Fischer on the trouble with Nietzsche’s dictum

IMG-20130419-00502

Cover of The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer (First Scribner Paperback Fiction edition 1997)

As my hands were cuffed behind my back, and I had a zet at the footwear of my arresting officers, I couldn’t help hailing Nietzsche’s dictum, what does not kill me makes me stronger. One could add that what doesn’t kill you can be extremely uncomfortable and can give you a very nasty cold. I sneezed with no hands and discharged some nose marrow across the short distance between my nostrils and the gleaming footwear of the detective in charge of the operation, where it spread-eagled and made itself at home.
The trouble with Nietzche—who in any case never prescribed instructions regarding conduct while being hand-cuffed on chilly floors in undignified circumstances—is that you can never be sure when he’s doing some levity or not.
The Metropolitan Police had the same problem with me. They were hugely unconvinced by my responses to their questioning.

— from The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, named by Granta Magazine as one of the best British novelists under 40 in 1994

My top five books for 2010

From top to bottom: Solnit's The Field Guide to Getting Lost, Amis' Money, Polotan's The True and the Plain, and Lewis' Panic. Why only four when list says five? Who says I was good at math?

Of the 28 books I’ve read so far this year, eight have stood out.
But eight is not a good, solid number so I decided to whittle the list down to five.* (Neither is 28, come to think of it. Which is why I’m hurrying up to read two more books before New Year’s Eve.)
This list may change of course because I’m currently in the thick of Walter Bagehot’s Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market, a copy of which has been loaded on to my Kindle 3 from manybooks.net, one of the best free eBook websites. [See: Walter Bagehot, Lombard Street, Manybooks]
For something that was written nearly 150 years ago, Lombard Street remains fresh and has supposedly been read again by experts — for guidance, among other things — in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown. (Juicy detail: Bagehot, who became the editor in chief of the Economist, wrote Lombard Street as a partial reaction to the collapse of Overend, Gurney, and Co., supposedly the last British bank to collapse until Northern Rock, another UK lender, also went under in 2007, more than a century later.) [See: Overend, Gurney, and Co., Economist, Northern Rock]
In any case, Bagehot’s work may still make it to this list.
But that means I either have to change the title of this entry to “My top six books for 2010,” or leave one out of the list and write another review for Lombard Street.
Except that’s too much work, even for the partially employed. (Or partially unemployed, depending on  whether the glass is half-full or whether those contact lenses need cleaning.)
So, friends and frenemies, followers and freaks, felons and freeloaders, here is my top five books for 2010. None of them were published this year but they are ranked in the order of which they were read.

1) Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, Edited by Michael Lewis
[See: Panic, Michael Lewis]

This anthology is proof that you can never get enough of Michael Lewis.
But that still doesn’t explain why he included several of his previously-published works as part of the book.
While that oversight may be considered editorial indulgence for some, it can easily be dismissed.
After all, Lewis writes well.
He also wrote the anthology’s introduction and other pieces to introduce various book chapters, all without the gobbledygook that comes free with every statement issued by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.
The anthology even features a glossary, explaining what a collateralized debt obligation (CDO) — the financial instrument blamed for the 2008 meltdown — is all about. The explanation was so simple I even posted it in the Marginalia section. It was written by Chris Benz, an intern at McSweeney’s, that outfit established by Dave Eggers [See: Benz on CDOs, McSweeney’s]
One setback though.
While the book explains the October 1987 crash (one cause: automated share sell-offs**) and the 2008 meltdown (cause: CDOs), it failed to cite reasons for the 1998 Asian crisis.***
Nevertheless, the book remains an easy and engaging read, with pieces written by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and — surprise! — Dave Barry, among others.

2) Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need
[See: Dave Barry’s Travel Guide, Dave Barry]

Of the more than five Dave Barry books I have ever read, this one by far is the funniest.
The volume is thin but packed with so many jokes that you will either laugh and/or chuckle at every page. Which is exactly what happened to me while I was reading it in April. (Already forgot the jokes though.)
Too bad the fun and laughter had to end because the book had to be returned to Alan Robles, who bothers to feed me from time to time. [See: Alan Robles]
And no unreturned book is worth risking that privilege for.
Unless of course if the book is a signed, hardbound, first-edition copy.
It wasn’t.
So free lunch FTW.

