Friday, June 28, 2019

The Most Fun We Ever Had: Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage

Claire Lombardo's tale of love and marriage and children, The Most Fun We Ever Had, is a stunningly confident, massively entertaining, insightful-beyond-measure novel. Multi-generational family sagas are all the rage these days, but rarely are they this good. And even more rarely are debut novels this assured. It's my favorite novel of the year so far, one I could not put down.

The story is about the marriage of Chicago suburbanites Marilyn and David, and their four daughters. After a random meeting in college when Marilyn mistakes David for her TA, and unloads on him about her class (a meet-cute, as the kids say), they fall in love and marry. They have, by all appearances, a perfect marriage. They rarely argue. They are attuned to each other's needs. They share responsibilities. And they often can't keep their hands off each other, to the eternal disgust of their daughters.

As their daughters grow up and reach adulthood, the perceived "perfectness" of Marilyn and David's marriage is actually a burden, not a boon. The near impossible standard to live up to puts a ridiculous amount of pressure on their daughters' own lives and relationships. And because the daughters don't want to disappoint their perfect parents, they often lie and keep fairly huge secrets. These make up the meat of the novel.

What's strongest about this story is Lombardo's talent for rendering character. The novel alternates between the points-of-view of the parents on a timeline that leads up to the present day, and then also each of the daughters' perspectives in the present day as they all have their various troubles navigating the world. What's so impressive is that it's never difficult to tell them apart. In the hands of a lesser writer, over the course of 500+ pages, these characters may start blending together. But that's decidedly not the case here. I loved the oldest daughter Wendy — she's got no filter, and takes pleasure in making life hell for her sisters and parents. The second daughter Violet is infinitely irritating, and you just sort of want bad things to happen to her. Third daughter, Liza, you just feel bad for. And youngest daughter, Gracie, you sort of feel about her the way her sisters do: That she's perpetually a child, even though her adult life is a bit of a mess too.

The other strength of this book is its dialogue. It's rare that a writer is able to capture how people think, and then talk — often interrupting themselves mid-sentence. And, to further the point in the previous paragraph, each character has her own manner of speaking, which not an easy thing to pull off.

I would've loved to been a fly on the wall during the discussions between Lombardo and her editor about this novel's length. It's certainly not common for a debut writer to get 500+ pages for a family story. But Lombardo did, and I could've read 500 more pages about these people. They are fascinating, conniving, sharp-tongued, and hilarious.

This is my favorite novel of the year so far. It's so well-written, so insightful. And just so damn entertaining.

Side note: This is the 500th post on The New Dork Review of Books! I started this blog on Oct. 1, 2009, and 499 posts later, here we are. As always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Bill McKibben vs. Steven Pinker: Falter vs. Enlightenment Now

Are we hopelessly screwed? Or is everything totally fine, and in fact, getting better? Two recent books by two prominent thinkers argue for near opposite takes on the current state of the world. Both are fascinating in how they portray our biggest challenges and threats — climate change, war, artificial intelligence, poverty, inequality, and much more. And for me, reading these two books back-to-back — Falter, by Bill McKibben and Enlightment Now by Steven Pinker — was a lesson not in pessimism vs optimism, but rather, an example of how even incredibly smart people can see the world very differently.

Bill McKibben is an environmental activist and the founder of (and, full disclosure, a personal hero of mine). His new book Falter wonders if the "human game" is coming to an end. Naturally, McKibben, who has spent his life advocating for climate change action — he wrote one of the first books describing the climate change problem, The End of Nature, in 1989 — cites climate change as the biggest threat to humanity. But he also argues that new technologies, namely artificial intelligence and gene-editing, also threaten to either destroy humanity, or just as bad, change fundamentally what it means to be human.

"A writer doesn't owe a reader hope — the only obligation is honesty," McKibben writes in his prologue. But even while he's spelling out our potential doom, McKibben is always an inspiring and engaging writer. Regarding climate change, he lays out the latest evidence and science illustrating how and why we're in trouble. Then he spends a fair amount of time arguing for the reasons we haven't made nearly enough progress on solving this problem. He discusses Ayn Rand and how she's influenced right-wing politicians like Paul Ryan and kingmakers like the Koch brothers. If you subscribe to a philosophy that only your individual happiness matters (philosophically justified selfishness), it's no wonder ethics, morals, and even laws aren't able to force you to back down from your pursuit of that happiness (in this case, read as, wealth). McKibben lays out this case without a hint of the rage he must be feeling. But the readers sure inherits his anger.

McKibben continues with a discussion of the dangers and benefits of artificial intelligence and increased computing power, based on interviews with Ray Kurzweil, the famous futurist and Google's director of engineering. Kurzweil, who some see as a crackpot and other view as a genius, fervently believes that if he can just live until 2030, he can be immortal. That's because advances in computing power and the potential for uploading his brain digitally will allow his consciousness to continue after his body no longer functions. This sounds crazy on the surface, but Kurzweil makes a scarily convincing case. But is a computer consciousness really human? Of course not. But what might be a bigger problem is if artificial intelligence becomes intelligent enough that it doesn't need us inefficient humans anymore, and either makes us its slaves, or wipes us out all together. Is it likely? Not too much so. Is it possible? Yes. And is that terrifying? Absolutely.

