Literary Inspiration: Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

Confessions Collage

As Bon Jovi would say, this is my confession: I didn’t particularly enjoy Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, I’m not sure why I read it (other than it fulfilled the required theme of “A tale where the main character loves to read” in my friends’ reading challenge) and I wouldn’t read it again.  It was silly, dull as dishwater and completely and utterly lacking in wit.  Confessions was a tepid recreation of any one of Austen’s novels about headstrong young women of means boxed in on all sides by romance, propriety, social convention and Georgian Mommy Dearest, with a dash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Goin’ a bit harsh here, perhaps, but this book was as boring as any one of the innumerable scenes of our heroine (*pulls out book and looks for the main character’s name, because it’s already gone*) Courtney Stone needlepointing her way through a situation that has somehow resulted in her becoming a Jane Austen-type character in Regency England.

Annnnndddd I was about to explain the hows and whys of how that came to be before I realized it just doesn’t matter.  Despite declaring herself a major Austenite, Courtney – Jane Mansfield now, seriously – has no idea how to navigate this world of intricately choreographed social convention, not even with the perpetual threat of blood-letting, institutionalization and her mother’s cruel threats hanging over her head.  So she sees no problem whatsoever in carrying on as though she’s still Courtney, confusing and worrying absolutely everyone with her talk of modern products and concepts, or mixing up the names of the many, many men who have apparently done her wrong.  There’s TWO half-baked love triangles in Confessions, one in Courtney’s past-present and then another in Jane’s present-past, and I didn’t care about either of them.  Arguably neither did the author, Laurie Viera Rigler, because the driving conflict of one is resolved in a three-page epilogue, and the other is never addressed at all.

Confessions 2

The only real emotion I was able to muster was when Courtney/Jane, worn down by her fruitless attempts to get back to her time, says to hell with it and nearly shags some random drunkard in a side parlour during a fancy party in London.  Times have indeed changed, and in Courtney’s world, having a one-night stand with some random is NBD.  But in Jane’s world, for a woman of her station – proper, wealthy, and with at least one suitor poised to propose marriage, to say nothing of the batshit mother – this indelicate act is tantamount to taping a grenade to her face.  It was a reckless move on the part of the character, and a careless move on the part of the author – Austen’s most beloved heroines are always fiercely protective of what little independence they’re able to carve out in such a regimented society, but they’re not careless with their safety or their reputations.  You’d never find Elizabeth Bennett contemplating how much fun it would be to drag some drunken lout into a coat closet for a snog while Mr. Darcy stands outside.  She’d just be looking for a way to get the hell out of the party so she could go home, sit in the parlour with her father and listen to his wistful stories about a time before Mrs. Bennett.

My own mother read this book twice, out of admitted boredom.  She was apartment-sitting while we were on holiday and our TV went on the fritz; with nothing else around she wanted to read (seriously, Mom, there is a SHELF full of Stephen King; read those, they’re great!) she willingly read this book, that she had previously loaned me, again.  I don’t even know how, and I really don’t know why.  Is Stephen King really that bad?

Anyway, the only thing more boring than Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict is needlepoint, an activity Courtney/Jane spends a lot of time attending to, so I did this folksy, stitched manicure articulating my feelings on the matter.

Confessions 1

Advertisements

Literary Inspiration: Fat Vampire

Fat Vampire Collage

So read in service of my friends’ 2019 reading challenge for the theme of a coming-of-age tale – or in this case, the after-the-colon sub-title of “A Never Coming of Age Story.”

2010’s Fat Vampire, by Adam Rex, starts off strong and engagingly daffy.  When the book opens, 16-year-old Doug is really not living his very best life, beset on all sides by bad skin, weight gain, unpopularity and a new, deeply confusing state of vampirism – confusing because post-transformation, Doug is still just as overweight, unpopular and bedeviled by acne as he was before.  No “Sleep all day, party all night” for this vampire.  And the biggest bummer of all is that he’ll remain this way for eternity.

The first 50 or so pages of Fat Vampire had me guffawing out loud, shouting lines of dialogue out to Mr. Finger Candy with glee – “And then he gets punched by a panda!”  There was so much to giggle at in those opening pages, from Doug’s botched plan to feed off a celebrity panda at the San Diego Zoo (it really does result in him getting cold-cocked by Baby Shaun Shaun’s righteously pissed off mother) to his buddy Jay’s deer-in-the-headlights attempt at distraction at the blood bank he and Doug inelegantly attempt to rob (“WE DON’T HAVE ID,” said Jay, loudly.  “‘CAUSE WE’RE CANADIAN, WE DON’T USE ID.”  “What part of Canada you from, honey?”  “THE LEFT PART,” said Jay.”)

