris
David Boyer, Kings & Queens: Queers at the Prom (Soft Skull Press, 2004)
On November 2, cultural conservatives turned the queer couple into this year’s Willie Horton. At a time when even the Supreme Court (narrowly, but forcefully) ruled that our bedrooms are not to be policed, conservatives have rallied by putting the issue of queer legitimacy onto the altar. It is on mainstream grounds, in churches, and other sites of ritual and rites of passage where we will be demonized. Gone are the days of invisibility; the challenge now is not to assert our presence but to refuse the idea that we’re dangerous.
What threat could queers pose to the American Prom? The stuff of legends, prom is the endpoint of childhood, where adult sexuality is formally introduced into public space through slow dancing, coupling, and the (perhaps apocryphal) postprom popping of the cherry. Movies like Carrie and Pretty in Pink depend on the prom for their plots because its rituals sum up the anxieties of adolescence. The prom translates tough questions of gender and class into easy choices (Which dress should I wear? Will the right person ask me? Who will be royalty, and who will go alone?) and gains cultural power through easy answers (Buy the most expensive dress you can afford. Even the ugly ducking sometimes gets her man. The rich and connected get what’s coming to them, as do the freaks and geeks). Queer participation in the past has meant denaturing sex, so fags became their best friend’s fallback plan in case Johnny Wonderful didn’t call, and dykes went stag. Our coupling stayed hidden; our cherries didn’t pop. Times are changing, and queers keep going, whether because of peer pressure or curiosity or a genuine affinity for cummerbunds and crinoline. Proms have sprouted in gay bars and community centers and even queer high schools, and our growing participation only increases its centrality to the teenage years. Culture mores come and go, it seems, but a corsage is forever.
David Boyer’s Kings & Queens: Queers at the Prom is an oral history of almost seven decades of these nights. Loosely laid out like a high school yearbook and overstuffed with kitsch, Kings & Queens follows almost 80 years of American proms, working backward from the New York queer school Harvey Milk’s class of 2003 through disco queens, hippies, beatniks, and the boogie-woogie-bugle queers of the 1940s, all in their tuxes and formal smiles for the camera. Harvey Milk’s 2003 valedictorian, Arthur Larsen, provides a charming mix of teenage hyperbole and academic jargon. “Prom was this awe-inspiring moment,” he gushes, “seeing all these same-sex couples dancing together and feeling that was normative.” The story of Krystal Bennett (Ferndale, WA, class of 2001) is a riot: buying a tux at Men’s Warehouse, getting elected as Prom King as a joke the teachers weren’t sure she would laugh at, and living through a media frenzy with humor and sheer nerve. Running for prom king “didn’t start out as an activist position,” she remembers. “It was simply that I wasn’t comfortable being a queen, and king fit my gender position better. And who doesn’t want to win?”
That such earnest and, in Krystal’s case, competitive assimilation seems powerful instead of hokey is a testament to Boyer’s editing. But its hopeful force dissipates as the book progresses to times when the prom held more threat than promise. Michael Callahan (Philadelphia, PA, class of 1981) recounts being “attracted to the glamour” yet only attending to fulfill his “hetero credentials.” Dan Stewart (Cumberland, RI, class of 1980, and now the openly gay Republican mayor of Plattsburg, New York) goes much further, actively trying to stop a classmate and his boyfriend from attending the prom together. By the time Kings & Queens returns to the 60s, even the fiery Avram Finkelstein (Long Island, NY, class of 1969, and creator of the Silence = Death poster) seems defeated: “That fact that (the prom) wasn’t cool gave me a reason to feel comfortable about not going. But the real reason I didn’t go was that I didn’t feel safe, because I was gay.”
History moves backward as we read. In the hundred pages separating the classes of 2003 and 1935, each victory becomes driven away by anger, nostalgia, and the poignant combination of bitter humor and forthright sentimentality on which queers have long relied. Here’s Bob Turco (Fenton, MI, class of 1943) on the specificity of masculine appearance in the Greatest Generation: “God help you if you were caught with white shoes. There were so many things like that…You never wore a bracelet, because you’d be labeled a ‘queer.’ Now when I see a young guy with a bracelet, I actually think, God, you’re lucky.” The little things mean so much.
Yet Kings & Queens ends on a strangely dismissive note. “I’m a poor person to interview,” says Marinksa Dollar (Bronx, NY, class of 1935), “because we were the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia just didn’t think anything about the prom or things like dances. When you hung out with these people, ‘idealism’ was the word...(I)dealism is not going to the prom.” Dollar sells herself short—she’s a fascinating interview—but her narrative is certainly a poor choice for the last word. The prom is nothing if not idealism, a collective fantasy we must engage with to be fully present in our society. It doesn’t need queers for significance, but perhaps we need it. As with marriage and the military, a refusal to participate only counts if we have the option to accept. Kings & Queens may not change conservative minds, but it should remind us what we’re fighting for. As Finklestein argues, “What it says when you can’t bring a same-sex date to the prom is that you’re being destructive to the community just by being yourself. Which is the gay rights struggle.”
Transcendent Trash by Sarah Karnasiewicz
Daniel Raeburn, Chris Ware (Yale University Press, 2004)
In 2001 The Guardian of England bestowed its New Book Award on Chris Ware, an obscure graphic artist from Nebraska, for his comic opus Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Boy in the World. Compiled from years of work that had appeared weekly in the small Chicago paper The New City, Jimmy Corrigan was indeed an emotional and aesthetic masterpiece: jewel toned and mazelike, it drew readers into the lonely world of its protagonist—a world that despite cramped office cubicles, cheap food, and family cruelty occasionally revealed instances of unanticipated beauty.
Since then, Ware has emerged as the boy wonder of the burgeoning art-comic industry, appearing in the pages of the literary quarterly McSweeney’s as well as Time, The Village Voice, and Print. While the acclaim has rescued Ware and a number of his colleagues from penury, the wholesale assimilation of comics into the cultural establishment has also stripped an art form that was once individual and idiosyncratic of its peculiar populist power. It used to be that comics offered readers an intimate experience—their flimsy pages folded and stuffed into back pockets or left crumpled by the bedside, to be consumed with unself-conscious pleasure and sticky fingers. But since being embraced by critics and tastemakers, the comics—or now as they are more often called, graphic novels—have been reborn as coffee-table tomes: impressive, ironic, and untouchably artful.
So it was only a matter of time before someone came along to seal Ware into the canon of art history with an ambitious critical essay and a full-color catalog to span his career. That someone arrived in October, when Daniel Raeburn released a stiff, slim volume titled Chris Ware through the Yale University Press. Over the course of a 20-page essay and 71 carefully annotated illustrations, Raeburn, a self-styled comics critic whose writing has previously appeared in The Village Voice and Baffler, approaches his subject with the fascinated detachment of an academic. He may be a passionate admirer of Ware’s work, but Raeburn quickly distinguishes himself from the common masses of comic “fans” on page one, when he launches into a discussion of Goethe as the first critic of modern graphic art. Indeed, as the book progresses, it becomes evident that Raeburn’s intent is to comment on Ware’s work as a designer, not his career as a pen-and-ink spinner of pulp tales. The fact that Raeburn’s book is marketed as part of Yale’s Monographics series, which is dedicated to the work of seminal graphic designers, goes further to frame Ware in the context of art history rather than the history of the popular comic.
To his credit, Raeburn’s text, which was supplemented by an extended series of interviews with Ware, is peppered with insightful tidbits regarding Ware’s influences and compelling biography. He has also collected, for the first time in print, a variety of Ware’s more esoteric artwork—limited edition posters, handmade toys and whirligigs, sketchbook pages, and sheet music. They are a treasure trove of dark delights—and perfectly reflect the moody beauty of Ware’s comics. But despite the rich resources at his disposal, in the end, Raeburn’s elevated language fails to distill the essential element of Ware’s genius.
In that regard, the images that accompany Raeburn’s essay are infinitely more evocative. Free of aesthetic polemic and liberated of any loyalty to “high” or “low” art, Ware’s work is its own best advocate. Though his strips benefit from intelligent and innovative design, his comics are not about surface—indeed, Ware is almost obsessed with cutting away layers, both physical and emotional, to get at the heart of his characters and their stories. Jimmy Corrigan, like many of Ware’s illustrated alter egos, is a lonely and not altogether sympathetic man. A perpetual loser and sometime misogynist with a wounded heart and worried eyes, he bears a more than passing resemblance not just to Ware himself but possibly to many of Ware’s faithful readers.
