March 29, 2010

Book 16: SuperFreakonomics

Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

The intrepid Levitt and Dubner return with this follow-up to their smash hit Freakonomics, which explored many counter-intuitive phenomena observed in the real world through the theoretical framework of economics, a premise that drives this sophomore effort. Unfortunately, Levitt and Dubner attack this intriguing idea with a ferocious sense of self, inserting themselves into every paragraph and almost shunting the actual material to the side as they gloat and provide smug asides that show just how wonderful, funny, and against the grain they run. One of the book's opening explorations, for example, actively condones drunk driving because drunk walking statistically causes more deaths (or seems to) and drunk drivers are highly unlikely to get caught. This may be true to the data (though some of their numbers are suspect, like equating the number of drunk miles driven with drunk miles walked; I suspect the two are very different numbers), but instead of exploring ways to fix this situation, the authors bask in their audacity. There are many points throughout the book where the gloating, self-aggrandizing tone becomes actually disgusting and it seems like Levitt and Dubner deliberately sought out controversial topics just so they could break the mold and undermine the dominant wisdom. I am not against this idea; in fact, I embrace open-minded thinking and novel approaches to problems, as well as being fascinated by psychology. It's just that Levitt and Dubner could be a bit more scientific in their presentation rather than trying so hard to produce forced humor that is rather juvenile and distracting.

If Levitt and Dubner want to be treated as hard-nosed scientists, they should perhaps introduce fewer snide remarks that, instead of proving how hilariously snarky they are, merely seem immature and designed to make readers see exactly how hilariously snarky they are. And though attribution and context is important, the chapter of the book that focuses on global warming essentially becomes an advertisement for a select group of scientists and their company. I've seen much more subtle ad copy, and this from two authors whose mission is to introduce scientific thinking into the mainstream. That is not to say that there isn't some intriguing science or interesting observations within; indeed, they pepper the book (sections about prostitutes in Chicago and on altruism are particularly good). SuperFreakonomics is, however, a book obsessed with itself, and some of the data seems at least slightly suspect, to say nothing of resulting observations. Unlike the scientists they claim to be and over their own self-deprecating comments in the book's introduction, Levitt and Dubner appear to have come to the book with an agenda. Sections on prostitution and altruism, as mentioned above, are worth seeking out and reading, but overall SuperFreakonomics reads like a long ego trip that isn't particularly effective and is quite unpleasant to read.

Grade: C

March 22, 2010

Book 15: Bright Lights, Big City

Bright Lights, Big City
Jay McInerney

There is great authorial risk when straying from normal literary mores and conventions, particularly those involving narrators (which tend almost exclusively toward first- and third-person singular narrators, even in cases where narrative may alternate between chapters or sections). Jay McInerney, however, achieves his desired effect when utilizing the second person present tense ("you are") as the main narrative voice in his atmosphere-heavy Bright Lights, Big City. From the first sentence of the book, the use of "you" as the primary narrative voice has a disorienting effect on the reader which in this book successfully mirrors and even enhances the confusion experienced by "you" during a mad rush of cocaine- and alcohol-fueled highs and hangovers. The book is heavier on atmosphere than on plot and even character development outside of the main character, but these are enough to sustain it through its short duration. Though the third act twist is a bit unsatisfying, unexpected, and leaves some loose ends, even this uncertainty seems to echo the (ironically?) brute driving force of the novel. Despite the main character's malaise and desire to escape, that desire seems at times frantic, culminating in many sudden blackouts and accompanying breaks in the text.

This, then, is McInerney's great achievement: he has been able to take a jarring, awkward narrative voice, a flat supporting cast, an occasionally tangential and repetitive plot, sudden unexplained breaks in the narrative, and a wholly unlikely Transformative Climax Moment and spin them somehow into a compelling narrative that is, despite the annoying elements that comprise it, enjoyable to read. The evil, out-to-get-you boss may be a bit overplayed, but here it somehow fits with the tone of the novel and with the main character's general outlook on life. And to create such a well-rounded main character out of the reader solely by telling "you" what "you" think is a remarkable achievement; McInerney allows readers just enough memory-based self-exposition while utilizing outside characters' reactions and assessments to create a fully realized second-person character. So many elements herein are cliche and tired- the struggling, self-loathing writer, escaping the past in New York City- but are given fresh life in the rapid-fire pace and persuasive voice of the novel, which is tinged with just enough dark humor to sustain the desired effect without turning into brazen satire or outright silliness. This is a serious book. Bright Lights, Big City is an absorbing reading experience almost despite itself, and successfully utilizes narrative voice and pacing to create a compelling and engrossing reading experience.