Fat Vampire 5

Doug and Jay’s clumsy adventures in San Diego quickly catch the attention of smarmy cable TV producer Alan Friendly, who’s looking for proof irrefutable that vampires exist.  The future of his low budget program, Vampire Hunters, hinges on finding and investigating real vampire activity, and his sponsors have run out of patience with his zero-sum results.  Soon, Doug has a bunch of ratings-obsessed reality TV types on his tail, with no clue how to shake them.

After moving the action back to the boys’ suburb outside of Philadelphia, the book veers off into about seven different directions, none of them particularly coherent or funny or informative of the story as a whole.  Doug links up with a group of elder vampires and discovers that he’s far from the only student at his high school to be recently transformed, though no one knows who the vampire or vampiress might be.  The jocks are werewolves.  Which is a metaphor.  Until it’s not.  An Indian exchange student by the name of Sejal shows up and catches Doug’s eye.  Sejal shows him absolutely zero interest, and when she turns down his invitation to go on a one-on-one date, he bitterly accuses her of leading him on.  Sejal doesn’t care; she’s got her own problems to deal with, including shaking her former identity as a sufferer of “The Google,” a too-twee way of saying that back in India, she was a dick to other people online.  Jay bears the brunt of Doug’s not-so-gentle good humour, and other people begin to notice the one-sided nature of their friendship.

Somewhere in here Doug feeds off a sexy deer and turns into a raging asshole.  I missed the bit about how deer blood apparently suffuses you with sexy dickhead superpowers, but next thing you know, Doug’s skin has cleared up, the weight has come off and hey, he even has a girlfriend to abuse and ignore.  Sure, she’s albino pale, rail thin and seems to be suffering from an epic case of unexplained lethargy, but here’s finally the girl the world has promised guys like Doug.  Ah, Doug – the vampire incel hero you never knew you needed.  And he’s still a dick, except now he’s a full fledged vampire dick.

The Vampire Hunters stuff gets dealt with, sort of.  Chasing after Doug, Alan Friendly is involved in a huge car crash and is critically injured.  At the end of Fat Vampire you don’t know if he’s going to live or die – his story simply ends.  Ditto another very important character, who deserved so much more.  The book ends with a definitive conclusion undone by about a dozen what-ifs, all of them so much better than the actual ending.  It was a frustrating read, particularly after all the charm and wacky delight of the opening chapters.

Fat Vampire feels like two separate books slapped together, one filled with all the wit and awkward whimsy you’d expect from a story about an unpopular, underage vampire, and then another nastier little book about a mean and bitter man raging at a world that hasn’t given him what he feels by rights is his.  No wonder I didn’t enjoy it – don’t we have enough of that in the universe already?

Fat Vampire 1

I do like these nails, though, which feature Baby Shaun Shaun, Jay’s Canadian maple leaf, Sejal’s ditched-at-the-airport pink suitcase with its heart-shaped luggage tag and my own befuddlement at the story.  Truth in nail art, yo.

Literary Inspiration: 11/22/63

Sock Hop Collage

Kicking off the not-so-new year with another giant literary tome from Stephen King, master of the macabre, ninja of nostalgia and writer of the five-part non-ending.  I started reading 11/22/63 – “the one where he goes back in time and saves JFK” – at the end of 2018, but life events conspired to push its conclusion back into 2019, and so here we are, 800 some-odd (some very odd) pages later.  I gripe about King’s frequent inability to satisfactorily conclude his stories, but he’s my favourite author, and if he released an entire book of short stories written in binary code, I’d read that, too.  So a quiet little story about one man’s quest to alter the course of one very big event – with all the usual Kingsian complications in play – is riiiiiight in my literary wheelhouse.  Bring on the revisionist history!

But here’s the thing – for the daughter of a couple of hardcore Boomers, the kind of people who remember the day some combination of Lee Harvey Oswald, the CIA and a grassy knoll in Texas assassinated John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, I know precious little about the actual event itself.  Nor have I ever felt the need to rectify that particular gap in my knowledge of American politics; it’s a world so far removed from mine, I’ve never cared to seek out those details.

