Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Circle (Dave Eggers)

 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 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

Book #57 - The Education of Henry Adams (Henry Adams)

Pretty much four times a day for the past few months Robby Virus, the blogger, has been getting e-mails asking if he's dead already because he hasn't appeared to have read a book and blogged about it for almost five months.  "No", he usually has replied, "I'm not dead yet, I'm just stuck in the middle of "The Education of Henry Adams".  You try reading this damn book and see what it's like."  Virus enjoyed the book, for a number of reasons which he will no doubt elaborate upon soon enough, but it was slow going.  Real slow going.  Plus he went to Europe for a summer vacation, much like Henry Adams tended to do, and he found that drinking one's self silly in hipster cocktails bars in London and Paris tends to cut down on one's reading time, and in fact, tends to eliminate it altogether, at least for the duration of one's European sojourn.

"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.