Sunday, December 12, 2010

Shipping out

That is all for now from 50 Books for 2010. Hope you enjoyed it. If you're in the market for (free) musings, ramblings, and/or reflections on everything from politics to sports to technology to books, please follow me over to my new project, The First Casualty, at

Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A reflection

It feels somehow appropriate that it is here, in the Mission district of San Francisco, that my writer’s block has finally begun to recede. For several weeks now, ever since I typed the last sentence of my fiftieth book review of the year, words had eluded me, replacing the year-long jackhammering of my fingertips for anxious table-tapping instead. Muddy’s Coffee House, at 1304 Valencia, is proving to be my long-awaited antidote, much as countless cafes and bars within walking distance provided a safe haven for yesteryear’s beatniks and the poets of today.

I am neither beatnik nor poet. I am, however, an Excel whiz: I create sales plans for an online company in New York, and I’m in the Golden State merely on business. But after reading Gregory Dicum’s recent feature in The New York Times, “A Book Lover’s San Francisco,” and eliciting a good friend’s boundless enthusiasm upon hearing of my trip to the West Coast, I decided a sign was a sign. Immediately after completing work today, I pointed my rental car, a Chevy Aveo with all the horsepower of a kitchen blender, in the direction of I-280 and my first-ever foray into the City by the Bay.

Although it has come to an end in San Francisco, mine is a literary journey that began last New Year’s Eve in Hong Kong, as I stood with my girlfriend atop the IFC mall to await the celebratory fireworks. She asked me if I had a New Year’s resolution. I’d always managed to steer clear of such reckless abandon in the past and, in retrospect, I blame the bitterly whipping wind and cacophonic house music emanating from the rooftop bar for my anomalous response: “I want to read fifty books this year."

What soon followed was a rapidly growing stack of books that started with SuperFreakonomics and ended with Animal Spirits, swallowing over ten months and forty-eight books in between. To keep myself committed, I started a blog and reviewed each book as I read it, praising some, excoriating others, and – when hungry, tired or bored – barely devoted four paragraphs each to the rest. If, as some claim, a year is best measured in books, it seems I’d learned that lesson at long last. Other lessons, however, proved harder to grasp. Among axioms of literature, “reading a book is a journey” springs immediately to mind, a trope as true as it is clichéd. Yet my always-looming year-end goal rendered me the journeying equivalent of the five-year-old in the backseat, wondering, “Are we there yet?”

And so it seemed to me, just as to that precocious (hypothetical) toddler, that I never was. As the year progressed and the inaugural feverish pitch of my reading pace gradually ceded ground to work and procrastination, the practicalities of finding time just as subtly began to assert themselves. I decided, via executive fiat, to start reading shorter books. Cut out the dry non-fiction. Embrace short-story collections. These and other considerations crowded out my personal preferences, sacrificing the lengthy luxury of Jonathan Franzen’s 562-page Freedom and the satisfaction of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in favor of the immutable fifty-book bottom line.

Somewhere along the way, I became aware of the inevitable creeping sensation that my New Year’s resolution had shed its virgin luster. Where before was the refrain “only twenty-five left to go!” there now remained only a sulking “eight left until I’m finally done with this stupid thing.” The blog, too, had become a chore. The whole endeavor was feeling, quite uncomfortably, more and more like school.

This is not to say that the occasional book didn’t capture my imagination. Some certainly did, from Olga Grushin’s surrealist portrait of a declining Soviet Union in The Dream Life of Sukhanov to Michael Lewis’ hilarious recounting of Wall Street’s outsiders in The Big Short to Grégoire Bouillier’s self-psychoanalysis in his endlessly relatable memoir The Mystery Guest, and many more besides. But the act of institutionalizing my reading stripped the written word of one of its most potent weapons: the ability to fully immerse a reader into a world of the author’s creation. With a ticking clock as the omnipresent soundtrack, my suspension of disbelief was relegated to intermittent moments of reading, often lost amongst the more numerous minutes spent fretting over my remaining schedule.

While this may read like a cautionary tale against setting numeric goals for book reading, it’s actually something a little different: a suggestion to aim high but to learn to be satisfied with a less-than-100% success rate. Which is why, even as I celebrated the dissolution of my writer’s block in San Francisco, I suppose I’ll just have to accept the fact that I still didn’t finish this essay until now, back in New York.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving downtime

Nope, still haven't called it quits on the blog yet. I'm just putting off writing my wrap-up/review/reflection on the experience of trying to read fifty books this year. In the absence of better excuses, I'll blame excessive turkey consumption and the general lethargy that always accompanies trips home for the holidays.

It's not over yet. Like the evil Derek Jeter's contract negotiations with the evil Yankees, this blog just goes on and on and on.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Second-half review

So, j'ai fini. The fifty-book challenge can finally, and mercifully, be laid to rest -- not that I didn't enjoy it, because I most certainly did. (And I'll get to that in a later post: the ups, the downs, the profound life lessons learned. Things like that. Hint: purchases of $25 or more on get free shipping. This was crucial in making the fifty-book challenge less challenging financially.) It's strange: these days I'm reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, a lengthy novel I'd been putting off forever, and there's absolutely no deadline for its completion. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to read without even a slightly gnawing sensation of panic.

Anyway, in adhering to tradition (by which I mean my solitary midpoint recap), please allow me to dole out the awards to best and worst of fiction and non-fiction, for my last twenty-five books. But first, a few statistics. On the year, I read thirty-five works by males and fifteen by females. (Believe it or not, this ratio actually improved in the second half of my challenge, with sixteen books by men and nine by women. I am ashamed. In my defense, most of my selections were culled directly from major publications' book review sections, which are overwhelmingly biased towards male authors.) And although I considerably improved my fiction exposure (fifteen of my last twenty-five books, or sixteen if one counts the hopelessly naive polemic by Roger D. Hodge, The Mendacity of Hope), I ended the challenge with an even split between fiction and non-, with twenty-five books apiece. I would go into further detail -- divisions by nationality, book length in pages, median year published, etc. -- but that would only serve to depress me and, even worse, would require actual research, which (as anyone who's kept up with this blog should know by now) is the bane of my passively critiquing online existence.

Onward, then.

Best Non-Fiction Book: The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier

This feels a little like cheating. As a memoir, The Mystery Guest hovers somewhere between the realms of fiction (from which all memoirs take their cues) and fact (to which all memoirs purportedly aspire). But while the genre is ambiguous, the quality of the story, and the depth of feeling it achieves, is anything but. Grégoire Bouillier manages to capture, in the space of a tidy little book with a very skinny spine, the inner psychotic that rears its ugly head in all of us, given the right (wrong?) circumstances. In the case of Bouillier, this circumstance is his invitation to a birthday party of a woman he does not know, as the "mystery guest" of a former lover who had left him without explanation five years before. Perfectly depicting the protagonist's -- his own -- frayed nerves amid the taut ambiance that builds throughout the party itself, Bouillier courageously unravels the mysteries of his mind, laying bare his insecurities and thus affording grateful readers an eerily familiar reminder of the sheer insanity of romance.

Honorable mention: Unfortunately, none.

Best Fiction Book: The Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer

Perhaps it's the gleeful manner with which Adam Langer mocks every aspect of the publishing industry. Or perhaps it's simply the fact that, in getting such literary bunk published, Langer's distaste for editors' discernment was vindicated by his novel's very existence. But whatever the reasons, The Thieves of Manhattan is at once a laugh machine and a sober inspection of the challenges facing modern writers in a shifting publishing landscape. Employing a niche jargon so drenched in industry particulars that he includes a glossary at the end, Langer hilariously documents the commercialization of literature, a transformation that has placed the works of ex-cons and Pulitzer Prize winners on the same bookshelf at the local Barnes & Noble. Clearly, Langer is a man more amused than outraged at the rapidly disappearing distinction between novels and non-fiction, and he references numerous hoaxes, forgeries, and plagiarisms within his own novel. It may be that Langer, exhausted by high-minded denunciations of authorial appropriation, decided that the best rebuttal was to mirthfully engage in the practice himself. For this, The Thieves of Manhattan won't snag him a Pulitzer Prize, but it will provide his readers with a basic, and far more useful, reward: a most enjoyably clever story.

Honorable mention: The Lotus Eaters, by Tatjana Soli; and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, by Lan Samantha Chang

Worst Non-Fiction Book: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by Steven D. Smith

This may come as a bit of a surprise, since I was not unkind to Steven D. Smith in my review of his book. But my own brand of disenchantment is owing not to lack of substance but of style: The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse is, quite bluntly, not that interesting. Smith's particular axe to grind revolves around a practice he calls "smuggling:" the influence of moral judgments on public dialogue despite their conspicuous absence as explicitly delineated premises. In the author's view, this results in a disingenuous conversation: the participants cannot help but unconsciously draw on their individual belief systems but are prevented, through a collective desire for credibility among peers, from admitting these principles' central role. The concept of "smuggling" is an intriguing one, but The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse (as suggested by the title itself) is, to put it lightly, an extremely dry analysis of its effects. Really, though: thumbs up for the idea.

