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July 2014

Humans of New York

Humans of New York
by Brandon Stanton

Here is a book I love: Humans of New York. The photography is beautiful, the blurbs given about the people in the photographs (quotes from the people pictured, sometimes) short, and perfect.

Don't just visit the website; it's not the same experience. (The website has too much going on for me to follow, and the blurbs are all longer.) Look at the book, slowly. It reminded me it had been way too long since I've enjoyed a book of photography.

That is all.

The latest Michael Lewis: Flash Boys

Flash Boys
by Michael Lewis

Here's a shocker: I enjoyed Michael Lewis's latest investigation into financial malfeasance, Flash Boys.

You'd think a book about an acronym as bland as HFT (high frequency trading, as in trading a lot of stocks a million times and very very fast, in order to make money) would not be all that fast-paced. But you would not be reckoning on Michael Lewis: he has, and has always had, a real touch with writing about boring and often very complex financial machinations and making them somewhat comprehendable to people whose eyes tend to go blank when they hear phrases like "trading derivatives."

Lewis first became interested in this subject when he followed the case of Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian computer programmer who worked for Goldman Sachs but, after leaving them to take a new job, was charged with (and convicted of) stealing their proprietary computer code. This led Lewis to investigate exactly how the stock market is manipulated in a multitude of different ways, all day every day, and millions of times a second.

That is not a typo. A microsecond is one-millionth of a second, and it is a unit of time (along with milliseconds and nanoseconds) in which high frequency traders deal. I won't go into all the details--if you want a better synopsis of the book, listen to a brief Michael Lewis interview about it--but I will say I really, really enjoyed it. And it was kind of a hopeful story, for a change: he found some people who were using their smarts to try and plug loopholes and make the market "make sense." Much of the narrative focuses on Brad Katsuyama, a high-level finance professional and Canadian who tried to figure out why the market fluctuations he was seeing didn't make sense, and what I enjoyed most about this book were the descriptions of the smart and different people Katsuyama found to help him understand things like HFT and dark pools. I particularly liked gaining little insights like the fact that there are a lot of Russian programmers in the finance world because Russians have become extremely good at looking for and finding loopholes in systems--simply from living in their country, where it is often necessary to game the system just to get by.

It's not a long book and I was a bit dissatisfied with the ending--I think even Michael Lewis is starting to phone them in a bit--but it was still a good read, and you don't really need much financial background to understand it.

Any publicity must be good publicity.

I laughed yesterday when I got this email:


I saw your great review of SHOTGUN LOVESONGS and I wanted to make sure that you are aware that the book is also available as an audiobook from Macmillan Audio. I'd love to offer you a clip from the audiobook to post on the website as multimedia content for your online readers.

Let me know if we can make that work.


[someone from Macmillan Audio]"

Um, no thanks. But surely this proves that people must think any publicity is good publicity.

And one book I outright hated: Shotgun Lovesongs.

Shotgun Lovesongs
by Nickolas Butler

Well, I'll say this for Nickolas Butler's novel Shotgun Lovesongs: it jolted me out of my "meh" week of reading. Mainly because I hated it so, so much.

If you are not familiar with this novel, be aware that critics are treating it like the second coming.* (And: really? Two reviews in the New York Times? They can't find any other new novels around to review?) Because of all its good press, and because it is by a Wisconsin author, I thought I would give it a try. I must admit that the description of it at Powell's is not one that would have made me pick it up otherwise: "In this love ballad to the Midwest, author Nickolas Butler gives us a glimpse inside small-town Wisconsin. The novel follows a circle of friends — a farmer, a rock star, a businessman, a mother, and a rodeo cowboy — as they each come to grips with the choices and events that have set the course in their lives."

If I'd read the phrase "love ballad to the Midwest" before I requested the book from the library, I probably wouldn't have bothered. But one day I was casting about for something to read, and as my sister had been asking me about this one too, I thought, well, I'd better read this. I only got about three chapters in and I was having a pretty strong reaction to it (much the way one "reacts" to milk when one is lactose intolerant, just to keep my metaphors suitably "love ballad to the Midwest"ish). So yes, I probably should have put it down. But then I read another review that said Butler had a real touch with writing his main female character, so I thought I'd stay with it through one of her chapters, and by the time I was done with that, I thought, well, hell, I just need closure now. And I got closure, in the form of a completely stupid "insight" about marriage, that I will not reveal to you, but which I will say was the lamest, most surface, most conventional "insight" about marriage ever, and one which, in the course of my twelve married years and my many more years of observing many other marriages, is almost completely untrue.

