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Of the books I read in the past year, Susan Choi’s My Education  is my favorite. It is a brilliant book, with vibrant language, smart observations, and fantastic characters. The novel is simple to sum up: I described it to my sister-in-law as a novel about an English graduate student who becomes involved in a love quadrangle.

The plot and story moves apace, but the madcap events only highlights and not overwhelms. In the end, the characters ingratiate into your mind. Even if you know what will happen, I guarantee you still want to see the train wreck through. Because I don’t think I can contain myself; I need to talk about this book with you. I need to give you a

** SPOILER ALERT. **

It won’t make sense until you read it, but although the story is narrated by Regina Gottlieb, I was left with the feeling that she plays an ancillary role in this story – well, more like how Rick and Ilsa were a sidenote to Victor and Ilsa’s heroic story. I think, if this were a modern Hollywood movie, it would be more about Martha and Dutra; there’s a chance that if old Hollywood did this movie, it would feel more like Casablanca than not.

OK, so that’s three characters. The last is Nicholas, Martha’s husband and Regina’s erstwhile mentor. Regina feared being despoiled by Nicholas, but she falls into lust with Martha. I really wanted to avoid saying anything about plot and characters and relationships, but it is hard. Sure, there are enough deviations from the usual plot points such that it’s a pleasant surprise. But, the point of this novel is in Regina’s narration: her observations, thoughts, and growth.

Here’s the straight-forward description. Regina starts graduate school, rooming with Dutra, who becomes her lover, then her friend. There’s much gossip about Nicholas, the handsome English professor who had been rumored to have an “understanding” with his wife and is notorious in having had a string of affairs with his (graduate) students (because it would have been wrong if it were with an undergraduate.) Regina is complicated; she deals a lot with the superficial thinking and cognition about how she will act towards Nicholas. She is on her guard. Ms. Choi then deftly does a magic trick – the kind that will win you money; part three-card monte and part dealing from the bottom of the deck – all of a sudden, we see the undercurrent of Regina’s glimpses of Martha – her thoughts on what it’s like to be the wife of a philanderer, beautiful, a mother, a professor, and a woman who seemingly had  turned her back on what should have been the ultra-posh exemplar of a modern, post-feminist woman – turn into an undertow. We are dragged under and when we surface, we see that we are far from shore and everything has changed. Regina was wary of Nicholas, wondering about his home-life and his relationship with Martha, showing peripheral interest in the inner life of Martha. But of course, Regina was not only convincing us of her sincerity in navigating through the Scylla and Charibdis that is Nicholas’s and Martha’s marriage – perhaps worrying about her immediate goal of finishing graduate school – but for herself as well. Her real interest was Martha. When we snap awake from the mesmerizing card dealing of Ms. Choi, and look at the hand we were dealt, we find that Regina had seduced Martha at the end of a rather uncomfortable dinner party. That’s only the half of it, though; Martha reciprocates.

I think this structure is needed; the novel is constructed in a way that speaks to my scientist heart. It is like a thought experiment where, by removing men – or lowering their coefficients from the relationship equation, we can focus more on the psychic fallout and less on the usual older man-mentor/younger woman. Sure, there is still a power dynamic, but somehow, the fact that they are both women at different stages of their lives give more credibility to this being an exploration of how one approaches a relationship, not just predation on youth.

Martha is probably what Regina wishes to be: a successful academic, about to embark on motherhood her own terms – at least until Regina sees more of Martha’s life. Consummation does not happen right away. In this, Ms. Choi wrote it straight, with an inevitability that both women decide to invest time and passion into the relationship. There is a bit of repartee, a low grade flirt, quick meetings and chats, until lust comes to fore.

After the relationship is consummated, we truly embark on the story, with its attendant criticisms about age and relationship. As I noted, Regina narrates, but it is her older self telling the story. As such, she is able to be generous, neither treating Martha too harshly – although she really should have known better – nor dismissing this time in her life as a passing fancy. This is a proper way of drawing out observations;  we do not dismiss her love of Martha as a crush. Taken seriously, we are forced to deal with Regina actually trying to make this relationship work. What she lacks in perspective and experience, she overwhelms with passion. That is in fact the sharp division between Regina and Martha: the young offer passion, while the old, or older, offer time. To the young, the relationship is life. To the old, the relationship is an escape from life.

Dutra eventually takes more prominence in the story. He remains friends with Regina after they stop dating; he is a good friend and is a sounding board for her feelings. Not that Regina needed any help on that. The internal monologue is amazing. I will probably name five different favorite things about this book, but this is truly the best part about the novel. Imagine the way an Aaron Sorkin character would speak – sharp, smart, verbal deluge – with the neuroses and self-awareness of a Dawson’s Creek teenager. That’s Regina in a nutshell.

At some point, we become aware that Martha essentially sets up a little lovenest. Like I say, this story would have taken on a completely different complexion if it were Nicholas instead of Martha having an affair. Martha becomes the embodiment of an escape fantasy; she teaches, writes, act as hostess for faculty dinners, and mothers. It is understandable that she might have her own issues and needs a release valve. But that is not entirely it. She does like Regina. The dramatic question becomes, is she serious enough about this relationship? She does separate from Nicholas, although the marriage was already rocky without another person entering into it. But will she take the next step?

Martha insinuates herself into the off-campus life of Regina. She gives up her graduate career, deciding that she needs to grow up and get a job, in the real world. Dutra, Martha, and Regina have great hangs; this is another bit of magic on Ms. Choi’s: what are Dutra’s feelings? Is this a love see-saw  whose fulcrum  is Regina? One night, the three of them are drunk and wind up in Regina’s apartment. Martha and Regina grow intimate. The last thing Regina hears is Dutra thumping down the stairs. This point remains ambiguous until the end, although there are signs that the fulcrum might actually be Martha.

