Friday, December 20, 2013

The Big Short - Michael Lewis (2011)

The Big Short is a tough book to review for the same reasons it must have been a tough book to write.  On the one hand it is certainly well-written, brisk, entertaining, informative, and intriguing; on the other it tends to leave the reader in the dust.  It comes out of the gate with enormous energy--and the first 50 pages are about as good as any I've read.  It also ends very strongly (I wanted to write "on a high note" but that wouldn't be accurate, content-wise).  However, for the middle 180 pages or so it tends to run over the same ground with little or no development.  Thus while I highly recommend this book, I do so with reservations, which I hope I can adequately articulate.

First of all, I need to get something off my chest: this book made me depressed.  Okay, you say, the subject matter is depressing so no big surprise there.  And actually it's not that depressing--it's really an incredible success story.  However, I do not recommend this book for recent law school graduates who have mounting debt obligations and feelings of hopelessness with regard to their career prospects.  This book is all about betting against homeowners who signed up for subprime mortgages.  Of course, there is little reason to believe that people will be able to make their loan payments when the interest rate on their loan balloons after two years, but if these people knew what they were getting into, they must have believed that good things were going to come their way--that they would get a big enough raise two years from now to make much higher mortgage payments, or that the value of their home would continue to rise and they could refinance.  Alas, when millions of people are packaged together in an asset-backed security or collateralized debt obligation, the odds are not in their favor.  Such is life for law students, too, and people do not want to be sympathetic to our plight because we should have known better.  It wasn't like there was fine print that we neglected to read because nobody reads that stuff anyways--we were going to be trained to write that fine print.

So yes, the future appears hopeless for many of us, and five years ago, the future appeared hopeless for millions of Americans.  But things are gradually getting better, we're told.  Interest rates are low and home prices are rising and jobs are being created.  Unfortunately they are not getting better fast enough for many of us (law school enrollment rates are way down, finally).

So when you're poor and feeling hopeless, watching your bank account dwindle to the point where homelessness starts to feel inevitable, this is not a good book to be reading.  You can't really laugh along with it.

It's not supposed to be comic, though:

"Writing this book, I bumped up early and often against a new discomfort: the material would not allow me to do what I naturally would like to do with it.  It was as if I'd been asked to play basketball using only my right hand, or write a sonnet using only sight rhymes.  It took me a while to understand the problem: I was accustomed to writing stories that were, at heart, comic.  The story of the investors who made their fortunes from the collapse of the U.S. financial system had lots of funny bits to it, but it was, at heart, a tragedy." (265)

When I first started reading this book--the first ten pages or so--I mistook it for a work of fiction.  I thought maybe it was a roman a clef.  But it is non-fiction.  It is the story of three hedge funds (Frontpoint Partners, Scion Capital, and Cornwall Capital) and the quirky people that started them and made a boatload of money.  The story begins with Steve Eisman, and perhaps disaffected recent law graduates might seek a new path after reading about his:

"Eisman entered finance about the time I exited it.  He'd grown up in New York City, gone to yeshiva schools, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania magna cum laude, and then with honors from Harvard Law School.  In 1991 he was a thirty-year-old corporate lawyer wondering why he ever thought he'd enjoy being a lawyer.  'I hated it,' he says.  'I hated being a lawyer.  My parents worked as brokers at Oppenheimer securities.  They managed to finagle me a job.  It's not pretty but that's what happened.'" (1)

As a side note, since Lewis references himself in the first sentence (as well as during the excellent prologue and epilogue), his background bears mentioning.  I am straight-up jealous of Michael Lewis.  I have not read Liar's Poker, but I have heard it is a very good book, and he mentions a couple times that Ohio State University students read it is a "how-to" manual for making money on Wall Street.  It is apparently about his time working for the infamous Salomon Brothers partnership-turned-corporation in the 1980's.  One presumes he made a boatload of money himself working for that company, and also that he has made a boatload of money off the book, to say nothing of The Blind Side and Moneyball.  Now, apparently Brad Pitt owns the movie rights to The Big Short and I am sure that it will make for a great film that could potentially rival the iconic Wall Street.  In case Brad Pitt is reading this, I would like to ask him for the chance to audition for a small part in the movie because I think I have undiscovered acting talent.  I think I would like to play Charlie Leadley but maybe that is reserved for an A-lister.  But I see I am getting ahead of myself.

Steve Eisman started Frontpoint Partners.  There is a very interesting episode that takes place in 2002 involving Household Finance--a kind of prelude to the subprime lending boom.  He is also really into comic books, Spiderman in particular.  There is also a nice point about his political persuasion:

"In his youth, Eisman had been a strident Republican.  He joined right-wing organizations, voted for Reagan twice, and even loved Robert Bork.  It wasn't until he got to Wall Street, oddly, that his politics drifted left.  He attributed his first baby steps back to the middle of the political spectrum to the end of the cold war.  'I wasn't as right-wing because there wasn't as much to be right-wing about.' By the time Household's CEO, Bill Aldinger, collected his $100 million, Eisman was on his way to becoming the financial market's first socialist.  'When you're a conservative Republican, you never think people are making money by ripping other people off,' he said.  His mind was now fully open to the possibility.  'I now realized there was an entire industry, called consumer finance, that basically existed to rip people off.'" (20)

After Eisman is introduced, Michael Burry follows.  Burry started Scion Capital.  While Eisman is certainly quirky, Burry takes it to another level.  First, he only has one eye.  Second, instead of law school he went to medical school:

"Investing was something you had to learn how to do on your own, in your own peculiar way.  Burry had no real money to invest, but he nevertheless dragged his obsession along with him through high school, college, and medical school.  He'd reached Stanford Hospital without ever taking a class in finance or accounting, let alone working for any Wall Street firm.  He had maybe $40,000 in cash, against $145,000 in student loans.  He had spent the previous four years working medical student hours.  Nevertheless, he had found time to make himself a financial expert of sorts." (36)

What is interesting about Eisman and Burry is that they appear to disprove the Efficient Capital Markets Hypothesis, which basically states that you cannot "game" the stock market, because everyone else has the same information as you (the exception being insider trading).  I'm sure not just anyone can do what they did, but it is nice to see an "outlier" make good when the consensus says otherwise:

"Right from the start, Scion Capital was madly, almost comically, successful.  By the middle of 2005, over a period in which the broad stock market index had fallen by 6.84 percent, Burry's fund was up 242 percent and he was turning away investors.  To his swelling audience, it didn't seem to matter whether the stock market rose or fell; Mike Burry found places to invest money shrewdly.  He used no leverage and avoided shorting stocks.  He was doing nothing more promising than buying common stocks and nothing more complicated than sitting in a room reading financial statements.  For roughly $100 a year he became a subscriber to 10-K Wizard.  Scion Capital's decision-making apparatus consisted of one guy in a room, with the door closed and the shades drawn, poring over publicly available information and date on 10-K Wizard.  He went looking for court rulings, deal completions, or government regulatory changes--anything that might change the value of a company." (44-45)

Burry is also diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome later in the story, and while Asperger's may be a difficult thing to live with, it seems like everyone who is a genius has Asperger's.  So maybe it is not the worst diagnosis to get.

Finally, the story features Jamie Mai and Charlie Leadley, who started Cornwall Capital:

"Jamie Mai was tall and strikingly handsome and so, almost by definition, had the air of a man in charge--until he opened his mouth and betrayed his lack of confidence in everything from tomorrow's sunrise to the future of the human race.  Jamie had a habit of stopping himself midsentence and stammering--'uh, uh, uh'--as if he was somehow unsettled by his own thought.  Charlie Leadley was even worse: He had the pallor of a mortician and the manner of a man bent on putting off, for as long as possible, definite action.  Asked a simple question, he'd stare mutely into space, nodding and blinking like an actor who has forgotten his lines, so that when he finally opened his mouth the sound that emerged caused you to jolt in your chair.  It speaks!" (108-109)

Basically, the human side of the story is told very well by Lewis, but again, most of the middle of this book seems to get repetitive.

You could sum up the middle of the book with one phrase: basically nobody knows what's in a CDO!

