by Sukey HowardSeptember 2009
Risky business: behind the scenes of the Wall Street bust
Most of us have been scratching our heads (tearing our hair might be more accurate) trying to fathom the whos, the hows and the whys of the mega-financial meltdown we’re in. Answers have been scarce and understanding the abstruse financial instruments that paved the way, difficult. Help is here in Gillian Tett’s totally engrossing Fool’s Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe , performed by Stephen Hoye with the care this complex story deserves. Tett has the remarkable ability to make swaps, derivatives and their arcane securitized, synthetic offspring understandable to a financially challenged dummy like me—and she does it while telling the tale of how this brainstorming group of J.P. Morgan whiz kids came up with a way to make risk, riskless, removing old constraints and unleashing a great wave of capital into the economy that should have been beneficial. But, sadly, it was all too good to be true. When Morgan’s rivals combined this financial alchemy with subprime mortgage madness, without considering that a boom could bust, it was all over, leaving us battered by the rippling toxic aftereffects of unregulated greed.
A key to the past
Two narratives tangle and untangle in Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel, Sarah’s Key, read by Polly Stone. The first story is Sarah’s. In the early hours of July 16, 1942, more than 13,000 French Jews—men, women and children—were taken from their homes by gendarmes, herded into the Vel’ d’Hiv hippodrome, and kept in inhumane conditions before being shipped to Auschwitz and death. Ten-year-old Sarah Starzynski, stunned and disbelieving, was one of them. Just as the police burst into her parents’ apartment, she hid her little brother in the closet, locked it, pocketed the key, sure she’d be home soon. The second story begins 60 years later when Julia Jarmond, an American journalist who’s lived in Paris for 25 years, married to an attractive, arrogant French architect, is asked to write a story to commemorate the anniversary of the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. Instinctively drawn into those dark days, she discovers secrets long held by her husband’s haute bourgeois family and a surprising connection to Sarah. As she follows clues to Sarah’s fate, Julia finds herself questioning her own life in France, her marriage, her chic, distant in-laws, her very future. Sarah’s Key opens a door into this heartbreaking WWII episode that’s been cloaked in silence, making it intensely real and affecting.
Audio of the month
Full disclosure time—I find the combo of writer James Lee Burke and reader Will Patton irresistible. And their latest, Rain Gods is proof positive that my audio affection (OK, addiction) is well deserved. Hackberry Holland, the small-town Texas sheriff whose nightmare captivity in a North Korean POW camp still informs his dreams and his determination to set a bit of the world right, is back fighting injustice and the aches and pains of aging joints. When Pete Flores, a young Iraqi war vet with scars inside and out, reports that nine Thai prostitutes were machine-gunned and pushed into a mass grave behind the local church, it sets off a chain of murders, maimings and mounting menace, noir enough to please Sam Spade. While weaving a web of intricately entwined back stories, Burke, doing what he does best, dissects the continuum of good and evil in all of us, some of his creations wrestling with personal demons, others carelessly mortgaging today for tomorrow and a small few finding courage when it most counts. Patton, doing what he does best, captures every nuance, every shift of mood, every character’s unique cadence.