How to do what’s right?

The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood Curtis. It is the early 1960s and he is a fan of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr – it appeals to his innate sense of right and wrong and if he can just keep doing the right thing, everything will be fine.

It’s not. He, while trying to get to his college-level classes that he is taking whilst still in high school, hitches a ride with someone who’s just stolen a car. He gets sent to a reform school, Nickel in the book, but based on Florida’s Dozier School for Boys. Elwood becomes friends with Turner, a boy who has come back for his second time.

Their friendship is good and realistic and also a metaphor for how to live responsibly: do you always stand up for what is good and right (Elwood) or do you do what you have to to get by (Turner)? What is the better way to live? The book is not always clear.

It also brought home the precariousness of being Black in the South during and before the Civil Rights Movement, and not for the first time. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Emmett Till, you know how precarious life was for Black Southerners. But I mourned for Elwood and his intelligence and his promise, getting sent to a reform school where terrible things happen because he hitched a ride with the wrong person.

I read The Nickel Boys in one sitting, basically, getting up only to eat dinner. The prose is good and the story is tight. Highly, highly recommended.

I might like science fiction again

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is a collection of short science fiction stories by NK Jemisin, who I had never read before.

The introduction to the book, which talks mainly about how she became a writer and the importance of short stories in that development, made me realize something. Her quote: “How terrifying it’s been to realize no one thinks my people have a future.” I am embarrassed to say that this book made me understand how not having people of color in science fiction means the reader could think all those people are just gone from the world in the future. That’s 100% bad and not OK.

The stories, though. The stories are amazing. I loved The City Born Great, about how cities around the world, when they develop enough energy and culture from the people living in them, are born into their own thing. New York is the city in question in this story; Sao Paulo, Paris, and Lagos are just three cities who were born in the past. Los Angeles will be next. Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters is a story about a man living through what seems exactly like Katrina flooding New Orleans, except there are dragons and the floodwaters have woken up the Haints, who want to destroy and eat everything. Tookie and the winged lizard fight it to save their city.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is highly recommended. I’m looking forward to reading more from NK Jemisin.

Absurdism + Depression makes for good storytelling

The Bell Jar is a classic, and classics… well, lots and lots and lots has already been said about them. I find it difficult to write about them.

There are two things that I found striking about this book. First, the visceral-ness of Esther’s (the main character’s) depression. She is depressed and Plath, who committed suicide, communicates that very effectively. Second, and in marked contrast to the downer of the depression is the absurdity of so much of the actual plot of the book: food poisoning an entire room, at least one failed deflowering of the main character, and the ridiculousness of Esther’s quasi-fiancĂ© Buddy

In fact, these two things play off each other very well. Esther’s depression highlights the surrealism of the plot and the surrealism of the actions throws into relief just how far gone Esther is. She should be having very emotional reactions to everything that’s happening. But all the action is presented very flatly. It’s very effective.

I would recommend The Bell Jar very much. It’s short but effective.

Don’t read this book

The Art Forger looked like it should be good. It really did: a struggling artist solving a puzzle, exploring ideas about authenticity and what it means for something to be real, art history, drama around a theft…

But I just didn’t care. I really didn’t. The Art Forger might have been the wrong book for me right now, but I didn’t enjoy it and I stopped reading it after my required 50 pages (I allow myself to stop reading a book after 50 pages in – that’s enough time for me to get over any initial adjustment period).

A book about books

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a book you have to work at reading because it is Weird. What makes it weird?

First, it’s written in the second person. You know first person (the book is told from the I/me perspective) and third person (she/her perspective). Second person, though, is you/yours. It puts the reader into the story in a way that is very video-game-esque, but the reader isn’t making the choices, the author is. Given that there’s a central mystery about publishing errors that keep happening – the first chapters of ten books are showing up in different books, and You, the main character, are trying to figure out what’s going on because you just want to read the damn books!

Second, it’s weird because those chapters? They’re interspersed with the action. So there’s a chapter written in the second person about the “real world”, and then the first chapter of the book that the main character is looking for. And they alternate back and forth, between the story action and the first chapter of the next book the main character is tracking down.

Third, the dislocated book chapters and the story may end up converging at the end of the book? It’s confusing. But there is definite dovetailing of the stories. It’s trippy.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is designed to make the reader think about narrative structure and what makes a complete story. It’s also maybe a shaggy dog story? I would recommend it if you like a challenge in your reading. But it’s not a book I would pick up for pure entertainment.

Death and surrealism

A French Exit is the fine art of leaving a party without saying goodbye. French Exit, the book, is about a woman who is trying to leave the party of life without saying goodbye to anyone, except maybe her son. It only works to a particular degree.

It starts with Frances (the woman, notorious for finding her husband’s body, closing the door, and going skiing for the weekend instead of reporting it) and Malcolm (her adult son, whose main life ambition seems to be to do as little as humanly possible) leaving a party early because they can, with Malcolm having stolen a framed picture from the wealthy household. You shortly find out that Frances has almost spent all of the money she inherited from her very wealthy husband; she and her son, who leaves behind a fiancĂ©e, soon leave for Paris along with their cat.

