Book Corner 2020.33

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Merchants of Truth by Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson offers a thorough overview of several major news organizations’ transition to the digital age, with a focus on four in particular: NYT, WaPo, BuzzFeed, and Vice.

This book is dense, with very few breaks in the very long chapters. Much was uninteresting to me, but I kept reading for the sake of the tidbits that offered me glimpses of what goes on behind the scenes to give me the news I consume every day.

I was least interested in Vice – the interests of its barely-legal male target demographic in no way coincide with my own. NYT & WaPo, OTOH, I read weekly and daily respectively, so those were the inside scoops I was really showing up for.  )

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The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

I don’t know, I just didn’t really learn anything. The most exciting part was when she starts talking about the famous jam study, and how everybody seems to know about it but everybody gets it slightly wrong; and then she reveals that she should know because she’s the one who actually conducted the jam study. Mind blown!

[The jam study offered people a taste test of 24 different jams, then repeated the experiment with only 6 jams, and found that 24 jams attracted more attention but 6 jams resulted in more sales.]  )

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

This was amazing. “You got to go there to know there.”

Our protagonist Janie starts life at 17 with a brief loveless marriage to a good provider to satisfy her grandmother who raised her, but she only starts life for real when she’s pushing 40 and meets Tea Cake.

First, though, she runs off from the first husband to hook up with a big-talking passing stranger who’s going down to Florida to be a “big man” in an up-and-coming colored town. Big man he does become, and makes her the big woman; but that’s not who she wants to be.

After his death, when she’s pushing 40, another stranger appears to whisk her away – another sweet-talker, but this time, not someone who wants to be a big man, just an ordinary man. And at first he thinks he has to keep treating her like the big woman she’s become accustomed to being, but no, that’s not how it is at all. For the first time in her life Janie is loving and being loved, and she’s ready to live life. They move down south to the Everglades, to “the muck”, where Tea Cake is a farm laborer; and Janie dons overalls and works right beside him during the day, and parties with him at night, and thus do they live.

And the lesson is to live, and you can’t explain it or teach it to anyone else, because “You got to go there to know there.”

The writing was constantly blowing me away. Two quotes that I bookmarked:

“When the people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for others to look at and see, it was nice. The fact that the thought pictures were always crayon enlargements of life made it even nicer to listen to.”

And “It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scorchy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans.” Isn’t that TOTALLY how it is!  )

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My Dark Vanessa

This was a disappointment. I was expecting a nuanced story about a teacher-student affair. But it was a story about abuse. None of the characters were likeable. I’m glad to be done with it.

I don’t think it benefited by all the going back-and-forth in time. We knew the climax well before the end; a little suspense would have improved the story. Towards the end there was an incident that I thought was going to give an interesting plot twist, but it went nowhere. Thus there was no satisfaction in reaching the end – except that I didn’t have to spend another evening with 100% dysfunctional Vanessa (does she NEVER have a happy or successful moment?) or icky Strane (just yuck, yuck, yuck).

Weird thing that annoyed me: the oddball one-syllable last names almost everyone had. One person’s last name was only two letters long. It was a strange affectation (and yes, I know I’m strange for noticing and getting annoyed by it).  )

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The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova

I got all the way to the end before I realized there was a glossary of poker terms there. THANX, KINDLE. Grr.

And I read basically the whole thing without really understanding even the rudimentary rules to Texas Hold ‘Em. But that’s OK! Because it’s not about the hands and how they went. It’s about… life.

Konnikova has written a fairly unique “my year of” style book. She decides she wants to master poker in a year. A lot of random things have gone wrong in her life at once, and somehow she feels that studying poker will help her learn to understand the role of random chance in life. What makes the book unique is not only that it actually takes her more than a year to do what she sets out to do (and she sticks with it anyway even though that “ruins” the premise); but that she injects very little extraneous detail about herself. Once in a while we get in on a conversation with her husband or mother. She seems to have no kids and live in Brooklyn, but she doesn’t dwell on either of those things. She doesn’t dwell on herself at ALL, except as a student of poker. It’s wonderful! She’s a journalist, and that may have something to do with it.

So basically, what we learn is, you gotta know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em, just like the song says. It’s so cliche, but I used to say it too; before I became more enamored of my Domino theory of life, I had a Card Game theory of life: there’s the hands you’re dealt, but then there’s how you play them. When my father was ill, every day felt like another really tough card. And I thought about the big areas of my life and how I’d played my cards, and there were some plays I was really proud of, some I’d always doubt… And I thought about how my brother was refusing to play these tough rounds at all. And it was a really helpful metaphor. And when I try to explain why the Kinks song “Better Things” was for so long the only thing that could cheer me up, I could only say it was something about the particular phrasing, “I know tomorrow you’ll find better things.” So many things are beyond our control – we just FIND them. And I was finding crappy things right now, but the law of averages implied that sooner or later I would surely find BETTER things. Those are the cards you’re dealt.

