An Anecdote About How I Review Books

When I was in college, I studied Creative Writing, which had a fair number of literature classes required, as you might imagine (thought perhaps not as many literature classes as a literature degree would require). In fact, it’s only my years of extensive education that allow me to craft such complex sentences as the preceding one; my education in this area also explains my love of the semicolon.

There’s a lot about college that I don’t really remember. Sometimes, for fun(?), I try to remember all the classes I actually took. For the classes that I do remember, I try to remember my professors’ names. And eventually I arrive at the conclusion that my memory sucks, I’m bad at paying attention, and what’s the point of any of this! But there are things that I remember from college, in particular, the following anecdote:

It was a literature class, although fuck me if I can remember what the actual focus was. We studied Moby Dick for a while, which narrows it down marginally (I took an African American literature class once and can confirm Moby Dick was not part of the curriculum.) At one point in the semester, my professor showed us one of those videos you can create, the ones where there are two animated characters that can discuss whatever you like, and all you need to do is fill out the text bubbles so they’ll talk to each other with appropriate animations and camera angles. It’s the kind of thing that’s a novelty for exactly the first video you see, maaaybe the first video you try to create, and then never again. I wonder if I can find it. Hold please.

And we’re back. For you, dear reader, the transition was instantaneous. For me, it was 45 minutes of getting sucked into YouTube videos. I forgot what I was talking about. Oh, right.

I was not able to find the video itself, though I did the original video that created the meme. Take a look if you’d like to see the style; it’s exactly the same as what my professor did, down to the robot voices and two bears.

In the video my professor created, the title was something like “the problem with reading difficult books.” And one of the bears (the one with the vaguely feminine voice) expresses frustration with how hard it is to read certain books and how she often has to read them several times to understand what they are saying.

Then the other bear points out that you don’t really need to do that. “Simply stare at the book for an appropriate length of time. Say ‘hmmmm’ a lot. Then in class, instead of talking about the book, talk about how the book made you feel. Other students will think you are attractive and interesting. You will go on many dates with other students who also did not read the book. And perhaps one day you will have children of your own, who will grow up not reading the book.”

And at the time, I was like daaaaamn, this guy is way too young to have that level of despair regarding the worth ethic of his students. And that video was the one thing I remembered from his class, so, hrm, maybe he was on to something.

The reason I bring up this little trip down memory lane is because when I write reviews for books these days, I basically just talk about exactly that; how the book made me feel. And every time I do, there’s this little voice in the back of my head telling me that I’m letting Professor (sorry, can’t remember your name) down, because I’m just talking about how I feel. The little voice tells me that I should be doing more rigorous analysis, more detailed examination, more critical thinking, instead of something I type up during a fifteen minute break or during lunch.

I tell myself that I don’t actually have to do anything I don’t feel like doing; I’m not a professional reviewer and I don’t think my little reviews are going to earn me any actual career advancement. So I can do them however the hell I want. But there’s always that voice telling me that I should do more, that I owe it to the author and to my own ridiculously over-priced degree to do work at the level I’m capable of doing.

But I don’t. I just talk about how I feel after having read it and take comfort in the fact that in my mind, I’m always just talking to myself and if you’re actually reading this now, it’s entirely an accident of fate and not by my design.

Also, there’s the fact that I originally didn’t even bother writing reviews; I’d just slap a few stars down on Goodreads, grunt, and go on my way. So the fact that I’m actually leaving thoughts at all is a big step forward, if you think about it.

All I’m saying is that I’m aware of what I’m doing. But I also know that I don’t really like reviews as a thing. I don’t trust reviews if I don’t know anything about the reviewer. This is true for reviews of everything other than washing machines (for those, I just need to know if it’s going to wash my clothes). But for everything else, for books, movies, video games, I don’t actually care about the professional reviews. I need the reviews from people that match my particular profile: people who think that (motorcycle + velociraptor) x Chris Prat = awesome is an equation that leads us to the highest echelon of entertainment. I’m aware that Jurassic World was not actually a  good movie. I’m just also saying that I don’t care.

So, that’s why I do what I do.