So what was there to dislike?

Well, perhaps I can best sum it up like this: this book is "Man Lore" to the extreme. Which should be no surprise, it's about a group of small-town Wisconsin friends in the two decades (give or take a few years) after their high school graduation. The story is told from several of the friends' points of view, as well as the point of view of one of their wives, and yes, each chapter is headed up with the initial of the person doing the talking ("B" for Beth, e.g.). Now this is your first problem. If I can't tell who's talking from your writing, without someone's name or initial at the head of the chapter, then you, Mr. or Ms. Lazy Writer, are not properly doing your job.

Forget the Midwest; most of the men telling the stories in this book talk like they're in an old Western:

"Ronny dried out in the hospital over the course of several months, often restrained in his bed, and we came to the hospital to hold his hand. His grip was ferocious, his veins seemed everywhere ready to jump right out through his sweaty flesh. His eyes were scared in a way I had only seen in horses. We wiped his forehead and did our best to hold him down to the earth." (p. 7.)

Brother. There's a whole lot of passages like that. Here's salt-of-the-earth farmer Henry describing how he and his wife Beth get ready to go to their other friend Kip's wedding:

"Beth changed her ensemble five times that morning, switching out her shoes, her necklaces, her earrings. I understood. Had I owned more than one suit, I would have done the same thing. As it was I just sat in a battered old chair in our bedroom and watched her. She was beautiful to me. I could see that she had shaved her legs, supple and taut above the easy grip of her heels. She mussed her hair and pursed her lips at the mirror.

'What do you think?' she said finally, turning to me.

I stood and went to her, understanding right then that we were already growing older, that we would grow old together." (p. 30.)

As if that isn't painful enough, they actually share a little slow dance together after that.

Now, if I may? I actually am a Midwestern farmer's daughter. And let me paint you a little picture of how real dairy farmers get ready for a wedding:

"Mom rushed around with her dress unzipped, yelling at her daughter to call out to the barn and see where the hell Dad was. She did, and her brother told her their Dad was still out raking hay; rain was forecast the next day and acres of hay were going to get wet and ruined if they didn't get it put in the barn before that. The girl reported this news to her mother, who muttered, 'every damn time we have a wedding to go to...' before dashing off to finish making a cold cuts plate and salad for her brothers' supper. The girl sighed. She'd been counting on having Mom and Dad out for the afternoon, but now she knew they probably wouldn't leave in time for the ceremony and that they'd also probably have to leave the reception right after bolting some supper because Dad hadn't missed a milking, morning or night, in twenty-five years, and he certainly wasn't going to tonight for some stupid wedding dance."

Stick that in your "love ballad to the Midwest" pipe, Butler, and smoke it.

Anyway. I digress. Here's the takeaway: if you want to read a novel about a bunch of small-town Boy Men who are in love with a bunch of their Boy Men buddies, and one of their wives, who actually seems like a pretty unpleasant woman in her own right--she advises a friend who wants a baby (but whose husband is dragging his feet on the subject) to "make a mistake" with her birth control--then boy, do I have a novel for you.

If, on the other hand, you do want to read an authentic and beautifully written book about the Wisconsin experience, and one which features actual adult men who think about someone other than themselves at least every now and then, do yourself a favor and go get Michael Perry's memoir Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. You'll thank me, I promise you.

*This last review really hurt me, because it was by Jonathan Evison, whose novel All About Lulu I loved.

"So-so" books: Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey
by Val Mcdermid

I am, of course, a woman with a Jane Austen problem.

And that problem, the one wherein I love Austen beyond all reason, means that I will read pretty much anything with a Jane Austen connection. Modern retellings, like Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey? Yeah, you know I had to read that. So I got it, and here's how it starts:

"Cat, as she preferred to be known--on the basis that nobody should emerge from their teens with the name their parents had chosen--had been disappointed by her life for as long as she could remember. Her family were, in her eyes, deeply average and desperately dull. Her father ministered to five Church of England parishes with good-natured charm and a gift for sermons that were not quite entertaining but not quite boring either. Her mother had given up primary school teaching for the unpaid job of vicar's wife, which she accomplished with few complaints and enough imagination to leaven its potential for dreariness. If she'd had an annual performance review, it would have read, 'Annie Morland is a cheerful and hardworking team member who treats problems as challenges...'" (p. 1-2.)

