By Lee Gruenfeld, Doubleday, $23.95
A novel dedicated to the memory of pyramid schemer Charles A. Ponzi should get readers’ antennae up. And one engaging the speculative craze in dot-coms should set those antennae quivering.
Lee Gruenfeld’s The Street is a sharp thriller about a young man who fashions a start-up from nothing but airy talk about “new paradigms” and a sure feel for human envy. James Hanley’s company, Artemis5.com, doesn’t make anything, own much of anything, or provide any service, essential or otherwise. But everyone wants a piece. Except Jubal Thurgren, the Securities and Exchange Commission investigator who wants Hanley — all of him.
Hanley works the world of IPOs, cable stock shows, and venture capital so deftly that the lines between financial genius and master con artist are almost completely erased. Novelist Gruenfeld knows this universe; his explanation of short selling and its perils should be reprinted in every investment guide. One character’s setup of a classic financial fraud called the “bear trap” (a scheme Cornelius Vanderbilt used skillfully in the 19th century) is both convincing and a little thrilling. There is something about watching a fine con man at work.
The entire economy appears to be in peril but isn’t, really, according to a wonderfully drawn Federal Reserve chairman who amuses himself by arriving at work some mornings with a scowl on his face and then watching the market fall as a result. It is all very entertaining — unless you had money in DrKoop.com. — G.N.
NO END SAVE VICTORY
Edited by Robert Cowley, Putnam, $32.50
World War II was history’s greatest crisis. There was never anything like it before, and probably never will be again — which accounts for its enduring capacity to fascinate.
But is there anything new to say? Hasn’t it all been done, by everyone from Herman Wouk to John Keegan, John Wayne to Tom Hanks, Winston Churchill to Tom Brokaw?
No End Save Victory shows there is indeed more to be said, and said intelligently. These superb essays, edited by Robert Cowley, founding editor of Military History Quarterly, include a lot of sober rethinking of reputations, including that of Bernard Montgomery, the British general American generals most loved to hate; Curtis LeMay, model for Stanley Kubrick’s mad Jack D. Ripper; and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Hitler’s most able and tragic commander.
Some essayists — Stephen Ambrose, Caleb Carr, Alistair Horne, William Manchester — are widely recognized and published. Others, less well-known, meet the standards of their more celebrated cohorts, in a far-ranging book unified by its quality of writing and thought. — G.N.
By Marla Matzer Rose, LA Weekly Books, $16.95
At one time, Americans were not especially interested in exercise, fitness, and lean, strong, beautiful bodies. In fact, they found bodybuilding a little off-putting and weight lifting both eccentric and dangerous. Even in California.
Now men are ashamed if they don’t lift weights, and women weight lifters are commonplace.
This sea change began on a beach near Santa Monica, though nobody is sure about the origins of this iconic American place. According to Marla Matzer Rose, it may have been “1934, 1932, or even earlier when the first young people who became the core of the Muscle Beach crowd started frequenting the area.”
What is certain is that by the ’50s, muscles, fitness, and a certain sun-worshiping hedonism had become very big in America. Even The Saturday Evening Post had to take notice. Almost inevitably, however, just as the values of Muscle Beach were going mainstream, injuries led to lawsuits, and a sex scandal involving some bodybuilders led the conservative community of Santa Monica to close it down in the late 1950s. Rose tells the story of the beach, the change in attitudes that it launched, and the personalities it spawned — Jack LaLanne, Joe Gold, Vic Tanny, and others — with wonderful concision and insight that is pure America. — G.N.
GRIMM’S LAST FAIRYTALE
By Haydn Middleton, Thomas Dunne Books/
St. Martin’s Press, $23.95
When it came to fairy stories, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm more than lived up to their name. Jealous stepmother poisons beautiful young girl with apple; witch fattens two small children for dinner (hers, not theirs); wolf devours grandmother, then dons her clothing: This is hardly kids’ stuff.
As every adult is aware, there are dark things stirring underneath these ancient wives’ tales. What motives, light or dark, drove the Brothers Grimm to collect, record, and annotate them so assiduously? This fictional account suggests a Freudian tangle of family love and perversity.
The author, who teaches and lectures in history at Oxford, displays a grim imagination in reconstructing the elder brother’s final days and a visit to his old home with the beautiful young woman who may or may not be his daugh- ter. Skillfully interwoven with this is another tale — perhaps dreamed by the old man on his deathbed — of princes, witches, castles, and enchantments, casting its own lurid light.
Alternately haunting and horrifying, this is the kind of story the brothers might have eagerly jotted down by the fire in some ancient thatched cottage remote in the forest. Something to amuse the adults and frighten the children. —
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