One-Minute Book Reviews

April 25, 2010

Are We Hard-Wired for Conformity? Virtual-Reality Pioneer Jaron Lanier’s ‘You Are Not a Gadget’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:14 pm
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The risks of defining ourselves by templates

You Are Not a Gadget Review: A Manifesto. By Jaron Lanier. Knopf, 209 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Is the flowering of the Internet is turning us into a nation of container plants? Virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier thinks so. In this polemic, he argues that we believe we’re expressing our uniqueness when we launch blogs, join Facebook, or leave comments on websites.

But too often, we’re pruning our personalities to fit programming decisions made decades ago and the software designed around them. And the cost is steep for people who give away much of their best work online – all those “journalists, musicians, artists, and filmmakers who are staring into career oblivion because of our failed digital idealism.”

Lanier at times wanders into abstruse topics such as the difference between Bachelardian and Goldingesque neotony or seems to be auditioning for a spot on Oprah’s couch next to Eckhart Tolle. But he salts You Are Not a Gadget with enough life-giving anecdotes to find an appealing middle ground between writing for science-fair winners and for owners of PCs for Dummies. Yes, he tells us, it’s true: Computers scientists really have figured out “how to hack into a pacemaker and turn it off by remote control” in order to kill someone.

Best line: “The phase of life we call ‘childhood’ was greatly expanded in connection with the rise of literacy, because it takes time to learn to read.” “Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am.”

Worst line: “Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence.”

Published: January 2010

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her FakeBookNews page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews. bit.ly/DKTolle

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 5, 2009

Jonathan Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’ – Cursed by the ‘Genius Grant’?

Paranoia with a side of wasabi cashews

Chronic City: A Novel. By Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, 467 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Do MacArthur Fellowships have a counterpart to the “curse of the Nobel” said to keep writers from doing their best work after they become laureates? You might think so after reading the latest novel by the “genius grant” winner Jonathan Lethem.

Chronic City draws on an idea that science-fiction writers have used for decades: simulated-worlds theory, which says that computers will someday become powerful enough to create a facsimile of the universe, full of people who really believe they’re alive – they don’t know they’re fakes. Lethem brings the idea to literary fiction in a surrealistic fable about Manhattan during the economic meltdown: You’re never certain whether his characters are real or created by forces beyond their ken. This premise might seem ideally pitched to novel born of a financial crisis that has caused many people to think: This is can’t be real. But the idea holds a trap: If you invent characters soulless enough to have been created by computer, how do you keep them human enough to support a novel?

Lethem doesn’t avoid that danger in this tale of two friends whose lives intersect with those of a billionaire mayor and others who can still afford cocktails with wasabi cashews and “a nice black-market unpasteurized  fromage.” Chase Insteadman is a semi-retired actor, a man whose work involves selling illusions, whose fiancée is an astronaut trapped with Russians at a space station threatened by Chinese mines. Perkus Tooth is a paranoid stoner and former culture critic who believes New York has become unreal, a simulation of itself. Yes, those twee names are typical of this novel in which words seem to run away with Lethem.

The plot turns partly on Perkus’s efforts to ease his anxieties by enlisting Chase and others in his quest to obtain rare ceramics called chaldrons that may have magical powers. A subplot weaves in phantasmagorical elements such as a giant escaped tiger that is ravaging the Upper East Side, that bastion of old money and property. Many undergraduate theses will be written about all symbols-within-symbols in this novel. (Sample title: “Different Stripes: The Meaning of the Question ‘Who Made This Tiger?’ in William Blake’s Poem ‘The Tiger’ and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City.) And worthy questions underlie its cat’s-cradle of pop-cultural references, including: Who owns New York? Those references support a theme that Chase’s fiancée suggests in one of her letters home from outer space: “we’ve defaulted to an illusion of substance.” She’s talking about the deteriorating condition of the trapped astronauts, but her words describe New York as a whole: In the novel the city has only “an illusion of substance.” The condition is chronic.

Yet Chronic City reads more like a simulation of a novel than the real thing. It has a turgid pace almost no conflict, suspense, or heart. Most characters appear soulless. And the writing is repetitive to the point of bloat and, at times, graceless. Critics have compared Lethem’s early novels to the works of contemporary titans, but Chronic City has more in common with Herman Melville’s numbing final novel, The Confidence-Man. Even a mayoral aide’s sexual encounter – described as “wildly odd and erotic” – fails to supply the missing spark. Lethem writes: “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” A bit, perhaps, like the itching you may feel to put aside this book after many pages of sentences like that one.

Best line: “His mind’s landscape was epic, dotted with towering figures like Easter Island heads.”

Worst line: No. 1 (quoted above): “Remembering it, Richard’s crotch throbbed, grew hotter, the itching more intense.” No. 2: “It was my first green chaldron. (Like sexual positions or travel to distant locales, I’d been semiconsciously cataloguing seminal moments, breakthroughs.)” No. 3: “I wanted Oona in the morning. I could still conjure her slippery smoothness in my arms (and divergent cuppable breasts in my palms, where they left ghost trails of a peach’s weight), but Oona kept dunning lights and pulling curtains, and dressing and undressing stealthily, while I was at the sink or refrigerator, or asleep.” No. 4: “My shame took its place in a vast backdrop of shames – oxygen-starved astronauts, war-exiled orphans, dwindling and displaced species – against which I puttered through daily life, attending parties and combating hangovers, recording voice-overs and granting interviews to obscure fan sites, drinking coffee and smoking joints with Perkus, and making contact with real feeling unpredictably and at random, at funeral receptions, under rain-sheeted doorways.” No. 5: “Richard’s unrestrained sarcastic inflection of this last word served not only to reinforce what a poor selection he thought I’d made in Strabo Blandiana but to assuage Perkins that the two of them still spoke above my head, and so his promise of future listening was sincere.”  [Note: As opposed to a promise of past listening?]

