Describing the plot of this book would sound like one of Bill Hader’s Stefon skits from Saturday Night Live: It has Russians, terrorists, secret agents, a Chinese hacker in a Manu Ginobli jersey who writes a virus to steal money from people in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Given that, it’s “24″-style, kidnap + extortion + ticking time bomb plot makes it a fun read full of Stephenson’s characteristically arcane detail on everything from online gaming to jihadist terrorism, including a subtle and nuanced commentary on American gun culture. I just wish Stephenson knew how to deploy his considerable storytelling talents in fewer than 1,000 pages.
Like Colson Whitehead, Teju Cole is another author I’ve followed online for years without having read any of his work, so I sheepishly downloaded this debut novel. The book centers on the inner thoughts of the young psychiatrist Julius, though it becomes just as much the story of the people he encounters as he wanders the streets of New York City, takes a long vacation to Brussels and flashes back to his childhood in Nigeria. However insightful some of these reflections may be, they also had the same effect as staring intently at an object until the edges blur and my eyes lose focus, leaving me unsettled and wondering what, if anything, was really happening.
Whether it’s the residual cool rubbing off of Justin Timberlake’s comeback or his front row seat at the inauguration, it seemed like a good time to read Jay-Z’s “Decoded,” a beautifully-bound collection of annotated song lyrics and personal essays reflecting on Hova’s life and career. The notes on the lyrics were interesting but I could have used about half as many, and the essays were tantalizingly coy, leaving me wanting to know a lot more about his life growing up and breaking into the rap game. What it did do though, was make me go back and listen to all of his music with a new appreciation of his craft, which is one of the best things I’ve done all year.
I’m a little embarrassed that this is the first Colson Whitehead book I’ve read since I’ve been following him on Twitter for years, but it was enough to make me want to go out and read the rest of his work right away. Zone One is set mostly in New York City following the zombie plague apocalypse, and while I’m no connoisseur of the zombie genre, Whitehead’s take carries a sense of loss and wistfulness for the days gone by that must put others to shame, while not skimping on the gore and black humor made possible by the concept. My only problem is why I enjoy stories about the end of the world—”The Road,” “Children of Men,” “The Matrix”—so much.
“Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America” is about what happens in the town of Postville, Iowa (pop. 1,500) after a group of Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews moved there to open the world’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in 1987. Bloom brings a unique perspective to the story, bridging the two cultures as a secular Jew who had recently moved his family from San Francisco to Iowa City to become a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa. As I read, I couldn’t help picturing Postville as Poseyville, Indiana, where I grew up, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has lived the cognitive dissonance of growing up in a small town and moving to a big, multicultural city (or vice versa).
I finished The Savage Detectives last week as the second of two Bolano books to gear up for the 2666 group read starting on January 25. It’s divided into three parts: the first told as the journal entries of Juan Garcia Madero, an aspiring poet in 1970s Mexico City who tags along with a group of poets who have revived a movement called “visceral realism,” led by two charismatic pot dealers, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima. This section ends when Belano, Lima, Garcia Madero, and a prostitute named Lupe disappear north into the Sonora Desert to escape Lupe’s murderous pimp and find the last living visceral realist poet. The long middle section of the book is a series of interviews with people who encounter Belano and Lima after they return and become the Forrest Gumps of the Latin American literary world and beyond over the next 20 years, popping up in Mexico, Spain, France, Israel, and Africa. The third part returns to Garcia Madero’s journals for an account of what happened in Sonora while searching for the lost poet.
This book was a lot of work, not just for the sheer size but the long stretches in the middle section where I had a hard time keeping the various narrators straight or particularly caring about their stories. I was never quite sure what Belano and Lima stood for, other than steadfastly refusing to let anyone else define them. In a way I guess, this uncompromising stance is what led them to such great lengths on their journey to the desert. They stood for being consistent, which come to think of it would serve them well in today’s black/white, for/against culture. Bolano’s writing is sharp and funny, epsecially when describing Garcia Madero’s sexual escapades, and the ending satisfactorily tied up many of the mysteries introduced by the interviews. So I didn’t love The Savage Detectives and I didn’t hate it either, which is probably an accomplishment after 672 pages.
