Friday, April 22, 2016

Boobies, Peckers & Tits: One Man's Naked Perspective (by Olaf Danielson)

Olaf Danielson is currently doing a Big Year. (In birding, that's when you try to see as many birds as possible in the ABA area in one year.)  This isn't his first Big Year though -- he did one in 2013, and he saw 594 birds. The twist is, he saw them all in the nude. Boobies, Peckers & Tits (referring to the birds, of course) is his memoir of the experience.

Olaf is quite a character, and it comes through in his writing voice. His style includes lots of jokes, rambling, discursive storytelling, an over-fondness for the passive voice, and a propensity to dangle his participles. (And that's not the only thing he dangled in 2013.... oh yeah, he loves ellipses too.) It's conversational, grammatically messy, frankly in desperate need of an editor, but quite entertaining nonetheless.

Olaf is a businessman, a medical doctor, an author of fantasy novels, a fisherman, a Swede, and an enthusiastic nudist, as well as a world-class birder. So he's got stories galore, and he stuffs many of them into this book. I was also amused at how many ways he found to say that he was naked -- nude, au natural, in the buff, textile-free... the list goes on, and I enjoyed them all,

I'm following his quest this year with great interest. He is looking to break the record (which I think is something like 750 species, seen by Neil Hayward a few years ago). Like I said, Olaf saw 594 in 2013. This year we're only four months in, and he's already at 598. The birds get harder and harder and harder to see as the year goes on, but I like his chances!

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Friday, April 15, 2016

The Sellout (by Paul Beatty)

The Sellout was the winner of this year's Tournament of Books! All the discussions of it throughout the tournament completely sold me on this novel, many times over, so of course I had to read it.

Broadly, it's a satirical novel about race relations in America. The main character, known only by his nickname of Bonbon, becomes an involuntary slaveowner and then reinstitutes segregation, which turns out to have a positive impact on the black community in his Los Angeles neighborhood. And I could quote it all day long.

“Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I'd have been better off. I wouldn't have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn't have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it. Plus, I'm left-handed.” 
“I'm so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren't there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That's why black literature sucks!” 

I'm a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists. We separate the wheat from the chaff. I'm not Rudolf Hess, P. W. Botha, Capitol Records, or present-day U.S. of A. Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold on to power. I'm a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.”

I actually have a hard time figuring out how to write about this. It feels very urgent and very current. It captures Los Angeles so incredibly well. It's funny but the kind of funny that makes your heart clench. And it's especially hard to write about it as a white person -- I feel like the two white people who go to the black comedy club towards the end of the novel, when the comedian yells at them:

“What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at? . . . Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!”

Googling for that quote got me to this reviewer, who had the same experience and who actually articulates a lot of what I thought about this novel. So go there and read her very thoughtful analysis. And definitely read The Sellout.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Reread: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (by Carson McCullers)

I read this book over a decade ago and hated it. I thought the Jesus metaphor was ham-handed and I hated everyone in the book. But in the years since, I'd basically forgotten almost everything about it, and kept being reminded how much people loved and admired it. I figured it was at least worth a revisit. And so it was that it became the latest selection of my virtual book group, the League of Unreliable Narrators.

I'm happy to report I appreciated it much more the second time around! The Jesus metaphor stuff was fun to rediscover -- I realized it is not ham-handed, because of the way McCullers twists it. It's more of a critique of how humans project their own needs onto God and religion. (My reading this time: Singer is still Jesus, Antonapoulos is God, and faith is illusory but possibly valuable anyway.) Probably the best part is what McCullers dows with the resurrection/redemption coda -- in that there is no clear redemption or resurrection at all, for any of the characters. Neither is it hopeless. It just... is.

I cared far more about Mick and Dr. Copeland (and Portia) than any of the other characters. I really didn't care about Blount at all, for example. (And I kind of wish there had been three "disciples" instead of four -- I needed a Trinity to really hammer home my interpretation. You are the worst, Blount.) (Yes, that was a Hamilton reference. I can't help it.) 

An interesting side note about McCullers: she was a raging alcoholic who drank from morning until night. Puts a little spin on the fact that all her characters seem to find solace in alcohol, doesn't it?

(As for the book group discussion, which was delightful as always -- Chris made a great comparison to The Old Man and the Sea, which I also hated. Now there is a ham-handed Jesus metaphor.)

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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble (by Dan Lyons)

I got sucked into this one on the basis of this excerpt.  I lived in San Francisco during the first dot-com bubble, I have worked in "creative" environments at various ad agencies, and now I (and many of my friends) are working in tech and trying to live in the Bay Area in this current, even more insane tech bubble. So this all hits very close to home.

