Monday, May 24, 2010

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

This is a Very Popular Book with a Big Message. Gladwell purports to study outrageously successful individuals--those who are "outliers" from the main sequence of humanity--to try to discover what makes them successful. Surprise! It's not just talent!

As you might expect, I am underwhelmed.

When you get right down to it, Gladwell comes to the astonishing conclusion that success requires talent, plus hard work, plus opportunity and luck. Sometimes it requires picking the right ethnic/cultural background. Sometimes it requires being born at the right time. Sometimes it's being good at something that turns into a growth industry after you are already good at it.

Basically--it's out of any one person's control.

But Gladwell isn't interested in drawing that message. Instead, he tries to draw lessons from the stories he tells in order to create a moving call to social change. Many people who are successful are the lucky recipient of opportunities. So let's make sure everybody gets opportunities! Or, as Gladwell puts it:

We cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all.
Really? Does anybody really think that Bill Gates might still be The Richest Man In The World if he had been born into an illiterate nomadic tribe of Mongolian sheep herders? Does anybody think that the incredible run of Victorian era robber barons might have had something to do with being in the right place at the right time to exploit vast natural resources in a period before environmental and business regulation? That your brilliant kid will still win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry if he goes to the local vo/tech community college instead of Harvard?

I didn't think so.

Gladwell misses the real point. It's not that we don't believe that the rules don't matter, so much as we can't predict which rules will generate which successes. Sometimes rules have to be arbitrary, because we need some rules. And if those rules happen to advantage Kid A over Kid B, well, that's maybe unfortunate for Kid B, unless Kid B turns out to be perfectly placed as a result of that rule to take some advantage Kid A can't take--maybe even decades later.

We can't really predict a priori what the "right rules" are, after all. Sure, in retrospect, a Gladwell can pick out a year--say 1955--when it might be advantageous to be born, if one wants to be a computer billionaire like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But what about all the millions of babies who were born in 1955 who didn't turn out to be either Gates or Jobs? And can society really write rules that will guarantee another Bill Gates? After all, it's not like we can require that all babies in the country be born in 1955.

Which is the essential problem with Gladwell's "method"; there isn't one. He has a rough sort of thesis, and then he cherry picks his way through pop sociology and history to locate anecdotes that support it. There is no critical examination of whether his ideas are actually true; rather, because they are good stories and generally well told, they feel like they must be meaningful. In the end, however, this book hardly creates a blueprint for a better society.

Start at the beginning: the first chapter describes a small town in the mining hills of Pennsylvania--Roseto. The town is insular and almost entirely populated by emigrants from a single village in Italy. Despite adopting American diets and work habits, there is almost no heart disease in this town. Nearby towns have disease rates equal to or exceeding American averages, but sure enough, in this town of Italian emigrants, there is zero incidence of heart attacks below the age of 65. A pair of medical researchers studied this town, and ran through myriad theories as to why this might be, but by the end of the chapter, the conclusion is that the only factor must be that the nature of this particular community is the protection against heart disease.

To which one can only mutter a skeptical "really?" Do we really think that there is absolutely no other possible explanation for this anomaly? That it's a "magical Italian" way of life that involves strolling around in the evenings talking to your neighbors that is the silver bullet? How can we know that every single other explanation has been tested--do we really think that medical science is so complete that we understand what every last cause of heart disease might be, and that each one was tested? Personally, I am more likely to consider that there is some factor we don't understand and so can't control for than I am to believe that this small town is just magically immune from heart disease.

Plus--even if this is true--how is it even reproducible?

We then move to Canadian hockey players. Gladwell sets up a straw man assumption: that no matter where you are born in Canada, if you are a great hockey player, the system will find you. Does anyone really, actually believe that? I have some great ocean-front property in Haiti to sell you if you do.

Anyway, lo and behold, Gladwell discovers that Canada's youth hockey leagues have a January 1 age cut-off, and that kids born in January are generally bigger by that date than kids born in December. So the bigger, more mature kids get funneled into more elite teams, where they get better coaching and more ice time. The end result is that a staggering 40% of kids on national championship teams are born between January and March, while less than 10% of kids are born in the last three months of the year.

Gladwell asserts that if Canada had two leagues, with the second cut-off date being June 1, they would have twice as many hockey stars to chose from! But wait--that assumes that Canada could simply and easily double the resources it has to support elite teams: rinks, coaches, audiences, ice time, etc. Nor does Gladwell consider the social costs--whether having twice as many hockey players chasing the same limited number of professional spots (because the NHL is also not likely to be economically feasible at twice the size) isn't rather a waste of lives that could be better spent pursuing some other goal.

