Monday, February 21, 2011

Novel 5: Aloft by Chang-rae Lee

Once again I have managed to read a novel that is based entirely around the protagonist and his interactions with the world around him. Instead of a plot. As a result, I'm not really sure what I can write about here.

Oh, I didn't hate Aloft. Far from it -- I was caught up in Chang-rae Lee's prose, and I read it in two days. My problem is that I never know how to discuss books or stories that are not plot-heavy.

Lee's first novel, Native Speaker, while primarily about characters, had great loads of plot and industrial espionage and corrupt New York City politics. I know how to talk about that.

His second novel, A Gesture Life, was a character study, against settings both larger-than-life (WW2 Burma) and not so (suburban New York).

Aloft takes place entirely among the denizens of Long Island, and their lives and relationships and illnesses, and --

And as much as I was immersed in Lee's writing, I don't have the faintest idea what to say about it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Novel 4: Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore

I cheerfully admit Christopher Moore is not the most highbrow of novelists. I don't care. As much as I love losing myself in Vikram Seth's beautiful prose, I know deep in my heart that I will never write like him. On the other hand, if I get myself into the habit of writing fiction every day, there is no doubt in my mind that eventually I'll be able to write every bit as well as Christopher Moore, and in much the same genre, too.

Practical Demonkeeping was Moore's first novel. It's the book that made him well-known. It's my own third Moore novel, after Fluke, the story of Hawaii-based whale researchers and the bizarre things they find, and Lamb, the gospel according to Biff, Jesus Christ's exceedingly vulgar best friend who followed the Savior everywhere. I enjoyed both books immensely.

Practical Demonkeeping is the story of a tourist-trap town in California and how the residents react to the arrival one day of the demon Catch, along with his master Travis, who has spent the last seventy ageless years fruitlessly trying to get rid of him. It's well-crafted, but somehow I'm left with the sense that Moore hadn't yet grown into his own style.

On the one hand, Practical Demonkeeping doesn't contain the one plot point common to both Fluke and Lamb: a woman who decides to become a lesbian after witnessing something horrific involving penises. (I don't think that's how lesbians work in the real world.)

On the other hand, I didn't feel like I was reading a book by the author of Fluke and Lamb. Instead, I felt like Carl Hiaasen had decided to try his hand at setting a novel in California rather than Florida, and also add a supernatural element just to see if he could make it work. I'm not complaining. I like Carl Hiaasen.

But it was interesting to see an early stage in the evolution of an author's style, rather than just his ability.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nonfiction 5: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

"Despite the third word of the title, this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you've bought one, done everything it says to do, and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why."

-- Foreword, pp. xvi - xvii

Stumbling on Happiness is the third book in my self-imposed "It's the Mind" trilogy. I think I'm ready to take a bit of a break from tales of psychology experiments conducted on unsuspecting college students. (A lot of psychology experiments involve experimenters acting like amazing jerks to unsuspecting volunteers, have you noticed?)

Dan Gilbert's 2004 talk at TED, which he made at about the time his book was published, could serve practically as a book trailer:

If you like that, his book explores the same topic in more detail. (And while we're on the subject, also check out behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman's fascinating TED talk.)

Gilbert's book is unfortunately blending with Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide in my mind. Clearly we see the perils of reading a bunch of similarly-themed books at once. I suppose this means I'd better let a couple of months pass at least before picking up, say, Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, or any other entry in the genre.

Which is too bad, because Gilbert's book may be the best of the three, or at least the most useful. Gilbert takes the time to convince us that every single one of us - or at least, those of us who are human beings - mistake our brains' confabulations for actual objective reality. We could all stand to be reminded of that from time to time.

Friday, February 11, 2011

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

I was a few chapters into How We Decide when I started thinking, "Haven't I read this before"?

A while back I read Malcolm Gladwell's anecdote-studded book Blink, whose thesis is that people often make far better decisions on the basis of intuition and "gut feeling" than when they carefully and consciously weigh the evidence. (And sometimes they don't -- Gladwell brings up Amadou Diallo as an example of somebody who died because men with guns followed their gut instincts when they shouldn't have.)

Jonah Lehrer, in the book's early chapters, discusses virtually the same idea. (Different anecdotes.) But his focus is different.