That’s clearly not the case with King, who devotes nearly 900 pages to the subject of JFK’s assassination.  Sort of.  11/22/63 is not really about JFK at all, and it’s only nominally about his violent, greatly disputed death.  What 11/22/63 is actually about is love.  And dancing.

Sock Hop 1

The mostly spoiler-free details, and how this very retro manicure fits into the grander scheme of things: 11/22/63 begins not in 1963, nor does it start in 1958, where the wormhole that makes this a time travel story exists.  It actually starts in 2011 – in Maine, naturally – with 35-year-old high school English teacher Jake Epping.  Fresh off a contentious divorce to a woman who loved alcohol – and other men – a lot more than him, and experiencing diminishing returns on his many years as an educator, Jake is well positioned for a major life change.  That that change would come in the form of multiple, increasingly complex jaunts into the past via a wormhole in a smelly diner pantry is most likely not the kind of change Jake was envisioning, but the Kingsian world works in odd ways.

After being shown this rip in the fabric of time by diner owner and amateur time traveler Al Templeton (made ever so less impressive because of its physical location, situated between a dirty mop bucket on one side and a stack of canned goods on the other) Jake is tasked with returning to 1958, where he will live as a regular man of the time until November 22nd, 1963, when he will travel to Texas, kill Lee Harvey Oswald, save President John F. Kennedy and spare millions from the brutal political fallout sparked by his assassination.  Al would do it himself were it not for the fact that he’s dying – time travel plays real hell on a person’s condition.

Al is adamant that, partisan concerns aside, JFK must be saved; Democrat, Republican, Sock Puppet, the global repercussions of his death are just too great.  But Jake, who has read enough science fiction in his day, has concerns regarding Al’s proposed scheme.  Assuming he completes his mission and doesn’t die right there in the 1960s, how is he to return to 2011?  And if he does find his way back to 2011, what will he be returning to?  The Butterfly Effect posits that the world will not be the same, cannot be the same, given such incredible intervention.  Al assures him that he’s been back and forth hundreds of times – often for just a few hours, but sometimes for much, much longer – and aside from a hell of case of lung cancer he picked up on his last, years long trip, the world itself seemed to suffer no ill effects.

To that effect, Jake asks how he could have seen Al the day prior, happily (and more importantly, healthily) manning the counter at his diner, pushing his suspiciously inexpensive Fat Burgers, only for him to now be (barely) standing before him, wracked with stage 4 lung cancer.  Al replies that time moves differently in the past, ticking off days upon months upon years in the then while mere moments pass in the now.  Shrugging off Jake’s continued enquiries as to how any of this can possibly be, does he not feel the least bit conflicted about the irrevocable damage he may be inflicting on both the past and the present, Al replies that it’s not as irrevocable as Jake would think – the wormhole employs a kind of reset function that wipes the slate clean in the past every time Al returns to the present.  So no harm, no foul to the people of the past, and Al can continue getting the meat for his Fat Burgers at 1958 prices.

Feeling like he doesn’t have much of a choice, and also wondering what the hell else he’s going to do with his life, Jake takes the bait and steps through into 1958.

With nothing but time on his hands between his arrival in 1958 and his date with Lee Harvey Oswald on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository in 1963, Jake tries to acclimate to the time, finding it relatively easy.  Seems he wasn’t a man built for the modern era after all.  Upon discovering that he has reservations about the hows and whys of his task – does he really have to kill Oswald?  Can he not just divert him from his chosen path? – Jake conducts a couple of test cases, and discovers what could be 11/22/63’s overriding theme – the past is obdurate and will resist all attempts at change.  Jake frequently, and bitterly, addresses the Al who has taken up residence in his head, accusing him of radically underselling the ease, or lack thereof, of altering the very course of time.

With years to go until his main mission, Jake sets out to learn everything he can about Oswald, tracking his movements as he and his family move from Russia to the United States, even going so far as to bug his home.  Justifiably uneasy with the thought of killing an innocent man – but not necessarily a good man; Oswald is a certifiable piece of shit – Jake’s looking for proof irrefutable that Oswald done it, or will do it.

Then, once again looking for a way to pass the time, Jake moves to a small town outside of Texas, where he finds his real purpose in the past – friends that are like family, a meaningful career as a respected educator and mentor, and love.  And it’s that love, forged on a small town gymnasium dance floor by two giddy teachers showing off their best Lindy Hops, that alters the course of Jake’s trajectory in the past, and whether his present is even something worth returning to.