Their lives get weirder, more absurdist, once they’re in Paris. They collect people around them, ranging from a private detective who only speaks barely-passible English to an unemployed American woman who can see when people are about to die. Weird, in French Exit, is good.

I won’t spoil the ending, but the entire book is death-obsessed and nihilistic in that way that only wealthy upper-class people can be nihilistic. It is funny, and I would recommend it, but only if you’re in the mood for something that most people would consider to be a little bit off.

Memory and nostalgia

Daisy Jones & The Six is a novel written as an oral history about a band (The Six) from the 1970s that ends up collaborating with a singer (Daisy Jones). It’s a lovely story with women who are all strong and navigating a very male-dominated scene – rock n roll in the 1970s. The story and the characters are solid and rich and I enjoyed it.

I especially love the fact that it’s told as an oral history. Personally, the 1970s are a decade that it takes a certain amount of editing to make seem romantic in any way. I mean, the 1973 oil crisis, the 1979 oil crisis, the Iran hostage crisis (apparently everything was a crisis in the 1970s), the Nixon impeachment, the Me Generation… I was very young in the 1970s, but my general impression was always that they were a hot mess. Nostalgia for the 1970s has always felt very ironic to me.

But “nostalgia… is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts & recycling it for more than it’s worth.” Just like the song says.

An oral history might, in fact, have been the only way Daisy Jones and the Six works. You need that separation-through-time factor, as well as the fact that people’s memories are faulty to make a drug-fueled rise of a rock band seem appealing in what is otherwise a disaster of a decade. The distance is the way you remember only the good bits: the songs you love, your youth, your friends, what it was like to be riding a wave of success, falling in love, marriage, learning how to stand up for yourself, the birth of your first child…

And aren’t those the important things anyway? The oral history format allowed me to focus on those things and forget the general miasma that the 1970s always conjures for me.


Take your food seriously and you will be happier

When we got back from our Europe trip, my daughter was disappointed in all of the food. Just all of it. There was nothing in particular that stood out to her while we were there (except maybe the bread and Carambars), but all of the food was disappointing when she got back.

My personal theory? People in Europe take their food so much more seriously, from the quality of the ingredients to the way to cook to making sure your eating experience is a good one. In America, food is fuel: no more, no less. The farm is a factory.

A Taste of Paris is a well-researched history of food in Paris. There are crazy menus from various royal celebrations, full of meat and designed to show power through eating. This was the era of overweight wealthy people. Getting enough calories was a power move.

Also, much of the food that we think of as French is actually from other places; e.g. the croissant is of Austrian origin. But the French claim it and make it better; no one thinks of croissants and Austria together now.

Downie is up front about his main prejudice: old-school French is best, where old-school is how the restaurants were when he first came to Paris. This is understandable; nostalgia for how things were in your youth is part of growing older. Even if it did occasionally make me roll my eyes.

If you are interested in foodie history and Paris, I would recommend A Taste of Paris.

Dear world, please learn from your mistakes

Book Cover of Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

As I read Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, I kept thinking: didn’t anyone learn from the first dot com boom?

Bad Blood is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her now former company, Theranos. Her idea was to start a company – after only one year of college – that could perform a range of tests on just a drop of blood. Not the whole vial, or vials, that sometimes need to be taken. The problem, of course, was that it didn’t work; it never came close to working. Nonetheless she managed to hire more than 800 employees and at one point the company had a paper value of over $9 billion. How?

Good question. Her board had big names – Rupert Murdoch, George Schultz – but no one who knew anything about biochemistry. VC funds who normally invest in health care technology wouldn’t go near it, but other VC firms were more interested, maybe partially because of the names on the board?

Also because, as far as I can tell, Elizabeth Holmes was a really, really good salesperson. She used her own fear of needles as inspiration to investors and potential customers – likening getting blood taken to torture. And she apparently had a way of making people around her believe – really believe – that she and her company could do it.

But the tales of working at Theranos, the culture of fear, the spying on employees, the close watch over information and how it was shared was what really got me. People like Rupert Murdoch and George Schultz do know how to run large organizations and manage people and there was no indication that there was any board oversight of Elizabeth Holmes at all. Even George Schultz’ grandson, who worked at the company and tried to raise flags with his grandfather, was ignored because Mr Schultz trusted Ms Holmes so much.

Bad Blood is a thriller of bad corporate management and charisma trumping all. It should be a staple of MBA courses in the future.

Writing prompts and zen koans

Writing Down the Bones is a book of something like zen koans combined with writing prompts. The chapters are never more than 4 short pages (the book is physically small), and are designed to get you to sit down and write after you read each one.

It was not super-useful to me, honestly. I’m not often in a space (physical or mental) where I can switch between reading and writing like that. I did try to just sit down and read it, but the chapters were too short and pithy to flow well.

I’m sure Writing Down the Bones works for some folks. It wasn’t for me.