And that is my major complaint about this book.  It's very hard to write an interesting story about these ridiculously arcane financial instruments.  Lewis does the best job he can--and at times, he can be rather lucid:

"A couple years earlier, he'd [Burry] discovered credit default swaps.  A credit default swap was confusing mainly because it wasn't really a swap at all.  It was an insurance policy, typically on a corporate bond, with semiannual premium payments and a fixed term.  For instance, you might pay $200,000 a year to buy a ten-year credit default swap on $100 million in General Electric bonds.  The most you could lose was $2 million: $200,000 a year for ten years.  The most you could make was $100 million, if General Electric defaulted on its debt any time in the next ten years and bondholders recovered nothing.  It was a zero-sum bet: If you made $100 million, the guy who had sold you the credit default swap lost $100 million.  It was also an asymmetric bet, like laying down money on a number in roulette.  The most you could lose were the chips you put on the table; but if your number came up you made thirty, forty, even fifty times your money.  'Credit default swaps remedied the problem of open-ended risk for me,' said Burry.  'If I bought a credit default swap, my downside was defined and certain, and the upside was many multiples of it.'" (29)

However, after the instrument in question has been defined once, Lewis expects the reader to be fluent in what it means.  Of course it would be annoying and pedantic to keep reminding the reader what he was talking about, so it is a hard balance to strike.  Still, at a certain point in the middle, it almost seems as if he throws up his hands in the air and says, "No one knows what it means anyways!"

I am particularly sensitive to this problem because I had the same issue when I took a Corporate Finance course in law school.  True, I felt I learned a lot in it--but it was also my worst grade in law school (tied with two others).  I still don't really understand how "selling short" works, but I think it has something to do with options--calls and puts.

These instruments are complex, and part of the problem with Wall Street is the "doubletalk"--the hope that retail investors won't really understand what brokers are talking about, so they'll either stay away or invest blindly.  I personally don't have any money to invest.  I'd like to do it, but it seems very intimidating for this simple fact.

There are some nice moments in the middle.  For example, the chapter that details a subprime bond market convention in Las Vegas is particularly entertaining (and will probably make for the best sequence in the film).  But my criticisms stand.

Would it have been possible for Lewis to write a better book?  Maybe, but I can't say for sure.  You can get kind of lost in the characters (apart from the three principal hedge funds) and the financial lingo.  But if you really want to learn about this industry, and you take the time to read very slowly, you will probably get a lot out of it.  If you want to breeze through it, I think you will find it reasonably entertaining but it will all start to seem like a blur.

That's what I did.  I read the first 50 pages very slowly, and then read pretty quickly through the rest (though it took me a long time--almost two months--mainly because my life is pretty much a huge mess right now).  So maybe that colors my interpretation of the text.  And again, the recent law school graduate depression thing certainly affected my enjoyment.  If I had disposable income, I would probably like this book a lot more.

One other thing I found hilarious: Michael Lewis is married to Tabitha Soren.  I had completely forgotten about her until I saw the "take back MTV" episode in Portlandia and find it awesome that the house where Fred and Carrie went to recruit Tabitha was the house where Lewis lived.  All I have to say is that I still want to be a rich and famous author after reading this book.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Special Comment: I will say this twice

First of all, I'd like to apologize.  I haven't written a post in what, two months?  And no hiatus message?  Clearly, other things have been going on.  Rest assured, a review of The Big Short will be coming down the pipeline in the next week, so stay tuned.

Second, I'd like to apologize for writing this post.  I really don't want to do it.  It forces me to say a lot of things I'd rather not say.  I am sure I could say nothing and just let it die, and I'm afraid if I do this it will start things back up again.  I've never been one to attack strangers on the internet, and I don't want to do it.  But I have to defend myself.

For those of you that don't know, I have had my pathetic little fifteen minutes of crappy fame.  I don't even want to post a link here.  You can just google my name.  Luckily only one of the two posts shows up in the first results.  Unfortunately there were some pretty terrible pictures (or one, at least) that I just had to "report" on google.

I could launch into a full-on screed about cyber libel and how I should really turn this unfortunate event into a life lesson for all the scambloggers out there, but I don't want to invite any more speculation about what is or is not possible.  I kindly left a comment after the first story was posted and it was deleted.  I would rather not kindly ask anymore because if it goes down voluntarily, then it won't be as satisfying as, oh, returning the punch.

Because that is what we're told.  In Catholic school at least.  Do not get into fights.  If someone hits you, do not hit them back.  Turn the other cheek.

If I were making a six figure salary right now, I probably could do that.  However, while I really didn't want to make substantive comments about scamblogging, I think I have to.  Because I have to set things straight:

#1: I am not Mr. Infinity.

A lot of people think I am, for some reason.  I will tell you this: I really did not do myself any favors by writing a special comment about scamblogs.  I featured two of the blogs (maybe there was a third, but it had no fallout) in the comment.  One of them responded in truly vicious fashion, and the other one wrote, "Thank you very much for featuring my blog, 'Law School Fail' on your analysis.  Sincerely, Mr. Infinity." Now, I had already read the first post about me, so this did not come as a happy comment.  I wanted to be like, "WTF dude, didn't you see that everyone thought I was you? Why didn't you tell them we're two different people?" Instead, he just linked to Flying Houses on his blogroll.  I do not get very many hits from him.

But I'm not mad at him.  I could speculate that he's a made-up person, too, but I don't want to fuel speculation that I'm paranoid schizophrenic.

However, I am not him.  And the people that set out to destroy me (and if you think I'm being dramatic by saying that, you haven't read all the comments yet) probably won't believe that, but they should listen to reason and read the rest of my posts here.  Flying Houses is my only blog (apart from, which was my way of putting my first novel online) and it has always been primarily about book reviews.

I rarely get into trouble with book reviews.  And in fact, the authors of some of the books I've reviewed have actually found them, and taken my criticism to heart.  So blogging is not a totally stupid thing to do.

However, writing a column called NIED was probably not the smartest thing to do.  I expected to get a lot of hate mail for what I wrote, and I did get a fair amount.  But some of this hate mail crossed the line.  Still, I am proud of (most of) my work for BLS Advocate.  Of course I wrote 24 pieces, and some of them became extremely esoteric (i.e., but overall, I think I wrote relatively well.  Some people just didn't get the joke.

#2: I never said the scamblogs were wrong.

This is what infuriates me most: the only reason I became a target is because I made some very mild comments!  I called the blog in question "an especially vicious site that seems to revel in parade after parade of horribles."  I guess the really offensive thing is that I may have expressed what appeared to be sympathy for a person that has been skewered about ten times worse than I have, but who truly can "turn the other cheek" because fighting back is beneath her and she would rather have everyone wonder what she does than answer why she needs to get paid like half a million dollars a year, but whatever.  What would be really cool is if she would notice what was going on, and pay me to "take care of the situation"--but I am sure she would rather pay her personal attorney than one of her "victims."

#3: I never took the NY Bar Exam.

And I did pass the Illinois Bar Exam.  You can check now if you need proof.
Actually, those commenters on story #2 alerted me to the fact that there was one more hoop to jump through after being sworn-in: registering.  I registered a couple weeks after the comments came in that I was a liar.

Why did I not take the NY Bar Exam?  I really don't think I need to explain myself, but people seem to want to know.  First of all, let me agree with the person that said I was a "fucking idiot" for going back to Illinois.  I know--it was a mistake.  It is very hard to start off in a "new" city, even if you were born here and did your post-2L summer internship here.  I certainly made more "contacts" in NYC, but most of those contacts were at the places I interned.

And I really did want to stay in NYC.  I interviewed with one of those places where I did an internship, and I made it to the final round--but alas, I was not hired.  At that point, I had registered for the NY Bar Exam.  However, I cancelled that registration, and received a $250 refund (so for all the hesitant bar takers out there--it is possible!  But you may need to show them a copy of your bank account balance).  And, yes, I paid $1,450 to register in Illinois.  It hurt, but so did paying like $1,800 to have my stuff (which wasn't even very much stuff!) shipped from Brooklyn to Chicago and stored for two months.  And it hurt paying $1,080 for first month rent + security deposit without knowing when I would (or if I ever would) have stable income again.