Review: The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1)The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not one who tends to pick up YA novels too often, but every once in a while I get a recommendation from a colleague and it sparks my curiosity enough to dip my toe in the waters for a while. It’s interesting, because I know that the YA market is very hot right now among adult readers and especially among librarians and since every single person I know is a librarian, you can see how this sort of thing happens from time to time.

So, the book itself. For me, there were some great bits, some okay bits, and some ‘meh’ bits. I’m not much for the YA romance angle, especially the “girl with a crush on one boy who is liked by another.” There’s a good bit of mystery about the “Waves,” what they are, what they will be, and what the titular “5th Wave” actually is. I also enjoyed the speculation early in the book about what the “Others” actually were and there’s a good bit of tension regarding just how, well, alien they are.

There are multiple points of view throughout the book and they shift around often enough that it was, at times, tricky to keep track of who I was reading. A few times I started in on a chapter and thought it was from one character’s point of view, only to realize that I was wrong a few pages in. It’s certainly not the kind of thing that breaks a narrative for me, but it’s . . . inelegant. I liken it to a transmission that clunks whenever you shift gears. It still works, but you notice it when you’d prefer everything to be smooth. It’s also the kind of thing that would be easy enough to fix; slap a Game of Thrones-style chapter header “Chapter 5: Cassie,” for instance, and you’d clean that right up.

Regardless, overall, I enjoyed the book. I like aliens, I like invasions, I like dystopias, and I like survival; there’s a good amount of each here. I’m less interested in teenage romance and the angst therein, but I recognize that this genre has certain conventions that are quite popular, so I’m not convinced that it’s bad. It’s just not to my taste. Your mileage may vary accordingly.

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Review: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's SyndromeUnlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fun fact: the copy that I read was part of a limited print run of 1500 copies, all of which were numbered and signed by the author. Mine was 1384, which found its way to the King County Library System’s collection. Anyway.

This book is a companion novella to the novel “Lock In” and as such, it’s a slim, quick read. And you know what? That’s a goddamn shame! I enjoyed “Lock In” quite a bit . . . but “Unlocked” is something really special and it manages to hit all the right buttons in my brain.

I attribute this largely to its format, which is entirely done in an interview style of various individuals discussing the spread of “Haden’s Syndrome,” the effect which causes the “Locked In” condition that sets up the rest of the world. This interview style is very, very reminiscent of “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” by Max Brooks, although without the zombies.

There’s something powerful in telling a story entirely through interview, which I suppose might be why interviews as a thing are reasonably popular. But fictional interviews are even better, because you’re not limited to how people actually talk, but can craft interesting, narrative driven responses that paint an entire world piece by piece. It’s considerably more interesting, which might be one of the reasons I never pursued a major in Journalism.

This novella was released before “Lock In” was published, so if you haven’t read either yet, do yourself a favor and read this one first. I’m more than willing to imagine that some of my concerns about the full novel would have been assuaged had I actually done things in the proper order. Even if you’re not planning on reading the full novel, “Unlocked” is an interesting little book that will occupy your mind far longer than it takes to get through it. Always a good thing, in my opinion.

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Review: Lexicon

LexiconLexicon by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t realize the “thriller about words” could be a genre, but I’m definitely on board. While most people recommend and remember Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” because of the cyber-punk and cyberspace elements, that book was really more about words and the idea of words as being able to have this viral programming effect on humans. For the nerd in your life who got into THAT aspect of “Snow Crash,” you’ll definitely want to recommend “Lexicon.”

It’s not a perfect book, but there’s a lot to love here. The author does a very clever bit of work with a dual narrative that moves around in time, but never actually states the time/date or any sort of “Then/Now” chapter notation. It’s up to you to figure out how the narrative pieces together, which you can do from context and feels incredibly rewarding as a result. I like it when books and authors treat their readers as very clever and able to figure things out; this is something else that author Max Barry and Neal Stephenson have in common and I approve.

The book is at its absolute best as it explores its ideas; what is a word, really? How much power do they have, in the literal sense of being able to reprogram human cognition. You’ll find yourself thinking about it long after you put the book down, which for me is always a plus; see the previous paragraph about authors and reader cleverness.

