Monday, August 31, 2015

The Dark Side of Latin Love

Jonathan Holt, The Abduction: A Novel

An American teenager testing her limits in Venice’s salacious nightlife falls victim to kidnappers. The Carabinieri, Italy’s national police, swings into action, while American Army personnel at controversial Camp Ederle watch. But these aren’t ordinary kidnappers. While the Carabinieri fumble badly, the kidnappers begin transmitting young Mia Elston’s tortures online—tortures that look chillingly familiar to anybody who’s watched the news since 2003.

The second novel in Jonathan Holt’s Carnivia Trilogy, following last year’s The Abomination, treads similar ground while telling an altogether separate story. As before, it spotlights the collision of three worlds: Venice’s sensual nihilism, lingering Cold War repression at Ederle, and the complete shedding of limits in Carnivia, an elaborate website combining elements of Facebook, Silk Road, and Ashley Madison. Holt’s love for secrets and conspiracy continues unabated.

Following events of the previous volume, Carabinieri Captain Kat Tapo finds herself busted to menial tasks. Male colleagues leave vulgar graffiti on her stationhouse locker. Mia Elston’s kidnapping strikes Kat’s empathetic nature, yes, but it also signals an opportunity to redeem herself before the bureaucracy that’s abandoned her. So she contacts two people she believes she can trust, though she previously squandered their good graces altogether.

Lieutenant Holly Boland works the Civilian Liaison desk at Ederle, but keeps an apartment in Venice. Once Kat’s best friend, they had a bitter split, for reasons kept murky until very late. Holly believes her superiors distrust her because she gets along well with Italians, but her problems run far deeper. As Mia Elston’s kidnappers prove elusive, the Army demands Holly’s ability to straddle two cultures, but rising tensions make her situation increasingly perilous.

Jonathan Holt
Daniele Barbo, genius hacker who founded Carnivia, hates everything. Childhood trauma rendered him deeply distrustful of authority, and severe facial scars make every trip outdoors an odyssey. But as it becomes increasingly obvious that Mia’s kidnappers are using Carnivia to coordinate their increasingly brutal crimes, Daniele’s deeply buried compassion stirs; he wants to trust, but has forgotten how. He finds his loyalties torn between two absolute, irreconcilable moral codes.

This tapestry of characters and situations collides violently with the kidnappers, who clearly desire to make some ill-defined point. Mia, a dedicated survivor, begins working her captors’ ideological loyalties, unpacking what makes their barbarity tick. But her kidnappers prove only the surface of a deeper scheme. Powerful, deeply connected interests are using Mia to distract Italian and international forces from a conspiracy dating to the very beginnings of the Cold War.

Jonathan Holt loves playing in the past. Though Ederle’s presence overlooking Venice seems a lingering Cold War ghost, partly outdated now that Venice isn’t the border between NATO and WARSAW, in Holt’s telling, it retains connections to the past, built partly on abandoned Nazi foundations, and present, located centrally for airlifts from North Africa and the Middle East. In Holt’s world, the past is never really gone.

Holt tells a gripping story. While his characters face the absolute implacability of awful people doing terrible things to a defenseless girl, they must persevere through their own interior struggles. Every principal character has scars lingering from the previous novel. Each also faces stubborn rules established by their respective bureaucracies. If our protagonists hope to rescue Mia, they must first overcome their own circumstances.

That said, this novel isn’t perfect. Besides his story, Holt has a point he hopes readers remember, a point regarding how realpolitik creates a gulf between a people’s ideals and its practices. He occasionally stops the narrative to lecture readers about his message, with increasing frequency as the story progresses. If your text has a thesis statement, consider, please, whether you’d rather write nonfiction than a political thriller.

Some early readers have criticized Holt’s storytelling because he views American global involvement very dimly. Some say this story makes America the “bad guy.” I disagree: though American military leadership emerges shamefaced from Holt’s story, so does the Carabinieri, the EU, and the international justice system. Holt, a political liberal but social conservative, clearly dislikes governments broadly. That just happens to include America’s. Anti-state Republicans may find their loyalties torn.

Essentially, Holt wants to cobble a realistic political thriller from a medley of real-world and fictional elements. He mostly succeeds. If he intermittently feels compelled to remind readers how we ought to receive his message, that’s high-handed, but in light of his gripping narrative, forgivable. Because his characters and situations are undeniably engaging, and his lectures short, the story proceeds apace. Overall, the story readers come seeking, they will find.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Attack of the Politeness Police

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 56
Mick Hume, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?

Once upon a time, kings and priests censoriously decided what we citizens could say and hear. Centuries of Enlightenment philosophers, religious dissidents, and civil liberties champions struggled to expand the definition of allowable discourse, calling free speech a necessary human right. But something funny happened: once the seeming libertarians achieved cultural supremacy, they began silencing others, just as they themselves had once been silenced.

Marxist journalist Mick Hume has gotten zapped by Britain’s exceptionally restrictive libel laws, so has personal connection to the consequences of un-free speech. During the Cold War, officials silenced his semi-Soviet ideology; more recently, speech police have dinged his supposed lack of multi-culti empathy. He considers both options equally chilling, as both encourage dull, conformist thinking expressed through studiously bland and unthreatening language.

Hume considers this the diametrical opposite of freedom. We’ve become pathologically fearful to face controversial ideas, to question received truths, or kill bad beliefs with facts. This isn’t just philosophical principle to Hume; he believes we’re starving the taproot of free democratic society. "The best way to counter hatreds and ideas we despise is not to try to bury them alive,” he writes, “but to drag them out into the light of day and debate them to the bitter end."

