April 25, 2012

Getting to Know the World, Life by Life

The last two decades have been a golden age of memoirs. Though sometimes critiqued as indulgent navel-gazing, the memoir craze comes from a place of curiosity and acceptance. People who were previously treated as case studies are now telling their own stories.  Each one gives us another piece of the puzzle that is our world. Here are some of my favorites:

Nobody, Nowhere, by Donna Williams. A woman with autism tells the story of her childhood and young adult years. A fascinating, fascinating look into the experience of autism.

Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood, by Julie Gregory. Gregory's mother locked the food cabinets, made her eat dirty tissues, and sickened her so that she would require medical procedures. Although a book like this sounds depressing (and, of course, is in many ways), it's also the tale of someone figuring out what the hell is going on in her life and how she can escape it.

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, by Zoren Zailckas. Zailckas tells of her teenage and college years of binge drinking. She tries to understand what she was trying to get out of drinking, on a personal level. But she also illuminates the tight connection between binge drinking and sexual abuse.

Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy. Grealy had jaw cancer as an early teenager, and it left her with a disfigured face just as she was entering adolescence. A few years after the publication of this book, Grealy committed suicide and her friend Ann Patchett wrote her own memoir of their friendship, Truth and Beauty.

April 23, 2012

I Need a Mousepad

Ever since leaving my steady office job to become a freelancer, I've had to become strict about personal spending. So when I went online to get a new mousepad, I put the first one I saw in my cart: black, cheap, with a gel wrist pad. $9.99. Then I thought, maybe I can find one that is purple instead. Click, click. Or floral. Click, click.

I stopped myself right then. It's not that I couldn't afford another 5 bucks for a cuter mousepad. It's that I was doing shopping as entertainment: the browsing, the comparing, the picking and the choosing. It was fun. But shopping as pleasure is exactly the mindset I need to avoid. Whether it's writing or editing or anything else in life, it's all about retraining your head to avoid the mental patterns that are going to bring you down.

April 20, 2012

Books That Affected Your Everyday Thinking

This is an old post from my other blog, Green Moon Pax, that I've been meaning to re-post:

Here at least is the list of books that affected the way we think in an everyday way---books that led to a paradigm shift, so to speak. I've listed them in order of receipt and have added a line indicating my relationship to the list maker. A huge, huge thank you to everyone who wrote in! (And it's not too late for other lists; I'll continue to add them to this entry.)

Kim Ball Smith
Former coworker and current book club member

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce: We studied this my sophomore year of high school, and I remember having a discussion about how the character Stephen didn’t become a writer; he was a writer simply because of the way he saw the world. It made me realize that you are what you do. If you write every day, then you’re a writer. Interestingly, this was also a major theme of the movie Sister Act II with Whoopi Goldberg.

Mamie Weber Gaver
Eldest sister
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott: This book instilled a lifelong desire to read. It changed the way I read; I could not put in down; I asked myself how characters I admired would react in situations. I searched out books written by the same author.

The Bible: The second is the Bible. God’s plan, God’s love, God’s sacrifice to save us and bring us closer to him is astounding. Being a committed Christian changes your life every moment.

Simple Living book (sorry I cannot remember the exact title): This may seem odd as it has many pagan elements but when ever I start to think I “need” something think, I must buy something, I repeat to myself “everything I need, I have.” I look around and realize that statement is true.

Eve Greco
Best friend since college

The Bible: A source of inspiration to be a better person, humility to know how far I have to go, comfort in times of trial, and wisdom in times of confusion.

Mrs. Mike, and the Little House of the Prairie books: These were favorite childhood/teen books; either loved them because of my sense of adventure, or they gave me my sense of adventure.

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis: Just great books, as are most C. S. Lewis books. Along those same lines, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Jane Eyre—and probably other good writers—inspired me to want to be a better writer. (Hmmm, if exposure helps, I wonder if I went to enough art museums I might develop ANY artistic talent. . . )

Audrey Babkirk
Former coworker and current book club member

Conversations with God: My book is Conversations with God. I read it when I was still in my teens, and there were a lot of ideas that were revolutionary to me then (many of which I came across later in my philosophy and religion courses). But there’s a few notions from CWG that I think about on a regular basis.

First, the author puts forward the proposition that our bodies were meant to last forever—and that it’s our misuse of them that makes them wear out so quickly. I think about that whenever the topics of aging or healthy living come up. What if we spent as much time taking care of our bodies as we did working? What if our pleasures involved fewer toxic foods/pastimes/places?

