Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Book Review: A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers

I bought and read Dave Eggers A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius because of the title alone.  I felt guilty while reading it, because the book felt self-indulgent, as if I were bathing in the coolness of my own generation and I'll admit that I enjoyed the book.  In subsequent works by Eggers, I've gone from writing him off (You Shall Know Your Own Velocity, which I enjoyed, but which felt like literary candy) to establishing him as a prominent voice/author of my generation (What is the What and Zeitoun, both great [non-fiction] books IMO).

When I heard he was releasing a new novel, I was quite excited.  Could he be one of the great writers of our time?  Would this book solidify him as a literary voice much greater than the candy-peddling masses of authors out there?

Eggers, a very clear supporter of the printed and physical book, would be dismayed to know I didn't opt for the very nicely designed hard-cover, but rather the convenience of reading his new work on my Kindle.

Once I had the book, I dove right in.  I really wanted this book to wow me.

It is very easy to spot the distinctive change in Eggers voice in this book.  It is written very simply, very clearly, very straight forwardly.  The prose is highly readable and the pages turn quickly.

The novel details a business trip for our lead character Alan Clay to Saudi Arabia where he and his team are pitching hologram technology to the King.  Alan is a bit down on his luck, looking for a bright spot to redeem himself after a long, downward slide.

Alan's detached nature in this land so far from his home reminded me of Bill Murray's character in the movie "Lost in Translation".  A paranoid, young student who served as his personal driver invigorates Alan the most...  the most life we see from Alan is when his young driver takes him into the mountains, to a large house his father has build through hard work and determination, a hideaway in this case from thugs of a man who believes this driver is sleeping with his wife.  The threat of trouble, firearms and being the vastly odd-man-out all bring out something in Alan that is as close to alive as we see in the entire novel.  But it isn't authentic, it's more Alan trying hard to be something he knows he cannot be, trying hard to be someone in the eyes of people who are suspicious of him to begin with, people who he cannot help but try and win over only to push them further away.

That section was one of my favorites from the book, as Alan thinks back on his life, on building a wall in his hard with his own hands, the satisfaction he felt in doing so, only to have to destroy it for violating zoning laws.  He imposes himself on some local villagers building a wall, and while as the reader you want to believe this is going to lead to some sort of breakthrough emotionally, it leads to a sore back, to an attempt at solidarity that falls well short of intention.

There are very few scenes in this novel in which Alan appears comfortable...  not in the business meetings, not with his colleagues, not with women nor with friends.  And probably the most uncomfortable moments are those Alan spends with himself, drinking home-brewed alcohol and trying to find the right words to say to his daughter on his ex-wife's behalf.  And that basically summarizes Alan for me...  he isn't spending his energies trying to figure out how to be a better father himself, or a better man himself, in his daughter's eyes or anyone's, even HIS for that matter.  He isn't selling a product he is passionate about, doesn't work with people he bonds strongly with, isn't ever really committed to any idea, even as far as the one he is thinking right now.

I do appreciate what Eggers did in trimming the fat from this novel.  I appreciate the straight forward voice and the no frills story.  This is not, however, a "Hemingway-esque" story, as I have heard some commenters say.  There is no bravado, no success, no celebration...  no real emotion in this book.  I certainly enjoyed the read, but I never really connected with this story.  Eggers voice is a good one, being direct is great, but not at the expense of cutting out the emotional core of a novel.  Let's hope his next effort improves on that.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book Review: My Revolutions, by Hari Kunzru

After reading Hari Kunzru's God's Without Men, I was very interested in reading more of Kunzru's work.  Without too much thought to which of his previously written works I'd select, I picked up My Revolutions.  The lead character of this novel, Michael Frame (or Chris Carver, as we come to find out), doesn't present a lot of positive qualities the reader can latch on to.  He is an emotionally numb, middle aged man who barely presents the picture of working, largely being supported by his entrepreneurial wife.

The separation of his values from hers triggers memories of his youth, inserts distance between them and leads him into a chase to find his old self, or his old self in the eyes of an ex-lover, who he believes he has seen (despite being dead) on a trip to the south of France.

This vision triggers his memory of his past as a radical revolutionary, fighting against a capitalist establishment, the very embodiment of which he now sees in his wife.  So he runs away...  he escapes in search of his dead former lover, in search of some vision of himself that he wants to see, something better than what he has become.

As a reader, I'm never convinced that the "self" he is searching for is better or worse than the "self" he feels he has become.  I don't see a lot of positive qualities in either character.  This is the meat of what Hari Kunzru seems quite good at, which is to keep me reading despite not really liking the reality I'm reading about.

When describing the younger years in Michael/Chris' life, there is an absolute grittiness overwhelming any sense of the "youthful revolutionary cool" that one might expect.  Parties, love affairs, drinking, and drugs do nothing to glamorize the criminal, addiction-fueled and often violent moral righteousness he and his group of friends impose, all from the dingy dwellings they overtake.

Kunzru's ability to turn emotional revulsion into a somewhat morbid curiosity, be it to find out how low the character can sink, or whether he'll emerge in any way more positive a light, keeps the reader plugged into this novel.  It's a page turner you never really feel good about, but don't want to walk away from either; something under the covers you wouldn't sign up to see but can't take your eyes off.

