Saturday, November 9, 2013
So last week I decided to finally break out of my rut and learn how to do some cooking. I am an expert at ordering take out from the Thai restaurant a block away, or finessing a pizza delivery order, but I decided that before I'm too old I should learn how to make something in the kitchen. Granted, I can slice up limes for a gin and tonic, but I figured that before I die, which could be any day now for someone as ancient as me, I should know how to prepare something a bit more sophisticated and yet still edible. So to put my plan into action, I first went down to the corner liquor store and bought a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka. I love Stoli because it's as good as any other damn vodka as far as I can tell (they all taste like nothing to me, except the cheap ones which taste like leaded gasoline), and the label looks like something designed in the old Soviet Union. The vodka of the people! Next, I went to the local produce market and bought some green and red jalapeno peppers. Returning to my kitchen, I utilized my well-honed lime-cutting skills to chop up the jalapeno peppers into strips, skillfully removing the seeds at the same time. Then I drank a bit of the Stoli...to make some room in the bottle, but more importantly as a quality control measure. With space now freed up, I put the jalapenos into the bottle and let it stand on the kitchen shelf for a week. As a result, I am now sipping on jalapeno-infused vodka as I write tonight's blog post. It's actually quite tasty...a bit spicy, but not overwhelmingly so (I think I got lucky and didn't put in too many jalapenos...I could see this drink going to a very dark place if I had overloaded on the peppers). Oddly enough it tastes much better to me if I drink it at room temperature rather than cold or on ice. When it's chilled it looses the peppery flavor and a lot of the spiciness. So I'm just drinking it at room temperature in a shot glass. Hell, I don't know why I'm not just drinking it out of the bottle. Regardless, I see my first foray into the world of culinary expertise as highly successful, which means I can kick back and rest on my laurels for awhile while drinking warm peppery vodka and waiting for the pizza delivery dude to arrive.
Yeah, so I don't usually cook, and I don't usually read contemporary fiction. But when I saw that Dave Eggers had a new novel out, I decided to branch out a bit, at least for one book. You see, Dave Eggers is a local hero out here in San Francisco. Back in the 90s he put out a magazine called "Might", a bold and daring publication that did not hesitate to run probing exposes into such topics as "Are black people cooler than white people?" He also wrote a fondly-remembered local comic strip called "Smart Feller", which most people don't remember. Then he went big time with his first book, a poignant and humble memoir entitled "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius". He started a philanthropic organization, 826 Valencia, a non-profit dedicated to helping children and young adults develop writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write (and whose physical location also features the world's only independent pirate supply store). He founded McSweeney's Publishing, all while continuing to produce new writing. Yep, he's an energetic, busy, and creative man. So when I found out he had just written a dystopian novel about the tech industry, I was intrigued. You see, living here in San Francisco these days you can't get away from the tech industry. The city, and Silicon Valley to the south, are booming with tech companies, from small startups to huge behemoths like Google and Facebook and Twitter. The money, ideas, and young programmers are pouring in from all over the world, transforming the economy and the way we live with their tweets and apps and operating systems and whatnot. You can read all about the tech industry in the Wall Street Journal and Wired, or hear about it on CNBC and Fox News, but I wanted to hear Eggers take on it. Because, well... Eggers!
Eggers's novel begins with the main character, Mae Holland, excited and nervous about getting a job at a tech company called The Circle. The Circle is pretty clearly modeled after Google, but it's like Google on Steroids, after they've taken over Facebook and Twitter. The Circle wants to digitize and process all knowledge. They have invented a system called TruYou, which has combined all the formerly separate information on the internet about individuals, like e-mail, passwords, user names, passwords, etc. Individuals now can use TrueYou for everything on the internet, but it uses their real names and identity. The Circle wants to make everyone "transparent". Everything in the world must be known, according to their philosophy. Users love it, and The Circle quickly becomes the hugest tech company ever. They come up with new technologies to place cameras everywhere, so that the whole world can watch the whole world, and everyone can watch everyone else. Mae loves working here because it's exciting and happening. She starts out answering customer inquiries, and she strives to be perfect in her job. The Circle also has a social network, and one scores points for how active one is in the network. Mae tries reaching for the top here too. Soon Mae has agreed to be part of an experiment where she wears a camera 24/7 (except when in the bathroom) so she can be "transparent" to the entire world. She becomes an ambassador for The Circle, roving about the company, explaining what she sees to her eager fans. She can check a monitor on her wrist and see exactly how many people are watching her at any particular moment. She can also read and respond to their comments in real time. It's a social network gone exponentially wild. And Mae and her followers love it!
