Monthly archives of “September 2015


Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Margaret Atwood (2008)

9780747598718More than a year since reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, my head’s still spinning trying to come to grips with the concept of debt, which once seemed very simple to me and now seems deeply nebulous. Just recently, I was trying to recommend that book to a friend and found myself unable even to explain what it was “about.”

Atwood’s book, which started as a series of lectures and reads very conversationally, might be a better place to start than Graeber. It’s not nearly as detailed or researched, and there’s a much lower ratio¬†of mindblowers-per-page, but it’s also far more approachable and comprehensible.

Unsurprisingly, Atwood’s particularly good at exploring the ways debt appears in literature, with shrewd and lively analyses of Middlemarch, Faust, and — of course — Dickens, particularly¬†A Christmas Carol.

Breezy, smart, recommended.


What Happened, Miss Simone? Liz Garbus (2015)

nina-reelgoodGreat documentary about an absolutely fascinating character — I’m not going to say “tragic” because I’m not sure that’s exactly true. Simone was a preacher’s daughter in the Jim Crow south who very early in childhood showed such intense capacity at the piano that a white piano teacher on the right side of the tracks took her on as a project. She practiced the repertoire at the expense of all other childhood activities, as is expected of prodigies, and got herself up north to attend conservatory, but the money ran out, and she started gigging at bars and clubs. Playing pop tunes for drunks was as easy for her as it would have been for Picasso to draw caricatures for tourists on the boardwalk, and when a bar owner told her to go ahead and sing, too, she went ahead and sang. No one, least of all Simone, could have guessed those sounds were in her, waiting to come out.

From there the story starts moving much more quickly, as Simone’s career explodes. I’m not going to recount all the twists and turns — you’re going to watch this on Netflix yourself soon, I hope. I will say that the movie got me thinking a great deal about the artist’s relationship to her historical moment. Shall she seek to evade it? Engage it? Change it? I think sometimes none of these choices are really available, and history just engulfs the artist, has its way with her, and I think that’s what happened to Miss Simone.