But, I knew it wasn't likely that I would get a job at any of the other places I interned.  They just weren't the types of places to be able to hire all (or most) of their past interns.  I guess most places that do internships (and not summer associate-ships) are like that--but I always did my best at internships, with an eye towards the future.  It almost worked out a couple times, but in the end it didn't, and while it was a painful decision, I just didn't want to face the horrible reality of taking the NY Bar while trying to find an apartment with a dwindling cash reserve and no proof of stable employment.  I would have had to move out of my place two days after I took it.

So for the person that said it was "well-known" that I stayed in New York until August, you are correct!  I flew back to Chicago, stayed here a few days, took the Bar, passed it (somehow--and I find it offensive that some of these commenters think I am a cocky POS when I have always been painfully honest about my grades and general level of intelligence), flew back to NYC, packed up my apartment, and then went to my sister's wedding in Massachusetts.  I stayed so I could go to that wedding, and because I was working two days a week at the library.

#4: I did not move to California (that happened six-and-a-half years ago)

Seriously, why would I take the NY Bar if I was moving to California?  The only time I contemplated moving to California after law school was when I interviewed for a bankruptcy clerkship in Oakland.  I would never voluntarily go to CA to take the Bar there.  That is the hardest bar exam in the country by a lot.  However, if I was dead-set on moving there, I would have taken it over the NY Bar because it really would be retarded to think I'd be competitive in the job market there without in-state licensure.

I did move to Calfornia in 2007.  But this is going to get into the fact that my life is "all sorts of epic fail," a comment that especially made me want to kill myself.  Oh, don't let me confuse the issues here!  This is not about cyberbullying; this is about cyber libel.  It's not like I have a great reputation, okay, but when they swore us in on Halloween, all they wanted to talk about was that constant refrain that it takes years to build your reputation and minutes to destroy it, so be careful.  And I have been pretty careful.  People may think I'm reckless, but honestly, I have always been paying attention to the things I write and post online and the way I carry myself in day-to-day reality.

I moved there, and--what happened there, I will not tell.  I'll let other people try to figure it out for themselves.  But I will admit that Flying Houses was born in West L.A.

I'll also admit that I've pretty much said what I wanted to say, and unfortunately, I just have to record everything else that everyone got wrong.

#5: I am not a vegan.

But I wish I could be.

#6: I never wrote an e-book called "Derailed at my Law School"

And I would never publish a 25-page e-book.  A 25-page book is probably not worth $0.99 (especially if it's electronic).

#7: I do allow comments on my site.

Even negative ones.  But I delete spam.

#8: I don't always defend BLS.

I was complimenting the comment about the entering class size at BLS being too big.  Some people just do not want to say a single nice thing about anybody.  :(

#9: I am not Odnan.

I really didn't want to have to get into this either, but I seriously would not be so lame as to make a "copycat blog" or to write another e-book called "How to Win at Law School." While those may be uncanny parallels (perhaps Mr. Infinity does moonlight as Odnan), when I write an e-book, it's going to be called "TTT" or "A Mark" - not something lame and generic.  I also wouldn't waste my time creating mirror blogs to make it seem like I have more fans than I really do.  I'm proud of the fact that I have 52,000 page views.  My audience is limited, but I care about creating quality content--not becoming a limited public figure.

#10: I am not going to address all of the comments after story #1.

It would take too long and get too tedious.

#11: I did not talk down to JD Painter.

And I would never make fun of someone who was deeply in debt and unable to get a decent job in the legal industry.  That is just mean.  And yes, I guess we are now in the same boat.

#12: I am not $300,000 in debt.

But I may be after 24 years of IBR at $30/month or whatever it ends up being if I attempt to live off tips.  Wait for my blog and new pseudonym: JD Waiter.

I have nothing more to say except that I have always intended for my writing to bring other people a brief moment of happiness, or to feel less alone.  I would never write about a person to try to destroy them unless they had done something pretty bad to me or someone I loved.  I don't think I've done that and don't feel I deserve to be treated this way.  People feel free to act like dicks on the internet because they can hide behind a pseudonym or declare themselves anonymous and nobody will ever call them out on that.  But I honestly hope that one day all of the hurtful and insensitive comments, made with reckless disregard for the truth, will be treated as unprotected speech, as they are words that, by their very utterance, tend to inflict harm.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Special Comment: Chicago Cubs 2013 Report Card

Today I was perusing some old posts and I came across this one.  It was written nearly two years ago and I have not written on the Cubs since.  I felt it was important to point out a couple clever things from it:

(1) "#2: Trading Sean Marshall

Sean Marshall was the lone bright spot on the extremely disappointing team last season (aside from Starlin). He was one of the best relievers in baseball. The Cubs got Travis Wood in return. I think he’s a starter, or something, and they needed one? Regardless, it shows that Theo has no idea what he is doing."

Update: Travis Wood turned out to be a pretty good move, so I forgive Theo for that.

(2) "I hope Wrigley Field falls a hundred thousand visitors short this year. I hope real Cubs fans will boycott this team."

Update: Attendance has continued to fall.  Who knew?

I moved back to Chicago after going to law school in New York for three years.  One of the things I was looking forward to was living in a city where other people cared about the same team as me.  I am not a Yankees or Mets or Giants or Jets or Nets or Knicks or Rangers or Islanders fan and the only time I could muster speaking about them was when they were playing a Chicago team.  Sadly, I came back to a team that just made me feel sad and depressed.

I write this because the Cubs have been in the news, a bit, and because the Championship series are in full swing (go Dodgers and Tigers).  There is $500 million in planned renovations for Wrigley Field, and the story is that the team has not even bothered to secure permits to begin the construction work.  Some angry fans suggest demolishing Wrigley Field and moving the team to a "friendlier" outlying neighborhood of Chicago (or out of the city entirely).  I doubt that will happen, but $500 million?  Did I read that right?  This apparently involves installing a large jumbotron which will block views from the rooftops across the street.  Having watched one game from those rooftops I will say that it is an experience that every Cubs fan should have at least once.  I'm glad I got to have mine, but who needs a jumbotron?  Need more advertising revenue?  How come the team seemed to do just fine in the past without these accoutrements?  Some people say that the Ricketts family is to blame (not Theo) and I am tempted to agree!  That two-year-old post referenced at the top of this post bemoaned the loss of Ryne Sandberg, and I am still not over it.  I remember hearing that Tom Ricketts used to sit in the bleachers and watch games, and I thought that was great because I did the same thing.  But did they really grow up fans?  I don't think Theo grew up a Cubs fan either.  

Now I will give a bunch of people grades:

Dale Sveum: D+

Sveum was fired, and two years ago I wrote, "maybe he will be a good manager."  I don't think he was a terrible manager (hence the "+") but I don't think Ryno would have gotten fired.  I read an article in the Sun-Times that said, be happy Sveum is the manager when the Cubs suck because it would be unfair to saddle Sandberg with such a bad team.  Fair enough!  But I still think Sandberg would not have gotten fired.  And let me be clear that I don't blame Sveum for getting fired.  It was practically impossible for him to make this team contend.  But if Theo/Jed/Ricketts have a plan to make this team contend in 2014 (maybe 2015 now?) then they must have known whoever managed 2012 and 2013 would be unlikely to last.  I read they're interviewing Rick Renteria and Dave Martinez.  If they cared about winning they'd be looking at, I don't know, Bob Brenly maybe?  

Alfonso Soriano: B+

For his age, and for his endurance through nearly the end of his contract, Soriano was one of the most reliable players on the team this year.  Notably he was traded to the Yankees for their playoff push and performed admirably, showing that he still could play another year in the majors.  His numbers (.254, 17 HRs, 51 RBI) were not great, but for his age, for playing in 93 games, and compared to the rest of the team, he deserves a B+.  It is too bad he will not be with us next year.  He was my favorite player since he was signed to the team.  