Hume considers three common areas subject to moralistic silencing: the Internet, universities, and entertainment. Many jurisdictions have passed laws against Internet “trolling,” even though no meaningful definition of trolling exists; one person’s troll is another’s non-conformist truth-teller. University speech codes have so thoroughly stymied some campuses that today’s most important issues cannot be discussed. And attempts to silence rowdy sports crowds or insurgent comedians have created potentially dangerous pushback.

Mick Hume
Where once, the powerful and priggish tried to silence cusswords and sex to avoid rocking the boat, Anglo-American discourse has fallen into the hands of "full-time offense-takers, whose default emotional... is outrage." The motivation is almost diametrically opposite—protecting the weak rather than defending the status quo—but the effect is virtually identical. Both responses squelch debate, prevent testing and improving ideas, and encourages dimwits to think themselves martyred.

We’ve witnessed the rise of what Hume calls You-Can’t-Say-That culture, a two-pronged spear, "not only You-Can't-Say-THAT, but also YOU-Can't-Say-That." Vocal spokespersons, mostly unelected and chosen by their ability to argue stridently and write clickbait, attempt to circumscribe not only what constitutes acceptable language, but who constitutes acceptable speakers. This has, in practice, produced a narrowing of discourse that forcibly silences certain groups, while punishing True Believers for changing their minds.

But You Shouldn’t Say Damaging Or Violent Things!
Hume agrees. But he also distinguishes between words and actions. Threats of imminent, physical violence or attempts to kick-start riots aren’t speech, they’re action, and deserve treated appropriately. Jerks saying mean-spirited things aren’t acting, they’re speaking. If we silence them, their bad opinions merely fester. Better instead to rebut them publically, dragging bad arguments into the sunlight.

But People Say Hurtful Things About Minorities!
They’ve always done so; and historically, we’ve fought to ensure minorities have the opportunity to answer back. Hurt feelings, or even outright bigotry, mustn’t negate civil liberties. What more subjective criterion could possibly exist to limit speech, than one’s feelings. While actions that measurably harm minorities, like lopsided access to education or work, go unabated, verbal demonstrations of ignorance are prosecuted like violence.

But Small Offenses Now Breed Big Offenses Later!
Do you esteem humans so lowly that you believe we’re mere machines of persecution? Democratic advances always proceed against exactly that “slippery slope” fallacy. Attempts to forcibly silence bigotry often prove disastrous for progressives; as Hume writes, with ample evidence, "control-freak governments and judges will always take requests to restrict one kind of speech as an invitation to restrict another."

British himself, Hume’s examples of legal proceedings against free speech come significantly from Britain. As Hume admits, America’s First Amendment makes flatly outlawing bigoted speech difficult. But Americans readily resort to tweet-storms, shaming campaigns, and other extra-legal techniques to derail free speech. Hume even quotes Hillary Clinton promising to use unsportsmanlike techniques to silence speech she finds objectionable. “Illiberal liberals,” Hume writes.

Hume’s argument contains plenty to anger liberals and conservatives alike, as his definition of free speech excludes sacred cows. But it also contains an important warning, too. As women, gays, and minorities fought for freer speech throughout the Twentieth Century, civil discourse widened. Now, arguably, it’s narrowing again. If we don’t demand truly free speech, we may see narrowness, silencing, and repression unseen within our lifetime. Consequences will be dire.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Portmanteau's Compliant

Eytan Bayme, High Holiday Porn: A Memoir

Imagine Woody Allen did a remake of Portnoy’s Complaint. Really early Woody Allen, too, not the reflective, self-critical director of Annie Hall, but the undiscovered young playwright whose Play It Again Sam straddled the boundary between comprehension and desperation. Then trowel on extra desperation. Like really, really desperate for us to like him for hating himself. The product might, distantly, resemble this portmanteau of ethnic stereotypes and confessional self-loathing.

Humorist Eytan Bayme, who’s certainly no Dave Barry, begins his autobiography of Jewish apostasy by admitting to whining because he can’t eat trayf. His ultra-orthodox parents expect him to keep kosher during Passover, but he desperately wants donuts. Why can’t Jews eat pizza and cheeseburgers, he wonders? What makes today so special that we consider it too holy, to eat? Why celebrate holiness through self-flagellation? But Mom, I’m staaarving!

By page ten, however, Bayme discovers something more interesting than food. Right in chapter one, he expounds the six-year-old joys of provoking his brother, antagonizing his mom, and catching his grandmother betraying dietary rules in public. Then he discovers masturbation. On the dining-room floor, at Grandma’s feet, during the Seder, age six. The sheer number of events, and exhibitionistic nature, makes observant readers suspect this “memoir” will reek of exaggeration.

Sure enough, by chapter two, he confesses openly masturbating during synagogue, Talmud class, and riding in the family car. Bayme contends he unabashedly stood up and wanked himself against the desk in his grade-school classroom whenever lessons became boring. His saddle sores must’ve been impressive. Considering that, at that age, peers openly mocked me for admitting I occasionally needed to pee, I have difficulty crediting Bayme’s recollection.

Eytan Bayme
I accepted this book for review because I found Shulem Deen’s memoir earlier this year particularly moving. Deen’s description of moving into, then back out from, Hasidism’s loving but constricting embrace, summed up why religious devotion attracts true believers, before it drives the most dedicated away again. It also encapsulated my own recent faith struggles. I expected Bayme, a seasoned short-form humorist, to produce Deen’s Borscht Belt parallel.

Instead, Bayme deluges readers, from page one, with intimate confessions of raunchy naughtiness. He evidently considers his narrative rollicking, and lumps one atop another before we’ve had any opportunity to process what we’ve previously read. Hey, he confesses, I humped my brother’s stuffed animals! I stole smut catalogs from the goyisher kids! I left my temple’s most sacred ceremonies to sneak home and get myself off!

Skeptical readers just sigh.

