24 December 2013

Best and Worst of 2013

Best Fiction
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
(original review)

Written as a set of letters from a businessman in India to the leader of China, relating the businessman's growth into a savvy adult, The White Tiger was the best work of fiction I reviewed all year.  I wrote:
The text is funny and sad. It stands in judgment of modern Indian society (as superficial, as cruel, as provincial), while standing in testament to some of the best things about the country by virtue of its very existence, as a work of profound beauty and artistry. Almost everyone will enjoy it; the prose spins perfectly and cleanly like a Swiss watch.
The White Tiger is very many things, most particularly an epistolary book and a bildungsroman.  And because each of these elements could have gone badly wrong, it's amazing to see them all done well, and to see them mesh together.

As an epistolary book, each letter/chapter is addressed to the Chinese Premier, the ostensible target of a series of lessons about life.  The author of these letters, Balram, is a wealthy and successful businessman.  After reading about China's new push for capitalist success, Balram writes the leader of that country to impart what he has discovered about succeeding in India.  Success in India, in Balram's eyes, is a matter of deceit, theft, and ruthlessness.

The letters are written in a goofy style and with affrontery, and could easily have fallen flat into silliness.  Instead, the tone is perfect.  By making each episode into an obvious set piece, the serious chapters are given a grim whimsy and the funny chapters are made briskly gleeful.

Balram relates his life in his letters to the Premier, from when he scrabbled for scraps in a tiny village to his current position as head of a company.  It is a bildungsroman - a coming-of-age story.  And most of his growth comes from a gradual loss of innocence, and increasingly unscrupulousness.  Behind it all there is a savage greed, powering him to advance himself.  In so many ways and in the eyes of so many, it would be admirable; after all, he continually improves his life and increases his wealth.  It is only the reader, who witnesses the blackening of Balram's jaded soul, who might call it a villainous progression.
See, this country, in its days of greatness, when it was the richest nation on earth, was like a zoo. A clean, well kept, orderly zoo. Everyone in his place, everyone happy. Goldsmiths here. Cowherds here. Landlords there. The man called a Halwai made sweets. The man called a cowherd tended cows. The untouchable cleaned feces. Landlords were kind to their serfs. Women covered their heads with a veil and turned their eyes to the ground when talking to strange men.

And then, thanks to all those politicians in Delhi, on the fifteenth of August, 1947-the day the British left-the cages had been let open; and the animals had attacked and ripped each other apart and jungle law replaced zoo law. Those that were the most ferocious, the hungriest, had eaten everyone else up, and grown big bellies. That was all that counted now, the size of your belly. It didn't matter whether you were a woman, or a Muslim, or an untouchable: anyone with a belly could rise up. My father's father must have been a real Halwai, a sweet-maker, but when he inherited the shop, a member of some other caste must have stolen it from him with the help of the police. My father had not had the belly to fight back. That's why he had fallen all the way to the mud, to the level of a rickshaw-puller. That's why I was cheated of my destiny to be fat, and creamy-skinned, and smiling.

To sum up - in the old days there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes: Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat - or get eaten up.
I wouldn't presume to say that The White Tiger represents modern India, or even the capitalism of India.  So many have found success in such troubled circumstances, many with the heads held high, and I was a tourist for only a few months.  But every word of the book rang true as I read it, even if we only consider it a moment of introspection for a country struggling with its rising wealth and sustained inequality.

And of course, it's simply wonderful to read.

Best Nonfiction
The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling
(original review)
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
(original review)

Is this cheating?  It might be cheating.  I'm cheating.

These two books are the best nonfiction books I read all year, and I refuse to pick between them.  You should read both of them.  Both books discuss how to live your life, in a way that is both theoretically deep and practically applicable.  Both books are written with the knowledge of an expert and the patience of a teacher.  And both books will help you think.

I reviewed Thomas Schelling's book just the other day, and I renew my commendations:
To The Strategy of Conflict I give much higher praise: this is a book that made me think differently and deeply about very important things.

Thomas Schelling, the author, wrote the book during the late fifties, having become dissatisfied with the lack of serious theoretical analysis of international relations. He applied game theory, the study of decision-making, to the conflicts and problems of the world. So many countries acted in such bizarre ways that defied conventional wisdom: why did these crazy patterns tend to work? And if we can explain these choices, can we learn how to make even better ones?
It's not until you actually begin to think about the implications behind such a simple thing as a threat that you truly begin to understand that the most important thing in making a threat is to credibly reduce your options, since carrying out threats is rarely pleasant.  As Schelling writes:
The distinctive character of a threat is that one asserts that he will do, in a contingency, what he would manifestly prefer not to do if the contingency occurred, the contingency being governed by the second party's behavior.  Like the ordinary commitment, the threat is a surrender of choice, a renunciation of alternatives, that makes one worse off than he need be in the event the tactic fails; the threat and the commitment are both motivated by the possibility that a rational second player can be constrained by his knowledge that the first player has altered his own incentive structure.  Like an ordinary commitment, a threat can constrain the other player only insofar as it carries to the other player at least some appearance of obligation; if I threaten to blow us both to bits unless you close the window, you know that I won't unless I have somehow managed to leave myself no choice in the matter.
These sorts of considerations, which are simultaneously trivial and vital, are why Schelling was the person to articulate the entire idea of a "credible threat."