The Circle starts to convince government officials to "go transparent" and have their every move recorded by cameras, to assure their constituents that they are above board. Mae thinks all this is awesome. Soon The Circle is contemplating running all government functions, including voting, because they can do this so much more efficiently than governments. In other words, yes it's an ominous and a creeping totalitarian system, headed up by one tech company. And here's where the novel really misses the mark, I think. Eggers makes an interesting case about how total control of knowledge can lead to bad things. But in the novel, almost everyone, with a few exceptions, is a huge fan of The Circle, and applauds their efforts. And Mae is at the forefront of this. She's definitely not the hero of the novel, but she's not a villain either. Actually, she's kind of an idiot. Even when she loses family and friends, and someone close to her dies tragically because of The Circle's monitoring of their lives, she's still unfazed and loves what The Circle is doing. I wanted to reach into the pages of the book and slap her out of it. I understand that Eggers wants to paint her as someone totally caught up in social media, and who's obsessed by approval of her viewers on the internet, but she's just too naive to be totally believable. And at the very end of the book she has a choice between stopping The Circle and not, and while Eggers seems to think that it's suspenseful to the reader to not know which she's going to choose, it's actually not because we know exactly what she's going to do. Her behavior is both not plausible and entirely too predictable to make things completely interesting.
Besides, in this world of fears about privacy on the internet, outrage over the NSA spying on our phone calls and e-mails, right-wing paranoia about the government coming and taking everyone's guns, left-wing paranoia about corporations taking over, etc., it's hard for me to imagine how people would just lie down and let The Circle monitor everyone and everything at all times and think it's the greatest thing ever. Yes, this novel makes the point that technology is enabling all of us to become a version of Big Brother. I think Eggers makes some great points about where the capabilities of tech can and will go with respect to privacy and monitoring and measuring and controlling our lives, but I think this particular scenario is way overblown, and doesn't take into account the complexities of people's thoughts and concerns about how tech invades our privacy. So while I'd call this book a fun and thought-provoking read, it's also rather maddening, somewhat sloppily plotted, and not so plausible when one really thinks about it. But if you have an evening to curl up with a fast-paced, entertaining read and some pepper-infused vodka, you could certainly do worse.
Friday, November 1, 2013
"The Education of Henry Adams" is an autobiographical book. But Virus hesitates to call it an autobiography because it's so damn quirky. First of all, Adams uses the third person throughout the book. He never refers to himself as "I". He always calls himself "Adams", as in "Then Adams went to Paris in the summer and drank himself silly in hipster cocktail bars". Pretty odd. And then there's the fact that while the book follows Adams's life from childhood to old age, he skips over a lot of important stuff, like the fact that he was married and his wife committed suicide. Ho hum, move along, nothing to see here. There's even one twenty year period that he just skips over saying nothing much happened then. And then towards the end of the book, Adams starts ranting about his "theory of history". Don't even ask Robby Virus what the basis of this theory is because he has no clue...the wording was dense, and not remotely interesting to him, and thus poor Virus's mind wandered and didn't focus, and plus he really just didn't freaking care. So that part was lost on him. When the reading got tough, Virus started spacing out until it got interesting again, which fortunately it always did.
Henry Adams was a member of the Adams family of Boston, which was really the Bush family of his day. His father Charles Adams was the US ambassador to England during the Civil War, his grandfather was John Quincy Adams (the sixth president of the US), and his great grandfather was John Adams, the second president. Not to mention Samuel Adams, who was a brewer and patriot. Yes, they were one of America's most powerful families, and even though Henry never went into politics (he was his father's secretary, then a journalist, then a history professor) he had lots of friends in powerful positions in the government. And this dude Adams was totally connected. He was friends with senators and congressman and cabinet officials, he went to the White House to hang with presidents, and he gets to meet historical figures like Giuseppe Garibaldi. He knew lots of rich, smart, and/or important people and he wasn't afraid to name drop. But those are the circles you run in when you're practically American royalty. And although he wasn't a politician, he was a historian and a journalist and an intellectual, so his commentary on the politics and progress of the mid-1800s to early 1900s is fascinating. Well, sometimes it's fascinating. Lots of times he talks about people and events that are obscure to the present day reader like poor Robby Virus, and so a lot got lost on said blogger. If he had really taken his time, and had researched the events and people mentioned in the book as he read along, Virus would no doubt have gotten way more out of the reading experience. But no, he didn't, the lazy bum, Geez.