It isn’t just Bayme’s general implausibility (again, he purports he discovered masturbation at an age when most children still have a favorite stuffed bear). It’s the lack of friction he faces. Shulem Deen faced expulsion from his community, including loss of his children, for illicitly getting a library card. Bayme’s mother discovers his pornography stash and basically says, grimly, I’m disappointed in you. She even promises not to tell Daddy.

One struggles to understand why Bayme’s struggle even matters. He rebels against strict Jewish orthodoxy before he’s too old to reasonably commit to anything. Unlike Deen, whose apostasy represents a religious coming-of-age moment, forcing him to literally leave the community of his childhood, Bayme basically kicks and screams because he feels entitled to think with his stomach, dick, and general abdomen. Because, dammit, he’s six!

Don’t misunderstand me. Bayme didn’t need to mindlessly ape Deen’s style. Each man has his unique story, which he should tell his unique way. However, Deen convinced me his struggle represented real risk. With a family, community, and people, he had something to lose. Bayme comes across like a spoiled child, not a daring insurgent. Before page fifty, I started skimming, because I’d become irretrievably bored with this self-indulgent schmuck.

And worst, Bayme isn’t even funny! One Jewish friend criticized Deen for being excessively solemn, so I won’t suggest Bayme should’ve acted more earnest and po-faced. However, his accumulation of off-color anecdotes never coalesces into a narrative, much less anything humorous. He resembles a kid shouting “Penis! Penis!” in public to make Mommy squirm. The humorless, cringe-inducing outcome is very unpleasant to read.

In my teaching days, one comp student wrote an essay praising Free Speech, peppered with cuss words and vulgar metaphors to simultaneously construct and demonstrate his argument. It was hilarious, not only because it was true, but because I never felt he wasted any words. I wish I had a copy to send Bayme, because my student said more in two sentences than Bayme says in some entire chapters.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Worshipping at the Altar of Celebrity

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 55
Tom Payne, Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity

Recent months have witnessed American popular culture consuming the characters it once elevated to mass-media stardom: Bill Cosby’s disregard for women’s autonomy. The gulf between Josh Duggar’s words and his actions. Even Al Gore, once the epitome of stuffed shirt respectability, has fallen in for blood-chilling accusations. It’s difficult to recall a time when so many vaunted personalities disclosed repugnant secrets for salacious audiences.

Have we truly produced a generation of celebrities famous for ephemera? Is our cult of fame truly unprecedented in a history of noble, upright heroes? Tom Payne thinks not. Bringing together recent puff journalism, centuries of history, and the Greco-Roman classics, Payne demonstrates that, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Our need to make celebrities, and then to tear them down, seems ingrained in human endeavor.

A Cambridge University graduate, Payne comes from a background well versed in understanding the distant past and the power classics hold over the present. As a former newspaper literary editor, he’s also accustomed to building bridges between books and their audiences. He proves himself a masterful context maker in this, his first book, establishing how trends that appear newfangled and revolutionary are actually, deep down, old hat.

Payne starts with the observation that Britney Spears' famous shaved head eerily mirrors Greek traditions of womanhood, when brides on the cusp of deflowerment offered their locks as holy sacrifice. Building on that, he finds parallels between how we treat athletes, politicians, celebrity marriages, and celebrity flameouts, and how ancients elevated demigods only to destroy them. He even finds matching Jeremiads of the decadent present written in our antique past.

Though he writes with a spirited, even coarse, voice, Payne's work is rich with philosophical weight. Anybody can approach this book, but nobody can really read it without rubbing up against discomforting concepts. Why, he wonders, do we take pleasure in seeing the mighty brought low, a trend we perpetuate with reality TV shows targeted for maximum humiliation? Is this really as different from the democratic process as we might hope?

Fame, in Payne’s figuration, isn’t mere acclaim; it entails elaborate ritual, by which we first elevate, then destroy, our idols. Watching the cold-blooded glee with which online commentators have eviscerated Jared Fogel, it’s easy to assume we’re watching a reasonable response to public wrongdoing. But if Payne’s figuration holds, we’re actually witnessing a trajectory not unlike that taken by mythic heroes, like Achilles and Cassandra: accomplishment to acclaim to sacrifice.

In Greco-Roman times, this trajectory had undeniable religious implications. Only the destruction of the truly mighty had power to appease the gods. Though some heroes brought low could return, like Odysseus, such restoration required an arduous journey through the land of the (literal or figurative) dead. Maybe that’s why audiences love comeback stories, because our celebrities, once restored, have messianic glamour we long to emulate.

Today, the fame arc isn’t necessarily religious, inasmuch as it involves no appeal to transcendence. But if, by religion, we mean the liturgical rites that bind human societies, then fame worship serves the same roles today as in classical times. Consider how we make secular saints of celebrities, Bono for instance, then methodically disparage and destroy their divinity. That structurally counts as religion with no gods.

We treat the beautiful and the good as superior, out of place in our lives. Indeed, we easily confuse beauty and virtue (he specifies Angelina Jolie, though he elides her work in the developing world, a serious oversight, I think). Then when we find out that those we have exalted have the same venial shortcomings we do, we pillory them for their weakness. What does this say about us?

I wish Payne explained some of his pop culture references better. For instance, in his desire to build trans-Atlantic appeal, he talks about both American and British culture, forgetting that they aren't wholly interchangeable. Jade Goody is one of Payne's major motifs, yet how many Americans have heard of her? Not me, certainly. Payne explains the classics thoroughly, yet I repeatedly had to Google his more current exemplars.

