Archive for October 7, 2012

Other People’s Money

October 7, 2012 Leave a comment

In my post earlier today, I wrote about Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, which I finished yesterday morning, as well as books I began in late August or early September only to put aside in sequence, one for the next. I’ve now worked my way through all of them but one, one that has gone unmentioned: Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money.

Jim Fallows mentioned the novel in passing in a July blog post, describing it as “a corruscatingly wonderful novel I’ve just finished.” That got my attention. I immediately headed over to Amazon to check it out, saw that it was only 260 pages, and thought maybe I could fit it in with whatever else I was reading at the time. A few weeks later I downloaded it, read the first 15 pages, but then abandoned it, probably in favor of the Lewis-Kraus book. With Lewis-Kraus done yesterday, it was time to return to Cartwright, and so I have.

Here’s the publisher’s description of the book, which was published a year and a half ago in the UK.

The upper-crust, family-owned bank of Tubal & Co, in the City of London, is in trouble. It’s not the first time in its three hundred and forty year history, but it may be the last. A secret sale is under way, and a number of facts need to be kept hidden from the regulators and major clients. Masterminded by the bank’s chariman, Julian Trevelyan-Tubal, hundreds of millions of pounds are being diverted – temporarily – to shore the bank up until it can be sold. Julian’s aging father, Sir Harry, incapacitated by a stroke at the family villa in Antibes, would be horrified. He is still writing barely intelligible letters to Julian, which advise him to stick to the time-honoured traditions of the bank. Had his son taken his advice, the bank might still be solvent.

Inevitably great families have secrets; lovers, old partners, or retainers who resent not being part of the family, all have a habit of turning awkward. When an alimony payment from the bank – disguised as a charitable donation – to an abandoned husband, the penniless-but-heroic actor-manager Artair MacCleod, fails to arrive, the initial trickle of doubt swell into a torrent of catastrophe for the family.

Other People’s Money is a gripping and often hilarious story, an acutely delineated portrait of a world and a class. Justin Cartwright manipulates our sympathies effortlessly, unwinding the story with gentle satire and acute, beautifully phrased insights into the eccentricities and weaknesses of the human condition.

So far so good. I’d sure love to visit that family villa in Antibes. In the meantime, I have 80 pages to go, and I’m guessing the villa will have to be put on the market. That might present the opportunity to check it out.

Categories: Books

A Sense of Direction, 2

October 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Back in June, inspired by a short review in the New Yorker, I read the opening portion of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, the part available as a free download. However, I decided not to continue. In late August, the New Yorker review still echoing in my head, I downloaded the book in full and began reading again.

Here’s the review:

Lewis-Kraus moved from San Francisco to Berlin and then set out on a series of pilgrimages: Camino de Santiago, in Spain; Shikoku, in Japan; and Uman, in Ukraine. He makes the three treks–Catholic, Buddhist, and Jewish, respectively–as a secularist, hunting for clarity while nursing his blistered feet. … Perhaps by design, the writing–beautiful and often very funny–frequently mimics the setting: during the Berlin segment it’s restless, and, on the circular route of Shikoku, sometimes lacks direction. But on the Camino Lewis-Kraus weaves a story that his both searching and purposeful, one that forces the reader, like the pilgrim, to value the journey as much as the destination.

I was 90 pages in when I wrote a post on the book. About 20 pages later, with our trip to Nantucket coming up, I put it aside in favor of James Sullivan’s Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry, which I had written about in July. The rivalry is that between the Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard high school football teams. I anticipated that reading it would give me a deeper insight into year-round Nantucket life. But early in our stay on Nantucket, Sullivan wasn’t holding my interest. With the Democratic convention underway, I decided the time had come to read volume four of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power.

Our first day home from Nantucket, at which point I was three-fourth’s of the way through the Caro book, Lee Child’s 17th Jack Reacher thriller A Wanted Man came out. I couldn’t resist, finishing it two days later.