Where this book wanders away from being perfect is when it decides to be a thriller. Simply put, there are a few thriller tropes that really grate. We never really find out WHY the poets (the main organization) are amassing all of this power or why the main antagonist makes any of the choices that he/she (keeping it ambiguous to avoid spoilers) makes. We’re left to assume and thus the overarching plot has a bit of an “evil for the sake of evil” mastermind bit going on that’s at odds with how clever the rest of the storytelling is.

Regardless, this is a book that I can highly recommend, especially for people who like their fiction to feel as smart as they are.

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In Case You’re Wondering What It Feels Like

I reached my NaNoWriMo goal on Monday: 50,000 words in 30 days (well, technically 27 days). What does that feel like? At this point, it’s more a relief than anything else. I did celebrate reaching my goal by opening the 12 year old single malt scotch and drank a glass with my wife, but only because I decided to save the 21 year single malt for when the manuscript is actually done.

Because that’s the weird thing about NaNo projects, at least for me; 50,000 words has never, ever conincided with me reaching “the end.” For the only NaNo that actually went on to become a finished manuscript, 50,000 words was roughly the midway point.

Which means that there isn’t really a feeling of being done. You turn in your word count, get the neat little validation thingy from the website, which I do like quite a bit because I’m a gamer and gamers are conditioned to perform repetitive actions to raise bars. This aspect of my personality is why YNAB worked on my finances and Fitbit was working for my fitness level (at least, it was working until the damn band broke and I stopped wearing it).

So here I am, done with my big goal, my winning streak extended by another year (up to eight wins in a row now) and then, with all that said and done, you get back to work. Because there’s still a lot more story to tell and a hell of a lot of rewriting for this one.

Blogging in the Age of Trump

When I started writing this blog almost three years ago, I had a lot of opinions about things that made me angry in the world. Politics. Religion. Other stuff . . . but mostly politics and religion. There was a point in time where I would intentionally seek out things that would get me angry, get me all fired up, just so I’d have the fuel to write something.

I was also in my atheist reading phase, taking pretty much everything the late Christopher Hitchens said as gospel (ha!). Many of those old posts make me cringe now; I actually removed a lot of the religion stuff because of how much I dislike the version of me who wrote those things. He was someone looking for a fight and that isn’t someone I want to be. I left some of the political stuff up, because I’m still just as much of a hippie tree-hugger vegetarian liberal environmentalist as I ever was.

But I’ve mellowed a lot since then. It seemed toxic to keep doing that, to seek out the rage, so I stopped. In fact, I stopped writing about things that made me furious entirely and focused on things that I liked, which for the most part has been books. Sure, there’s been the occasional rant about ads on blogs, but otherwise, I focus on the things that make me happy. Even terrible books make me happy to write about them and happy for having thought hard about a work, even if I didn’t like it.

I haven’t written anything this political cycle, not since my post pointing out how wrong I’d been with my prediction about Scott Walker being the Republican nominee. After that, I went dark on the subject.

When the election results started to turn towards Trump, as I started to feel the creeping despair that I remembered from watching the 2004 election, I had this text exchange with my mom:

Me: “I am freaking losing my mind right now.”
Mom: “Don’t do that, a mind is a terrible thing to lose.”
Me: “How can this be happening?”
Mom: “Well, it is too early to call right now.”
Me: “It was supposed to be a damn landslide!”
Mom: “I think our country could have two candidates that would represent us a bit better.
Me: “It wasn’t even close, the guy is a moron, an incompetent, and a misogynist asshole!”
Mom: “Well, if we can agree to disagree, she has a lot of issues that haven’t helped her credibility and people are tired of the way our country has been run.”
Me: “Did you vote for Trump?”
Mom: “I know people don’t like Trump, but they don’t trust Clinton.”
Me: “You voted for Trump.”
Mom: “I did and I hope you are okay with that. I just could not support her.”
Me: “I’m not.”
Mom: “You are really not okay with me making my own decision on what I felt was right for me?”
Me: “I am walking way from my phone so I will not say something I regret.”

Put aside everything about the candidates themselves for a moment. Focus only on the tone of this exchange. Who is the reasonable person here? Who is the person you would want to listen to?