Still, Payne challenges us to answer hard questions: what primal impulse forces us to sacrifice the idols we have built? What perverse pleasure lets us watch systematized humiliation of our heroes, then apply for the same concourse of fame? Do we have the same primeval urges displayed at the Bacchanalia, and do we, perhaps, want to be sacrificed? Payne offers no easy answers, but implies that the questions matter most.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Full Collision Politics

We’ve heard the refrain so often now, it’s become downright boring: if anyone wants to discuss the proliferation of military-grade weapons in civilian hands, two answers effectively silence all debate. In ordinary times, defenders of the status quo whine: We have bigger issues demanding our attention. Now isn’t the time. And following mass shootings, these same defenders snivel: Don’t you dare politicize our national tragedy! Now isn’t the time.

Well, at this writing, we haven’t had a headline-grabbing mass shooting in several weeks—though, considering today’s news cycle, that claim may be outdated before you read this essay—so there’s no raw tragedy to politicize. And we’re entering an election cycle where presidential candidates from Lindsey Graham to Hillary Clinton want to foreground national security concerns. Since recurrent domestic terrorism constitutes a security concern, is now finally the time?

Americans own nearly half the world’s civilian firearms, with a saturation rate of nearly ninety percent. However, while gun quantities have increased, gun ownership rates have actually declined, signifying a hoarding tendency in ownership. CNN reports that, in a significantly deregulated weapons market, flamethrowers have become a going commodity, channeling cultural memories of Vietnam-era napalm attacks, surely not America’s proudest recollections.

This militarized civilian population travels hand-in-glove, or possibly jackboot-in-leg-iron, with city police forces armed like an occupying military. Over the last year, images of Ferguson, Missouri’s overwhelmingly white police force dispersing unarmed protesters using tanks has become dishearteningly iconic. Last week, the Oath Keepers, a military dissident group, visited Ferguson to stop “looters,” a longstanding dog-whistle term used to describe uppity African Americans.

Attitudes toward firearms have achieved the standing of legitimate moral panic. My sister, who works in order fulfillment at sporting goods giant Cabela’s, reported such a massive upsurge in orders for ninety-round drum-loader rifle magazines following the Sandy Hook school shooting that the backlog reached four months. Formerly a Second Amendment absolutist herself, my sister’s views shifted markedly: “Nobody,” she said, “is buying a ninety-round drum magazine to hunt deer.”

Members of the Oath Keepers dissident militia patrol the streets of
Ferguson, Missouri, last week in this news photo

The standoff between what libertarian journalist Radley Balko calls “the warrior cop,” and a civilian population living like beleaguered French Resistance, hasn’t made anybody happier. I seriously doubt it’s made anybody feel more secure. Though most non-white-collar crimes have fallen sharply in recent years, mass shootings have become more common in this era of gun hoarding, not less. We’ve become more likely to enact our paranoias on crowds of strangers.

Meanwhile, the cocoon of partisan media protects true believers from encountering opinions that make them uncomfortable. Conservatives have Fox News, National Review, and Breitbart to keep emotions high regarding our God-given right to own firearms, while progressives let MSNBC, Mother Jones, and Gawker remind them how awful guns really are. If this “debate” seems interminable, it’s because the participants have stopped even bothering to talk to one another.

Thus, while high-profile violence continues to proliferate, nothing actually gets done. Paid pundits whip both sides into a lather; people sign online petitions; politicians tell voters what voters already believe while sucking, lamprey-like, on the asses of their big-money donors. A complex economy of outrage peddlers convinces us we’re doing something about the problem, when we’re actually providing passive eyeball monetization for the advertisers who profit from the status quo.

Now, let’s pause and establish what we’re not discussing. No national-grade political figure I know seriously suggests mass roundups of civilian guns. Not only because such actions would be unconstitutional, but because they would be deeply impractical: there are reportedly more firearms than adult Americans in this country, and we don’t know where they all are. Any roundup would quickly become both logistically impossible and a civil liberties nightmare.

However, we have an opportunity here that currently remains largely unrecognized. The combination of relative peace, a moment of pause in headline-screaming violence, happens to coincide with the kickoff to a national election season in which several candidates, some very charismatic, intend to vie for the Presidency, and no incumbent sets the tone. Our national discourse is wide open to discuss real issues. We just have to ask the question.

We’ve received this moment serendipitously, and as citizens, we could embrace it. We could demand our leaders and would-be leaders explain how they intend to curb America’s bend toward violence, without infringing our constitutional liberties. We, the citizens, could take the initiative in defining America’s national discourse. Or we could await the next tragic collision, and the deflections that inevitably follow. Please, let’s take the more noble, more active course.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Island of Lost Empires

1001 Books to Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 54
J.M. Coetzee, Foe

In Daniel Defoe's classic novel Robinson Crusoe, the island is a boys' playhouse with no girls allowed.  Solitude is a relentless adventure. And the servant Friday is a slaveholder's pipe dream, a black man with no past who becomes European thanks to the civilizing influence of the white title character. J.M. Coetzee dares to ask: what if all these facts are wrong?

A white South African by birth and Nobel Prize-winner by effort, Coetzee (KOHT-ze-yeh) straddles both sides of imperialism’s bloody history. He receives the privilege of being white in Commonwealth societies where whiteness bestows unquestionable advantages; but he also knows, from firsthand witness, the damage this advantage inflicts upon outsiders. Coetzee addresses these issues through his heroine, Susan Barton: woman, white, British, a verifiable English Rose trapped on an island of half-wild men.

This book is divided into four parts. First, Susan is cast adrift and finds herself on the island of Robinson Cruso [sic] and Friday. The beginning is very abrupt, as it must be for the character, and it demands that you as the reader put effort into understanding what has happened and what land mines live under the unfolding events. Susan lives with Cruso for a year, always being treated as an unwanted guest, until the chance comes for her to get them back to England. Cruso dies within sight of England, in despair of his enforced return to society.

Part two is an epistolatory narrative of how Susan tries to set Friday free while also trying to persuade writer Daniel Foe to write her story. (This was Daniel Defoe's birth name, before he decided the prefix on his last name sounded more dignified and businesslike.) In part three, she finally tracks the elusive Foe down and sets about explaining to him why her story is important enough to tell as is—unsuccessfully, it seems, since he wrote her out of his final draft.