Young Regina refuses to accept that Martha might have other reasons for keeping the relationship on the down low. She does not understand why Martha can’t walk away and take the plunge. A series of misunderstandings and mis-timings ensue. Lost dinners and coming out opportunities give way to dissatisfaction. Pledges are re-avowed and promises made; all are broken. At one point, Casper, at that time a graduate student, forced an unhappy Regina to introduce him to his idol, Nicholas. This was after Nicholas had found out Martha and Regina were lovers. What follows is a bender where Nicholas, Regina, and two other faculty members are essentially drowning their sorrows over women troubles, capped by Regina blacking out, shepherded home by Nicholas and missing what should have been a declaration of her relationship with Martha. Well, it didn’t help that Regina suffered from a concussion at the time. Like I said, this book is a bit madcap.

Shortly after, Martha and Regina’s relationship seemed salvageable, as Martha was obviously in distress that she might have been spurned. This culminates in a disastrous night, at what should have been a resolution: Martha will publicly acknowledge her relationship with Regina. But Martha turns perfidious; she whiles her time away at pool with Dutra, until she misses the party. Then she sleeps with Dutra, leaving him apologetic and rushing to Regina to apologize. Regina, to her credit, shuts the door on him, on Martha and on the relationship.

A few other things happen; we do find out that Nicholas had designs on her. We actually find out how much Regina meant to Martha, and to Ms. Choi’s credit there are no weepy subsequent confrontations. Years later, we pick up Regina’s life in Brooklyn, married, a published author, and mother. We see some resolution with Dutra. I don’t do it justice here, but he is an outsized character in the story. Funny, charming, and a real rake. We do find out what happened to Martha and Nicholas.

As the older Regina, the narration loses none of the urgency if youth, if the passion becomes tempered. Romantic ardor is nothing compared to motherhood. Now we see a mature Regina tackle marriage, with that same awareness and intelligence with which she dissected her youth.

Did I say already this is my favorite book that I have read, going back to last year? There is a lot of profanity – not in words but in ideas –  sex, and insight. I felt entertained and that I learned something substantial about relationships and how women think. The language crackles, and I hurtled into the book in the same manner that Regina loved Martha.

Buy this book. Please.

Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman collaborated on this anthology (Mr. Mazari told the stories to Mr. Hillman, who then reshaped and crafted them into The Honey Thief, and then confirmed by Mr. Mazari that the book is faithful to his words, motifs, and themes.) In the process, they created a work of simplicity, beauty and great emotional power. This book is the embodiment of a romance and a deep love for Afghanistan that Mr. Mazari possesses. This book is also a testament to the power of Mr. Hillman, in which he  captured the words and beauty that Mr. Mazari imparted to him.

The book is a collection of short and medium length stories (frankly, they were all too short – I truly wanted each to last), threaded by some common characters. The main character is the story teller, whom we do not encounter in the stories, but whose voice we hear. And hear I did; I was entranced from the first sentence. I could imagine myself in the towns, fields, and mountains that Mr. Mazari speaks of, in the afternoon, passing time while tending to a flock of sheep or taking respite from farming.

The stories unfold like parables, with the elegance and directness of a child’s bedtime stories, all the while describing the  horrors and atrocities of inflicted on Afghans as they take part in civil wars and in wars to repel invaders. Mr. Mazari is of the Hazara, what we would dryly describe as an ethnic and religious (they are generally Shiite Muslims in a predominantly Sunni country) minority living in Afghanistan. They have different physiognomy, possessing Asian features that set them apart.

Despite the violence and darkness encountered in these stories, what shines through is resilience. Part of that is the adaptability of humans; I mean, circumstances are dire, but if all you know is what’s around you, and you need to work to subsist, let alone thrive, then it might provide enough motive to just slog through. I am not saying this is desirable; in the worse case, this is fatalistic and nihilistic… work just to survive with no measure of joy or dignity. But in the best case, and what Mr. Mazari emphasizes, is simply that one must move on, bide time, and then take advantage of the bits of happiness that one encounters.

We see this in the stories that Mr. Mazari tells. These are not traditional Afghan tales, but ones concocted by him. The tales are woven with bits of history; even in the stories where atrocities are featured prominently, he never lets that overwhelm his characters. So I think that it was effective in sketching the backdrop against which his people act, rather than his characters serving as the window dressing on Mr. Mazari’s airing centuries old grievances. In other words, the story is what matters, and everything else should act to strengthen it.

For the most part, there is much happiness and beauty in these stories, even in those that address the violence suffered by Afghans. My favorite stories are “The Richest Man in Afghanistan”, “The Behsudi Dowry”, “The Snow Leopard”, “The  Music School”, and the two stories about the life and death of Abdul Khaliq (well, that’s about half the stories. I can’t really decide among them, although “The Music School” does have a perfectly phrased ending.)  In each of these, I would argue that rather than showing us an Afghan sensibility, we are shown a very humane way of engagement with the world, one that should appeal to a broad audience. The modern and the old coexist; people, foreign and native, come and go, moving freely and leaving behind stories. The tension is never about the Hazara and the outside world, with Afghans towards foreigners (i.e. invaders). One phrase that popped up in my mind in describing this anthology is “Hemingway-esque”;  grace under fire matters. How well one carries himself is the point; life happens regardless of who you are, the only thing you can control is how you behave.

Through it all, Mr. Mazari’s memorable characters behave with honor and dignity, making decisions that represent those the best of us would make. It is because of this that I say the stories are romantic; there are really no unhappy ends. Sure, terrible things happened to the characters, but that is mostly in the stories’ past. Good behavior does not lead to tragedy. One might say that this removes much needed dramatic depth, but isn’t it just as contrived to see our heroes mired in melodrama, only to come through at the end? After all, not everybody dies. Most people make do.  I choose to think that we are simply hearing some of the tales where people overcome rather than are overwhelmed. 

There is a bit of agility in the way Mr. Mazari constructed the tales; there are equal parts fancy, history, and modernity in them. His tales move freely among different epochs, in a world where supercomputers can coexist with the rhythms of a simple shepherd’s life that has remained unchanged for thousands of years. This is a book for people who see magic in the world, are cognizant of the past, fully immersed in the present, and hopeful for the future. The stories are for people who see and accept the world as is and not wishing for something different; they are for people who are philanthropes, who sees a thread of humanity and dignity binding us all. I must admit, by all rights the book should be angrier. But as Mr. Mazari’s characters might note, what does that leave us? Anger takes from the world; anger wielded against anger is a tragedy made double.

Virgin Soul is Judy Juanita’s first novel; it is, at heart, a conventional coming of age story despite taking place in 1960’s San Francisco and Oakland, during the rise of the Black Panthers. What gives the book its center is that it does feel, to me, more like Judy Blume than Ralph Ellison. This is not meant as a negative. What I mean is that, this novel is not about the larger events, but about a woman coming into her own in this turbulent time. Yes, the heroine becomes involved with the Black Panthers, but this novel is more about her thoughts and struggle to move forward. In this way, Ms. Juanita is able to integrate into the novel a  discussion about the role of revolution and the form of social change.

The story opens with Geniece Hightower entering a 2-year college. She recognizes that it is the best path for her to progress to a 4 year school, in terms of what was available to her and what she can afford. The first part of the book deals with fairly mundane… bourgeois… concerns. The novel is elegant in how it portrays the varying pressures on Geniece; despite the general sense that Geniece is doing the right thing, there’s a fair amount of negativity in the comments her family makes to her. But what carries Geniece through is that she can distinguish between talk and action. She sees enough acquaintances who have tried and failed to move up, and she sees relatives who are actually successful. She later realizes that talk is just that; she understands that’s the type of person her Aunt or grandmother may be. If they are jaded it may be because their experience has taught them to put little faith in the process.

Another aspect of the book that I liked is that it is filled with the details of living. We see Geniece form friendships and think through day to day problems. There’s enough money issues, finding work, making sure she had enough to eat, and juggling school work so that she can attain her prize. It would have been easy to recount the list of injustices that blacks have faced,  but Ms. Juanita chose to approach it from the bottom up. I happen to think that institutional difficulties are easy to dismiss because they are victims of their own generality. It is almost like knowing a story third or fourth hand, where someone knows someone who might have passed by a person who had the problem. Instead, the sum of the novel is a collection of the difficulties that a poor, black person, let alone a woman, would have faced.

The presentation here is masterful; we simply see a woman we grow to like, encounter trouble and soldiering on. Another fine touch is to show that, her most immediate problems stem from people around her, who happen to be her peers and from members of the Panthers.  I think to highlight the massive scale of injustice, perpetrated not even by whites, but by institutions set up by whites, would have detracted from the story of Geniece’s growth and also the power of the novel.

Geniece is a subtle character; she is strong in the least obvious way: she knows herself. In her interactions with  men, she comes as an equal. Her relationship begins as an infatuation, turns into one of mentorship, then into love. She eventually outgrows Allwood. It is with Allwood that Geniece comes to witness the rise of the Black Panthers.

Through  Allwood, we begin to see the complex interaction of bottom up and top down revolutionaries. The characters have it wrong. While the Black Panthers and other such movements are populist, the goal might have been to impose change by cutting off the head of the existing power. Hence revolutionary change. The bottom up way is the change by evolution. Geniece is only one example. Allwood is another. An interesting point in the book is that Allwood eventually  accepts a scholarship to Caltech, leaving the militant brotherhoods behind. It is a focal point for one of these arguments: the revolutionaries want people with guns and the threat of violent upheaval. The threat of societal upheaval is the only way to move the powers that be. Allwood simply states that you can’t replace engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and businessmen unless you actually have engineers, doctors, nurses, accountants, and businessmen. The brilliant move here is that Ms. Juanita simply has each party go their separate ways.

For a short time, Geniece sides with the revolutionaries. As many have pointed out, it is amazing how revolutionaries talk of change while always ignoring half of their constituents: the women. Despite all the meetings that Geniece attends, women generally remain in the kitchen and service the men, both as maids and as lovers. Geniece is actually ignored, and in one instance with Allwood, he was all but told to control his woman. Here is where some of the weakness in the story comes through. There’s generally a bit of reworking history so the author can inject herself into significant events via the proxy of Geniece. So we see her sitting in on Black Panther meetings, meeting Huey Newton, hosting Stokely Carmichael, and having Elridge Cleaver complementing her work and installing her as the editor in chief of the Black Panther’s newspaper.  **

** A huge mea culpa. In my research, I found that Ms. Juanita was a member of the Black Panther party, but I missed that she became the editor-in-chief of the Black Panther Intercommunal Newspaper (see comment by arthouseflower. See this interview and this essay by Judy Juanita that  came out after I filed the story and after I left for vacation.) Although I had thought that this “authorial indulgence” was a negative (and I had to look hard to find the one thing that bothered me about the book), it clearly… isn’t. Ms. Juanita had an insider’s perspective on the BPP, and so this segment of the  novel actually carries the power of the autobiography. Let’s be clear, though, I am not confusing this element with an actual work of documented, non-fiction. I am simply recognizing that there is great power in “writing what you know”, and, in this case, what one did.

There are some interesting things to come out of this part of the book. We see the marginalization of women in this revolution. Again, it is because of the idea that war is looming. No thought really is given to a continuation of society, or even what to do once the war is won. The pie in the sky idea is that somehow, everything will continue as before but with more blacks involved.

So we see Geniece come to a nuanced understanding. We see her rage building, but it is telling that Ms. Juanita has her continuing to compile credits. She will finish, but she is torn; it seems like she will conform to the system if she gets her degree. She even exploits the 2% rule, which was in place to allow some flexibility in the allocation of matriculation spots. Why not use this rule to admit black and underprivileged students? So at the same time she is fomenting change quickly, she is also enabling a true bottom up movement. The most obvious point is that, we need a feeder system to create a professional class of blacks. Even if change happens overnight, who will be a proficient doctor when that spot opens up?

To my mind, I think the most significant point is that she spends a lot more time ruminating on what makes for successful social change. Yes,  Ms. Juanita’s makes sharp observations about the  marginalization of women in “revolutions”.  But the strongest indictment of revolution is that the talk and action are easy. Stealing from whites, white gratifying, is in the end stealing. If the point of the revolution is to force whites to understand that blacks are equal and deserving of dignity, destroying their property, stealing from them, and threatening them with violence seems to be a counter message. This seems obvious: pleas for humanity and dignity from a hooligan is ironic to say the least. 

 One final note about Geniece; when she started college, of course she was more concerned with finding friends than with movements. Generally, she falls in with black student societies, all with a liberal bent. Until we arrive at her Junior year and her awakening of social injustice, I did not see rage and anger. At one point, Ms. Juanita has Geniece reflecting on how her anger had caused her to seek out these outlets, and drove her to set a goal of getting a bachelor’s degree. I’m not sure; I really think the first part of the book revealed much of Geniece’s upbringing and development. I would not count anger as the main tone. It is refreshing in that she had a fully formed goal of getting a degree, that her writing heroes were mostly white, and that she really had what we would might describe as a bourgeois/middle class intellectual upbringing. It is this self that meets the revolutionary persona, and the second half of book explores how Geniece reconciles the two. In this sense, it is a classic coming of age story.

There is much to recommend about the novel. However, I think the nuanced portrayal of a woman coming to terms with the world is what sets this novel apart.

When an author writes that he will tell you the truth and nothing but the truth, and rather helpfully frames his novel with meta-analytical comments throughout, you know you are in for a time. The only thing I had hope for is that the book is entertaining. Luckily, Ron Currie’s novel, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is in fact hilarious, dark, and observant of both external appearances and internal motives. I really liked it.

To begin with, though, there were a couple of novelistic ticks that red-lined my BS meter, even before the first chapter. Instead of an epigraph, we have an ironically pretentious discussion of why Currie avoided using a pretentious quote from Nabokov. Well, it’s more a justification for using a quote from the movie Rocky. The main character is named Ron Currie, and shares a similar biography, if not the same one, with the actual author. But why does that detail even matter for fiction? Yes, it’s that type of novel.

Oooh… that sounds bad. Let me start again. I mention the writing because, it’s the type of thing that can turn me off. However, Currie writes with a real brio and panache and makes the book work. The writing is compelling; there are enough chuckles in the beginning to capture the reader.

I thought the book essentially deals with the self-loathing, and if not that, then at least the self-destructive tendencies of the Ron character. The book moves along in a series of vignettes. Each scene offers as much exposition as it does thoughts and discussions. He jumps around in time; we know that he is narrating after the events in the novel. He writes about his time in New York, with his true love Emma, with his island drinking partner Charlotte, and with various island locals. Most importantly, at some point, he found it easier to leave his life behind. He fakes his own death. The novel is an attempt to frame Ron’s life in the context of this act.

The book works a lot like the movie Memento. Everything presented can be described as factual, but the order in which facts are revealed does matter. This is clever of Currie. Each scene or chapter is self-contained. Ron, the character, will tell us his thoughts or his version of events; one can imagine Ron just speaking, in a bar, over some beer or whiskey. He starts with some funny observations, and talks about island time and the locals; he tells us he’s following the love’s errand Emma sent him on; and he portrays his love for Emma as, ultimately, unrequited. In this way, we build up more sympathy for Ron than we otherwise would have. In short, Ron is an alcoholic and an asshole, who was not in a place where he could appreciate the good in his life. He takes more away from the world and the people around him than to add.

It gets much darker than simply gallows humor. Oh, Ron does seem to walk a fine line between being a downer and being outright nihilistic. The most symptomatic of this is that he treats his island housemate and erstwhile lover, Charlotte, badly. Here’s the thing: at some point, I forgot that he was writing about a time when he was in a relationship with Emma. His being on the island isn’t their being “on a break” or anything like that. Emma told him to wait while she finalizes her divorce and tie up loose ends. Sure, it is an overly long separation, but there was no question that she will join his life as soon as she works to close the current chapter. Ron just makes it out as if Emma will bail on him.