It's not that an arbitrary cut-off date has no effect, it's that there has to be some limit of some sort, and January 1 is no more or less arbitrary than any other date. Why have one cut-off date rather than two? That's an idea, but why stop at two? Why not twelve different leagues, so kids never compete against anyone more than a month older than they are? I can think of at least two reasons: 1) there's just not enough resources to support that fine a distinction (as I suggested above), and 2) there are some benefits to kids testing themselves against others who are bigger, stronger, etc.

Or, maybe Gladwell's "insight" has already been adopted, just at a different level. After all, the fact that Canada has leagues for each year means that Canada has three times as many elite hockey players than there would be if leagues grouped by age, such as "under 5," "6-8," "9-12," etc. Why does it need to double that number again?

The point is, in order to run a viable hockey league, the line has to be drawn somewhere. Gladwell doesn't really quibble with the fact of a cut-off date, merely about where that cut-off is made. Even if there was suddenly a second league, with a cut-off date of June 1, what could we expect would happen? The next "Malcolm Gladwell" could come along and note that the new system now discriminates against kids born in May and December, so there should be additional leagues with cut-off dates of April 1 and September 1.

There is also the risk that the quality of "elite" coaching might drop, if there is suddenly twice as much demand for it. Rather than adding opportunities for more kids, we are taking those opportunities away from the ones who currently have it. Do we have a better, more vibrant league if more kids are mediocre and fewer are exceptional? How many hockey geniuses are there, really? Maybe the December born kids are the real phenoms, while the kids who are born January-March are just winnowed out later? Who are the actual losers in a system where kids play hockey--or don't play hockey anyway. Gladwell doesn't ask any of these questions; he's moved on.

Gladwell uses Canadian hockey to segue into another theme--the 10,000 hour expert. It is the contention of at least one scientist that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything: music, hockey, computer programming. For example, the Beatles were invited to Hamburg when they were young, where they played seven days a week, 8-10 hours a night. Gladwell contends that this is what made them into The Beatles as a phenomenon, and it wouldn't have happened without all those hours of playing.

Okay, but what about all those other bands who played in Hamburg who didn't become The Beatles? Or what about the Rolling Stones, or the Beach Boys, or Led Zeppelin, who didn't play Hamburg? Or what about the fact that The Beatles actually didn't become The Beatles until after they brought on Ringo Starr, who hadn't been in Hamburg? Gladwell doesn't gloss over those criticisms so much as he just doesn't even acknowledge that there is any such criticism possible. The Beatles were famous. The Beatles played in Hamburg. Therefore, the Beatles became famous because they played in Hamburg. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. And, I guess it means that all rock bands should go to Hamburg in order to get famous.

It ain't necessarily so.

Gladwell's thesis starts getting even squishier after this point, as he considers the genesis of Bill Gates. Prior to 1968, computer programming was an arduous and boring process of creating punch cards that had to be turned into a mainframe administrator and run in a batch. If there were any errors in the punch cards, the entire batch would be rejected, and the programmer would have to go through the entire batch to find the error, correct it, and resubmit the cards. Even without errors, a single batch could take hours to run, and there were always errors. (For no good reason, my college roommate, who was majoring in accounting, was still running these damn punch cards at the University of Minnesota in 1984!!)

However, around 1968, a couple of American universities discovered a way to bypass the damn punch cards, and developed a method of using terminals to program. Bill Gates happened to live near one of these universities, and also happened to go to a school with a well connected parents' organization that got one of these terminals for the school's computer club. Gates was immediately obsessed, and through a couple of other lucky breaks, he managed to spend thousands of hours in middle and high school with this new technology, programming computers.

Gladwell seems to think that he is breaking new intellectual ground: Bill Gates wasn't just a gifted computer programmer--he also had unusual opportunities to program, he had his 10,000 hours young, and he got them at the dawn of the personal computing era. More obviously, he was lucky to be at the right place at the right time, with both interest and talent for computers. How innovative is this? All the rest of kids in that computer club aren't the Richest Man in the World after all--there was something unique about that kid in that place with those opportunities. Giving every kid in America unlimited access to computer programming in 1968 wouldn't mean every kid in America would become the Richest Man in the World.

What Gladwell doesn't acknowledge is that there really aren't universally applicable lessons to be gleaned from his anecdotes. Every kid simply cannot have every opportunity, nor does every kid who has any particular opportunity become an Outlier. Would Bill Gates have founded Microsoft if he'd been forced to play hockey in Canada? Would the Beatles have become famous rock stars if they'd been keying in computer code all through eighth grade?

In fact, we can't predict which opportunities will be seized by which kids, nor can we predict which things are actually opportunities. Gladwell takes us to the mean streets of early 20th century New York, where recent Jewish immigrants developed their own garment shops. The grandchildren of these garment workers often grew up to be doctors and lawyers. The anecdote for this section is the story of Joseph Flom, the first associate hired by the firm that became Skadden Arps. As a fat Jewish boy, Flom was not going to be hired by the white shoe law firms of 1950s New York. So he worked for the start-up firm of Skadden Arps, doing whatever work came in the door. Some of that work was hostile corporate take-overs, which the white shoe firms refused to touch. So he spent years perfecting this recondite area of law, which suddenly became very lucrative in the 1980s. By the time the white shoe firms decided they could touch this area of law, they simply couldn't catch up.

Gladwell goes on to point to a number of factors that positioned Flom to become the mergers and acquisitions shark he became: factors that were outside anybody's control. He was born in the 1930s, when birth rates had dropped due to the Depression. As a result, the schools he attended were not overcrowded, and were comparatively new. The quality of teaching was especially good, as there were highly educated teachers who simply couldn't get college jobs and so taught high school. He was able to get into law school and support himself because there were more jobs than workers. The white shoe firms didn't realize how lucrative M&A could be. M&A got lucrative before everybody else caught on. None of these factors is reproducible generally, and not every fat Jewish kid born in 1930 became Joseph Flom.

But look how much depended on luck. M&A became the money bubble of the 1980s, and Flom happened to do that. But he could just as easily been practicing divorce law, which white shoe firms also didn't touch, or DUI, or criminal defense, or any of a number of other things that wouldn't have become a license to print money. Joseph Flom didn't start doing M&A law because he saw there was a lucrative future market in it--he just happened to be the guy who was in the right place at the right time, with the right experience. He could just as easily not been--the 1980s could have been about derivatives rather than hostile take overs. In which case, Skadden Arps would not be the firm it is today, and we wouldn't be reading about Flom at all.

Gladwell has an appealing writing style, and he teases out interesting stories. He also seems to only ever see the rosy side of whatever story he is writing, and so one gets the sense that he honestly believes his insights into Canadian hockey will easily double the number of Wayne Gretzkys produced every year. Yet his steadfast refusal to examine his "findings" with any sort of critical eye means that they remain so many rainbows and unicorns--lovely to imagine, but without any role in the real world.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

An Echo in the Bone, by Diana Gabaldon

Is there any point in trying to summarize this book? Or even review it? As the seventh doorstop sized novel in this series, there is so much incident, so many characters, that either you know the series and love it enough to make it this far, or you don't. In the latter case, this review will probably not be helpful.

Where to start? "Outlander" was the first book in this series, and Gabaldon's debut. It tells the deeply Scottish story of Claire Beauchamp (pronounced "Beecham") Randall, an English woman in Scotland of 1946. Reunited with her historian husband Frank after they both served in WWII, they are enjoying a second honeymoon when Claire finds herself amid a circle of standing stones on Midsummer's day. Turns out that the stones are a time portal, and Claire is thrown back some 200 years to a very different Scotland, one on the verge of rising against England in hopes of returning the Stuart kings to the throne.

This summary does absolutely no justice to the craft of the book, however. These things happen, but they happen slowly, after Gabaldon has meticulously accumulated so much detail that as a reader you find you don't even have to suspend your disbelief. Gabaldon manages to make this science fiction premise seem plausible, and even rational. Claire is an ex-Army nurse, hard-headed and practical, and not the kind of character who would easily accept this weird happening. As such, she is a wonderful guide to the 18th century--tart tongued, skeptical, well-educated enough to know her history and to experience the way history leaves out all the details that MATTER when one is trying to stay alive.

It is here in the 18th century that she meets Jamie Fraser, the man who turns out to be her soul mate. There are some romance novel machinations in which Claire finds herself forced to marry this younger man--but again, the novel uses the plot as a frame on which to hang something far more engaging than a mere romance. The bulk and appeal of the book lies in the relationship of the characters and in the way a 20th century woman comes to experience the past as its own country and culture, and things that seem incomprehensible to a modern sensibility come to make sense in the context of the past.

Much happens plot-wise in the six books before An Echo in the Bone, which themselves cover some 35 years of history and range from Scotland to France to America. (Not to mention the Lord John Grey novellas that augment the Fraser story.) Claire and Jamie age as well, and at the start of this book are living mostly obscurely (if not exactly quietly) on their homestead at Fraser's Ridge, North Carolina. But the American Revolution has started in Boston, and the ripples are disrupting lives even so far away. Jamie determines that his best option is fetch his printing press from Scotland and publish pro-Revolution documents. It will come as no surprise to fans of the series that while Jamie does manage to make it to Scotland and back to America, the trip is neither straightforward nor easy, and by the end of the hundreds of pages of this book, he still is not printing anything.

