by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind
This month's news that former Enron CFO Andy Fastow is getting 10 years in federal prison may have heartened a public still hungry for justice in America's most troubling corporate scandal. After all, Fastow's sentence was the result of a plea bargain that could lead to indictments of Enron's top dogs, former CEOs Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. However, having just finished reading The Smartest Guys in the Room on the very day the Fastow indictment came down, I was crestfallen at the news. The feds should have given Fastow 50 years and thrown away the key.
As dogged Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind make clear, Fastow, not Lay or Skilling, was the central villain in Enron's galling schemes to defraud, rob, and cheat the public out of hundreds of millions of dollars. His schemes were complex--he dealt in "special purpose entities," off-balance-sheet debt, hedging risks, and something called "optionality"--but McLean and Elkind patiently explain each setup, along with the basic fundamentals you need to understand Enron's operations as a whole (like its crooked trading division's use of mark-to-market accounting, the key ploy in the company's misdeeds). Lay and Skilling were sketchy characters, but Fastow is--and I'm not exaggerating--the most chilling villain I have ever come across in the pages of nonfiction or even fiction.
The closing chapters--loaded with great behind-the-scenes moments like CEO Skilling tearing up when he confides to another Enron exec that "the traders have gotten so powerful I can't control them anymore"--ultimately star a few savvy Wall Street veterans who get wise to Enron's shenanigans and nudge reporters like McLean to put the screws to Enron. McLean did--publishing in February '01 the first national article to raise questions about Enron. Now she and colleague Elkind have followed up with this delicious and frightening book. JOSH FEIT
Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975
by Michel Foucault
From 1971 until his death in 1984, French philosopher Michel Foucault delivered, as required, public lectures at the prestigious Collége de France. The most recent collection of them, Abnormal, contains the lectures Foucault delivered in 1975 and looks at a set of what Foucault believed to be defining criminal cases in the history of how the West has constituted and reconstituted what is normal and not normal behavior. The cases illustrate three stages of this process: the human monster, "the individual to be corrected," and the onanist (the self-abuser).
I have room to mention two cases. One, which represents the human monster, is the case of Henriette Cornier, a young woman who in the 1820s "cut the throat of her neighbor's little girl." "Cornier took the little girl into her room," explains Foucault, "and there, with a big knife she had ready, cut right through her neck. She stayed for [a] quarter of an hour with the little girl's corpse, its trunk on one side and the head on the other. When the mother came looking for her little girl, Cornier told her: 'Your daughter is dead.'" The murder was motiveless, and so frustrated the workings of the law.
The case that best represents "the individual to be corrected" is known to those who are familiar with Foucault's The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. It concerns a village idiot who in the 1870s was in the habit of playing a game called maton ("curdled milk") with a village girl. The parents of the girl learned of this dirty game and informed the mayor, who in turn informed the state, who then conducted an investigation of what Foucault rather notoriously described in The History of Sexuality as a harmless "bucolic pleasure."
The importance of these lectures is that they are directly connected with two of Foucault's greatest books, Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Because they are clear and to the point, the lectures throw considerable light on the more difficult ideas and passages of their related published works. Laughter abounds in these lectures--not the laughter of a venerated professor, but that of an evil genius. CHARLES MUDEDE
Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy
by Colin MacCabe
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux) $25
As the first major biographer of one of the most important figures in 20th-century cinema, Colin MacCabe is in an unenviable position. Jean-Luc Godard, of course, isn't dead yet (he's still working at a rate of about one movie per year), so the complete narrative arc that many posthumous biographers aim for is beyond MacCabe's reach. Despite having worked with the director, MacCabe also comes up short on the sort of insight into Godard's relationships that might eventually be provided through access to his personal correspondence and other writings.
Approached as a provisional take on an intellectual, political, and aesthetic life, however, Godard is very satisfying. In addition to several illuminating personal details (who knew that Godard was once a petty thief?), the book incorporates a wide swath of indispensable historical context, from the social status of Godard's Franco-Swiss family to Henri Langlois' Cinémathéque, and from the Arab-Israeli war to the student unrest of May 1968. And if the intellectual circle of the seminal journal Cahiers du cinéma doesn't exactly pop off the page with immediacy and vitality, at least MacCabe takes care to explore the disjuncture between the way the journal's editors perceived themselves politically and the political stance that their work was understood to occupy.
The most awkward moments in the book pertain, not coincidentally, to MacCabe's area of academic specialty (he's a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh). On the few occasions when MacCabe tries to weld Godard to James Joyce, his other major research interest, the fit is always a bit off--witness the curious allusion of the book's title. Allow yourself to glaze over the parts when he gets going on how Godard's crisis of audience is just like that of the literary modernists; they detract from the more stimulating business of Godard's remarkable life. ANNIE WAGNER