Anthony Rizzo: C-

Rizzo was the first move that Theo made where I thought, "Okay, maybe that is a good way of bringing young talent to the team."  Rizzo had a decent 2012 season, but he had a very disappointing 2013 season.  I doubt people expected him to make the All-Star team, but I was under the impression that he was supposed to be an All-Star caliber player.  He was a rock at first base, playing 160 games, and he drew 76 walks which was good for #1 on the team (along with his numbers in HR and RBI).  But he batted .233.  I am tempted to give him a C, because apart from the low batting average he wasn't exactly horrible, but the minus highlights my cynicism about relying on young unproven talent.  I would still give Rizzo the job starting first base next year but I would ask him to try to improve his average above .250 or maybe even .270.

Starlin Castro: D+

Castro was a bright spot two years ago.  I think he was an All-Star in 2012 but I might be mistaken.  Regardless, no one fell so hard and so fast.  Like Rizzo, there were a couple positives.  He was a rock, playing 161 games and getting 666 (!) at bats, but he batted a meager .245.  He led the team with 163 hits, but he only drew 30 walks and had 129 strike outs.  He was not always the lead-off man, but he is fast, and he only stole 9 bases (Soriano, 14 years older than Castro and playing in nearly 70 less games, stole 10).  I feel harsh giving him a D+ (I just changed that from a C- because I think Rizzo was a better player overall) but I think he deserves it.  Still, like Rizzo, he is one of the "future building blocks" and should start at shortstop next year.  But I would caution that if he doesn't improve by the All-Star break, he should be benched/demoted/traded.  

Nate Schierholtz: B-

Schierholtz was a more respectable version of Rizzo.  He batted .251, and came in 2nd with 21 home runs, and put up 68 RBI.  His on-base-percentage was lower than Rizzo's, so I am starting to feel like I am giving Rizzo too hard of a time.  I don't know what to say about Nate.  I thought it was a fairly good move to pick him up, but I'm not sure if he is still in the Cubs "plans" for 2015

Darwin Barney: D

Oh, Darwin, I really don't want to give you a D because you seem like such a nice person, but I'm sorry, I can't give you a D+.  .208 is just not going to cut it.  Barney was a good fielder (I think he won the Gold Glove in 2012) but his numbers just came up short this year.  Like Castro, give him the starting job again, but if he doesn't turn it around by the All-Star break, start considering how much of this young team should stick around for the impending trip to the World Series in 2015.

Travis Wood: B+

I was tempted to give him an A-, but I can't give that to someone that went 9-12.  Granted, his supporting cast was terrible, but he needs to hit at least .500 to get an A-.  His other numbers were good, and justify his being the lone All-Star on the team this year.  200 IP is what everyone aims for, and he hit it on the nose.  His ERA was a very respectable 3.11.  Wood, along with the Samardzija, should remain at the top of the rotation next year, and few Cubs fans have any complaints about them.

Jeff Samardzija: B

He was more pedestrian with an 8-13 record and a 4.34 ERA, but he threw 213.2 innings and struck out 214 for best on the team.  I don't think it's out of the question for him to make the All-Star team next year but of course, he needs a stronger supporting cast.

Edwin Jackson: C

Jackson was the Cubs biggest off-season acquisition.  Everyone thought he was going to be great--exactly the type of veteran they needed in the back of their pocket for their big run a couple years down the line.  And he did about as good as he could have with a weak offense, but he was also quite a disappointment.  Jackson had his worst season since 2007 with Tampa Bay where he went 5-15.  He went 8-18 and had a 4.98 ERA.  He was reliable, at least, and threw 175.1 innings.  But this was just, not enough.  I watched him pitch a few games where he seemed to "have it" and given that he is locked into a multi-year contract, he will probably take the #3 spot in the rotation next year.  Let us hope he can improve his consistency.

Jake Arrieta: B+

Honestly I don't know who else to name amongst pitchers because I don't know who the other 2 starters were on the team.  It seems like they just kept putting new people into pitch.  But Arrieta started 14 games so I figured he could be included.  He was above .500 (!) but his ERA was 4.78.  Most impressive was his opponent's batting average at .216.  I think he deserves a full year in the rotation, if he can handle it, and who knows maybe he would even bypass Jackson?  Unfortunately I don't know who the #5 starter would be, and I think the Cubs definitely need to pick up one high quality pitcher, if not two.

Wellington Castillo: A-

Sure, he only hit .274, but that was one of the highest averages on the team.  Plus towards the end of the season (right before he got injured to end it) he really seemed to turn it on.  I remember watching him make a very athletic play at home plate to tag out a sliding runner.  Catchers should be most important for calling games and defensive prowess, and Castillo is good at each.  He is my favorite player on the team, so maybe he really deserves a B+ but I give him an A- for personal bias.  

Dioner Navarro: A-

Probably the best player on the team this year.  He hit .300.  Enough said.  He probably deserves a higher grade than Castillo, but like I said, personal bias.  Together, however, these two catchers make up an excellent platoon that does not need to be changed.  And Navarro is the "veteran" who will turn 30 in February.  So the Cubs should keep these two locked up for their run at the pennant.  

Kevin Gregg: B

Sure he blew 5 saves, but that's not so bad for a team that was truly awful.  He complained about getting pulled for a younger closer at the end of the season, but it's nice to see someone care about getting playing time on a team that really didn't matter at that point.  He re-invigorated his career, and was one of the few bright spots this year.

Junior Lake: B+

Young player, only played in 64 games, but hit over .300 for a good part of his time, and ended up at .284.  Really not too much to write about (and that's the problem with this team--I don't want to ignore anyone, but I'm going to have to--this team had too many players with too small of a data set to effectively analyze).  In short, Lake replaced David DeJesus in Center Field.  DeJesus was "solid" and Lake was arguably a better player, if much less experienced.  Hopefully he will grow into a surprise.

Donnie Murphy: B+

I liked Donnie Murphy because right around the time I moved back from New York he was in the middle of his "tear" where he hit 8 home runs in 16 games or something.  He ended up with 11 home runs in 46 games, which is still pretty good.  He hit .255, which is not astounding, but is definitely good for this team.  Also he was a 30-year-old rookie.  So he is my second-favorite player after Castillo, but I fear he may not get as much playing time next year.  Hopefully he is given a chance to start next year.

James Russell: B

A weak 1-6 record for a reliever, but a very respectable 3.59 ERA.  Like I said about Wood and Samardzija, you can't judge these pitchers on their win-loss record.  Russell pitched well enough that he should be a keeper.  And at 27 he should be in his prime.  

Ryan Sweeney: B

Played in just a few games less than Junior Lake and barely merits inclusion in this list, but he hit .266 which is good for this team, and I saw him come up with a big hit or two near the end of the season.  He would be good to keep around as a utility player.  

Kyuji Fujikawa: C

He only pitched in 12 games.  Along with Edwin Jackson, he was a "big news" pickup because he was going to replace Carlos Marmol as the closer.  He saved 2 out of 3 chances.  His ERA was 5.25.  But his data set is too small.

And that is my overall problem with this team.  While many of the players near the end of this list were "okay," it was the big-time everyday players that just did not perform this year.  I can't say bad things about Scott Baker, Brian Bogusevic, Brooks Raley, Luis Valbuena, Carlos Villanueva, or Zac Rosscup.  They were all "okay."  You can't really tell who deserves to stay.  