Likewise, Thinking, Fast and Slow takes sets of dynamics that seem to make no sense, and breaks down exactly the way in which they are not only sensible, but often enormously clever solutions to enormously difficult problems.
The center of Kahneman's book is his theory, developed in conjunction with fellow psychologist Amos Tversky, that human thought takes place in two different modes - the titular fast mode, which he calls System 1, and the slower System 2. System 1 operates on broad rules of thumb or heuristics, jumping to conclusions according to principles that are likely to arrive at the right answer most of the time, while System 2 is the more laborious process of contemplative thought. Kahneman goes through a long list of cognitive phenomena, discovered both by himself and by other researchers, and assembles them into order under this two-system schema.
One example I mentioned in my review is how the human mind grapples with estimating the frequency of an event.  To know exactly how often something happens would require that the mind keep track of not only all discrete instances of that event, but also all the times it didn't happen.  And the mind would also need vast other databases of events and non-events, to compare it with.  It's an almost insurmountable problem: how could a human brain ever hope to amass and collate such oceans of data, and still function in the world?  But modern psychology, as explained by Kahneman, has neatly found a shortcut - a heuristic that works 90% of the time.
[O]ne well-known phenomenon mentioned in the text is the "availability heuristic." This is the principle we often unconsciously use to determine the frequency of an event. It boils down to the easy availability of examples when we think about that event. If many examples come to mind, then we assume that the event happens frequently.
Kahneman, like Schelling, explains in cogent and careful prose the inner workings of simple things.  Both authors, and both books, do one of the very best things you can ask from a book: they make you think.

Worst Fiction
One Night @ the Call Center, Chetan Bhagat
(original review)

I really, really hated The Alchemist, so in an odd kind of way, this is an accomplishment on Bhagat's part: it took a truly exceptional piece of nonsense to win this category.  And given the months Lizzie and I spent in India, perhaps it's also fitting that books from that country represent both the best and worst of fiction I reviewed this past year.

One Night @ the Call Center is badly written.  I imagine that when Chetan Bhagat was a child, an author badly hurt him.  Maybe this writer insulted the boy, or made some cutting remark.  But whatever happened, it sank deep within Bhagat.  He held that hurt within him, close to his heart, and nurtured it.  It pulsed and festered, a veiny lumpish thing of anger.  And after so many years, so very many years, he finally was able to get his revenge.  In a dimly lit room, his face washed by the glow of his computer screen, Bhagat types out sentences.  They're perfectly ordinary sentences, adequate and expressive.  And then he butchers them.  Slowly, carefully.  Bhagat dismembers them, and turns them into things of monstrous banality.  Did he express an original thought, without a cliche involved?  He slices into the sentence, and replaces the wholesome flesh of creation with a scabrous bit of chewed-over meat.  With vengeance in his glittering eyes, Bhagat creates horrors of prose.

That's what it's like to read One Night @ the Call Center.  It's like reading someone's attack on literature itself.
Priyanka was making a table of numbers on her notepad. I think she was making a calendar to figure out the day she was getting married. I felt like ripping her notebook to shreds. Esha was digging her pen’s nib deep into her notepad so that it came out at the other end.

"Send agents to the US? Move them to Boston?" Bakshi said and laughed.

"Well a few of them, at least on trial basis. Some of them are really smart. Who knows, they may get that one client that could save a hundred jobs. Right Shyam?" Vroom said

"Huh?" I said startled to hear my name.

"Mr Victor, as a feedback-oriented manager I appreciate your inputs. However, I do not think it is such a good idea," Bakshi said.

"Why not?" Vroom demanded with the innocence of a primary school kid.

"Because if it was such a good idea, someone would have thought of it before. Why didn’t it strike me for instance?" Bakshi said.

"Huh?" Vroom said, completely flabbergasted. I had heard it all before so it did not move me. I was aware of every red, white, and black blood cell in Bakshi’s body.
One Night @ the Call Center has a terrible plot.  There are six characters with various problems, and near the end of the book, they receive a phone call from God who gives them some (slightly lame) advice.  It seems as though he was attempting to showcase the miraculous by setting it among the mundane, in a sort of inept magical realism.  But because the whole plot hinges on that single moment, the opposite occurs.

Further, the call-center employees who are our characters decide to preserve their jobs by mounting a campaign of terrorism - their triumphant plan is to spread the rumor that a virulent computer virus has taken over all of America's computers and requires their immediate and continual intervention.

I have thought about it for a while, and I honestly cannot think of a more selfish plan.  It's like a group of road workers deciding to save their jobs by taking jackhammers to the overstate - yes, they might keep their jobs, but at the expense of the huge inconvenience of hundreds of thousands of other people.

