ANY year in which a new Michael Lewis book appears is a good book year for me. Lewis writes about economic matters broadly, but he has the wonderful ability to get into the souls of those involved. Not only the major players but also the people who do the dirty work for them. It's peculiarly charming to realise that someone who brought the country's economy to its knees is just as crazy as you are about condensed milk, baked potatoes and asparagus.
Sam Bankman-Fried, the scoundrel being prosecuted in New York over the bankruptcy of the crypto exchange FTX, is the focus of Lewis's new book, Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon.
What makes it more interesting than previous Lewis masterpieces such as The Big Short, Liar’s Poker and Boomerang is that this time he wades through the great puzzle only to admit that Bankman-Fried is the emperor wearing no clothes. It's difficult to overlook all the cyber-compost and realise you're dealing with an old-fashioned con man who became a billionaire by convincing people to invest in a cryptocurrency about which no essential information was available except the fact that it spectacularly increases in value. Because people are gamblers. They always seek an easy way to get rich quick. Rich? Rather, inconceivably rich.
We tend to think in such terms, we who have traded horse races for lotto and sports betting. Bankman-Fried, the maths prodigy, the video game addict, the hater of books and art, the “ethical altruist", knew it wouldn't help to target poor people for his con. No, you have to harvest investments from people who gamble with mountains of cash.
The heartbreak of his Ponzi scheme (as he later described it) is that it's never the truly rich or the poor who fall for the joke but the wannabes, the retirees and the temporarily affluent who think they're going to sprint down the inside track to crypto-assisted financial nirvana.
Lewis tries to describe the extent of this nightmare, and it's clear that he eventually gives up after trying so hard to find something good in Bankman-Fried. The image he paints of is of a hyper-intelligent person who is socially so maladjusted that he doesn't believe in things like accountability, but is still concerned enough about the future to consider paying Donald Trump $5 billion to stay out of politics.
This is the same guy willing to conduct Zoom interviews because he can continue playing video games simultaneously.
What sets the book apart from previous Lewis analyses is that he writes a kind of mea culpa, a report of how an intelligent person like himself was also taken in by the confidence trickster. In the US, there is a lot of criticism of Lewis for not condemning Bankman-Fried to hell. I can't agree with those critics. Lewis's conclusion is a subtle way of saying he's insane in the fullest sense of the word. What could be more negative than that?
What a book!
Going Infinite: The Rise and Fall of a New Tycoon by Michael Lewis was published by Audible Studios and costs $18.81 at Amazon.
There is no such thing as a boring JD Robb novel. This one is no exception. Eve Dallas investigates the suicide of the chief of the New York Police Department's internal affairs division. Obviously, Dallas's gut feel that the guy was killed is spot on. Nice work.
But the reason this book has afforded me so much fun is because New York only reached the levels of corruption in the police service in 2021 that we here in Smart Africa started perfecting as early as 2008.
Payback in Death by JD Robb was published by Little, Brown Group and costs R346 at Exclusive Books.
Sometimes, it's wise to set aside a book you impulsively bought because there was something on the blurb that sparked a mischievousness in your soul, and postpone reading it for a while. I acquired this one in July last year because I was secretly intrigued by the story of a female student who throws herself into the arms and bed of a much older married woman.
Now I've read it, slowly, over weeks, and found something different from what my dirty imagination expected. It's a refined narration of the loneliness with which one person reaches out to another, and how that loneliness ultimately dominates in the physical encounter. This isn't a book for eavesdroppers; be prepared for a confrontation with your own familiar demons.
We Do What We Do In The Dark by Michelle Hart was published by Headline and costs R396 at Exclusive Books.
Patrick deWitt's almost macabre sense of humour has made me an avid follower since 2011's The Sisters Brothers. Undermajordomo Minor (2015) and French Exit (2018) satisfied my yearning for his kind of humour.
The Librarianist is something completely different: a weird novel with a bland male character at its core. Numerous flashbacks take you to the big milestones of his life. He hums the soundtrack to his life in various minor keys. I'm not sure if I really liked this, or the sense of melancholy that came after reading.
The Librarianist by Patrick deWitt was pubished by Bloomsbury and costs R524 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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