J.M. Coetzee
Part four leaves all the narrative behind to allow an unnamed first-person narrator into the ruins of the story. Who is he (she?) and what is the purpose for this intrusion? The most explicitly postmodern portion of the book, this chapter forces us to close the book with more questions than answers when we reach the final page. And this, perhaps, is Coetzee's intent with this substantially inscrutable novel.

This novel is not difficult; I read it in one evening. But then I had to go back and read it again the next evening, because of the number of questions which plagued me. This is the sort of book that leaves you unsettled just to be in the room. That's why many readers may not like it, and that's where its real magic lives.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, considered among the first novels written in prose, has had far-reaching influence. Its narrative of survival and perseverance has provided a model for “castaway” narratives for centuries, across languages and genre divisions. Social theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in envisioning his ideal education model for children, wanted to flatly forbid all fiction, except Robinson Crusoe, which he believed taught invaluable lessons in self-reliance.

However, Defoe’s tale also looks frequently appalling to post-imperial readers. Crusoe survives by wit and ingenuity, yes; he also savages his environment, revels in self-superiority, and dominates the “savage” natives. His man Friday is a colonialist’s totem, an African without a past who works cheap, loves his master, and embraces the inarguable goodness of Anglo-European civilization. All the excuses perpetrators of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade used to justify themselves, Robinson Crusoe enacts in melodrama form.

Taking on themes of imperialism, the fallacy of civilization, race and sex, and metanarrative, Coetzee’s Foe takes one of the world's most complex stories, puts it in a new and thought-provoking package, and throws it back in your face. It refuses to let you read passively; to gain from this book, you must talk to it, ask it questions, and mull over the questions it gives you. Perhaps this is why it's popular in reading groups and university courses.

This is not a simple book, not a book to read in bed, not beach reading. It is very vexing and intricate. And the very qualities that make it so much worth reading may alienate readers who like to be comforted and put to rest by art. But for readers willing to take a chance and make themselves vulnerable to a book, this is a rewarding reading experience from one of the most highly regarded writers in post-colonial English today.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Crossing a Bridge With No Far End

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 53
Gregory Frost, Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet

Leodora has a rare talent for shadow puppets in the Balinese style. The daughter of the most famous puppeteer ever, she has inherited his tools and his library of myths. Driven by a rebellious spirit and guided by her late father's manager, she is quickly building fame as she travels the world over, performing on one bridge after another.

Oh, did I mention this is a world made entirely of bridges?

My favorite part of any fantasy novel is the middle. In the center of the book, the story could go any direction; the tale is made of nothing but possibility. Beginnings are freighted with scene-setting, and ends close doors that can never open again, but middles could unfold into anything. They are the most promising part of the book.

The world of Gregory Frost's Shadowbridge is a trackless ocean, spotted with a few islands and an eternal ribbon of bridges on which people live. Every bridge has native traditions, unique culture, and puppet-play myths that let Leodora bloom into an ever-better artist. It's hard to imagine an editor who would actually approach a fantasy writer these days and ask, "Say, Gregory, would you mind making your work a little less like The Lord of the Rings?" Yet that's what this author has done with this story.

Shadowbridge establishes the characters and their relationships. Less a single novel than three novellas leading to a shared nexus, it introduces a handful of people who have been touched by gods, whose lives are no longer their own. All come from backgrounds of violence and fear, curses they desperately need to outrun. And they find themselves on Colemaigne, the bridge where Leodora's father and mother brought an angry god’s wrath upon an innocent city.

The second book commences just moments after the first, when old secrets begin coming out, and blood guilt must be paid. This volume hints that something bigger even than the story is occuring. If ancient myths and holy revelations implied that this world is built on the ruins of an older world in the last book, we get more of a hint what that looks like this time. But this is only hinted; it's not really part of the story, which moves on without ruminating on anything that doesn't advance the heart of the story.

Gregory Frost
And story is just what happens here. The characters relate to the world through narratives and folk tales. Like Chaucer and Aesop, what matters in actual events is only comprehensible in these novels according to how the characters relate to their stories.

Shadowbridge is a smart book that avoids many common fantasy pitfalls. Brief encounters reveal that this world teems with elves, fauns, and fairies, but they don't play much of a role. Magic is a force, but no one gets hung up on bearded patriarchs in pointed hats. And the gods are as doomed of characters as the humans whose lives they direct.

The characters seem to leave ruin and destruction behind, no matter what they try. Violence and abuse shift from one person's shoulders to another. Scarcely a life they enter that they don't leave shattered. But their life and art bring joy and life to their world all the same, and in the final confrontation, Leodora has the chance to make amends for her father's transgressions. The characters are neither good nor bad; they are like forces of nature.

Seasoned fantasy readers will spot the influence of Michael Swanwick, Robert E. Howard, Madeline L'Engle, and others. This world’s sacred icons bear more than a passing resemblance to the characters in The Matrix. And the relationships that inhabit the book are familiar to anybody who ever longed for a life at a slightly higher level of accomplishment.

Frost demonstrates himself a master of scene-setting. His detailed but never windy exposition fills us with a pleasing sense of wonder at his world, which is the reward many readers seek in fantasy. Lord Tophet is a complex and compelling villain whose climactic conflict lets us peel through his many layers, and Leodora's too. And Frost’s admittedly abrupt ending leaves so many possibilities open that the characters remain alive in our minds.

This pair, essentially one novel in two volumes, is not high-minded literature demanding academic study. But it is a stirring adventure that invites us on a journey in our mind. That, in the end, is what fantasy readers seek in a book. That, and a middle that justifies the beginning and the end.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Business of Psychology in the Psychology of Business

Dawna Markova & Angie McArthur, Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently

"He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god."