When we were introduced to Charlotte, he was more or less setting up Emma as an ice princess, as someone unattainable (more on this later). Emma was the manipulator and instigator, not a bystander or victim. When Ron wound up cohabiting with Charlotte (Ron makes sure to let us know that it’s her doing), it began as a drinking relationship. Due to her efforts, however, he does eventually enjoys her physical charms. His relationship with Charlotte, and its placement in the novel, makes for a fuzzy timeline as to what his precise status with Emma is. That’s a bit of good writing, I think. Random details are a setup, resurfacing later to give the lie to Ron’s story.

The story is structured to show two things: 1) that Ron hates himself, unwilling to invest of himself in order to better avoid being hurt,  and 2) that Ron cannot understand that Emma might need to work things out, independent of where they are in the relationship. To be fair, a lot of this book can be interpreted as either men not understanding women or as a cynical, male commentary on relationships. I see it as something more simple; Ron is self-absorbed, he requires of others that which does not himself offer. He does not want the doubt, the possibility that Emma has her own mind and may in fact choose a life without Ron. It isn’t that she would, but that there is the possibility. He refuses to accept that Emma is not simply a lover, but is an actual autonomous being.

Throughout the novel, Currie name checks Vernor Vinge and the Singularity. I don’t know what the reader’s background is, but it’s a simple take-home idea. At some point, the density of computing power will become so high, and so connected, that it may be able to contain and allow  for alien, superhuman intelligence to arise. Alien because its motives will be distinctly non-human understandable. This intelligence might be some mutated form of simple or weak “artificial intelligence” bots, to engineered, pseudo-intelligent decision-making algorithms. Regardless, it is possible that these programs may behave in a manner that feedbacks positively upon itself, and because of the speed of computational cycles, the generation time is much shortened and algorithmic evolution will be exponential.

True AI will arise, and we won’t know it nor can we stop it: it will process much faster than the human brain can. There are all sorts of attendant mythologies related to what happens when such super intelligences arise, but it is possible that humans will be 1) be unaware, left behind and wither away, or 2) be killed in some machine-engineered apocalypse. Regardless, we will not understand it, because the intelligence is hyper-intelligent and/or alien. There is a line of sci-fi writing that talks of humans transcending, a rapture of the nerds*, if you will, where humans will be able to engage the alien/artificial intelligence by uploading their thoughts into the computational network.

*Charlie Stross has written much about the silliness of the Singularity being a happy event for humans, let alone actually occurring. Stross can’t help but notice and poke at the undertone of the uploading into a mind-hive is actually quite similar to the mythology of a Christian Rapture. See Stross’s blog, here and here.

This is a long way to go to say, that, in the face of such potentially catastrophe for humans, Ron (and Currie, the author), invokes the Singularity as a way for humans to upload into the ether, instantiate as a part of the collective mind, and be able to offer its human life for computational forensics. Perhaps as a case for why humans were superceded by a superior intelligence form. In other words, the dream of Ron may be to be able to consider his relationship with Emma, such as it as, in perpetuity, by his uploaded mind or by the other aspects of the AI. It is a solipsist heaven.

That’s really also the novel’s main motif, I think. Ron is wrapped up with his thoughts and interpretation of events. Sure, perhaps Emma doesn’t help matters when she does also have an emotional distance. In fact, one might argue that she is the female Ron. She too cannot engage on a deep emotional level with Ron, perhaps because she is strongly independent. But I am unsure if we can blame that, as it might be that she realizes Ron isn’t the most reliable type.

This is the weird thing: what level of relationship does Ron need? At some point, it isn’t about the woman, but about Ron. It is his actions, his feelings, his hang-ups, his depression, his alcoholism that interferes with Emma. In the end, she does come to him. They spend time on the island. They are intimate. But he turfs it all, as if he can’t stand the “happily ever after” part, which he knows isn’t simple. He knows that work makes relationships work, not the romance and drama. His is unable to live in this moment, since he knows that the next bit of drama, the next moment, will be a break-up. That’s really the only next movie scene available. He sure as hell can’t enjoy paradise in the arms of a hot woman, forever. I can see it as a pre-emptive strike. Or it could just be his inability to deal. Either way, that’s the bit of ambiguity left for us to mull over; the fact is, motive almost doesn’t matter. He messes up the happy ending.

It’s the usual novel of the human condition, but it’s a really fun read. There’s a great courtroom scene (you didn’t think that faking one’s own death would be painless?) Reading this trial, I can’t help agreeing with Currie that events would unfold precisely in this manner. He also gives a resounding defense of the need for fiction in society; it’s a painless way to engender empathy. It might not sound like it’d fit, but it does.  The magic of the novel is that, although it is funny and dark, Currie treats each separately. It’s not a confused smear; it is comic and deep in equal measure, dosed out at the proper times. Something that Ron can learn from.

 

I just read Arthur Krystal’s piece “Easy Writers” (behind paywall) in the May 28 (2012) The New Yorker, in which he examines the critical response to genre writers and makes some attempt to explain the differences between literary writers and mere story tellers.

Every time I read a piece such as this, whether it be by high-brow critics or writers, I can only become saddened by what seems to me their increasing irrelevance. I might not have the talent to be such a writer, but I can certainly see it as nothing less than self-sabotage by telling your potential readers that 1) they do not have the intellect to appreciate your verbiage describing the mundane and that 2) even if they think they do, they should not bother (as if one making money from one’s book precludes one from writing a literary masterpiece – because, you know, it means that the language is somehow too easy and accessible to the proles.)

Krystal rehashes the basic gripe against genre writers: by definition, they write with a formula in mind, and this formula is propelled by plot. The fact that a detective must catch the killer or that a lawyer must find evidence to exonerate his client limits the tools a genre writer can use. Because the writer needs to resolve the plot, the focus is lessened on dramatic closure or catharsis than on solving the case. More often than not (and the critics would argue, always), stereotypes reserved for short stories are transplanted into a full length book. The result is that heroes and villains are good and evil, black and white, with nary a shadow cast to suggest a more complex reality.