3) A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit [See: Field Guide, Rebecca Solnit]

Nope, it’s not about Lost, the hit TV series.
It’s about getting lost, literally and figuratively.
Only when you’re lost will you be able to find yourself, she says.
Solnit’s prose is haunting and her sense of the world — natural and otherwise — is deep.
“Getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing,” she says in the book, citing, among others, Henry David Thoreau, the good, old contrarian of Concord, Massachusetts. [See: Thoreau]
In the book, she even wrote a thorough and extended discussion regarding the work of artist Yves Klein, who introduced a shade of blue called the IKB — International Klein Blue.
The same color would be a predominant theme of the book and several chapters would be entitled “The Blue of Distance.” [See: Yves Klein]
Solnit recently wrote an article for Tom Dispatch which mentioned the dinner she had with a good friend, Red Constantino. [See: Tom Dispatch, Red Constantino]

This picture was brought to you by the urge to break the monotony of reading through mind-numbing text. Thank you.

4) The True and the Plain: A Collection of Personal Essays by Kerima Polotan.

Already wrote a blog entry about this book. It would be redundant if I wrote about it again. [See: Polotan]
Nevertheless, her turns of phrase remain the envy of those, including myself, who have decided to pursue the literary arts.

“It was the essence of life’s absurdity that the airy language of fashion should crowd out the spare idiom of human tragedy.”

“…the courage and the strength that can love the imperfect and that maimed.”

“…no one should travel who is not prepared to leave his provincialism at home.”

5) Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

Always thought that Amis was an uptight Englishman especially since the first Amis book that I read was an anthology of essays — Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions — which as far as I can remember has underwhelmed me. [See: Money, Martin Amis]
Money has proven me wrong.
Unfortunately, it took me more than ten years to try him again. And this time in the long form.
If ever you’ve decided to plunge into a novel — especially in this day and age when attention spans are growing shorter — you can never go wrong with Money.
Amis’ prose, humor, and capacity for invention are unparalleled.

Prose: (of the heat in New York)

“I’ve taken up handjobs again. You should see me. I’m back with the rest of you — I’m doing it too. Hello again. Well, here we all are, lying flat on our backs like bent Picasso guitars. This is ridiculous — but what can I do? You know how it is with the street women in hot cities, in concrete jungles. It’s not that the weather brings them out. It’s just that the weather takes most of their clothes off. In the snarling insanity of high-summer Manhattan, in the staggered ranks of the streets, women move in their extra being of womanliness, all this extra breast and haunch, and emanations, sweet transparencies, intoxicating deposits. Men creep palely through the fever. Even Fielding shows the strain. ‘It’s a bitch,’ he says. ‘Slick, we can’t beat it. So let’s join it.’ He keeps suggesting outlandish benders, Venusian brothel-crawls, home-delivery women, dialler women, takeout women. There’s this chick, that fox, these birds, those diamond dogs. There are dancers, strippers, loopers, hookers.”

(of the Fiasco, the car of John Self, the protagonist)

“Now my Fiasco, it’s a beautiful machine, a vintage-style coupe with oodles of dash and heft and twang. The Fiasco, it’s my pride and joy. Acting like a pal, I lend the motor to Alec Llewellyn while I’m in New York. And what do I return to? An igloo of parking-tickets and birdcrap, with a ripped spare, a bad new grinding noise, and every single gauge resignedly flashing. What’s the guy been doing to my great, my incomparable Fiasco? It feels as though he’s been living in it, subletting it. Some people, they’ve got no class. You should see the way the boys at the garage simply cover their faces with envy and admiration when the Fiasco is driven — or pushed or towed or, on one occasion, practically coptered — into their trash-strewn mews. It is temperamental, my Fiasco, like all the best racehorses, poets and chefs. You can’t expect it to behave like any old Mistral or Alibi. I bought it last year for an enormous amount of money. There are some — Alec is among them, probably — who believe that the Fiasco errs on the side of ostentation, that the Fiasco is in questionable taste. But what do they know.”

Humor (of an actor who changed his name):

Who, for a start, was Garfield? The guy’s name is Gary. Barry isn’t short for Barfield, is it.

(of “guilt welfare”)

People get on just fine with their money, but when someone genuinely needy shows up, with a big knife, they get all these new ideas about the distribution of wealth.

(of knowing people)

My theory is — we don’t really go that far into other people, even when we think we do. We hardly ever go in and bring them out. We just stand at the jaws of the cave, and strike a match, and quickly ask if anybody’s there.

(of foreigners)

“The foreigners around here. I know they don’t speak English — okay, but do they even speak Earthling? They speak stereo, radio crackle, interference. They speak sonar, bat-chirrup, pterodactylese, fish-purr.”

(of the adjustment to living with a woman)

“And with a chick on the premises you just cannot live the old life. You just cannot live it. I know: I checked. The hungover handjob athwart the unmade bed — you can’t do it. Blowing your nose into a coffee filter — there isn’t the opportunity. Peeing in the basin — they just won’t stand for it. No woman worth the name would let it happen.”

And finally, Amis’ capacity for invention:

Names of the fictional cars in the novel include the following:

Autocrat
Tomahawk
Mañana
Iago
Jefferson
Acapulco
Alibi
Tigerfish

And: A laundromat outlet is called a Whirlomat while a “flash-friable pork-and-egg bap or roll or hero” is called a Hamlette.

*From the Honorable Mention Dept. The three others that were left behind include Jose Y. Dalisay Jr.’s Soledad’s Sister, Robert X. Cringely’s Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date (also lent by Alan Robles), and Martin Amis’ Night Train. [See: Jose Dalisay, Robert Cringely]

From the My Understanding is (so don’t bet on it) Dept.

**Supposedly, large funds which bought and sold shares in the US stock market programmed their computers to buy and sell shares, given certain trends. In October 1987, when these programs detected trends to sell, they did so, spurring other programs operated by other funds — and other investors — to do the same. As a result, what is considered as program trading triggered a sell-off, causing a plunge in share prices.

***The Asian crisis — or at least according to my understanding of Arnold Tenorio’s explanation — unfolded when Thailand relied too much on dollar earnings from its exports. Too many dollars coming in encouraged bankers and businesses to lend and borrow in the US currency. Guess what happened when Thailand’s export markets ran dry? The dollar rose and the baht fell, causing Thai asset prices — including real estate and Thai stocks — to devalue. Always risk-averse, foreign funds left Thailand and later Asia as a whole and took their dollars with them. With a dwindling dollar supply, regional currencies — including the peso — plummeted to record lows.

(Arnold, who used to be my boss and remains, fortunately and unfortunately, my friend, has an MBA degree. He has so far been the only contributor to this blog, who reminds me often enough that that’s not an impressive distinction altogether. I agree. After all, I don’t have an MBA.) [See: Arnold Tenorio’s contribution]

Rushdie on the power of the novel

Rushdie at 2008 dinner honoring writer Amos Oz (David Shankbone/Wikipedia)

“There are other reasons, too, for proposing the novel as the crucial art form of what I can no longer avoid calling the post-modern age. For one thing, literature is the art least subject to external control, because it is made in private. The act of making it requires only one person, one pen, one room, some paper. (Even the room is not absolutely essential). Literature is the most low-technology of the art forms. It requires neither a stage nor a screen. It calls for no interpreters, no actors, producers, camera crews, costumiers, musicians. It does not even require the traditional apparatus of publishing, as the long running success of samizdat literature demonstrates. The [Michel] Foucault essay [What is an author?] suggests that literature is as much at risk from the enveloping, smothering forces of the market economy, which reduces books to mere products. The danger is real, and I do not want to seem to be minimizing it. But the truth is that of all the forms, literature can still be the most free. The more money a piece of work costs, the easier it is to control. Film, the most expensive of art forms, is also the least subversive. This is why, although Carlos Fuentes cites the work of film-makers like [Luis] Buñuel, [Ingmar] Bergman, and [Federico] Fellini as instances of successful secular revolts into the territory of the sacred, I continue to believe in the greater possibilities of the novel. Its singularity is its best protection.”

— From “Is Nothing Sacred?” written by Salman Rushdie and delivered by Harold Pinter as part of the Herbert Read Memorial Lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in February 1990 and published by Granta both as a pamphlet that carried the same title and in its 31st issue.