Dishonorable mention: Once again, I didn't read any particularly horrible non-fiction books in the second half. It was, overall, a steadily decent non-fiction batch (without many outliers) this time around.

Worst Fiction Book: One Day, by David Nicholls

David Nicholls likely deserves better from me. It's not exactly fair for a beach read to be judged as a Serious Book. Then again, One Day was once reviewed in The New York Times. As Spiderman's uncle once explained, not unkindly, "With great power comes great responsibility." Mr. Nicholls, I do hope your film adaptation of the book does well at the box office, since (as I mentioned in my earlier review) that was clearly the objective you had in mind the entire time. There is nothing wrong with this, except for the fact that books written as screenplays tend to exhibit, well, diminished literary value. And I don't think I'm being cruel here. The driving concept of the book -- a peek, on the same calendar day of each successive year, at a pair of mutually-obsessed protagonists -- is better suited for straight-to-TV fare than for serious dissection. But read it I did, and skewer it I must. One Day is probably not so bad when the only alternatives are celebrity gossip mags and racy tabloids. People Magazine he is not, but neither is he Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood. John Grisham, then?

Dishonorable mention: Tinkers, by Paul Harding; and If You Follow Me, by Malena Watrous

I'm still not quite finished with this blog. There's definitely one more post coming, at the very least. Keep checking back!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

#50: Animal Spirits

How did John Maynard Keynes know I'm not rational? Or at least, not always rational. According to authors George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller, this is one key precept that vanished somewhere along the line from its initial expression by Keynes to the onset of the Great Recession seventy years later. The duo's book, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism, is a concise attempt at its revival.

It is now nearly a foregone conclusion that humans act rationally as pertaining to economic decisions. So in the aggregate, the macro-economy will reflect thousands and millions of minor judgment calls that, taken together, constitute the long-sought-after equilibrium. The problem with this theory (even if this never seemed to bother its creator, Milton Friedman) is in its idealism. Are human beings rational? To an extent, yes. At other times, "people really are human, that is, possessed of all-too-human animal spirits," the authors write.

What are these animal spirits, and what do they do? The definition given here is "the thought patterns that animate people's ideas and feelings." This sounds suitably vague, which is precisely the point. In the rush to transform economics into a science, overweening economists threw the baby out with the bathwater, discarding the very real enigma of human behavior along with the failed economic theories of prior eras. Akerlof, the 2001 Nobel Prize-winner in economics, and Shiller want nothing more than to reintroduce these animal spirits to the field of economics and the public at large.

But first, a re-branding. What was then "animal spirits" is now studied as "behavioral economics." The authors propose five psychological aspects of this discipline: confidence, fairness, corruption and bad faith, money illusion, and stories. Each of these plays a unique role within the macro-economy, but not always intuitively. Money illusion, for example, describes what takes place when wage cuts are instituted following a deflationary trend. Even when the decrease in pay is commensurate with the drop in prices, employees usually feel cheated. A perfectly rational decision by an employer thus becomes an object lesson in the existence of money illusion (and influences the employees' perception of relative fairness as well).

This flies in the face of classical economics, in which humans are presumed to be supremely rational. (That such theories persist alongside the ongoing public fascination with the likes of Paris Hilton or, say, the British royal family is its own nifty testament to the inscrutability of the human mind.) So Akerlof and Shiller dutifully document the effects of each of their five factors before launching into eight key questions whose answers only make sense in light of the findings of behavioral economics.

This is an enlightening book, and one made all the more pleasant for its conspicuous lack of angry demagoguery. On a spectrum of bitterness from Joseph Stiglitz to Paul Krugman, the authors of Animal Spirits are clearly more aligned with the former. This is an unexpected reprieve, which understandably lends additional gravitas to their cause. Their case can be summarized thusly: don't buy too literally into the cult of the "invisible hand." Markets do fail, which is precisely why government regulation (and occasional intervention) is necessary. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight since Animal Spirits was published, it appears their advice -- like that of Stiglitz, Krugman, et al -- has gone largely unheeded. What comes next is anyone's guess.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rescuing the Facebook generation

For the November 25th issue of The New York Review of Books, author Zadie Smith contributed an essay titled “Generation Why?” Ostensibly, the column was a review of Aaron Sorkin’s much-ballyhooed film, The Social Network, but Smith clearly had bigger fish to fry than nerdy billionaires (especially since Sorkin and director David Fincher had already undertaken this task so elegantly themselves).

No, the issue at stake was not Facebook but the “generation” for which it was created and for whom, perhaps, its existence circumscribes theirs. Smith, in attempting to extricate Facebook from its inevitable foundation myths, nevertheless concludes that she will someday “misremember my closeness to Zuckerberg [she, too, was on Harvard’s campus for Facebook’s birth in 2003], in the same spirit that everyone in ‘60s Liverpool met John Lennon.” And yet an acute sense of separation haunts her, as much for its seeming incongruity (Smith is only nine years Mark Zuckerberg’s senior) as for its depth.

“You want to be optimistic about your own generation,” Smith muses, with a touch of nostalgia. “You want to keep pace with them and not to fear what you don’t understand.” She would be wise to heed her own advice. For what she contends in “Generation Why?” – that for the unwashed masses who fancy Facebook, Twitter, et al among life’s requisites, their online reincarnations have themselves become unhinged from, or even superseded, reality – is as emblematic of the anachronisms of the old-guard cohort (whom she affectionately dubs “1.0 people”) as it is a functional indictment of their successors.

The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean stumbles into the same trap, albeit somewhat more amiably. On her blog, “Free Range,” she posits a new hierarchy of friendship: the Social Index, a ranking of relationships by the relative frequencies of online vs. offline contact. “Human relationships used to be easy,” she explains. But “now, thanks to social media, it’s all gone sideways.” Orlean then proceeds to delineate these subtle distinctions: between “the friend you know well” and “the friend you sort of know” and “the friend, or friend-like entity, whom you met initially via Facebook or Twitter or Goodreads or, heaven help us, MySpace,” and so on. Wisely, she keeps the column short and employs a jocular tone, one whose comic value is reaffirmed by her promotion of the Social Index on – where else? – Twitter, using the hashtag #socialindex.

But one can detect a beguiling undercurrent of cynicism beneath Orlean’s evident joviality. What Zadie Smith and Susan Orlean share – in addition to their niche of the “celebrity lifestyle” whose attainment, Smith assures us, is the raison d’être of the Facebook generation – is the creeping suspicion, despite reaching a career zenith, of their continuing exclusion from the proverbial “Porcellian Club” of Zuckerberg’s collegiate fantasies. This, then, is a fate to which both they and those they pity are likewise consigned. The irony, of course, is their refusal, or inability, to identify these “People 2.0” as their kindred spirits.

Smith opts instead for the appeal to authority. In this case, that role falls to Jaron Lanier, a “master programmer and virtual reality pioneer.” (Smith, who is 35, quickly reminds us that Lanier, 50, is “not of my generation,” an assertion whose brashness once more belies her commonalities with that perpetually group-conscious underclass of Facebookers.) Quoting extensively from Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget, Smith appropriates the tech-philosopher’s arm’s-length aspect toward technology as her own, spraying the reader with snippets of his wisdom. (In the book’s preface, Lanier cautioned against this Girl Talk-esque brand of mishmash, lamenting that his words would be “scanned, rehashed, and misrepresented by crowds of quick and sloppy readers into wikis and automatically aggregated wireless text message streams.”)

But Smith and Lanier have separately, and preemptively, doomed themselves to contemporary irrelevance by adhering to a retrograde narrative of the modern condition. Together, their worst nightmare is the narrowing of human existence into unintentionally confined spaces. This process takes place via “lock-in,” a series of inadvertently interacting steps which, taken together, preclude the possibility of reversal or alteration. Such was the case, Lanier argues (and Smith dutifully recounts), in the invention of the MIDI file type, a once-cutting edge format for storing and playing digital music, whose binary limitations preternaturally forced the beautiful infinity of analog melodies into a prepackaged sepulcher of bits and bytes. Once the standard had been formalized, the jig was up: there was no turning back. Music had forever changed, and not necessarily for the better. Lanier unwittingly reformulates – on behalf of the self-described “software idiot” Zadie Smith – these same fears in regard to social media.

These visions of doom are misplaced. One can feel almost viscerally the bored sighs emanating from countless millennials’ diaphragms as Zadie Smith ages before their very eyes: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.” Such generous hyperbolizing obscures whatever consideration Smith’s fretting may warrant on the margins. If rescuing this Lost Generation is her utmost objective, then her plea for sanity, easily mistaken for groveling, will scatter Zuckerberg’s millions of disciples like so many cards in a two-bit parlor trick.

