For those of you still paying off your holiday shopping, Jake Halpern has written a book about the state of debt collecting in the United States. It will make you never want to carry a credit card balance. Americans owe $411.28 trillion. $831 billion is delinquent or unpaid. 30 million consumers owe an average of $1,458.
Banks, credit card companies and other debt holders bundle and sell off these IOU's they can't collect on. Companies then buy this debt for pennies on the dollar usually, try to collect on it and then keep what they collect. It can be very lucrative. Once they think they can't collect any more, they in turn sell it again - and so on down the line. Outside of the biggest debt collection companies, the business is a seedy one and is largely unregulated. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau focuses on the largest 175 collection companies while thousands of smaller ones go unregulated.
This book is the story of Aaron Siegel who left his Wall Street job in 2005 to move back to Buffalo, NY. He took a job in private wealth management but since there is little private wealth in Buffalo (the debt collection capital of the U.S.) he was bored and decided to switch careers again. Using $125,000 of his own money he bought some "paper" and started trying to collect on it. He hired some veteran collectors to help him. Some of them were of an unsavory sort - ex-cons, drug addicts, con-men - so he hired a floor manager to deal with them. Aaron was making tons of money with 199% returns, 264% returns, 20% returns and on. When Aaron was done with the paper he sold it to Brandon, an ex-con with a decidedly ungentle approach to collecting on the debts.
This book deals with the seedy side of debt collections, not the debtors. It is full of characters, most of them people you hope you never meet, let alone have to do business with. I found this an interesting book about a subject I knew nothing about.
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Friday, February 27, 2015
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
It begins in a Manhattan law firm, which is suffering massive staff layoffs after losing it’s major client, Lehman Brothers.
Our narrator is Samantha, one of a handful of lawyers who has been offered a “furlough” - if she works for one of the non profits on the list she has been handed, she *might* be offered a job back at the firm after they reorganize. This leads her to work at a legal aid society in a rural hamlet of Virginia, deep in coal mining country. Of course a handsome male lawyer there is suing coal mines for deforesting……Gray Mountain.
A good page turner, really enjoyed it.
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Saturday, February 21, 2015
Richard Blanco is a writer of beautiful poetry and prose. Much can be said about him, to identify him, factually. He was born in Madrid in 1968. As an infant, he immigrated, with his Cuban-exile family to New York and then to Miami. He grew up and studied in Miami. At Florida International University, he earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering and an MFA in creative writing. He is an engineer, an educator, and an author. In 2013, he was the firth inaugural poet of the United States and was the youngest, the first Latino, first immigrant, and first gay writer to have that honor. All these facts are factors in his writing. But, it is the combination of his lyrical style and his narrative skills that make his writing special.
The Prince of Los Cocuyos is a memoir of Blanco's Miami childhood. In each chapter, he tells the story of a different time and situation in his life, as he grows from a small boy to a young man about to graduate from high school. Among the stories - "The First Real San Giving Day" which includes learning to cook a turkey; "Losing the Farm" about time spent with his grandfather and the animals they raised in the backyard of their home; "Listening to Mermaids" about maturing, friendships, and loving. In more than one chapter, he describes his years working at the family market, El Cocuyito (the little firefly) and the employers, co-workers, and customers who were a part of his childhood.
Blanco writes with such a combination of insight, sensitivity and humor that I savor every word. I know some readers do not like poetry, but in case you do or want to try his poems after you read his memoir, there are three books of his poems in our collection. If you want to know more about Richard Blanco, here is a link to his website:
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Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Hilary Mantel is best known for her historical fiction based on the life of Thomas Cromwell. The first two, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, each won the Man Booker Prize. Her international audience anxiously awaits the last book of the trilogy.
Her short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, exhibits all of the wit, stellar prose, and black humor that so characterizes Ms. Mantel's writing. Some of the stories capture the cruelty of childhood, as in the chilling "Comma" and "The Heart Fails Without Warning." Others, like the title story, "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," reflect the author's unconcealed anger at the once all-powerful prime minister. As the narrator observes:
I thought, there's not a tear in her. Not for the mother in the rain at the bus stop, or the sailor burning in the sea. She sleeps four hours a night. She lives on the fumes of whiskey and the iron in the blood of her prey. (p. 232)
Only the most skillful of writers could write a comic story about politically-motivated murder, leaving the reader sympathizing with the killer and his surprising accomplice.
To say any more about the stories would spoil their shock value. Just know that this reader found each one a gem - an analysis of the good and evil found in every one of us.
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Friday, February 13, 2015
He is in luck however (and this is an idiom he wouldn’t understand) because Ms. Washburn had just arrived to help with another question and now she can help him with this one. Samuel arranges to investigate the Institute and when he does he realizes his case of a missing head has turned into a murder investigation. With his methodical, precise skills Samuel and Ms. Washburn begin their investigation. They investigate everyone - the company president, the head of security and his wife, and other doctors working at the Institute. Samuel methodically eliminates suspects until he is left with the family of the woman whose head is missing. But would they make a ransom demand of themselves? Samuel keeps digging placing himself in danger until he can solve the case.
This book is short, sweet and a fast read. Somewhat quirky, it details how Samuel's Asperger’s helps him. He doesn’t consider it an affliction, but a plus in his life, and in this instance it most certainly is. Ms.Washburn exhibits a patience for Samuel that helps him along. Her character is a perfect foil for Samuel’s.
