Sunday, January 24, 2016

Cluster Critiques

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihar
A group of young college graduates set up housekeeping in NYC. We attach to their tenuously tethered friendships as they are buffeted by life, and we impotently and painfully observe the unrelenting effect of childhood trauma (the “little life”) on one of the dominant characters. Yanagihar elegantly tells a tough and hopeless story.

M Train by Patti Smith
Although this is the second book by Patti Smith I’ve devoured, I’ve really only latched onto a few things about her. She has lived in New York forever, she is a singer/songwriter (Because The Night) and artist, was friends with Robert Mapplethorpe and William Burroughs, and she can write you into another world. When she wrote Just Kids, I was stunned. With M Train, I was nourished. Smith dishes out words, phrases, visuals and thoughts and concepts different than anything I’ve ever read. Her alternately menial and momentous mental and actual wanderings take you on journeys so hypnotizing you lose track. I forget where I am, and don’t care. M Train is a ride to relish.  

A Thousand Naked Strangers by Kevin Hazzard
Kevin Hazzard, a talented wordsmith feeling emptied and inconsequential as a journalist, impetuously decides to becomes a paramedic. In the aftermath of his somewhat brief career diversion, he shares this fascinating story of saving and not saving lives, and the crazy, crazy behind-the-scenes emergency medicine craziness. A Thousand Naked Strangers was fun, funny and interesting. 

The Cartel by Don Winslow
The many parallels between recent blockbuster movie Sicario and Don Winslow’s new book The Cartel seem to validate the truth of both stories about the Mexican-American drug wars.  I couldn’t summarize this book any better than the following quote from the book, which will stay with me for a long time. It’s a long quote, but worth your time.
It infuriates him, this killing, this death. Infuriating that this is what we’re known for now, drug cartels and slaughter. This my city of Avenida 16 Septembre, the Victoria Theater, cobblestone streets, the bullring, La Central, La Fogata, more bookstores than El Paso, the university, the ballet, garapiñados, pan dulce, the mission, the plaza, the Kentucky Bar, Fred’s—now it’s known for these idiotic thugs. And my country, Mexico—the land of writers and poets—of Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Elena Garro, Jorge Volpi, Rosario Castellanos, Luis Urrea, Elmer Mendoza, Alfonso Reyes—the land of painters and sculptors—Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Gabriel Orozco, Pablo O’Higgins, Juan Soriano, Francisco Goitia—of dancers like Guillermina Bravo, Gloria and Nellie Campobello, Josefina Lavalle, Ana Mérida, and composers—Carlos Chávez, Silvestre Revueltas, Agustín Lara, Blas Galindo—architects—Luis Barragán, Juan O’Gorman, Tatiana Bilbao, Michel Rojkind, Pedro Vásquez—wonderful filmmakers—Fernando de Fuentes, Alejandro Iñárritu, Luis Buñuel, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro—actors like Dolores del Río, “La Doña” María Félix, Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Salma Hayek—now the names are “famous” narcos—no more than sociopathic murderers whose sole contribution to the culture has been the narcocorridas sung by no-talent sycophants. Mexico, the land of pyramids and palaces, deserts and jungles, mountains and beaches, markets and gardens, boulevards and cobblestoned streets, broad plazas and hidden courtyards, is now known as a slaughter ground.
And for what? So North Americans can get high.”
Winslow is a sometimes-exceptional writer and this is an exceptional book about a topic uncomfortably close to home.

The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance by David Epstein
You know what’s the first thing major-league teams test when they’re considering hiring a hitter? Their eyes. Why? It’s not the 20/20 vision they’re looking for. It’s more. They’re looking for the unique, genetically-based capacity of some hitters to see, from 60 feet away the nuance of a muscle twitch in a pitcher’s face or forearm just a nanosecond before they throw a pitch--the tell that tells the hitter where the ball is going. They can actually test that. Wicked, huh? David’s Epstein’s book somewhat spins off writer/researcher Malcolm Gladwell’s theory, pitched in his best-seller Outliers, that puts forth 10,000 hours of practice is the “magic number” dividing line between being very good, i.e. a music teacher or a minor league player, and an expert - world famous. But Epstein goes deeper and discovers it’s not just about practice. There are more than 20 genetic variants -  and this doesn’t even count the genetic mutations - that set some athletes apart (can you say X-Men). The clinical part may sound a little dry, but the people in the studies make it juicy. I loved it.