Notably, Zadie Smith gently ridicules the Facebook era’s emphasis on connectivity, remarking snidely that Zuckerberg “used the word ‘connect’ as believers use the word ‘Jesus,’ as if it were sacred in and of itself.” The quality of those interactions, she worries, is not worth the minimal effort exerted to vivify them. And yet she comes agonizingly close, on multiple occasions, to grasping the essence of this generation that remains simultaneously adjacent to, but seemingly unreachable from, her own. “Watching this movie, even though you know Sorkin wants your disapproval, you can’t help feel a little swell of pride in this 2.0 generation,” Smith concedes. “They’ve spent a decade being berated for not making the right sorts of paintings or novels or music or politics. Turns out the brightest 2.0 kids have been doing something else extraordinary. They’ve been making a world.”

Sound familiar? It should. The specter of John Lennon, the one “that everyone in ’60s Liverpool met,” haunts every word of “Generation Why?”  Even Zadie Smith, for whom Lennon (unlike Lanier) is clearly not a peer, cannot ignore the contemporary relevance of the former’s transformative impact on society. Culture may move more rapidly in the digital era than it did in the 1960s, but its disruptive rhythm has survived largely intact. Rebellion, experimentation, innovation: these are all hallmarks of the creative subculture, as each subsequent breakthrough quickly buries its predecessors. Mark Zuckerberg, then, is the spiritual descendant of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” We are, indeed, all connected (much to Smith’s everlasting surprise).

This is the epiphanic truth that the Facebook generation has uncovered, even if in so doing they remain blissfully unaware of the historical import of their actions. To be sure, their self-absorbed ignorance of a chronology of innovation is itself a product of the ever-shifting nature of modern culture. A generation once encompassed two or three decades; now, an absence of even five years from civilization would reduce the most precocious techie to the countenance of a Luddite. But, somewhat paradoxically (considering her alarm at Facebook’s social impact), Smith digests technology’s ephemeral nature with ease, as she states at the end of her essay: “I can’t imagine life without files but I can just about imagine a time when Facebook will seem as comically obsolete as LiveJournal.”

If this is the case, then what, precisely, is the cause for concern? Conceivably, Zadie Smith, who teaches literature, senses an intellectual fence over which the social media-savvy yet literarily deficient minds of her young charges are unable to vault. Perhaps, for a ponderous writer such as Susan Orlean, who once penned a 282-page paean to orchids, it is a fear of losing her audience to ever-decreasing attention spans. For Jaron Lanier, it may be the horror at a remix culture in which the devolution of works of art into haphazardly scissored segments (à la David Shields’ Reality Hunger) threatens the very nature of public expression. Perhaps Zadie Smith and Susan Orlean and Jaron Lanier and so many others of their age and temperament, finding themselves unable to “keep pace with [the younger generation],” succumb to the all-too-human instinct to “fear what [they] don’t understand.” In short, they face the same challenge that confronted the parents and teachers and writers of the ‘60s generation, fifty years later. They, like Mark Zuckerberg and the hordes of Facebook users who followed him in the quest for digital immortality, face the fear of oblivion.

Friday, November 12, 2010

#49: The Last Utopia

In just a few short weeks, the world will celebrate the sixty-second anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted by the United Nations on December 10th, 1948, the document ushered in an unprecedented era of international rights norms that has since culminated in the prominence of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

What Samuel Moyn argues in his book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, is that the thematic line running from the UDHR's adoption in 1948 through today is misrepresented in the nascent field of human rights studies. Although cemented now as the defining moment that gave human rights its beginning, the Universal Declaration's appearance was, Moyn insists, "less the annunciation of a new age than a funereal wreath laid on the grave of wartime hopes."

This is a decidedly irreverent perspective on a movement whose brief and explosive history has (especially in recent years) been lionized as proof of civilization's continuing evolution. But Moyn is certain that these celebrants of human rights' march to glory have it all wrong. In fact, he argues, the UDHR was, if anything, more detrimental than it was helpful in facilitating the cause of human rights as it is known today. The UDHR's adoption "had come at the price of legal enforceability:" by its inability to transcend ancient notions of state sovereignty, the declaration in effect bequeathed to nation-states the power of adjudication over their own adherence to human rights standards. Moyn's contention revolves around the fact that world leaders in the 1940s were understandably reluctant to cede any jurisdiction to the whims of a supranational institution, notwithstanding (or perhaps directly due to) its supposed impartiality.

I found the author's thesis compelling at first, as he explicitly delineated the prevailing global consensus of political leaders in the post-World War II era: a strong desire for peace was complemented by a profound wariness of others' intentions. In such an environment, the idea of subordinating a national legal framework to an international structure -- especially one in which the state itself could be held blameworthy -- was not an attractive proposition to any elites. And thus was born the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document whose noble goals disguised an impotent enforcement mechanism.

But Samuel Moyn's continued pounding on the heads of his readers quickly grows old. I cannot count the number of times (or the plethora of ways) he tries to convince his readers that today's edition of human rights bears little resemblance to, or is only a distant relative of, that of the 1940s. "As of 1945," Moyn writes in one instance, "human rights were already on the way out for the few international lawyers who had made them central in wartime." Elsewhere: "Instead of turning to history to monumentalize human rights by rooting them deep in the past, it is much better to acknowledge how recent and contingent they really are." And, "what mattered most of all about the human rights moment of the 1940s, in truth, is not that it happened, but that -- like the even deeper past -- it had to be reinvented, not merely retrieved, after the fact."

Virtually nothing is as consistently unsurprising as professorial loquacity. But even among academics, Moyn tests the limits of repetition. His mantra seems to have been: if something is worth writing, it's worth writing one hundred times. In this regard, then, he has succeeded. Unfortunately, much like human rights themselves for a time, Moyn proves far more adept at defining their history negatively than positively. It is obvious that he considers the UDHR only nominally relevant in jump-starting the human rights movement; what is less transparent is his perspective on its true origins.

Human rights constitute the eponymous last utopia of his book's title, but Samuel Moyn does little with this concept other than to restate it over and over (just as he does with his repudiations of the movement's alleged foundation myth). "When the history of human rights acknowledges how recently they came to the world," Moyn writes, "it focuses not simply on the crisis of the nation-state, but on the collapse of alternative internationalisms -- global visions that were powerful for so long in spite of not featuring individual rights." It was, in a sense, the worldwide disillusionment with grandiose visions of the past that gradually led to the introduction of human rights as a viable alternative. It offered a (facially) moral ideal where before had existed only political ones.

In short, "human rights were born as the last utopia -- but one day another may appear." Other than brief mentions (and like so much else in The Last Utopia), Samuel Moyn leaves this final speculation largely unaddressed. As to the idea that modern human rights came about due to the Universal Declaration of Rights, however: well, that horse has already been beaten quite to death.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

#48: Salvation City

Earlier this year I expressed the need to stop reading manifestos. This time it's dystopias that have drawn my ire: I think I'll take a break on these too. Salvation City, a novel by Sigrid Nunez, is no duller than some of the other post-apocalyptic books I've read in the past few years. It's also not particularly memorable.

Cole Vining is a thirteen-year-old orphan whose atheist parents died in a flu epidemic. The atheist bit matters, in this case, since so much of the narrative is focused on the conflicting identities of the young protagonist, as the storytelling jumps back and forth in time to pull all the strings together. Following his parents' death, and after spending time in an orphanage known as Here Be Hope, young Cole was then delivered to the rural Indiana home of Pastor Wyatt and his wife Tracy, in a place called Salvation City.

The kindly clergyman -- who, Cole notes ambivalently, "always looks right into the face of the person he is talking to" -- and his spouse are devout, fundamentalist Christians, and their peculiar lifestyle is frequently juxtaposed against Cole's earlier years under the emotionally fraught relationship of his irreligious parents. In Salvation City, and I refer here both to the book and to the town, the question is raised as to what exactly constitutes a rescue from tragedy, if not throwing into doubt the very nature of tragedy itself.

For Cole's mother, Serena, even those neighbors who had opened their doors for assistance, as the flu swept through cities and towns, were deserving of the utmost suspicion: "But they were Jesus freaks, his mother said, and she didn't want to get involved with them. 'I mean, these people are actually happy about this catastrophe. They think any day now they're going to be sucked up to heaven.'" Her twin sister, Addy, in an attempt to reclaim Cole from his new home following Serena's death, expresses much the same sentiments: "'These fanatics will use religion to justify anything -- especially the ones who believe in the imminent rapture. You do understand, don't you? That's what these monsters were counting on? The Messiah was supposed to show up before I did.'"

Cole sees things somewhat differently. As he contemplates looming adulthood (from the wide-eyed vantage point experienced uniquely by young teens) and his adoptive father claims divine guidance in trying to persuade him to stay, Cole wonders: why "didn't Jesus send a message to him and Addy, too? Wouldn't that have helped them all?"

Sigrid Nunez leaves many questions such as this one open-ended, a seeming mockery of faith that becomes less flippant upon closer observation. Salvation City dwells on choices and asks, implicitly, the important question of what makes a home. But, as often befalls works of fiction whose circumstances require a great leap of imagination, the elusive answers never seem as important as the author intended them to be, and an apathetic reader is the disappointing consequence.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

#47: The Mendacity of Hope

Roger D. Hodge is angry. The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, a colorful expression of the author's outrage at failed objectives and broken promises, begins with a lament that bespeaks profound disappointment in our current president. "Barack Obama came to us with such great promise," Hodge writes. "He pledged to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantánamo, restore the Constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass."