In the interest of not giving away too much of what amounts to a simple story about a man finding love in the most unexpected of places and times, I won’t say much more.  But these nails are a representation of 11/22/63’s other theme, which is that dancing is everything.  I couldn’t think of anything more fitting than a manicure inspired by Jake and Sadie’s gleeful turn at the Hop.

Sock Hop 2

All in all, a very enjoyable read that had so much less to do with JFK than I thought possible for a book (nominally) about the assassination of said man.  Oh! and wonder of wonders, 11/22/63 has an ending, an actual, identifiable conclusion – and a satisfying one at that.  It was just a very sweet love story set within the more complex framework of time travel, and nicely showed off the softer side of our man Steve.  Aw, who knew King could get so warm and fuzzy?

By the by, I read this book in service of my blogging friends’ Jay and Julie’s 2019 reading challenge for the twelfth theme of “Shallowness: pick a book based on its spine appearance alone” because all 11/22/63 has its spine. 🙂

The Challenger

books collage

Hey, so would you look at that – I once again biffed my friends’ annual reading challenge, working through a measly 12 books!  I very nearly made it to 13, but Christmas came, and the time for leisurely reading fell by the wayside.  So 12 it is.  Sorry Julie, sorry Jay, I’ll try, try again in 2019 with your next, just-announced reading challenge.  Maybe next year I’ll get to 14!

But it’s not a numbers game, and it’s important to value quality over quantity, and some other trite expression that’s not coming to mind right now, but I did read a number of excellent novels this year, including The Night Circus, which was a beautiful, dreamy revelation; easily one of my favourite books of all time.  Too Big to Fail was another bright spot; I was proud to have tackled a book about such a dense, weighty and frequently boring subject matter as the American financial system.  I’ll Have What She’s Having was probably the most pointless of all the books I read this year; a humour novel without the humour is a puzzling animal, indeed.

Below you’ll find all of the books I read this year and the matching, inspired-by manicures I did for each one.  If you click on the titles, a link will take you to my thoughts and reviews of each book, plus lots of pics of all that nail art.  Once again, The Night Circus was the big winner here, its sumptuous, Victorian-esque carnival atmosphere providing ample inspiration for five different manicures, although I’m really quite partial to the gothic lettering of those Petunia (of Stephen King’s Christine fame) nails.

The Burning World Collage

The Burning World by Isaac Marion – Another Warm Bodies novel, this one a sequel to the first Romeo and Juliet zombie romance, this entry suffers from having to act as a bridge between that novel and a third, planned book to be released later on this year.  It’s a big exposition dump, and much of the bedrock on which Warm Bodies – a gentle, thoughtful novel about the downfall of humanity – is based is blown viciously asunder (presumably so it can be pieced back together in the final novel, but dang if some of those new revelations don’t smart extra hard; now I know how old school Star Wars fans felt during the overlording of George Lucas.) 😉 I read this book for week 26’s challenge theme of “A book title that sounds like the cool name of a band.”

I Open at the Close Collage

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – Hey now, another thing to be proud of in this reading challenge – I FINALLY finished the Harry Potter series!  Just 15 or so years off the pace, no big.  I read this novel for week three’s theme of “The next one in a series.”

451 Collage

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – I burnt the edge of a page of one of TWO forewords to this novel and applied the singed bits to my nails.  I think I might have missed the point of this book.  I read Fahrenheit 451 for week 11’s theme of a banned book – it doesn’t get more banned than being torched with gigantic kerosene fascism hoses, now does it?

Handmaid's Tale Collage

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Not the most uplifting of stories, but so beautifully written.  I was just in awe of Atwood’s writing.  I re-read this novel for week 30’s prompt of “a book picked up in a thrift shop.”  I got this copy of The Handmaid’s Tale from the university bookstore in second year, and there’s nothing thriftier than an English student trying to stretch their book budget.

I'll Have Collage

I’ll Have What She’s Having by Rebecca Harrington – I’ve had this little humour novel sitting on my bookshelf for years, and I finally got around to reading it this year for week nine’s theme of a book from your to-be-read pile.  I think there’s a lot of good comedy to be mined from mimicking the wacky diets of image-obsessed celebrities, but this slight book was less observational humour and more straight up observation.  So Karl Lagerfeld is a (self-described) grumpy bastard.  That’s most likely because he starves himself stupid and consumes nothing but Diet Coke.  We’d all be grumpy bastards, too – this is practically a given.  So wither the funny?  Ultimately, there was not much humour here, just tepid commentary on predictable outcomes.  Cute cover art, though.