One Night @ the Call Center has an awful message.  Like everything Bhagat has written, it's misogynistic.  Women are portrayed, without exception, as unreasonable and flighty creatures who make irrational decisions.  This might be begged off in some of his books by blaming unreliable narrators, since the protagonists of Bhagat's books are all immature and nasty little men, but not so in this text.  I wrote in the original review:
Mildly misogynistic, impatient, and selfish, Shyam spends almost the entire book trying to win Priyanka back. Naturally, he succeeds in the end – but it’s impossible to figure out exactly why he succeeds. He doesn’t change, except to become even more abrasive and thoughtless, and there’s no apparent reason why Priyanka would suddenly decide to get back together with him. Literally the whole of Shyam’s master plan to win her over is to google her new fiancé and look for incriminating information (the search terms, Bhagat tells us, are “ganesh gupta drunk Wisconsin,” “ganesh gupta fines Wisconsin,” and “ganesh gupta girlfriend”). Once he has eliminated his rival, whose dark secret is that he is balding, then Priyanka just sort of… wanders back to him, by authorial fiat.
Is there anything to redeem One Night @ the Call Center?  I don't know.  Maybe.  It uses a @ in the title, which is pretty interesting.  Punctuation is fun, I guess.  And when I read it, the ink used for the print did not actively poison me.  So the book's not physically dangerous.  That's something.  That's all.

Worst Nonfiction
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
(original review)

Let me preface this by saying that this book isn't really that terrible.  As I originally wrote:
There might have been a chance to wring out a salvageable work from this text, even if it lacked insight, if it was well-written. A pleasant and funny account of a family's trials as they attempt to drastically change their life would be worth reading. Alternately, the drama of an upscale family attempting an overambitious ethical dream could also be interesting. Kingsolver does neither, instead writing a book so involved in itself that it forgets the reader.
Unfortunately for Kingsolver, I read too many good nonfiction books this year - she just didn't have much competition for the worst.  Particularly not with this text, which was like someone had bottled NPR in refined spirits of self-indulgence:
The steer that had contributed itself to the meatballs on our plates had missed the sign-up. Everything else on the table was also a local product: the peas we’d just shelled, the salad picked ten minutes earlier, the strawberries from their daughter. I asked Elsie how much food they needed from outside the community. “Flour and sugar,” she said, and then thought a bit. “Sometimes we’ll buy pretzels, for a splurge.”

It crossed my mind that the world’s most efficient psychological evaluation would have just the one question: Define splurge. I wondered how many more years I’d have to stay off Belgian chocolate before I could attain Elsie’s self-possession. I still wanted the moon, really—and I wanted it growing in my backyard.
Why does this sort of stuff bother me?  Is it "life tourism" - the bemused, slightly aloof, very self-aware attempt to "visit" a whole way of life?  There's an implied judgment, which is unpleasant, and a definite smugness, which is repugnant.

Maybe what gets under my skin, when it comes to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is the potential.  There was a decent book here.  Kingsolver is a great writer, and long stretches of the book are excellently-crafted.  The yearlong-experiment book is one that has turned out well, at times, and so her plan to spend a year eating locally isn't the failing grace.  And even the decision to include the rest of her family as occasional guest contributors wasn't doomed to fail, with sufficient judgment and guidance.

This could have been a decent book.  Instead, it joins the enormous, depressing stack of mediocre Food Experiment Books.  The author's time has been squandered, and yours would be too, if you'd read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

21 December 2013

"The Strategy of Conflict" and "War and Peace."

The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (trans. Anthony Briggs)


The Strategy of Conflict, Thomas Schelling

I am always suspicious of superlative praise.  When I hear that a book "changed the way I look at everything," I think that such a person's vision must never have been too clear.  And when someone tells me that "everything makes sense now," I consider all the irrationalities of a rational life, and wonder how that can be.

This skepticism prompts me to say that The Strategy of Conflict is a flawed book, and it did not change the way I look at everything, and it did not make sense out of the world.  Those are the sorts of changes reserved to lesser books - The Secret or The Alchemist or Atlas Shrugged.

To The Strategy of Conflict I give much higher praise: this is a book that made me think differently and deeply about very important things.

Thomas Schelling, the author, wrote the book during the late fifties, having become dissatisfied with the lack of serious theoretical analysis of international relations.  He applied game theory, the study of decision-making, to the conflicts and problems of the world.  So many countries acted in such bizarre ways that defied conventional wisdom: why did these crazy patterns tend to work?  And if we can explain these choices, can we learn how to make even better ones?

Take, for example, Schelling's discussion of the problem of how two hostile nations can come to a major and mutually-beneficial agreement, when neither one can trust the other's good faith.
If each party agrees to send a million dollars to the Red Cross on condition the other does, each may be tempted to cheat if the other contributes first, and each one's anticipation of the other's cheating will inhibit agreement. But if the contribution is divided into successive small contributions, each can try the other's good faith for a small price. Furthermore, since each can keep the other on short tether to the finish, no one ever need risk more than one small contribution at a time. Finally, this change in the incentive structure itself takes most of the risk out of the initial contribution; the value of established trust is made obviously visible to both.
I should caution you now: when you read this book, you will be sorely tempted to dismiss it as obvious conventional wisdom.  You might read a passage like the above, and roll your eyes: "Well of course they have to start off small, and build up trust!  Everyone knows that!"