The Mendacity of Hope has been largely skewered by critics. In a Washington Post review, Alan Wolfe deemed Hodge's polemic "a sloppily organized, badly argued and deeply reactionary book unlikely to have any influence at all on the way Americans think about their president." In The New York Times, Jonathan Alter took issue with Hodge's uncompromising position vis-à-vis the liberal purity of Obama's policies: "Really?" Alter challenges. "Since when did the tenets of liberalism demand that politics no longer be viewed as the art of the ­possible?"

What we have seen to date, in the nearly two years since Obama's inauguration, is a veritable influx of books, articles, essays, and magazine profiles critiquing his policies from the right. But while MSNBC, The Daily Show, and a smattering of other outlets have tweaked the president from the left, a substantive book-length rendering, by a liberal, of the inadequacies of the Obama administration's policies has been largely nonexistent. This is owing at least as much to institutional inertia (Obama is already the president, and dissent is usually most effective when originating in the opposition) as it is to the fear that airing liberals' disillusion could actually exacerbate the problem by causing miffed lefties to sit out the midterm elections.

Thus, after devoting much of his showtime, over the past year and a half, to unfavorable comparisons of the Barack Obama of today to the one who campaigned on such "high rhetoric" two years ago, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart was downright hospitable when the president appeared on his show on October 27, a mere six days before Election Day. Whether the abrupt change in the host's demeanor was due to timidity or shrewd political strategy is unclear, but the consequence followed a general trend: outside of some niche circles, President Obama has not been held to accountability -- in a protracted, thorough manner -- by his liberal base.

But there is, I think, another reason that the left has kept largely silent. And that is the admission that, notwithstanding the collectively disaffected state of American liberals, Obama has indeed pushed through some truly formidable legislation. Health care reform, however trimmed-down and neutered its final edition, is still reform, as is financial regulation and other measures. Yes, Obama's embrace of gay rights has been tepid at best, and his African-American constituency is less than pleased with his reluctance to embrace its plight. There are other grievances as well. But the progressive successes, largely lost amidst a torrent of obstructionism and party-line politics, remain, even as their legacy is overshadowed by perpetual congressional impasse and decreasing approval ratings.

It is this understanding -- captured by the axiom "do not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good" -- that has eluded Rodger D. Hodge. In railing against "the mundane corruption of our capitalist democracy," Hodge hammers away at "the obscene intimacy of big corporations and big government." But his disillusionment is encased within a quixotic fantasy of liberal American governance. To Hodge, the conservative position is, for all intents and purposes, a politically impotent entity in the face of progressive ideology that is properly divorced from moneyed interests.

This is a somewhat absurd conclusion, given the populist (or demagogic, depending on perspective) stirrings that gave birth to the Tea Party and are expected to sweep the Republicans back into power in the House on Tuesday. Fortunately, Hodge's animus is far more persuasive in his wholesale denunciation of corporate interests' influence on American politics. Although at times a bit wonky, Hodge nevertheless portrays, with astounding clarity, fund-raising contributions whose origins and scale were strikingly at odds with the Obama brand's stated philosophy. "The results were impressive," the author writes. "Against a token candidate who raised a mere $2.8 million, Obama in his Senate race raised $14.9 million -- in his first attempt at national office, in a relatively short time, with significant contributions from out-of-state donors such as Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and George Soros. Indeed, 32 percent of his contributions came from out of state."

Contrast this with a 2006 speech Obama made, in which he expressed empathy with Americans for their disgust with "a political process where the vote you cast isn't as important as the favors you can do" and proclaimed that Americans were "tired of trusting us with their tax dollars when they see them spent on frivolous pet projects and corporate giveaways." Indeed, Hodge would argue that the president stole from the playbook of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who famously noted that political candidates "campaign in poetry but have to govern in prose."

Interestingly, it is Roger D. Hodge's prose that remains the highlight of The Mendacity of Hope. At times his phraseology perfectly straddles the line between comedy and outrage, as when he deems the doctrine of the "unitary executive" to be "a partial-birth abortion of the Constitution." Later, decrying the lack of retributive justice for Ronald Reagan's perceived crimes in relation to the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, Hodge sulkily concludes, "Impeachment would have to await Oval Office fellatio." Yet however sincere his repulsion for Obama's gradual backslide from his campaign's lofty poetry, Roger D. Hodge is doomed to eternal disappointment if his vision for American leadership, as espoused in his book, remains so far removed from the reality of the possible.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

#46: Blink

What does Malcolm Gladwell have in common with Glenn Beck, Adam Lambert, Ronald Reagan, Paul Krugman, John Grisham, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Jesus Christ? An uncanny ability to polarize, that's what. (As for his tendency to invent categories of strange bedfellows, well, he'll just have to share that dubious distinction with yours truly.) Gladwell and his book, Blink, have evoked praise from writers at The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and the Associated Press. He has also attracted criticism, sometimes from unlikely corners. Highly regarded Seventh Circuit Court judge Richard Posner dismissed Blink as "a series of loosely connected anecdotes, rich in 'human interest' particulars but poor in analysis." More bitingly, he notes that "one of Gladwell's themes is that clear thinking can be overwhelmed by irrelevant information, but he revels in the irrelevant."

Harsh words are these, but one must consider the source. Who appointed Posner the judge of right and wrong? (OK, so Ronald Reagan.) And when's the last time a casual reader willfully plunged into the dark recesses of a judicial opinion? For all of Posner's eminent reasonableness, his jurisprudence has the popular appeal of an electrocardiograph. Interestingly enough (or not), just such a transmission is one of the subjects of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. "The ECG is far from perfect," Gladwell informs us, and so are his analogies. But at least in the latter's case, a quick skimming is still a decently pleasant endeavor and one whose proximate cause is curiosity, not heartburn. Mr. Posner, know thy audience.

This isn't to say mild discomfort won't accompany the book-reading. Blink deals in just the sort of Ripley's Believe It or Not-esque anecdotes that shoo us scurrying over to Wikipedia for furious fact-checking even as we wallow in vague notions of gullibility. Like the counterfeit kouros sculpture to which Gladwell's gaze continually returns, Blink "had a problem. It didn't look right." Whether this instinctive skepticism regarding the book's simplistic reasoning can be attributed to thin-slicing or careful analysis, I know not. I am armed only with an incredulity that the long-term success of a marriage can be diagnosed within fifteen minutes, or that commission-seeking car salesmen discriminate not intentionally but due to the unconscious "kind of biases that many of us carry around in the nether regions of our brains." And while I can believe that information overload actually reduces our ability to formulate practical solutions, I'm not so certain the answer is to "put screens in the courtroom" to protect defendants -- who would remain "in another room entirely, answering questions by e-mail or through the use of an intermediary" -- from race-, sex-, and age-based discrimination.

This Gladwellian resort to logical deus ex machinas has rattled many a critical reviewer. It is one thing to remind readers that "a black man [in Illinois] is 57 times more likely to be sent to prison on drug charges than a white man." It is quite another to mount a defense of this same criminal justice system in the very next paragraph, in which Gladwell elaborates, "I don't think the car salesmen in the study meant to discriminate against black men...Put a black man inside the criminal justice system and the same thing happens. Justice is supposed to be blind. It isn't."

A more generous take on law enforcement may not exist. In fact, while we're at it, we might as well remind aspiring historians that the Holocaust's targeted killing of Jews was nothing more than a slight statistical anomaly, and that the Ku Klux Klan's public disgrace was due entirely to a silly cultural misreading of the burning of crosses on minorities' front lawns. One would think that, on the occasion of the black-over-white incarceration multiplier reaching double digits, there may be sufficient evidence to suspect systemic abuse. But then, Malcolm Gladwell is nothing if not unsuspecting. In Blink, he argues that what we process in the first two seconds of any given event is often more valuable than the subsequent (and more detailed) analysis. His editors and proofreaders, God bless' em, appear to have taken his advice quite literally.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

#45: Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

Danielle Evans is the kind of author that gives one pause. And this is before one even reads a word she's written. At the age of twenty-three, Evans' work had already seen the glorious light of publication in The Paris Review. Now, three years and a critically acclaimed short-story collection later, Evans teaches literature at American University in Washington, D.C. And, presumably, ends world hunger.

The above-mentioned short-story collection is Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a title borrowed from "The Bridge Poem," by Donna Kate Rushin. Shortly after the phrase that gives Evans' book its title, Rushin's poem ends with a declaration: "I must be the bridge to nowhere / But my true self / And then / I will be useful."

Having just finished reading Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, I think "The Bridge Poem" is key to understanding the undercurrent of displacement among African-Americans that permeates Evans' stories. In "Virgins," the collection's first story and the one that landed its young author in the vaunted pages of The Paris Review, a teenage girl vacillates between instinct and adolescent curiosity as she timorously embraces her budding sexuality. It should be noted that, refreshingly, this and the other short stories are remarkably unpretentious, no small feat in this genre. The main character in "Virgins" displays the fledgling snark that marks a phase suffered through by all urban youth, with which readers' near-universal familiarity makes it hard not to grin when she consoles her friend, "The only difference between that girl and the that everybody in the world hasn't ridden the subway."