The fact is this rebuilding effort has yet to give anyone much to be excited about, though Ricketts noted that the Cubs minor-league system is currently ranked #2 in baseball.  That's great, but if 2014 sucks, and attendance falls yet again, maybe they should think about splurging on some big names in 2015.  For some odd reason, I think they can afford to do that.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We All Sleep in the Same Room - Paul Rome (2013)

That said we never had a creative writing class together, and had we, I would have included him on the short list of best student writers I had read while in attendance at that institution, alongside, oh, Paul Rome, Adam White (technically from Dartmouth), Xenia Viray, and Jordana Rothman--and it bears mentioning that they all came from the same single class out of the eight or so I took.
-Review of Eeeee Eee Eeee (11/26/08)

I don't want to spend this entire review comparing Paul Rome to Tao Lin, but it's unavoidable.  I never had a writing class with Tao, but I had one with Paul.  It would have been fun if all three of us were in that same class--but that above quote suffers from slight inaccuracy: Adam White was not in that class.  I studied with him in Paris in 2003 and he just happened to write a novel while we were there that contained flashes of greatness.  The class to which I was referring was taught by Chris Spain.  I do not want to air dirty laundry but I cannot resist: Mr. Spain did not like me.  During one class, my peers gave comments on a story I had written while I joked quietly with a friend I brought in as a guest of the class (whom I also would list among the "best student writers" I knew if we had not suffered an "epic" falling out two years later).  Mr. Spain did not appreciate my gesture, as he felt it was enormously disrespectful.  He tore into me in the "notes" he handed out during the next class.  His "notes" were classic and I still have most of them saved somewhere.  They were his prescriptions for good writing, though he was always quick to mention that he was probably wrong about everything anyways.  He was very modest.  And in time, of course he was right: I needed more humility.  My ego was too big.  It was good to have too big of an ego, and maybe I would make it big after all, but more likely I would suffer a serious reality check before that happened.  Of course he was right.

Now I realize that 9 1/2 years ago, I had no clue what I was doing.  I majored in Writing and Politics at Gallatin because I liked it when people told me I wrote a good story.  There was no practicality to the matter.  In hindsight it was a colossal waste of $160,000 ($180K?) and I would be much better off today had I gone in for IT or Science or Economics or Business or almost anything else.  I was very much an epicurean.  I lived for the present and did not think of the future, unless it was a future where I was a rich and famous author that got away with being a big slacker throughout most of his adult life.  

Paul Rome acknowledges Chris Spain at the end of We All Sleep in the Same Room, along with a couple other MFA-preppers, saying, "their teachings resonate."  I would have done the same thing in my first novel, except I never wrote an acknowledgments section because nobody ever thought it was good enough to publish.  And to be fair, it is a bit of a mess, and people have told me I am a terrible writer because I do not believe (super-strongly) in the virtues of revision.   I think Paul and I differ on this count:

"After attending NYU's Gallatin School, Rome began his first novel.  Surviving countless edits and multiple formative relationships, We All Sleep in the Same Room is due for release by Rare Bird Books on October 15, 2013." 

That is from the "about the author" section of the press materials I received.  By my count, that is an 8 year gestation period.  And I guess this is where I start with my review: We All Sleep in the Same Room is engaging, humorous, insightful, and memorable.  And it's all over much too soon.

At 179 pages with fairly large type, it reads more like a novella than a novel.  And I have no problem with that!  I subconsciously listed Paul first in that line at the top of this post because the stories he wrote in class seemed effortless.  He has apparently made something of a name for himself in Bushwick with the readings of recent short stories he has written.  I've enjoyed them all!  In particular I remember a funny story about a "bromance" involving bird watching in Prospect Park.  And while this novel has a lovely arc, and builds and builds to a powerful climax, I must admit that I was let down by the ending.

I will do my best to avoid "spoilers" because it is a rare moment on Flying Houses indeed where we review a book two weeks before its release date.  

The main character is Tom Claughlin, a labor lawyer living in Manhattan, near Union Square.  He is married to Raina, and has a 3-year-old son named Ben.  As the novel opens, Tom is watching Ben being carried around by their new babysitter, Frank.  And here it is perhaps worth noting that I am glad Paul includes a male babysitter in the story.  Babysitting is not an equal opportunity profession, and there is little good reason for its rampant sexism.  

I wasn't sure what kind of novel this was going to be when I started it.  It struck me as almost some sort of mystery or detective thing, along the same lines as Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. But in fact it lands squarely in the "literary fiction" category.  

I don't want to give away the plot (it pretty much comes down to a few bad decisions) but the novel splits time between Tom's work life and his home life.  It is written in the first person, and spare.  It flows beautifully.  It reads like a charm.  It's endearing.  It's a pleasure to behold.

But I am sorry.  I cannot get over the ending.  This book has enormous potential and then the ending comes.  Some people may like the ending a lot.  I don't.  I can't help but compare it to "Breaking Bad," since that is the most topical "ending" as of this date.  I liked that ending because it wasn't a WTF ending.  WTF endings sometimes work best, and I have even tried a couple times to use them.  And maybe I'm just getting older, but I like to feel some closure at the end of a book.  Complete and total closure may be too much because a book is sort of different from a movie or TV show--it plays in your mind and seems to exist in a peculiar environment created by both your imagination and the author's.  As such the characters can seem even more real and ending their story can seem like their death and make you sad.

That Paul is able to accomplish this in his first novel is remarkable.  The novel seems plucked out of real life.  I couldn't help but thinking about my cousin and his wife, who are pushing forty and have a four-year-old and a two-year-old and all share a small apartment in Brooklyn Heights.  This vision of "small family life" in NYC is delightful--but it has a certain dark side that I won't get into.  

Usually I like to excerpt the especially beautiful passages, but there's not much I can include.  There's really not.  Like I said, the entire novel is a pleasure to read, and there is such a logical progression from sentence to sentence that nothing ever feels awkward or forced.  I can, however, point out one thing I am almost 100% positive is a mistake:

"'And you're happy for me?'
"I'm taking the bar soon, in January.'
'Wow.  So soon.'" (119)

Tom should be responding, "Really?  I thought you could only take it in February!"  I don't mean to be snarky but I mention this primarily because today I found out that I passed the Illinois Bar Exam.  So this is my own little memento on Flying Houses to remember a special milestone day.  But yes, the bar exam is administered in February and July--and from what I understand the last two days in each (except in California where it is 3 days).  Thus even though this novel takes place in 2005 (Hurricane Katrina is mentioned twice, along with a transit worker's strike) and perhaps it might be theoretically possible for there to be an earlier test date, I highly doubt that.

But to make up for that admittedly minor blunder, there is an excellent account of labor law litigation that I know several of my labor-obsessed classmates would read with interest.  It is a relatively small case, but the way it evokes passion in Tom is one of the highlights of the novel.  I was going to excerpt a passage from the climactic scene, but I will not spoil it.  All I can say is that Paul shies away from the typical portrait of litigation in mass media and goes for something much more realistic.  Perhaps it seems a bit like, "that's it?" but in that case it is true to life.  

In the case of the ending, however, the "that's it?" feeling is much more pernicious (for me, at least).  Because I feel like this novel is close to perfect.  I love the scene in McCarren Park, I love the scene at The Polar Express, I love the scenes at Tom's law firm, and I love the scene at the Christmas Party.  And then, something happens.  We don't exactly know what.  The reader can guess.  But it's not clear that's what really happened.  

Thus, We All Sleep in the Same Room suffers only from its WTF ending.  As I've said, I could be completely wrong about this.  I know the MFA contingent is a fan of WTF endings, but I don't know where Paul fits in with the MFA contingent.  He has not gotten his MFA and the question is, is he going to?  

When I reviewed Eeeee Eee Eeee, I interviewed Tao Lin.  I kind of wanted to interview Paul, too.  But I don't have many questions for him.  I would just ask him if he was going to get his MFA.  I'd imagine not.  Most people seem to do that to get their first book published.  Paul did it on his own.  And he did a good job of it.  Why get the MFA?  Because you can always improve your writing?  Maybe, but I know that 9 1/2 years ago Paul was a natural and nothing has changed.  I would not be surprised if Paul follows this up with a collection of short stories, since I would expect him to have a pretty good portfolio by now.  

But the big, big, big question: who is better--Paul or Tao?  Tao is an acquired taste.  Truthfully, Tao is more of an original, just because of the bonkers marketing machine that is his internet presence.  Paul is more of a "one size fits all" writer.  I don't want to say one writer is better than the other, but I will say that We All Sleep in the Same Room is better than Eeeee Eee Eeeee and Richard Yates and about as good as Shoplifting from American Apparel.  I have not read Taipei, though to be fair Tao did try to send it to me, but it is published by Vintage (i.e. "big-time") and Vintage does not care about Flying Houses (though Random House may...).  I have read that Taipei is Tao's best book yet, and that perhaps should be compared to this.  But it will need to wait.