Bazaar of Bad Dreams Collage

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King – Every ’80s kid’s favourite author is getting old, and he’s super worried about the real world things that go bump in the night.  I read this zippy anthology of short stories for week eight’s theme of “A collection of short stories.”

Gawain Collage

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by anonymous, edited by W.S. Merwin – A 14th Century epic poem – both in its original Middle English and translated forms – for week 23’s challenge theme of “An epic tale.”  Go medieval or go home, right?

The Night Circus Collage 1

The Night Circus 8

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Oh my goodness, I adored this book!  It was utterly enchanting – appropriate given that it’s a tale about star-crossed magicians plying their trade at a mysterious, after hours Victorian carnival.  This was a very gratifying read; I actually sighed with contentment as I closed the back cover for the final time.  I read The Night Circus in service of week 28’s theme of “a work by a debuted author.”

Christine Collage

Christine by Stephen King – I continued filling in the gaps in my Stephen King education this year by reading Christine, one of his earliest works.  It was appropriately unnerving and gory in all the right places, but absent the killer car, I was struck by the simple human heartbreak that formed the core of Christine, which was just your average, emotionally deadlocked family trying – and failing – to grapple with shifting family dynamics.  Whilst being hunted down and murdered by a sentient – and very vengeful – 1958 Plymouth Fury.  As you do.  I read Christine, a book I nabbed from my condo’s community bookshelves, in service of week 15’s theme of “A book from the library.”

Too Big Collage

Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin – I hate these nails (too heavy-handed, and the lighting is crap) but improbably, I really loved this book, which I read for week 14’s theme of “non-fiction to tickle the brain cells.”  More like set my brain cells on fire – I spent a lot of time shouting out various aghast “OMG, did you know”s to Mr. Finger Candy as I stomped about the house, raging at the inequalities of the global financial system.

Blue Shoes Collage 2

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith – After the M.C. Escher-esque financial mindf**k that was Too Big to Fail, I was in need of a literary palette cleanser, which I found in Blue Shoes and Happiness.  My mom loaned me this gentle little book from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, a favourite of hers set in rural Botswana.  I read this book for week 27’s theme of “A book that was gifted to you.”

Small Spaces Collage

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden – Jay of The Scented Library gave me this spooky little book, ensuring that I’d absolutely hit week four’s theme of “a purple hued tome.”  Also that I’d be thoroughly, delightfully creeped out, and also get some great nail art inspiration out of the bargain.

Literary Inspiration: Small Spaces

Small Spaces Collage

My blogging buddy Jay of The Scented Library sent me this spooktacular young adult read just before Halloween.  And what a fitting find it was, too, neatly checking off all of the things I love in a book – whimsi-gothic cover art reminiscent of a Tim Burton movie poster, supernatural shenanigans afoot, an above-the-title pull quote from R.L. Stine!  But showing just how well she actually knows me (see, friends, you need never have met a person face-to-face for them to just get you) Jay acknowledged that while very cool, a recommendation from Stine carried ever so slightly less cachet than one from MY favourite young adult author of choice, Christopher Pike (difficult, as I’ve heard he’s a grumpy old sod who resolutely refuses to play the publicity game.)  Also, this last-last minute entry towards Jay and Julie’s 2018 reading challenge satisfies the theme of a book with purple cover art, which I was then inspired to turn into what I think is a rather lovely, evocative manicure.  So really just the most perfect gift – with thanks again, friend. 🙂

Yes, yes, but what of the novel itself?  Geez, patient puss, I was just about to get to that. 😉  Without giving away too much of the plot, Small Spaces, by author Katherine Arden, is a fog-shrouded, atmospheric little supernatural thriller, more taut novella than novel, which I think is to its great advantage.  Small Spaces clips along at a nice pace; I had it finished up within three or four sessions, and I was loathe to put it down once the action really began.

Small Spaces 4

Creepy, unsettling and shiveringly, delightfully scary, Small Spaces tells the story of 11-year-old Olivia “Ollie” Adler, an outcast by choice following the death of her mother the year prior.  On a field trip to a local farm, Ollie wanders away from her classmates and has an unsettling run-in with an employee – he intones that there is great danger coming, but suggests that if she hides, and confines herself to small spaces, she just might survive the threat.