I repeatedly recalled this quote while reading this book. Dr. Dawna Markova, internationally recognized specialist in learning and perception styles, starts with the premise that we must interact with many diverse personality types in today’s go-go technological society. Aided by research assistant (and daughter-in-law) Angie McArthur, she commences a detailed examination of what that means for most people, particularly in the workplace.

I initially had high hopes for this book. Principal author Markova writes differently than, say, Malcolm Gladwell or Jack Hitt. Being a scholar rather than a journalist, she writes with tight, erudite focus, with emphasis on reasoning and research. And she has no pretense of journalistic dispassion: these are her discoveries, darnit, and she’ll expound them with fierce mama-bear love, never pretending to offer conflicting viewpoints or false balance. Her specificity is bracing.

Markova wants readers to cultivate what she calls Collaborative Intelligence, or CQ. This involves broad, detailed understanding of how other thinking styles work, including recognizing both their strengths and their blind spots. We already know not everybody is good at everything; from there, we must collaborate, to bundle everybody’s strengths. A poorly managed group is chaos; but a well-managed group can accomplish more than members can individually.

To achieve CQ, we must better understand ourselves. Markova begins by subdividing thought patterns into three core categories: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (hands-on) thinking. We all have all three, though to different degrees. Prioritizing this gives us six starting templates; below that, thirty-five further “thinking talents” subdivide the personality styles, which can be charted into quadrants, parsed for strengths and “shadow traits,” and partnered for ultimate strength.

Dawna Markova, Ph.D.
So far, so good. Markova more than doubles the personality categories available via the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), meaning we have increased room for individuality. This liberating latitude permits Markova’s target audience, primarily corporate middle- and upper-management professionals, to customize their relational skills to their companies. As Markova repeatedly insists, we cannot change problem personalities, only how we relate to them.

Great. However...

Around this book’s midpoint, Markova discusses thinking styles with an ambitious young CEO, a discussion spanning several chapters. The CEO expresses trepidation about interactions with his chairman, stemming from their very different personalities. Markova guides the CEO through the thinking styles, arriving at an awareness of their respective strengths and mutual blind spots. Which sounds great, but the whole time I’m thinking: why can’t they sit down and have a conversation?

This exemplifies my problem with this book. Not that it’s wrong, because I don’t believe it is; indeed, handled judiciously, I believe it could potentially thorny interactions between divergent personalities. However, used flippantly, it provides potential excuses to avoid talking with strangers, subordinates, and competitors. If we ramrod everyone into somebody’s pre-scripted identity templates, we needn’t bother getting to know their real characters and aspirations.

Markova’s CQ model, like the highly influential but scientifically sketchy MBTI, basically assumes personality types are constant. Though she acknowledges some wiggle room, there’s little concession for differences between workplace and home personalities; for personality shifts based on physical and mental health, nutrition, and sleep levels; even for personalities’ tendency to shift with age. Markova stuffs everybody into respective boxes, willy-nilly.

In myself I’ve noticed, with encroaching middle age, distinct personality shifts: increasing extroversion, openness to novelty, and adaptability. That’s largely the opposite direction most aging brains travel, but still, it reflects that personalities aren’t fixed. Though Markova repeatedly asserts that her categories are mainly guidelines, not rules, she doesn’t particularly stress that. And we’ve seen, with MBTI’s popularity, how lay psychologists turn thumbnail categories into rules.

Modern multinational corporations don’t permit employers to know every employee, admittedly. Organizations must often think in categories, painting subordinates with a broad brush, because knowing everybody is cost-prohibitive. But common sense and personal experience tell me that organizations which adopt Markova’s approach will inevitably misuse it, believing certain personality types slot cleanly into certain jobs, even when overwhelming evidence says otherwise.

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe Markova’s approach is wrong. Her techniques derive from legitimate research, both her own and others’, and trained psychologists and managers could potentially apply her approach to great profit. But as long business books often do, Markova’s keeps going after its point is proved, inadvertently revealing its own weaknesses. We’re all individuals, not categories, and deserve treated as such.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Further Adventures of James Bond, MD

Stacy Childs with David Niall Wilson, Block 10: a Novel

Former Olympic downhill skier Luke Cooper thought he’d lost everything when a globally televised wipeout shattered his body. French physician Henri de Salvo did more than heal Luke’s body; he revitalized Luke’s spirit. Now a doctor himself, Luke has returned to France to join his mentor’s charitable clinic. But de Salvo’s philanthropic façade conceals dark secrets, which powerful, connected individuals might kill to uncover… or bury. Luke finds himself in someone’s crosshairs. The first question is, whose?

Dr. Stacy Childs, MD, apparently hopes to claim similar territory to Robin Cook, American surgeon turned thriller writer. Like Cook, Childs melds cutting-edge medical research with the oldest secrets powerful men vigorously conceal. Unfortunately, like Cook, he lards an otherwise promising story with obvious personal wish fulfillment. Childs’ protagonist has such incisive medical insight, athletic accomplishment, and sexual prowess, it’s tough to avoid thinking Dr. Childs is projecting his personal aspirations through a rose-colored lens.

I knew I was in for a bad ride when a "staggeringly beautiful" but conveniently nameless woman, without asking first, undresses and sexually ravishes our protagonist before page 30. This just pages after a massive state-sponsored beating, including multiple kidney punches. That Cooper can walk, much less have sex, defies likelihood. Childs rushes so furiously to name-check standard James Bond tropes that he doesn't bother to first make sure we actually care about his character.