In this memoir, Lyons recounts his stint working at a "fun" startup named Hubspot. He's fiftysomething, pretty much everyone he works with is in their 20s and many of them are fresh out of college. They have a candy wall and rooms furnished exclusively with beanbags. It's such an extreme environment that it reads as satire, even if everything is true. And it provided fodder, no doubt, for Lyons' stint as a writer on Silicon Valley.  (I watch and really enjoy that show, but I would like to see at least one normal, geeky, tech-oriented woman on there.)

I have to say it's not actually that close to my current experience -- I work at a big, established company that sells actual products, on a team with a lot of women on it, where there is only one millennial. But I go to tech conferences, I am steeped in the culture, and everything is familiar anyway. Some of the jargon that he mocks is jargon that I read (and even use) every day. It's a funny book -- but also convincingly argues that there is a ton of money flowing in the Valley to companies who don't actually make anything, not even a profit. The bubble is going to burst. I completely agree.

So it's entertaining, familiar, and smart. Also well-written and a fast read. But Dan Lyons also comes across at various points like kind of an asshole -- his colleagues do art projects at one point and Lyons flat out says he "pretends to like them," takes pictures of them, and then mocks them in the book (and at home with his children).  He gets a paycheck for a long time after he has seemingly ceased to work -- the company even gives him a leave of absence to go write for HBO while he waits to cash in on his vested stock. And he is incredibly dismissive of everyone in their 20s -- there are a lot of snap judgments and a lot of "I am better than this" while at the same time he's drawing a (presumably) generous paycheck and hanging on for an IPO that ultimately nets him tens of thousands of dollars.  My Silicon Valley pet peeve may have something to do with this, but I also noticed that while Lyons does address issues of gender and racial diversity, he perhaps does not acknowledge his own privilege as directly as one would hope. I came away liking him, but feeling slightly guilty about it.

That said, if you're interested in startup culture or the insanity and inanity of the tech bubble, you should definitely read this. Or at least read that excerpt!

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Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Graveyard Book (by Neil Gaiman)

One of the assignments for the Read Harder Challenge this year was to read an audiobook that has won an Audie award. The Graveyard Book won three in 2015 (Distinguished Achievement in Production, Children's Titles Ages 8-12, and Multi-Voiced Performance) and as a bonus, is shorter than Double Down, the last audiobook I read, which was sixteen disks long. (This one was only seven.)

The premise of The Graveyard Book is that a family is murdered in the night for unknown reasons by a very creepy man called Jack; the youngest of the family, the little boy, wanders off by happenstance and ends up in a nearby cemetery, where he is promptly adopted by a cemetery's worth of ghosts and christened Nobody (known as Bod) Owens.

The book is episodic, and the main plotline (why did Jack kill Bod's family? why is he still after Bod?) mostly disappears in favor of a series of vignettes. Bod makes a (living) friend, tries to go to school, makes a (dead, witch) friend, becomes familiar with werewolves and ghouls and other creatures, etc. It's Harry Potter-eseque in that way. The audiobook is narrated by a cast of characters, not just one narrator doing different voices.

(A side note probably only of interest to Sherlock fans: Bod's guardian, a vampire named Silas, is voiced by someone who sounds a little bit like Benedict Cumberbatch. I enjoyed picturing Cumberbatch in the part -- Silas is described as tall, dark-haired, pale, very Cumberbatchy -- so I didn't look at the cast list, just pretended it was him. Turns out it's not him, and I completely missed that the villain of the book is narrated by Andrew Scott, who plays Moriarty.)

The narration is mostly excellent, although I did not love Derek Jacobi as the main narrator. He over-narrates (with added pauses for effect in many, many sentences) and his r's sometimes sound like w's, like Corin Redgrave in Persuasion. Small vocal issues like that can get very irritating over the course of seven disks. I recognize that he actually does do a very good job, I'm just nitpicking.

I did enjoy the story, although the main plotline is extremely thin. (The answer to "why did Jack kill the family" actually [spoilers in white, avert your eyes RSS readers] makes no sense and again is basically stolen from Harry Potter. But if he's trying to kill the boy who is the subject of this prophecy, why would he kill the rest of the family first and give the boy enough time to wander off? Makes no sense.) I also found the ghoul section interminable -- if only I'd had the print version so I could skim. But I did like getting back to Jack, finally -- the finale was really well done.

So: overall, a memorable production of a divertingly entertaining book. 

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