One final point Krystal makes is that the word-craft seems to be missing from churn-it-out modern day pulp (I mean, genre) writers. As the self-named guardians of quality (which I find ironic; I find today’s a great many literary authors today compare poorly to luminaries like Melville, Wharton, James, Thackeray, and Hemingway) continue to cycle towards irrelevance, in the very same issue of The New Yorker we find a brilliant surrogate for the plotless, psychological profile that Krystal suggests is the domain of the literary writer.

David Grann’s profile of William Alexander Morgan (“The Yankee Commandante“) is exciting, with all the elements of an adventure tale. Except that Grann also presented actual, documentary information from the FBI, CIA, and various intelligence personnel assessing Morgan’s use to them. In other words, we actually have evaluations of Morgan’s psyche, or at least opinions from people whose livelihoods depend on making judgments about people.

My point here is that, with the wealth of historical and biographical works available, drawing on real events and the analyses of people of significance, do we really need self-congratulatory high-lit writers teaching us about the human condition? And even if we disagree with the authors of these biographies, isn’t it desirable that we focus on actual historical persona, where we can rely on documentary evidence and not the imagination of a fiction writer?

Let us move on from this idea of the genre versus the human condition (or, plot versus characterization.)

Now, I happen to agree that, for the most part, most published books are dreck; it isn’t that we need to elevate genre writing, but we simply must recognize that good writing can come from many sources. It is the same heavy handed message at the end of Ratatouille, when Anton Ego, Remi’s nemesis, recognizes that popularizing cookery does not elevate all cooks, but that it makes the ground fertile to nurture more talent from non-traditional sources.

This point is, I believe, at the essence of the Jodi Picoult criticism of the high-brow crowd. Popular writing might be awash in mediocre writing, but we shouldn’t be surprised when we do find excellent writing from genre authors.

Hence we arrive again to Krystal’s thesis. He points to a 20th century literary giants, for example Auden, who felt Raymond Chandler to be a high-calibre talent, despite slumming it. Krystal echoes this sentiment, which I find condescending. Why should we grade Chandler’s writing on a curve, judging him against his peers? If literary standards were actually objective, then one can simply judge all authors by some criteria for good writing.

Either Chandler is a good writer, or he isn’t.

I was left annoyed by Krystal’s piece, not because of his opinion, but in that he seems unwilling to follow the high-lit stance to its conclusions. Krystal identified both the type of novel and the writing style as paramount to be considered worthy literature. We must delve into the psychology of a character using highly stylized language.

I would argue, as do most high-brow writers and critics, that the beauty of language is paramount (naturally, we differ in specifics). Where we truly differ is the idea that plot and story must take a back seat to laying bare the psychology of protagonists.

I wanted to have my say, but Charlie Stross has made similar points on his blog, in better way.

Interestingly, he launched some salvos against the perception that science fiction can be defined by the presence of technobabble and spaceships. His point can be summed up by this quote:

In fact, those people who are doing the “big visionary ideas about the future” SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan’s wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don’t realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character. On Hannu Rajaniemi’s brilliant “The Quantum Thief” — I have yet to see a single review that even notices the fact that this is the first hard SF novel to examine the impact of quantum cryptography on human society. (That’s a huge idea, but none of the reviewers even noticed it!) And there, over in a corner, is Bruce Sterling, blazing a lonely pioneering trail into the future. Chairman Bruce played out cyberpunk before most of us ever heard of it, invented the New Space Opera in “Schismatrix” (which looked as if nobody appreciated it for a couple of decades), co-wrote the most interesting hard-SF steampunk novel of all, and got into global climate change in the early 90s. He’s currently about ten years ahead of the curve. If SF was about big innovative visions, he’d need to build an extension to house all his Hugo awards.

Can you imagine? He’s criticizing reviewers (but also readers) who ignore that another approach to high-brow fiction might actually be the depth of characterization of the context surrounding the actors in a story.

In the same way that high-lit authors seem intent on showing us that humans are complicated, one can imagine a writer describing complex interactions with technology, with societal changes, with ethical dilemmas in medicine, and so on. Just as people are not saints or demons, our relationship to our culture is not simple. That an author chooses to make prominent a battle scene before detailing the devastation of his hero’s psyche does not mean he has become a writer of war stories.

Clearly, most critics do already focus on language. Gary Shteyngart and David Foster Wallace are two examples. The blending of science fiction and absurdist elements into their shrewd commentary on society hasn’t hurt their acceptance. Onion skin ™ pants? Augmented Reality updates as to one’s consensus f***-ability? Paraplegic Canadian commando assassins? Ending a novel with a firefight? I think Super Sad True Love Story and Infinite Jest were actually enjoyable stories, in addition to being a showcase for the talents of the authors.

My problem with the so-called gatekeepers of literature is that they confuse their form with what they wish to achieve through fiction. Their form is the novel; what they wish to achieve is understanding of the human nature. Clearly, there are many paths to this understanding; biographies, long-arc histories, a study of society are some of the other means. Since a novelist is not a scholar, the burden of proof, as it were, is relaxed.

Instead, the means of demonstrating the human truth lies in the aesthetics and beauty of language, and perhaps bitter and disquieting ideas can be made palatable by a bit of storytelling, of entertaining. To assume that the whole enterprise can succeed only when we drain the pleasure from novels (like seeing interesting things happen to interesting people) seems to mistake the novel for a dry social science text. If that is their goal, then there is actually no point in fiction.