Grade: A

March 20, 2010

Book 14: Songbook

Nick Hornby

I take music very seriously, in that I cannot function without music accompanying me, whether it plays as I write my assignments or silently guides my walking patterns. I love talking about music and thinking about music and, occasionally, just basking in the glory that is the perfect Lady Gaga song. To read a book like Songbook seemed a perfect fit, and while Nick Hornby has clearly crafted a labor of love, the shades of pretentiousness that seep through the gushing prose overwhelm any sense of sheer joy this collection should have rightfully achieved. The essays in this book center on a number of pop songs that illuminate different aspects of the sensibilities of "pop" music and, in some of the more personal (and moving) essays, on his life. This writing is moving and powerfully conveys the importance of music to those who cherish it and who allow music to define and shape our views of the world. Hornby invariably stumbles, however, in attempting to justify his tastes. While this self-conscious love of undeniably pop (and often as un-hip as Rod Stewart) phenomena is unbiased, Hornby's continual need to defend his choices and showcase how truly hip he really is plagues the book. In nearly every essay, Hornby finds a way to name-drop some obscure group while frantically attempting to defend his love of the simple verse/chorus/verse structure of the everyday, brilliant pop song.

It is easy to understand why Hornby would feel overly defensive about his musical tastes; this is the man, after all, who gave us High Fidelity. Having spent an entire book discussing songs that move him despite being of a different kind of quality than, say, Mozart or even the usual critical darlings, Hornby then listens to the top ten Billboard albums of July 2001 and is insultingly dismissive of Destiny's Child and Alicia Keys, as well as all of the other artists. His broad dismissal of this music confirms the reader's building suspicions, nurtured gradually throughout the book, that Hornby is, despite his most forceful objections, a music snob. Simply put, if the song means something to him, it's wonderful; a song that does not impress him, however, cannot really have any merit. This revelation also retroactively colors Hornby's past selections, which are almost deliberately subversive and, on reflection, serve to create a sense of credibility to Hornby's music taste. At its end, the book reads more like an extended apology than a love letter, a carefully calculated argument to provide the author with hipster credibility as he claims to embrace that which is lowly and popular.

This pretentiousness ultimately pervades the essays to an extent where it is far easier to deconstruct Hornby out of this book rather than construct a fresh understanding of the merits of pop songs. Though there are some wonderful song recommendations in this book and some intriguing insights into the ebb and flow of popular genres and movements throughout the years (Hornby writes with an understanding of context that illuminates his essays), Hornby's self-consciousness ultimately overwhelms the book's more literal content notes. The autobiographical notes within these essays are more often self-serving than honest, and even the interesting historical notes are presented with a holier-than-thou air of all-knowing. Songbook is a tribute to a series of important songs and moments that have influenced Nick Hornby, and there are some insights into the history of pop culture and, indeed, critical dismissal thereof that are worth finding (particularly Hornby's assertion that critics may be more effective when they are actually fans of the artist in question). Despite two passing mentions of Hanson that defend them as a worthwhile listening enterprise (which I wholeheartedly support), Songbook falls prey to the air of pretentiousness that so often clouds memoirs, essays, and music criticism.

Grade: B-

March 19, 2010

Book 13: Shanghai Girls

Shanghai Girls
Lisa See

Not every book is going to capture both character and historical book as well as, say, A Tale of Two Cities; in fact, such an achievement is nearly impossible, but surely it is not too much to ask that historical fiction, even when rigorously researched, be supported by more than a skeleton highlight reel of Important Events in This Idiom. Such is the main problem with Lisa See's Shanghai Girls which, despite the depth of the research that clearly went into creating the well-described worlds of Shanghai and Los Angeles around World War II, is driven purely by a cast of egomaniacal characters and the historical merit is thrust uncomfortably to the forefront. From the second paragraph of the book, main character and narrator Pearl is revealed to be petty and self-indulgent, and things only get worse as she is exposed to harrowing adversity. Events like a prolonged gang rape are relayed in a flat, even tone, removing any power or (horrifyingly) sympathy that may arise in readers. Worse still, it seems that See is exploiting the brutal power of such a traumatic event, having characters refer to it in passing occasionally but otherwise treating it as, well, one of those things, refusing to have Pearl deal with it in a realistic or even particularly interesting way. This seemingly major plot point, like others, fades into the noise of the background and only arises when it is necessary to make a (usually petty) point.

This illustrates the fundamental problem of Shanghai Girls: its characters are horrible people and it is nearly impossible to feel any sympathy for them. Pearl and her sister May throw out the required Character Development Lines (complete with an insultingly predictable and unconvincing Reversal of Understanding Argument at the book's utterly dissatisfying climax) without showing any real growth throughout the novel. Instead of feeling sorry for Pearl and her (unbelievably) even more petulant younger sister May, or even feeling sympathy for the terrible trials they see as they flee war-torn Shanghai for the horrors of the mid-century Chinese immigration experience, readers want to reach into the book and slap some sense into these weak and petty women, who hilariously seem to be seen by their delusional author as Strong Role Models. Most egregiously awful is Pearl's uncanny ability to forget her own opinions and See's propensity for one-liners of the very worst kind. One moment, Pearl laments her lack of advancement in America. Fair enough, but not when a few pages later sees her unflinchingly proud of all she has achieved; reversals like this (and Pearl goes back and forth without retrospective insight) are lazy and plague the novel, taking an important and often ignored immigrant narrative and using the worst possible kind of characters to represent it.