The other one I like is that God is like a parent and we’re kids at play. God doesn't care which game we play (marbles vs. jump-rope), only that we’re safe, happy, and not harming each other. I also see this more and more in my relationship with my parents—they don’t really care who I spent my Saturday night with, and I don’t really care what house chores they did that day—it’s the telling and listening that matters.

Bob Cormier
Former coworker

I suppose it would help if I occasionally read a book. I've been trying to search my memory banks from childhood, when I used to read voraciously, but am drawing a blank. All I ever think about is work, pets, family, music, politics, and sex, and probably only that last item has produced thoughts that were inspired or fueled by anything I ever read in a book!

John Sealine
Former coworker

Concrete Countertops, by Fu-Tung Cheng with Eric Olsen (Taunton Press, 2003): No, this is not an abstract title for a novel about artists having angst in some inner city. It is exactly what it says it is: a how-to guidebook that explains, step by step, how to construct actual concrete countertops! I found this book at the local Home Expo, where I was looking into such surfaces. My wife and I had long been considering concrete as a very artistic and contemporary look when we had our house built in 2003. However, the costs and maintenance involved scared us out of it. So, we opted to go with Corian in our kitchen.

However, I am doing a countertop for my bar, which is a small space, so now I've revisited it. I can’t say it was a “life-changing” read, since it is basically a simple guidebook with photographs. Yet I found myself drawing a parallel between the process and my goals in life as an amateur musician. Like playing a guitar, at first one is amazed at the beauty, artistry, and freedom of expression possible in the material. It is permanent, original, impressive, and creative. So, as you get into it, you eventually come to realize that you need certain tools to pull off even the most basic of concrete counters. And the tools ain’t cheap. And the tools require some level of training. Then you learn that you must essentially be in the business of making these things on a daily basis in order to turn a profit and pay for the tools and training you’ve invested in. And then what once seemed a glorious art and labor of love turns into a backbreaking, knee-bending, hand-gnarling, finger-twisting task that grinds your very soul to dust. Unbreathable, toxic dust to be exact.

Yet you emerge from the dust, begging for more! Persistence pays off as your first counter pops out of its mold, and you feel a sense of great accomplishment. But wait! There's more! Now you must grind the surface . . . with diamond abrasive grinding pads . . .

What I learned from Concrete Countertops is that life is hard work, and it isn’t necessarily the product that is the payoff, but the struggle to get there that is special. My concrete countertops are still not done. They sit in my basement at this very moment, waiting to be finished and installed.

Lynn Weber

The Christian essays of Melody Green: Melody Green was the cofounder of an evangelical ministry that, among other things, published a monthly newsletter. I remember reading, as a new Christian of 16 years old, how helping around the house, making your bed without being asked, and other practical acts were part of the selfless, giving life a Christian was called to. Another essay was called “Honesty and Openness” and talked about being your true self. Melody talked about how she had always put on a front, both so that people would like her better and so that, if someone didn’t like her, she could say “Well, they don’t know the real me.” That essay helped me search for who I really was, what I really thought, and how to be more authentic. A third very memorable essay was the one she wrote on grief, several years after the death of her husband and two of her children in a terrible accident. At 18 years old I knew nothing about how to act toward people who had suffered a death or other loss, and the practical advice she gave has been some of the most best I’ve ever received. All three of these essays continue to impact my daily life, whether it’s deciding to take out the trash for Jay, stopping mid-track in a conversation at work to connect with how I really feel about something, or what I say to a friend in need.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig: I tended to glaze over such Eastern religious terms as “mindfulness,” but this book helped me understand it. One of his early chapters tells of some friends of his who are subconsciously annoyed by the dripping faucet in their kitchen, and (1) don’t realize they are annoyed, (2) don’t recognize the source of their annoyance, (3) don’t know how to fix it, and (4) don’t understand that it can be fixed, and by them. To this day, when I’m walking around with a vague feeling of nervousness, unhappiness, or anger, I make myself stop and ask: “What exactly am I feeling right now? And why?” I try to be precise and then confront it clearly, either by reconciling myself to the situation or feeling or figuring out what I can do to change it.

The Body in Pain, by Elaine Scarry: This amazing book is one of my favorites of all time, for many reasons. It’s reshaped my thoughts about pain, aging, torture, art, reading, and more. The 22-page introduction alone is worth getting the book for. In it Scarry talks of how pain draws the sufferer into himself, demands the attention of the sufferer until nothing can come in and he has no way of getting his pain out—that is, of making anyone understand what he’s going through. There is much more to it than that, but this portion made me more compassionate toward older people who talk of their aches and doctor’s appointments.