Dr. Stacy Childs, MD
Childs’ medical grounding has solid foundation. Almost immediately after arriving, Luke discovers that his mentor’s charitable clinic conceals a top-secret facility, almost science fictional in its technological advancement, conducting mind-bending experimental medicine, for those who can afford it. But Dr. de Salvo’s motivations aren’t entirely humanitarian. De Salvo might be skirting medical ethics in pursuing salvation. He’s certainly experimenting on human subjects. His success justifies further risk-taking, and Luke might be an experimenter, or getting experimented upon.

This pitches Luke into terrible conflicts. Though Dr. de Salvo’s motivations make him squirm, the forces arrayed against de Salvo aren’t much better. State-based thugs, criminal syndicates, and international terrorists want what this clinic produces. Some want to silence de Salvo’s discoveries; others want to steal and misuse them. And it’s impossible for Luke to identify who really deserves his trust. He’s forced to step outside the order, playing both sides against the middle, to discover the truth.

Okay, so: the raw thumbnail of Childs’ story concept sounds exciting. I wanted to like Childs’ narrative, and persevered long after his prose became discouragingly stereotyped. Like Robin Cook or Michael Palmer, his medical specificity lends his narrative a veneer of realistic, even educational, heft. But like them, Childs’ realism dresses stories that veer into extravaganzas of Dan Brown-ish implausibility. Their mysteries often spiral uncontrollably, presenting doctor heroes who are half Quincy, half Charles Bronson.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Both Cook and Palmer produced interesting thrillers grounded in pioneering medical science. Especially in their early careers, their writing combined hard science with human characters. But they quickly depleted the potential in their subjects, and wandered into the ridiculous: Cook became increasingly B-movie science fictional, while Palmer’s later novels generally featured interchangeable pistol-packin’ doctors. Childs apparently opts to skip over the early, innovative career, and race straight into late stage silliness.

It’s tough to determine whether Childs, or ghost writer David Niall Wilson, bears greater responsibility for this. This is only Childs’ second novel; Wilson has written or ghost-written several novels and short stories, heavily in the supernatural thriller genre. Perhaps the grizzled old-hand tone underlying this story represents Wilson’s professional boredom, or his impatience with Childs’ reality-based story. Either way, it’s impossible to lump culpability for this story’s well-worn texture onto only one author’s shoulders.

That says nothing about the book design itself. I’ve learned there’s a correlation between how visually pleasing a physical book is, and how aesthetically pleasing I’ll find its contents. Indie publishers which take time to design a book’s appearance generally also take time to fully edit and bolster the text. Indie publishers which send me books, like this one, with unpleasant blocky text, narrow margins, and chunky binding, generally care little for the text either.

Basically, I wanted to like this book better. I tried to like this book. But the author kept getting between me and the story, spotlighting the nakedly recycled tropes, authorial wish fulfillment, and Bruce Wayne-ish protagonist. The more I set this book down, the harder it became to pick it back up again. At some point, I realized I hadn’t read any more in three days. That, I realized, is everything you’ll need to know.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Jewish Women's Recovery Circle and Self-Flagellation Society

Lauren Fox, Days of Awe: A novel

Somewhere around page 55, our first-person narrator, Isabel Moore, chaperoning a fifth-grade nature camp, opines: “You know what it’s going to be like. The psychological warfare of the girls. The grievous bodily injuries the boys will inflict on one another.”

Wow. It’s unusual for fiction writers to state their novels’ theses so openly. I’d find the honesty refreshing, if the book wasn’t so trying.

Isabel’s life has gone haywire since her friend Josie’s death. Her limp-rag husband has moved out, their eleven-year-old daughter has become a sullen teenager, and her mother is steering her into another relationship before her first is formally over. But there’s a seeping wound at Isabel’s core, one she hasn’t yet seen clearly. If she doesn’t address it, it’ll spill over, tainting everybody and everything she loves.

Reading Lauren Fox's third novel, I practically felt the author daring me to fling the manuscript. She ramrods unpleasant characters into contrived situations, tells their stories in stilted prose, and evidently cares little for logic, sequence, or comprehensibility. Like an MFA thesis, we never stop being aware of the text as a made thing.

First, Isabel is an aggressively unpleasant person. She uses sarcasm and flippant one-liners to keep others at arm’s length and avoid taking personal psychological responsibility for anything: her relationships, her job, her life. In flashbacks to while Josie’s alive, such sarcasm makes her appear playful, but annoying. After Josie’s death, it edges into scorn and mockery. In her early forties, she sounds stuck in high-school “mean girls” mode.

Lauren Fox
This isn’t small beer. Isabel recurrently complains about the uncrossable gulf that has appeared between herself and those she loves: her husband, daughter, mother, and Josie’s widower. Yet she constantly creates and reinforces that gulf through dismissive wisecracks and contemptuous put-downs. She finds ways of communicating her superiority, earned through grief, until everyone leaves her. Then she cries at their leaving.

Second, Fox’s excessively polished prose gives the impression of aggressive workshopping and focus testing, which denies Isabel the opportunity for even one legitimate insight. We cannot even regard her as an unreliable narrator, because we cannot see her as human. Not through her slick lines which emphasize her as authorial stand-in, the dialog as precise as Hollywood script doctoring, and her metaphors redolent of ample time for revision.

The confluence of Fox’s consciously constructed writing and Isabel’s manifestly irksome character comes across in exchanges like this, with her loving but tediously passive husband:
     "''Iz,' he whispers, the nickname that sounds like an existential proclamation. 'I need you.'
     "And I laugh out loud. Who's writing your lines? Need? Need! I suck in my stomach at the sound of that word."
As this exchange undoubtedly conveys, Isabel’s every personal interaction is about establishing dominance. She doesn’t converse, she engages in word skirmishes. Through such battles, we learn quickly that Isabel completely dominates her husband, and is dominated by her mother. This revelation follows quickly upon the discovery that Isabel is Jewish and her husband isn’t. Like we couldn’t tell.