Underneath such faux-witticisms lies a deep-seated unease with concurrently, and contrarily, demanding social pressures. For Erica, the first-person narrator of "Virgins," this conflict pits the assertion befitting her ascendancy into adulthood against familially-bred perceptions of danger. Crystal struggles to reconcile her fraying ties to her high school best friend with a desire to escape the quiet desperation of a ghetto, in the ironically-titled "Robert E. Lee Is Dead." And in the poignant voice of a military veteran in "Someone Ought to Tell Her There's Nowhere to Go," a small lie takes on new shape when the soldier's daughter becomes a pawn in his grasping plea for recognition and acceptance.

These, and all the stories, are framed delicately on the fringes of white America, as the characters are forced by circumstance into engagement with the Other and yet remain substantively disenfranchised from the majority's perceived benefits. At one point, betraying a worldly cynicism that belies her youth, a high school student reminds her pal that "white kids do senior pranks. When we try it, they're called felonies."

This comment, joined by Evans' other, far subtler nods to the plight of African-Americans, painfully casts even the banal aspects of Stateside dhimmitude into sharp relief. When, in "Harvest," an inadvertent pregnancy spawns a tragic debt that cuts across racial lines, the burden of social exclusion is harshly exposed; elsewhere, implication is preferred. Regardless of methodology, however, the subtext of alienation -- from country as from family -- is a troubling constant. And I expect that its vivid rendering by Danielle Evans will take the author one step closer to something resembling inclusion.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

#44: Room

Room is the second book I've read this year that features a child narrator. Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was my first, an affecting tale of an autistic boy named Christopher whose mathematical genius is accompanied by a fearful awe of his surrounding world. 

Room, written by Emma Donoghue -- who is, presumably, not a child but an author of several novels and story collections -- takes a different tack. Her young storyteller is Jack, a precocious five-year-old embodying all the usual toddler bells and whistles. Mainly, this entails asking the questions -- what, when, where, how, why -- that universally evoke terms of endearment at some times and frustrated outbursts at others.

What sets Jack apart from most of those in his age group is the setting. Jack lives with his mother in a room, or Room, an eleven-by-eleven-foot square that circumscribes his micro-existence. Befitting his age, the objects in Jack's life are capitalized and personified: "Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh." What little he is told of the world outside he categorizes as "Outer Space" or "in TV," as when he informs the reader that "dogs are only TV." His is a relatively happy existence whose tranquility is punctured only by the occasionally erratic behavior of his Ma.

Ma harbors very different sentiments regarding her life in Room. As the story progresses, we are gradually exposed to the horrifying, gruesome reality of her imprisonment. A man identified only as "Old Nick" arrives, sporadically, some nights; Ma puts Jack to sleep in the wardrobe beforehand because, she says, "I just don't want him looking at you." For his part, Jack explains his mother's mysterious nocturnal visitor thusly: "When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it's 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops."

Room opens on Jack's fifth birthday, and life within the bubble is worsening. He receives a present of a remote-controlled Jeep, begged for by his mother, that Old Nick brings from Outside. One night Jack drives it off a shelf and onto the bed from his nook in the wardrobe while Old Nick is there. The man explodes in anger, and the next morning, after he has left, "we're eating oatmeal and I see marks. 'You're dirty on your neck.' Ma just drinks some water, the skin moves when she swallows. Actually that's not dirt, I don't think."

These intimate details, recounted in infantile vocabulary, render the pair's nightmare in viscerally vivid color, as Jack struggles to connect his increasing understanding of the larger world with the quotidian details of perpetual confinement. Emma Donoghue ably reconciles the perfectly believable innocence of a child with a narrative more aligned with the horror genre. Despite the occasional misstep (especially late in the book, when some dialogue strains the limits of readers' credulity), Donoghue paints a masterful portrait of a mother in distress and the indomitable spirit of the child whose only goal is to save her.

#43: All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost

In All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, words occupy the highest rung on a ladder of competing interests. Author Lan Samantha Chang, director of the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, vividly captures the artistic desperation and perfectionism that can lay waste to all other aspects of the life of a writer. Although recounted through the eyes of aspiring poet Roman Morris, the central figure is actually Miranda Sturgis, the seminar professor at "the School" whose classes "almost none escaped unaltered or unscathed" and whose legendarily harsh critiques of students' work spawned the term "bludgeonings."

And yet students, "[fearing] they had missed the age of poetry" (the year was 1986), inevitably clamor to enroll in Miranda's classes, grasping desperately at salvation via literary osmosis. Bernard Sauvet, Roman's fellow student and confidant -- and, Roman decided, "one of the most serious poets in their class" -- perpetually occupies himself with his poem about Wisconsin's early exploration. Following a reading of the draft in class, Bernard is compelled by the seminar's format to remain silent while his peers critique his work from contradicting angles: "The poem was overly lyrical; it was not lyrical enough. The poem did not reference history; it was too historical. The poem lacked essential irony; the poem was a farce." When Miranda's opinion is requested, she merely shrugs, shakes her head -- "dismissing the poem, and Bernard, and possibly, thought Roman, all of them" -- and states, "I think Bernard has heard enough today."

To this, Bernard has only one reaction: "I think Miranda liked my poem," he tells Roman. "Did you notice how she did?" Despite Roman's attempts to manage his friend's escalating expectations, Bernard nevertheless concludes that "we should think about what her indifference means...What might be learned from the indifference of a great poet." It is this craving of Miranda's attention that dominates the novel, a recognition, no matter how misplaced, that it is she alone who can rescue these would-be poets from the doldrums of their own mediocrity and earn them admission to the exclusive pantheon of literary greats. Roman, cynically refusing to read his poems in class until "he had assessed how his work would be received," initially took an ambivalent perspective toward his teacher. "Was she indifferent to them, or was she guarding her privacy?" he wondered. "Was she cruel, or simply telling them the truth?"

When on the final day of class, Roman submits three poems -- "powerful jigsaw pieces of an intimate world," he is certain -- for peer review, the critical response is less than extraordinary. Even Miranda notes, enigmatically, "In these poems, I find very little desire to speak of." Just before dismissing the class, she concludes, "No one in the world is thanking you for being a poet." Confronting her after class, Roman demands to know what she disliked about his poems, finally receiving the jarring reply, "You write as if you have no soul."

What follows next is a series of events that first threaten and then obfuscate the line separating teacher and student, as Roman embarks on an unlikely relationship that is as future-less as it is extraordinary. Miranda, mentoring him in life as in poetry, spends countless hours toiling over his works with him until, at a graduation party on the semester's last day, Roman reveals to Miranda his acceptance of a fellowship in California that will spell the end of their affair.

Chang's narrative jumps forward immediately following this encounter. Roman is married (to a fellow graduate of the School) and has a child; he corresponds only sporadically with his formerly close friend, Bernard, and Miranda is largely a figment of a bitterly concluded past. Shortly after his time at the School, Roman was awarded a prestigious literary award for his first book of poetry, eventually earning him a professorship. But a stunning revelation regarding Miranda forces him to confront her in her office, in one of the most emotionally fraught moments in the novel. Roman's relationship with Bernard, too, is later severed after a tense several months they spend under the same roof.

Everything, it seems, is sacrificed in pursuit of art, be it friends, spouses, or lovers. Looking at an old photograph taken the day of his graduation from the School, the older Roman marvels at his younger incarnation: "an absolutely confident young man about to come into his inheritance -- not an inheritance of money, he saw now, but of poetry. There could be no higher privilege and its price was sadness." Although not without company in his solitude, Roman came to embody this truth more than most, stumbling toward that lofty ideal of the honest poet.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

#42: Nomad

"Islam is not just a belief; it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence."

These words were written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her memoir, Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. Ali is an ex-Muslim, a Somalian-born intellectual who has also lived in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and, lastly, the Netherlands, before emigrating to the United States. Her bellicosity with regard to Islam has made her a marked woman, a status that is less figurative (her sharp rhetoric is a rarity in Western academia) than literal (she employs round-the-clock security as a result of death threats by fundamentalist Muslims).

Unlike most of her scholarly peers on both sides of the Atlantic, Ali has experienced firsthand the consequences of draconian Islamist laws, resulting punishments for non-adherence, and stringent sexual mores. As a woman, she also possesses an acute sense of the added burden imposed on her gender by radical Islam, a condition she unequivocally deems "the biggest obstacle to the integration and progress of Muslim communities in the West." The daughter of verbally and physically abusive parents, sister of a violent brother, victim of genital mutilation, and escapee from an arranged marriage with a man whom she barely knew, Ali is uniquely positioned to editorialize on Islam, both its quotidian and extraordinary features, and the challenges it poses for modernized nations.