The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, by Molly Katzen: A coworker named Jay gave me this vegetarian cookbook when I moved into my first apartment with my friend Mary. It transformed my attitude about food and cooking, and I thought, “This is my kind of food.”

Sally Weber RiberaSecond eldest sister

Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White: I remember sitting in bed reading this book and crying at the end when Charlotte dies. It’s the first time I knew a book could touch me in a deep way and really began my journey of being a lifelong reader. I still get tiffed when teachers show the video to young children. I want them to read the book on their own and experience the emotions.

The Bible: This book guides my life every hour of every day. Although there are many things I don’t understand, there is enough to understand about the love and character of God that it keeps me spiritually engaged and growing throughout my life.

The Final Quest, by Rick Joyner. This book has changed the way I view life in many, many ways. Rick Joyner is a well-known pastor and prophet from Charlotte, North Carolina. Now I know the word prophet is a scary one, but as in days of old, there really are people who hear from God about what is happening in the Earth and what will happen. Rick Joyner had a series of visions which he has written about in this book. In many ways it reads like Pilgrim’s Progress, the famous allegory by John Bunyon. In The Final Quest, we see events that happen in the invisible realm of the spirit written as if they were visible to human eyes. This book has made me much more aware and understanding of the supernatural realm of the spirit. Yes, there are angels around us. But we must also understand if there are supernatural forces of good around us, there are also supernatural forces of evil that we can confront and defeat. There is no telling how many copies of this book I have given away to people. Like myself, some are deeply moved and changed, others don’t find it interesting, perhaps because they don’t even believe it’s real. I also appreciate that in the prologue, Joyner explains his spiritual history and how he received the visions. If you want to read something out of the ordinary and possibly life-changing, I’d urge you to give The Final Quest a chance.

Don Weber

Oliver Wiswell, by Kenneth Roberts: I have always been concerned about fairness. In high school I read Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts. The story was about a Tory (British loyalist) in the American Revolutionary War. American history then was taught pretty much as a black-and-white issue. This book gave a balanced view of the Tories. Kenneth Roberts is out of fashion now, but he wrote Northwest Passage and Arundel and other books about that time in American history. He also wrote books about Benedict Arnold, who was a great patriot in his early career.

John Mollard
Former debate partner in college

The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, PhD: In a sea of dietary disinformation Dr. Campbell is the real deal. He is a world renowned nutritional scholar at Cornell University, has authored hundreds of scientific papers, has sat on numerous expert panels, and has conducted many research projects for NIH and the American Cancer Society, etc.

The pinnacle of Dr. Campbell’s career was as director of the “China Study.” This massive 20-year dietary and lifestyle study was jointly undertaken by Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine and is billed as the “most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted.”

Dr. Campbell distills and clearly explains the conclusions of the China Study as well as many other important nutritional studies. Most of us know that we are living in a toxic food environment, but Dr. Campbell lays it out so clearly that it is shocking. His thesis: Changing your eating habits to a plant-based diet will minimize or reverse the effect of chronic diseases such as cancer, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes.

I read this book after my father had a massive stroke at the age of 65, leaving him in a wheelchair and unable to talk. Since then I have adopted primarily a vegan diet (plus fish) and feel like I am reversing the first 40 years of dietary neglect. Thank you Dr. Campbell for showing the way!

Song for the Blue Ocean, by Carl Safina: Provides a knowledgeable and disturbing firsthand account of how man is exploiting the oceans.

Lisa Ott

The Little Red Schoolbook, by Jesper Jensen and Soren Hansen: This was an eye-opener for me as a young teen. It was basically a primer on how to rebel against the adult universe—parental, societal, and conceptual. That it was full of “bad words” and frank accounts of masturbating, having sex, and using drugs made it the first book I recall hiding under my mattress. The one that set me off, at least in fantasy, on my first sexual adventures.

Madame Curie: A Biography, by Eve Curie: I can’t recall reading a book about or by a female author before this one, by the daughter of Marie Curie. It changed my worldview on heroes, which I may have known in my heart could be female, but I’d never found written evidence of it until this read. I remember being lifted up by her story, and by the way she handled her fame, graceful and understated; not like a man.

Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell: I read this one while in northern British Columbia one summer during high school. Our family rented a house on a glacier in the isolated town of Smithers, B.C. I was basically by myself for a month (unless you include my brother, which I didn’t). The characters in the book were my companions. I would paddle a canoe out to a floating dock in the middle of this glacier-fed lake, and settle into the book for the entire afternoon. One time my canoe even came loose and floated off as I lay stretched out on the dock, engrossed in the story. GWTW was my first experience of literary rapture, though it’s embarrassing to admit now since this is not a literary masterpiece by any means. The way it ultimately changed me is that it didn’t end the way I wanted; a first time for me. I remember not believing my eyes as I re-read Rhett Butler’s final rebuff of Scarlett. Then, I became livid . . . at Mitchell. How could she end the book that way! How could they not end up together!? It was a small but real movement from innocence to experience for me. Bob says it’s actually the book that changed his life—the book that told me I can’t always have my way.

