I have a few things to say about this book, and mostly they are below the fold. First, a general gripe. Why, in this day and age, isn't there a niche for the 80 page book? Because I am sick of books that have been stretched and extended to make 150 pages. I would buy an 80 page book (although not for $24.95, don't get me started) and I would be glad to read a compellingly written 80 page discourse.
This book is 164 pages, if you count the 11 page "Introduction" preceding Chapter 1, which the page numbering folks decided to do. There are various appendices and endnotes and an index that stretch the package out to 278 pages, but really there's about 80 pages of substance here. The author inserts anecdotes and some handwaving and some editorializing to get this manuscript to book length, and I really wish she hadn't. The substance interests me; the anecdotes and handwaving don't.
Another bit before I get into the details of the book. I've read a fair number of books on related subjects: brain chemistry and/or structure, and how evolutionary imperatives created the way we perceive, interpret, experience, feel the sensations and moods that make up reality. Listening to Prozac is one such book, probably the best I've read. The Moral Animal is another I haven't reread in years, but that made a strong impression in 1995. I think it's possible to write a good, mainstream book about brain structure and human experience and behavior that blends science and anecdote. I don't think The Female Brain succeeds in this endeavor as much as some of those other books.
How the pre-Disney "Little Mermaid" story went. I remembered the part about how when she left the sea, each step she took with her legs felt like walking on knives. But I'd forgotten that she gave up her voice, too. And I completely forgot how it ended -- that the prince didn't choose her, after all, and that she chose not to kill him to save her life, and she ended up as the wind, a daughter of the air....
My book group is reading a Harry Potter book and discussing the book, and the series, and the phenomenon, on Sunday. I've read all six of the books, and for this month I re-read the ones that I have on my bookshelf: Book 1 (which was the official assignment), Book 5 and Book 6. I'm really looking forward to our discussion, because these are smart readers, and I know we will have some sharply opposed views about the Harry Potter phenomenon.
I think the Harry Potter series has three levels on which it can be evaluated. Level One is the particular storyline and writing contained in a particular book. Level Two is the magical alternative world that is created in the books. Level Three is the ongoing, larger story arc that is being played out in the series, across the six books. For me, thinking about the three levels separately is important, and I hope that we can use that framework to organize our book group discussion. I suspect that within our group, the fans and the detractors of the book and the series and the genre will find their different outlooks depend, largely, on their response to Level Two. And I think there's a larger conversation to be had, perhaps, about people's openness to genre fiction, or to novels that explicitly move into worlds that are not REAL. In other words, I think the people who are thrilled and delighted to read about Diagon Alley or the rules of Quidditch or transportation by floo powder or the other details and rules of the wizarding world in the Harry Potter books are the same people who are open to reading science fiction. And there are people who just don't want to go into an imaginative landscape in their fiction. I'm interested in why that is -- why those readers will happily go into Jane Austen's or Charles Dickens' world, in which the rules and opportunities governing how people live are not the same as those in our modern world, but they are disinterested in a novel (say, The Dispossessed) that takes place in the future, or on a different planet, or something like that.
Anyway, here are my thoughts about Harry Potter on each of those three levels.
You may be wondering why I have not blogged about the forthcoming book Anonymous Lawyer, by Jeremy Blachman. You may not be wondering -- you may have assumed that I haven't read it or that I'm not interested in it or that I don't think you would be interested in it. If you assumed any of those things, you were mistaken.
Here's why I haven't written about it. I just counted, on my hard drive. I have 12 drafts of the book saved there. I've read it and edited it and read it again and had countless phone conversations and email exchanges with Jeremy when he was writing it. If the book were a baby, I might be one of the midwives or nurses in the birthing room. Or an aunt. I feel pretty connected to the book.
So I can't review it as a book with any real integrity. My dad read it, and liked it, and so did my housemate. Neither of them are lawyers. Both thought it was funny. I can tell you it is funny, with confidence, not just because of that but because there were still moments after reading draft after draft when I would laugh out loud. That's pretty rare for me, but the book has a lot of dark and spot on humor.
What I think is most interesting about the book is what Evan Schaeffer commented on in his review. I think it's the first book that uses a blog as a narrative vehicle, and in doing so Jeremy explores a question I find pretty compelling -- how do we know who to trust? What makes someone authentic, believeable, truthful? Anonymous Lawyer, the character, has a distinctive narrative voice and in his trumped-up, over-the-top, angry and heirarchical persona he tells exaggerated stories. But there's some kind of truth in that voice, and the blog has hit a vein. People respond. In the book, there's an active tension between the blog persona and the "real" persona (as evidenced by emails). Sometimes AL is telling the "truth" on the blog, and sometimes in the emails, and sometimes he's lying in both. The reader is faced with an unreliable narrator, and I find novels with unreliable narrators complex and interesting.
I don't think the strength of the book is its plot, or its depiction of law firm life. It's not a memoir or a thriller or a highbrow "modern literature" book and its' not intended to be a truthful depiction of the life of a corporate law partner. It's a funny, fast, novel, with a healthy dose of social commentary about heirarchy and where we find meaning. It's about our self-image and how we construct it, and how we prop up that self-image when it falters. And it's the first novel to explore, in a fairly interesting way, the way blogs do that. Blogs are private, and public. As a vehicle for an unreliable narrator the blog is very interesting, and I am not sure the cultural conversation about blogs has really started to embrace the complexity of the way people are exploring, sharing, and creating their identities online. I think the book begins that conversation in an interesting way.
On a personal note, it's been a really neat experience for me to watch Jeremy construct the book. I feel pretty certain that it will be a commercial success, and it's fun to have a friend going through the publishing process who can tell me about the ups and downs and victories and frustrations.