Late in his essay on Ware, Raeburn reports that a personal note hanging above the artist’s desk reads: “Respect your worthlessness.” Because of their association with advertising and consumer culture, the comics have spent the last century being called trash; the result is that now any comic that transcends those low expectations is swept into another ghetto: the sanitized, vacuum-sealed world of Art. But while Ware’s work is full of technical virtuosity, it owes its emotional impact not to surface beauty but to the way Ware manages to piece together the scraps of popular culture—from the block script and curlicues of sheet music advertising to the electric colors of the carnival sideshow—to create an intimate portrait of modern life. Isn’t trash, after all, just evidence of human presence, the dirty, rough reminder of something infinitely more poignant and ephemeral?
Schoolhouse Rock by Ed Howard
Neil McCormick, Killing Bono (MTV, 2004)
The title Killing Bono is filled with promise. If any rock star deserves a book-length critical drubbing, it’s the Pope-hugging, perpetually mugging, painfully earnest front man of the world’s most overplayed rock band, U2. That gleefully guilty pleasure seems to dissipate once one notices that Bono himself writes the foreword to this book by his onetime schoolmate Neil McCormick. But, this endorsement aside, McCormick sets out to do exactly what he suggested in his title: to (metaphorically) dismember the international star in whose shadow he’s spent his entire life. This is only one of the puzzling contradictions encompassed by Killing Bono, which is half a rock history of U2’s rise to fame and half an autobiography detailing McCormick’s own spectacularly unsuccessful struggles to attain superstardom.
McCormick’s writing is mostly simple and straightforward, but he has a biting and self-deprecating wit that makes his often painful narrative more bearable. In the early chapters, he relates his younger years, including his first encounters with the future U2 members at the Mount Temple school in Dublin. Throughout these sections, the narrative could just as easily be the lead-up to a full-on U2 biography, since McCormick and the band (then named the Hype) traveled in the same circles and were struggling together to start their music-business careers. And career is the key word, since from very early on McCormick makes it clear that his ambition was really fame, and music was only a route to that goal. There are plenty of interesting stories here that will doubtless be of interest to any U2 fan, but up until the moment when U2 begin their meteoric rise to stardom (and McCormick his equally meteoric nosedive), everything feels like merely a setup for what’s to come.
It’s at this point that McCormick and Bono (who McCormick calls his “doppelganger”) finally diverge, and what follows is more an autobiography of McCormick, with Bono and U2 making periodic appearances. Their album releases serve as time markers, each subsequent record (and its accompanying well-known singles) a painful reminder of how little is happening in McCormick’s own career. McCormick tells how he and his brother Ivan started a series of bands throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, each new project generating some interest, often attracting record company attention, only for everything to fall apart in some spectacularly devastating way. It’s obvious that McCormick has some talent: the snatches of lyrics he provides in the text are standard, socially conscious pop fare, but if his gig descriptions are accurate, his many groups were apparently fun, accessible bands that could doubtless have scored a few hits with the right luck.
That luck never comes, though, and as the book progresses it becomes increasingly difficult to read each strikingly similar tale of hope, followed by rejection—especially knowing from the outset that McCormick’s biggest claim to fame by the end will be having written this very book. He frequently wallows in self-pity only to pull the writing up a little with his next big hope; the pattern is tiring and barely softened by his often witty commentary. McCormick is the object of nearly equal amounts pity and frustration—his predicament is truly sad but also entirely self-inflicted by his shameless quest for fame, an ambition that is just about redeemed by his open admission of it.
But whatever qualms emerge about McCormick, they are nothing compared to the outright disgust aroused by Bono. Even though McCormick’s tone is fairly even-handed, and he remains friends with his childhood rival, he perhaps unwittingly paints a ruinous portrait of the singer. There is a moment early on when McCormick tells Bono, “I feel like you’ve lived my life.” The famed front man’s response is laughter, and reading that in the context of McCormick’s fuming and frustrated prose, there’s a realization of just how oblivious Bono is to his supposed friend’s emotions. But an even more telling moment comes much later in the book, when McCormick—driven by sheer desperation to seek out his friend for the one favor he never before dared ask—pleads with Bono to release his latest band’s single on U2’s Mother Records. Bono’s response? “The thing about it is, Neil, it’s pop music.” At that point, after 250 pages of McCormick’s long struggles and misery, if you don’t want to punch that insufferable prick in the face, you truly have no soul.