Everyone doesn't know it, not really.  They can construct all kind of just-so stories to justify other ways of understanding negotiations.  You can consider, for example, the recent diplomatic agreement between Iran and the United States, and the many pundits who scorned the agreement's efficacy. “To try and go strike a deal for a deal’s sake could jeopardize U.S. security interests," argued House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).  "[S]ince when do we trust Iran? Iran has demonstrated again and again it cannot be trusted."

Yes, partisanship more than reason is probably at work there - any lasting peace deal would be a feather in the President's cap - but this sort of argument about trust should be dismissed out of hand when it ignores the function a small and incomplete deal might have in building that trust and credibly indicating the possibility of further deals.

Interestingly, Schelling also discusses exactly this sort of criticism within a country, and how it can serve the interests of a negotiating partner.  Because of criticism like this, President Obama's options are significantly constrained, in a very evident manner.  The Iranian negotiators are aware of this, and are aware that a deal that is not favorable enough to certain U.S. interests will not be approved.  And so, Obama's negotiating team begins to move towards compromise from a significantly more advantageous position.  And in order to maintain this advantage, Obama will not work too hard to silence his critics - they are helping him (of course he has to appear to at least try to rebut them, to maintain good faith).

The Strategy of Conflict goes many more levels deeper than just these two, and its explanations are useful in many other situations.  As a high school teacher, for example, I have been ceaselessly astounded by how easily classroom interactions are motivated by the same factors as a state on the world stage.  A student angrily defies me - I might want to ignore them, since arguing or punishing them will be disruptive and time-consuming, but I have to maintain a certain norm of behavior and expectations in the classroom environment.  The student implicitly threatens this norm for their own advantage, and the question becomes: at what point will my own need to maintain my disciplinary credibility outweigh the inconvenience of dealing with this disruption?  Response must be appropriate to the scale of the conflict, or else I will appear capricious (undermining the very norm I'm trying to uphold).

This theory agrees with every teacher's normal experience: classroom management is a continual balancing act, with the cost of inflexible enforcement exceeding its benefit - but with a certain standard maintained.  A child can only be allowed to flout authority if they can be credibly seen to be unable to obey - if they're disturbed or weird enough that it won't be seen as undermining expectations for everyone else.

The Strategy of Conflict supports much of its argument with the mathematical underpinnings of game theory, and I admit I had to re-read several sections three or four times because of my sad ignorance.  And there are serious problems with some of its discussions of world conflicts - most particularly predictions about Vietnam and the domino theory.  So as I said, it is in some way a flawed book.  But I have yet to encounter a more cogent and amazing look at human interactions, or a more rewarding work of nonfiction.  You should absolutely and certainly read it - if you can find a copy!


War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (trans. Anthony Briggs)

Salon's Laura Miller has written a thoughtful piece on the appeal of long books, which have never (she argues) gone out of fashion.
Part of the allure is simple gluttony: If you’re loving a book, it’s delightful to know that there’s plenty of it. But I believe there’s also an inherent appeal in fat novels, something that only written fiction can offer and that short stories, for all their felicities, aren’t able to provide. You can be swallowed up by a long novel, immersed in the world its author has created in a fashion that no other medium can rival. No, not even boxed sets of HBO series consumed in day-long binges! This immersion reminds many of us of our first, luxuriant plunges into books as children, and any author who can take us back to the place where we forget where we are and how much time has passed will pretty much have us eating out of her hand for good.
This explains so much of the appeal to me of War and Peace, that most cartoonishly famous of the long books.  I was fortunate enough to read it while on vacation, and so I could sink into it for four or five hours at a time.  It might have been impossible to really enjoy it any other way, in fact; I think if I had read it in fits and starts, then I would have lost some of the many threads that weave through the plot.

Tolstoy writes of Russia during the wars with Napoleon, and focuses on two main characters: Pierre, a bulky blockhead of a man, and Andrei, a soulful and smart fellow.  Pierre is a roustabout who receives an inheritance and becomes nouveau riche, marrying badly and squandering much, before embarking on a spiritual quest.  Andrei, on the other hand, is the perfect specimen of Russian aristocracy - tasteful, intelligent, and dedicated to military success.  He has his own journey through the trials of war, culminating in a moment of heroism, immediately succeeded by a moment of insight into the uselessness of war.  Andrei works to reconcile his life and his new understanding, while also holding together a family that crumbles under the travails of Napoleon's invasion and retreat.