The version of me who wrote those words was the same person who used this platform in 2013 to look for fights, who looked for things to be mad about. And I am mad. I’m still mad. I think I’m very likely going to be mad for the next four years. There is a whole lot to be mad about. I don’t want to be that person. I don’t think he’s very useful for doing anything other than stoking his own rage fires. Certainly, he’s not doing anything that’s making the world a better place.

But mostly, I keep coming back to that one question: “how can this be happening?”

And I think, over and over again, one narrative stands out that makes the most sense to me; where we get our information from.

In my professional capacity, it is my job to help people find information and to do so from a neutral, non-biased perspective. But one thing that is still a requirement of that professional calling is that the information must always be of the highest quality. It must come from reliable sources. And that’s what I want to work on.

I will not return to the rage-blog. There are enough of those on the Internet already and frankly, my blood pressure is already about ten points higher than it was two weeks ago; it doesn’t need any further help in that regard.

I may or may not write again about politics for a while; we’ll see how it goes. I feel like I have to say something. I feel like the fact that I’ve been quiet was wrong, because I hoarded my information, my understand to myself. Could I have changed any minds if I’d been open? Maybe. In my head, I was avoiding arguments, keeping the peace. And maybe that’s the case, but it feels like it was a mistake now. It feels like I made the wrong choice. I feel like I can’t stay buried in the sand, as warm and good as that feels.

But what I won’t be is the person who spits venom, who is furious, who is looking for a fight. What I will do is ask “what is your source for that?” “Is that a reliable source?” and every other permutation to help stem the tide of information bullshit that is currently free-flowing.

Because one thing I’ve always believed and continue to believe? You don’t win by being combative. You don’t win by brow-beating. You win by persuading, by convincing. I take it as the highest compliment when people are surprised to learn that I’m a vegetarian, that I defy the irritatingly common joke “how do you know someone is a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” I do not preach about my choices. I answer only if asked.

So when you share your thoughts about why you think climate change is bullshit, I will ask you to explain why. I will test your ideas. I will invite you to consider everything about what you think. And maybe you’ll see that these ideas are lacking or came from a place that has a vested interest in manipulating the truth. Perhaps not. I do not pretend to have any great wisdom on anything these days.

But I still have my ideas, and I think they’re pretty good ideas, if only because I have a tremendous amount of time to spend thinking and reading and gathering information, and I’m continually discarding old ones when better ones come down the pipe. I will share the information that I use to arrive at my ideas, to test them, to prove them.

Humans are not rational creatures. We’re emotional. But it’s possible to feel an emotional drive towards the idea of better information, which just might overcome the feel-good nature of the echo chamber. It just might be possible.

I think that’s worth something. And I think it’s going to be increasingly rare as the Outrage Machine spends the next four years giving us everything our base instincts crave. We get that dopamine hit from being right. Or we get it for being outraged, because look at what these idiots are doing now. But it’s poison. It’s toxic. It changes us.

We can be better. We can walk the path of wisdom together.

It’s silly, actually, but there’s a quote that I keep coming back to, from an old Star Wars video game that I loved: “What greater weapon is there than to turn an enemy to your cause? To use their own knowledge against them?”

And while I won’t call them enemies, because that way is the path back to rage, I think the basic idea holds true. If nothing else, it’s healthier than holding on to hatred and venom.

Review: Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species DivideBeing a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide by Charles Foster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I started off greatly intrigued by the premise, but my expectations for what the book was going to be ended up not panning out. From the author’s forward, what I imagined I would be reading was a series of narrative nonfiction essays told from the perspective of the various beasts. Each beast would be a different character and various things would happen to them; all approximated, of course, because of the whole subjective nature of individual minds, especially human minds trying to approximate nonhuman minds. However, none of those expectations panned out.

Ultimately, we have musings that wander back and forth through various topics while making commentary on eating earthworms, tasting slugs (seriously, don’t ever do that), and rolling around in the woods for a while. While it started out interesting enough, the essay on otters started to lose me, as the author begins to create an emotional understanding of different animals that feels painfully antiquarian. And then, of course, there’s his opinion on cats (he hates them) and that was where I found myself in the weeds with regards to “Being a Beast.” I finished it out of a sense of obligation, having come so far (also I never allow myself to review books that I have not read in their entirety.)