The Drifters, by James Michener: This was Michener’s one book that did not start with Adam, but rather with a band of 20-year-olds drifting through Europe and Africa in the 1960s (or 70s), a hedonistic travelogue that piqued my interest in discovering new places and cultures. Am not sure that it changed my everyday world view, but it had a great impact on my view of the world and ignited my desire to see and experience new places. Parenthood and the need to eke out a living has dimmed my focus and means to travel, but not my passion for it.

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck: This is one of my favorite books and, in contrast to The Drifters, it introduced me on a more or less everyday basis to my own superego. Steinbeck asserts that there is only one story; that of the struggle between good and evil within us. Though I don’t experience moral angst as a daily phenomenon, I do regularly find myself facing ethical dilemmas, large and small, that call to mind his words: It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

An essay on abortion (can’t recall the title) by a Dartmouth logic professor (can’t recall the name).

Gerry Hogan
Former volunteer with Jay at Grassroots Crisis Center

Without question, the book that has had the greatest influence on my life is G. Nathan Prescott’s At Peace with Mediocrity: The Life of Millard Fillmore. Prescott, Professor Emeritus of American Studies at Oxford, is the world’s leading Fillmore scholar, and a writer of great style and sensitivity. In his epic tale of our 13th president, he manages to convey with uncanny sympathy the story of a man who “from an undistinguished birth, through a long and shiftless youth, during a period of amazing and undeserved good luck, into a haphazard and indolent later life, and up until an ignominious death, remained completely untroubled by his dearth of gifts or talents.”

Never anyone’s first pick for anything, Fillmore was repeatedly rejected in sport, love, and politics, yet he always pushed himself back up, ever ready when a third choice was needed. He was the compromise candidate for Vice-President at the Whig Party’s 1848 convention, when party bosses sought “a man who has done and said so little that there can be nothing to dislike.” Fillmore was catapulted into the White House upon the sudden death of Zachary Taylor. Once in the top job, Fillmore managed to stand for and do little, save for engineering a series of ineffectual agreements that forestalled but failed to prevent the Civil War. Prescott writes, “Millard was Mr. Go-Along to Get-Along a century before the phrase was invented.” However, in 1852, Fillmore was the first sitting president denied his own party’s re-nomination. In a rare fit of pique and independence, Fillmore quit the Whig Party and, in 1856, ran as the presidential candidate of the Know-Nothing Party, a political movement without an affirmative platform but opposed to change of any kind. Again, Fillmore took his miserable third-place finish with that characteristic calm and grace, retiring to a small uneventful life in colorless part of America, “happy to be forgotten, at perfect peace with being written as a sorry footnote.”

How rarely in today’s literature are we permitted a glimpse into the lives of men and women possessed of the courage to be ordinary, fortified with the depth of spirit to sit comfortably with failure. Prescott does a great service to those of us who battle daily with our lack of positive qualities; by so artfully and non-judgmentally presenting Fillmore, the consummate C student, the ultimate second-stringer, the best the big bland middle had to offer, he provides more than solace. He offers inspiration.

Kim Hewitt
Former coworker

Book and Author Unknown: Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the book, or the author. I've often wished I could so I could reread it. The part that changed my view was a section that said that at the base of many arguments is an identity issue—one side wants to maintain a certain identity and so argues a certain point. It was like a light went on—BING! Got it. That’s why some people so stubbornly hold on to their world view or opinion.

Running Water Leaves No Scars, by David Reynolds: A kind of self-help book about Japanese Morita therapy. The author said every day is a chance to live with grace: if you reach for the soap in the soap dish, do it with grace. That made a big impression on me. Some days, it is all I can do—some tiny gesture. But if that is all I can accomplish, I hope I do it the best way I can and with as much awareness, love and compassion as I can. In fact, these days, I’ve given up on the big goals. I practice reaching for the soap. :)

Julie Kirsch
Former boss

The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz: I have a tendency to want to look at every angle, analyze all the data, make detailed lists of pros and cons before making decisions. This methodical approach can be good in situations like buying a new house or changing jobs, but it can be paralyzing when applied indiscriminately to all decisions. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz argues that having choices is good up to a certain point but that having too many choices can actually be a negative. He cites all kinds of social science studies that back his thesis, but one of my favorite examples in the book was his own odyssey to buy a pair of jeans. Visiting the Gap, he is astonished to find that the number of choices has proliferated wildly since the last time he shopped for jeans—boot cut or straight, button fly or zip, dark wash or light or in between. He finds this choice befuddling rather than liberating, and he realizes that an errand that had taken him a very short time in the past is now threatening to eat up an entire afternoon. Like Schwartz, I’ve come to realize that I do not have to optimize every decision—sometimes good enough is good enough—and only let myself get sucked into doing lots of research and lots of thinking when making big decisions or purchases.