The fun-to-make-fun-of Gladwell made his name by packaging insights about people and society into easily digestible books and articles for the middlebrow masses. (I'm not making fun of the middlebrow masses. I belong to them.) He's a jack-of-all-trades. He writes about politics. He writes about culture. He spoke at TED about spaghetti sauce. And when he finally got lots of people pissed off at him, it was because of an article he wrote deriding Twitter's ability to make real change in the world.

Lehrer, on the other hand, specializes in minds and brains. He's got a solid background in neuroscience. He may never be famous enough to be mocked by The Onion, but he aims for the same middlebrow audience as Gladwell -- except you know that he knows his stuff. I read his blog.

Many of Lehrer's anecdotes are familiar to people who follow current developments in neuroscience and behavioral economics. My personal favorite: a university did a study where a sugar and caffeine-laden energy drink was available to students - for a price - just before the students did a battery of mental problems. One set of students bought the energy drinks at full retail price; the other set got them at a substantial discount. The exact same sugar and caffeine jolt both ways, but the students who paid full price did significantly better on the quiz than the ones who got the discount.

Another interesting finding: when test subjects (college students again) did a blind taste test of different varieties of strawberry jam, their preferences tallied closely with the preferences of the taste experts that Consumer Reports employs. That in itself is comforting news -- apparently the taste of these hifalutin' experts is not too different from that of unschooled hoi polloi like us. It got interesting, however, when another group of tasters were asked to provide reasons for why they preferred Brand A to Brand B when they assigned their ratings.

Analyzing taste sensations using language is difficult. I like food and I like going to restaurants, but I couldn't be a restaurant critic; I don't know how to talk about food. When these college students, largely unschooled in the science of flavors, were forced to justify their rankings using language, something happened. Jams that they ought to have liked plummeted. Jams that experts and ordinary college students alike had panned, were now among the most popular. These students were unable to put their instinctive reactions into language, so they reached, concocted explanations, and fooled themselves into thinking that their favorites were something other than what they were.

The final verdict? Minds are complicated. I liked one Amazon reviewer's impression: "Emotion trumps reason; or sometimes not; except when it does." It's hard to pin Lehrer down to a definite thesis statement that can be expressed in fifteen words or less, but in a way it's a source of pride. We're the species with really complex minds that contain an interplay of different forces. Uh-huh, that's us.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cultural Difference: Political Cartooning

When I went to Kaohsiung last summer, I saw cartoon avatar pictures of Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu everywhere I went.

I assumed it was all politicking for the upcoming mayoral elections (which Chen won easily). But I returned to Kaohsiung this month, over Chinese New Year, and Chen's avatars were if anything even more ubiquitous.

These posters are all over Kaohsiung. To celebrate the Year of the Rabbit, Chen appears to be wearing a rabbit head as a hat.

Portraying people as cartoon avatars is more common in East Asia than in the West, and it's not uncommon to see little cartoon figures of other prominent politicians on official city merchandise elsewhere in Taiwan. But I haven't seen any politician portrayed in cartoon form quite as much as Chen.

You can buy Chen merchandise in Formosa Boulevard MRT.

I'm not offended by any of this, or think it is improper. But I do think it illustrates a cultural difference between East and West. This would never fly in the United States. Sure, there are lots of souvenir shops in Washington DC where you can buy Barack Obama bobblehead dolls. But that's just the market filling a demand; it's not as if the White House is actively producing and promoting them.

Chen Chu's official title is Mayor. But Greater Kaohsiung includes a huge hinterland and is not part of any larger administrative unit, so Chen's position is really equivalent to a state governor in the United States. I'm trying to imagine the reaction if American state governments started distributing official signs, leaflets and brochures with adorable cartoon depictions of Andrew Cuomo or Rick Perry or Chris Christie or Deval Patrick.

I'm guessing the reactions would include quite a bit of mockery.

Offbeat Bride!

Our wedding has been featured on Offbeat Bride! With a lovely write-up by my wife Jenna, who was quite active in the OB community before the wedding (and after).

I read the Offbeat Brides book on the plane ride home for the wedding. It's awesome and fantastic to see us on the site.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Nonfiction 3: The Neuro Revolution by Zack Lynch

A few years back I read two books on futurism by Alvin Toffler, his 1970 classic Future Shock and his slightly less-known 1980 followup, The Third Wave.