So much gets in the way, and the sheer number of characters is almost impossible to believe, much less keep track of. Jamie and Claire have a daughter, Brianna, who was concieved in the 18th century, born and raised in the 20th, then came back to the 18th century to meet her father. At the end of the previous book in the series (A Breath of Snow and Ashes), Brianna, her husband Roger MacKenzie and their two children return to the 20th century and buy Jamie's ancestral home Lallybroch. Their lives are not uneventful either, and by the end of the book, it appears that Roger may have gone again to the 18th century. This is not clear, however, and remains one of many cliffhangers that makes fans of the series rabid for the next book.

Many other characters are also given significant narratives. It is my recollection that the earlier books were primarily first person narration by Claire. While Claire continues to serve as our primary guide, her sections are nearly equalled by the third person sections that follow her nephew Ian Murray, Jamie's illegitimate son William Ransome (Lord Ellsmere), and William's stepfather and Jamie's ontime jailer-now-friend Lord John Grey. As so we see the Battle of Fort Ticondaroga both from the view of the Frasers inside the fort, and of William Ransome as a British soldier. It provides a fascinating view of the American Revolution to see it from the perspective of both the enemy and the accidental participants.

There are a few weaknesses, of course, but those are far outweighed by the many many delights. I could have done without having Lord John meet Benjamin Franklin in France, and would have happily not had Claire run into Benedict Arnold while he was still an American general and patriot. There are a few too many events and coincidences--both Ian Murray and William Ransome meet and fall in love with the same Quaker woman, while never meeting each other, for example. And the farce of piracy and counter-piracy that constitutes the Fraser's trip from North Carolina to New York takes far too long to tell, and made it hard for me to believe that they could ever make a longer journey over to Scotland.

But then balanced against those quibbles are the deep delight with which Gabaldon writes of things like Claire getting spectacles, because both she and Jamie are aging. Or the complicated character of 20th century Rob Cameron, a hydro-electric employee who works under Brianna in modern Inverness--he plays a nasty hazing trick on Brianna, but seems genuinely pleased when she foils it. He is both a damaged man who triggers sympathy, and a dangerous man who kidnaps young Jemmy after reading the McKenzie's papers about hidden gold.

The gold--dates back several books to the chests that King Louis sent to aid Charles Stewart in his attempt to reclaim his throne. It came to Scotland far too late, and a significant portion ended up in the illegal possession of Jamie's aunt, Julia Cameron. It was stolen from where she had hidden it on her own plantation by Arch Bugg, one of the homesteaders on Fraser's Ridge. He apparently hid it under the foundation of Jamie and Claire's house, where it was guarded by a white sow so bad tempered it was commonly held to be possessed by demons. When the house burned down--a burglary attempt by another time traveler seeking gems to protect him in his trip back to his own time ended up with spilled ether and Ian unknowingly lighting a match--Arch and his wife attempted to retrieve the gold. Mrs. Bugg threw a hatchet at Jamie to prevent him from stopping her, and Ian shot her with an arrow that killed her. Arch, already a fanatical Jacobite who seemed to want to take the gold back to Scotland to renew the rebellion, went entirely mad and swore to stalk Ian until he took a wife, and then Arch would kill her.

So, while a crazed and murderous stalker would seem to be unnecessary to create dramatic tension in a book that puts its characters into the middle of Revolutionary battles, one has to give Gabaldon some credit for the intricacy of her work. Arch Bugg (and his wife) first appeared two books ago, in The Fiery Cross as a factor for Jamie's farm, and they served as solid tertiary characters for comic relief and plot advancement for years before they turned into villians in this book. That's why it's hard to even review this book as a book, rather than as part of the larger saga to which it belongs.

So, in brief--yes, this book is as good as its predecessors, and worth the time. The entire series is more than a guilty pleasure, and deserves the devotion it has from its fans. The audio book is delightfully read by Davina Porter, and the time spent listening feels like time spent with a good old friend.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Tithe, by Holly Black

This is one selected by one of the members of the Mother-Daughter book club, and by the time we read it and met, not even she thought it was a good book. It is the debut novel by the writer who went on to write the much more popular Spiderwick Chronicles, and is targeted to an older, YA audience. It is a mash-up of Irish folklore in a grimy New Jersey setting, with cardboard characterizations and an unrelievedly bleak outlook.

Sixteen year old Kaye lives with her mother Ellen, who is getting too old to keep chasing her rock and roll dreams. Kaye is the parent in the relationship, and has dropped out of school to deliver Chinese food full time for the income. She also loads band equipment, drops cigarette butts into her mother's beer bottles, and holds her mother's hair as she vomits into the toilet. Her life is like a bad Kesha video, actually. They are in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the book, when Ellen's boyfriend tries to stab her with a knife. Ellen makes the only good decision in the entire book and decides to move out, taking Kaye back to her own mother's house in New Jersey.

