May 24, 2015

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

This debut novel was hugely successful a few years ago, and having finally gotten a chance to read it, I can see why. Taking place in 1938 New York City, "Rules of Civility" is the first person narrative of a tumultuous year in the life of Katherine Kontent, a New York native. Smart as a whip and employed as a secretary, Kate lives in a boardinghouse with her mid-Western escapee best friend Eve. On New Years' Eve, they chance to meet an incredibly charming Tinker Grey, a banker and (supposed) Ivy Leaguer. Their beautiful trifecta is thrown into disarray in a split second car crash: Eve's face is disfigured and she loses much of her left leg's mobility; Tinker, horrified to have caused her injuries, brings Eve to live with him and pays her way through recovery. Kate is left to watch from the outside as Eve entrenches herself in the upper crust, even as Tinker's facade begins to crumble away.

The writing is astoundingly good, particularly for a first novel. I have mixed feelings about the trend that leaves out quotation marks (here, speaking is denoted by a long "-"), but it quickly becomes unnoticeable. Kate's voice is smart and witty without being overly precious (just like her), and it's a joy to be sucked so deeply into the world of 1938 NYC. My only real complaint is the typeface, which is quite thin and strains the eyes a bit while reading at night. It's a really beautiful novel, well deserving of its bestseller status.

May 20, 2015

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures, by Louis Theroux

In the late 1990s, Brit Louis Theroux was working for the BBC making documentaries about the strange and interesting members of some American subcultures, such as Neo-Nazis, porn actors, and UFO believers. Ten years later, Theroux decided to try and track down some of his subjects and find out how their lives had changed. Implicit in this is the question (and hope?) of whether they somehow decided to be "less weird." It's an interesting subject and an interesting book, but rather amorphous. The interviews shed light on some very dark corners of America, but there is little to string them together. And I don't know that I like his usage of the word "weird." Eccentric, maybe, or liminal, would perhaps describe these people a little better.

Several times, Theroux claims to like these people, despite their glaring flaws. Now, it's one thing to like someone despite the fact that, say, they like My Little Pony a little too much. It's another thing entirely to like someone who believes Jews rule the world and are in league with Satan and that all races other than whites are subhuman. That, to me, speaks of a deep-seated wrongness within someone, and it's a little dismaying to have Theroux expressing how nice a guy someone is despite, you know, the vicious and paranoid racial hatred. The book is fun and interesting, but I can't say I learned much from it, and it seems to really be an exercise for Theroux that he happened to decide on making into a book because he's a journalist and that's what he should do.

May 16, 2015

Illusions, by Richard Bach

This is our next book club book, and in keeping with the club's theme, it's definitely not something I would have ever read on my own. Nor, to be honest, is it something I'm glad to have read. I find books that border on (or fully inhabit) spiritual teaching to be boring and rather useless. It's not that I think I know everything or don't have philosophical issues I need to figure out, it's just that I feel very strongly about dealing with those things in my own way and on my own time. We are all so unique, how can someone else's solution fit me perfectly as well? There are some truisms in "Illusions" that I recognize as important, but I don't need a book telling me then. Maybe others do, but I'm not in their shoes and cannot know. We all have our own paths to truth. So I found the book boring and pedantic. I would have preferred, I think, to have these ideas addressed through non-fiction instead of in thinly veiled fiction. Dressing it up as a story seems almost condescending to me, like the writer thought we couldn't handle thinking about his ideas in too serious a fashion, though I'll freely admit that its popularity over the last forty years maybe proves me wrong on that point. It will certainly make for an interesting, if somewhat awkward, book club discussion.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

I really really really really really wanted to love this book. It's so rare that a book of science fiction, especially hard sci fi, gets so much attention from such a wide range of readers. Not only is it a bestseller several times over, people of all stripes have tried it out purely on the effusive praise of their trusted bookseller. So it truly pains me to say that I found it rather boring and poorly written.

Now, it is a debut novel, and first novels always have their weaknesses no matter how good they are. The biggest problem with "The Martian" is the dialogue. It's supremely bad. A math geek friend of mine tried to convince me that that's how math geeks actually speak, but I have a hard time believing it. Very few people are that clever AND that awkward at the same time. The next biggest problem is one of overall effect. It's a book written as though it were a movie. I ran into this problem with Justin Cronin's sequel to "The Passage," which feels more like a very descriptive screenplay than a novel. Hollywood's obsession with making movie versions of books has led to a rash of books written like movies. Very few people get rich writing books, but you can make a pretty penny if that book's movie rights get bought. And even if that isn't the author's intention, writing a book like a movie is easier than writing a book like a book. Movies are spectacles; books are more subtle, and subtlety is hard. Third problem: the hard sci fi stuff is pretty boring. Perhaps that's because it's mostly math as opposed to science, and I personally find the latter much more interesting than the former. But as someone who regularly reads hard sci fi written by the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson and Neal Stephenson, "The Martian" just doesn't hold up. Sixty pages in and I was already skimming large chunks of text to get to Mark Watney's pithy one-liners at the end of each log entry.

All that being said, it's not a terrible book, just not a very good one, and I'm glad that hard sci fi is getting wider attention among readers. I just wish it were a better book that had done the trick.