Over dinner at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, I was recommending Gordon Shepherd’s book, Neurogastronomy, to a friend, who is a foodie. He seemed really interested in it, having read Herve This’s Molecular Gastronomy and other books like it. I’ll say here what I told my friend.

Shepherd brings with him both expertise and experience on the subject, having actually worked in olfaction for many years. The people he works with are my friends and peers, as I have also worked in olfaction until recently.  The way this book is presented is a model I wish to emulate; it is a  synthesis of both scientific findings and their meaning to us. By combining these elements with clear descriptions of the experiments involved, Shepherd is able to place the mechanics of smell within the context of odor and flavor perception. How the system works, how quality of life can be impaired, possible evolutionary consequences, and ultimately how we can subvert human flavor perception to improve our diet, nutrition, and yes, pleasure. 

Gordon Shepherd has made a huge impact in neurophysiology and in the field of olfaction. I think it is wonderful that he has written this book, to emphasize that olfaction is an important sense, playing a role in shaping human culture by its role in flavor perception. This is a direct counter to the notion that the human (and primate) olfactory system compares “poorly” against other sensory systems because the amount of brain space devoted to processing olfactory data seem so small. It also counters the perception from an olfactory detector consideration, such as that other mammals have both a greater number and variety of odor sensors, and thus as a result that they are better smellers than humans.

For me, I also had the vicarious thrill of seeing people I know depicted in a book meant for a wider audience.

***

From the standpoint of a neuroscientist, it was refreshing to see how a distinguished scientists view as the most important pieces of neurophysiological evidence fitting into the concept of flavor perception.  This is the bit of curation that I am such an enthusiast for. We have a wealth of data, and often, scientific reviews are a great place to being reading about a field. Reviews are as much about synthesis of existing scientific threads as much as about historical perspective and charting future research directions (i.e. what hasn’t been yet addressed).  With so much great writing today, having forty or fifty years of experience may not be necessary to provide proper context for a given research environment.

With that said, it is always nice to see someone with the stature of Gordon Shepherd present such a broad picture of the field and to hew closely to underlying research.

He spends the first chapters discussing some anthropology findings, laying the groundwork for the importance of flavor in shaping human culture. It seems that cooking – with its transformation of food at the molecular level and in the unlocking of huge stores of nutrition – provides a huge impetus in humans retaining a strong smell sense. The rest of the book recounts both his own and others’ contributions to the field of olfaction.

His presentation of neural activity is that brain works by encoding and extracting information that can be described as literal, physical patterned activity. Evidence from open brain surgery, to anatomical tracing, to functional imaging supports this idea. In each case,  patterns arise from ephemeral neural activity, grouped into physically discrete locations on the brain. Hence one hears about the visual and audio cortices, the somatosensory cortex, the hippocampus as a site of early memory formation, and so forth.

For the olfactory system, this is also true: at increasing levels of topologic precision, we can say that the main olfactory processing structures include the olfactory bulb, the olfactory cortex, and the orbitofrontal cortex. As we progress to more microscopic descriptions, we can describe groups of active neurons within these structures. The whole point of the brain’s wiring is to funnel external stimuli into combinations of activated neurons.

The connections between these neurons tend to lead to reactivation of the same groups of neurons to the same stimulus. Brain centers located downstream than operate on these patterns, recognizing them, storing them, retrieving them, and matching them. At some point, this stream of information is combined with other sensory inputs (aural, visual, taste, smell, and touch), resulting in higher order, conscious thoughts.

What I say next is not meant as a criticism but as a way to understand why Shepherd is so effective at presenting the science behind “neurogastronomy”. He left out a significant area of research, that of timing. A full description of how the brain works will have to include not only which neurons are active, but when they are active. There is not enough space in such a book to detail the underlying mechanism of smell: the identity of active neurons, how they are connected, and the timing of their activity.

My old boss (among others) was combining smell discrimination-decision making behavior task with simultaneous neural recordings. He, and others, have shown that within a sniff a rat can gain sufficient information to make a decision. This is on the order of a quarter of a second. Such a system likely functions as a time-based code. This is a huge part of understanding how the brain works.

Yet I have to say, it isn’t necessary to Shepherd’s story. Shepherd paints a compelling picture by simply presenting neuronal activity as a pattern, allowing him to describe a huge arc in a few strokes. But this stroke does reveal his thinking; he clearly places a central role in the anatomical organization of the brain, which groups neural activity into patterns. At ever more minute levels, the specific connections underlie the feature extraction processes going on in the brain. In a sense, the fact that neurons, at some point, activate represents the mechanics of actualizing information processing that we had already determined to take place in these neurons, based simply on how they are connected.

Depending on your viewpoint, when the neurons activate may prove important in these processes. Is timing then a peripheral phenomenon, since the most important observation is how these neurons are wired, or could the same wires actually transmit different “information”, depending on the sequence of activity? These are questions researchers continue to spend entire careers answering.

I can imagine a different investigator may have written the same book, but emphasize the ephemeral nature of neural ensembles where the real significance may lie in timing of the activity. In this case, the sequence of neurons firing, how their activity coincide, and the precise synapses activated in downstream neurons are just a few of the parameters that affect perception.

It isn’t a matter of discrediting one versus the other; it is just a point about presentation. In no way am I suggesting that the viewpoint put forth by Shepherd as deficient, merely that he probably made an editorial decision to provide a coherent framework for the edification of non-scientists. I really admire this book, as an exemplar of a rigorous book meant for popular consumption. Most importantly, I feel that he has described the wealth of experimental detail about how current theories of olfaction and flavor perception were arrived at.