Jewish Mother stereotypes, however, vanish almost without a ripple among recovery group stereotypes, rebellious daughter stereotypes, bereavement stereotypes. The accumulating weight of familiar boilerplates makes reading difficult, because we less immerse ourselves in Fox’s story, than recognize the tropes. I wondered why this all felt so familiar. Then I realized: Fox here uses a less Y-chromosome-ish version of Ben Marcus’s playbook.

It grows difficult even to find a story. In flashback, Isabel and Josie mock a children’s TV program that lacks conflict, where things just happen. Perhaps Fox here tacitly acknowledges her low-stakes tenor. Her narrative primarily consists of scenes montaged together out of sequence. Though conflict exists, mainly of Isabel’s own making, she never persuades me anything matters, even to her.

This slippery time sense infects Isabel’s storytelling. She slips between present and past tense, not necessarily consecutively; and her grasp on “now” seems tenuous. She’ll reveal something, and its context for months or years afterward, then continue like she hasn’t just stepped outside her own storytelling: "That's what my brain felt like on the day of my best friend's funeral and for many weeks after." Sorry, what?

Lauren Fox has received generous praise from critics and fellow writers. It’s easy to see why: she writes for readers deeply immersed in words and stories, not for mainstream audiences. She happily excludes readers who lack time and experience enough for her collocution. I’m an avid reader. So if I have difficulty caring, something’s gone deeply, seriously wrong.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Sumner's One-Stop Literary Joke Shop

Melanie Sumner, How to Write a Novel: a novel

Aristotle “Aris” Thibodeau wants you to know she’s an old soul. Only 12.5 years old (and she doggedly claims that point-five), she’s already endured enough life to understand her mother’s romantic mistakes, grade college-level papers, and tell her own story. Somebody gave her a book entitled Write a Novel in Thirty Days!, and she accepts that challenge. This book, a half-joking satire of postmodern metafiction, is the result.

I can only imagine, after publishing three novels and teaching college writing for over a quarter century, Melanie Sumner has become disgusted with MFA workshop fiction. She lards this novel with in-jokes that writers and writing teachers may find hilarious. I laughed often at Aris’ knowing, winky narration. But I also wondered who Sumner really wrote this novel for. There’s a fine line between satire and being mean to up-and-coming strivers, and Sumner can’t always find it.

Aris narrates a complicated domestic drama that simultaneously echoes and mocks literary realism. Having pronounced herself engaged to a charming, conveniently absent classmate, she sets about arranging her widowed mother’s remarriage to a local handyman whose flaws Aris cannot see. Aris’ mother, whom she addresses as “Diane,” met both her late husband and her handyman at AA; Diane attends meetings so obsessively that she’s clearly traded one addiction for another.

Meanwhile, Aris’ brother Max demonstrates autistic symptoms. Aris pronounces herself Max’s co-parent, and persistently gives Diane unwanted advice. Her childlike pronouncements on romance and parenthood increasingly highlight the gulf between her viewpoint and real life, almost daring us to determine how reliable a narrator Aris actually is. Gaps add up until readers inevitably second-guess everything they’ve read. Maybe Aris wants us to doubt reading itself.

Melanie Sumner
Sumner almost dares us to pass judgment on this narrator and her book. Aris’ narration is a point-for-point mirror on textbook creative writing, and she frequently admits that things happen in her story, not because they happen, but because her how-to guide says it’s time. Sometimes this is funny; other times, it feels disrespectful, rude, and taxing, like Sumner spun a @GuyInYourMFA tweet across 300 pages.

For instance, I struggle with our viewpoint character. Does Sumner intend us to take Aris seriously, or does she see her first-person narrator as a send-up of fake literary children like Scout Finch and Holden Caulfield? Sumner lards Aris’ narration with anachronisms, weird contradictions, and signals that Aris isn’t really writing this book. Then in the willfully ironic introduction, she concedes, “I could be lying about my age.”

Sumner also digs in other literary conventions throughout. Aris’ mother adjuncts at a rural Christian college, which stifles her own creative impulses. Sumner, a tenure-track professor herself, apparently doesn’t realize how little work colleges actually permit adjuncts to do, or their pay scale. Also, adjuncts aren’t “denied tenure,” because they’re not tenure-track, and a fired Christian college adjunct probably won’t subsequently snag full professorship at Harvard.

Aris doesn’t number her chapters. She’ll just toss page breaks in irregularly, and divides “parts” according to stages on Freytag’s Pyramid: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Dènouement. Of course, these designations are ironically disconnected from what’s actually happening on paper. They just demonstrate Aris’ literary knowingness. Events happen because Aris writes them down; basically, she’s writing herself into existence.

How audiences respond to Sumner will depend on what they bring into this book with them. By daring us to judge Aris’ story, by challenging us to separate Aris’ unreliability from Sumner herself, she basically invites MFA instructors, hipsters, and literary burnouts into her circle of self-congratulation. Which isn’t entirely bad; personally, this struggling writer found this book often funny. But just as often, I found it facetiously annoying.

Sumner hit my event horizon with Charles Baxter, one of Diane’s students. Aris develops a creeping crush on Charles while reading his papers, which consist of confessing grim family secrets in playful tones. When Charles actually enters the scene, Sumner clothes him in a zoot suit, letting him demurely confess personal crimes with understated charm, while descending into increasing stereotype. The blatant digs at Iceberg Slim and Malcolm X felt mean.

Reading Sumner’s early pages, I wanted to like this story. Name-checking common MFA foibles and overused literary tropes felt cathartic, with flashes of true humor. But she just kept going. English major in-jokes and literary cynicism kept accumulating past the point of interest, and like that coffee-shop philosopher we all know, the novelty wore off pretty quickly. This is a good, funny concept, but a long, tiring novel.