Back in New Jersey, Kaye reconnects with an old friend named Janet, who mentions that Kaye used to have some imaginary friends that she used to talk about all the time. It turns out that these were fairies, and Kaye herself turns out to be a changeling--a fairy child substituted for a human baby. Kaye starts to discover all the magic that underlies her existence, and ends up inside the sithen in the Unseelie Court in America. There is a wounded Seelie knight she saves the life of and falls "in love" with, and a complicated intrigue involving a "tithe." Every x number of years (I forget exactly--seven makes sense, but it might have been more) the Courts of Faerie require a human sacrifice which binds all the solitary fay to the court's rule. Kaye's childhood fairy friends want her to be the sacrifice, because she isn't actually a human and thus will negate the sacrifice. The fay will then not be bound to the courts, and free to live independently. They convince Kaye to join this plan.

But things are not so easy--because there is a power struggle between the Seelie and Unseelie courts (which concepts are not explained--you have to already know a fair amount about Irish folklore to get the full impact of these alliances and conspiracies) and some of the fay know Kaye isn't human, and some of them are lying about aborting the sacrifice, and some of them are maneuvering for their own power. In the end--after a lot of plot machinations that don't make a whole lot of sense, Kaye's wounded faerie knight is on the throne of the Unseelie Court, and she is positioned to be his consort. But she also has to go home to her mother and grandmother, so I'm not certain what Black was trying to do here.

There are some real weaknesses in this book, not the first of which is the grotty life Kaye lives as a human girl. When her actual life is that unpleasant, it's hard for Black to paint an Unseelie Court that is more repulsive than what her life is like living in New Jersey. A nasty "party" with some high school kids in an abandoned warehouse is every bit as off-putting as the underground sithen of the fay. Kaye's "friend" gets drunk, tries to make her boyfriend jealous by hitting on another boy--who turns out to be a kelpie who drowns her. So she's dead, but no one seems to be bothered much by her death. Her life was pretty grim anyway, living in a trailer home with her older brother who worked the night shift at a gas station. . .all so dreary and dirty and unhappy that there was really no sense that any of the characters stood to lose anything either by chosing to remain in Faerie or in leaving it.

So, in short--don't bother.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

I picked this up while at the book store, in part because of the Newberry Award sticker on the cover. It was also cleverly promoted on a table of other YA fiction, under a sign reading "Recommended books with positively NO vampires, zombies or monsters!" Which tells you all you need to know about all the other books being promoted right now.

Don't get me started on What Hath Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Wrought.

When You Reach Me is a clever and generally angst-free story about a sixth grader named Miranda, who lives in 1979 New York with her single mother. Her best and only friend, Sal, lives in the apartment underneath with his single mother as well. Miranda's mother has been selected to compete on the $20,000 Pyramid, and she, her boyfriend Richard, and Miranda practice after work. When she forgets her apartment key, Miranda goes to the nearby market and tells the owner the story of A Wrinkle in Time.

There is something odd about this story, however. Miranda has found a cryptic note which says "I am here to save your friend's life and my own" and asks her to write a letter about what is going to happen and everything leading up to it. Miranda doesn't know whose life is in danger, and soon after finding the note discovers that the spare key is missing, and a pair of Richard's shoes are missing.

Other things happen as well: Sal gets punched by a boy they don't know and stops speaking to Miranda. Miranda makes friends with Annamarie, who is being "punished" by her usual best friend Julia. There is a homeless man who sleeps with his head under the mailbox at the corner by Miranda's apartment. Miranda, Annamarie, and a boy named Colin spend their lunch hours together doing prep work at a sandwich shop, and Miranda finds herself feeling jealous of his attraction to Annamarie. Periodically, kids are prevented from going outside the school building due to reports of a naked man running down the nearby streets.

As the school year progresses, Miranda finds a few more notes from this mysterious person who seems to be able to predict things that haven't happened. Meanwhile, she begins to grow up. In a deft and slightly surprising scene, Miranda steps out of her own self-centeredness, and reaches out to "the only girl in the sixth grade who has to keep extra clothes at school. " Alice Evans is too shy to ask to be excused to go to the bathroom, and one day Miranda simply pretends she needs to go as well, and offers to take Alice along as a "bathroom buddy." She also recognizes that she is standing in between Annamarie and Julia's friendship, and manages to step aside to be friends with both of them.

She also recognizes that Sal's rejection of her was unrelated to the punch he received--he'd been sending hints and signals that he wanted to have more than just Miranda as a friend, and she'd not seen them. That relationship gets rebalanced as well.

