Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book Reviews-The Job, Avalon, Take The Rich Off Welfare

The Job
by Douglas Kennedy
Do you play chess? Do you know the feeling of dread when you're playing against a far superior player who manipulates you into a situation where your only available moves are bad and worse? There's often a sick sensation in the bottom of your stomach when you must finally admit to yourself that you were outmaneuvered and slaughtered because you weren't as smart, experienced or as skilled as your opponent. You didn't see the moves and possibilities they saw until it was far too late. You're making moves that you think are in your best interest and you find out later that the moves you were making were truly in the best interest of your opponent.

Well, theoretically anyway, unless you really are dumb,  you can read and learn more about chess, practice and play this person over and over and over again and get better and better until at some time in the not too distant future the game's outcome is no longer a foregone conclusion. You might be able to make this person sweat some and even beat them on occasion. It all depends on how hard you work. Life is different. The stakes are much higher and unlike chess, if you lose you don't necessarily get to reset the board and start over. That's this book's theme although the book has nothing at all to do with chess. It was just an example I found useful.

The protagonist is Ned Allen, a high flying computer ad salesman for a NYC based company. He's a top salesman and executive who is second in command to Chuck Zannussi, the branch lead and good friend. Ned's married to Lizzie, a similar up and comer in the PR business. They make a lot of money and don't have any kids yet. You'd think they'd be banking it. Nope. As some on this blog have pointed out, Manhattan is an expensive place to live. The couple (especially Ned) lives only for today. Though he's earning over six figures, Ned is pretty deep in consumer debt. He's quite dependent on his next paycheck and year end bonus. Ned lacks much savings to rely on let alone retirement or emergency funds. He's juggling credit card payments, club membership fees, and other creditors.

When Ned's company is sold to a German conglomerate, Ned thinks his prospects for advancement are looking up. But much like another fictional Ned, Mr. Allen is rather naive about how the world really works, how the game is played, who his friends really are and how tenuous his status is. In short time he's out of work, blackballed from his industry, homeless and on the verge of divorce. The book bluntly details Ned's decline, the constant pressures salesmen face and the impact on their lives and marriages. Some of them don't make it. I found this quite realistic. If you lost your job today and were vindictively prevented from working in your field again, how long could you survive?  If you're married how long would your spouse really be patient with your failures and excuses? It's a cold world and as Ned discovers, money talks and bull**** walks.

Ned runs into an old high school associate, Jerry. Jerry hires him for a job with a private equity fund that's owned from afar by Jack Ballantine (I thought of a combination of Donald Trump and Dan Marino), a former NFL superstar who has become a real estate giant, financial market sharpie and motivational speaker guru. Ballantine wants Ned to find the next big company for the fund to invest in. But Ned is warned that he is not under any circumstances to disclose Ballantine's ownership. Despite noticing a few other oddities, Ned is not in a position to turn down a job offer. Things get much worse from there. 

Again I liked how little moves early in the story set the stage for much greater later betrayals and slip-ups. In another life I used to sell financial products. I appreciated how well the author depicted the salesman's barely hidden desperation, the customer's genial indifference and the relentless pressure from the boss who must quickly fire anyone who isn't meeting their quota. Nothing personal, just business.

The book is told from first person perspective which works well for this story. Often the wife can come off unsympathetically in stories like this but that's not the case here. Lizzie has good reasons for acting as she does. Most (not all) of what goes wrong is Ned's fault. Of course as Lizzie would point out Ned tends to claim too much responsibility for things because he's controlling and secretive so you may or may not be sympathetic to Ned. I liked this book. It was just under 500 pages. So it was a little long but rarely dragged. In a bit of a stereotype, Ned has an Italian-American buddy who owes him one and happens to "know people who know people".

by Anya Seton
I remembered reading (skimming?) this book as a child. It was my mother's book. Recently I was able to find the original 1965 edition with the blue cover and re-read it. I was somewhat chagrined to discover that in some very real ways it's as much romance novel as it is historical fiction. Go figure. Likely if it had had the modern cover which is more obviously aimed at the romance novel crowd I never would have picked it up. Still as historical romance or mystery intrigue it's a great read and probably goes a way towards explaining my lifelong interest in Dark Age and Middle Age times. It's quite a story. The book takes place in the 10th century.

Although battle and violence are always close at hand in this book it's really a fictionalized telling of the life of the French Saint Rumon. And the important thing in Rumon's life is his always interrupted relationship with Merewyn, a Cornish girl who claims descent from King Arthur. Do you have or did you have someone in your life where the timing was never right between you two? When you wanted them they didn't want you? When they wanted you, you just got married? When they're begging to sleep with you you've just taken an oath of celibacy? 