Finally, McKibben takes on CRISPR and gene-editing. CRISPR is basically a method for copying and pasting strands of DNA, like in a Word doc. This means we can quite literally change the characteristics of a living thing. So now that it's possible to create "designer babies," should we? McKibben talks about the libertarian argument (again, going back to Rand) that the government should be removed from scientific progress generally, but this specifically. His argument — and I think it lands nicely — is that nothing reduces a human's liberty more than his parents deciding what characteristics he'll be born with before he's even born! As well, gene-editing and designer babies will lead to a massive increase in inequality as it will only be wealthy parents who can afford to pay for designer babies, which in turn will be born with an even larger silver spoon...and the cycle continues.

So while things may look bleak, McKibben offers a recipe for hope, as well — fixing climate change, for one, is an all-hands-on-deck prospect. But we've solved huge problems before and we can solve this one, too. As well, the current political climate won't last forever — these things are cyclical, and Trump and his acolytes represent more an overcorrection than a long-term trend.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist, thinks that not only are we fine, we're flourishing. His book, Enlightenment Now, shows how the principles of the Enlightenment, namely science, reason, and humanism, have lead to unprecedented human progress in areas as wide ranging as life expectancy to democracy to wealth. He spends most of the book describing in painstaking detail all these areas of progress, trotting out dozens of charts showing how, for example, fewer women die in childbirth now than in 1750. Not exactly a high bar against which to measure progress, is it? And while, yes, it's great that fewer people die of malaria now and our rivers no longer catch on fire because of pollution, the problem for me is that these macro-trends are somewhat cold and unfeeling. A throwaway line early in the book is telling: He admits that the reduction in the the worldwide poverty rate isn't a comfort to you if you're a person who is still extremely poor. Or a reduction in infant death doesn't help you if you died. Of course, these problems will never get to zero, but the fact that poverty, war, climate change, terrorism, disease, inequality, and so much else still exists to a horrifying degree is evidence that everything isn't all warm and fuzzy.

And but so, after explaining how much progress we've made, Pinker spends the last bit passionately re-defending the Enlightenment values. This to me was the most interesting and fun-to-read part of his long book. Pinker is at his best when showing how certain high-ranking politicians and their followers abandoning these Enlightenment values explain our current dilemmas. Every opinion carries equal weight, no matter how uninformed, for instance. Or, in the case of climate change, the issue is people believing the charismatic authority that it's a Chinese hoax. And then they make that "belief" a status of personal identity, even though science isn't a political issue (facts don't care whether or not you "believe" in them). And so no amount of evidence would permit them to change their minds because that would mean literally changing how they see themselves and how they want the world to see them. 

This won't come as much of a surprise, but I liked Pinker's book far less than McKibben's. Pinker is often callous, glib, condescending, and droolingly dull.  As well, Pinker seems to make the occasional mistake in logic, which is odd for an immensely well-respect cognitive psychologist. For instance, in his section on environmental progress, and how we should continue combatting climate change, he argues that climate change is a technological problem that should be solvable. Fine. But he also then says that solar and wind won't be enough by themselves to solve emissions reductions because the scale isn't available yet and the technology to store electricity isn't ready for prime time. First of all, neither of those are actually true. But secondly, if climate change is a technology problem, isn't it reasonable to assume storage will also improve and solve the problem, not to mention more efficient solar panels producing more electricity (solving his non-existent problem that there's not enough room for enough solar panels).

McKibben actually calls out Pinker a few times. For example, McKibben explains, that in November 2017, 15,000 scientists issued a "stark warning to humanity." And "just like Pinker, they had charts..." Amusing. But McKibben's book certainly shouldn't be confused with a response to Pinker's. It's decidedly its own argument. If you're going to read one, read McKibben. Just because we've made progress doesn't mean we don't still have massive problems, as Pinker would have you believe. When I used to smoke, and people asked me how I can logically justify smoking knowing it was terrible for my health, my standard answer would be "By the time I get cancer, there will be a cure." Can you imagine? What a jerk I was. But that's the tone of Pinker's entire book. Problems aren't that bad because something'll come up. McKibben is much more clear-eyed (not to mention engaging as a writer!) about our issues.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Recursion, by Blake Crouch: Is Time an Illusion?

With apologies to Matthew McConaughey, time may not be a flat circle after all. Rather, time may be an illusion. That's because consciousness is actually memory. And memory is reality. Wait, what? If your head is spinning, you're in the perfect spot to tackle Black Crouch's mind-blowing new thriller, Recursion

Yes, much like his last novel Dark Matter, which explored the notion of multiple universes, his newest thriller provides a different but similarly cerebral thought experiment: What if we can "live" in several timelines — or versions of our lives — simultaneously? I know it sounds confusing, but in the hands of a writer as talented and smart as Crouch, and within the framework of his ingenuous, turbo-speed plot, it really does all make sense.