Final verdict: a weird book that starts off with an interesting premise, but meanders and chases its own tail. There are a few interesting anecdotes along the way (such as the discussion with a police officer about how the author is “trying to be a fox”), but they are few and far between. It becomes increasingly difficult to determine when the author is being sincere and when he is being hyperbolic. I came away from the book feeling mostly disappointed by my misunderstanding of the premise. Which might say more about me than the book (it does), but that’s what you get when you read reviews from nonprofessional dilettantes such as myself.

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Would You Pay For An Ad-free Internet? I Would. And Some Other Thoughts On Noise.

This is not the first time I’ve ruminated about ad block. But it’s on my mind today.

I can’t remember when one of my savviest of tech savvy friends turned me onto ad block software, but it was a watershed moment; I immediately installed it on everything I own and never looked back. I’ve changed the specific program over the years (originally it was the classic Ad Block, though these days I favor uBlock), but regardless of the specific program, it’s always the same goal. I want a clean, minimalist, distraction-free browsing experience.

In fact, I didn’t realize how bad advertising clutter had gotten until I borrowed a co-worker’s terminal to cover her service point (public library term, basically, an information desk) and used a browser without ad block.

I am not exaggerating when I say that it felt unusable. Videos started autoplaying, forcing me to choose between keeping the sound muted and being able to hear important alert notices and phone calls through our call routing software. Things crawled and slid and demanded that I interact with them in some way to get them out of the content. Worst of all was the ads that seemed intentionally built to create an accidental click; trying to close it instead opened a new link to whatever product or service was being peddled. It was awful and it made me retreat to my own station with my clean, quiet, distraction-free experience.

It was a painful realization for someone who works with information professionally, but here it is; the greatest information pipeline in human history is filled mostly with garbage. Fortunately, you can put a filter on your particular tap to remove the junk, akin to using a Brita filter when you don’t trust the quality of the local water.

I actually have a strong feeling of revulsion to most forms of advertising. I hate it. I hate the noise that it represents.

When I was a kid, the television (televisions, really) was the electronic hearth around which life revolved. As far as I can remember, the television was on. My parents watched it. My brother and I watched it. We all watched it. Even if no one was watching it, the television was usually on, as something to be “listened to” or even just as “background noise.”

Our first computer was located in the kitchen/breakfast table area. There was a television in this room, too. I recall when I started to write, when I wrote my first complete manuscript for a terrible fantasy novel, I learned to tune out the noise around me with what felt like superhuman focus. But there was always so much noise.

I haven’t had cable television in my life in probably ten years. This was never done as some sort of act of defiance; I never made the decision to become a “cord cutter.” The rise of digital delivery, a la carte downloading, and other services created a much more powerful incentive for the consumption of content. The fact that it was ad free (because I was either paying for the individual episodes or for the subscription service itself) was just a bonus.

This is how it’s been for so long that I forgot how noisy the rest of the world is.

I came to realize how much noise I’d filtered out when I went back to Tucson to visit my family earlier this year and spent a few days at my brother’s house and then a few at my mother’s. Once again, cable television with all its commercials, all its ads, all its noise, was back in my life. Even at my mom’s place, with her candles, crystals, peaceful demeanor, and adorably ancient cat . . . there was still the television and the noise.

It was a powerful lesson in how noisy life is and how much energy we spend ignoring it. Because make no mistake, even if you don’t consciously notice the noise, even if you can tune it out with superhuman focus as I did, your body is still experiencing it. Your ears are taking in the sound waves and your brain is filtering through the massive amount of data it ingests to prioritize what it believes to be the most important bits and so much exposure to this barrage of junk sound mean it all gets chucked into the spam folder . . . but that doesn’t mean it’s not still being ingested.

I resent it. I resent the bandwidth advertising consumes. I despise the cognitive tricks that are deployed to co-opt my reason and manipulate my emotions. I know enough to know that I’m not immune to these techniques; that they are crafted by people who devote their considerable intelligence to this purpose. I am not immune; thinking otherwise simply means you’re easier to manipulate.

I treasure silence. It’s hilariously stereotypical, considering my profession, but there it is.

Let’s return to the Internet and all its mental noise.