May 9, 2015

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood is my Holden Caufield. Forget "The Catcher in the Rye;" I have never read a book that speaks so perfectly to me and with which I feel such connection. Nineteen years old and wickedly book smart, Esther is spending a month in New York City as a scholarship winner interning at a magazine. Years of straight As have led her to this point where she feels the tug of freedom for the first time. It proves disastrous. Faced with an infinitely wider world than the one of books and papers she is used to, Esther quickly loses her certainty about what she wants to be and who she is, then descends into a dark depression, complete with suicide attempts and shock treatments.

Esther and I are cut from the same cloth, and it's worth quoting one passage at length that touched me profoundly:

"From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked... I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."

I call this the Paralysis of Opportunity, and it's a common problem for smart, middle-class young people. There are many things we would be good at, and probably we would be happy doing several of them. But which one would make us happiest? How can we possibly choose what we want to do when we don't know whether it will provide the best outcome? Is it really any better to exert oneself and work hard at something only to find you don't like it than to simply waffle between options forever? I know Esther's indecision, I know that feeling of worthlessness upon realizing all your As matter not a single bit in the real world. Minus the suicide attempts and shock therapy, Esther is me. What an astounding thing it is, to pick up a book and find yourself in it.

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks

The first thing to note about this book is that it was published in 1995, two decades ago. The second thing to note is its prescience and continued relevancy. An Australian journalist, Brooks traveled extensively throughout the Middle East in the late 1980s and early 1990s, meeting with Muslim women of many backgrounds, speaking with them about their faith and their private lives. The resulting book is, as The New Yorker exclaims on the front cover, "Frank, enraging, and captivating."

It is impossible to fully discuss the book and do it justice in the span of a short review, so instead I'll try to keep my points limited and succinct. There are aspects of Brooks' research that are horrifying, and many that are surprising, some even pleasantly so. Of the former: genital mutilation and clitidorectomy, the inability of women to vote/drive/travel without their closest male relative's written permission/work/learn, the hypocritical and expressly-forbidden-by-the-Koran punishment for women's crimes, Muslim women who fully believe in violent jihad and the death of infidels. Of the latter: women freely discussing sex with one another, women dressing very provocatively in private (ostensibly for their husbands), women distancing themselves from men and delaying marriage as a natural progression of enforced segregation of the sexes, women in positions of power trying to work within the Islamic framework to better the lives of women everywhere.

Brooks saw much of the vehement religious fervor that led to 9/11 and continues to fuel terrorism today, and it's worth noting that she dismisses apologists who claim "Islam is not like that." She argues that while pure Islam may not be like that, it has become so inextricably entwined with the social mores of tribal Arabia that it cannot be argued the two are separate entities. "Islam" means submission, but it seems that only women are expected to submit themselves entirely to men, rather than meaning the submission of believers to Allah. Human rights, Brooks argues, are truly universal and not merely based on culture, as many Islamists like to claim.

This is an astounding book, especially because it remains relevant - perhaps even more so - twenty years after its publication. Brooks's writing is very good, narrative and conversational. I encourage all women to read it, or at least do some research on its subject matter. A single woman subjugated anywhere makes slaves of us all.

Apr 27, 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

I got my first taste of Internet shaming when I was about 16 years old. Working in my dad's law office for the summer, with many of my friends traveling or away at camp, I was bored and looking for something to do. One day while browsing the web I stumbled upon a website - an entire website! - of people who were fans of a rather obscure comedy site. They'd created their own community, kind of like MySpace or Reddit, where you could create or enter different threads and talk to like-minded people. At first, I was welcomed with open arms. The more the merrier! But I was a teenager and the Internet was sort of new to me and, well, I fucked it up. I came across a thread of lawyer jokes. Really horrible, mean-spirited lawyer jokes. Both my parents are lawyers, and I love them dearly, and I'm not so good at differentiating serious ribbing from lighthearted joking. So I said something that I thought would make all those people change their minds about lawyers forever and applaud me for calling them out on their prejudice. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened next. They destroyed me. My website-dedicated inbox exploded. They did some digging and found out my AOL email account and spammed the shit out of it, saying the most awful things about and to me. As a 16-year-old with already precariously fragile self-confidence, it threw me into a deep depression and I sobbed for days. The only people I'd ever found who'd accepted me immediately were suddenly my worst enemies.

I'm lucky, actually, that this didn't happen more recently. Twitter or Facebook or Instagram reach an astronomically wider audience; I would have been more than destroyed, I would have been obliterated. Which is what happened to the subjects of Jon Ronson's new book. Jonah Lehrer, Justine Saccho, and Adria Richards have all experienced the worst part of the Internet: mob-mentality fueled by anonymity incited by one stupid little thing. These people lose jobs and friends and most of all their reputation. And we feel good about it, like we're righteous to have destroyed these people's lives. Ronson is trying to remind us that we are all only human. We all make mistakes, and just because some mistakes play out in the public sphere does not give us the right to pillory people so horribly. It's a lesson we are only just becoming aware of, with the rise of suicides driven by cyber-bullying. And he also warns that what we're creating is a culture of overly cautious banality. We're all so afraid to say anything wrong that we say nothing at all; we're losing our individuality. Though the book could have easily gone much deeper, it's definitely a good first step towards self-awareness and reaching an equilibrium between holding bad people accountable and utterly ruining their lives. Shame is an exceedingly powerful emotion and tool, and we need to learn how to wield it more carefully.