I spent most of my reading time reading back issues of The New Yorker, accumulating on my Nook Color since January. I found a few gems:

  • a Jonathan Franzen piece (2/13/2012 – 2/20/2012) on Edith Wharton’s “Big 3” novels,
  • a Jonah Lehrer essay (3/5/2012) on the mathematics of altruism,
  • an Adam Gopnik discussion (4/3/2012) of the philosophy of Albert Camus.
  • Ken Auletta (4/30/2012) on how Stanford University resembles a tech incubator more than a school.

I read Franzen’s The Corrections; I never thought much of it. He represents the best of the worst kind of modern fiction, confusing the ubiquity of the mundane with significant insight into a common human condition. I think Franzen wasted his talents; it accounts for something to have developed five unique personalities, each one an asshole, but each in his or her own way. His piece on Edith Wharton brings a sensitivity to literary nuance, a deep reading, and historical context to an overview of her works and their significance. In short, I really liked his essay; it felt like I learned something.*

Franzen makes a connection among Wharton’s great novels, The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence, drawing attention to how Wharton maintains our interest in the novels is that she draws upon our capacity for sympathy. Ironically, Wharton herself, and, her protagonists, as Franzen reads it, are not sympathetic characters.

When asked, I cite Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and The Age of Innocence as my favorite novels. The former is somewhat stereotypical for a person of my background: I am a scientist, I like mathematical modeling and games, I enjoy programming, I actually like reading and writing about science and math, and I greatly admire feats of mega and micro-engineering.

Usually, I relegate things emotional to the sphere of other – that is, our Weltanschauung (philosophical, mystical, and religious perceptions and so-called human truths), to my mind, clearly belong in the realm of non-science, opinion, and meaning. As I had written, I believe this not to be a slight; it’s just that how we engage with empirical, materialistic Truth is every bit, and perhaps more important, than what that Truth may be. That I think so highly of The Age of Innocence is due to the fact that its theme, with a big pay off near the end, exemplifies the very best of this fuzzy, but rich and vibrant, realm.

I would not have characterized The Age of Innocence as a work that draws on our capacity to identify; the plot is simply of love requited but unconsummated. I can see how the reader might be drawn in, rooting for the eventual uniting of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenski. Regardless of how one might see Archer, I argue that he is the prototype of Don Draper of Mad Men. Archer is dissatisfied with his life and although he does not transgress the oath of marriage, he has, in an emotional sense, already left his wife for another woman. Don Draper is simply the apotheosis of this; a man who indulges in his every desire. Archer is a percursor of this, very much embedded in the social forms of his time. His emotional conflict can be viewed as tragic or shameless.

What I find most compelling about The Age of Innocence, and it is the thought and feeling that comes back to me time and time again, despite having read it many years ago, is that in the end, we find out that Archer’s wife, May, knew and even appreciates him for having stood by her and building a life together. In other words, she understood his sacrifice. Her reaction is rather traditional – and fantastical in our modern world – that she is so forgiving and actually thanks him for what can only be described as the only proper course of action.

No, the thing that I find unforgettable is that Archer’s wife knew. She understood him as much as one human being can of another. She sympathized with her husband, knew him fully and deeply. To be fair, I think that she might have appreciated that Archer did not cause a scandal or rupture her standing in their community – she is fully a creature of Gilded Age high-society. That is a recurrent theme in Wharton’s novels; the rich have customs and formalities that must be attended to. Her protagonists all try to enter that society or to make a life within it. Regardless, in essence, May’s understanding captures fully what novels should do for us; it gives us an opportunity to appreciate the mind and soul of another.

I remember feeling rather ambivalent about the novel until that scene. Part of it is because Archer’s behavior is atrocious. If he did not have the courage to buck against the pressure of making an approved match for his peer group, it can only be seen as cowardly for him to become an adulterer.  That is, he would be having it both ways; conforming to the customs and also satisfying his desires. Seeing the novel as a romance (between Archer and the Countess) seems to pervert that very ideal.

Instead, the would-be adulterers remained platonic – barely, and only after May decided she needed to defend her hearth. There is something to be said about not committing a physical sin and executing the oath one takes. It thus surprised me to find that the ending was so cathartic; I felt relieved and elated that May realized all of this. I hate to say it, but I did think that it would have been a waste if all this remained in Archer’s and Olenski’s heads. Having May realize helped the novel transcend its tawdriness. It became a tale of sacrifice, such as passed for it in New York high society.

*My reaction to it reminds me of another writer, whose fiction I did not care for: Margaret Atwood. I had written, about The Handmaid’s Tale:

I didn’t have a problem with this book, and then I did. The language is stilted, simplistic, and monosyllabic in this book, and at first, I thought that was great. The protagonist is a woman who is kept down, and the main tool is the withdrawal of education. I had actually thought the language reflected the mind of the handmaid. Then I thumbed through another Atwood book and to my chagrin, she wrote in that same stilted voice, and I revised my feelings for this book.

I had neglected to mention that I felt her tale to be overwrought, excessive, and without nuance. It is as if her talents were better spent on expository works and not novels. My opinion received some validation when I encountered her essay in Seeing Further, a retrospective and appreciation of the Royal Society. Her essay had the same quality as Franzen’s; erudite, nuanced, funny, and sharp. After this essay, I wound up reading Oryx and Crake. Despite the obvious nature of the cautionary tale against abuse of science and the concentration of power, I felt that the ending was haunting and the prose lively. 

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