Then there is Marcus, the boy who punched Sal, apparently for no reason. It turns out that he is essentially a absent-minded genius who is usually thinking about physics, but was trying to be a more "normal" boy and expected Sal to hit him back. Marcus and Julia and Miranda have a conversation about time travel and A Wrinkle in Time, which turns out to be both Miranda's and Julia's favorite book. Julia understands, while Miranda can't wrap her brain around the idea. Marcus and Miranda have a growing acquaintanceship, which is totally missed by Sal, who continues to avoid his first friend.

On afternoon in spring, due to some misunderstandings, Marcus sees Sal running down the block, and tries to keep him from running into the street. However, Sal only fears Marcus means to punch him again, and runs faster. As Sal steps into the street in front of a large truck, the homeless man manages to kick him out of the way but gets killed by the truck instead. It's a horrible scene to watch, and Sal lives, although he has several broken bones.

All of this seems incomprehensible to Miranda, until she is sitting in the audience watching her mother compete on the $20,000 Pyramid. Nervous for her friend, Sal's mother keeps repeating "Dick Clark just never ages," and something clicks for Miranda.

Yup. Big spoilers ahoy.

The homeless man was Marcus. A much older Marcus, who grew up and invented time travel, and came back to save Sal's life. Much of what she thought was evidence of mental illness was Older Marcus trying to remember what he needed to do, after getting his brains pretty well scrambled by time travel. And his last cryptic comment to her makes sense as well: "She is gone, and I am an old man, so don't worry." His wife--Julia--died, and he's comfortable with his own death.

So it's a mystery, science fiction, and a gentle coming of age story which might also encourage readers to pick up A Wrinkle in Time. There is really no reason that this book couldn't be set in modern day Manhattan, except for the Dick Clark reference--which is clever, but probably going to go over the head of the intended audience for this book. After all, while he didn't seem to age for years and years, he's a very old and impaired man now. But maybe YA aged readers will just assume that both Dick Clark and the $20,000 Pyramid are also fictional.

It's a fast read--it took me about an hour and a half--and diverting. Grade: A

I had to come back and add this: the chapters are all titled. Many of them are direct references to how the game of $20,000 Pyramid is played--in the Winner's Round, one contestant is given a category and has to list items to get the other player to guess the category. So the chapter where the spare key is lost is titled "Things That Go Missing." Another layer of cleverness that I missed and had to be pointed to by other reviewers!

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

Wow. Just. . .wow.

Sure there are some weaknesses. Sure there are things I could poke at. But really? They don't matter. Because this is a powerful book and absolutely worth reading. Worth buying and reading and keeping and passing on and recommending and then reading again.

I don't often say that. Anybody who reads this blog knows that I'm actually pretty hard to please. (But fair! I try really hard to be fair!) And I want to be pleased, I really do. It's just that there are so few there that blow my socks off.

This one did.

Good guy (and first person narrator) Clay Jensen comes home from school to find a package with no return address. Inside are seven audio tapes. Audio tapes? Who uses them any more? Why would anybody be sending a package of audio tapes?

The slightly antique nature of the medium is intentional. Hannah Baker, enigmatic classmate, has committed suicide, and these are her stories of the thirteen reasons why she took her life. Each one is a story about a specific person who hurt her, and the ongoing and cumulative affect of each hurtful thing. No one thing was enough, but each one lead to another one, and by the end, she was tired of fighting. So she made these tapes, and sent them out.

Jay Asher got the idea for the format of this book from working in a museum, where patrons could get audio tours. Hang the player around the neck, push the "play" button and hear a story while looking at the work, move on to the next one. It translates incredibly well to this story--Hannah Baker's thirteen stories are each tied to a location, and as Clay listens to the tapes, he moves around their town.

I literally just put this book down, and I'm not able to completely articulate what makes this book so powerful and effective. But somehow, Jay Asher nails high school--smothering and judgmental, the way teens are painfully self-obsessed, and yet struggling to be better people. The mix of weakness and strength, the bullies who take what they want and the people who are afraid to stop them. The strange sense that one has power to do ill, but is powerless to stop it. The way teens are both too constrained and too free.

I am going to have to come back to fully review this book, but don't wait.

Go read it yourself.

We can talk about it.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

This should work: we have a central mystery to drive the plot--why did the genius painter take a knife to a famous painting in the National Gallery? We have a noble psychiatrist who seeks to help the artist, the painter's wife, his mistress, and his obsession with a mysterious woman who might--or might not--also be his mistress. We have several relationships that echo each other across time and space. We have mysterious letters, written in French, from a century ago. We have meditations on art vs. domesticity, age vs. youth, love vs. obsession. This should work.

And yet it doesn't.