All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy speaks my coveted language - almost none. I love his minimalist expression, and I relate so personally to the topic, time, place and culture of this book:  Horses, West Texas ranches, mid-twentieth  century, Mexican/Anglo relationships.  This was a re-read for me and worth every second. Here’s one of my many favorite quotes from the book.
“Ever dumb thing I ever done in my life there was a decision I made before that got me into it.
It was never the dumb thing. It was always some choice I'd made before it.”

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
It seems to me that humans embrace the guilt of their ancestors like the body of a recently-dead baby, showcasing shame as proof of our own superiority and our “never again” evolution:  slavery, genocide, child abuse, world pollution, and violence in the name of religion. In this letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his  adolescent son, he basically says “Bullshit”. Coates believes we’re a species capable of never-ending horrific rationalizations, and keeping Black people down is in the Anglo DNA.. This is a brutal “calling” out we deserve, and very hard to read. But because it is so well explained and written, you can’t really write it off as radical.  This one will make you think about things you may not want to think about but nevertheless should. Only one thing. What's the solution Mr. Coates?

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
This 2015 Man Booker Prize winner tells a fictionalized oral history of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, and the violent history of Jamaica in the 1970s-80s. With the story jumping back and forth between 70+ characters, I found it impressive but not really enjoyable.

Dietland by Sarai Walker
Main character, 300-pound Plum, has spent her entire life planning to be thin. She has a closet full of size 2 clothes. And while she saves up for weight-loss surgery she leads a small life, robotically repeating mundane daily activities, including her job responding to letters from teen girls to the editor of a women’s magazine. And then “Jennifer” enters her life. But Jennifer isn’t a warm and fuzzy friend or a lesbian lover. Jennifer is an underground terrorist organization handing out particularly brutal vigilante justice to misogynists. And then, in the chaos and craziness that ensues, we discover Plum, and so does Plum.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
Who knew Lafayette was such an American groupie? Sarah Vowell, that’s who. In her unmatched style, two-parts humor and one part history (all parts clever), she exposes this heroic “almost” American rebel with a cause, as George Washington’s buddy and King Louie 16th's benefactor. Desperate for a good fight on which to hang his teenage machismo, and not really wanting to be a daddy (his wife is pregnant) Lafayette hustles off to America where his appreciation for the cause and his French money are heartily embraced. This is Vowell doing what she does best – exposing history, hysterically. 

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer
You may think you know what poverty looks like - the cause, the solution. Probably not. This book doesn’t take a rhetorical political side, it just looks closely at the issues. Educational and depressing.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
I felt so removed by comedian Aziz Ansar and NYU sociology professor Eric Klineneberg’s book I felt like a grandparent observing clever child-play, and wanting to say, “That is so cute!” Digital dalliance is not something I’ve engaged in but I can appreciate the nuances and politics of putting something in writing – which is largely what this book is about – intimate relationships platformed in technology. Wow. Skip a generation of dating because you’re monogamous, and the dating world tilts. Ansar and Klinenberg take an interesting clinical and sometimes funny look at “sexting” and the worldwide trends of relationships - “89 percent of the global population lives in a country with a falling marriage rate.”  Meh.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown

When a friend shared the following Teddy Roosevelt quote, which is the anchor for Brené Brown’s book, Rising Strong, it made me want to read the book. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; … and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” 

In Rising Strong, Brown says, “A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor.” And in that way that the best of syllogists‎ do, she challenges us to mine deep into our worst mistakes, take responsibility, learn, recognize the effort, forgive ourselves, and move on. It wasn’t fun. I found myself wanting to grind the book up in my garbage disposal. But Brown, not unlike a parent, metaphorically slaps the shit out of us, then hugs us and tells us she loves us and just wants the best for us. It was a interesting exercise and Brown is certainly an insightful observer, but I can’t say it was fun.

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