28 December 2010

Weekly Book Review: "The Yiddish Policeman's Union", "The Stars My Destination", "The Postman", "Breakfast at Tiffany's", "The Last Lecture", "The Game", and "Technology: a World History"

This is the first of what will be a series of book reviews, written every week or two.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon

The label "science fiction" is a scary one, because genre fiction is frequently held in faint sort of contempt by some of the literati. Calling something a "romance" or "sci-fi" or "fantasy" leads to stereotyping as bodice-ripper, space opera, or holy-crap-look-some-pretty-dragons. So don't be scared when I say Union is science fiction, because it's also a heavy hitter in the general literature department.

Union follows Chabon's previous smash hit, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Kavalier and Clay is a hard book to follow. It told the story of two friends during the Golden Age of comic books, and managed to sound both genuinely appreciative of the genre without losing sight of the world outside. It was involving and interesting and funny and sad, and it rightfully put Chabon in the top ranks of modern authors. The Yiddish Policeman's Union should assure that he remains there.

Union takes place in a slightly alternate version of the present; in this version, the Jewish peoples of Europe were given sanctuary in Alaska before World War 2. But the sixty-year grant of sanctuary for the millions of Jews who have lived in the Yiddish-dominated city of Sitka is going to end soon, leaving them with an uncertain fate and threatening yet another diaspora. In this precarious situation, an alcoholic detective tries to solve a murder mystery that's stocked with chess grandmasters, Orthodox gangsters, and some pretty nasty intrigue.

In its best moments, Union mixes the feel of a hardboiled detective novel (think Chandler) and an obvious glee in extrapolating an ancient Yiddish culture into the present day. Chabon is a disciplined writer, though, and he never sinks into self-indulgence by trying to be absurd for absurdities' sake. It's easy to follow the story and we're drawn in - rather than held back - by the clever use of his setting. I highly recommend this one.

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester

It was almost funny to follow Chabon's taut and serious effort with this sloppy piece of work by Bester. It falls prey to the cardinal sins of science fiction, immediately and fatally: it is much more in love with the weirdness of its future than with anything going on in the book. It's a widely-read landmark of the genre, and that's a sad thing to say.

Set in the distant days of the twenty-fifth century, Stars is essentially a revenge tale. A madman on a boat is wronged, and never forgets it. The Count of Monte Cristo provides the spine of the plot, crammed into the shapeless flab. All the rest of the book is just a crass exercise in Bester's thought experiments.

In the world of the book, people can teleport at will. There are rules for the process (not through space, have to be able to visualize your destination, etc.) but I won't go into them, because I'd have to write a whole book about them... which is exactly what Bester did. The idea of people being able to teleport raises a lot of questions, after all: How do they stop robbers? How do they imprison people? A good book would have answered these questions while telling you a story. Instead, the storyline Bester gives us seems like an obvious excuse.

It's not that nothing happens to the protagonist: he kills and rapes and flits around in an unlikable manner. But we never care about him, because he acts in an irrational manner that's clumsily justified by a badly-written madness. He has the madness of wildly rolling eyes and sudden shouting, and it's boring to read.

It's not that clumsily-written books about ideas can't be amazing. Kurt Vonnegut has made a career on his beautiful ideas. But Vonnegut's books go somewhere and say something. Bester's book goes nowhere and says nothing: it's a guy running in a circle shouting about the economic implications of teleportation. Skip it.

The Postman, David Brin

Concluding my brief jaunt into science fiction, The Postman is the basis for the terrible Kevin Costner movie of the same name. I'm not sure I'd recommend either, but if you get into one, make sure you pick up the other. They complement each other in a strange way.

In The Postman, a series of disasters (nuclear war, bioterror, domestic terrorists) have reduced America to a feudal society. People scrabble to survive in small isolated settlements, while groups of bandits prey on travelers and the unwary. Caught in a bind, an itinerant con-man (with a heart of gold) decides to start pretending to be an emissary of an imagined "Restored United States" as a postman. His ruse snowballs until eventually he wholeheartedly commits to it, but at the same time he clashes with a cartoonish bandit chief. There are no surprises in this book.

The grim pragmatist starts off making a lot of "smart" decisions, but eventually lurches into idealistic heroism while chiding himself for being "stupid". It's a well-worn and much-loved shtick, and David Brin does it well.

It'd just be another mediocre sci-fi thing if it weren't for the movie, which took some elements and sketched them into a whole different thing. The skein of broader themes that threads through the latter portion - a nation restored, a way of life revived - is caught up and woven much fuller in the film. Maybe this is a factor of the transition between the two media, but I actually think someone else, a screenwriter laboring somewhere, saw a larger story moving behind Brin's book. They saw it and tried to grab it, even if they failed. When you read the book, sometimes you can see it, too.

But mostly they're just mediocre. Neither the movie or this book are any great shakes, but they suffice to pass a few quiet hours.

Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote.

A book about a girl who hides from life, Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's was tamed and adapted into a wonderful film. The difference between the film and this book is an interesting one. The film is a little more obvious in the parallels between the narrator and his flighty neighbor, Holly Golightly, but it also expresses with greater feeling the cowardice of Holly's nature: she is always running away from real affection, using idealism and dreams as an excuse rather than a goal. Perhaps the perfection of Holly is thanks to the performance of Audrey Hepburn, whose careless smile and stormy scowl matched the tone so well.

The book is bigger in many ways, roaring out with a verve that's tamed in the film: the vice of Holly's seedy "trips to the powder room", the sad infatuation of little men, and the splashy events at the conclusion are all more vivid in Capote's book. It's good, and well worth a read.