So yes, the book is slow going as Adams talks about people that were famous 150 years ago but whom remain unknown to people like Virus, just as Miley Cyrus and Ted Cruz will be unknown to folks living in the year 2163. But while long passages in this book get really dry and dense, suddenly Adams will make a comment that's so freaking hilariously sarcastic (and often self-deprecating) that all is forgiven. Adams was really smart, and a little odd, but also funny as hell at times. Just as Virus would start to totally zone out and fall asleep from all the obscure historical references and dense prose, Adams would slap him in the face with some rhetorical flourish, and totally crack Virus up. Yo, Henry, you da man!
What really made this book interesting to Virus was that Adams really conveyed the notion that he felt he was a man that wasn't of his time. He was born in 1838 and remembers his grandfather, the sixth president (and tells a wonderful anecdote about when he had a temper tantrum as a young schoolboy, and was led wordlessly to school by his grandfather), whose own father was one of the nation's founders. This world that Adams was born into was a very different world from the later 1800s and early 1900s. Adams was a smart man, and could appreciate all the scientific progress that he saw around him...electricity, the telephone, the automobile, the discovery of previously unknown forces like radioactivity, etc...and he conveys his sense of bewilderment at how much faster and bigger and louder the world of his later years was compared to the world of his childhood. This made Virus reflect on his own lifetime, and he came to the conclusion that although much has changed since his childhood (Man on the moon! The internet! Sequencing the human genome! Twerking!) these changes don't seem quite as profound as the ones that Adams saw in his life. Adams went from a colonial world to the modern technological world, while Virus's life has spanned a technological world to a more technological world. Yeah, everyone has cell phones now, but it's not like that technology was not imagined when Virus was a child (for example, see the communicators on the original Star Trek). Poor Adams felt bewildered by it all...he bitches that his education, rooted in the classics, was more appropriate for the world that had passed than the mathematical, scientific world that had arisen in his lifetime. Yeah, but what are you gonna do?
If you want a fast moving, engaging autobiography then read Ben Franklin, or Frederick Douglass, or Booker T. Washington. But if you're willing to slog through some dense and wordy writing, and get down and dirty into some nitty gritty history of the politics and intellectual history of 19th century America, you'll find some engaging anecdotes and witty sarcasm and curious insights into the life and mind of a member of one of America's original aristocratic dynasties. To Virus, Adams really brought to life the sense of both progress and increasing chaos of the developing nineteenth century and early twentieth century. It's not a book to be taken lightly or read quickly, and to really appreciate the book it takes more work than Virus put into it (some Cliff Notes explaining the historical background and personalities would have helped immensely), but it's fascinating (at least intermittently) and worthwhile nonetheless, at least in the mind of the middle-aged, booze-addled blogger.
Thursday, June 13, 2013
What an odd book this was. And since the main character seems to drink a lot of bourbon, I decided to start this blog entry by sipping on some E.H. Taylor, Jr. Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bourbon. Now I know, "WTF is that shit?", you're asking. Well, you can read the story here. Seems like a batch of bourbon was aging in barrels stacked in a warehouse that was damaged by a tornado. The storm blew the roof off the warehouse and the barrels aged for part of the summer while exposed to the elements as the roof was repaired. This was a marketing person's wet dream come true, because they could then sell this bourbon as "tornado surviving" and build up a mystique and claim that the exposure to the elements made the bourbon ultra delicious and one-of-a-kind. Well, the bourbon is pretty damn good, and it better be for the pirce I paid, but it begs the question that if bourbon is so much better when aged partly without a roof, then why don't they make the bourbon aging warehouses with roofs that can be rolled back for part of the summer. Just asking...