Regardless of who is better, let Paul Rome become as famous as Tao Lin.  Let all of the NYU alumni of the Class of 2005 go on to fantastic, wonderful lives and careers where they create beautiful art.  I will look forward to reading all of Paul's work and I hope he goes on to construct a powerful oeuvre.  It is at least fun for me to pretend I was friends with people before they got famous. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1965)

I first read God Bless You, Dr. Rosewater when I was a junior or senior in high school, on the recommendation of a classmate.  I have not read it since.  I do not know why that classmate felt the need to recommend it so strongly, but perhaps it was because we both had something in common with Eliot Rosewater:

"Eliot had unremarkable academic careers at Loomis and Harvard.  He became an expert sailor during summers in Cotuit, on Cape Cod, and an intermediate skier during winter vacations in Switzerland." (15)

This could hardly be the reason, but the fact remains that I have never read another book whose main character went to the same high school as me.  And that high school should have been proud to put this book on its English course syllabuses--or at least assign it for summer reading for incoming freshman students rather than Clan of the Cave Bear.  Because this book has a very positive message, and is much more fun to read.  I'm afraid, however, that it might be considered "too racy" or "adult" even though it is comparatively tame.

But the book was worth reading in 2000 and it is worth reading today.  Oddly enough, I could appreciate it more after going through law school:

"No one ever went out to lunch with Mushari.  He took nourishment alone in cheap cafeterias, and plotted the violent overthrow of the Rosewater Foundation.  He knew no Rosewaters.  What engaged his emotions was the fact that the Rosewater fortune was the largest single money package represented by McAllister, Robjent, Reed and McGee.  He recalled what his favorite professor, Leonard Leech, once told him about getting ahead in law.  Leech said that, just as a good airplane pilot should always be looking for places to land, so should a lawyer be looking for situations where large amounts of money were about to change hands." (4)

This is how the novel opens up: Norman Mushari is a young attorney straight out of Cornell Law School working for a firm that represents an $87 million foundation headed by Eliot Rosewater.  Eliot also went to Harvard Law School but he does not work for anybody.  He oversees the foundation.  His father is a senator, representing Indiana.  Mushari hopes to have Eliot adjudged insane so that he may be removed as an officer of the foundation and that control may pass to Eliot's second cousin, Fred Rosewater.

The action of the book moves to Rosewater, Indiana.  Eliot's ancestors founded the town, and he returns to set up new headquarters for the foundation.  This part of the book details the breakdown of his marriage to Sylvia and the business that he carries out.  He has a black phone and a red phone.  The red phone is for the fire department, where he is a volunteer, and the black phone is for the foundation.  The foundation essentially takes phone calls from anybody that is having any kind of problem.  Eliot is a sort of therapist and philanthropist to everyone in town.  The people of the town are often referred to as idiots.

In my review of Slapstick, I said that book bears a passing resemblance to this book (though Vonnegut self-graded that novel a "D" and gave this one an "A") and that a theme of that book was "extended families."  God Bless You, Dr. Rosewater is a better book largely because its plot is not nearly as unbelievable.  Yes, the plot is sort of ridiculous, but it is not altogether implausible that a person could be impossibly rich and feel that they don't deserve the money and thus go out of their way to help people less fortunate than themselves.  It is a rather heartwarming conceit, and while I might label most of Vonnegut's novels "heartwarming," this might be his "most heartwarming novel."  Eliot Rosewater is also one of the best characters he created.  Rosewater shows up in a few of his other books, though not nearly as often as Kilgore Trout, who also makes an appearance in this novel.  

There is also some clever commentary on obscenity.  The Supreme Court was still trying to define obscenity in 1965, but Vonnegut offers his own parallel reality:

"The Rosewater Law was what the Senator thought of as his legislative masterpiece.  It made the publication or possession of obscene materials a Federal offense, carrying penalties up to fifty thousand dollars and ten years in prison, without hope of parole.  It was a masterpiece because it actually defined obscenity.
Obscenity, it said, is any picture or phonograph record or any written matter calling attention to reproductive organs, bodily discharges, or bodily hair.
'This psychoanalyst,' the Senator complained, 'wanted to know about my childhood.  He wanted to go into my feelings about bodily hair.' The Senator shuddered.  'I asked him to kindly get off the subject, that my revulsions were shared, so far as I knew, by all decent men.'  He pointed to McAllister, simply wanting to point at someone, anyone.  'There's your key to pornography.  Other people say, "Oh, how can you recognize it, how can you tell it from art and all that?" I've written the key into law!  The difference between pornography and art is bodily hair!'" (95-96)

The plot may be described as thus: Eliot gives advice to people who want to kill themselves in Indiana.  This is the heart of the book and as such I don't want to spoil these scenes.  But there is another segment to the book: the Rhode Island part.  The action switches to Pisquontuit, Rhode Island, where Fred Rosewater, the son of a suicide, sells life insurance and is generally sad about his life.  This is a rather strange part of the novel, though I could not quite call it a misstep.  It just seems to get into a lot of detail about all the people in Pisquontuit, while Fred mainly exists as Eliot's potential replacement.  Mushari is the villain of the novel (though sometimes Senator Rosewater seems like a villain, too) but the book is not about the plot.  It's about how society reacts to a modern-day "saint"--is he a lunatic or is he the sanest man in America?

Like any Vonnegut novel, however, this is pretty light reading, and mostly fun for the humor of it.  But it is still just as relevant in 2013 as it was in 1965:

"'Well--' and Trout rubbed his hands, watched the rubbing, 'what you did in Rosewater County was far from insane.  It was quite possibly the most important social experiment of our time, for it dealt on a very small scale with a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines.  The problem is this: How to love people who have no use?
'In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine, too.  So--if we can't find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out.'" (264-265)

In short, more people could stand to be like Eliot Rosewater.  If they did so, the world will be a better place.  This is why whenever I receive a phone call from some random person who managed to get my number in some strange way (like, for example, an extraordinary voicemail greeting I left on a phone at the City of Chicago Department of Law in the summer of 2012 that laid out every possible way to contact me) that I listen to them and try to help them as best as I can, rather than saying, "I'm sorry, there is nothing I can do for you."  There is much that can be learned from this book, and even if you didn't go to Loomis, I think you will find it highly worthwhile.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years - Thomas Mann (Transl. Denver Lindley) (1954)

For the past few years I looked forward to the day when I could return to my work here and review the last novel by Thomas Mann that I was truly excited to experience.  Of course, Royal Highness, The Holy Sinner, and The Black Swan remain out there--to say nothing of Joseph and his Brothers--but I believed that The Confessions of Felix Krull was the last work I had yet to read that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the previous classics that had been reviewed on this blog.

Oeuvre Rule: the first-ever review on Flying Houses was Doctor Faustus; Buddenbrooks was reviewed twice (owing to a faulty internet connection and my mistaken belief that phrases from drafts would be intriguing to readers); The Magic Mountain contains no shortage of brilliance; and Death in Venice is every bit as troubling and beautiful as when it was published 101 years ago. Where then, to rank Felix Krull?

[The bottom?] (!)

Of course, Felix Krull is not a bad book.  But it is an unfinished one.  Unfortunately it suffers from the same problem as Fitzgerald's would-be late-era masterpiece The Love of the Last Tycoon--the untimely passing of its author.  Of course Mann lived a much longer life than Fitzgerald.  He died at age 80 rather than 44.  But it is a dangerous thing to begin a novel near the end of one's life when one bears the risk of disappointing the scores of readers that one has worked so hard to cultivate.  And while there are certainly flashes of genius that make the above-mentioned works such absolute pleasures, Felix Krull ultimately is not on their level.  I will submit, however, that had Mann finished this novel (if it were not only "The Early Years"), it would probably be closer to being in that exalted category of "classic."  As such we must mourn for what could have been--like Fitzgerald but in a different guise--and wonder whether some younger writer may "take up" Felix's story and attempt to finish it in a way that Mann would have found pleasing.  That would be no easy task.