I understand some of what See was trying to do; obviously, immigrant narratives are rich with the tension between a desire for assimilation and love for one's home country and culture. There are ways, however, to write about this conflict without petulance and there are ways to deal with the ambiguity of these complex emotions without the black-and-white platitudes that populate this novel. One moment Pearl's father-in-law is an unrepentant dick and the next they reach An Understanding of Each Other; this, too, may reflect some elements of real life but for the rest of the novel Pearl is 100% understanding of the man and never shows any shades of gray in her estimation of him. This is absolutely maddening, especially when placed in the hands of an annoying narrator. See's choice of present tense for the sweeping book, which sees decades pass in awkwardly phrased catch-up sentences, is disastrous and makes no sense, often inducing confusion when the narrative leaps so quickly to reach its next Illustration of History. I believe that Lisa See's heart is fundamentally in the right place, and that her decision to tell a difficult story is brave, but the execution in Shanghai Girls is terrible. There are interesting descriptions of place and moments where even the narration cannot stand in the way of powerful events occurring (see especially Pearl and May's time on Angel Island), but ultimately my distaste for these two women made Shanghai Girls a real struggle to get through. The sibling tension is over-hyped, the narration is terrible, and Shanghai Girls suffers from interesting content matter, good research, and horrible storytelling.

Grade: C-

March 14, 2010

Book 12: Lush Life

Lush Life
Richard Price

I bought this book at the Strand in New York, after realizing that I had neglected to pack a book for my Spring Break trip; what better, I thought, to set the mood than a gritty murder mystery set in the city I was exploring? Lush Life is just the kind of book I was looking for, a rich mystery with layers of character depth and an unflinching portrayal of the class conflict engulfing neighborhoods like Manhattan's Lower East Side. Lush Life may attempt a bit too earnestly at times to enhance the conflict between those living in the projects and the shadow of the neighborhood's tenement past and the ultra-cool hipsters who use the grime as a marker of credibility, putting it into the words of his characters or, worse, in his exposition instead of allowing it to develop more naturally. For the most part, however, Price nails character development in a way very rarely seen in mystery novels. Each of his characters leaps off the page in full three-dimensional reality, and its easy to underscore the praise he receives for his dialogue, which is entirely realistic and which beautifully serves its dual purposes of advancing the plot and developing the characters speaking and responding.

Likewise, Price's decision to tell Lush Life with a shifting third-person focus rounds out his Lower East Side, presenting each of its entangled worlds and characters with a first-person familiarity that rounds out the complete picture of modern New York. We understand at once the necessary persistence of detectives Matty and Yolanda and the way that it slowly deteriorates Eric Cash. We understand the quiet desperation of the gunman while watching the havoc it wreaks on the murder victim's father. All bases are covered and what readers experience is akin to these stories as they manifest themselves in the real world. There is clearly a sense of right and wrong throughout the novel but there is also a hint of something more, a glimpse at the system that produces senseless killings like the one in the novel without heavy-handed moralizing or long soliloquies from the author. The characters get into this kind of discussion from time to time, but these discussions appear mostly to be in the vein of the characters and, with a few exceptions, do not infringe upon the story being told. Though the crime at its core is simple and the resolution quick as it comes, Lush Life excels as a study of New York's Lower East Side and the complex ecology of characters that inhabit it. Richard Price presents an unapologetic glimpse into this neighborhood and into the effects that murder has on the human psyche in many forms.

Grade: A

March 11, 2010

Book 11: All-Star Superman

All-Star Superman
by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

All-Star Superman is intended by and large as a re-imagining of the man who may be the world's best known and most popular superhero and is designed for readers who are at least familiar with the general ebb and flow of the Superman comics throughout the years, summing up his origin story in 1-3 pages and including a wealth of in-jokes for those well-versed in the comic's history. How do I know this? I was lucky enough to experience All-Star Superman as a book club suggestions, and the room was filled with a lively discussion about the way that this two-part book fits into the Superman canon (quite well, from what I gathered). As an absolute newcomer to the comic, however, who has never even seen any of the movies, I felt a bit lost throughout the book, which is not an ideal entry point for n00bs like myself. The art was sufficient and the overall story arc, which involves Superman facing the fact of morality, is an interesting direction in which to take a long-lived and beloved character. This story, however, takes a backseat to various cameo appearances of other Superman adventures, and while the uninitiated can appreciate the thematic effects of the appearance of a gaggle of Superman doppelgangers, issue-long diversions do not add any real depth to the overall story and serve only to distract. All-Star Superman may be a rare treat for long-time fans of the Man of Steel, but those new to the legend may be better served by boning up on Superman's history before approaching this patchwork book.

Grade: B