Anyway, back to the book "Invisible Man", whose main character is buffeted by the tornado of racism that existed in this country during the 1930s/1940s when the novel takes place. Sorry, couldn't resist that one. But seriously, this novel is the story of a black man from the south, who gets pushed around, used, and taken advantage of by a myriad of people in the novel. Who is this man? We never know...his name is never given once during the novel, which fits in with the whole invisibility theme.
When we meet him, he's graduating from high school in a small southern town, and gives a well-received speech at his graduation. He's invited to give a reprise of his speech in front of a group of prominent white men. But when he gets to the meeting where he is to speak, he's thrown into this blindfolded free-for-all boxing match with other young black men, where they are cheered on as they pummel each other into bloody pulps. They are promised prize money in the form of gold coins, which are thrown at them in the ring. But when they reach down to grab the coins, they find the mat they're on is electrified, and so they all get terribly shocked whenever they reach down for the coins. And then when it's over, it turns out the gold coins are fake. The white men have a wonderful laugh at all this, then they have the main nameless character give his graduation speech. By this point he's bloody from the ring, and shaky from the electric shocks, but he gives his speech. They reward him with a briefcase and a college scholarship.
That last paragraph I wrote does not do the book justice...Ellison is a great writer, and this whole scene is absolutely horrifying.
And then it doesn't get any better for the poor narrator. He goes off to a negro college (clearly modeled on the Tuskeegee Institute...good thing I read Booker T. Washington's autobiography before this novel) where he does extremely well, but gets expelled after an incident with a white trustee of the university, with whom he makes a series of naive mistakes while giving him a tour of the countryside around the school, exposing him to a side of black southern culture that the black president of the college would rather the trustee have not seen (including a poor farmer who committed incest with his daughter and an all-black saloon full of mental patients on a field trip). So the narrator gets expelled and sent to New York City by the college president, who promises he can come back after working for a year. But the college president screws the kid over by making it practically impossible for him to find a job in New York by giving him sealed letters of recommendations that basically say "Don't hire this guy". So he's abused by white men and then screwed over by a black man who doesn't want to offend the white trustees. And it just doesn't stop. He gets a job, but is screwed over and seriously injured by an older black worker who thinks he might be involved in a labor union. He is sent to the company infirmary where a doctor gives him experimental electroshock therapy. Then he joins a group called The Brotherhood, a political organization with both whites and black members who are working together to build a better, classless society. Their political ideology is clearly modeled on communism, and they call one another, both black and white, "brother". But in the end it turns out that The Brotherhood doesn't care about the plight of the blacks in Harlem, and sells them out for their own agenda. On and on it goes. The novels ends with the narrator hiding away in a basement, living invisibly among whites, but planning to re-emerge into society, and to lose his invisibility.
It's an odd book. When I read the prologue, I got worried because while it's very poetic it's also hard to follow just what the hell is going on. But then the book gets into a groove and was a great read. Nonetheless, Ellison's writing style is way more poetic and laden with symbolism than, say Richard Wright's Native Son. In fact, it almost seems like everything in this novel is symbolic, and has more meaning than what is on the surface. An old metal chain link from a slave's leg irons, the idea of invisibility, a paper doll...once you start noticing these things, the reader realizes that so much that happens or is described in the book is symbolic or representative of something else. Many, many books use symbolism, but this one takes it to a whole different level. It's an odd style.
Parts of the book feel quite dated. The whole thread plot with The Brotherhood is clearly meant to represent communist organizations which were prevalent in the 1940s, but which are long gone today. And this takes up about half the book, so clearly it was very important to Ellison. Apparently he was a communist for awhile but became disillusioned with the movement, and this clearly shows Nowadays, a group like this seems antiquated. And society's attitudes towards race have certainly changed incredibly in the last 70 years. After all, in this era of a black president we've clearly moved into a post-racism era. Ha ha, just kidding.