And that’s pretty much all I can tell you without giving all of the rest of the story away, because the book plays it so straight, truly what you read is what you get.  There are some surprisingly delightful moments in Small Spaces, but it’s a simple book, with a straightforward narrative that it wears on its earnest, young adult sleeve.  I really, really enjoyed it; it was a nice little diversion from the usual, and proper spooky, too.  A fine read for a cold and gloomy day.

Scarecrows – this nail art is supposed to depict scarecrows standing in a mist-laden field.  And I can’t say anything more about it than that, except I think this manicure turned out really rather well; holographic polishes, especially when they are sponged on like they have been for this gradient manicure, always have a bit of a heathered grey tinge to them, perfect for fog-shrouded books AND nails.

Small Spaces 1

Literary Inspiration: Blue Shoes and Happiness

Blue Shoes Collage

Sneaking a last minute reading challenge book and matching manicure in under the 2018 wire here with Blue Shoes and Happiness, an entry in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of books by Alexander McCall Smith.

This gentle, deeply inoffensive little book about Precious Ramotswe, a lifelong resident of Botswana and proud founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, came as a recommendation from my mom, who could see, after the dense, multi-layered insanity that was Too Big to Fail, that I was in need of something with a softer touch.

Please don’t tell my mom, who adores this book series, but I…*lowers voice, glances about *…didn’t love Blue Shoes and Happiness.  Nothing happened!  There were some lovely descriptions of Botswana, and what the land means to Mma Ramotswe, a traditionally built (her words) rancher’s daughter besotted with her nation, but otherwise, it felt a bit soft, a bit simple.  Oh dear lord, PLEASE don’t let my mom see this; she will crap a brick if she sees I’ve besmirched her beloved books!

Blue Shoes Collage 2

I think part of my problem might be that I was thrown in the deep end of the No. 1 puddle; Blue Shoes and Happiness isn’t the first (or even the fifth) entry in the series.  Compounding this feeling of being wildly out of step with Mma Ramotswe’s world is the fact that events started in a previous book find closure in Blue Shoes and Happiness, whereas other events started in Blue Shoes and Happiness are left to be resolved in some later book.  The assumption here is that you will continue reading the next entry in the series to see how X situation is resolved, but you know what they say about assumptions.

The titular shoes in this case, and the inspiration for these simple nails, actually belong to Mma Ramotswe’s assistant in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Makutsi.  Mma Makutsi, proud graduate of the Botswana Secretarial Collage (with a 97 percent average, as she’s more than delighted to tell every single person she meets) has a weakness for beautiful shoes, something of a problem when you walk to work (itself housed in the back of an auto repair shop) on hard pan dirt roads.  But Mma Makutsi falls hard for a wildly impractical pair of too-small sky blue shoes with lipstick red linings.  Buy them, she must!  So she does, and they’re too small, and she hobbles about for a bit looking like her feet have grown two blue satin-covered sausages, and Mma Ramotswe gently tells her she’s being a fool, which by that point, owing to a weird back-up of blood rising from her feet, she heartily agrees with, and we all go home happy, having learned a positive lesson of some sort, though I’ve no idea what that lesson might be.  It was pretty silly and SO not my usual, but I tried to read it with an open mind, for my mom.

Pretty much the only thing Mmas Ramotswe and Makutsi can agree on is that donuts are yummy; much to Precious Ramotswe’s traditionally built consternation, they are as much a presence in the detective agency as the dim bulb apprentices who drift by from her husband’s auto repair shop out front.  So for the Mmas, a wee donut on my thumb.  And for my mama, my very best shot at this book.

Blue Shoes 3

Literary Inspiration: Too Big to Fail

Too Big Collage

So this manicure isn’t exactly subtle, but then again, neither was the wholesale grifting and complete abdication of fiduciary duty by the wankers of Wall Street and the ghouls of government that led to the 2008 collapse of the American financial system, the narrative retelling of which, Too Big to Fail by Aaron Ross Sorkin, is the inspiration for these nails.

Some months on, I’ve no idea why I chose this book to satisfy the theme of historical fiction in my friends’ reading challenge.  A decade removed from the events that shook the financial industry to its core (without un-mooring it, heavens no, because see above re: the title) it can now fairly be classified as a historical work, and the structure of the book (a fleshed-out retelling of the ultimately fruitless attempts by the best and, um, brightest of the industry to circumvent a financial atom bomb, culled from thousands of hours of journalistic work and reassembled into a spritely narrative) satisfies the fictional aspect, although the entire thing is still appallingly, maddeningly rooted in real life baddies doing bad things and being richly rewarded for it.  It was an incredibly frustrating read.

