Archive for February, 2010

Wolf Hall: Heavy Writing, Weak Characters, and No Payoff

February 28, 2010

It’s been a long time since I read a book a so thoroughly did not enjoy. I picked-up Wolf Hall for 2 main reasons: it won the Man Booker Prize for 2009 and it’s about the 16th century (I usually enjoy historical fiction). I was quite disappointed. In my opinion, the writing style is dense with no payoff, the characters are ill-developed, and the scenes are unnecessarily confusing. To take my criticisms in turn—

Mantel’s writing style is a bit on the heavy side. I think this is all good and well if there are heavy ideas that demand to be expressed and explored through such language, but this is not the case in Wolf Hall. I found the dense writing to merely detract from what is actually, all in all, an amazing simple plot for a long novel. Even where Mantel tries to investigate deeper ideas of power, psychological games, and courtly intrigues, her writing obscures rather than enhances her exploration of such ideas.

The characters in Wolf Hall are amazingly ill-developed. If you read some of the published reviews of the book, they talk about her nuanced view of characters such as Thomas Cromwell in comparison to other fictional takes on the man. Perhaps this is interesting if you’re a buff on historical fiction based in Tudor England, but I felt as if I was constantly missing parts of the book where the characters were developed beyond names and titles. I found the characters to be flat and hard to conceptualize, much less remember.

Finally, Mantel unnecessarily writes in confusing language. She consistently has scenes where she doesn’t identify the speakers until a few pages in. This can be a neat rhetorical device on occasion, but its constant repetition is simply wearing on the reader. She also uses different names for characters and has no easy index in which to look them up (there is an index of characters at the beginning of the book, but sub-divided by place, which doesn’t work so well when people are moving around). A little clarity and careful proofing would have gone a long way in terms of readability of this novel.

If you’re a Tudor history buff, by all means check it out. But if you just tend to pick-up the Booker Prize Winner every year because they’re normally good, skip this one.

My Father’s Tears & Other Stories

February 11, 2010

Updike’s final work is a collection of short stories that focus on aging, mortality, and the reflections on one’s life that nearing death often induces. The writing is superb, and specific stories are outstanding. But as a collection I have to say that I was disappointed. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the collection as such is a bit disjointed. Updike published nearly all of these short stories on their own in the past decade, and this collection was published posthumously. That being said, several short stories particularly caught my heart and are worth mentioning.

Varieties of Religious Experience (available to read online here) focuses on the life and death experiences 9/11 brought upon people. I’ll be honest, the story brought me to tears as I was riding the metro. Updike manages to capture not so much the shocking horror of 9/11 but rather the everyday, almost mundane tragedies that it also engendered.

My Father’s Tears (available here), the book’s namesake, explores a young man’s relationship with his father from when he goes to college until his father’s death. The story looks at the difficulties of family life without presenting any extraordinary hardships. The line that sticks with me from this story is:

It is easy to love people in memory; the hard trick is to love them when they are there, in front of you.

Finally, The Road Home, previously titled The Roads of Home (read here) sharply captures how the processes of aging and societal interventions conspire to take away the ability of the elderly to function in the world. Reading it, you can feel the fragility of human ability to live and how it could all slip through your fingers someday like grains of sand.

Gang Leader for a Day

February 4, 2010

Sudhir Venkatesh has a very compelling story—he went to an elite University that happens to be surrounded by poor neighborhoods. Against that University’s explicit advice, he ventured into some of those nearby areas and wound up embedding himself in a gang, learning about their drug operations, and experiencing the Chicago projects first-hand for several years. Along the way he learned a few things about poverty as well as the human side of the story.

Overall, it’s a great book. A few groups of people should definitely pick this one up—-all U. of C.ers, anybody into Chicago’s South Side, those interested in the issues of urban poverty, academics who wonder how to conduct themselves in the all-too-real world, and people interested in what happens when naive suburban boy meets rough and tumble gang crowd. I’m a member of all of those groups so the book may have been particularly compelling to me. But I think almost anyone will love how Sudhir begins his research. He walks into some Chicago projects with a questionnaire and, in his own words, asks a few young black men—

“How does it feel to be black and poor” I read. Then I gave the multiple-choice answers: “Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.”

My favorite response to this question is from J.T., the gang leader who will be Sudhir’s conduit into this world for years to come after this initial meeting—

“I’m not black,” he answered, looking around at the others knowingly.

(Sudhir) “Well then, how does it feel to be African American and poor?” I tried to sound apologetic, worried that I had offended him.

“I’m not African American either. I’m a nigger.”

I don’t know how you respond to that statement appropriately and neither does Sudhir, but he does manage to hang around for several more years in order to gain a wealth of knowledge about the gangs, projects, underground economy, CHA, South Side police, and so forth that he shares in this book.

Venkatesh is pretty honest about his misgivings throughout his work. He worries about the collaborative part of his research (is it ethical to know about drive-by shootings and witness violence without calling the cops). He even admits to messing up a few times, both by acting violently against people and by revealing information that causes them greater hardship. In my eyes, he doesn’t resolve the issue of ethics in his research, but that may be how he intends it to come across. He seems to continue to feel guilty even now for misleading certain individuals during the years of his research. One thing is clear—the Chicago gang world is harsh, even for a would-be-passive observer.

Superfreakonomics: So Refreshing

February 4, 2010

I found this book to have a refreshing perspective on some long fought over issues. Prostitution, crime, altruism—we all care about these things but our opinions are generally formed on moral or ethical bases. We think prostitution is immoral let’s say, or at least not a positive addition to society whereas altruism is a good thing. Levitt and Dubner sidestep these types of moralistic approaches and instead argue that we should take a more objective, economic perspective. Back to the data, let’s see what we’re even dealing with here, and then let’s ask some hard, calculated questions. It’s not necessarily how I want to shape all my opinions, but I think that most of us could certainly use a dose of this type of reexamination.

Where I really love this book is when it comes to global warming. The authors begin with two correct arguments: global warming has become a political issue, and it should be moved back into a more scientific realm. Levitt and Dubner proceed to do precisely that, with a heavy dose of market logic. The throw out all kinds of ideas, possibilities, and innovative research on how we might actually fix the problem (besides destroying the world economy, which just isn’t going to happen). It’s exciting to see that some smart people out their are keeping their wits about them with this whole global warming business. I also deeply appreciated the authors’ nod to historical context when they mention that it was 30-40 short years ago that we were supposedly in the middle of a global cooling phenomenon that threatened to send us back to the ice age. It is easy to get so deeply involved in current issues that we forget the larger picture but crucial that we be reminded that global warming too is a cultural, historical phenomenon.

But the book does leave me wanting a bit on the question of how to integrate such ideas into our world. The authors clearly would love human society to be more driven by informed, educated choices instead of vague morals, political positions, and just sheer stupidity. But this is real life we’re talking about. Take the reception of their chapter on global warming for example, which was slammed in review after review. Why? Because people stuck to the same old talking points on global warming. I’m not sure who is correct on the science but the knee-jerk response should tell Levitt and Dubner something—if they want their ideas to have a chance in the real world, then they need to work on wedding them to our irrationalities a bit more.