Oh wait, I was writing a book review. For Konnikova, it seems to come down to stoicism. She becomes successful when she can control her emotions and just play, play, play. She throws in some helpful quotations here and there, and the most appropriate seems to be from Kipling:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same…”

She has to learn that anyone can have either a triumph or a disaster through no fault of her playing (though she can certainly have a disaster through her own fault, too). Anyone can get lucky or unlucky. Successful pros just keep playing – and learning – and adjusting. While there’s LOTS and lots of poker, poker slang, and poker play-by-play along the way – the life lesson ultimately comes through.  )

 

Addendum: it’s high summer, with lengthy daylight, which does not lend itself to indoor computer work; hence the blog posts few & far between.  See you on the rainy days.

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Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

A super-exciting story about a couple with two young children who go away to sea on a sailboat. You know from page 1 that things come to a bad end. The story is mainly told back-and-forth between Juliet’s hindsight perspective and Michael’s daily log entries. The bold print and indentation for Michael’s entries makes it clear who’s speaking; but even so, the switching could be very rapid, and it sometimes took a slight effort to reposition one’s mind into the right character at the right time.

I don’t know anything about boats and I do terrible at following action sequences under the best of circumstances; so in a lot of the most gripping moments, I could only skim helplessly in a “jib mainsail yada yada halyard keep yada yada” kind of way; and yet the book still delivered a 4-star experience for me.

The plot: with lots and lots of foreboding, we follow the family’s story from the different perspectives, wondering exactly how things will go south. Not only do we know there’s going to be a death: we soon have the possibility of foul play mixed in.

The conclusion: very satisfying.

The characters: While Juliet had many annoying traits – tendencies toward martyrdom, self-pity, self-absorption, and wanting to be a poet for Pete’s sake – it was OK, because I didn’t feel I was necessarily supposed to like her, not all the time. Michael in his personal log betrays an idealistic libertarian streak, but never goes off the nutso deep end – then again, he did take his whole young family away to Central America to live on a sailboat for a year, so what am I saying? Sybil, the 7-year-old is really charming – I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more likeable child in a modern novel before, not one who gets this much screen time. She never seems to get bratty. In fact, towards the end, I started to wonder – why does this kid never get bratty; is that realistic? George, the 2-year-old – also well played.

Rhetorical question: why do female protagonists in modern novels always have to be gorgeous? Can’t we have someone who’s a little dumpy-looking after having two children?  )

Addendum: I own this book in hardcover and am happy to lend.

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The Tea girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

It was grating, then kind of funny, the way things were always spelled out. For example, it’s really handy when a part of a culture’s traditions includes reciting exactly what that culture’s traditions are, as they perform the traditions, don’t you think? I also appreciated letters and therapy transcripts stating exactly what characters were feeling.

So, it’s OK that it’s not meant to be great literature – I accept that. What really kept the book from elevating, for me, was the number of wacky tangents. All of the following are spoilers.

She’s into education, she’s going to pursue higher schooling, that will be her way out – no, wait, she got distracted becoming a tea expert; the education thing is not happening anymore.

She’s in love, her lover goes away to earn money then returns for her – they can start their life together, though it will be hard – no, wait, that’s not happening, he’s a drug addict.

She’ll leave him and deal with the consequences of being a woman who left her husband – oh way, he just got killed by a tiger!

She goes out into the world and becomes a successful, independent businesswoman – oh wait, now she’s the pampered wife a gazillionaire.

And to tie it all up, the adopted child – birth mother reunion thread. Their paths finally manage to meet up in China. And everything is beautiful and magical and right, because that’s exactly how adopted child – birth mother search & reunion stories always turn out in life, aren’t they? ( )

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Sunny Days by David Kamp

I bought this book without even doing my usual sampling preview, once I discovered it was not only about all of my favorite childhood TV shows, but was also written by the same author of THE UNITED STATED OF ARUGULA, one of my favorite metafood books.

It’s about the wild creative atmosphere around educational children’s programming in the late 60s and early 70s. Sesame Street, of course… Roosevelt Franklin… some Mr. Rogers… but I really liked all the coverage of the lesser-known local favorite, Magic Garden. And the shout-out to Joya’s Fun School! I really liked Joya.