I have since been making up for my infidelity by working my way back through the books I started. On completing A Wanted Man, I returned to The Passage of Power, a thriller in its own right, and quickly completed it. The football book was more of a challenge, until I realized I didn’t have to keep track of all its characters. High school kids would come and go, only to return in stories twenty years later in new roles as fathers and uncles of the current crop of players, or as teachers, assistant coaches, and coaches. The biographical details of all these people didn’t matter so much. The larger point was the fabric being woven of the lives of the two islands’ year-round residents, the difficulty of making a living there, or bringing a spouse back from afar to settle and raise a family. I got the glimpse into the richness of island life that I was hoping for, and I was happy to keep reading.

That left the pilgrimage book, which I still resisted, turning instead to Christoph Wolff’s study of Mozart’s last four years, Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune: Serving the Emperor, 1788–1791. On completing that, I turned back at last to A Sense of Direction. It was slow going for a while. Lewis-Kraus spends a lot of time alone with his thoughts. I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to be alone with his thoughts.

A continuing theme is Lewis-Kraus’s relationship with his father, a rabbi (as is his mother) who left the family years earlier in favor of a boyfriend. I knew the author turns 30 during the course of the book, but only near the end found out how old his father is. Roughly my age. A couple of years younger. This was one of the oddities of reading the book, realizing as I did that I was of his father’s generation rather than his own. Not that people half my age don’t have interesting thoughts. (Joel, you know I always love to hear your thoughts.) But I had an on-going sense that I was on the wrong side of the book’s thematic generational divide.

The third pilgrimage, to Uman, is undertaken by Lewis-Kraus jointly with his brother and father, joining the thousands of Hasidic Jews who celebrate Rosh Hashana there each year in a tradition begun by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov two centuries ago. The book builds toward this opportunity for Lewis-Kraus to reconcile with his father, and I didn’t want to miss it, which is why I picked up the book again and kept going. However, to my surprise, and notwithstanding the comment in the New Yorker review that the portion of the book on the Shikoku pilgrimage lacks direction, I enjoyed that the most. It is the one in which Lewis-Kraus is companionless, and at his most reflective.

Lewis-Kraus does have this odd habit of quoting people without any reference to the source of the quote or any explanation of who the quoted writer is. For instance, out of the blue, a section begins with a quote from Paul Elie: “Contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always second-hand, planned an described for one’s consumption by others in advance. Even the rare, authentically direct experience is spoiled by self-consciousness. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.”

Do you know Paul Elie? I didn’t, and L-K chooses not to help me out. It turns out that Elie wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, a 2004 study of four great mid-twentieth-century Catholics: Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. And just two weeks ago, his second book appeared, Reinventing Bach. The re-inventors are Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Casals, Leopold Stokowski and Walt Disney, Glenn Gould, and Yo-Yo Ma. (Both books appear to be worthy additions to my reading list, with the second a perfect complement to my recently finished Mozart book.)

The short section that begins with the Elie quote was a good one, as Lewis-Kraus reflects on the notion of choice. Here’s a bit of his follow up:

Of course, life is never an imitation of life; life is simply life. And no experience is any more or less direct than any other one. But the point of view Elie offers is worth considering, more for its assumptions than its shoddy lament. Being self-conscious about an experience means, to Elie, standing at a remove from it. This remove is created by the fact that we all know, at any given time, that there is an associated cost, that we could be doing something else. Being self-conscious means recognizing that whatever we are doing is something we have, for the most part, chosen to do … Anything we have chosen to do invites the specters of all that we haven’t chosen–this is the real misery of choice … .

This goes on for a while, with a reference to David Foster Wallace thrown in for good measure. Maybe not the ultimate in profundity, but within the context of the book, it works.

And in that context, a traveling context, it struck a chord. For we have chosen in recent years to end our summers with a trip to Nantucket, and I have come to recognize that the principal cost of this decision is exactly what Lewis-Kraus highlights: that we could be doing something else, and aren’t. All those places we hope to visit some day? When we’re in Nantucket, they’re not getting visited.