This duo, introduced to the reader as friends in the beginning of War and Peace, hold the story together and are joined by dozens of other characters in one of the most remarkable explorations of a society and an event that I've ever seen.  And when you read the book for a time, you sink into it and forget yourself.  The dividing line between reality and fiction fades, and you subsume into the luxurious language as it unfolds the complicated plot and complicated philosophy.
What he loved was having a good time and chasing women, and since, according to him, these tastes were in no way dishonourable, and he was incapable of considering how his gratification of them might affect other people, he genuinely considered himself beyond reproach, he felt a real contempt for rogues and scoundrels, his conscience was clear and he walked tall.  Men of pleasure, masculine versions of Mary Magdalene, are secretly convinced of their own innocence, and like their feminine counterparts they base this on the hope of forgiveness.  "She shall be forgiven because she was full of love; he shall be forgiven because he was full of fun."
Much like Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, Tolstoy indulges himself with lengthy personal discussions of events and history.  He sets them within a context of the book, but then ushers the reader aside, huddling down and speaking frankly.  I have been telling you this story, the book says.  But here, let us talk about this one thing for a bit.  Take, for example, the author's discussion of the popular "great man" theory of history:
Many historians tell us that the French failed to win the battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold, and if he had a cold the orders he issued before and during the battle would have marked him out even more clearly as a genius, and Russia would have been destroyed and the face of the world would have been changed.  To those historians who maintain that Russia was formed by the will of a single man, Peter the Great, and France was turned from a republic into an empire, and the French army marched into Russia all by the will of a single man, Napoleon, the argument that Russia retained power because Napoleon had a bad cold on the 26th of August must seem highly persuasive.
War and Peace is an amazing book.  When I read it, a sprawling world of character and history took over my reality.  You should absolutely read it - but only if you can devote hours at a time to losing yourself in Tolstoy's world.

05 December 2013

"Collected Fictions," "Reamde," "The Alchemist," "The White Tiger," and "The Years of Lyndon Johnson."

Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges
Reamde, Neal Stephenson
The Alchemist, Paolo Coehlo
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Passage of Power, Robert Caro


Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges

I must confess: I'm getting all out of order with reviews.  I read more than I write, and the list of books waiting for a review has steadily grown.  This was once to be a review of Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges, but that review has been overtaken by the Collected Fictions, which I borrowed from a gracious friend.

I called Borges' Ficciones the best book of fiction I read in 2011.
The stories are often mysterious or have a hidden conclusion. They are often self-referential, or otherwise "meta." Some of them are skilled metaphors. But almost without exception, they are conceptually brilliant. At the center of each weird, wonderful story lies a beating heart of an insight, animating all the strange parts and twisting limbs.
The larger Collected Fictions includes dozens more stories, and new translations of the older ones.  The translation is controversial, in fact: Borges' widow refused to permit further publication of the older translations (including those done by Norman di Giovanni in collaboration with the author himself).  The older translators had contractually enjoyed an unusually large share of the proceeds, but their work has also been described as uneven - both reasons probably played a part in the decision.  I'm not fit to judge its wisdom, although reviews by bilingual scholars have generally approved.

This career-spanning collection includes all the stories with which I was familiar - and which I happily reread - as well as some amazing work I'd never seen, such as the author's earliest work.  Arranged chronologically, in a comprehensive collection, of the most interesting things was the development of Borges' mystical rhythms.  The sentences grow gradually knottier.  What begins as the occasional tangles of his early prose, splicing a complicated thought into the simple thread of the writing, become a distinct weave.  In his mature style, Borges writes in a swooping rise-and-fall.  It invites rereading and rethought, and it allows the author to suddenly terminate the pattern with a moment of uncomplicated absoluteness.  The results resemble nothing so much as a prayer.
There are devotees of Goethe, of the Eddas, of the late song of the Nibelungen; my fate has been Shakespeare.  As it still is, though in a way that no one could have foreseen - no one save one man, Daniel Thorpe, who has just recently died in Pretoria.  There is another man, too, whose face I have never seen.
You can almost hear the Latin choir.

Another aspect of Borges' work that is made clear by a single unbroken experience is his utter devotion to the idea of infinities.  From start to last, he wrote of unending libraries, perfect memories that encompass every shade of color in every day, and loops of time that mirrored each other in eternal regression.  I'd noticed the pattern before, but I'd thought that it was a theme of the collections.  Instead, it seems as though Borges was singularly fascinated by infinity: his stories almost invariably describe people, places, or objects that have some aspect of boundlessness.

It bears mention that the earliest work of the collection can be a little clumsy, not only in the style of execution but in the elegance of the ideas.  The fractal brilliance that characterizes his mature ideas is less pronounced in his first efforts.  Those readers new to Borges should certainly begin with one of the smaller collections (Labyrinths, Fictions, etc.).  But for those who already love the author, let me assure you that this sturdy book is well-worth your time.


Reamde, Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson has gotten steadily better at writing as his career has continued.  That's remarkable for an author of such influence.  Snow Crash remains one of the most important works of modern science fiction (it introduced concepts like "avatars" and prompted virtual worlds like Second Life).  While the cleverness of his ideas has varied in his succeeding work, his mastery of his craft has - without exception - continued to improve.  Reamde fits in nicely with the trend, but represents a thematic departure for Stephenson: most of his previous work has been devoted to exploring the consequences of new technologies on society, whereas Reamde is (surprisingly) almost a completely straightforward thriller.