McCormick, of course, is forgiving of this unforgivable moment, and the remaining chapters are a slow deflation of his rock ambitions as he finds true love at last (awww) and settles down to the life of normalcy he’d been strenuously avoiding all along. Killing Bono might have been more entertaining as the fiery polemic its title suggests, but as it is it’s a pretty interesting book that tries to be many different things at once. It’s a U2 biography, a personal memoir, a funny book about rock and the music biz, and perhaps even a morality tale about the futility of seeking fame. And if it gets just one U2 fan to realize what a pompous ass the band’s singer is, well, just consider that an additional public service.
On the Road by Michael Rose
Hank Stuever, Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere (Henry Holt, 2004)
Hank Stuever likes the letter "k."
“Our country is sometimes a kountry, built entirely upon particleboard,” he writes in the preface to his book, Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere. “It has kastles, kampgrounds, komfort.”
Stuever has spent his relatively short career in journalism setting off to find this kountry, and a selection of his writings are collected in Off Ramp. This is where we can read about people who spend their free time dressing up as Star Wars stormtroopers, the cultural significance of plastic chairs, and a guy who makes a living as a “sofa surgeon,” cutting up people’s furniture to fit it up stairs and through doors. It’s where we get a glimpse into the place that Stuever calls Elsewhere, which is not a city center but not quite suburban idyllic. Elsewhere is where Stuever finds his material: among the fast food places along the interstate, at the self-storage lockers, at the roller rink, at the old, abandoned shopping mall. These are the places where Stuever finds insights into our lives as a society. His writing is unlike that of any other reporter working today, and the book should be read by anyone who thinks that America is doomed to a middling, artificial, deep-fried existence.
It would be easy to accuse Stuever of condescension or mockery, but he isn’t just a member of the Liberal Media Elite. Sure, Stuever may be an openly gay writer for the Washington Post, but he was born and raised in Oklahoma City. He knows what it’s like not only in the middle of the country but in Elsewhere. He’s spent time there, and the truths that he illuminates in his work speak to everyone.
Stuever is able to pick out cultural phenomena and put his finger on what makes each of them important. Who among us has really thought long and hard about those ubiquitous stackable plastic patio chairs? But after reading Stuever’s essay about them, you recall that familiar sensation of skin peeling away from plastic in the summer heat, and those times you’ve spent sitting in backyards, listening to people you don’t know very well talk about other people you don’t know at all. Stuever remembers both of these experiences in his essay and draws some conclusions about the chairs themselves.
“There’s something about the plastic patio chair,” Stuever writes. “No, there’s not. And that’s what it is about them.” He goes on to say that “the resin stacking patio chair is the Tupperware container of a lard-assed universe.” Such pithy summaries of our cultural landscape and unconventional descriptions are Stuever’s trademark: He describes the owner of a self-storage facility as “a small and soft woman with amber-colored hair who once ran a day-care center, who looks like your aunt, who looks like she would bring you a casserole.” You can see the woman in your mind and almost hear her voice. With Stuever’s descriptions, we feel like we’re exploring the Elsewhere right along with him.
Even in Stuever’s lighter stories (the sofa surgeon, two neighbors on Trading Spaces, the Kampground of America), he touches on things that aren’t so light. The sofa story is really about adapting to living with a partner and starting a family. The story about Trading Spaces is about how friendship is defined in a suburb where all the houses look alike. The kampground story is really about traveling on the open road and how people connect on their journeys. Some pieces are more forthrightly dark; after all, there’s heartache right there in the title. The last section of Off Ramp is devoted to essays on 9/11, the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy (seemingly superficial in the wake of what’s happened since, but haunting nonetheless), the D.C. area sniper, Texans combing for wreckage from the Space Shuttle Columbia, and the Oklahoma City bombing, to which Stuever brings a heartfelt personal voice. Granted, plenty has been written about these events already, but never from Stuever’s point of view. He sees what’s hidden beneath and draws his conclusions from what he finds.
