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 fiancĂ© 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.

1 comment:

  1. Still in 2010, Chetan Bhagat featured in TIME's 100 influencial persons... Didn't like the call centre story (2005) myself, neither read his latter works. However for some reason, I liked his five point someone as compared to the Booker winning White Tiger...