Yet despite the sometimes dated feeling of this book, it holds timeless universal truths as well. The concept of the Invisible Man, for instance. How many people are ignored by society, in general and on a day-to-day basis, because their skin is a different color, or because they don't have enough money, or because they don't fit into society's idea of what a "successful" person should look like or act like? This book may specifically be about a black man living through racism in the 20th century, but it's also about a broader aspect of the human condition. In today's political parlance some might say it's about the 99% who are invisible compared to the 1% who have their hands on the wheel of the world. There will always be oppression and there will always be oppressors and the oppressed, and for that reason this book can transcend the specific time and place it describes and speak to universal truths. That's the genius of Ralph Ellison's book, and that's the reason why it remains a classic today. It may be the great African-American novel but it's also a great novel.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
"The Things They Carried" is a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War. Like "Winesburg, Ohio" the stories are related in that the same characters appear again and again. Here the stories are all about one company of soldiers in Vietnam, including a soldier named Tim O'Brien. In fact, the author blurs the line between fiction and reality in this book, as the characters and incidents are based on the author's experience fighting in the Vietnam War. Part of the point of the book is the blurring of what really happened and what is fiction. The author says at one point that it's his right as an author to change the facts to make the story more real. In order to convey to someone who wasn't there the true experience of Vietnam, he alters the facts to make the story pack more of a punch, to make it more visceral. Because when he describes lying in a field of mud and shit (literally, the field was used as an outhouse by the locals), and mortar fire is raining down all around, and his best buddy dies in front of him because he sinks into the mud and shit and subsequently drowns, it's a horrifying and gripping story for softies like me who are reading the book while lying on the couch sipping on a glass of 21 year-old rye whiskey and have never been under mortar fire, let alone enemy fire of any kind, unless you count being jostled while trying to get a place at the bar. But also, I could imagine that war, and especially this war where everyone is drafted and doesn't want to be there, is a very surreal experience...almost as if the real experience already blurs the line between fiction and reality.
The stories in this book cover the gamut of the war experience...contemplating fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft but ultimately going to war for no other reason than to save face, looking into the eyes of someone you've just killed and wondering who they were and what their life was like, watching your friends die in horrific ways, getting dumped by your girlfriend while at war, going back home and not having anyone understand how empty and alone you now feel. But as I said, this book also deals with questions of what it means to tell these stories, of how the storyteller can viscerally impact the reader of these stories to make it more like actually experiencing them, but also how the experiences themselves sometimes make it hard to differentiate between fiction and reality. And some of these stories are told from multiple points of views, and the stories are different from each point of view...sort of Rashomon-esque. And it's all very meta, because O'Brien will often question his role as a writer, and his reliability as a narrator, making it harder to tell what's fiction, what's reality, and what's just him fucking with you. It's an odd book, but a gripping one. And it was a quick read...I plowed through it in a few days, unlike "Middlemarch" which probably no one has ever "plowed through", nor should they. Along with Michael Herr's "Dispatches" it's probably the best book I've read about the Vietnam War. So if you too have just read "Middlemarch" and want a change of pace, or if you just want to read a poignant modern American classic, this book fits the bill nicely.
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Two weeks ago I finished George Eliot's "Middlemarch". And for the first time since I started this blog, I've had serious writer's block. Whiskey didn't help, martinis didn't help (although they were made with Plymouth Gin and they were delicious!), and even copious, ice-cold bottles of the new California Lager from the Anchor Steam Brewery here in San Francisco didn't help, despite it's being one of the best new beers I've had in a long, long time. I thought I might try finding the necessary inspiration by calling up Chloe Sevigny and seeing if she'd want to drive down the California coast with me in a rented 1968 Porsche convertible, but then I thought that would take me even further from my goal of blogging about "Middlemarch". No, I needed to buck up, man up, saddle up, and sit down and write this damn thing. So I made a cup of Four Barrel coffee, sat down, and stared at the flickering computer screen until I started typing this out. But you'll notice I still haven't talked about "Middlemarch". Damn it!
OK, so why is this so difficult? Maybe it's because this book has left me stunned. Reading it reminded me of when I listen to the piano playing of Teddy Wilson and I think "Oh. So that's what genius is. I will never be 1/10 that good at anything. I think I'm going to lie on my couch, have a few California Lagers, and watch old reruns of "Knight Rider"".
This book is a work of genius. Reading the sentences is like eating a stick of butter...you can't go very fast because it's so rich and thick. Saying her characters are nuanced is as nuanced as turning off your Kindle by taking a sledgehammer to it. I mean, her characters are so complex, and so real. Her writing is like reading a 19th century version of a Hi-Def 3D movie.