Stuever tells us in his preface about some Dutch travelers who approached him while he was “kamping” at the KOA. They asked:
“We are from the Netherlands, and we are for two days wonderink who it is you are, and why you are all the time with cameras and writing down things?”
Stuever says that their question perfectly summarized what he was trying to find out: Who it is you are. Through the essays in Off Ramp, he takes a stab at finding out. Not only who he is, or who his subjects are, but who we all are.
In the Cuckoo’s Nest by Brad Tytel
Gilad Elbom, Scream Queens of the Dead Sea (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004)
In Scream Queens of the Dead Sea, Gilad Elbom, writer and self-named narrator, introduces himself with the line, “I don’t know why I’m writing this book in a foreign language, when I have at my disposal such a beautiful mother tongue.” Referring to English, rather than his native Hebrew, his point is lost in immediate judgment: Yet another self-congratulatory novel. Contemporary fiction has produced a plethora of self-conscious, first-person tomes for which the process of putting pen to paper is yet another comic trope. Further reading belies this initial impression. The introduction is blatant, but that turns out to be the point.
Scream Queens is a seriocomic novel about stumbling through the insanity of everyday life in Israel. As such, self-reference becomes an integral part of this awkward, uncharted journey. Elbom acknowledges his own devices in constant self-parody—the narrator is writing the book as the story progresses, and characters comment on the project from within, even condemning it as “playful metafiction.” He makes self-reference a workable convention because it’s all part of the joke, and the joke happens to be funny. The novel never tries to be more than it is and usually condemns itself for being even that.
As an assistant nurse in an Israeli mental hospital, one paper short of a degree in linguistics, Gilad Elbom, the character, is drifting through experiences trying to get a grip on his ambitions. Scream Queens follows him through a few weeks of his life, roughly the length of one patient’s tenure on his ward. Discharged from obligatory army service, obsessed with heavy metal music, and with an inclination to study languages abroad, Elbom considers himself a detached, secular observer who straddles the line between sanity and insanity in the modern Middle East. As that line becomes blurrier, so does Elbom’s detachment.
The patients under Elbom’s care are offbeat, funny, and believable. One is a formerly religious Jew who would rather devote his energies to the worship of an American erotic film star. Another is an Arab driven mad by the paranoia of the occupation. Each satirizes the outside world in their own way, but the connections are never forced and are uniquely Israeli. Scream Queens is strongest when it uses its humor to juxtapose life on the ward with life outside of it. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a constant presence, Elbom addresses the nation as a whole. Elbom’s girlfriend refers to the Columbia space shuttle disaster as the inevitable result of bringing along a Jew—yet another tragedy for the chosen people. Meanwhile, she is happy to engage in bizarre extramarital sexual fantasies while her husband is dying of cancer. Society itself is no less rational—a trip to army headquarters becomes a bureaucratic comedy of errors.
Scream Queens is about a Jew in the Holy Land, but the book sees no need for reverence. It is a transplanted American tale: the bemused intellectual slacker goes to Israel. Elbom has no patience for the institutions that commonly characterize his country—the army, the government, religion, even the asylum. Depth is relegated to the characters, particularly the Palestinians. Elbom the author mocks the prejudices of modern Israel, which even Elbom the character can’t help but subscribe to. The inmates aren’t running the asylum—that would be too simple. Rather everyone, from the patients to Elbom himself, are inmates in a much larger asylum. Nobody seems to be running that one.
Much of Scream Queens’ strength lies in the novelty of applying an American literary style to a story about Israel; as such it fails to rise to the level of the best self-indulgent fiction (however small a group that may be). Yet it manages to enlighten and entertain through its irreverence: bizarre gratuitous sex, a self-absorbed narrator, and an absurdist assessment of modern life in a land so steeped in mythology. The book somehow manages to acknowledge its failings and contradictions and convert them into strengths; after all, why should a book about an imperfect land and imperfect people have to be perfect? One reads the first line waiting for the book to fail and finishes it, some good laughs later, still waiting. That in itself is a success worth noting.