McDermid actually did a good job keeping to Austen's style, but, as in most Austen interpretations, she just doesn't approach the original's sense of humor. Because it's a modern retelling, of course, it comes complete with references to cell phones, texting, and the popularity of vampire books (in Austen's time she picked on the popular gothic novels of the time), and McDermid handled all of that quite well too.

I did read the whole thing, but I can't say it really set me on fire. So-so.

"So-so" books: Over Easy

Over Easy
by Mimi Pond

This year I've been trying to keep a spreadsheet of what I'm reading and why, but I'll admit it's a tough slog. I barely get the time to read, lately, so taking even a moment to type book information into Excel just isn't happening. As a result, as always, I'm still not sure how I find out about most of the books I read.

A case in point is Mimi Pond's graphic novel memoir Over Easy. It's about Pond's experiences working as a waitress in a 1970s California diner. I'm not sure why or how I heard about it, but as a former waitress myself, I will almost always get and read any book that I can find on the subject.

The book opens with Pond, an art student, finding herself in a diner, and deciding that she'd like to try working there. And so she does. And her stories (and drawings) about working with a wide variety of other wait- and kitchen staff are not completely uninteresting. But it never really gelled for me into any kind of narrative; Pond always seemed, perhaps true to her nature as an observer/artist, ever so slightly outside of the action.* I read this one barely a month ago and I remember hardly anything about it: therefore, "so-so."

If you're looking for a memoir on waitressing, you'd be much better served by Debra Ginsberg's wonderful Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress. Even Barbara Ehrenreich's overrated investigative work Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America contained a more lively section on working in a restaurant.

*Bonus points for Mimi Pond, though: an interview with her at The Bat Segundo Show is interesting (and you can see her artwork there, which, actually, I enjoyed).

"So-so" books: Lizz Free or Die.

Lizz Free or Die: Essays
by Lizz Winstead

How's this for an inspiring series? This week I'll discuss some books I read recently that were, at best, "so-so." (She says, while shrugging apathetically.) Our first title in the series is Lizz Winstead's Lizz Free or Die: Essays.

Wouldn't you think I would have laughed more, reading the essays/memoir of the women who co-created The Daily Show? I don't even remember why I placed this book on hold at the library, but I'm pretty sure I heard about Winstead's role creating and writing that show (although she left it before Jon Stewart came along and made it unmissable). It's kind of a free-ranging collection, from stories of her youth, college, early days in stand-up, to her creation of The Daily Show and later successes. It's not poorly written, and in many ways Lizz herself seems quite likable. An early essay, about the preponderance of babies she came across in her childhood and the many baby-centric social outings her mother dragged her to, did make me laugh:

"There were always babies around--sometimes there were so many, it seemed they came in bulk, like our family was the Costco of procreation...

...The parties were made up of about fifteen women and were a combination of my sisters, aunts, grandma, and cousins. They sat in a big circle on flimsy folding chairs, most of them tryig to balance a baby or toddler of their own on their laps while simultaneously gobbling up plates full of 'the egg dish,' a bready/eggy casserole lathered in cream of mushroom soup. This was the food of choice at every family gathering that started before noon. Cream of mushroom soup, however, was the ingredient of choice for every recipe ever created in the 1960s and 1970s, no matter what time the gathering or what the main dish was. I like to think of it as America's binder. And it's a fitting metaphor for baby shower conversations: thick and bland." (p.8.)

But it never really got any better than that. Periodically I would pick it up and read it and pretty soon I noticed I had read most of it, but here I am only a few weeks later and I can hardly remember any of it. I do remember this: she includes an essay ("All Knocked Up") about an early experience when she became pregnant by her high school boyfriend. It's not so much about the abortion she would end up having, as it was about the way the woman at the clinic where she found out about her pregnancy treated her, but I still found it super depressing. While I was reading this one I had also just started Leslie Jamison's much-lauded essay collection The Empathy Exams, which also includes a personal story about abortion, and it was just too much. I don't want to get into a big long thing here, but it depressed me that all these ostensibly feminist memoirs include abortion stories, when abortion seems to me, frankly, such a passive (or at best, reactive) way to assert the self.

But even before the abortion essay this one just wasn't as funny or as sparkling as I wanted it to be. So-so.