The book follows a variety of characters, including a wealthy video-game designer, his young niece, a Russian mercenary, and an Eastern European hacker, along a simple plotline.  The niece is held for ransom: can she escape or be rescued?  As the story unfolds, it's carried along lightly and well by Stephenson's easy writing, buoyed by occasional levity.
Until the high-velocity rounds began to pass down into their apartment from above, Marlon had never troubled himself to think about the possible drawbacks of having neighbors who shared his attitude about what constituted suitable real estate. He had the vague sense that the apartment above them was crowded, but that was frequently the case in buildings like this one. From time to time, as they climbed the stairs to play basketball on the roof, they would see people who seemed to be waidiren—“not from around here” types, internal foreigners—and perhaps even waiguoren—non-Chinese. If the wind was blowing the right way, they would sometimes get a whiff of chemical odors, but it was difficult to pin down their origin.

But now those chemicals were dribbling down into their apartment through bullet holes, and the dribbles were on fire.

Marlon stared in fascination at a puddle of burning acetone that was forming on a pile of magazines. Then it penetrated his awareness that the other guys, the younger ones, were looking at him wondering what to do.

“Zombies,” he announced, and turned toward the nearest window.
It's a fun read, though it curiously lacks that cerebral impact I usually find in his writing.  The Baroque Trilogy remains his best work to date, but if you're not especially looking for that kind of commitment, or you just want an interesting thriller with the occasional element of techno-speculation, pick this one up.


The Alchemist, Paolo Coehlo

The enduring success of The Alchemist is a sad thing.  The book is derivative, cloying, and it cloaks its clumsy New Age grandiloquence under a thin veneer of humility.  Many people love those traits, so The Alchemist's status as a modern classic makes sense.  But it's still a sad thing.

Spoilers ahead!

The central trick to the story is the dream experienced by the protagonist.  A young Andalusian shepherd has a vision one night, as he sleeps near a ruined church, of a hidden treasure buried at the base of the Great Pyramids in Egypt.  At the end of the book and at the end of the boy's clumsy ideological journey, he finally arrives at the pyramids - only to find nothing, and to be beaten and robbed by an embittered band of thieves, one of whom mockingly tells the boy about his own dream, of a buried treasure in a ruined Andalusian church.  This treasure actually does exist, and the boy becomes rich.

It's a great little tricky plot... but I could have sworn I just read that same story in The Arabian Nights!  It was much shorter and snappier there, since it was only a page-long story rather than a hundred pages of nonsense, but it's hard to forget a clever little plot-twist like that one.

It took only a few seconds to confirm this thought (it's even on the Wikipedia page for The Alchemist).  It's not acknowledged in the text anywhere that I could find, though.  That prompts the thought: is that okay?

Obviously, it's not always wrong to borrow a plot.  Sometimes they take the essential story in order to draw a deliberate parallel, as when Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land followed the same path as the New Testament's Jesus.  Other times, an author might borrow well-known elements in order to rebut or build on the original, like when Margaret Atwood told the story of Odysseus' wife in The Penelopiad.  And the borrowing need not stop at the basic plot or a few elements: Shakespeare took almost the entirety of several works and reinvented them wholesale, taking the whole plot and most of the characters from existing plays about Hamlet and King Lear.

So borrowing and allusion are not necessarily wrong.  They form the basis for some of the most wonderful texts that we have, and you could hardly accuse Heinlein, Atwood, or Shakespeare of being really dishonest in any solid sense.  Because the tales of Jesus, Odysseus, and Hamlet were so well-known, borrowing elements from them didn't detract from the originals.  The new works incorporated the old and transformed them, and the borrowings gave an even greater depth.  Much of the meaning of The Penelopiad - maybe most of the meaning - comes from the role of Penelope as a character in the original Odyssey.  But the Odyssey isn't lessened by the borrowing.  It's enhanced.

How are these allusions different, then, from The Alchemist?  Well, the essential distinction is that it is rather unlikely that many of Coehlo's readers would ever discover the author's appropriation from Arabian Nights.  It's only one short story in a very large book of short stories (and it doesn't even appear in all editions).  The clever trick to the plot is one of the most appealing aspects of The Alchemist, and one that readers will probably attribute to Coehlo.  He should have known this.

The unpleasant thing about Coehlo's appropriation, then, is it seems a lot like theft, rather than allusion.

That discussion aside, which may be best left to literary theorists, I found much else to dislike about the book.  The writing, for example, has about the same elegance as a strangled cat covered in pink frosting.  The characters converse in banalities, and simplicity is disguised as profundity.  There's nothing wrong with simplicity, of course, but kindergarten-grade philosophy shouldn't be dressed as Rumi.
The boy continued to listen to his heart as they crossed the desert. He came to understand its dodges and tricks, and to accept it as it was. He lost his fear, and forgot about his need to go back to the oasis, because, one afternoon, his heart told him that it was happy. "Even though I complain sometimes," it said, "it's because I'm the heart of a person and people's hearts are that way. People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don't deserve them, or that they'll be unable to achieve them. We, their hearts, become fearful just thinking of loved ones who go away forever, or of the moments that could have been good but weren't, or of treasures that might have been found but were forever hidden in the sands. Because, when these things happen, we suffer terribly."

"My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer," the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

"Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second's encounter with God and with eternity."