Yet we continue to make this choice. Which ties in with other themes of Lewis-Kraus’s book: pilgrims versus tourists, authentic experiences, that sort of thing. By returning each year, we imagine ourselves participating, albeit in a tiny way, in the life of the island. We’re not, you know, mere tourists. But what are we? Not residents, clearly. Not like the people in Sullivan’s book about Nantucket football. Nor like Jack Welch (whose tweet on the Friday job numbers almost prompted a post in which I was going to argue that the island isn’t big enough for the two of us). We’re just passing through. Nonetheless, with each return visit, we build the illusion that Nantucket is an alternative home base, and we choose to pay the cost for this illusion by not going elsewhere.

I finished the book yesterday morning. Slow going at times, like Lewis-Kraus’s walks, but I’m glad I did.

Categories: Books, Travel

Wales Story

October 7, 2012 Leave a comment

The NYT has a story today on two women who have lived for 28 years in a rent-controlled apartment in the Hotel Wales. I might not have paid attention were it not for the fact that I’ve stayed at the hotel several times in recent years. I had no idea it accommodated long-term renters. Which it doesn’t, that being the reason there’s a story.

Twenty-eight years ago, Habiba Ali moved from the Y.W.C.A. into Room 320 in the Hotel Wales on Madison Avenue near 93rd Street, with few illusions of grandeur.

“It was a dilapidated old building,” she said the other day. The rent was $225 a week — more than she could afford, but the neighborhood was tranquil, and she would be close to the American woman who had been like a mother to her since she arrived from Pakistan. The ceilings in some rooms were falling down at the time, she said. Her neighbors were mostly older people living on fixed incomes.

Ms. Ali, who reluctantly gave her age as 60, sat on a creamy leather-upholstered chair in the hotel’s elegant second-floor Pied Piper room as jazz played softly in the background. Gone are the old mattresses, broken furniture, sinks and bathtubs that filled the room when she first moved in; gone are the old neighbors, too. Gone, even, are several generations of renovations.

But Ms. Ali and her roommate, Pamela Downing, who came to “crash” with Ms. Ali for a few weeks in 1985, have remained. In a hotel that has spiffed up, changed clientele, changed ownership several times, changed décor about as often — where various owners have offered them tens of thousands of dollars to leave and once, they said, tried padlocking their door — they have been a rare constant, coexisting in peace or disharmony in the unrenovated 450 square feet for which they now pay a rent-stabilized sum of $1,135 a month, utilities and weekly linen service included.

The hero of the story is Bernard Goldberg, who bought the building in 1988 and turned it into a boutique hotel. He moved everyone else out through offers of money and help finding alternative apartments, but Ali and Downing stayed. “There’s a certain elegance to them,” he explains. “They’re very gentle and cultured. Maybe their clothes are not as expensive, but they were always well groomed. It was really nice to have them. They’re the only guests that I really miss.”

The Wales is on Madison and 92nd, if you’re looking for a place in the neighborhood. Guests receive (or they did) a free breakfast in the large sitting room on the second floor that is pictured above, with fruit, yogurt, bagels, bread, pastries, and beverages. It’s a relaxed, low-key place, sitting atop two excellent restaurants. For those looking for a fuller breakfast, there’s Sarabeth’s East, which also offers a full dinner menu. And around the corner, with an entrance on 92nd, is the Italian restaurant Paola’s, of which Gail and I are especially fond. I must have written about it before. Yes, here.

Across the street is a shop that makes an appearance late in the NYT article.

When asked about changes in the neighborhood, they both mentioned the flower shop and grocer on the corner, in reminiscences as different as the women themselves.

Ms. Ali said she used to go there on midnight ice cream runs, where she would see Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward buying coffee.

Ms. Downing remembered not the customers but the smell of cut flowers wafting from the store into their suite. “Then they boxed it all in with plastic,” she said. “Now we don’t get the smell anymore.” She added, “I don’t like the improvements for the most part.”

We’ve shopped there. Never saw Paul and Joanne, but we know the plastic.

Categories: Life, Travel