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This Week’s Hot Reads: May 14, 2012

The Oscar-winning director of ‘Inside Job’ indicts the fat cats, and Jay McInerney’s wine-soaked prose.

Predator NationBy Charles Ferguson

The director of Inside Job indicts America’s elites who oversaw the catastrophic financial bubble, punished no one for its crimes, and now stands by while inequality and corruption grows.

Charles Ferguson’s Academy Award-winning Inside Job was “an amazingly lucid account of the way greed, ineptness, and irresponsibility have brought much of the world to its knees,” the film critic David Thomson raved. The documentary was so well reported and organized, its gilded subjects so thoroughly and embarrassingly interviewed, that you can see it itching to spring free of its medium. Predator Nation is the tiger cub that resulted, as Ferguson turns to print to continue his indictment of the predatorial elites who run America, and on whose watch the worst crimes of the financial crisis were committed without a single criminal prosecution in response. Ferguson’s illuminating research details the securities fraud, accounting crimes, bribes, perjuries, antitrust violations, and disclosure offenses that should have been brought to court. But he goes even further to prove that an academic and political network protects the finance executives. Predator Nation shows how the American dream was butchered.

The Lower RiverBy Paul Theroux

The great travel writer lands in Africa for his new novel, and finds the nightmarish side of good-intentioned humanitarian efforts.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, an ancestor to Paul if only by the sound of their names. In every one of Theroux’s books, he seems to “go to the woods,” in his travel writings as well as his equally destination-centered fiction. As a young man, Theroux taught in Malawi for the Peace Corps, and the nightmarish misadventures of 62-year-old Ellis Hock is inspired by this. After spectacularly destroying his marriage because his wife bought him a new cellphone and discovered thousands of intimate emails with other women, Hock decides to go back to the one place that made him happy. He arrives in the Lower River and tries to help build a school and a clinic. But the villagers, headed by the chief Manyenga, takes his money and imprison him. He discovers that the people “were changed, disillusioned, shabby, lazy, dependent, blaming, selfish; they were like most people. You didn’t have to come all this way to be maddened by them. You could meet them almost anywhere.” The Lower River is hardly the definitive treatise on the efficacy of humanitarian efforts—it is a dramatization that simply starts an argument. Theroux’s greatest gift is in humanizing the complicated natives through exceptional observations of their motives and wits—they come off every bit as smart, modern, strange, troubled, and naïve as Westerners—we are all held captive by the order of things. “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” Thoreau once wrote.

The Fate of the SpeciesBy Fred Guterl

The executive editor of Scientific American considers the many ways that mankind might drive itself to extinction.

We’re still here. But the chance that homo sapiens will become extinct someday is 100 percent—hence the proliferation of confident Cassandras. Imagining how that might come about is the job of Guterl, executive editor of Scientific American and a 10-year Newsweek veteran. During the Cold War, we thought the world would end in a bang, thanks to the nuclear threat. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s looked more likely that a bird-flu-like pandemic, a new Holocene mass extinction, or climate change would end the world in a slow whimper. Guterl devotes a chapter to each of those, but they add little to what we already know. However, he does call attention to smallpox-like synthetic biological pathogens and an imaginary computer virus that shuts down our infrastructure—it could be called GridKill—which springs the discussion to include menaces that won’t necessarily rid earth of humans but can still be a terrible bummer. This is a short book, and Guterl seems like he’s in a hurry—the world is ending, after all. You wish he wasn’t, which is a testament to how engaging this brief volume is.

The JuiceBy Jay McInerney

The Bright Lights, Big City novelist wins the title of best American wine writer by shunning pompous innuendos of round tones and pine odors, and sticks to straight talk.

His prose is like a very dry Riesling. There, I said it. I’m aware that often it ought to be a crime to describe writing in snobbish terms about breeding and roundness, but the comparison really is the best that comes to mind, especially when the master of the literary straight talk writes a book about wine. The Juice is the third collection of McInerney’s best pieces from columns in House & Garden and The Wall Street Journal, and it’s downright amazing that he hardly talks about vintage or odors. Instead, every essay is densely packed with how the drink stains business, production, geography, consumption, film culture, leisure, and status. It’s remarkable that so much can be squeezed from grapes—not pretentious smugness, but expert knowledge. Unequivocal lucidity is something that McInerney always employs, never mind how many drinks he’s had.

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The Year of the Gadflyby Jennifer Miller

An earnest, balanced debut about a girl growing up and playing journalist at a strict academy.

The voice of the young writer, Jennifer Miller, who’s just put out her first novel, sounds downright earnest by comparison, even if the protagonist, Iris Dupont, is supposed to be a gadfly. She might be an annoyance to the social order at the New England prep school she attends, playing the Edward R. Murrow of the system. But she is completely adorable (and therefore perhaps not completely believable), and when asked, “You all right?” says things like, “Too much turkey.” She investigates in a setting where even the name of a secret society is charmingly cute: Prisom’s Party. But her world does go dark, surrounded by bullying and betrayal. The mixture of troubling signs and lightness about the relative easiness of adolescence can be a great thing—the book feels like early autumn, before the end of hurricane season. Take The Ice Storm. Rick Moody would approve.