"Every second of the search is an encounter with God," the boy told his heart. "When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I've known that every hour was part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I've discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve."
I can honestly say, without any exaggeration, that The Alchemist seems like it was written by a freshman in college.  The slight shadiness of borrowing the plot from an obscure story; the lumpen nonsense Coehlo gussies up with broad language; the Deepak Chopra shotgun-style philosophy that suggests that anything pleasant must be true... this is a terrible book.

Do not bother with The Alchemist.  It's not even fun to hate.  It's too depressing.


The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga


During my time in India, I read numerous books by local authors.  I have already written about the abysmal work of superstar author Chetan Bhagat.  At the same time, I was fortunate enough to encounter almost the polar opposite of Bhagat in the form of his countryman, Aravind Adiga.

The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, is a magnificent book.  It's the kind of work that's so varied and clever that you want to describe it in cliches: "I laughed, I cried" ... "A powerhouse of a book." ... "A tour-de-force."  That impulse aside: this is a good book.

Adiga's epistolary novel, which takes the format of a series of letters written by an Indian businessman to the Chinese Premier, is simultaneously extremely cynical and extraordinarily affecting.  The narrator, Balram, tells the story of how he rose from village poverty, and the murders he committed along the way.  It's what is known as a skaz narrative - colloquial and conversational.
It is a little before midnight now, Mr. Jiabao. A good time for me to talk.

I stay up the whole night, Your Excellency. And there's no one else in this 150-square-foot office of mine. Just me and a chandelier above me, although the chandelier has a personality of its own. It's a huge thing, full of small diamond-shaped glass pieces, just like the ones they used to show in the films of the 1970s. Though it's cool enough at night in Bangalore, I've put a midget fan -- five cobwebby blades -- right above the chandelier. See, when it turns, the small blades chop up the chandelier's light and fling it across the room. Just like the strobe light at the best discos in Bangalore.

This is the only 150-square-foot space in Bangalore with its own chandelier! But it's still a hole in the wall, and I sit here the whole night.

The entrepreneur's curse. He has to watch his business all the time.
The letters are written over a short period of time, so Balram writes from a consistent viewpoint.  Yet he saw the world differently as a child.  Accordingly, Adiga was presented with the problem of credibly describing the growing awareness of a maturing child from the outside.  This is not easy.  Most books, like Midnight's Children, solve the issue with framing.  They express the limited understand of the narrator's younger self with traditional narrative of the past, qualifying as they go (along the lines of, "I didn't know it at the time, but I was seeing the ocean for the first time.")

I was interested to find that The White Tiger chooses the less common solution to the problem.  In each chapter - in each letter - Balram begins from the same point in the present, before setting the scene and throwing us back into the past.  He transitions, then, into what he was thinking at that time (establishing narrative distance).  His mindset becomes that of a child, or teenager, or innocent.  It's difficult to do, and requires a great deal of discipline of style, since we can so easily lose the illusion.

The text is funny and sad.  It stands in judgment of modern Indian society (as superficial, as cruel, as provincial), while standing in testament to some of the best things about the country by virtue of its very existence, as a work of profound beauty and artistry.  Almost everyone will enjoy it; the prose spins perfectly and cleanly like a Swiss watch.  Read it.


The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, Robert Caro
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Passage of Power, Robert Caro

Biography is narrative.  The raw facts of any life are innumerable and boring.  To simply write down a manageable amount - much less in a way that someone would want to read - necessitates selection.  Biographers pick the events they want and create the story they see.

In these four volumes, which will eventually be joined by a fifth, Robert Caro has told a story of Lyndon Johnson.  Born to the dust of the Texas Hill Country, burning with patrilineal ambition and possessed of a preternatural will, the Johnson of Caro's telling was a peerless political animal.  At the earliest opportunity, his genius for people and for organizations allowed him to rise to power.

As a young man, Johnson ingratiated himself to the administration of his college, and soon began using his position for leverage.  He gave out jobs to those who begged, and broke those who'd sneered at him (and it was easy to sneer at him, since he was a liar and a coward).  And he took a casual social club and made it into a personal enforcement organization - within a single year.  That political skill was perhaps only matched by the drive that made him a wonderful local campaigner for a Texas politician, and both attributes were certainly what led to his selection as a Congressional aide.

Only Johnson, perhaps, could have turned the small job of an aide into a role of surprising power, as he ran for the leadership of a fun mock-parliament called the "Little Congress."  He saw the potential in the organization, and he turned it into a proxy for the real Congress.  Johnson would stage previews of upcoming legislative debates, enacted by aides rather than the actual Congresspeople, and soon enough reporters and legislators were showing up at the meetings.  Johnson became the man to see among Congressional aides, as he'd been the man to see at his college.

He didn't stop there.  He seized on the spirit of the moment - pleasing FDR and earning the great man's endorsement at a time when it was invaluable - and was elected to Congress for Texas.  Johnson's drive to win was inhuman.  Caro describes long days of campaigning, visiting every street in every small town.  Shaking every hand.  Kissing every baby.  Bribing every election official.  Johnson's ambition didn't let anything stand in the way - including votes.