Perhaps it is best to read Felix Krull after reading "Felix Krull," the short story from which it was derived.  I have not done that, however, and I can only say that if you happen upon a collection of Mann's stories that you check this one out before moving onto the book.  The book is 375 pages long.  It would probably be about 800 pages long in its proper finished form.

It opens up, as it must in a first-person narrative bearing such a title, with Felix's early childhood.  He grows up in an unnamed town along the Rhine Valley, near Mainz.  His father is a purveyor of champagne.  He has one sister (Olympia) and a godfather (Schimmelpreester) that opens up certain doors for him.  His parents like to have parties.  They often have people over, and apparently for this reason his family is held in low repute in their town.  Or not quite:

"It was mostly these social affairs that provoked the town gossip that called our household disreputable, but I learned early that it was the economic aspect of the situation that was principally in question.  For it was rumoured (and with only too much justification) that my poor father's business was in desperate straits, and that the expensive fireworks and dinners would inevitably furnish the coup de grâce." (15)

There are several fantastic scenes early on in this book that made me feel it was on its way to
greatness.  And truly, the first "book" in it (there are three: Book I is about 50 pages, Book II is about 130 pages, and Book III is about 200 pages) may be close to perfect.  Near the end of Book I, his father suffers an unfortunate end (and if I were Elizabeth Warren, I would include this passage in a casebook to complement a certain passage from A Man in Full):

"Our financial collapse was complete; it became clear why my poor father had put it off so long and involved himself so deeply in the toils of the usurers, for he was aware that when the crash came, it would reduce him to total beggary.  Everything went under the hammer: the warehouses (but who wanted to buy so notoriously bad a product as my father's wine?), the real estate--that is, the cellars and our villa, encumbered as they were with mortgages to two-thirds of their value, mortgages on which the interest had not been paid in years--the dwarfs, the toadstools and earthenware animals in the garden--yes, even the mirrored ball and the aeolian harp went the same sad way.  The inside of the house was stripped of every pleasant luxury: the spinning-wheel, the downy cushions, the glass boxes and smelling salts all went at public auction; not even the halberds over the windows or the portieres were spared; and if the little device over the entrance door that played the Strauss melody as the door closed still jingled unmindful of its desolation, it was only because it had not been noticed by its legal owners." (51)

Felix then moves with his mother to Frankfurt, where the charming second part of the novel takes place.  Schimmelpreester tells each member of the family what they are supposed to do, and they follow his orders.  Felix is supposed to go to Paris to meet with a hotelier, but he also must worry about his military service.  In the meantime, he enjoys his time in Frankfurt, though he is reduced to sleeping on a kitchen bench, and often tries to summon carriages for people leaving the theater, sometimes receiving a tip.

Now, Book One is very good, but it takes 80 pages to get to Chapter V of Book II, which is probably the first "great" scene in the novel: Felix's first attempt at "conning."  He hopes to avoid military service, and his manner of completing this task is unlikely.  He expresses great enthusiasm and tells all of the presiding officers that he considers himself in excellent shape for service.  They find this rather hard to believe, as he makes subtle movements that betray a weaker constitution.  They tell him that the barracks is not a health resort, and laugh at him when he asks if he could just try because he might improve.

After this, we come to Felix's encounter with a prostitute named Rozsa.  While there is a scene in Book One that briefly details an affair he carries on with a housemaid who is perhaps fifteen years older than him, the scene with Rozsa is more remarkable because she seems to love him regardless of the fact that he has no money.  At this point it may be prudent to mention a criticism that I have read of this book: the main character is unsympathetic.  He is extremely good looking and he charms everyone he meets within a few minutes and everything comes much too easy for him.  Well, I hope my review indicates otherwise.  I do not share this criticism with others.  I think there are plenty of signs that most of the other characters find Felix annoying, and it is only through these "love scenes" that certain readers may scoff in disbelief.  However, the scene with Rozsa is practically rated PG compared to what comes later.  Felix also gives a nice defense of his relationship with her, and why he should not be considered a pimp despite the fact that sometimes he shares in what she gets from her customers:

"For my own part I am in agreement with folk wisdom which holds that when two persons do the same thing it is no longer the same; yes, I go further and maintain that labels such as 'drunkard,' gambler,' or even 'wastrel' not only do not embrace and define the actual living case, but in some instances do not even touch it.  This is my point of view; others may judge differently about this confidence--in respect to which it should be remembered that I am making it of my own free will and could quite easily have passed over it in silence." (112)

Finally, then, in Chapter VII of Book II, about 115 pages in, the "action" of the novel seems to pick up, for Felix is taken out of his home element and put on a train destined for Paris.  He has a number of adventures on the train, but he is primarily entertained by acting extremely politely with the commissaire, even going so far as to wish his wife and children well after he takes his ticket.  The language of the book switches, in stretches that are nearly too long to subsist in untranslated form, to French.  I would not be surprised if newer editions of the book translated the French into English, or at least provided footnotes  I could understand most of what was being said, but I think I have a decent "foundation" in French.  Regardless, even if you do not know French, I do not think you will miss all that much if your edition does not translate it.  Also of note during this section is an unlikely event: a woman "dropping" certain valuable jewelry into Felix's bag during a customs check--his second act of "conning."

Felix finds his way to the hotel where he is supposed to work, and to the dormitory where he is to sleep, along with his bunkmate, Stanko.  Stanko finds the jewelry and tells him to go to a certain shopkeeper to trade it in for cash.  Felix does so the next day after speaking to Stürzli, the general director of the Hotel Saint James and Albany, after being told that he will take over for Armand, the elevator operator who is quitting that day.  The scene with the shopkeeper Pierre Jean-Pierre is as memorable as the military service coup, particularly in the way the negotiations are carried on rather disagreeably until the deal is struck, at which point Jean-Pierre turns into a much nicer person.

The last scene worth noting in Book Two is the experience Felix (now Armand--and it is strange the way everyone calls him Armand, not even thinking he has a different name) has with a certain middle-aged woman--the same one that dropped her jewelry into his bag on the train.  She is a novelist who is staying in the hotel, and she takes Felix into her room where she asks him to defile her.  Now this may very well be the most unrealistic scene in the book.  Perhaps it is pure fantasy, or perhaps it is Mann trying to write a "modern 1954 novel" complete with blunt intimations:

"'Perversion!  Love is perversion through and through, it can't be anything else.  Probe it where you will, you will find perversion...But it's admittedly sad and painful for a woman to be able to love a man only when he is quite, quite young, when he is a boy.  C'est un amour tragique, inadmissible, not practical, not for life, not for marriage.  I, I married Houpflé, a rich businessman, so that in the shelter of his riches I could write my books, qui sont énormément intelligents.  My husband can do nothing, as I told you, at least with me.  Il me trompe, as they say, with a theatrical demoiselle.  Perhaps he is some good with her--I should rather doubt it.  It's a matter of indifference to me--this whole world of men and women and marriage and betrayal is a matter of indifference.  I live in my so-called perversion, in the love of my life that lies at the bottom of everything I am, in the happiness and misery of this enthusiasm with its heavy curse that nothing, nothing in the whole visible world equals the enchantment of the youthful male.  I live in my love for all of you, you, you the image of desire, whose beauty I kiss in complete abnegation of spirit.  I kiss your presumptuous lips over the white teeth you show when you smile.  I kiss the tender stars of your breast, the little golden hairs on the dark skin of your armpits.  And how does that happen?  With your blue eyes and blond hair, where do you get this coloring, this tint of light bronze?'"  (172-173)

That final question is a reference to Felix's physical appearance--at once both "light" and "dark."  This scene with Madame Houpflé is somewhat difficult to square with the rest of the novel.  It is certainly unrealistic, but perhaps not so much given that Felix is extremely good-looking (one may wonder about what unlikely events befall those blessed with such looks).  At least it is entertaining and humorous when she asks Felix to beat her and when he confesses that he took her jewelry and that she finds it charming and asks him to steal more from her while she pretends she is asleep.  But there is also question mark #1 that I have about this book:

"She came.  We came.  I had given my best, had in my enjoyment made proper recompense.  But how could I fail to be annoyed that at the very climax she had been stammering about degradation and had called me a stupid little slave?" (170)

Does he mean what I think he means?  It is impossible to think otherwise.  Perhaps question mark #1 is not such a puzzle, but question mark #2, I must admit, is a doozy....