The story starts with an NYPD detective named Barry, who tries to stop a woman with "False Memory Syndrome" from jumping off a Manhattan skyscraper. This leads him to begin investigating what FMS really is. Meanwhile, 10 years prior, a researcher named Helena is working on a project to digitally map memories. Her goal is to help people with Alzheimer's like her mother retain their precious memories. But her research is co-opted by a mysterious billionaire named Marcus Slade — think Elon Musk crossed with Dr. Evil. And what they actually discover is a way to re-plant consciousness inside a digitally mapped memory so that basically you're traveling back in time to relive your life over again at the start of that memory.

What could possibly go wrong?

And as importantly, what happens when your second (or third or infinity) timeline catches up to the present again? That's the stuff good thrillers are made of — and this is a very, very good thriller. The plot shifts several times in surprising ways, exploring the unintended consequences of this idea that memories can literally be lived in. What are the effects on other people? How does this version of time travel deal with the "grandmother/father paradox" (if your grandmother dies in the past, then how are you even born)? And what the hell is False Memory Syndrome anyway?

Like Dark Matter, this novel feels more like fiction about science than science-fiction. It's a subtle difference, I realize, but this novel feels so terrifyingly realistic — especially as you read more about how the exponential increase in computing power and AI means that it might be possible by like 2030 to literally map and store a brain, or part of a brain, or a memory, digitally. Yikes. Again, what could go wrong? But I'm glad we're just reading about this in fiction now — and super entertaining fiction, at that. If you enjoyed Dark Matter, or novels like Dexter Palmer's Version Control (one of my favorite novels of the last decade), you'll definitely enjoy this one too.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Memoir-palooza: 3 Terrific Recent Personal Stories

When I was a dumb young (young dumb?) book blogger, I wrote an awful post about the difference between autobiography and memoir.  You know how you often look back at stuff you wrote awhile ago and cringe really, really hard. That's that. Anyway, I just mention that because, for whatever reason, maybe mid-life self-reflection or maybe because they seem to be the genre du jour and there are a lot more really good ones published these days, I've read a ton of awesome memoirs lately. I never used to be a big fan, but the more I read (Educated! Becoming!), the more I love them. Here's a rundown of three recent ones I really enjoyed.

Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah — A memoir that alternates between serious-as-a-heart-attack and shoot-Coke-out-of-your-nose-hilarious (which I did reading this on a flight), this book is always immensely entertaining. It combines a chronicle of Noah's South African childhood, mixed with his commentary about the absurdity, stupidity, and cruelty of apartheid. There is religion and mysticism, terrifying mini-buses (I dare you to read the first chapter and NOT continue with this book, as he tells a story about having to jump out of a moving minibus with a particularly scary driver), a fiercely strong mother, a burgeoning comedy and DJing career, and so much more. I still watch The Daily Show most nights, so it's a little embarrassing it took me until now to read this. But I loved it!

Save Me The Plums, by Ruth Reichl — Reichl, a beloved food writer and frequent memoirist, chronicles her nearly 10 years as the editor of Gourmet magazine before its untimely demise in 2009. While most readers will probably pick this up to read Reichl on food, I read this for a different reason: I wanted to get the inside scoop on the magazine business. And that's fascinating — how Reichl, who was a restaurant critic prior to landing the editorship of Gourmet, didn't know about adjacencies or the "tee-oh-cee" (TOC - table of contents) or any other cornerstones of the nerdy world of magazine editing. But she learned quickly and had massive success changing the magazine from a stuffy pub for high-fallutin' richie-riches to a magazine for everyone. It began running articles about things like whether it's moral to eat lobsters if they feel pain. (There's an entire chapter dedicated to David Foster Wallace and his "Consider the Lobster" essay, which is another reason I read and loved this book!) So yeah, I loved reading about the day-to-day of running a hugely popular consumer magazine — dealing with publisher (is it the editor's job to go on sales calls or not?), the accountants, the art directors, and everyone else that makes a magazine successful (or not). But I also gained a whole new appreciation for food culture. I am far from a foodie, but the way Reichl writes about food is so personal and intimate, you can't help but taste, smell and, savor it along with her. I really loved this book — a favorite of the year so far.

All That You Leave Behind, by Erin Lee Carter — If you've seen the terrific 2011 documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times, or if you're a long-time Times reader, you probably know David Carr, the irascible, fascinating journalist who built a huge social media following in the early years of Twitter. His daughter, now a successful documentarian, has written this intimate memoir about Carr, who died in the Times newsroom in 2015, mentoring her as she strives to make her way in New York media herself.

Culled from emails, gchats, and texts between the two, the memoir is a touching look at their immensely close relationship and how great of a mentor he was for her, even when he'd fly off the handle in one of his signature fits of rage. But Erin also has her own demons, struggling with a sense of adequacy and with bouts of alcoholism. The book reads part like an intimate biography of David Carr and part Girls-esque coming-of-age in Brooklyn. The latter gives this more than the occasional feel of self-absorption (Lena Dunham herself even makes an appearance or two!), but overall I really enjoyed this. It's a well-written, brave memoir.