But also a GREAT read.  Presented as a sort of in-the-moment recounting of the events that immediately preceded the $700 billion bailout of the financial system by the American taxpayers, Sorkin introduces the key players and the massive web of conflicts of interest that should have disqualified every single one of them from participating in the PATRIOTIC RESCUE OF THE AMERICAN FINANCIAL SYSTEM, let alone give them a seat at the table where they were allowed to drive actual legislation and policy.  It was, after all, their greed, their wanton disregard for the rules and their disdainful, near-criminal immorality that led in large part – the largest part – to the collapse and subsequent bailout of the system.

After gathering the cast of fools (the description of these men – they’re nearly all men, 35 to 65 years of age – reads like WASP Mad Libs: Raised in (Vermont/New York City/Washington/Connecticut), educated at (Harvard/Yale), handed a cushy internship straight out of college by (grandfather/father/uncle/other male mentor), CEO within five years (of some big banking concern, doesn’t really matter which one, lining those three letters up behind the Esquires in their name is really all they care about), divorce within 10, lather, rinse, repeat with a new company, a new wife) Sorkin attempts to lay out the labyrinthine, grossly leveraged financial system as it existed in the mid-aughts.

It’s here that Sorkin really shows his work, breaking free from the buzzwords, jargon and purposefully obfuscating technical terms to expose a deeply flawed, virtually incomprehensible system that even the major players were loathe to understand.  Sorkin doesn’t concern himself too much with apportioning blame for the state of the industry pre-bailout; nobody knew what they were talking about, everyone quite willingly kept themselves in the dark, and no one was willing to comprehend of a future in which they weren’t making billions of golden parachute’d dollars hand over fist.  By the end of the book I had a slightly better understanding of the situation, but I’m still utterly clueless as to how things got to a state where the only reasonable course correction was to funnel a trillion dollars of taxpayer funds into the financial system to save those businesses (just a handful of ultra powerful banks, lenders and brokerage houses) deemed worthy.

The bulk of the book deals with the final frantic week leading up to the bailout in which the mettle of these titans of financial industry is put to the test when the feds summon them all to non-optional emergency meetings to save themselves SAVE THE AMERICAN FINANCIAL SYSTEM.  That this doesn’t go the way the government had hoped is hardly surprising – with virtually no oversight to the process (an actual directive from the secretary treasurer, himself a former executive of Goldman Sachs, was to gather all of the major players in one room and simply tell them to “just fix it”) the financial types just broke off into little groups to advocate for their own best interests, civic duties be damned.  Also because they had no effin’ clue what they were doing.

Too Big 2

Sorkin does a rather incredible job at not explicitly highlighting the many and varied shortcomings of the people involved in this process.  He actually doesn’t need to – the craven ghouls haunting this tale are quite visible, and Sorkin exposes them for what they are, no hyperbole necessary.  I did chuckle a few times at his flattering descriptions of these men – “a hale and hearty 65; boyish good looks that belied his 50 years; a penis the length and width of a fire log” (joking about that last one.)  It’s actually a very smart journalistic gambit – you’re a better bee for using honey rather than the stinger, and it can’t hurt to sweeten up your sources a bit, especially when they’re as fragile as these ones.

Which was my real, genuine aggravation with this entire situation – that “fixing” the entire global economy had been handed to a lot of weak, ludicrously privileged, upwardly failing asshats I wouldn’t trust to deposit my paycheque.  These were (and are – mergers may have changed the legal names of these businesses, but the players are the same) dim, shallow, crassly selfish people whose only real talent was smoke and mirrors.  I took a lot of schadenfreude-laced joy in the many passages of self-important CEOs being denied audience with other self-important CEOs, phone calls between self-impressed jerkoffs apparently being the REAL currency that powered the American financial system in the late 2000s.

So a frustrating read, no doubt, but frustration born entirely out of the situation Sorkin is writing about, as opposed to the writing itself.  Too Big to Fail is a wonderful book, ambitious in scope, but still limited to a recitation of the facts, and just the horrible facts.  It should be mandatory reading for anyone still curious about the events surrounding the bailout.  That goes double for the actual subject matters themselves; if ever there was a lot that needed educating. 😦

Too Big 1