But before we get there there is almost 200 pages of action.  I will cover it shortly.  "Armand" is serviceable as a "lift-man" but soon he moves on to work as a waiter in the hotel.  In the meantime he sells more of the jewelry that he "stole" from his ladyfriend, and he and his colleague Stanko enjoy an evening at the circus.  As a waiter he meets a fair number of interesting characters, but three in particular: Eleanor Twentyman, Lord Strathbogie and the Marquis de Venosta.  

In keeping with a theme of the novel, Twentyman and Strathbogie become entranced by "Armand."  This happens at the same time, roughly.  I would go so far as to say that this little section, from pages 200-217, is the single best part of the entire book.  It is contained like a perfect short story.  Felix needs to tell both that, charmed as he is by their infatuation with him, he cannot do what is asked of him.

Eleanor is 17 or 18, staying at the hotel with her parents. It is humorous to see her fall in love with a waiter, who must be kind and gracious all the while.  She comes down to breakfast by herself when her parents are still asleep and tries to "woo" "Armand" until he is eventually made to deflate her advances:

"'It's abnormal, too, for you not to ignore me, as would be natural and as your Mummy quite properly demands, but instead to come down secretly to breakfast and talk to me about "love" while your parents are prevented by their peaceful slumbers from coming to the defence of the social order.  This "love" of yours is a forbidden love which I cannot approve, and I am forced to reject any pleasure of my own in the fact that you like to see me.  It's all right for me to like to see you, if I keep it to myself, that's quite true.  But for you, Mr. and Mrs. Twentyman's daughter, to like to see me, that's impossible, that's contrary to nature...What you call "love" is something that happens to people on trips and at the sight of tail-coats like mine.  When you have left, as you will very soon, you'll forget it before you get to the next station.'" (205)

This mention of love being something that happens to people on trips may perhaps remind the reader of Death in Venice, and I can only say that the description of what happens with Lord Strathbogie is the ultimate "reverse Death in Venice" and that Mann must have intended it as such.  "Armand's" conversations with the Lord seem to have greater weight, as the man, who is about 50, desires to take him away and make him his personal valet, and maybe even adopt him and make him his heir.  Felix, as a person who is destined to wear many masks throughout life, finds this idea somewhat appealing, but ultimately cannot accept:

"'Please--I don't want to wound you or minimize the honour you have paid me, but if someone precisely like me occurs only once--each of us, of course, occurs only once--there are nevertheless millions of young men of my age and general physique, and except for the tiny bit of uniqueness, one is made very much like the other.  I knew a woman who declared that she was interested in the whole genre without exception--it must be essentially that way with you, too.  The genre is present always and everywhere.'" (216) 

Finally, after the novel reaches its high point (in my opinion), Felix meets the Marquis de Venosta, who is about his age, and whom he finds to be a pleasant person to serve.  The Marquis is from Luxembourg, and he has been staying in Paris and seeing a woman named Zaza.  His parents do not approve of this relationship and they believe that a world tour will do him some good and take his mind off of Zaza.  

On his nights off from the hotel, "Armand" sometimes goes to the theater or has dinner at nice restaurants, and on one of these evenings he runs into the Marquis, who is very garrulous and drinks very much wine and causes "Armand" to miss the theatrical performance that night.  During this dinner scene, it begins to become obvious why the Marquis has become such a major character.  Of course, Felix is plotting his next "con," which will be impersonating the Marquis on this world tour while the real Marquis stays behind in Paris and rents out an apartment with Zaza.  His first stop will be in Lisbon, Portugal.  

And it is here that the novel ends.  This is the longest single portion of the book, and perhaps a bit tiresome.  However, on the train ride to Lisbon, Felix (now "Louis" or "Loulou") meets one Professor Kuckuck, a man with "starry eyes."  The Professor speaks of celestial subject matter and this proves enchanting for "Loulou":

"There was no question, he said, that life on earth was not only an ephemeral episode, but Being itself was also--an interlude between Nothingness and Nothingness.  Being had not always existed and would not always exist.  It had had a beginning and would have an end, and with it space and time; for they existed only through Being and through it were bound to each other.  Space, he said, was nothing but the order of material things and their relationship to one another.  Without things to occupy it, there would be no space and no time either, for time was only the ordering of events made possible by the presence of objects; it was the product of motion, of cause and effect, whose sequence gave time its direction and without which there would be no time.  Absence of time and space, however, was the definition of Nothingness.  This was extensionless in every sense, a changeless eternity, which had only been temporarily interrupted by spatio-temporal Being.  A greater duration, by aeons, had been vouchsafed to Being than to Life; but some time of a certainty it would end, and with equal certainty the end implied a beginning..." (266)

This conversation goes on for about ten pages and is probably the highlight of the "Lisbon" section of the novel.  This is a strange moment in the novel and I can only conjecture that Mann wrote this knowing that he would not complete the rest of the novel, and that he was not very far from meeting Being and Nothingness himself.  As such it is a powerful moment, and probably the most profound single piece of the novel.  

Once "Loulou" settles in town, he goes the Museum of Natural History, where Professor Kuckuck is a director.  Then he meets the Professor's family, which includes a wife and a daughter.  The daughter is named Zouzou, and the irony of "Loulou" meeting his very own Zaza is not lost on the character.  There is also a strange section where "Loulou" meets the King of Portugal and tells raucous stories about his parents' two dogs, and this is all conveyed in a long letter "Loulou" writes to the Marquis de Venosta's actual parents.  

His stay in Portugal is longer than intended by a month, and perhaps predictably, he falls in love with Zouzou, while playing tennis with her often.  Zouzou is a fairly interesting character--she is very "forthright" and believes that "silence is unhealthy" and that "things must be called by their real names."  She is very cynical, in a word, and she does not believe in "love"--she believes that love (in keeping with another theme of the novel) is but a pretext for sexual longing, and this makes it a perversion in a certain sense.  "Loulou" tries very hard to persuade her otherwise in a long speech near the very end.

However, before we get to question mark #2, I must add finally that at a certain point, I became upset that this novel was not going to provide closure.  I was distracted from this final set of events, and did not really care how things turned out.  In fact, if it has not been made clear above, I consider this the weakest section of the novel.  The "Paris" section is certainly the strongest, and this part might only have been better if we saw what became of "Loulou" in Argentina, or the United States--other stops that he was to make on his world tour.  Also we never see Felix go to jail, as he mentions in passing at earlier points in the novel. 

Nor do we find out how the matador that he sees during a bullfight in the penultimate scene of the novel comes back into the story.  All we see is that he gives Zouzou a stack of pictures that he had made--nude sketches of Zaza with Zouzou's curls--and how she is disgusted by them, but how she then kisses him passionately--and then we finally get to question mark #2.

Zouzou's mother sees what happens, and she reproaches "Loulou":

"'You can thus realize what stupidity you were guilty of when, in your need for love, you followed a childish course and formed the capricious notion of turning a child's head.  That was not choosing or acting like a man, but like an infant.  Mature reason had to intervene before it was too late.'" (377)

But then, finally, question mark #2--does she fall under his spell, too?

"'Once when we were conversing you spoke to me about the graciousness of maturity and the graciousness with which it speaks of youth.  To encounter it successfully requires, of course, a man's courage.  If an agreeable youth only showed a man's courage instead of seeking satisfaction in childishness, he would not have to run off like a drenched poodle, uncomforted, into the wide world....'
'Maria!' I cried.

And: Holé! Heho! Ahé' she exclaimed in majestic jubilation.  A whirlwind of primordial forces seized and bore me into the realm of ecstasy.  And high and stormy, under my ardent caresses, stormier than at the Iberian game of blood, I saw the surging of that queenly bosom." (377-378)

Perhaps that is not quite a puzzle either, but it is a very strange way to end this novel.  I have said all I can about The Confessions of Felix Krull.  I recommend it for Mann-obsessives, but there are finer "closure-producing" compositions in his oeuvre if one has not exhausted it.