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, 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:


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]

Lewis on explaining the rise and fall of the US dollar

With Plenty of Money and You (which is a title of a Tony Bennett song with the Count Basie Orchestra) Photo by Michael A. Keller/Corbis

When the dollar moved, it was usually because some other central banker or politician somewhere had made a statement. (The markets would be far more peaceful if politicians kept their views on the future path of the dollar to themselves. In view of the high percentage of times they end up apologizing for, or modifying, their remarks, it is a wonder they don’t stifle themselves.)
But there was no such news.
I told Alexander [a client] that several Arabs had sold massive holdings of gold, for which they received dollars.
They were selling those dollars for marks and thereby driving the dollar lower.
I spent much of my working life inventing logical lies like this.
Most of the time when markets move, no one has any idea why.
A man who can tell a good story can make a good living as a broker. It was the job of people like me to make up reasons, to spin a plausible yarn.
And it’s amazing what people will believe. Heavy selling out of the Middle East was an old standby.
Since no one ever had any clue what the Arabs were doing with their money or why, no story involving Arabs could ever be refuted.

— Michael Lewis from his book, Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street [see: Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker]

Benz on Collateralized Debt Obligations

A chocolate fondue fountain is used as a metaphor for the kind of debt — called CDOs — that precipitated the 2008 global meltdown. (

A CDO is a bundle of debt you can buy. In the sense of loans, it works like this: An underwriter, or investment bank, buys many loans, and pools together everyone’s first few payment, then their next few payments, and calls these tranches. Each tranche is sliced up and sold as CDOs, and each tranche carries an increasing degree of risk. The highest quality rated tranches get the first dibs on payment from the loan pools. However, because they are less risky, the interest rates they earn are not as high as those for tranches that are later in line.
Think of it as one of those tiered chocolate fondue fountains that’s shaped like upright, stacked satellite dishes. The top bowl has to overflow to fall into the next bowl. If the chocolate stops running (think default, early repayment), the first cup gets filled with what’s still in the system, and maybe some of the second tier, but people at the bottom, who otherwise would have had the most chocolate are instead stuck there holding their toothpicks and wishing they’d just ordered the cheesecake.

— Chris Benz, one of five of McSweeney’s interns who prepared the glossary found in Michael LewisPanic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity

Lewis on defending the boom

“It is deplorable that some executives fiddled their books and stole from companies. But their behavior was, in the grand scheme of things, trivial. Less than trivial: expected. A boom without crooks is like a dog without fleas. It doesn’t happen. Why is that? Why do periods of great prosperity always wind up being periods of great scandal? It’s not that it happens occasionally. It happens every time. The railroad boom makes the Internet boom look clean. The Wall Street boom of the 1980s, the conglomerate boom of the 1960s, when they came to an end, had their evil villains and were followed by regulatory zeal that appears to have had exactly zero effect the next time the stock market went up.

Is it possible that scandal is somehow an essential ingredient in capitalism? That a healthy free-market economy must tempt a certain number of people to behave corruptly, and that a certain number of these will do so? That the crooks are not a sign that something is rotten but that something is working more or less as it was meant to work? After all, a market economy is premised on a system of incentives designed to encourage an ignoble human trait: self-interest. Is it all shocking that, when this system undergoes an exciting positive transformation, self-interest spins out of control?

Of course, it is good that the crooks are rounded up. We all can move on feeling as if justice was done, and perhaps the next time around fewer people will succumb to temptation. But in the meantime it’s worth asking: how did the crooks get away with it in the first place? Where were the bold regulators and the fire-breathing journalists five years ago, when it actually would have been a little brave, possibly even a little useful, to inveigh against the excesses of the boom? Where in the stock market of five years ago was Eliot Spitzer? (Fully invested with Jim Cramer, who wrote the book about how to use the media to juice one’s own portfolio.) Where was the press? Egging on the very people they now seek to humiliate. The very people who are now baying so loudly for blood were in most cases creating the climate that rewarded corrupt practices.

Around the time the Enron scandal broke last October, there was a good example of just how effortlessly the celebration of the 1990s became a retribution of the 2000s. As gleefully reported by Forbes magazine, Fortune magazine was about to go to press with a cover article for its November 26 issue about the post-9/11 economy in which “the smartest people we know” were consulted. As it happened, one of those people was Kenneth Lay, the chairman and chief executive of Enron Corporation. The issue was laid out, with Lay’s picture right there on the cover when the Enron scandal broke. You might think that would pose a big problem for Fortune magazine, but if it did, the magazine didn’t show it. Using a nifty 1990s piece of photo-editing software, the editors were able to erase Ken Lay. Fortune published on schedule and, ignoring all the flattery it had lavished on Enron over the past few years, piled right onto the scandal. It took only a few months before two of Fortune’s writers had sold their Enron book for $1.4 million.

Good for them, I say. We all have to earn a living. But the next time some editor, or regulator, or politician seeking re-election, begins to shriek about the iniquities of the boom, someone needs to turn to him and ask: where were you when it was happening? And if the answer happens to be, “Making the boom work for me,” the best thing you can do is forgive him for it. Really, it wasn’t such a bad way to spend your time.”

— Michael Lewis, In Defense of the Boom first published in October 2002 issue of The New York Times Magazine and anthologized in a 2009 book he edited entitled Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity