Monday, September 29, 2014

The Bridges of Door County, Wisconsin

J.F. Riordan, North of the Tension Line

I accepted this novel for review because it’s set in Door County, Wisconsin. Jodi Lynn Anderson used Door County’s half-wild landscape, and the tension between its tourist economy and its year-round residents, to positive effect this year in her novel The Vanishing Season. However, where Anderson offered a complex novel with sophisticated characters and genuine conflict, Riordan offers an incomplete manuscript with no momentum and little reason to keep reading.

Semi-retired journalist Fiona Campbell has adopted Door County as her new home, and Door County has adopted her. Its languorous pace, rich characters, and mostly unspoiled landscape touch her soul. But she has car crash dreams because her life feels hectic and uncontrolled. Desperate to prove her resilience, she hastily purchases a fixer-upper on Washington Island, one of the most remote locations in the Lower 48, determined to spend an entire winter on her own.

Meanwhile, Fiona’s bestie Elisabeth decides to undertake a giddy late-summer romance with Roger, the taciturn coffee shop owner. I say giddy because Riordan has Elisabeth describe the relationship using words like “happiness” and “joy.” However, the relationship apparently includes little talking or action. He sometimes appears at her door and they sit together; this motivates Roger to undertake the domesticated nesting activities, like getting interested in decorating, that wives frequently wish their feckless husbands would undertake.

Riordan’s narrative stumbles first because it’s hard to care about these characters. Fiona complains about her unsettled, tumultuous life, but has time to visit coffee shops during the day, and spends entire days at the library. Elisabeth, a trust fund baby, runs an art gallery from her home. Together, these thirty-ish gadabouts lounge on Lake Michigan beaches, undertake shopping excursions to Chicago, and consume enough wine and scotch to trigger Brother Bill W’s alarm bells.

Door County, Wisconsin, along Lake Michigan
This entire story requires characters to act hastily, often despite reason. C’mon, houses aren’t impulse buys. People may fall in love quickly, but men don’t upend successful business models and become interested in craft fairs without having at least one conversation. Between Fiona and Elisabeth’s high life, Elisabeth and Roger’s frictionless romance, and Fiona’s low-stress adjustment to living in territory so hostile that Indians called it “Death’s Door,” this entire novel feels like Riordan’s own wish-fulfillment.

The hopscotch narrative doesn’t help. Riordan’s episodic structure gives plenty of story opportunities which she never ultimately pursues. Fiona’s brief flirtation with a handsome stranger she knows only as “Champaigne Man” could’ve offered chances to explore Fiona’s need for outside validation. Elisabeth and Roger bring out hidden traits in one another, but each discovery happens in essential isolation, never building to anything. Riordan has components for several good novels here, while offering us indistinguishable Mulligan Stew.

But investigating a strange typo (“hapcedarss”) leads me to the author’s blog, where she admits the publication arc, from acceptance through editing to general sale, happened much faster than she’d anticipated. Riordan’s publisher apparently distributed reviewer’s copies so early in the editing process, it still contains formatting errors from the author’s personal Microsoft Word file. If she’s still working with outside readers, paid editors, and others to fine-tune her text, how accurate can my copy be?

Therefore, if this feels like an incomplete draft, a novel still being written, that’s exactly what it is. I cannot attest whether my reviewer’s edition bears any resemblance to the edition you’d purchase. Any comments I make, about the shapeless picaresque story or undifferentiated dialog or romance that excludes male motivations, may be outdated before you’d buy the finished book. Beaufort Books has offered a title not only resistant to enjoyment, but immune to comment.

Fairly late, Fiona’s efforts to refurbish her house, and integrate into Washington Island’s insular community, become interesting. Though the resistance she meets remains overwhelmingly mild and salutary, we start getting a legitimate Bildungsroman as she excavates her spirit to uncover reserves of character she never knew she had. Had Riordan opened with this breakthrough process, I might’ve had more sticktoitiveness in reading. Sadly, it comes too late to rescue this novel from its silly opening chapters.

Despite everything I’ve said, Riordan’s debut novel isn’t bad. Between the fat that needs trimmed, she offers moments of touching human intimacy. Had Riordan focused on Fiona’s personal discoveries, or the non-romantic love between her two female leads, this could’ve been a decent airport novel. She just needs firm guidance to separate her finger exercises and odd cow paths from scenes that generate real heat. Without that, the product in my hands is merely lukewarm.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Torture Porn in the Boardroom

Matthew Klein, No Way Back: A Novel

Ex-addict Jimmy Thane wants to rebuild the Silicon Valley career he squandered, and South Florida’s Tao Software offers that opportunity. An eminently marketable product marred by mismanagement, Tao Software just needs Thane’s unsympathetic touch to become profitable—if he can make dwindling cash reserves last. But when cops question Thane about his missing predecessor, he realizes, Tao isn’t just suffering. It’s toxic… and contagious.

Former tech startup guru Matthew Klein brings copious hard-won business savvy to this, his second thriller. He doesn’t, however, bring much thrill. Reading this story, I couldn’t help recalling Joseph Finder’s Paranoia, which uses similar themes to much greater effect (the excellent book, not the dismal film adaptation). But Klein doesn’t create a business thriller, like finder; he writes a hard-boiled mystery, to very limited effect.

Jimmy Thane swings his hammer and busts nuts like an Elmore Leonard refugee. Seriously, exactly like a Leonard character: he uses macho swagger and telegraphic language to impose himself on others. Also to block his inner demons. He’s so focused on cracking others’ heads that he avoids using his. Therefore he never asks why Tao’s previous CEO vanished abruptly. At midday. With his car door unlocked and engine running.

Thane, our narrator, spends pages and pages discussing techniques to salvage foundering venture capital investments. So many pages that Klein evidently forgets he promised us a crime thriller. Nothing criminal happens between page 4 and page 77, then it’s only embezzlement. Klein requires longer to reach thrilling crimes than Dashiell Hammett required to write entire novels. Klein, through Thane, thinks everything involved in running business deserves included herein.

Finder’s vastly superior novel delivered complex insights, not into how business run normally, or even under exceptional circumstances; it focused on how inter-business conduct mimics Cold War espionage. He didn’t need bloody violence to twist the psychological knife. Klein, by contrast, recycles boilerplates familiar from countless postwar noir thrillers. Thus, despite its Net-age trappings, this novel feels dated, like reading somebody’s cheap Raymond Chandler knockoff in an MFA workshop.

Rather than integrating the business techniques and the crime narrative, throughout most of the book, Klein keeps them running parallel. Though we suspect the violence has foundations in the business model, they scarcely overlap. Joseph Finder made the business milieu all about duplicity, politics, and scheming. Klein just imposes an unnecessarily violent torture porn narrative onto a business exposé. The noir components never seem to integrate into the story.

Regarding women, Klein’s language is downright appalling. Through Thane, his first-person narrator, he widely characterizes women as “whores” and “dykes” without first getting to know them. Thane calls his receptionist a “loose woman” because she’s beautiful but reads the Bible at her desk. Really, that’s his criteria. Eventually, the sweeping anti-woman slurs become so all-encompassing, I cannot tell whether the ugly language represents Jimmy Thane’s opinion, or Matthew Klein’s.

One woman escapes Thane’s insults: his wife, Libby. Thane praises her persistent loyalty after he descended into alcohol, drugs, gambling, and infidelity. Even after their son drowned in the bathtub, Libby remained faithful, and Thane praises her for her loyalty—while admitting she cries herself to sleep after strikingly joyless sex. In a by-the-numbers noir thriller, I grew bored awaiting the reveal where Thane’s marital illusions come crashing down.

Klein also frustrates readers by using British orthography in an American story. I’m an Anglophile, but having such Yankee-Doodle characters write “cheque,” “centre,” and “neighbourhood” wrenched me outside the narrative. I formerly made this mistake, before my mentor pointed out that if non-British characters write thus, it draws attention to the words, away from the story. If audiences notice the orthography, it divides their attention away from the narrative.

Finally, there’s nothing South Florida about Klein’s South Florida setting. Florida has a culture so distinct that even CNN has shrugged at shocking behavior and mumbled: “Eh, that’s Florida.” Novelists like Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey have written popular, energetic thrillers utilizing Florida’s incomparable culture, but Klein’s novel could’ve been set anywhere. Positioning it in Manhattan, Houston, Santa Clara, or Singapore would’ve changed little, except the humidity Thane deplores.

This story runs so predictable, so tediously banal, that I’m convinced any MBA with my review and a dog-eared copy of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly could’ve written this book. Despite intermittent moments of shocking violence and hard-boiled suspense, the real motors in Klein’s narrative live too far apart to maintain momentum. This novel reads like a sophomore writing exercise, not a grown-up thriller from a major American publisher.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Nazis on the Knightsbridge High Street

Tony Schumacher, The Darkest Hour: A Novel

Reading Tony Schumacher’s debut novel, I couldn’t help recalling Children of Men. I mean Alfonso Cuarón’s award-winning 2006 movie, not PD James’ original 1992 novel, which has a significantly different storyline. Though Schumacher doesn’t apishly copy Cuarón, he uses the same journey form, the same rediscovery of self stifled by bureaucratic meaninglessness, that lifted Cuarón above a crowded field. Schumacher could follow suit.

Sergeant John Henry Rossett won the Victoria Cross for leading fellow soldiers valiantly out from Dunkirk. But after the Nazis occupied London, Rossett got seconded to the Office of Jewish Affairs. One routine Jewish roundup uncovers a terrified little boy behind the fireplace, awakening the soul Rossett thought murdered when a Resistance bomb killed his son. Now Rossett’s fleeing his former SS handlers, trying to offer little Jacob a future.

Like Cuarón, Schumacher prefers the journey his hero undertakes to the destination he achieves. Rossett begins as a skillful killer who, bereaved, has fallen into hollow routine. As a Jew catcher, he just follows orders—no excuse, certainly, but orders mean something different when disobedience merits on-the-spot execution. Winston Churchill called Rossett the British Lion; the Nazis’ substitute PM, Oswald Mosley, considers him a liability and an embarrassment.

But when Rossett finds himself possessing a Jewish child he cannot simply put on a train, the sense of obligation changes him. Jacob’s a kid, dammit! A Jew kid, certainly, and one whose very presence on Rossett’s arm at a parade rally nearly gets him killed. Rossett quickly learns, however, the lesson Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler also discovered, that killing Jews is easy when they’re anonymous crowds. Individuals with names are harder to kill.

In Schumacher’s world, the British Resistance divides into two camps, the Royalists and the Communists. (I’d’ve included the IRA, but Schumacher makes a persuasive argument for leaving them out.) Rossett, suddenly alienated from his SS masters, finds both Resistance camps would gladly exploit him; neither will help him survive. With a child under his protection, though, Rossett cannot simply die. Thus he rediscovers how to kill for his cause.

Parts of Schumacher’s story are shockingly violent. His Nazis, unsurprisingly, care little for individual human lives, permitting others to die for inscrutable ideological purposes. But that atmosphere of violence requires resistors and fugitives to respond likewise. Shockingly visceral torture is common on both sides, and Rossett proves an adept impromptu killer. Schumacher doesn’t prettify violence as some writers do; he also doesn’t make violence honorable or redemptive.

He does, however, make it fast. Schumacher’s narrative cracks with cinematic briskness that sweeps readers along. He makes engaging scene breaks that hasten momentum, making readers want to stick with it, and keeps philosophizing to a minimum. Besides Cuarón, Schumacher’s storytelling bespeaks influences like Scorcese, Ang Lee, and Danny Boyle. Any big-screen adaptation of this novel would virtually write itself.

I don’t make cinematic comparisons lightly. As a former journalist, Schumacher, a native Liverpudlian, writes with dense literary panache; but his short chapters, teletype dialog, and action-driven narrative read, sometimes, like a screen treatment. You decide whether that’s good. He certainly makes himself difficult to ignore. Considering the short attention spans plaguing contemporary Anglophonic culture, a novel with big-screen kinetic force may perhaps get jaded audiences to sit and read.

To his credit, Schumacher also avoids the tendency, common in writers handling Nazi themes, to moralize. His principle SS character, Koehler, succeeds because he isn’t some Brownshirt from central casting. Koehler appears affable, Anglophilic, and warm to anybody who advances his desires—which are, mainly, to survive. He cares little for Nazi ideology. But his ability to shift abruptly into full SS wrath, without breaking face, makes him truly terrifying.

Schumacher creates a world where trust is always provisional, where lies become the unofficial economic currency, and where people rediscover the will to live when they find what they’re willing to die for. Despite its historical setting, this novel touches on very real contemporary needs. Maybe today’s English-speaking world isn’t occupied by Nazis; but Schumacher’s depictions of meaningless routine and casual savagery seem mighty familiar from contemporary working-class trenches.

Let’s not kid here: I haven’t felt this excited for a British novel since JK Rowling and China Mieville first made the scene. If Schumacher’s writing is derivative, he steals only from the best. If he writes like a filmmaker, it’s a film I’d love to see. Even Schumacher’s ambiguous ending kept me reading. Because Rossett’s problems are our problems; his journey, which never truly ends, is our journey.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Trimming Schools at the STEM

Princeton University

Earlier this week, the venerable magazine US News & World Report (surviving now as a vestigial Internet ghost) published two editorials, in the classic “Point/Counterpoint” tradition. Their titles spell everything out: “STEM Graduates Can’t Find Jobs,” writes Rutgers sociologist Hal Salzman. The Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rothwell fires back with “The STEM Worker Shortage Is Real.” Congratulations, clear as mud. You sort the rest out yourself.

Of course, when I say “spell everything out,” I don’t actually mean everything. Neither author, first, bothers to define “STEM Worker.” The acronym STEM encompasses Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics—the “hard sciences” disciplines which social prognosticators insist define what modern economies need. The STEM concept arose in immigration debates, regarding whom nations should let in, but has become predominant in education policy circles today.

Jonathan Rothwell
Rothwell begins his encomium by declaring: “It should be well-accepted that the U.S. economy could use more workers with high levels of knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” One wonders who, besides Hal Salzman, doesn’t accept this. Diverse nabobs, from Barack Obama to the National Science Foundation to the Boy Scouts of America, have launched diverse pilot programs to stimulate STEM interest. Pro-STEM enthusiasm is frankly ordinary opinion anymore.

Yet Salzman and Rothwell both assert the numbers support their respective positions. Neither personally cite their respective figures, simply trusting readers to receive one assertion over another. Rothwell probably has the easier case, since he’s simply reciting claims well-known from ad campaigns driven by ExxonMobil, the Gates Foundation, the White House, and journalists like Jeffrey Selingo and Paul Tough. Given simple familiarity, Salzman probably has to make the harder sale.

But again, both claim the numbers support them—while neither cites their numbers. The unwillingness to trust American readers with simple statistics says plenty about STEM futures. Though both authors hotlink source studies, few people have time or knowledge to parse these lengthy tomes. Therefore we don’t know basics, like: what do these studies figure into their conclusions? What do they omit? We can only trust the authors’ personal veracity.

That’s why I feel squeamish about such Delphic prognostications regarding American education. Various self-proclaimed soothsayers read the numbers, proclaim what jobs your children will have available when they finish school, and urge national curriculum planners to engineer schoolroom experience appropriately. Thus they implicitly turn your children, or you, into product marketable to buyers who don’t yet exist. School thus isn’t about improving students, it’s about fabricating resources for hypothetical buyers.

This sometime teacher believes choosing one’s academic discipline based on future remuneration resembles picking one’s spouse hoping for an inheritance. Sure, your bank account will do well, but twenty years out, you’ll be stuck with a wealthy life that doesn’t nourish your soul. We’ve all known people trapped in jobs, or marriages, unsuited to their disposition. Nobody envies their pasty-faced, dispirited shuffle through somebody else’s pre-made life.

If Americans want schools to fit students for future jobs, why don’t we invest more in trade schools? Right now, though graduates holding a four-year degree or higher have greater lifetime earning potential, graduates holding Associate’s degrees and trade certificates have greater immediate earning potential. Even after receiving postgraduate degrees, STEM graduates require years to establish careers. Trained welders, by contrast, could make enough to raise a family right away.

Hal Salzman
Salzman and Rothwell aren’t arguing about tradespeople, though. They’re discussing what topics American high schools and universities should prize. While legislators reflexively trim budgets for music, language arts, and trades in American schools, they acknowledge the pressure to emphasize STEM subjects, not because they develop more rounded students or better informed citizens, but because corporate-backed job markets demand them. This reduces STEM subjects to rote memorization, mimicry, and unthinking obedience.

This completely overlooks how humans understand STEM subjects. Ancient Greeks believed music represented applied mathematics. Galileo Galilei devised his rudimentary planetary physics after his father, a lutenist, explained how music relies upon mathematical relationships. If music obeys math, Galileo reasoned, perhaps reality does, too. All contemporary science descends from music’s mathematical precepts. When physicists say “string theory,” think violins, because that’s essentially what they mean.

Maybe STEM subjects are America’s future. But the debate isn’t really about any particular discipline. As Dana Goldstein writes, we must decide what schools are for. And if we expect students to understand and internalize STEM subjects, we should restore a diverse liberal arts core, including language arts and history, to American education. Otherwise, schools merely forward raw materials to corporations, and students aren’t wrong to resent school.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why the NFL Problem Is Worse Than You Think

Ray Rice
Diverse interest groups have rushed to judgment about the recent NFL domestic abuse scandal. Besides directing personal harangues at Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, advocates have called for Commissioner Roger Goodell’s ouster, major shakeups in team ownership, and ending the NFL’s federal anti-trust exemption. But all these solutions are strictly organizational. The violence suddenly dominating sports headlines has deeper, more intractable origins, demanding bold interventionist solutions.

Football has a relatively violent history. Keeping relatively recent and high-profile, Michael Vick’s dogfighting, Plaxico Burress’ weapons possession in a nightclub, and OJ Simpson’s… ahem… charges recount a pattern of violent behavior. And while the overwhelming majority of football players are hardworking, law-abiding professionals, football’s macho berserker culture offers poorly adjusted personalities freedom to enact undesirable tendencies. Then, somehow, we expect them to compartmentalize. Cuz that works so well for soldiers.

I’ll concede personal bias here. Back in middle grades Phys-Ed, football—frequently an unregulated environment—provided certain elements an opportunity to exercise their frustration with the skinny, defenseless book nerd who frequently wrecked the grade curve. Especially after classmates discovered I could catch and run, but not throw, I became a common sacking target. Funny how often touch football progressed from “unintentional” tackles to bruise-inducing melees.

However, my issues notwithstanding, football often permits combative youths to enact violent whims with relative impunity. Considering that concussions, a common football injury, often damage the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that governs impulse control, it’s hard to specify cause and effect. However, whether football attracts violent people, or football creates violent people, it certainly rewards them. Extreme chest-thumping football rhetoric is so common, it’s become a hoary media stereotype:



Though Ray Rice’s mean left hook to his wife’s face precipitated the current debate, and his Players’ Union appeal keeps his story active, Adrian Peterson has become this controversy’s public image. Having been benched until his team, the Minnesota Vikings, got creamed last weekend, Peterson’s now nominally still active, despite having lashed his four-year-old son bloody. His head coach called Peterson’s team standing “fluid,” so who knows? Everything remains frenetic.

Peterson justifies physically disciplining his son, even whipping him until his genitals bleed, by asserting that his mother whipped him too. He insists that having been beaten in his youth offered him the personal discipline necessary for NFL success. This calculus overlooks the fact that Peterson’s father did a ten-year prison hitch for drug and financial crimes. Peterson’s half-brother was murdered in 2007. And a son he never met was beaten death by the mother’s boyfriend.

A friend of mine claimed physical discipline is okay, boasting: “My parents spanked me, and I suffer from a condition known as respect.” Okay, so she’s quoting a greying old Internet meme so what. But we’re not talking about spanking here. My father spanked me; he never beat me bloody. Such savage punishment doesn’t cause people to feel respect, or institute an awareness of consequences; it teaches children only to fear authority.

Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson arose from a culture of violence, a culture so pervasive that he doesn’t recognize how it still influences him. He’s passing that culture to his children. And the NFL, which demands its players “fight” an “enemy”, while engaging in blitz attacks, quarterback sneaks, and power runs, rewards violent thinking, provided it wins. Don’t pretend football isn’t violent. Players wear helmets, pads, and mouth guards because they risk severe injury.

However, our responses vary starkly. Ray Rice, whose statistics peaked in 2011 and whose last season was notably sluggish, was punished severely—after public outrage, not before. His career, Players’ Union actions notwithstanding, was already on the wane, and now is probably over. Adrian Peterson beat his son, too young to read, until his scrotum bled, because he hogged a video game, but he’s still winning. The NFL isn’t a moral institution; it’s a profit-generating enterprise. Cutting Rice likely won’t hurt football’s bottom line. Cutting Peterson would.

So long as audiences continue watching Sunday football, the NFL will provide financial motivations for violent players not to change. Two years ago, Americans worried themselves sick over concussions leaving players essentially brain-damaged, until we didn’t. One year ago, the 24-hour news cycle wet itself over a hazing process so extreme, it drove one player to the brink of suicide. Now it’s domestic abuse. The problems persist after news cameras go away.

If we’re truly horrified by the NFL’s domestic abuse scandal, we fans have the ability to make it stop. If it persists, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Lord of the Pings

Beth Cato, The Clockwork Dagger: A Novel

In a 2010 episode of the TV drama Castle, the title character calls steampunk “a subculture that embraces the simplicity and romance of the past, but at the same time couples it with the hope and promise and sheer super coolness of futuristic design.” Whatever. Most steampunk I’ve read deeply distrusts modernity, foregrounding a premature collision between technology and tradition. Usually, it contrasts bucolic purity with polluted, overcrowded cities.

Debut author Beth Cato commences her first novel by having her heroine, Octavia Leander, resuscitate a puppy that’s been struck by a steam carriage. Octavia is a “medician,” a healer who channels power from The Lady and hears human vital functions as music. Think the Greek healer Asclepius, filtered through an ambiguously pagan/Christian hybrid religion. This opener starkly contrasts her religious healing with the city’s scientistic agnosticism.

Fine. But as an opener, it directly heeds Blake Snyder’s ubiquitous screenwriting guide, Save the Cat!. Snyder demands our protagonists do something stupidly selfless immediately, to establish heroic credentials; he specifically recommends rescuing a small, defenseless animal. Octavia dodges traffic, squanders her limited healing herbs, and returns the puppy to a squalling child—only to discover the puppy’s probably dinner, not a pet. Her heroism, and modernity’s wickedness, established.

Blake Snyder has quickly become the bane of my existence. Having made movies and TV scripts essentially interchangeable, his influence continues bleeding into literature, especially mass-market genre fiction; he’ll probably submarine theatre next. Pretty good for a guy who died in 2009. If, like me, you’ve wondered why new novels in the genre you grew up loving have become carbon-copy indistinguishable since about 2005, blame Blake Snyder. I do.

Cato’s premiere hits all the right notes. Whether that’s good or bad, you decide. Her Perils of Pauline-ish narrative sequence advances briskly through time-tested challenges, cranking out revelations painfully familiar from similar paperback potboilers. Readers seeking cozy, low-resistance literature will find Cato reassuringly intimate. I read this book quickly, mainly around lunch breaks and bedtimes, returning easily after stopping mid-chapter, because I felt I’d read it many times before.

Orphaned during wartime, Octavia trained as a medician, and served at the front. Now she’s traveling by zeppelin to her new career, healing a pox-stricken village. But several passengers, including a dashing young steward and a clingy salesman, take unwarranted interest in Octavia’s skills. When somebody makes an attempt on her life, she realizes she’s on no ordinary journey. Octavia must heal her wounded world while fighting for her life.

The zeppelin’s confined quarters, I’ll concede, make a smart setting. Because it offers few hiding places, and is vulnerable to sabotage, every action becomes freighted with potential. But Cato does exactly what we’d expect with her setting; despite her boundless potential, she never catches us by surprise. If George RR Martin and Agatha Christie had a baby, and that baby had ambitions to be well-liked, it might resemble this book.

Characterization might help. Cato staunchly follows Ebert’s Law of Conservation of Characters: if she introduces characters by name, they’ll prove significant. If she doesn’t, they won’t. Thus a crowd of interchangeable extras and spear-carriers remain compliantly quiet. Besides one husband-and-wife duo, who primarily annoy Octavia, every named character does something plot-twisty. Cato’s Americanized attempts to phonetically spell Dickensian accents don’t help this characterization. Can anybody really say “’tis” that often?

Then Cato denies characters time to think. At 350 pages, her book is fairly moderate length, but covers only about five days, meaning action is mostly continuous. But the majority of chapters end with some jolt moment: explosions, gunfire, or character revelations. If there’s an open window, there’ll be a push; if there’s a sudden machine sound, it’ll try killing somebody. The unrelenting pace, though well intentioned, left me tired.

Throughout, Octavia preaches the evils of technology. The city’s chugging steam carriages, poverty, and irreligion contrast to her pastoralism, beauty, and faith. Characters proselytize science to Octavia, but she remains obstinately primordial. Since circumstances conspire to vindicate Octavia’s faith, her opinion presumably wins, though sequels will tell. (Beth Cato lives near Phoenix, Arizona, a city desperately dependent on cars, steel-frame construction, and imported water.)

Beth Cato crafts a debut novel you could wrap around yourself like a Snuggie, feeling comforted by its easy familiarity. Despite my criticisms, it isn’t bad. Some people want the package tour, everything pre-screened and verified safe. Cato means well; she just makes obvious choices. She doesn’t press herself, and by extension us, past the mass-media storylines we already know by heart.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

An Open Letter to My New Favorite Author

Shane Snow, Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success
Note: this commentary is a continuation of my previous review, Success on the Installment Plan.
Dear Mr. Snow:

On August 12th, 2014, shortly after I published my pre-release review of your first book, you contacted me personally. Among other things, you asked: “what [do] you think would have solved that ‘half an argument’ issue?” And: “were there chapters where you feel the ‘half an argument’ thing wasn't a problem?” Having taken a month to contemplate your questions, I think I’m finally ready to venture an answer.

Let me first thank you for your courteous, intelligently self-critical message. I’ve suffered recently from authors who think they’re owed positive reviews simply for publishing something, or accuse me of vitriolic bias for disagreeing, or aggressively attempt to squelch and silence my response. Your gentlemanly willingness to keep civil, engage in dialog with opposing viewpoints, and solicit further feedback suggests you’ll go far.

Therefore, after careful consideration, I must conclude my problem isn’t with your book specifically. That is, while your book embodies problems I’ve seen increasingly often recently, my problem is the trend upon which you ride. I’m troubled by the popularity of a secularized pseudo-Calvinist determinism that treats success and failure as foreordained, business and life circumstances as transferable, and life as free from contingency.

Essayist, businessman, and hedge fund manager Nassim Nicholas Taleb identifies three fallacies that impede our ability to analyze economic, social, and cultural movements:
  1. “The illusion of understanding,” the belief that reality is, in full, comprehensible;
  2. “The retrospective distortion,” the tendency to evaluate events afterward, seeking linear narrative and clear cause-and-effect relationships; and
  3. “The overvaluation of factual information,” the assumption that, with sufficient facts, we can preclude flukes and fortuity from all decisions.
This tripod accurately describes my problem with many business theorists’ writings, including Clayton Christensen, Seth Godin, Josh Linkner, and now you. By assuming we can retrospectively reconstruct success, and market it generically, we systemically dismiss life’s unpredictable circumstances. We treat every success as happening in a vacuum. (I have significant problems with Taleb, too. But that’s for another diatribe altogether.)

The model you utilize in writing your book essentially involves finding people you deem successful, admirable, and worthy of emulation; tracing the path they followed to arrive where they are; and urging us to do much the same. Certainly, in describing business pioneers like Elon Musk, or cultural innovators like J.J. Abrams, I cannot fault your facts. Yet in stepping outside your text, I cannot avoid noticing significant omissions.

Consider: your profiles frequently involve what your subjects reveal in direct interviews, official press biographies, and other forms of self-reporting. You never ask yourself why successful people report themselves certain ways. Smarter people than me have observed that simply being wealthy changes how people think. They write biographies to justify themselves, or propound moral principles, or sell product. Factual accuracy ranks low in their priorities.

I’ll revisit an example from my first review. Having a theatre degree myself, your Jimmy Fallon example speaks to me directly. I’m intimately familiar with performance—not just the love of engaging an audience, but the frustration of turning one’s love into one’s career. Therefore, it bothers me that you spend pages and pages and pages on Fallon (and several on Louis CK), but none whatsoever on the thousands of aspiring comedians forced to quit every year.

Examining Fallon’s success, and nobody else’s failure, creates the retrospective illusion that Fallon succeeded because he had to succeed. Numerous comedians follow his exact arc. But they didn’t play Zanies the night network scouts visited, or they died onstage the night somebody else killed, or they auditioned for SNL the day Lorne Michaels ate bad pastrami, or any of ten thousand circumstances not encompassed by Fallon’s official biography.

Because your work spells out success anecdotes in exhaustive detail, while giving only nodding recognition to failures in similar fields, it creates an illusion of false control. In your personal e-mail, you acknowledge that “business indeed is often like gambling...but that there are ways to make smarter bets, and that's through pattern recognition.” But remember the bromide, the house always wins. Your best chapters aren’t about gambling at all.

I particularly like your chapter on how Eli Pariser parlayed Upworthy.com into a competitive Web venture by co-opting techniques from listicle writers and spam merchants. My favorite bit has you describing how he floats multiple link titles to experimentally test which attracts the most clicks. But that’s almost exactly the opposite of gambling: he starts with a desired outcome, tests variables, factors for contingencies, and thinks like an engineer. Can you not see that?

Benedict Carey’s How We Learn, published the same day your book was, focuses on how people can systematically improve themselves, their careers, and their chances in real life. It’s truly possible to reduce happenstance to an acceptable level. But to do so, we must plot opportunities prospectively, not retrospectively. And we must chart our own course, not assume we can replicate something somebody else already did.

If we could genericize success and market it broadly, somebody already would have. While I don’t mind using others’ stories as inspiration or exemplar, we must resist the temptation to think we can follow somebody else’s paths to success. “Overnight successes” play from long, painful investments. You hint at the difficult parts of slow learning, Mr. Snow, but your text spotlights dramatic high points. In short, your book needs more process, less spectacle.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Success on the Installment Plan

Shane Snow, Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success

Something cracked inside me partway through reading this book. I was digging Snow’s exhortations about knowing your field, and finding efficient ways to improve yourself for maximum desirable outcome, and “working smarter and achieving more—without creating negative externalities.” Wow, externalities: Snow even knows my favorite buzzwords. I really thought this guy might be in a weight class with Malcolm Gladwell or Charles Duhigg.

Then, at almost exactly the halfway point, specifically in chapter five, something rang hollow. Snow builds a metaphor comparing business trends to surfing. Good surfing waves come in groups, called “sets,” and sometimes the first wave in the set is the best. Sometimes, though, competitive surfers know to wait for the second or third wave. There’s no scientific or measurable way of knowing which; serious competitors develop gut instinct.

Likewise, Snow writes, being first on some popular bandwagon is sometimes economically advantageous. Other times, savvy innovators know to hang back, letting someone else pay the costs of creating new markets, then slide in later to reap the reward. How to tell? There’s no true way. Either you know or you don’t, and the difference between runaway success and abysmal failure lies mainly in your ability to guesstimate the signs.

In other fields, we call this “gambling.” We excoriate bankers whose half-educated guesses on economic movements nearly imploded America’s economy in 2007. Perhaps the difference between Goldman Sachs, whose name became a veritable cussword after TARP funds prevented their abject collapse, and dubstep millionaire Skrillex, whom Snow praises, is that Skrillex won his bets. (Snow mentions, but doesn’t much explicate, economic second-wavers like Gmail and Twitter.)

I realized: Snow cherry-picks winners, and rebuilds their development arc retrospectively. He essentially predicts the past, treating various winners’ triumphs as inevitable because they won. There’s little sense of the contingencies that contribute to success. Because Snow spends little time on those who fail in the same fields, except to occasionally name-check them, we get little idea what separates Snow’s extolled successes from similar failures.

Lemme give just one example: Snow explicates Jimmy Fallon’s run up comedy’s ladder, which was fast: he went from live stand-up, to SNL, to Late Night, to the Tonight Show, and he isn’t even forty yet. Fallon enjoyed a committed mentor who refined his performance, sheared useless place-holding dates from his performance schedule, and focused on what performances would further Fallon’s goal: getting on SNL. Snow says everything exactly right.

But.

Thousands of people become stand-up comedians yearly. Most are young, starry-eyed strivers; some are second-careerists revitalizing themselves. Most will, as Snow describes of Louis CK, informally apprentice themselves to George Carlin or Bill Cosby recordings. Thirty or forty will get on SNL, and others will snag writing contracts, sitcom development deals, or HBO specials and lucrative tours. Most will give up because they get hungry. What’s the difference?

The answer defies simple formulae, but to approach it, let me use another comparison from Snow. Two YouTube users became overnight stars: Paul “Double Rainbow” Vasquez couldn’t replicate his success, while makeup artist Michelle Phan did. It takes Snow an entire chapter to reach the seemingly obvious conclusion: Phan’s content was useful. Consider who becomes YouTube stars: comedians, opinionators, educators. People who produce practical, topical, or consistently entertaining content.

Jimmy Fallon succeeded because he cultivated (and still cultivates) a roster of impersonations that play well on after-dark TV. Note that Fallon’s TV career has flourished, but his very brief cinematic career cratered. Snow never mentions Fallon’s biggest failure, the movie Taxi, which Fallon himself admitted on NPR “wasn’t supposed to be a tragedy.” Even with a committed mentor, Fallon’s success relies on his ability to avoid repeating failures.

Snow essentially collects a robust selection of anecdotes which prove his desired point, spots the similarities between them, and treats these as definitive. But note, he starts with the conclusion, and builds the reasoning retroactively. We in the logic-chopping business call this “shooting the barn,” from the metaphor of a supposed Texas sharpshooter who opened up into his barn wall, then painted a target around the largest cluster of holes.

In fairness, Snow writes well. I read cover-to-cover in two sittings. And he makes many good points, albeit mostly in isolation. The problem isn’t any one thing Snow says, but the overall pattern, which doesn’t hold together. Malcolm Gladwell incorporates counter-evidence in his reasoning, and addresses it. Snow basically considers his message so self-evident that he doesn’t bother. This book just feels like half a statement, waiting for more.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The New Neuroscience of School

Benedict Carey, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Consider all the advice your teachers, parents, tutors, and friends gave when you struggled in school. “Just concentrate.” “Eliminate distractions.” “Practice, practice, until you get it right.” “Pick a spot to do your studying.” “Get your homework done first; go out and play later.” How did those suggestions work for you? Probably as well as they did for me. Surely some scientist somewhere has researched better ways to learn.

Science journalist Benedict Carey admits early that we still don’t understand how the human brain makes new connections. The neural processes that allow our minds to process information and draw meaningful conclusions remain shrouded in mystery. But we have substantial evidence that certain practices yield significant benefits. Some results confirm what your Momma told you years ago. Others may take you by surprise.

Early researchers in learning theory made important discoveries about human mental limitations. But these discoveries circumscribed our understanding, because they focused new research on blind alleys: research on forgetting, for instance, inadvertently precluded research into positive memory. Carey’s historical panorama demonstrates how mistaken notions planted themselves in our learning expectations, and how the sea change in learning and neurology over the last generation offers massive reversals to these false boundaries.

The conventional wisdom about knuckling down, avoiding distractions, and letting one task absorb you with single-minded ferocity, Carey writes, arises not from academia, but from Puritan religious devotion. What works for prayer doesn’t necessarily work for learning. Carey describes, with surprising specificity, the educational benefits of short-segment learning, occasional diversions, and a multi-subject curriculum. He even advocates for the educational benefits of afternoon naps.

Some of these “discoveries” will surprise nobody who follows science news. Recent discoveries regarding sleep’s value in the cognitive process have gotten prime media coverage. But amid popular hysteria over social media, Carey’s discoveries about the educational value of occasional Facebook and Twitter time, and other electronic distractions, seem downright shocking. The key, Carey says, isn’t whether we use social media ever; it’s how our usage relates to other activities.

Humans learn best under conditions of stress, apparently. In my teaching days, I often tried to ease student tensions, playing the “you can do it” coach, helping students master certain skills before commencing onto others. But Carey reveals that leaving projects incomplete heightens our ability to process new information and collect evidence. Switching up practice before mastering a skill actually gives us more real-world proficiency. Softening learning’s edges helps nobody.

Carey’s discoveries blatantly upend ideas we often consider “common sense.” Imagine the common myth of the lone genius, hunched over the same desk daily, repeatedly conjugating Latin verbs until complete mastery dawns. Now discard that myth, because its two most important components, geographical fixity and single-minded repetition, are flat damn wrong. We learn best, Carey demonstrates, by varying our study locations and diversifying our practice regimes.

Similarly, concepts our parents taught us to avoid, we should actually embrace. While abandoning incomplete projects dooms them to failure, taking an afternoon away, even with important work waiting, opens our minds to new opportunities. Likewise, testing, which we usually do at the end of learning (and which we revile as Common Core polarizes parents), actually has important benefits if we test students (or ourselves) at the beginning of learning.

Despite his fondness for the newest research, Carey emphasizes how certain time-honored techniques actually foster better learning. I grew up among the final generation widely expected to memorize classic literature, like Hamlet’s soliloquies or the Gettysburg Address, so Carey’s explication of memorization hit me hard. Memorizing classic literature, or even newly composed content, forces learners to internalize, not just the words, but the mental processes which made those words possible.

Nor does Carey simply tell us what other researchers have already discovered. He situates each discovery in a context of application. He offers varying techniques by which children and their parents, professional teachers, and adult learners can utilize these discoveries. These include mental puzzles he posits, but leaves unsolved, and lessons learned during his own adult attempts to master Spanish guitar. Carey brings both content and verve to these recommendations.

Carey admits early, and repeats often, that gaps in our knowledge of human learning exceed what we actually know. So much awaits discovery; the human mind remains uncharted territory, and the narrative we’ve devised to link together what we do know will certainly get revised. Yet even incomplete, Carey’s exposé of human learning capacity will force massive, rapid re-evaluation of our prejudices, and hopefully, wider distribution of wisdom.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Abomination That Causes Re-Creation

Jonathan Holt, The Abomination: A Novel

The Adriatic Sea washes a body onto the steps of Venice’s baroque basilica of Santa Maria della Salute. Dressed in clerical robes, the clearly female corpse stirs immediate pious outrage, well before anybody explains the two bullets in her skull. Captain Kat Tapo of the Carabinieri, Italy’s military-run police force, conducting her first murder investigation, quickly discovers that this victim’s casual blasphemy may be her case’s least bizarre aspect.

As an old Oxfordian and professional adman, Jonathan Holt clearly knows how to tease readers with a mix of familiar thriller boilerplates we expect, and surprises that completely sucker-punch us. His plot runs as intricate and labyrinthine as the Venice he describes, revealing layers of crime drama, political intrigue, techno-conspiracy, relatively guy-friendly romance, and highbrow international literature. Yet his pace never flags, immersing readers in a wholly realized, terror-inducing ambience.

Newly arrived at Camp Ederle, Second Lieutenant Holly Boland (US Army) finds herself seconded to low-grade PR grunt-work. But an American journalist brings Holly a FOIA request for Ederle’s records regarding the Bosnian civil war—then promptly vanishes. When Holly’s journalist and Kat’s murder victim prove linked, these very different women discover they’re running largely overlapping investigations. Their link apparently lives in Carnivia, Venice’s intricate, illegal online doppelganger.

Daniele Barbo, last scion of one of Venice’s First Families, faces jail for refusing Italian officials access to Carnivia, his mathematically precise rendering of sloppy, organic Venice. Users worldwide utilize Carnivia’s nigh-uncrackable encryption to conduct business in absolute privacy. This makes NATO nations twitchy, but Daniele, scarred by Red Brigade guerillas during Italy’s post-War power struggles, prizes his privacy above all else. (Note, many female-sounding names are male in Italian.)

But what could the Church, Bosnia, the Mafia, and the Army share with a rogue website? Transnational bureaucracy, Italy’s notorious official corruption, and generations of willful ignorance conspire to keep old secrets buried. Officially forbidden to collaborate, Kat, Holly, and Daniele nevertheless combine to battle the forces striving to preserve callow indifference. Too bad they cannot recognize the insidious, deceptively friendly forces arrayed against them.

Holt utilizes a deft mix of real-world Venetian grandeur and Tom Clancy-ish fictional intrigue to create tension, mystery, and wonder. The Barbo family (largely silent since the Renaissance) and their palace, Ca’ Barbo (actually a tourist hotel), loom large in Holt’s Venice. The ghost-haunted island of Poveglia, Venice’s equivalent to Alcatraz, drives a massive trans-Atlantic conspiracy. This touch of reality makes Holt’s story feel immediate and literal.

Venice lies astride two very different Europes. Narrow stretches of water separate modern, tech-savvy Western Europe from the war-pitted Balkans. Venice’s trackless salt-water marshes and uninhabited islands provide smugglers, human traffickers, and other war profiteers endless opportunities to exploit this gap. Police walk a fine line: they must enforce important international laws while never discouraging their city’s necessary, lucrative tourist industry. Investigations become elaborate PR campaigns.

Our three heroes, however, feel driven by greater goals. When evidence arises that Camp Ederle, and Venice more generally, have dark, convoluted connections to Bosnia’s civil war, and NATO’s changing post-Cold War mission, our heroes undertake a mission that could implicate multiple first-world leaders in war crimes, systematic oppression, and much worse. Too bad our heroes’ actions are steered by insidious forces whose fingerprints they cannot see.

Holt’s writing incorporates the massive, multinational conspiracies and military intrigue that audiences love in conspiracy thrillers, from Umberto Eco to Dan Brown. He gives his conspiracies a distinctively British touch, however. Sometimes this exposes mild provincialism: it’s often unintentionally hilarious to see Commonwealth writers attempting to mimic American military argot. Primarily, though, Holt’s Crumbled Empire lens gives readers a distinct view on overseas adventurism, imperial grabbiness, and their corrosive consequences.

Many similar novels debut yearly; most bog down in abstruse technical details, moralistic lectures, or other insidious authorial bear traps. Holt avoids this tendency by treating situations with immersive sensory detail. From explanatory dialogs and romantic encounters to chase scenes and fistfights, Holt maintains pace with taut cinematic flair. This novel demands a big-screen adaptation by Danny Boyle, ideally starring Kate Beckinsale and Anna Torv. (Forgive my self-indulgence there.)

This novel combines the international atmospherics of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novels with the rococo intricacy of Neal Stephenson’s best technothrillers. Holt successfully balances his characters unpacking convoluted secrets with the audience’s need for forward momentum. And, though Holt utilizes familiar thriller conventions, his story never feels predictable or ordinary. Amid the mess of paperback potboilers published constantly anymore, Jonathan Holt resists obvious choices, and that’s why he wins.

Monday, September 1, 2014

American Schooling From Underneath

Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession

You’ve heard it said, the end is in the beginning. Veteran education journalist Dana Goldstein, who comes from a long line of schoolteachers, wondered at recent vitriol directed against American public schools and their teachers. The condemnation has been consistently bipartisan, and has treated teachers’ pay and benefits—already substandard for educated professionals—as excessive, as impediments to improvement. So she went back to the beginning.

Given today’s rhetorical bombast about academic decline, Goldstein’s first discovery may surprise you: Americans have never agreed about public schoolteachers. Not their role, their curriculum, their job, nothing. Goldstein traces public schooling, as we know the concept, to the 1820s, a collaboration between proto-feminist Catharine Beecher and Massachusetts legislator Horace Mann. Bizarrely enough, in Goldstein’s telling, public schools began as an apparent jobs program for unmarried women.

Beecher and Mann founded America’s first public school system for specifically moralistic purposes. Prior schools, funded by private tuition and taught by men, suffered questionable pedagogy; Goldstein reminds us of Washington Irving’s dictatorial schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane. Women were preferable as schoolteachers, Beecher and Mann insisted, because women had upright ethics, gentle natures, and abstemious tastes. Also, not coincidentally, women worked cheaply. Americans, evidently, have always resented paying schoolteachers well.

Throughout history, we’ve expected teachers to work miracles. Literally so: Goldstein quotes Education Secretary Arne Duncan saying: “An effective teacher? They walk on water.” But we’ve always wanted them to accept starvation wages, driving ambitious, upwardly mobile applicants from the field. When educated women had little option besides teaching, this caused significant friction. Feminist icon Susan B. Anthony began her activist career campaigning for living wages for her fellow schoolteachers.

But as fraught as women’s standing remains, black teachers have suffered as badly or worse. Pioneers W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington feuded mightily over what education African Americans required, though their debate concealed marked commonalities. Less obviously, history has treated black teachers poorly. School integration, which whites celebrate for incorporating black students into educational opportunities, proved downright disastrous for black teachers. Their job numbers still haven’t recovered.

Teacher’s unions have, from their formation, always been controversial. Union pioneer Maggie Haley managed to alienate the remarkably demure Susan B. Anthony by playing politics, making unstinting demands, and confronting unfairness in harsh, unrelenting terms. Some early teachers’ unions had unapologetic Communist alliances, though Stalin’s purges cooled that enthusiasm. Teacher tenure, publicly excoriated by Republicans and Democrats alike today, was invented to stop teaching jobs being distributed as patronage plums.

Political interests habitually complain about teachers’ supposed bias, most often their “liberal” tendencies. There’s something to this. People who persevere in teaching despite poor wages and community hostility, generally also have strong opinions. They’re as diverse as anyone else, but because teachers encourage political engagement, that encourages superficial liberalism. Goldstein admits, teachers lean more left than right, but generally agree that being engaged matters more than particular partisan allegiances.

Politicians, activists, parents, and others have used public schools, and schoolteachers, as political footballs and instruments of social engineering. “Parent trigger” proposals for community control, beloved by conservatives today for their union-busting potential, were first invented by the Black Power movement. This caused such outcry from conflicting forces, including teachers’ unions who wanted job security, and politicians who wanted to keep blacks quiet, that schools became sites of violence.

Moving from history into the present, Goldstein demonstrates how certain debates, already wheezy in our grandparents’ time, keep getting replayed. Teach For America, originally pitched to get elite university graduates into schoolrooms, has adopted anti-union language to retain its relevance. And the “charter school” movement has distinct union-busting motivations. Many TFA alumni who continue teaching have become outspoken critics of their own program, as teachers’ economic opportunities continue narrowing.

Only in her epilogue does Goldstein take sides. Her opinions prove distinctly mixed, but even then, her thesis remains, that our beloved controversies persist because Americans expect teachers to spin gold from air. Our legacy of treating teaching as second-class employment impedes material improvement. And our literally miraculous expectations set impossible standards which teachers will inevitably fail. Briefly, we’ll get what we’re willing to pay for.

Besides physical birth and death, school may be the only experience virtually every American shares, regardless of race, wealth, or geography. Americans expect school to combat discrimination and open economic opportunities, while preserving and expanding our people’s accumulated knowledge. And for nearly two centuries, we’ve demanded this while offering theft-level wages and open disrespect. Goldstein proves everything old is new again. Then she asks: what now?