Modern and Smart, “The Financial Lives of the Poets” Is Captivating

The Financial Lives of the Poets is the first work of fiction I’ve read that’s focused on the time period leading up to and during the 2008/2009 financial crisis. The book was written and published quickly, coming out in 2009, as the economy was continuing its downward spiral.

Typically, you’d think that literature reacting to swift societal changes would need some time and distance from the events, to process the outcomes and interpret the various causes and effects of what happened. But author Jess Walter saw the world around him shifting and, luckily for us, he didn’t wait to see how things shook out. Instead, he jumped right into the melee himself.

The book’s protagonist, 46-year old Matt Prior, is not having an easy go of things when we meet him late one night in a suburban 7-Eleven. A former business journalist, he’d quit his safe local newspaper job a few years earlier to start a website he dubbed “,” where he imagined readers flocking to read, yes, poetry based on business and financial topics. When it didn’t go as planned, he returned to his newspaper gig, only to find that the outlook for ad-based print media had weakened considerably and before long, he’s laid off.

Adding to Matt’s troubles is the sad truth that he’s days away from having his home foreclosed on, thanks to falling behind on his payments after losing his job, plus years of taking equity out of it coupled with a housing market that no longer seems to magically be going up. He lives in this house with his wife, their two sons, and his dementia-suffering father. Oh, and Matt’s also worried his wife might be carrying on an affair (or planning one via Facebook) with her old high school sweetheart.

Here’s the thing, though: this is actually a very funny book, in a dark sort of way. Matt’s resigned to calamity, it seems, and we watch him make bad decision after bad decision. Jess Walter has created a character that we can all, at least in some small way, see ourselves in while also thinking smugly, “That wouldn’t happen to me.”

This book’s astute, though, and keys in on the some of the factors at the center of the financial crisis: too many people owning more house than they could afford, too much risk-taking on Wall Street and beyond, too much credit flowing too freely, and too many overleveraged banks and financial institutions near the brink. It’s a cautionary tale for everyone that entertains as much as it illuminates.

(Originally published here:

My Valentine? Independent bookstores.

The Book Lady Bookstore, Savannah, Georgia

The Book Lady Bookstore, Savannah, Georgia

Independent bookstores are like an intellectual aphrodisiac for me. Seriously. Wherever I am, whichever city I’m in, I seek them out and can spend hours browsing, picking up this book and that, taking chances on books I’ve never heard of and end up loving, stumbling across an old favorite that I probably don’t actually need another copy of but can’t resist buying. I love the actual sensation of being physically surrounded by books, of having tall shelves with titles so interesting it’s worth stretching up on my tippy-toes to try and see what they are, of turning corners and finding myself suddenly in the “essay” section.

From Shakespeare and Company in Paris to Book People in Austin to Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi to The Tattered Cover in Denver to The Book Lady in Savannah (which I just visited for the first time today), my love runs so deep for these places. I feel so at home there. So at ease. I feel like I know who I am there, like I fit, which if you’re anything like me, isn’t always the case out in the world.

They are my refuge. My safe place. My church. I really do view them as sacred. Sacred and so important.

At a time when people’s attentions are pulled this way and that, and when it can sometimes seem like the very world around us is fraying, bookstores serve such a tremendous social purpose. They provide context and perspective and opportunities to learn about the other human beings in the world — opportunities to practice understanding and empathy — it’s all right there, waiting for you to pick it up and jump right in. Go ahead, turn that page.

Of course, you may say, well it doesn’t have to be an independent bookstore — you can get books elsewhere, ya know. And I do know that. But I believe those of us who are readers and book lovers have an actual civic duty to support our local booksellers and independent bookstores everywhere.

So, if you’re a book lover like I am, get out this Valentine’s Day weekend to your closest independent bookstore and talk to the folks running it. Meet your neighbors. And introduce yourself to some new books, too. Book love is real love.

Shakespeare and Company, Paris

Shakespeare and Company, Paris