Published: October 2009

Furthermore: A good analysis of the pop-cultural references in Chronic City and of some of Lethem’s influences appeared in a review in Bookforum. Novelist Mark Lindquist says he loves the novel but warns in a Seattle Times review, “You can find more plot in a Jethro Tull album.”  

About the author: Lethem has written seven novels, including The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. He received a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes called a “genius grant, in 2005.

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she has posted more of her thoughts on Chronic City.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 26, 2009

Getting Lucky at Harvard — Ben Mezrich’s Tale of the Founding of Facebook, ‘The Accidental Billionaires’

That red lace bra on the cover is the first red flag

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. By Ben Mezrich. Doubleday, 260 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A new art form may have emerged in this heavy-breathing, sensationalized account of the founding of Facebook: pulp nonfiction. Ben Mezrich warns you up front that he wrote The Accidental Billionaires without interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, who created the first version of the social networking site by hacking into Harvard University computers, downloading students’ photos, and posting them online.

With no access to the prime mover of Facebook, Mezrich tells his tale through techniques such as “re-created dialogue,” scenes set in “likely” settings, and “imagined” descriptions. He also draws heavily on talks with Eduardo Saverin, who helped to bankroll the start-up as a Harvard undergraduate and later successfully sued for the right to be listed as a co-founder of the site. You know all those “disgruntled former employees” you used to read about before a lot of newspapers banned both that clichéd phrase and stories by driven their views? Mezrich doesn’t use those words — and Saverin wasn’t an employee but a partner — but The Accidental Billionaires suggests why the technique has fallen out of favor.

You get a fine sense of the book from a bathroom sex scene that has Saverin undressing a “tall, slender Asian girl” at Harvard who wears a red lace bra under a white shirt. Men, how often have you fantasized about finding yourself in such a situation only to discover to your regret that wearing a red bra under a white shirt is something that women never, ever do? Have you been forced to conclude that for far too many members of the other sex, this particular sartorial blunder makes visible panty line look like chump change? Are you wondering if that “Asian girl” was simply displaying an admirable loyalty to her school by wearing its colors for sex in a bathroom stall and that you haven’t seen it because you haven’t dated enough Harvard undergraduates lately? Or do you think the woman didn’t wear that combination but that someone decided that a red bra would work best on a book cover? Perhaps Mezrich believes people won’t mind his failure to answer questions like these. Or perhaps he thinks, as he writes in another context, “they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.”

Best line: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s business card has a line running across the center that says, “I’m the CEO – Bitch.”

Worst lines: No. 1: “the end was really a foregone conclusion.” No. 2: “the moment itself became historical only in retrospect.” No. 3: “Thankfully, the Phoenix leadership hadn’t traced the fiasco back to Eduardo yet — though even if they did, they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.” No. 4: “Eduardo had spent many evenings in the stacks of Widener – poring through the works of economic theorists such as Adam Smith, John Mills [sic], even Galbraith.” No. 5 “[Lawrence] Summers shook his head. His jowls reverberated with the motion, like fleshy waves swirling in an epidermal storm.” No. 6: “Slowly, Summers leaned forward, and his chubby hand crawled across his desk.” No. 7: “Both had bright red lipstick and too much eyeshadow, but they were damn cute — and they were smiling and pointing right at him.” No. 8: “His hands roamed under her open white shirt, tracing the soft material of her red bra, his fingers lingering over her perky, round breasts, touching the silky texture of her perfect caramel skin. She gasped, her lips closing against the side of his neck, her tongue leaping out, tasting him. His entire body started to quiver, and he rocked forward, pushing her harder against the stall, feeling her writhe into him. His lips found her ear and she gasped again –”  No. 9:At nine a.m. in the morning, in the Eliot dining hall, he had walked right up to the hottest girl he knew – Marsha, blond, buxom, in reality an econ major but she looked like a psychology major.” No. 10: “Maybe feeding the chicken chicken was a mistake; how was he supposed to know what chickens ate? The thing hadn’t come with a manual. Eduardo had gone to a Jewish prep school in Miami. What the hell did Jews know about chickens, other than the fact that they made good soup?”

Editor: Bill Thomas

Published: July 2009

About the author: Mezrich wrote Bringing Down the House, made into the movie 21. He lives in Boston. Kevin Spacey is producing a movie version of The Accidental Billionaires called The Social Network.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 29, 2008

The Best Line in ‘The Last Lecture’ — Randy Pausch’s ‘Deathbed Conversion’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:22 pm
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A review of the bestseller The Last Lecture www.thelastlecture.com will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. In the meantime I’ve been watching the lecture that the author Randy Pausch gave after learning that he had terminal pancreatic cancer, which made him a star on YouTube and led to a book contract. Here’s the best line in the lecture:

“I have experienced a deathbed conversion. I just bought a Macintosh.”

Second best line:

“If you have any herbal supplements or remedies, please stay away from me.”

You can hear the lecture or learn more about the book by clicking on the link in the first line of this post. Pausch gave his lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is a professor.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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