It's easy to make fun of Toffler. Apparently the near-ubiquity of Future Shock makes it one of the most frequently discarded books, easy to find at garage sales and used bookstores.

If you read Toffler's books as a compendium of specific predictions about the future, you'd give him a grade of C minus, maybe C. C plus, tops. Like most futurists in the 1970s, Toffler was far too bullish about the future pace of space colonization. On the other hand, and again like most futurists in the 1970s, he knew something like the Internet was coming, but couldn't foresee either the speed with which it would become widespread, or how thoroughly it would reshape society.

But that would be missing the forest for the trees. Step back, look at the big picture, and you may need to squint at some chapters, and Toffler's books are a remarkably prescient look at the shift from the industrial age to postindustrial age.

Although it's a very different book, with a much narrower focus, I suspect that is approximately how Zack Lynch's The Neuro Revolution is going to hold up in a couple of decades.

The first in my "It's the Mind" trio of nonfiction books for February, The Neuro Revolution is Zack Lynch's discussion of the practical upshot of recent brain research, and what it's likely to mean in terms of technological and societal advances over the next few years and decades.

Lynch has spoken with several dozen of the foremost researchers into neuroscience, and makes extremely informed predictions about the likely future. He is not a totally starry-eyed optimist; he's not terribly bullish about the future of fMRI-based lie detection technology, for instance.

But he does make a lot of fairly confident statements about what will happen in the coming decades.

I'm sure that, fifty years from now, many of his predictions will seem overly optimistic. And others will have turned out to be far too conservative and cautious.

But his score doesn't really matter. Step back and see the forest rather than the trees, and Lynch is telling us that, barring apocalypse, what today's scientists are learning about the brain are going to have a huge practical impact on the world in 10, 20 and 30 years. Read this book and be less shocked by developments in a decade or three's time.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Novel 3: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is a popular book, a Very Important book, a best-selling book. So I will make fun of it. Be warned.

One movie critic, writing of the film adaptation of the book, writes that "every character harbors shades of gray". Really? Every character?

Hassan walks, talks, breathes, and lives Lawful Good. He doesn't have a shred of badness in him. He almost literally cannot tell a lie. Except for that one time, in the book's most critical scene, when he does tell a lie, because he is so fundamentally good it's all he can do.

Assef is almost a cartoon caricature of evil. I'm not just saying evil is encoded in his DNA; I'm saying that if scientists were to examine his nail clippings, they'd find evil extending all the way down to the subatomic level. The only reason I write that he's "almost" a cartoon caricature of evil is because I am well aware that even the more astonishing aspects of his character are not unrealistic.

I want to mock this book for the fact that the characters in it ought to be able to deduce that they're fictional characters by the amount of obvious symbolism that surrounds them. But to tell the truth, I can forgive that. The amount of symbolism, obvious (in retrospect) foreshadowing and other literary techniques on display is nothing new for me, as I've read quite a bit of modern South Asian literature.

Hassan and Assef do have one-directional moral compasses (although even that doesn't keep Hassan from becoming an interesting character) but that's entirely forgivable as they exist for the hugely gray viewpoint character, Amir, to interact with. Amir is the first-person narrator. Amir does some very bad things as a young boy, but he is very painfully aware that he is not a paragon of virtue. In the novel's second half, Amir is all grown up and he sets out to make things right, or as right as he can make things at this late date.

Overall, what do I think of the book? It's a page-turner. Compulsively readable. Even the scenes I read while peeking out from between my fingers.

Since I can't end this post without making fun of the book (as promised), I'll just say that I am impressed that on two separate occasions in the story's second half, Amir gets bad news according to the time-honored "Bad, Worse, Oh Crap" format. Examples of the format:

Bad - The factory that employed almost half of your town just shut down.
Worse - By "shut down" I mean "burned down with everyone inside".
Oh Crap - By "factory" I mean "unshielded nuclear reactor".

Bad - Your girlfriend breaks up with you for petty reasons and then immediately starts dating.
Worse - Your father.
Oh Crap - Who insists you call her "mom".

Identifying the two "bad news for Amir" scenes and assembling them into the "Bad, Worse, Oh Crap" format is left as an exercise for the reader.