Why, then, has her critical reception been so muted? During interviews for positions with American think tanks, Ali's interlocutors were "effusively polite, but...their support for me and my ideas was tentative;" one interviewer "seemed overly concerned with the possibility that I might offend Arab Muslims." Prior to this, "when [she] began speaking out in Holland against genital mutilation...[she] was constantly told that immigrants to Europe knew that this practice was against the law in Europe, so it just didn't happen to children once they got to Holland" (emphasis hers). New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, in an uncharacteristically fierce tone, wrote of Nomad: "Now Hirsi Ali is working on antagonizing even more people in yet another memoir," and in a later paragraph, he followed this up with the truly appalling observation that "perhaps Hirsi Ali's family is dysfunctional simply because its members never learned to bite their tongues and just say to one another: 'I love you.'" Ultimately, he patronizingly conceded that Ali would make "a terrific conversationalist at a dinner party."

To be sure, Ali is not one to mince words. Nomad is dotted with unflattering portraits of Islam's lesser-known practices; and her condemnations, stated without qualification, would evoke stammers and blushes among the well-bred liberal intelligentsia in her sphere. (Although she now works at the American Enterprise Institute, Ali expresses a nebulous wish "to alter [the status quo], radically" in an attempt to disabuse her detractors from branding her an American-style conservative.) "Can you be a Muslim and an American patriot?" she asks, in a chapter on American Muslims. "You can if you don't care very much about being a Muslim." Elsewhere, she berates the "closet Islamist" scholar Tariq Ramadan for his book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, calling it "a badly written piece of proselytism" and claiming that "he doesn't deserve the title of professor or a university chair from which to propagate his program of medieval brainwashing."

Ali's presence, then, in post-9/11 America comes at a uniquely discomfiting moment for political and religious scholars here. It is impossible to dismiss her outrage as right-wing demagoguery aimed at undermining the current political milieu in Washington; and yet, her no-holds-barred rhetoric on the subversive attributes of Muslim indoctrination feels wholly out of place in an arena largely populated by cautious (and occasionally self-loathing) multiculturalists. (For this last group she has no patience: "the culture of the Western Enlightenment is better," she writes [emphasis hers].) What has emerged from the fallout, then, is a tacit buffer zone wedged by gun-shy scholars -- what she terms "the emotional equivalent of patting my hand" -- that leaves Ayaan Hirsi Ali out in the cold, defensive and smarting from a mild form of academic blacklisting.

Of course, Ali is not without her admirers. Paul Berman, in his indignant book The Flight of the Intellectuals, laments that "the campaign in the intellectual press against Hirsi Ali seems to me unprecedented -- at least since the days when lonely dissident refugees from Stalin's Soviet Union used to find themselves slandered in the Western pro-communist press." Christopher Hitchens, likewise, has condemned her negative treatment in the Netherlands as "a supposedly liberal society collaborating in its own destruction."

And yet these and other endorsements of Ali serve only to complicate her stature. Anti-Muslim hysteria has swirled relentlessly in recent months. The vitriolic debate over the "Ground Zero mosque" seems to have uncovered nearly a decade's worth of barely concealed animosity among some conservatives towards adherents of Islam. During this same period, the standard liberal stance has been to dutifully emphasize the sheer minuteness of radicalism within the enormous sphere of global Islam. American attitudes toward Muslims appear to be approaching a watershed moment as both sides have steadily entrenched their positions. Where the left perceives bigotry, the right decries political correctness, which the left maintains is simply the protection of constitutional rights, which the right then argues must be understood in the context of a war on terror. Never have the bookends of the political spectrum been more repulsed by each other.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands somewhere in the rapidly vanishing middle ground. Despite her tumultuous journey out of Islam, she does not exhibit the utter forfeiture of rationality that plagues those with far less cause. Principal among this latter group are the ubiquitous talking heads, but also some pundits from traditionally more respected media outlets. In one particularly disturbing editorial last month, New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz notably declared that "Muslim life is cheap" and added, "I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse."

In contrast to the tactics employed by the most successful American shock jocks, Ali anchors her anti-Islamic message with the authority befitting one who speaks from experience. This does nothing to placate her leftist critics, who have all but fallen all over themselves acknowledging her personal fortitude while disavowing themselves of her conclusions. Armed with her impeccably authentic travails as an ex-Muslim woman, Ali embodies the ultimate headache for today's Western liberal narrative, one in which cultural sensitivity is seen as an end unto itself.

However, while her presence causes complications among certain political factions, these unsympathetic commentators are not entirely self-serving either. In decrying Islamic tyranny, for example, Ali fails to acknowledge the relative successes of Turkey (99% Muslim), Indonesia (86% Muslim, and one of the world's most populous democracies), and even Malaysia (60% Muslim). To lambaste a religion as the cause of many ills (in mostly smaller nations) while ignoring its more positive implementations (often in very large nations) is clearly not an oversight. It is a deliberate omission.

Ali's shortsightedness compels her to ignore other encouraging signs of progress in the Muslim world as well. In a September 26 New York Times article titled "The Female Factor: A Path to Financial Equality in Malaysia," Liz Gooch reports that "the number of female faces [in the Islamic finance sector] is multiplying." One female Malaysian scholar noted that three-quarters of her university students are female. The author notes that "the roll call of female high achievers in this Southeast Asian nation cuts across almost all aspects of the [financial] sector."

Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of Ali's writing is her naivete in regards to both the West and the history of Christianity -- which, despite her atheism, she sees as a force for good in the culture clash with Islam. In her frequent comparisons of the two faiths, it becomes increasingly obvious that Ali has sacrificed nuance for pathos. She continuously emphasizes the compatibility of Christianity with Enlightenment philosophy, and uses this marriage to illuminate the discordant relationship Islam shares with education and the sciences. Throughout her polemic, however, Ali fails to comprehend the parallels between contemporary events and religious history, and thus a possible road to a peaceful Islamic future: the ideological trajectory pioneered by Christianity centuries ago had its origins in an anti-intellectual era that very much resembles that of the Muslim world today. Just as the Christian faith has not always been as accepting as it is today (especially as depicted in Ali's overly sympathetic portrayal), Islam has not always been, nor need always be, as insular and defensive as it is now.

In fact, Ali appears to observe this when she writes, "Christianity too once made a magical totem of female virginity. Girls were confined, deprived of education, married off as property. And yet Christian societies today are largely free of this habit of mind. Cultures shift, often very rapidly." And yet somehow she is incapable of imagining the portability of this concept to another monotheistic religion. The result is a particularly deplorable quandary: the West has indeed found an authoritative voice that cuts between the dual extremism of the vitriolic right and the self-flagellating left. In other (perhaps less polarizing) times, this splitting of differences would be called a compromise. Here, it only adds to the confusion.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

#41: Netherland

Others have already called Joseph O'Neill's Netherland a masterpiece, summoning specters of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and even "[providing] a resonant meditation on the American Dream" (so enthuses the New York Times' vaunted book reviewer Michiko Kakutani).

I will not be doing that. I hesitate not out of disagreement but due to some innate reluctance to place contemporary books amidst the pantheon of Great Literature. I'm not well-read enough in either area to be sure I'm connecting the right dots in the right way. And yet one can't help but get the feeling, while devouring O'Neill's magnetic writing, that he has managed to capture the American zeitgeist in a way few others have.

O'Neill zeroes in on post-9/11 New York, but with the unique perspective afforded to an outsider. For Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born equities analyst who had previously lived in London, home is Manhattan, even as childhood memories of The Hague and frequent dashes to and from London create a sort of love rectangle, with each city vying for his attention. To Holland belongs his nostalgia, but it is London, where his increasingly estranged British wife and adoring son have retreated following the Twin Towers' collapse, to which Hans continues to return, both in mind and in body.

New York is just where he lives. And yet therein lies the secret to O'Neill's subtle ode to the city: he neither waxes poetical nor transforms New York into the gritty metropolis so ubiquitous in crime dramas. Yes, he revels in the occasional admiring glance. (Of Times Square, Hans concedes that "I always regarded these shimmers and vapors as one might the neck feathers of certain of the city's pigeons -- as natural, humble sources of iridescence.") But O'Neill's focus, and thus that of Hans, is drawn instead to its myriad characters, most notably that of Chuck Ramkissoon.

Chuck is a Trinidadian who, and here we can echo reviewers worldwide by drawing parallels to Jay Gatsby, dreams of leveraging his love of cricket into a burgeoning business empire, dedicated equal parts to revenue generation and also to a bizarre strand of ecumenism. "I'm saying that people...are at their most civilized when they're playing cricket," Chuck declares to Hans one day, in a characteristic burst of grandiloquence. "What's the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this."

By that measuring stick, Chuck doesn't play enough cricket himself. As Hans finds himself increasingly drawn into the sport that marked his youth, Chuck wedges his way in too, serving as Hans' instructor, ostensibly preparing him for his impending driving test. In reality, Hans soon learns of Chuck's ulterior motives. "It gave Chuck a measure of cover, maybe even prestige, to have a respectable-looking white man chauffeuring him while he ran around collecting bets all over Brooklyn."