Rose CareyFormer coworker

When Your Body Gets the Blues: It would be nice if I could point to a fiction book that has affected me as much as a nonfiction book, but one of the driest books I’ve ever read tops my list (it’s also a short book, so don’t be discouraged if you are thinking of buying it): When Your Body Gets the Blues, which presents results of studies of women’s hormonal levels and how they relate to serotonin levels and basically advises women to walk, particularly outside in such a way as to appropriately get the right kind of UV rays into our eyes and onto our skin; and also advises women to take the proper levels of vitamin supplements and to get good sleep in a dark place. If I did all these things, I’m sure I would feel better right about now. GNC’s Women’s UltraMega vitamins have nearly the ratio of supplements that the book recommends. I’m not happy that the neighborhood I work in isn’t conducive to walking. I loaned the book to a couple of people, who seemed to be unimpressed, so maybe my little list of recommendations above is enough for anyone interested.

The Temple of My Familiar: Fiction-wise, The Temple of My Familiar was an affirming book, mostly giving voice to some of the frustrations of being a woman, if you agree that sexuality and creativity/spirituality are directly linked, which for some reason many people don’t seem to think. It’s been a long time since I’ve read these books and I’m always sad about how much of what I’ve read I’ve forgotten.

Susan Pigman
Former volunteer with Jay at Grassroots Crisis Center

Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, by Margaret Mead: There are a lot of books that have changed the way I look at the world, but the one that came to mind first was Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies by Margaret Mead, which is a fascinating study of the roles of women and men in three very different New Guinea tribes. The characteristics of women (and men) vary drastically depending on the values of the society--from gentle farmers to ferocious cannibals. By contrasting these groups, she demonstrates the influence of socialization and cultural values in shaping personalities and roles of women and men and the great plasticity of human character/gender roles. To me, this was utterly convincing as a demonstration of the potential for all types of behavior that lie within all of us vs. those so-called innate "manly"/"womanly" characteristics.

Debbie Justice
Former coworker and current book club member
Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer: This book forced me to view all religiosity through the lens of skepticism. As I read about the creation of Mormon and present-day rabid fundamentalist LDS, I was forced to view my own Judeo-Christian tradition as an outsider looking at original sin, Transubstantiation, and salvific crucifixion in a whole new light. I came away with more unsettling questions than answers. I don’t mind being foolish, but I hate being wrong. And Krakauer suggested that devotees of any religion may be both. Startling. Provoking. An important read for anyone who, like me, hadn’t rigorously examined the fissures in her faith before.

Ratul Hazarika
Work colleague

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig; Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra: It’s not easy putting one particular title at the top of my list, but I think it’d be Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics. The central theme of the first title, that the beauty of a well-designed machine points to the meditative state of the creator and that losing oneself in what one likes to do can be very spiritually uplifting, was something I always believed in. In Tao of Physics, I got to learn many things about Eastern mysticism that were totally new to me. Being familiar with the ritualistic and mythological part of Hinduism, the philosophical aspects that Capra dealt with was something very refreshing and thought-provoking for me.

Other books I really enjoyed were Siddhartha by Hesse, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Melville's Moby Dick, and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Tom Robbins is another favorite of mine; the first time I read his Jitterbug Perfume, I couldn't believe there were people who write that type of stories and have them published. And among my all-time favorites would be The Hobbit. The way the prose flows in Tolkien’s writings makes reading him so very pleasurable. It’s like a journey. I'd like to end this list with a favorite quote of mine: “It takes courage to read a book, for it can change a person forever.”

Jay Kissel
Former coworker, former roommate, current husband

Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda, and A Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne. I never noticed until now that both of these books begin with the word Journey. I'm not sure that either of these were paradigm shifters for me in the sense of shaping the way I think about the world today, but as a teenager each brought me an unexpected moment of joy/sorrow which I still remember . . . a sense of a world that lies beyond our everyday experience.

April 17, 2012

Young Adult Fiction Set in the Real World

Yes, it still exists! The Fault in Our Stars is a fantastic YA novel about two teenagers struggling with illness and reveling in love. My favorite recurring line from the novel:  "The world is not a wish-granting factory."

April 13, 2012

NSA Week: Friday

The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius coined the word "cosmopolitan" when he wrote, "I am a citizen of the universe." Stephenson is too. It's not just that his cast of characters comes from all over the world. It's that he does them the honor of treating all of them as fully realized people, distinguished by their individual backgrounds but relatable because of their common humanity.

I know . . .  "common humanity." But Stephenson doesn't treat them with a "deep inside we're all the same" homogeneity. Zula walked across Sudan as a child refugee before being adopted by American parents. Marlon scrabbled his way out of poverty in one of the only ways a young guy in Xiamen, China, could: by selling his gaming achievements to Westerners with more money than time on their hands. They are specific to their time and place.

Nonetheless, in every place and time, there are people who try and people who don't try. People who take the easy way and people who strategize. People consumed with their megalomania and people who want to be able to look themselves in the mirror the next day. And part of the plot of Reamde is the process of sorting out, across cultural and even language barriers, who in the world is like you.

It's great to read a fully realized novel where the cast of characters reflects the diversity of the world. Zula, the heroine who is African American. Csongor, the Hungarian romantic lead. Xuxia, the Chinese girl of ambition. And alongside them, Richard, the American gaming developer, and his brother, the Christian survivalist. No one fits in a predetermined slot. There are no square pegs, and no round holes. They are affected by their circumstances but defined by the content of their character.

One of my favorite passages in all literature is from the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan. The girl at the center of the novel, Briony, has been writing a play in which she plays the role of a princess, and the plot revolves around her own fantasies. Just at the brink of adolescence when the novel starts, she has a breakthrough watching her sister Cecilia out in the yard with a young man. She's thunderstruck by this thought: What if being Cecilia is just as vivid an experience as being Briony?

This realization, that others' reality is just as real as one's own, launches Briony into her maturity and her career as a novelist. It's what Stephenson does so well:  acknowledging that being one of 1 billion Chinese, or a mid-level Russian mobster, or a Hungarian IT guy is just as vivid an experience as being an American millionaire. It makes not just for a good novel but for an exciting world-view. You close the book cover, look out the window, and think, "What a fascinating place it is out there."

April 12, 2012

NSA Week: Thursday

While Reamde is more about cool observation than emotion, Stephenson does have some nice psychological moments. After Zula commits a morally iffy act, this follows:

"Once she’d sat down, she realized that she had sort of ducked past the mirror without looking at it, as if her own reflection were a deeply estranged frenemy with whom she could not possibly make eye contact."

Nice But. to be as great as it could be, the novel needed a few more emotional punches. The best one is when the terrorist Abdallah Jones makes his getaway in a private jet with Zula as his hostage. He is kicking back, awaiting a call from the minions who are supposed to join him. When his phone rings with their ID flashing, he's answers jubilantly, only to get an unwelcome surprise: the voice of one of Zula's new mobster friends, telling Jones that he's just killed his men and is coming for him. 

Maybe it's atavistic to want this kind of scene. It's the high literary equivalent of Bruce Willis yelling "Yippee-kai-yay, motherfucker!" But there's an emotional component to the pursuit of justice that's legitimate (and is another attraction of the mystery genre for fans). The ending of the novel is anticlimactic in the extreme. The novel is, right up through the last page, of one texture: that analytical tracking of strategy and counterstrategy. The occasional punctuation of emotion, especially toward the end, would have made it a better novel.

April 11, 2012

NSA Week: Wednesday

A friend recently re-read Moby-Dick and noted that, while it was great, some parts were as tedious as you might expect. "Suddenly," he said, "you'll find yourself reading 20 pages about whale oil." I laughed and realized that I was experiencing much the same thing with Reamde. It was fantastic, but the man likes his detail. Much of the novel is taken up with careful, leisurely descriptions of boat technology, keystrokes, shotgun architecture, and the like.

I'll admit to, about 60 percent of the way through, starting to skim these sections. But for the first half of the book, I really enjoyed them. There's a pleasure to be had in careful observation of the world when rendered by a skilled writer.

More than that, there are philosophical and literary underpinnings. Philosophically, Stephenson shows us that we are not powerless. His protagonists carom from one crisis to another, one untenable situation to another. But what makes this string of misfortunes bearable (and interesting) is that the characters never stop being actors in their destinies. When Zula is chained to a tree and surrounded by terrorists, she's always thinking:  Where am I? If I ran up that hill, what would happen? If I went downhill instead, what would happen? How far could I get before they'd realize I was gone? What are the chances someone will come along and discover us? And what are the chances that would do me any good?