I understand why ads exist. I know that everything we do online has a cost and if I’m not paying for a service or product directly, it’s because I am the product. Ads are the price of admission. It’s the model that we’ve gotten used to. But it’s one that I’m sick of. I’m so sick of it that I pay money to keep ads off my site, because I don’t want anything I do to  help contribute to that flood of noise. It’s worth it to me.

I don’t think content should be free. Content has value and content creators should be compensated for their time and effort.

Many sites are switching to subscription models or donations or other options to pay for premium, ad-free experiences. And this is a good step, but it’s so fractured, so disjointed, that it wasn’t until I started seriously doing personal budgeting that I realized how many different goddamn subscriptions were sipping away at my finances. Things I’d used and forgotten to cancel. Things I used a few times a year. So many things. It’s too much mental bandwidth to responsibly manage all of those things, to do the mental math of deciding each and every time “how much did I use this site or that site this much? How much was this worth to me.”

The model I would use would be similar to my current cell provider, Ting. Each month, I use a certain amount of data and text messages. There’s a neat little meter that tracks it on my account. At the end of the billing cycle, they say “you used this much data,  you owe us this much.” And I pay that amount. You might also recognize this model as the one you get through your electric bill or your water bill or almost any other utility.

Websites already track your shit. All those cookies we mindlessly agree to are little troves of data to be bundled up, packaged, and sold, so that the commercial engine of the Internet continues to turn. Again, there is nothing on the web that is free. If you’re not paying for a product, you are the product, or more accurately, your information is or your viewership or whatever other metric advertisers are measuring.

So that’s what I want: a meter that tracks how much I view each site each month and then calculates a value and from that total bill, pays out whatever dividends my consumption of that content would have represented in terms of ad dollars. I want it manageable from one central location, instead of having forty different subscriptions charging me a dollar each.

I recognize that this model may not be possible right now. Who decides how much each site is worth? What if one site decides it costs me five dollars per page and another says it’s 10 cents? It obviously would require an entire paradigm shift and at the core, what I’m really saying is that I want to pay more money than I already do.

Because, let’s be honest; the current model is actually fine for me. I block the ads, I get the content, the cost of having me as a viewer is subsidized by all the people who aren’t blocking ads. In fact, it’s better for me if ad block never goes mainstream, because if too many people start using it, it will fail for everyone. Content providers will see their revenue dry up and then something must be done. I already have noticed an uptick in the number of sites that just flat-out deny access if you have ad block running.

But this does not feel ethical or right. This idea shows up in philosophy a lot. Kant’s categorical imperative and the prisoner’s dilemma come to mind as possible examples.

So there we are. I’m an Internet parasite. I’d like to change. But currently it’s not easy enough or rewarding enough to do so, so I don’t.

Book Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small IslandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’ve read quite a few of Bill Bryson’s books. This is the first one I didn’t really enjoy and I’m sad to say that.

I picked this one up, quite appropriately, I thought, during my honeymoon to the UK. There was something marvelous about reading about traveling in the UK while doing so myself, particularly when the Welsh town of Lladudno makes a brief appearance. We stayed there for a few days and it was quite lovely, so it was a thrill to see it get mentioned. Bryson is a witty writer and at his best, his observations earn laughs or at least smiles.

However.

I’m not sure if it’s because this was one of his earliest books and he refined his style or if it’s because he was just in a bad mood during a lot of these journeys or if he mellowed out later with age, but the Bryson in this book is . . . well, mean. He seems like a jerk. There were exchanges earlier in the book that made me wince a little bit, but I wrote down the exact moment he lost me:

From Chapter 26:

In the end, fractious and impatient, I went into a crowded McDonald’s, waited ages in a long, shuffling line, which made me even more fractious and impatient, and finally ordered a cup of coffee and an Egg McMuffin.

“Do you want an apple turnover with that?” asked the young man who served me.

I looked at him for a moment. “I’m sorry,” I said, “do I appear to be brain-damaged?”

“Pardon?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t ask for an apple turnover, did I?”

“Uh, . . . no.”

“So do I look as if I have some mental condition that would render me unable to request an apple turnover if I wanted one?”

“No, it’s just that we’re told to ask everyone, like.”