Chuck's unsavory business dealings soon leave Hans with a sour taste in his mouth, one that fades only with geographical distance as Hans finally bids New York adieu in search of reigniting a future with his wife, Rachel. Soon after the World Trade Center attacks, Rachel had coldly expressed to Hans her intention to take Jake, their son, with her to London. "It's safer," she reasoned. For his part, Hans bitterly noted that "all lives...eventually funnel into the advice columns of women's magazines." Now, with weeks and months of separation accumulating with ever-decreasing notice, Hans returns to the United Kingdom to salvage the wreckage of what was once a marriage.

In a sense, Hans truly is the Nick Carraway of Netherland, narrating from the sidelines, an objective third party to people, places, and events that intimately affect his own life, from his wife to the cities through which he passes. He may leave the dreaming to Chuck, but Hans van den Broek's observations virtually force readers to close their eyes and open their imaginations.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

#40: Am I a Redundant Human Being?

It may be that I chose to read Mela Hartwig's Am I a Redundant Human Being? based largely upon the agreeable cover art. That, and's intriguing juxtaposition of this book with Elizabeth Gilbert's contemporary memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. (Yes, the one that became a Julia Roberts-led feature film and spawned Gilbert's encore, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.) From my brief intrusions into her posthumous Web presence, Hartwig appears to be most famous simply for her friendship to Virginia Woolf in the latter's final years.

This is an apt metaphor for her short novel's protagonist, Aloisia Schmidt, whose most notable (and verbosely related) achievement appears to be the emulation and adoration of those select few who befriend her. Fittingly enough, I, too, have fallen prey to the vice of sycophancy: I was only made aware of the parallels between Hartwig and her creation, Aloisia, after reading someone else make this very same point. Daniela Hurezanu, writing on, asks: "Isn't the artist condemned to impersonating and copying other existences and others' feelings? Could it be that Aloisia's problem is that, in her own way, she is herself an artist, albeit a failed one?"

It could be, yes; hence, my appropriation and subsequent extension of Hurezanu's observation. But I steal her point mainly because it makes sense: Hartwig, born late in the nineteenth century, became an actress and then a feminist writer, but (unless I've been hiding under a rock, which is entirely possible) has since been relegated to the dusty corners of history's bookshelves, with nary a lasting honor bequeathed to her save her acquaintance with a far more notable figure.

Aloisia Schmidt, meanwhile, finds herself in much the same predicament. Faced by the suicide of Elizabeth, her friend who had fallen in love with an indifferent man, Aloisia muses, "It seemed to me that you couldn't ask more from life than this: to be capable of such a grand passion. I no longer mourned for Elizabeth. I envied her." Throughout, the protagonist continues to emphasize her overwhelmingly mundane features and betrays with deadpan fervor her utterly nonexistent self-esteem: "I...completely lacked that equilibrium between our talents and objectives that we call confidence."

At one point, after she exasperates a potential suitor with her constant stream of self-deprecation, the wearied companion demands: "Why are you making it so hard to believe in you, Luise, I mean, who on earth can afford to be so hard on themselves, who? It's hubris, Luise, to think so little of yourself." And therein, perhaps, lies the crux of Aloisia's dilemma: her never-ending introspection leads to an impossibly negative self-image that is, ultimately, arrogant in its totality.

I can't say I understand Aloisia Schmidt much better now than I did at the beginning of the book, but it seems that she managed an epiphany of her own, regarding an ability to feel or something of that sort. If anything, this realization was opportune in concluding a very brief novel; I'm not certain I could have made it through another hundred pages of Aloisia's self-pity. I presume -- and hope, for the sake of the late Virginia Woolf -- that Mela Hartwig did not share her protagonist's failings.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Last call for book suggestions

Dearest blogosphere,

If you (collectively, individually, or otherwise) have any book suggestions -- a book you've read recently, perhaps, or even one you haven't laid eyes on in years, but that you absolutely must tell someone about -- well, tell me about it. At this point, I'm all queued up through book #45 (I'm still waiting on a mystery title to add it to my "on deck" panel), so I only have five slots left for which I haven't already decided the books.

Now is the time. As a tip, I'm more likely to pick up a book if it's on the shorter side. Until I've actually completed this self-imposed fifty-book challenge, I'll never be quite sure I'm actually going to, so it helps when the book lengths are surmountable.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

#39: The Imperfectionists

As a former employee of the International Herald Tribune and the Associated Press, Tom Rachman clearly has a soft spot for the news. Although The Imperfectionists is a novel (Rachman's first, about a boutique international newspaper based in Rome), it is really more of a series of vignettes. These brief glimpses bring us into the editor's office, behind the copydesk, and even to the streets of Cairo, where aspiring journalist Winston Cheung plays second fiddle to eccentric news veteran Rich Snyder, who, after regaling his protégé with embellished tales of professional glory, admonishes him not to "write about diplomacy. Write about human beings. The tapestry of human experience is my press office." (Cheung, it is later reported, eventually procures employment at an "exotic-animal refuge in Minnesota" where, presumably, industry clichés are less in vogue.)

Each story is titled after a news headline -- "Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls" opens the first chapter; "Europeans Are Lazy, Study Says" heralds another -- and focuses on a different member of the newspaper. Left alone, these episodes could function separately, as portraits of news-people toiling away futilely in the face of rapidly declining readership and ever-expanding free alternatives online. But instead of taking the Paris, Je T'aime approach, in which each five-minute story stands alone, Rachman opts to eulogize the printed news a la New York, I Love You, complete with recurring characters to help center the otherwise disparate perspectives.

This only partially works. Rachman is an entertaining storyteller, and his characters are mostly believable. At times, however, his writing adopts the quixotic air of a sitcom teleplay, as when straight-laced business reporter Hardy Benjamin takes on a jobless boyfriend, reasoning that "in this regard alone, she refused to see matters in terms of business." Or when chief financial officer Abbey Pinnola is randomly assigned the airplane seat adjacent to the man she had just fired, and ends up tangling with him in an Atlanta hotel room. If these two snippets seem to have a common thread, it's because Rachman takes genuine delight in unlikely matchmaking; but this soon becomes an easily recognizable pattern, which then prevents the reader from actually experiencing surprise. The author's propensity to find love (or lust) in every situation ultimately takes on a distinctly deterministic flavor, as if a romantic connection necessarily concludes every story worth relating.

Perhaps this is too American of me, but I also expected a little more on the plot side of things. The end is not entirely abrupt, but it is included with little enough context to raise doubts as to its importance. I nevertheless enjoyed Rachman concluding each chapter with a chronological history of the newspaper. I'm referring, of course, to the specific newspaper on which the novel is based, not the newspaper as a concept. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

#38: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb

It wasn't until the penultimate sentence of the final chapter that I was certain what Amitava Kumar's latest book was trying to say. "Instead," the author concludes, "the larger point is that the war on terror is obscuring from our sight the war in Iraq and its human cost." Prior to this declaration, Kumar had expended 186 pages' worth of explication, to varying degrees of success, without explicitly supporting any particular thesis.

A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, whose title is a play on an earlier work with a nearly identical title (Kumar turned "book" into "bomb"), looks very much like a supplementary reader in a cultural studies class and, in fact, reads similarly to what one would expect from such a niche role. That Kumar enticed me to keep reading long after I'd given up hope on discovering the book's raison d'être entitles the author to a small measure of genuflection, if even a bit reluctantly.

Kumar's reflections on the American response to the September 11 attacks center around two individuals: Hemant Lakhani, "a seventy-year-old tried for attempting to sell a fake missile to an FBI informant;" and Shahawar Matin Siraj, who the author believes was "baited by the New York Police Department into a conspiracy to bomb a subway." Interspersed throughout are various vignettes devoted to artists and intellectuals whose visceral repulsion with an increasingly militant national anti-terrorism campaign was duly expressed in some truly inventive works of art. Among these is Hasan Elahi's rigorous self-surveillance routine, in which he painstakingly logs every action he undertakes, ostensibly as evidence in the event of a government investigation -- but on a larger scale, as a protest against that very same state-directed intervention.

Kumar's failings, strangely enough, can be attributed to his fascination with this and other tangential narratives. It is not that they are irrelevant to a sober discussion of anti-terror initiatives; however, at times the author becomes so enamored of his subjects that he neglects to take a larger view. He lingers for some time on the questionable role of the government informant in the Lakhani case, recounting his many failings as a businessman as if to prove his lack of credibility via low credit score. And yet Kumar recoils when such circumstantial evidence is used to convict Lakhani, a man who was caught on tape proclaiming that "it will [expletive] their mother if one or two [planes are struck by bombs]...If it happens ten or fifteen places simultaneously at the same time...The people will be scared to death that how this could have happened."

The problem with focusing so heavily on character is that the same technique Kumar uses to condemn the government's methods in pursuing suspected conspirators is doubly as effective against the perceived victims of the state's investigations. Clearly, as evidenced by American atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, serious crimes were committed in the name of justice. But Kumar's valiant attempts to humanize the enemy notwithstanding, his defenses wither in the face of insurmountable evidence. Seemingly realizing this, Kumar mostly shies away from directly contradicting judicial verdicts; instead, he observes from his perch on the periphery, remarking on incongruity on the margins as the heavy hand of the state came crashing down with a vengeance.