Kostova burst onto the scene some years ago with her debut novel The Historian, in which an ordinary history graduate student ends up on the trail of the real Dracula. It was all the rage when it came out, and Kostova was under some pressure to replicate the success of that book. Except not from me. I was, apparently, one of the few people not giddy about The Historian. A fine book, decent for a best seller, but not terribly satisfying. I can say the same about this one.

Kostova starts with a fascinating premise that sets its hook into the reader--why did Robert Oliver attack the painting of Leda and the Swan? Oliver isn't talking, and it's up to his psychiatrist, Andrew Marlowe, to piece together the clues in an attempt to restore the man's mind. The biggest clue is the face Oliver paints over and over again--a woman's face, rendered with such sensitivity, the face of such a fascinating woman that everyone falls in love with her, at least a little.

Oliver is more than a little in love with this mysterious woman, and when he's not painting or drawing her, he is reading over a set of antique letters. He lets Marlow take copies, but since Marlowe can't read French, the letters have to be translated and are mailed to him as the translations are completed. Thus Kostova has set up the bottleneck through which information can only seep through. This becomes the motif and a great weakness-this book is just so. damn. long.

If Oliver would speak, we'd understand why he did what he did, end of story. If Marlowe could read the damn letters, we'd figure out who the mysterious woman was. So Kostova makes the information elusive, and sets us up for over 500 pages of . . .is tedium the word I want? Not quite--it's not quite that bad. But it is long, and honestly without much of a payoff.

Just for an example--once Oliver is committed to his care at a psychiatric hospital, Marlowe goes to see the Leda that was attacked. This takes over a hundred pages to happen. While at the museum, Marlowe sees an arresting young woman--and it takes another hundred pages to find out she is Oliver's ex-mistress. It's almost like a Woody Allen joke about being in therapy for years, because everything moves so slowly.

Since Oliver isn't speaking, Marlowe resolves to go down to North Carolina to speak to the ex-Mrs. Oliver, to learn what he can about the patient. Allegedly reluctant to talk about her ex-husband, Kate Oliver narrates a great number of chapters, in which we learn far too much about her and very little insightful about Robert. I mean, off the top of my head, we learn about:

  • Kate's mother,
  • Kate's feelings about parenthood,
  • pretentious conversations between art students in bars,
  • her first dates with Robert and what she did to try to fascinate him,
  • frankly inappropriate rhapsodizing about Robert's body.
None of this is necessarily out of place for a novel, but it's ridiculous that anybody would talk to a psychiatrist like this, and equally ridiculous that he'd just listen like this, rather than--oh, just a suggestion--ASK SOME DIAGNOSTIC TYPE QUESTIONS? Maybe, and I mean only just maybe, he'd just sit back and listen if Kate was his patient, and they were doing some Freudian therapy. But as treatment for a potentially violent patient who has been committed to a mental hospital? How about some facts about "first noticed symptoms" or "changes in mood or behavior" or even "what medications was he taking?"

But no. So, while Kate comes off as an interesting person, Robert remains a big blank and Marlowe comes across as self-indulgent and a fairly incompetent doctor. So then, he goes and does the same thing with Oliver's mistress, only worse. Because she shows up at his apartment, but refuses to talk to him, preferring instead to write out her memories of Robert. Which are ultimately even more self-indulgent and less helpful, since she had so much less history than Kate did. And again, because she controls her narrative, Marlowe doesn't ask any actual questions or seem to have any treatment motivations. He comes off as just a gossip junkie, worming his way into the lives of the women around this famous painter.

So basically, we have an interesting premise that is more or less abandoned for literally hundreds of pages in favor of extended monologues. Not that these monologues are themselves terrible, but they fail to advance the plot of the novel, and they fail to create distinct voices. Marlowe's generic narration of the novel sounds exactly like Kate's talking about her husband, which sounds exactly like Mary's written narrative, which sounds exactly like the third person sequences set in the 19th century. Which is to say, that they all sound exactly like Elizabeth Kostova.

This could have been easily fixed, of course, by writing the entire book in the third person. Then all the drippy prose about how to paint, or how the light slanted its fingers through the trees, etc etc etc would all have been easy to just accept. Kostova chose not to do this, and the book suffers for it.

Frankly, the book suffers from Kostova's inability to actually create interesting and three-dimensional characters. Everybody sounds the same when they talk/write/muse, and very few of them are very interesting either. Of course, we are told they are interesting, even charismatic and powerful and eye-catching, but almost nothing these characters ever do is very interesting.