In the House, Johnson continued a meteoric rise.  He was a "reader" of people, and knew them with a glance... that's how he'd pulled the strings at college, and how he'd gotten FDR's nod.  He read Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, and found a man who was lonely and secretly wished for a son.  Johnson made himself that son.  And ten years later, after a decade of power in the House?  Naturally, Johnson ran for Senate.  Upward, always upward, burned that ambition.

The Senate was harder.  It was tough to shake every hand in all of Texas, and expensive to buy every vote (even with the support of those businesses he'd been doing "favors" for).  He lost the first time, and the second time he won by the slenderest of margins and the most stuffed of ballot boxes.  Johnson became Senator Johnson, but the mocking nickname of "Landslide Lyndon" would follow him for years.

Once in the Senate, though, Johnson reached his apotheosis.  He knew everyone in both chambers of Congress, he knew procedure inside and out, and he had not the slightest compunction about turning the world's greatest legislative body into an instrument of his will.

Caro's writing is sometimes a bit inconsistent, but for long stretches, it becomes truly artful.  It might be a kind of awe at work, but then, Johnson could be awe-inspiring.  He was, as Caro calls him, the Master of the Senate in a way that has never been equaled, before or after.  Reading Caro's description of this ascension and enactment is the literary equivalent of a grand, trembling, masterful musical solo: you witness a human being doing the thing he was born to do.  For seven years, Johnson played the Senate like a fiddle.

The final volume of these four is dramatic in a very different way.  Johnson runs for President, and fails.  He fails massively and humiliatingly, trying all the tricks that had always worked in Congress. But the presidency was different - you couldn't master the whole country one person at a time.  He spun his wheels in the sand, and finally accepted the Vice Presidency as a consolation... only to discover that he, Lyndon Johnson, the most powerful man in Washington, was now a powerless joke.  He could do nothing.  No one would speak to him.  And there was nothing he could do about it.
The inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was one of the memorable days of American history, for a presidential inauguration is a day for inspiration. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”; “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty”—the phrases of Kennedy’s inaugural address were so gloriously inspiring even before the ringing voice said, “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” that they summoned up, and, in some ways, summed up, the best of the American spirit, igniting hopes so that, almost on the instant it seemed, they summoned up a new era for Americans, an era of ideals, of brightness, of hope. “Oh, Jack,” his wife said afterwards, her hand stroking his face, “Oh, Jack, what a day!”

It was a very different kind of a day for Lyndon Johnson. The stands erected for the inauguration were in front of the Capitol’s long eastern façade. During Johnson’s time as a young congressional aide, he had passed along the length of that façade every morning on his way to the House Office Building from his basement room, with its uncovered steam pipes running across the ceiling, in a shabby little hotel near Union Station. The young woman who worked in the same office with him, and who would sometimes see him coming to work, noticed that as he was passing the façade, he almost always broke excitedly into a run, as if the façade’s sheer majesty, with its towering white marble columns and its parapets and friezes jammed with heroic figures, all gleamingly, dazzlingly white as they were struck full by the early-morning sun, had, perhaps, in its symbolic evocation of what he was aiming for, and in its contrast with the shabby little houses of the Hill Country from which he had come, touched something deep within him. Perhaps Lyndon Johnson had dreamed on some of those mornings of a presidential Inauguration Day. But he certainly hadn’t dreamed of a day like this one; whatever he had dreamed, it had not been of sitting on the inaugural platform, squinting into the sun, listening to another, younger man speak. And as he sat there on this day, he knew that his plans to obtain some measure of independent power of his own, separate from the new President’s, had been thwarted. He was going to be completely dependent on whatever that younger man chose to give him—for years to come.
But then, Dallas.

Dallas, and three shots.  Dallas, and a bloody pink pillbox hat.  Dallas, and a big sweaty Texan bullying everyone around until he had his oath and his new office.  Dallas, and a President Johnson.

He was made of ambition, there was also a morality to Johnson.  He'd worked the cotton as a young man, in the Texas dust.  He knew poverty and injustice, and he hated it.  At times, he'd fought it.  The ambition came first, of course, and no moral scruple ever held him back from something that might lead to power, but when there was no conflict... then, Johnson could be beautiful.

Caro relates the story of a young Mexican-American soldier who was killed in action, and how a funeral home in the soldier's hometown refused to bury the young hero because "the Whites wouldn't like it."  When he heard the story, Johnson - freshly a Senator - bristled and barked in anger, "By God, we'll bury him in Arlington!"  Immediately.  Thoughtlessly.

He gave way and backpedaled, of course, the moment it seemed like the racist uproar might hurt his career.  Always the ambition!  But it was that sort of instinct that would lead to the Great Society and its rising and beautiful harmony of legislation (immigration reform, the war on poverty, food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and the clear clarion notes of the Civil Rights Acts).

Johnson was a creature of ambition, but somehow, he became magnificent.

There's another volume to come.  It will be yet a different story, with thousands of dead young men in Vietnam and a broken, lanky, unscrupulous President finally reaching ambition's end.  I am looking forward to it very much.

Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson is the best biography of this sort I've ever read.  I wish I was still reading it.