Describing the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Kumar notes that "what saves me from the annihilating hatred, if only for a moment, is the voice of the terrorist at the other end [of the phone conversation, which was recorded]...He is more interested in describing to his superior the rooms that he says are large and lavish. It's amazing, he says, the windows are huge here...Rightly or wrongly, I'm caught by the drama of the displaced provincial, the impoverished youth finding himself in the house of wealth." This all makes for a tidy little novel, but reality is rarely so neatly synopsized. By dancing along the edges of the legal process, Kumar contributes little to the discussion of where the American response went wrong. This is an unfortunate consequence caused by a writer's compassion; the result, then, is a scattered cacophony that leaves one unsatisfied with the hurried conclusion.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

#37: Super Sad True Love Story

There are many aspects of a book, aside from the text itself, that effectively preclude it from being taken seriously. It would seem that a title like Super Sad True Love Story falls squarely into this arena. Safe to say, in any case, that Gary Shteyngart is lucky to have been a known commodity before he burdened libraries and bookstores worldwide with his latest effort.

I say "burdened" not because the novel is so hard to read. If anything, the prose is easy on the eyes, and the brain. An average Shteyngartian observation is, "I just wanted to hold her. She was wearing an oatmeal sweatshirt, beneath which I could espy the twin straps of a bra she did not need." This is actually a perfect microcosmic sentence in a way, since it also illustrates the author's frustrating (and all-too-frequent) displays of paternalism. Time and again, Lenny Abramov, the thirty-nine-year-old love-tortured protagonist, finds himself involuntarily expressing his infatuation with Eunice Park, his twenty-something muse, through a decidedly condescending lens. "A child, just a child," he muses as he watches her shiver from alcoholic over-consumption. Elsewhere, Lenny makes an effort to convey this thought to Eunice: "Soon you will be home and in my arms and the world will reconfigure itself around you and there will be enough compassion for you to feel scared by how much I care for you."

What say ye? Shteyngart is too self-aware as a writer to commit to such indulgent (not to mention italicized) sentences without at least the light sauté of irony thrown in. This is a man who casually remarks that "Dr. Park was landing the plane of his soliloquy," or that "I prepared myself to become Chekhov's ugly merchant Laptev again." Shteyngart's transparent ease with language renders his patriarchal episodes all the more confusing, and I'm not persuaded this ambiguity benefits anyone.

As the critical praise splotched onto the book's back cover makes abundantly clear, Super Sad True Love Story is a satire -- of contemporary American culture, our youth-obsessed society, and the vapidity of unchecked materialism. I usually stumble over faux-prophetical gazes into the future, precisely because these hypothetical apocalypses nearly always go too far. So hypnotized are many authors, by the creative license afforded them by the fiction/sci-fi genre, that they fail to pump the brakes on the less accessible elements of their vivid imaginations.

Nevertheless, in this particular case, resistance, as they say, was futile. Shteyngart's American dystopia is littered with such head-scratchers as Credit Poles (containing "little LED counters at eye level that registered your Credit ranking as you walked by"), Onionskins (entirely see-through jeans worn by fashionable women), and the ubiquitous äppäräti, high-tech portable devices that seem to straddle the line between a camcorder and the iPhone. And yet, the ugly shades of gray that comprise Lenny Abramov's values-depraved universe remain strikingly, even maddeningly, believable. Chalk it up to Shteyngart's installment of the Chinese as the ascending global hegemon, or perhaps the futile American war in Venezuela that practically begs for the reference to our contemporary military expeditions in the Middle East. Whatever the reasons, the depressing world of Super Sad True Love Story retains more than enough real-life potentiality to prevent itself from being dismissed out of hand. Whether this is sufficient for it to be included in the pantheon of classic contemporary literature may, however, require a slightly further suspension of disbelief.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

#36: The Mystery Guest

Grégoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest brings to life the despair of the disconsolate. Throughout the book, it was difficult to keep myself convinced that this was indeed a true story, a memoir of sorts, perhaps even a mini-autobiography. Grégoire Bouillier telling the story of Grégoire Bouillier.

And yet there he is, rudely awakened by the sound of the ringing telephone, knowing, as he says, "even before I was conscious of knowing," that it was her. "It was her voice, her breath, it was practically her face, and along with her face came a thousand moments of happiness rising from the past, gilded with sunlight, caressing my own face and licking at my fingers while a thousand more like them swung at the other end of a wire."

Lorin Stein's translation from French serves the story well; I do not speak French, but Stein clearly captures the searing, emotive intensity emanating from Bouillier's writing. The "her" of whom he writes is his ex-girlfriend, although subjecting her to that most mundane of labels really obfuscates the relationship's emotional resonance. The phone is ringing, Grégoire is certain, because "she felt guilty all the time -- I'd never know how guilty she felt -- and maybe it was society's fault, maybe it was the fault of her family, she didn't know, but in the end she did the only thing she could and went off with the first man who wanted her."

Grégoire's stratospheric imagination is soon confronted with a far more terrestrial reality: "she was calling simply to invite me to a party -- and will it never end, this continual pinching of the flesh in disbelief?" A friend, Sophie, was holding a birthday party in which Grégoire's ex-girlfriend was selected to bring a mystery guest; hence, her call.

What follows is a heartbreaking journey into the mind. Grégoire wonders, "Was she trying to destroy me? Was she bent on my complete and utter annihilation?" This is soon followed by rapturous delight, as the lovelorn narrator stumbles onto the "realization" that "by calling me on that day...she was trying to pick up the thread of the story at just the point where it had been snapped in two, as if to say that all the intervening years had lasted a matter of seconds. And this changed everything."

Except that it didn't. Bouillier so perfectly and incisively captures the delusional qualities of unrequited love that he manages both to break the reader's heart and to give his own wild-eyed musings a sharply comedic hue. One can empathize with his plight as if one with his pain while simultaneously laughing knowingly at the ancient rite of romantic devastation and recovery. Rare is the author who can pull off such a feat, and rarer still, in that the subject is himself.

What takes place at the party, and the ever more evocative moments contained therein, is for the curious reader to discover. As for me, I will be reading more from Grégoire Bouillier.

Monday, August 23, 2010

#35: Start-Up Nation

In Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer attempt to unravel "where [Israel's] entrepreneurial energy comes from, where it's going, how to sustain it, and how other countries can learn from the quintessential start-up nation." Their goal is a noble one, and bolstered by impressive stats, such as this one: "In 2008, per capita venture capital investments in Israel were 2.5 times greater than in the United States, more than 30 times greater than in Europe, 80 times greater than in China, and 350 times greater than in India."

The authors, in searching for the values and impulses most influential in producing Israel's creative instincts, found an unlikely source: the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). "In the Israeli military," they write, "there is a tendency to treat all performance -- both successful and unsuccessful -- in training and simulations, and sometimes even in battle, as value-neutral. So long as the risk was taken intelligently, and not recklessly, there is something to be learned." Throughout their research, Senor and Singer return time and again to this same explanation, or some variant, to elaborate on the unique brand of innovation endemic in Israeli society.

What to internationals smacks of brazen effrontery is, at least according to the authors, merely chutzpah, that term so ubiquitous in descriptions of the Jewish people and so often bewildering to those unfamiliar with its meaning. "An outsider would see chutzpah everywhere in Israel: in the way university students speak with their professors, employees challenge their bosses, sergeants question their generals, and clerks second-guess government ministers." As an American, this disregard for hierarchy has a certain populist appeal, especially as the much-maligned "24-hour news cycle" has helped the government metastasize into an especially cantankerous form of reality television in which competence plays second fiddle to inflammatory rhetoric.

On the other hand, at times the reasons given for Israel's high growth look suspiciously more nationalistic than realistic. In one passage, an IDF major boasts, "If a terrorist infiltrates [an] area, there's a company commander whose name is on it. Tell me how many twenty-three-year-olds elsewhere in the world live with that kind of pressure." Indeed, he has a point. And yet one cannot help but notice that "the most moral army in the world" (as proclaimed by defense minister, and former prime minister, Ehud Barak) has had numerous recent run-ins leading to international condemnation (and possible criminal prosecution). Is this related to the unusually emphatic devolution of autonomy in the military? Perhaps this cannot be answered; and yet this question is left wholly unaddressed, even as the authors continually cite this very same individuality as a boon to the Israeli economy.

Start-Up Nation is a book worth reading, if for no other reason than the generous access afforded the authors by the likes of Israeli president Shimon Peres, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and even American general David Petraeus. The authors' perspective is one of nearly-unbridled enthusiasm, owing to the vibrant nature of Israel's start-up scene and the continuing promulgation of its inventive spirit. In this latter endeavor, Dan Senor and Saul Singer join the chaotic Israeli chorus that so deftly mixes fierce national pride with a heaping helping of chutzpah. If theirs is an accurate prognostication, the best has yet to emerge from Israel.