The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch

Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch was diagnosed with terminal cancer. But, unwilling to give in to despair, he went on to deliver a lecture that captured the world, about how to really achieve your childhood dreams. You've probably seen it; if not, watch it.

Well, after the runaway success of the lecture in 2007, Pausch had enough time to write a book on the same theme before his expiration the next year. He dictated it as he was doing the exercises necessary to prolong his life.

It's sad to say, but the book is not a good one.

Pausch was a great lecturer, as you have seen. He's funny, interesting, and he has a gift for public speaking. He must have been a great professor. But this book was dictated while exercising and then reworked by another author, and the results show in the thirdhand results we can see. There is a rough sort of overall theme, but it skips around from narrative to background to moral lessons. The clever bits spark a chuckle or smile, but mostly because they remind us of the spark shown in the video lecture - seldom because of their own virtue.

The book has been a grand success, staying on the bestseller lists for almost two years, so I guess a lot of people disagree with me. But I advise you to avoid the book and just watch the lecture again. There's more heart and brilliance packed into that hour than you will find in the whole of this book.

The Game, Neil Strauss

Imagine if someone wrote a story about how they became an expert thief. They had begun as a journalist, writing a story on safecrackers, but they got involved with the whole world of robbery and eventually became a leading thief - an authority on a certain special method of stealing. They'd crash parties, distract the hosts with mind games, and then slip upstairs under false pretenses to pocket all the jewelry. And they had an easy way to do it! It was foolproof.

This journalist-turned-thief tells about how they become widely respected and earn millions of dollars. Women want him, and men want to be him. He describes in detail about how he lives the fantasies of so many men. Everything goes right and almost nothing goes wrong - except in the lives of his fellow thieves, who are always screwed up. But the journalist helps them out and keeps living the life.

Then he finishes off with telling about how it wasn't really so great, and he actually was much happier when he worked for his money. And he was bored with all the threesomes with gorgeous women and the adulation of people around the world and with the hordes of young men who came to study his techniques. But nothing's wrong with stealing. It's fine.

Would you believe his conclusion? Would you think, "Wow, it wasn't really worth it, huh?"

No, probably not. You'd probably think, "Well, it may not work for you. But I bet I would like it." And then you'd attend a seminar to study his method of thievery. And who could blame you?

Well, this is essentially the problem with Neil Strauss' story.

Strauss became an expert in the art of picking up women. Using a variety of clever mind games and tricks, he learned from "gurus" how to fool women into liking him and get them into bed. At no point in the book does he stop to seriously muse about the morality of what he did. It doesn't seem to have been an issue.

Let me scuttle one excuse right away: he wasn't just a guy overcoming his shyness. He started off like that, like a lot of guys do. But these weren't self-help seminars to teach men how to talk to women and be themselves. Those seminars exist and they're great. Instead, these gurus taught Strauss a series of elaborate ploys to force women to have emotions they wouldn't have, take actions they wouldn't take, and generally just fool them into getting into bed. And eventually Strauss become such a master that he started teaching others. Every night, a different girl was tricked.

One guru tells Strauss, early on in the game, that women want to have sex just as much as men. The implication is that they're just helping cross that gap and get things done. But the obvious reply is never brought up: they may want to have sex, but they don't want to have it with just anyone. They don't want to sleep with any guy who paid for a seminar.

Don't get me wrong: the women in the book aren't puppets. The Game apparently didn't work on all girls, and there was no violence involved. But the malevolent discipline and careful study used in the techniques go right up to the line. Hypnotic techniques, "neurolinguistic programming," and other such tools play with the mind towards a crass goal. Strauss and his compatriots made a science out of manipulating women into bed. It is disgusting.

So when Strauss claims to be bored with the legions who come to worship and study under him, and with the endless army of women tricked into his bed, it's hard to believe him. Throughout the book, he's the slightly-skeptical and detached hero, escaping all of the dire character flaws detailed in all the other PUAs (Pick-Up Artists). They're suicidal, sociopathic, and disgusting; Strauss is bemused, helpful, and introspective. He never regrets his actions, and we never see any aftermaths: these women pass through his bed and out of his life, and oddly - for a journalist - doesn't bother to watch the results.

When Strauss meets a woman he loves, he can only "get" her by abandoning all his tricks and leaving the Game. But he decides that he became a better person and so he doesn't regret it. He learned self-confidence and how to understand people, he says. It doesn't seem to occur to him that he could have learned those things without tricking hundreds of women into sex. The lesson that he didn't need the Game to get the love of his life - indeed, that the Game got in the way of real interaction - is not one Strauss ever learns.

Read this book, but do so with caution and a strong stomach. It's an abject lesson in manipulation and the ability of man to justify his actions to himself.

Technology: a World History, James McClellan

McClellan aims at a wide-sighted view of man's use of technology, starting at the beginning with hand-axes and coming right up to the present day. He is matter-of-fact and calm in tone, seldom venturing into tangents or trying to impose themes. He might even be a robot himself, I'm not sure: it would certainly be a fitting topic, and his careful details of how advanced was Mesoamerican technology reads like an obligation more than anything else.

I can't say he's ever wrong and there are no serious flaws in his writing or pacing. But neither are there any revelations or insights.

Technology is a sturdy history that puts on no airs. The best and worst that can be said about it is that it is a great resource if you want to know about the history of technology. It's a plain brown boot of a book, and very serviceable.

1 comment:

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