I don’t think it’s too strong to say that I loved these stories. I read it to prepare for the next Infinite Summer reading of Bolano’s 2666 because I have never read any of his work. I was wary of starting off with a massive novel like 2666 or The Savage Detectives, so this book of stories fit the bill. The writing is superb and compact, and Bolano generates a palpable sense of bemusement with each tale. You feel like you’re sitting at a bar with him in the fading afternoon sunlight while he chain smokes and tells you his stories, almost as if he had to hear them out loud to believe them himself. I particularly enjoyed “Sensina” and “Dentist.” Highly recommended. I’m starting The Savage Detectives next, and hopefully can finish it in time to start 2666 for the new year.
I bought a Kindle version of this book to read on my iPhone after reading the flurry of coverage for Gladwell’s newest book, What the Dog Saw. I read and enjoyed The Tipping Point, and generally enjoy the idea of what Gladwell does, that is, turning conventional wisdom on its head with a mix of reporting and statistical reasoning. But the backlash against his more recent work, especially Steven Pinker’s review of What the Dog Saw and a long takedown by Maureen Tkacik at The Nation, raised the intrigue for reading Outliers.
I have mixed feelings about the book, because while it was a lively and thought-provoking read, it mostly left me depressed. Gladwell’s central argument is that wildly successful, rich and famous people, the professional athletes, rock stars, and business tycoons of the world don’t make it on talent alone. Fame and fortune demands exceptional talent of course, but it also requires the right mix of hard work, advantageous socioeconomic background, skillful parenting, and luck. One of the catchy ideas from the book is the “10,000 Hour Rule,” the idea that to truly master anything, be it music, writing, or computer programming, the aspiring superstar has to put in over 10,000 hours of practice.
This is where I start to despair. I haven’t become rich and famous because I wasn’t born at the right time, didn’t meet the right people, and didn’t stumble into the right situation. But I also haven’t been working hard enough. In a way, a book that Gladwell surely must have intended to be uplifting–every success can be explained if you look closely enough!–can be used as an excuse for failure. It doesn’t help that he closes the book with an epilogue about his family history, thus explaining his own meteoric success. After reading this I wonder if I should just pack it in and run out the clock until it’s time to retire, to somewhere drab, boring, and cold, no doubt.
I’m a little biased because my essay, “Chicago Transit Priority,” is in this book, but I did really enjoy it. Gutkind might be presumptuous claiming the title of “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction,” but it’s still an honor to be chosen alongside so many other excellent writers. My favorites were “First Year” by Laura Bramon Good, “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” by Wesley Yang, and “Lavish Dwarf Entertainment” by Alice Dreger. I read it straight through, but I think it might be best sampled one piece at a time, here and there, to fill in the gaps between longer books.
I picked up Black Dogs because the critics on Slate’s Culture Gabfest were discussing the book to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The middle portion of the novel is set in Berlin on November 9, 1989, during the celebratory hours after East Germany eased travel restrictions to the west, and the book as a whole revolves around the strained relationship of Bernard and June, the erstwhile British Communinist Party members and in-laws of the narrator Jeremy.
I loved McEwan’s Atonement and read it in two sittings a couple years ago, but for such a short book (149 pages), I had a hard time finishing Black Dogs. During Slate’s discussion, Stephen Metcalf mentioned how McEwan is completely neutral on the couple’s two worldviews. Bernard is the idealistic intellectual who stuck with the commmunist fantasy after World War II until the brutal Soviet crackdown in Hungary after the 1956 revolution. June turned inward to find spiritual meaning and became estranged from Bernard on their honeymoon, after she was menaced on a mountain trail by two giant black dogs that she saw as symbols of pure evil. Metcalf is right, and his observation explains a lot about why I wasn’t crazy about this book.
McEwan’s subjective treatment, taking the side of neither June nor Bernard, left me ambivalent toward both of them, a feeling exacerbated by the contradictions within each character as well. Bernard was the more affable, likable person, but he held on to repugnant ideas about politics and society. June had a warmer, more redemptive view of the world, but she was cold and dismissive to Jeremy and her daughter. I know this is how the world works. People are complex and can’t be labeled simply as “Good/Bad” or “Like/Don’t Like.” But McEwan didn’t give either June or Bernard enough redemptive qualities to make me care about either of them much by the book’s end.