Which brings me to the letters. Remember those? The antique French letters Robert Oliver kept reading? Well, as you might have guessed, just as Kostova has demonstrated her inability to create convincing modern characters, she is equally bad at creating believable Victorians. The first few letters are about as banal and pointless as one can imagine, and they fail to get better. They are stilted, formal, perfunctory to start with, and as they progress they become opaque and circumspect--at best. To give them that much character is to assume that the letters themselves are covering up something that is going on between the lines. In fact, the letters become so hopeless as a device for carrying the plot that Kostova abandons them in favor of actual third person narration.

So here we come to the spoilers, if one can spoil something that a reader is bound to guess several hundred pages before the characters do. Robert Oliver has become obsessed with Beatrice de Clerval Vignot, a minor Impressionist painter who stopped painting entirely after the birth of her only child. She is the person he has painted obsessively--although he has only ever seen one painting of her face. They are her letters.

We soon figure out--again, well before the characters--that she has an affair with her husband's uncle, who is also a painter and who encouraged her to submit paintings to the Salon. They sleep together just the one time, and of course she gets pregnant, although she also slept with her husband within the next 24 hours, so there is technically no reason for scandal. Uncle then moved to Algeria and they never saw each other again. But neither one of them seems to be too broken up about it.

To which I say--what? WHAT? Why is Robert Oliver obsessed with this woman? We don't really know--he saw a single portrait of her (painted by the Uncle/lover) in a museum and then he lost his mind or something. Everybody keeps asking how he paints these pictures, all of them with different expressions, different costumes, different poses. Everybody assumes he must do them from a model--but apparently he doesn't. So, how does he do it?

Frankly, it would have been a more interesting book if she was haunting him. A little ghost story to add to the tortured artist meme would have been a juicy plot. But no. Apparently he's just some sort of insane--a version that is never actually diagnosed. He took out a pen knife, attacked a painting, then refused to talk. Why is this guy not just sent to jail, anyway? It's not like he gets much medical treatment in any of the 564 pages of the book. Nothing else he does seems to be particularly mentally unbalanced, really, and his refusal to speak is less a symptom than a plot device.

With the whiz bang opening, I had some hopes that this would be like A.S. Byatt's Possession for the painting set. What was he doing in the museum? Who is the mysterious woman? I fully expected it to turn out that Beatrice de Clerval was Robert Oliver's grandmother or something. But no. Again.

Maybe this could have been a well-written Da Vinci Code, with hints about Robert Oliver's condition discovered in his paintings. There is a weird moment when Marlowe finds the words "Etretat 1879" written in an obscure spot in Robert's home office--but it's not like that leads anywhere particularly. Why did Robert write that? Why write it there? Why write it at all? No reason.

At the end of the book we finally meet a couple of semi-interesting characters--two fossilized art dealers who knew Beatrice's daughter. One lives in Acapulco and owns three de Clerval canvases, the other lives in Paris and owns the last canvas de Clerval painted. They were once lovers, but broke up when the one went to live in France with de Clerval's daughter. These aged, exquisite gentlemen are the best thing that happens in the book. We also find the answer to the "final mystery." Why did Beatrice de Clerval stop painting?

Well, we kind of know why, because Kate Oliver stopped painting once she had kids--it's hard to live such a selfish life when others depend on you. Kate eloquently described how being a mother moved her from the world of seeing to the world of touch--the way small children demand your attention and make such physical demands that you can no longer devote time to merely looking.

But that's not where Kostova wants to go. No, what happens is that after she sleeps with her Uncle-in-law, he writes her a letter and leaves it on a table in the hallway of the hotel they are in. So of course, the unscrupulous art dealer picks it up and apparently (we never actually read the letter) it contains some completely uncharacteristic description of their relationship, so the Unscrupulous Art Dealer uses it to blackmail her. He forces her to turn over everything she paints so he can claim it as his work. This is the Leda that Robert attacked. She turned it over, and then painted one last picture, the eponymous Swan Thieves, showing UAD and his brother as obnoxious hunters grabbing a swan.

But again--not much tragic about this. Beatrice never seemed to regret not painting. She is depicted as perfectly happy with her husband and daughter, not even missing Uncle very much. Unscrupulous Art Dealer doesn't get found out, but dies bankrupt because he was a poor businessman. Robert spontaneously recovers--not sure how--and is able to sign himself out of the mental hospital and he moves away and no one sees him again but he becomes even more famous. Marlowe marries Oliver's old mistress because he gets her pregnant. And the final question is--was this really worth 564 pages?

Well, it didn't suck. It didn't live up to its own premise, it failed to create engaging characters, the plot fizzled out on most levels. There are potentially interesting ideas about young women falling in love with old men, the difficulty of living an artists life in a domestic setting, the imperatives of genius. But again, they are kind of raised and then allowed to float away into thoroughly bourgeois happy-enough endings.

Meh. C+