While I much prefer God's Without Men, My Revolutions was a great read.  What it confirmed most in my mind is that Kunzru is one of the most exciting authors of this generation, and I'll certainly add him to my list of must-buy authors (Mitchell, Marukami, etc..) as I eagerly await his next book.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bequething eBooks

Something I've never thought about before: when you die, what happens to your eBooks? Turns out, they might not be able to be passed onto your next-of-kin like the physical objects:
...with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files — but they don’t actually own them. Apple and grant “nontransferable” rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the “White Album” to your son and “Abbey Road” to your daughter.
According to Amazon’s terms of use, “You do not acquire any ownership rights in the software or music content.” Apple limits the use of digital files to Apple devices used by the account holder.
I knew something was fishy with eBooks because of the tight restrictions in loaning them out that obviously don't exist on physical objects, but this is even more disturbing. Part of the fun of building up a library is knowing that it's yours and that you can do with it what you will. Or is this just scaremongering? I have a hard time believing that someone who has a collection of 1000 eBooks won't be able to pass some of those along to his kids. After all, couldn't they just use the original account to access the content?

What do you think?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Club House Psychology

"We don't understand why the Red Sox played better without Nomar than with him, so we credit it to clubhouse psychology . . . . This is illogical, and it isn't really any different than attributing it to witchcraft." -- Bill James

There are any number of reasons why the Red Sox are playing so poorly.  To attribute it to clubhouse psychology is to take the easy way out.  After all, who knows what the players are thinking?

But if I was a member of the Red Sox . . . and if I saw Josh Beckett dawdle around all year . . . and then if I saw that his reward was getting traded to a long-term contender with an energetic fan base, a fun manager, a positive press corps, and owners who care about the team but don't meddle . . . well . . .

Of course, some of the very new players (Middlebrooks) and very old players (Podsednik) will never see such a sweetheart deal unless they play hard enough to get other teams interested.  But for the others who already have established records, what's the point of playing their hearts out?

If you know that the Red Sox are in rebuilding mode, and if you know you have an established record that will interest other teams, maybe its better to take a break and not try very hard.  You may just find yourself in a friendlier place to play ball.

Book Review: Brian Greene's "Hidden Reality"

The sub-title of Brian Greene's Hidden Reality is "Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos."  It's advertised as an accessible examination of the physics behind parallel universes (both the multiverse and the many-worlds theory of Quantum physics). The subject it covers is fascinating, if complex: Greene details nine actual theories that detail the existence of other universes in addition to the one we know and love. The most basic of these theories claims that if the universe is infinate, since there's only a finate number of ways that you can arrange matter, then logically patterns of matter would repeat, leading - somewhere out there - to duplication of our universe. The more complex of the theories rely on very abstract theoritical frameworks like the probability of Quantum Mechanics and String Theory. For another taste of this, get it straight from the man himself:

Greene is a good writer, and does his best to simplify the science behind these complicated theories However, it's a daunting task: string theory in particular is so abstract and antithetical to our everyday life that it's very hard to follow - particularly if you're reading the book in segments. For example, here's an interview where he attempts to explain the brane multiverse:
...the brane multiverse, in which our universe is envisioned to reside on a giant membrane, an ingredient that comes out of string theory. It’s actually a three-dimensional membrane, but thinking in two-dimensional terms is easier. Think of our universe as if it were a huge slice of bread, with all the stars and all the galaxies sprinkled across its surface. The math of string theory suggests this picture, along with the possibility that there are other universes, other slices of bread, all constituting a big cosmic loaf.  
In the book, he expands upon the three-dimensional idea by stating that "...few of us can picture two coexisting but separate three-dimensional entities, each of which could fully fill three-dimensional space." (page 130) His loaf analogy is a nice attempt, but he has to keep revisiting it whenever new details arise, until the whole thing gets incredibly complicated - just like the theory. For that reason, I can't recommend this book to the layman; it's just not an easy-to-grasp, high-level explanation of the concepts behind parallel worlds. Granted that, it is an interesting book on a fascinating subject, but in my opinion it couldn't get over the hump that simply grasping the meaning of theoretical physics can be difficult, much less following them to their logical conclusion.

Note for the Kindle edition: I found the footnotes and graphics to be problematic, mainly because you can't jump back to where you were without making note of the page number and manually entering it in. Would it really be that hard to make the footnote a two-way street? Also: there was obviously no color in the graphics. These two factors combined made me wish I had purchased the dead-tree edition of this book.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bill James and the Red Sox

Hardballtalk notes that Paul Henry wants to give Bill James more power in the Red Sox organization moving forward: Henry informed the Herald, James had fallen “out of favor over the last few years for reasons I really don’t understand. We’ve gotten him more involved recently in the central process and that will help greatly. He’s the father, so to speak, of baseball analysis and a brilliant iconoclast who looks at things differently from everyone else.”
Two quick thoughts:

  1. I wasn't even aware that James was still with the team. It's good to hear that he's still around!
  2. I wonder if his lack of influence led to the FO losing its way with the Lackey and CarlCrawford signings. I'm curious to hear what exactly his input was over the last few years.
  3. This is another good sign that the Sox are committed to James' typical method of building up their own talent and finding free agents in the rough.
Update: Over the Monster writes more eloquently about this announcement: "For John Henry to say that James had been marginalized in some way these past few seasons strongly implies that this upcoming rebuild will truly be a return to what Rob Neyer (James’ former research assistant) recently called "first principles"- namely payroll flexibility, a strong farm system and avoiding long term free agent contracts."