What We're Reading, Jan. 27 - Feb. 2, 2010

Joshua Ferris ('Then We Came to the End') studies the monster within in 'The Unnamed.' Lush language limns a Soviet childhood of privation and paranoia in 'A Mountain of Crumbs.' Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz's 'Freefall' lays blame for the financial failure. And 'Crash Course' tracks the American auto industry "from glory to disaster."

The Unnamed

The Unnamed

By Joshua Ferris

This is the second novel by Joshua Ferris, who became a literary sensation with his funny, inventive debut novel, Then We Came To The End, a workplace comedy narrated by an unnamed office drone (or drones) who speaks (speak?) in the first person plural. His second novel is more serious and less gimmicky: Tim Farnsworth is a wealthy, accomplished lawyer who lives in a beautiful suburban home with his beautiful wife and troubled teenage daughter. The only thing in his life he can't handle is a recurring compulsion to walk away from it all — literally. When the fit releases him, he finds himself miles away, exhausted and ragged. The novel follows Tim and his family as they struggle to conquer his mysterious disorder and its consequences and then, in a final section that reads like a modern retelling of Job, accept it.

Ferris is moving on from the gaudy cleverness of his first book to a more sophisticated kind of showing off. Here, he's writing about the Affluent New York City milieu — stuff of a thousand New Yorker stories, including some written by him — but he's also engaging in a bit of dark magic. What makes Ferris' work rewarding, though, as before, is not only his affection for his characters but their own affection for their own lives. Tim and Jane love being affluent suburbanites, just as the incorporeal "we" of his first novel loved working at the ad agency. The problem isn't anomie or boredom or angst, but something terrible and external tearing them away. Ferris is most interested in disintegration, and here he makes it harrowingly physical: Tim's compulsion to walk is as threatening as the monster in a Stephen King novel. Readers will look for metaphors, but Ferris is a good-enough writer and portraitist that it's not necessary. Tim's crucible is real and compelling enough without having to figure out what it "means." — Peter Sagal, host, Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!
Hardcover, 320 pages, Reagan Arthur Books, list price: $24.99, publication date: Jan. 18

Freefall

Freefall

America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy

By Joseph E. Stiglitz

The global economy has been through a "near-death experience" that has shattered our illusions of prosperity, writes Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. The causes of the fiasco, as he sees them, are reckless lending, opaque corporate accounting and a mortgage sector that was allowed to grow out of control. To Stiglitz, the whole debacle should have challenged much of the free-market dogma that's dominated economic debate for three decades — and forced us to question some of our underlying assumptions about the financial markets. But so far, it's led mainly to half-measures and denial, not to mention a huge financial-sector bailout that helped no one but the banks.

Stiglitz may not always be the most entertaining of writers, but what brings this book to life is his formidable grasp of economic policy and strong sense of conviction about the blunders that have been made, especially with respect to the bank bailouts. Stiglitz sees them as a squandered opportunity at best, and says there's plenty of blame to go around: The Federal Reserve and the Bush administration were late to recognize that a massive financial crisis was brewing and then used the wrong tools to address it, he writes. President Obama chose to "muddle through" by pouring even more money into the same financial institutions that had caused the crisis in the first place. Along the way, he failed to present "an alternative vision of capitalism." Stiglitz makes a pretty convincing case that U.S. officials should have simply forced companies like Citigroup to be restructured, rather than propping them up. What happened was "ersatz capitalism, the privatizing of gains and the socializing of losses." As a result, Stiglitz says, the path to recovery will be slower than it needed to be." — Jim Zarroli, NPR business reporter
Hardcover, 361 pages, W.W. Norton, list price: $27.95, publication date: Jan. 18

A Mountain of Crumbs

A Mountain of Crumbs

A Memoir

By Elena Gorokhova

As a young, rebellious woman growing up in the Soviet Union of the 1960s, Elena Gorokhova developed a crush on the English language that turned into a lifelong passion. Her memoir opens with the narrator wishing that her mother, a Russian doctor, came from Leningrad, a city of "Pushkin, and the tsars, of granite embankments and lace ironwork, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky." Instead, her practical mother came from the "provincial town of Ivanovo ... where chickens lived in the kitchen and a pig squatted under the stairs ... where streets were unpaved ... and where they lick plates." Elena matures in a nation of privation and paranoia, of children's dentistry without Novocain. A Mountain of Crumbs is part coming of age, part political history, part sensual observations of the natural world. And it's a book that details deception and trickery. The title itself comes from a creative act of duplicity by the author's grandmother during the famine of 1920, when families went hungry on a daily basis. There is a gorgeous story about mushroom hunting that has the whiff of a dark fairy tale.

Gorokhova is a lush and beautiful writer. Her tidy, witty descriptions of characters keep the book moving along at a good clip. Here she is describing her mother, who she says "became the mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. Our house was the seat of the politburo, my mother its permanent chairman." I'd recommend the book because I enjoy memoirs that aren't narcissistic quests about writers trying to find themselves. And the rich political milieu of the former Soviet Union sets this book apart. You really do get the feeling of what it smelled, tasted and felt like to grow up in that particular place and time. And it's exciting to read a love story about a romance with language. That said, I'd wish the author had dug a little bit deeper into how communist ideas and culture affected her writing, politics and relationships. — Ellen Silva, senior editor, All Things Considered
Hardcover, 320 pages, Simon & Schuster, list price: $26, publication date: Jan. 12

Crash Course

Crash Course

The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster

By Paul Ingrassia

Paul Ingrassia has deftly managed to write two books in one: a sweeping history of the automotive industry in America, and an insider's account of the federal bailout that resulted in government ownership of General Motors. Ingrassia is the former Detroit bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. Between the covers of Crash Course, he tells the tragic story of how petty struggles and shortsighted decision-making brought about the otherwise avoidable collapse of America's once-great auto industry.

For those familiar with the details of Detroit's rise and fall, Ingrassia's book may not provide startling new information. But the scattered moments are often delicious. For example, his account of how a GM executive rubbed ash from a cigarette tray on his forehead moments before entering the CEO's office; it was Ash Wednesday, and the CEO was a faithful Catholic. A few years later, the executive would become a top GM vice president. These vignettes remind the reader who the author is: one of the most experienced and connected beat reporters ever to cover the one-time Big Three. — Guy Raz, weekend host of All Things Considered
Hardcover, 361 pages, Random House, list price: $26, publication date: Jan. 5

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Books Featured In This Story

Crash Course
Crash Course

The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster

by Paul Ingrassia

Hardcover, 306 pages | purchase

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  • The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster
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A Mountain of Crumbs
A Mountain of Crumbs

A Memoir

by Elena Gorokhova

Hardcover, 308 pages | purchase

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  • A Mountain of Crumbs
  • A Memoir
  • Elena Gorokhova
Freefall
Freefall

America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy

by Joseph E. Stiglitz

Hardcover, 443 pages | purchase

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  • Freefall
  • America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy
  • Joseph E. Stiglitz
The Unnamed
The Unnamed

A Novel

by Joshua Ferris

Hardcover, 313 pages | purchase

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  • The Unnamed
  • A Novel
  • Joshua Ferris

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