The book is written by two men: E.J. Copperman who writes the Haunted Guesthouse Mysteries, and Jeff Cohen who is the author of 2 books on Asperger's syndrome. Cohen's background gives Samuel's character a very real feel and Copperman lends his expertise to the mystery.
I liked this book. A new kind of cozy mystery, this book is perfect if you're looking for something new in mysteries.
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Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Main character Rachel commutes back and forth to London on the train every day. As she gazes out the window, she concentrates her attention on the row of houses next to the tracks where she used to live. Her ex-husband Tom lives there now with his new wife and there is another young couple two doors down. As Rachel fantasizes about what goes on behind those closed doors the reader begins to realize that Rachel is a very unreliable narrator! Fired from her job because of her major drinking problem, Rachel continues taking the train in to London and out every day so she doesn't have to tell her roommate that she has lost another job due to drunkenness.
When a woman goes missing, the woman from the house two doors down from where Rachel used to live with Tom, Rachel is convinced that she has seen something important from the train window - and she wants to help with the investigation.
The Girl on the Train is skillfully plotted, the characters well drawn.
The author gives the reader small pieces of information, little clues, as the plot progresses and even the most astute thriller reader may be surprised by the dramatic plot twist at the end.
Author Paula Hawkins is a longtime London resident, who, like Rachel, spent a great deal of time commuting - by train.
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Friday, February 6, 2015
Besides the perfunctory childhood background and early career motivations, the book is really is all about the musicians and the music industry. Every chapter covers one (or sometimes a few) musicians and details Johns's interactions with the musicians, typically as he records an album or a concert.
Johns was there when the Beatles were approaching the end while recording Let It Be, and while it wouldn't have hurt to have been provided some more dirt, his insights into the personalities involved are enjoyable. He was also present for various incarnations of The Rolling Stones, and was around to see Brian Jones fall apart and Mick Taylor implode and made it through only part of the Black and Blue sessions before falling out with Keith Richards, not returning to work with the Stones for another 35 years.
It's fascinating to hear Johns's take on the personalities of various musicians. While at first critical of a strung-out Eric Clapton, he later learns to appreciate his talent when he produces Slowhand and brings Clapton in for some guest work on other albums. And while crazy stories of Who drummer Keith Moon abound, Johns points out that they are only enjoyable in retrospect and while he enjoyed Moon's sense of humor, he also had a tendency to take things too far and to negatively affect others. The last major production that he covers is The Clash's Combat Rock, walking away with a new friendship in Joe Strummer and a dislike for Mick Jones (with the caveat that Johns understands why Jones would feel threatened in having his work undermined by an outside producer).
If the glimpses of stories that I've relayed sound appealing then you'll want to get this book and read more. Other bands discussed are The Eagles, The Steve Miller Band, Leon Russell and Neil Young. Johns wrestles with the feeling that his skills are dated so he doesn't really offer much from the post-MTV years but the rest of the book is great fun for any lover of rock and roll.
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Tuesday, February 3, 2015
We'd been in America just three months when the horse ran over me. I don't know exactly how old I was. Six perhaps? When I was born, they didn't keep records. All I remember was running down Hester Street, looking for Papa. Overhead, a bleached sky was flanked by rooftops, iron fire escapes. Pigeons circled, street peddlers shouted, chickens squawked; there was the strange rickety calliope of the organ-grinder. Great upheavals of dust swirled around the pushcarts, making the shop signs swing back and forth like flags. I heard a clop, then I was tumbling. There was a split-second flash of hoof, then a white-hot bolt of pain. Then: nothing. (p. 3)
By a strange twist of fate, the horse that nearly crushes Lillian is pulling a penny-ices cart. When her own parents abandon her, it is the driver of this cart, Mr. Dinello, who brings Lillian home from the hospital. His wife grudgingly takes her into the family and she comes to work side by side with Mrs. Dinello in the ice cream business.
One of the many strengths of this novel lies in its character development. Susan Gilman has created a character who is unlikeable, and yet, with whom one feels great empathy. Although she becomes a great ice cream tycoon, Lillian would rather drink hard liquor than eat the product she manufactures. In a sense, ice cream is a metaphor for the happiness that always stays a bit out of reach. As she explains, "As soon as I began to lick the spoon, the ice cream inevitably started to turn to liquid...Sitting alone in the drafty storefront, staring down at the dirty spoon in my hand, I wondered why everything I adored disappeared so quickly...Ice cream? All it did was intensify my grief." p. 99
Aside from analyzing a larger-than-life character, Gilman also educates the reader in some little-known facts. Ice cream production was intrinsically linked to major historical events. For example, Prohibition was a boon for the ice cream industry. There were more ice cream parlors than speakeasies and many ice cream parlors were former bars.
Also, during World War II, the U.S. government became the largest ice cream producer in history over the course of the war. There really was an Ice Cream Barge, commissioned in 1945 at a cost of one million dollars, which pumped out 1500 gallons an hour. Its sole purpose was to supply US troops in the Pacific with ice cream.
These are but a few of the many fascinating bits of trivia that are sprinkled throughout the book. If you love historical fiction or are looking for an engaging and enjoyable read, seek no further. And buy a pint of Haagen Das (another immigrant success story) to make your reading experience even more delectable.
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