Much of the detailed description in the book relates to the characters making just such calculations. They believe in the power of their owns minds. So Csongor sits down on the floor of his recently appropriated motorboat and looks at the fuel system. He doesn't know anything about boats or fuel systems, but he believes he can figure out how it works. Here's that passage:

"Marlon told Csongor about what Batu had said regarding the fuel gauge, or lack thereof, and so Csongor went down to the engine room and spent a while figuring out how the diesels worked, eventually identifying the fuel line and the pump that fed it. From this, plumbing led back through a bulkhead to a space mostly occupied by a pair of cylindrical tanks of impressive and reassuring size, each rather more than a meter in diameter and perhaps three meters long. Each had a fill pipe welded into its top. Csongor traced those up to a pair of fittings on the deck, which he guessed they would use whenever they pulled up to the nautical equivalent of a gas station. Shining his flashlight around that area, working out slowly in concentric circles, he finally found where they kept the dipstick: a piece of (inevitably) bamboo secured under the gunwale with bungee cords, ruled with felt-tip scribe marks and (to him) cryptic annotations. He called Yuxia down to help him interpret the marks, and then they opened one of the fuel fill hatches and shoved the bamboo pole down into it. Then he began pulling it out in a hand-over-hand movement, praying that he would feel cold wet diesel fuel on his palms. This did not happen, however, until the last few inches of the stick emerged. Yuxia read the nearest number marked on the pole. This meant nothing since they had no idea how quickly the diesels consumed fuel. But there was no ignoring the fact that it was the last number on the stick."

These passages work because there is a suspense to them. You feel the urgency on the characters' parts to find a way. Each section like this is a mini-thriller: you're pretty sure the hero will prevail, but how? And this relates to the literary value of these descriptions. I'm a mystery novel fan, and the appeal of the best mystery novels is the observation of a great mind at work, thinking its way through a morass of data and impressions, churning, churning. So it is here: you get the spectacle of thought, in all its glory.

April 10, 2012

NSA Week: Tuesday

The language is just extraordinary. Stephenson is one of the authors, very popular right now and rightly so, whose writing is complex, literary, and very diverse, like David Mitchell or David Foster Wallace. It draws from technology, hackers, sports, literary language, texting, agriculture, and more.  There's irony, a rejection of irony, old-fashioned flourishes, humility, a whole gamut of tones to his writing.

And because his characters are so diverse (Russian mobster, Chinese hacker, American grad student, Midwestern survivalist), he juggles not only different vocabularies and tones but different levels of knowledge of English. He has to figure out just how much English a brilliant, young, and totally untraveled gamer from a small city in China would know. Occasionally you feel Stephenson should pull back, that not every individual in the world is as smart and quick as almost all of his characters are. But this is a small price to pay for being in the presence of such continually stimulating company.

Here are some favorite lines:

On the sudden realization of danger, and the instincts that kick in:
"When this policy initiative had abruptly been made known to Richard in the middle of a barroom conversation on seemingly unrelated topics, awe and horror had struggled for supremacy in his mammalian brain as his reptilian had begun to tally all exits, conventional and un-, from the bar."

Recombinant cuisine!
"He was fascinated by the midwestern/middle American phenomenon of recombinant cuisine. Rice Krispie Treats being a prototypical example in that they were made by repurposing other foods that had already been prepared (to wit, breakfast cereal and marshmallows). And of course any recipe that called for a can of cream of mushroom soup fell into the same category. The unifying principle behind all recombinant cuisine seemed to be indifference, if not outright hostility, to the use of anything that a coastal foodie would define as an ingredient."

Shotgunned is just the right word here, relays just about the right measure of frequency:
"Peter’s loft was all of about a mile from the world headquarters of Starbucks, an organization that had shotgunned the planet with coffee bars featuring Wi-Fi."

I like fauna here:
"Much of the laughter seemed to be at the expense of American cubicle fauna who thought in PowerPoint and typed with their thumbs."

Capitalization turns it from an adjective to a noun:
"Back in Xiamen, Jones had been convinced that they would be able to fly the jet to some friendly location in Pakistan, pick up a cargo of Bad (perhaps a dirty bomb?), then turn the jet around and fly it straight to some kind of Armageddon in Las Vegas."

April 9, 2012

Neal Stephenson Appreciation Week: Monday

After months of her bullying, I finally gave into my friend Julie's admonishments and read a Neal Stephenson novel. I chose his latest, Reamde (a play on computer file name ReadMe; also on "remade," "reamed," and god knows what else).