I'm reading Flourishing. I'm enjoying it. It's more scholarly than I had hoped for, and because each chapter is written by different authors, usually more than one author, the quality of writing varies widely from chapter to chapter. Lots of footnotes. Basically, it's a literature review of the various psychological studies that have and have not been done on various aspects of human happiness. The scholarly nature of the tome makes me feel less flaky for reading and liking it, as does the conscientiousness of citations and the limitations with which the authors draw their conclusions.
The chapters of the book cover various elements of human experience, and each summarizes the research into people's different responses and their different levels of perceived satisfaction or fulfillment. Section 1 includes a chapter about resilience, one about turning points, and one about optimism. The second section talks about engagement and finding meaning, about personal goals and the differences in life satisfaction that people who set and achieve certain kinds of goals, and about relationshops. The third section looks at studies about creativity and genius, about people's approaches to work and hobbies, and about well being in the workplace and its relationship to business outcomes. I haven't read the fourth section yet -- doing well by doing good, elevation and morality, and something with "Meta-Hueristics" in the title that I can only hope to figure out the meaning of when I read it.
We had a rousing fight at book group on Sunday, which is why it is so much fun to go every month. Among the things we were talking about, that we always talk about, is what makes a book worthwhile. Should it feel like work to read a book, or should one be compelled through it by writing and plot and character? Is there virtue in WORKING hard, concentrating, or is that an indication that the author has been unskillful? We have some diverging viewpoints in the group about this issue.
We also talked about the Mill on the Floss, how slowly it starts, and how un-modern the amount of attention to landscape and small domestic squabbles is. A contemporary editor would slash 50% of the first 350 pages, I'm sure, to get to the story more quickly, even though the writing is descriptive and lovely. We talked about what that stylistic preference is, and how to judge books written in a different era. We talked about the Da Vinci Code -- half of us have read it and half either refuse to or tried and couldn't bear it. What makes a book worthwhile? One person described the Da Vinci Code as "trash" but had read it three times. If you want to read a book three times, is it trash?
We talked about shortening attention spans, and there were of course some disparaging remarks made about kids today, how they watch too much TV and don't read. I chimed in with a cautionary remark and a reference to Steven Berlin Johnson's Everything Bad is Good For You. I haven't read the book yet but I've heard him speak, and I suggested that it's not entirely clear that all new media of storytelling -- movies, television, videogames -- are inferior to the book in terms of what they require from and elicit in the viewer. I repeated something I remember Bran Ferrin saying years ago: It is storytelling, not the book, that is the enduring and universal need of human beings. Great storytelling will always draw us in. I think he's right, and I think being attached to a single medium of storytelling is a mistake. The technology we use to tell stories will change -- we're not painting cave walls anymore. But we'll always have stories, and we'll always come together to share them and to react to them. Why are books better? Oooh, lots of opinions about that.
It was a lively conversation, full of spark and juice, as usual. I was reminded of it this morning by this post by Rob Hyndman about the future of books.
Just read A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. What a great book. I laughed out loud in several places, which is something people say a lot but really is quite rare in my experience. He gets dialogue and character just right, and the way these characters bump into one another is fantastic.
This is going to sound odd, but one of my habits is to think about scenarios where characters from really different walks of life get stuck together. It's a framework for thinking about the fiction I might write, I guess, although the truth is when I sit down to write fiction I rarely use any of these imagined scenarios. I guess it's just a mental game I play with myself sometimes. Like, a subway car: what if it stopped and the people in it are stuck together and have to interact, what happens, where do the alliances form, and how would people's perceptions of class and age and race play into the dynamic. But of course there are people who would never take the subway, so that scenario is incomplete. Airports are better, most everyone ends up in an airport sometime in life, but that too isn't perfect. You might never travel; you might have your own plane. Does everyone grocery shop? Maybe we could end up with an interesting mix of people there? But I'm not sure Paris Hilton goes to the grocery store. Not that I want Paris Hilton in my scenario.
Anyway, Nick Hornby has imagined a terrific scenario for getting people with really different lives, educations, and perspectives on the world immediately mixed up in one another's lives. Four people meet on the top of a building in London on New Year's Eve; they're all going to commit suicide by jumping off the top. Without anything to lose or any expectation of consequences, they start off honest (mostly) with one another. And crabby and pissed off. And reasonably sympathetic. Hilarity ensues, although it's not a particularly happy book. It's not a sad book, either. It's a very funny book.
What I like the most about it is the voices of the characters. He gets them very right on. The narration is split four ways, so you have four first-person narrators with really different voices. But each of them relates the action and the dialogue of the other characters and so you get a really round view of all of the four, from their own eyes and from the eyes of the other three. They're consistent. And of course the four characters are about as different as you can get, which makes for crackling dialogue and lots of conflict.
It's a great book. Very quick; it'll take you a day or two. Enjoy.
Hi there. I didn't mean to leave such a bleak post at the top for so long. My silence hasn't been about despondency so much as it's been about a head cold. The sun came out yesterday morning for a while, and Lila and I took a long walk together and it smelled like spring. So that has helped a lot. The head cold is moderately bad. It feels like a horse is stepping on my head, most of the time, and there's a fair amount of sneezing and sniffling and sleeping.
Expect a post about Lila, the new dog, someday soon. I haven't written about her yet partly because she's skittish and I was fearful that some of this shelter skittishness would take its form as aggression. I want to do right by this dog, but I also do not want a dog that is aggressive, or that I can't feel safe inviting people around. So we were in trial mode, and I didn't want to write too much about her because in the terrible circumstance that she didn't work out I would have felt even worse about it if a couple hundred internet strangers all second-guessed me. But she's calming down and showing much more affection and trust and she's quite disarming and loveable. So I'm pretty sure we're a good match. I'll introduce her when I can get my hands on a digital camera.