This book really pushed a lot of my memory buttons, but I think the weirdest trigger memory of all was when they covered “Berna-dette’s” Zoom intro. Honestly whenever I hear the name “Bernadette” I tend to flash back to that intro; all I remembered was she did something with her arms while they played a kind of celeste-sounding musical bit. I didn’t remember her being Chinese, or that the arm thing was supposed to give the illusion that she had no elbow joints or something. But they really spent a lot of time on it in the book, and now I know ALL about it. And it sent me back to watch some of the original Zoom show intro numbers, and OMG were they bad.

Speaking of bad, then there was the New Zoo Revue. I was very, very little when I used to watch and enjoy this show; and while probably none of the kiddie shows that I watched were true favorites with the parents and older brother in the house, I remember everyone PARTICULARLY hating on the New Zoo Revue. “They can’t even sing,” my mother protested, and I was little enough that this puzzled me. “They CAN sing,” I argued. They were right there on the TV singing. But even in my memory I remember some really awful singing, something along the lines of “With Doug, and Emmy Jo, every day’s a different shooooooow!” half-shouted and half-sung in a monotone.

Good times! Oh wait, I guess GOOD TIMES will be a different book altogether. ( )

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Doxology by Nell Zink

Pam is born the same year as me and spends her young adulthood in gritty downtown NYC, working in the financial district as a programmer and living in Chinatown. So forgive me if I liked this book right off the bat.

She does live a much more hardscrabble life than me, running away from home and arriving in NYC young and anonymous. She does much more interesting programming than I ever did, too.

Joe has a fictional neurological syndrome that manifests something like a mild Down’s Syndrome in some ways, with Joe always happy and optimistic and trusting; yet fully functioning, if quirky, and tremendously creative and talented as a songwriter.

Daniel lives in an illegal apartment over a video store in the heart of Chinatown; its only entrance and egress being through the store, Daniel must be home every night by 1 AM when the metal gate comes down, else he has to stay out till 6 AM when it comes back up. He falls for Pam, and she’s into him enough to move in with him into this crazy place.

Flora is their unexpected offspring. She grows up fast. She’s precocious and smart. She’s a child when 9/11 happens, and her parents relocate her to her grandparents’ place in the DC suburbs, where she spends the remains of her childhood. She wants to save the world from climate change. She does a semester abroad in Chad and becomes a soil expert, but never can figure out quite how to channel her energy and enthusiasm to go about actually saving the world.

And that’s it. It’s the life story of these four people from the late 80s to the present moment. I was riveted. ( )

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Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

“The kingdom of Hawai’i had long been broken – the breathing rain forests and singing green reefs crushed under the haole fists of beach resorts and skyscrapers…”

A tremendously good book with an unfortunately awful title. Synopses will tell you it is about a boy who is magically rescued by sharks and goes on to have supernatural powers, and you might wonder why you should read a silly fantasy tale like that (with an awful title to boot). But this is really the story of a Hawaiian family with deep, magically realistic ties to the earth; as well as the story of a modern family going to shambles.

I went to the Big Island of Hawaii once and it had a life-altering effect on my spiritual attitude, i.e. it gave me one. I think it was at the point that a guide told us that the lava flows were “Pele’s hair.” We all hear about nature-worshipping religions and the Gaia theory, but only in Hawaii did I feel it literally. No, that particular lava flow really IS Pele’s hair. So they don’t want you to take a pickax to it, to my husband’s disappointment. (It’s gotta be a lot easier to adhere to a religion like that in a place with no winter. In Vermont, one feels bereft; god is literally dormant for so long.)

This book brought it all to life. “Fire goddess Pele with her unyielding strength, birthing the land again and again in lava, exhaling her sulfur breath across the sky…”

The family suffers from poverty, must leave the Big Island for jobs in the cities in Oahu. The parents work hard to send their children to colleges on the mainland. The one who is blessed with healing powers, Noa, becomes a paramedic. The eldest, Dean, becomes for a short time a basketball star; and the youngest, Kaui, goes to school for engineering. But always, the poverty:

“My grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother had no use for paper printed with the silhouette of some faraway haole man. It gave nothing. What was needed was food from the earth, housing from the earth, medicine from the earth… But ships from far ports carried a new god in their bellies… And money was the name of that god, and it was the sort of god that preyed on you, made demands and laid its hands on you with such force as to make the Old Testament piss its pants.”

In the end, it is not giving too much away to note that it seems significant that Kaui’s job pays her not in money but in food from the earth. But I did not like how Dean ended up; and I don’t know the significance of the fact that what he provided for the family was money. ( )

Addendum: I own this in physical form and will loan.