What a writer. Reamde is about a group of individuals who get involved in, um, international intrigue . . .  Even as I'm writing it, it sounds ludicrous. Let me try again; the plot is going to sound overworked, but don't let that stop you: A young American woman, though a desperate, stupid act on the part of her boyfriend, ends up in the hands of Russian mobsters, who take her to China to help track down a hacker who has stolen their money.

So rich is this writer's talent that it's going to take a week to cover it. Tune in tomorrow.

April 6, 2012

War Memorial for Falklands/Malvinas

The Malvinas/Falklands war for the island group off of the coast of Argentina took place 30 years ago. Several newspapers have run photos of the incredible war memorial in Ushuaia, Argentina, for those who died in the in the conflict. Here's one, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:


 It's a pretty amazing sculpture: beautiful in its own right, incorporating the shapes of the islands which also mimic the look of clouds, drawing the viewer's eyes upward, and laden with sadness all at the same time.

April 5, 2012

Fiction by Women, and Women's Fiction

Great article by Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times Book Review this week on the perception of domestic fiction written by women:

Click Here to Read "The Second Shelf"

April 4, 2012

Reinhold Niebuhr

The sheik character in the movie Salmon Fishing in the Yemen had a lot to say about faith, and it was elevated from the usual "You gotta have faith!" optimism of some. It made me think of this quote by Reinhold Niebuhr, which takes the famous II Corinthians 13 verse on faith, hope, and love as its starting point:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;
therefore, we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone;
therefore, we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint;
therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

April 3, 2012

Midnight in Paris, Anytime Right Here

Yesterday's post mention of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris got me thinking about the disappearance of artistic nostalgia. Although I loved the film, it's true that the central character seemed anachronistic: a relatively young man in the present day who yearns for the salad days of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in the 1920s. But no one today yearns for 1920s Paris or any other literary epoch. Why is that?

As a teenager in the 1970s, I and my friends did nothing but yearn for another era, which is exactly why we're called Generation Jones. We sat around pissed that we had missed the 1960s: Woodstock, protests, the good music. We went out in our polyester shirts and Camaros and knew that we were a weak ripple of the great 60s tsunami.

It wasn't until the early 1990s that it really changed. Nirvana wiped the hair bands off the map, American indie film took off, and Gen Xers started moving to Prague to capitalize on the cheap living in the newly freed communist bloc countries. We went to basement art clubs in the city and midnight collective readings of Frankenstein.

But even that was nothing compared to what emerged with the Internet: a full-blown culture of citizen-artists that persists today. Everyone knows that we are in a golden age, and the best stuff isn't coming from a few professionals but from the mass collective that we are: the bloggers, the tweeters, the Hey Girl posters, the Twilight parodies filmed in your backyard, the 6-year-old singer posting from Japan, the lol cats, the grade A snark in the comments section, the Downton Abbey peeps, the parlance of gamers, the fan fic, the Cons . . . the creativity and talent that pours out of the world from every corner, every day. It's amazing.

April 2, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

We saw this at the Old Greenbelt Theatre this past weekend, and it was a treat. It fits in that genre of film like Waking Ned Devine or Saving Grace: the quirky charmer. Some might call it slight, as critics of Woody Allen's nomination for Midnight in Paris did of that movie. But a modest story can have great heart and true insight, and this one does.

My favorite part of the movie (directed by Lasse Hallstrom) was the relationship between the leads, played by Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. Ewan McGregor is one of those performers, like John Travolta or Sandra Bullock, who has an innate likability and charisma that's irresistible on screen. He plays a stodgy fisheries department bureaucrat, and Emily Blunt, who is simply one of the best actors working today, plays the smart manager of an Arab sheik's account for an upscale consulting firm. An obvious romance brews during the film, but what's unusual is the way it's handled. They meet in the beginning with that touch of contrariness which seems de rigueur in movies but which is undercut here by Emily Blunt's character's intelligence and moderation. Then, throughout the bulk of the movie, the two simply get to know each other as they work on the sheik's unusual project: to build a salmon fishing industry in Yemen. There are no great tricks, no massive misunderstandings, just two people interacting and finding themselves in tune in ways they couldn't have predicted.

My only quibble, other than a few scenes of schmaltz, is that Ewan McGregor's character totters between realism and farce in a way that puts him slightly outside the universe of Emily Blunt's straight realism. I see this not so much as bad acting on McGregor's part as a poorly resisted temptation on the director's part. McGregor is so incredibly cute and appealing in that slightly farcical mode that someone couldn't resist indulging it. You can't really complain about it because it's such a treat, but a little coherence is sacrificed in its wake.