But enough metaphors and similes. "Middlemarch" is the story of the inhabitants of the small English village of Middlemarch in the early 1800s, around the time of the Reform Act of 1832. England was beginning to modernize as the industrial revolution took hold and the railroads started to link the country together. It was a time of great change. The novel focuses largely, but not entirely, on the story of two couples. Dorthea Brooke is a beautiful, young, smart idealist who marries a much older man, Edward Casaubon, who Dorthea thinks is a brilliant intellectual, but who turns out to be not so brilliant and kind of an asshole. And "kind of" is being generous. The guy is old and cranky and insecure and now has a beautiful young wife and he can't deal with it so well. And then there's Tertius Lydgate...a young, intellectual, ambitious doctor who marries the stunningly beautiful Rosamond Vincy, who has expensive tastes and cares nothing for her husband's ambitions unless they will help him make more money in order to support her in the manner to which she'd like to become accustomed. Tertius is a bit naive and Rosamond is more than a bit manipulative, much to Tertius's detriment. Neither marriage goes particularly well, to say the least. And the ironic thing is that Tertius and Dorthea would probably make a decent couple...they're both ambitious in a sense of wanting to do great work in order to help society. But they never get together, and their paths don't really cross as much as we expect when the novel begins.
Hey, that was pretty good, right...I mean, I actually wrote an entire paragraph about "Middlemarch" without getting writer's block and thus resorting to stupid techniques like breaking the chain of thought just so I could go all "meta" and start ranting about writer's block. Oh wait. Crap...maybe this is what happens as middle age progresses slowly towards senility. Maybe my blog posts, as infrequent as they have now become, are just going to get more and more rambling and crotchety, like they were written by some old guy who's totally past his prime and yet still dreams about Chloe Sevigny like he's some damn teenager or something. Did George Eliot ever get writer's block? Probably not. She probably hammered out "Middlemarch" in a week or two, then traveled to the south of France where she hung out on the beach and drank strawberry daiquiris while waiting for the royalty checks to come rolling in.
I think the daunting thing about writing about this book is that it's so good and so rich...I can imagine reading this book ten times and getting more and more out of it each time. The book is not just the story of the two couples and their unhappy marriages. For one thing, the book is about the whole town of Middlemarch. There are many other characters, each one fully drawn and fully human, whose lives impact the principles, and who have stories of their own. In fact it seems to me that a big part of the book is about how the society we live in affects our lives...how social customs, the people around us, and what others think about us, is as important to our characters as our own characters are. The marriages in this novel turn out the way they do not just because of the temperaments of the individuals in the marriages but to the social pressures and conditions in which they live.
I was also struck by how George Eliot is not Jane Austen. With the latter, the novel would have had a happy ending and everyone's problems would be solved when they finally got married to the right people. Eliot's novel does not end happily. Well, it doesn't end unhappily either, really. In the end, people just sort of muddle through. Dorthea is able to move on from her marriage to Casaubon (spoiler alert: he dies, she falls for someone else, complications ensue (lots of them), they finally get together) but she never able to change society and contribute to the betterment of mankind nearly as much as her desire and abilities for this would allow. Fuck, that sounds like my life. We all have high hopes and in the end 99.999% of us fail to meet our own expectations. The idealism of youth slams into the brick wall of the reality of life. Our situations and failings impede the realization of what our talents and desires might have added up to. We muddle through. And poor Tertius stays married to Rosamond, never very happily, and (spoiler alert!) instead of curing typhus and making huge advancements in the science of medicine he ends up working in a resort where he helps cure rich people of their gout. The lives people live in "Middlemarch", like the lives we live in San Francisco, or Akron, or London, or wherever we're living, never get as far or are as happy as we imagine when we're young and innocent and ambitious. As those great philosophers They Might Be Giants wrote: "Everyone dies frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful".
This is a beautiful, brilliant, complex book, as rich as anything I have read. It's not a quick and easy read, just as this has not been a quick and easy post to write, but if you love literature and writing and humanity then it's well worth the effort.
Woah, did I really finish? Meh...kind of a lame review but fuck it, it's whiskey time. This review is not what my ambitions and expectations were at the beginning, but whatever...time for a shot of whiskey, a few California Lagers, and a few episodes of season 2 of "Knight Rider"!