That's basically the story of Rumon and Merewyn. The book starts with Rumon meeting Merewyn, who is six years younger than he. Rumon is 20 and a well read, well spoken handsome nobleman who boasts descent from both Charlemagne and King Alfred the Great. He was shipwrecked on the English coast. He intends to visit his cousin the English King Edgar. Not to be outdone Merewyn can't stop talking about her own royal descent, though since she lives in a hut with her dying mother, it must not mean that much. Rumon learns from the mother that the attractive but not beautiful Merewyn is actually the product of a rape by Vikings. The mother begs for and gets Rumon's oath not ever to tell Merewyn. She charges Rumon to take Merewyn to court with him, as it's not safe for a young girl on the verge of womanhood to be alone. 

And that kicks off a detailed and satisfying story of royal intrigue, murder, glorious last stands and true love. Over decades Rumon's and Merewyn's lives diverge, go on parallel tracks and intersect. Both Rumon and Merewyn go through hell and back but the story doesn't end up the way you think it might. Modern love stories have cliche scenes where someone frantically must make it to the airport, train station or bus station before their baby leaves them forever. Well imagine that transposed to ships at a time where Viking raids were quite common and nobody in Europe even knew about Greenland let alone America. So that part was fun.

And if you like dirty plans hatched in secret you will enjoy the goings on at court, where Rumon falls under the spell of Queen Alfrida, a beautiful and power hungry woman who will stop at nothing for her own son to be on the throne, even if means the current heir needs to have an "accident". Rumon will have a lot to answer for because of his involvement with Alfrida but no one will judge him more harshly than himself.

Seton flows back and forth between Saxon England, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland and North America. If you like George Martin's work I suppose you might be positively disposed to this. There are some big differences though. First off, Seton gives excellent detailed descriptions of how the peasants lived. Merewyn spends a great deal of her life in relatively modest circumstances. Next, religion and belief in God are very real parts of everyone's life. Even evil people believe in God and though they may not all come to bad ends, many are shown to seriously fear Hell. Next, although there are no women warriors and rapes are a big part of what motivate Viking attacks, women also have power not just as wives but in their own right as noblewomen and abbesses. And obviously Seton knew more about being a woman than Martin does. So her depiction of the Middle Ages world is more balanced and probably more accurate than Martin's admittedly fantastical work in that aspect. Seton was famed for doing a lot of research for her work and it shows in every page. You really do feel like you've gone back in time. This book was just over 400 pages and a pretty engrossing read. It's sad but I think you, like the characters, will have gained wisdom after it's over.

Take The Rich Off Welfare
by Mark Zeppezauer and Arthur Naiman
Regardless of the actual demographic profile of the population on welfare or the actual definition of the word, the connotation of "welfare" often brings up the idea of a loud, aggressive and obese woman of African or Hispanic ancestry who may have multiple children by multiple partners and seeks to avoid paid work the way Billy Gibbons avoids razors.

This book is not interested in the sexual habits or racial characteristics of those Americans who receive public assistance. This book seeks to explode the myth that public transfers of money to private individuals only happen from rich to poor in terms of welfare. This book examines the myriad methods by which we all give money to the rich in order to help them get rich in the first place or become richer. 

This book is really more of an extended pamphlet. It is about 200 pages and is lavishly and extensively footnoted. It's also somewhat dated having being written back in 1996 but the underlying issues are exactly the same today and the numbers (the authors' lowball estimate of what they call wealthfare is $448 billion per year or 3.5 times the amount spent on welfare for the poor) have if anything worsened since 1996.

So what are some of the issues the authors rail against? Well there are a lot of them. And you may not think of all of these as unearned rents or wealthfare but most of them go to the well-off disproportionately or are specifically designed for the wealthy and well connected to use. These include such items as favorable tax treatment for capital gains, subsidies for sports arenas, export subsidies, tax breaks for oil and gas exploration, excessive government pensions, accelerated depreciation tax breaks, subsidies to agribusiness, legalized tax avoidance by multinational corporations, mortgage interest deductions and 1031 exchanges, Pentagon waste and fraud, cheap prison labor and so on. 
The authors definitely are impassioned. Some would say they have an axe to grind. The writers would say there is a fundamental difference between helping someone to survive and avoid starvation on one hand and "helping to finance industries that pollute our air, water and soil". They point out the insanity of some subsidies such as (and I don't know if this still exists) an Interior Department program which subsidizes irrigation water for agribusiness and an Agriculture Department program which pays those same companies not to grow crops with that water. The companies sell the subsidized water back to local governments at a nice little profit. This book has something to say to people across the political spectrum whether you are a libertarian who's opposed to any government picking of winners and losers, a liberal who wants more spending on the poor, or even a conservative who's uneasy about the large corporate march away from the free market.
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