“What, you think everyone in Edinburgh is brain-damaged?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone, like.”

“Well, I don’t want an apple turnover, which is why I didn’t ask for one. Is there anything else you’d like to know if I don’t want?”

“We’re just told to ask everyone.”

“Do you remember what I do want?”

He looked in confusion at his cash register. “Uh, an Egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee.”

“Do you think I might have it this morning or shall we talk some more?”

“Oh, uh, right, I’ll just get it.”

“Thank you.”

Where do I even start? He complains about the kid behind the counter wasting his time, when he was the one that prompted the ridiculous exchange by being an asshole in the first place. A simple “no, thank you” to the question would have had him right along on his way.

We all have bad days. I get that. And he notes before and after this passage that he was feeling “fractious.” But here’s the thing. I’ve been that teenage kid, working a shitty entry job that I didn’t want to do, because I needed to be able to afford to drive myself to school. I’ve had stupid corporate requirements and disinterested managers force me to use scripts, force me to pitch things that I knew customers didn’t want, forced me to upsell, etc. I know that this isn’t the kid’s fault. And anyone who’s been on the other side of that cash register knows it, too.

If you’ve ever worked food service or retail or any other job where you’re the public face, you know that the guy or girl at that register has no power. They don’t make any of these decisions. Why upbraid them, except to make them feel worse and to make yourself feel better? Everyone knows this, except, apparently, for Bryson. But all I felt after reading this passage was a reminder of all the goddamn times a customer has been an asshole to me over the years and how much it sucks, how much it ruins the rest of your day, and how much you despise people that do that to you. A simple “no, thank you” would get everyone on with the rest of their day. Hell, if you really felt the need to make a point, ask to talk to a shift manager, who only has slightly more power than the poor kid, but at least there’s a chance they have some control over it (although, having been the shift manager too, I can say that it’s unlikely).

Here’s the thing. It’s only a few pages and it comes towards the end of the book. But were this a fiction novel, this would be a character defining moment. This is the sort of thing that shows us who a person is, by how he treats his perceived lessers. And this, compared with earlier comments, makes me feel as though Bryson is a mean person, a jerk, the kind of tourist I cringe when I see, the kind of person who would embarrass the hell out of me doing exactly this kind of thing, all because he feels so fucking smart that he has to point out all the little bits of bullshit in the world around him, when the rest of us just want to get through that bullshit as intact as possible, without breaking character.

Fortunately, his later books don’t cast Bryson as this much of a churl, but rarely have I been so turned off in a book such as this. Skip this one. Read his other, better work. How the hell this chapter made it past his editor is beyond me.

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Book Review: The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence

The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of AffluenceThe New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence by David Remnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A curious mixture of the sublime and the staid. With any articles read more than a few years removed from the era in which they were written, there is a chance that they will not have aged well, that the context in which they flourished no longer permeates the world. One hopes that such things will have a certain timelessness, which would be why they’re worth putting into a book in the first place, but this doesn’t always work. And then there’s the chance that even the book itself might not be lasting, might be subject to the same whims. This collection was published in late 2001, a scant few months after the world changed.

How does this collection hold up, almost fifteen years later? Interestingly, some of it does. It’s fascinating to see Trump’s name pop up early in the book and read about him as we knew him in 2001, with little idea that in 2016, he’s be . . . well, what he is now (it should go without saying that my politics do not align with his, but as a student of the world, there’s still something interesting here. Even terrible men can be interesting). Likewise, coming back to the story of Bill Gates in the wake of the Microsoft anti-trust case . . . remember when that was a thing? It was a different world.

The book is front-loaded with its best stuff; its human stories, the ones that stand up to the test of time because they are about people in moments of time, people that, for the most part, are still around, still doing things, still interesting. Not all of them, of course, but enough that it’s fun to do the “where are they now” calculation as you read.

After that, however, things start to wander. It’s obvious we couldn’t have known in 2001 what 2016 would be, how some of the problems were eerily prescient and some we could have never imagined. Does it justify your time? Depends on how you feel about leaving books unfinished. For me, it was incumbent upon me to read everything, to earn my right to complete and review it. For you, dear reader? I think it’s fair if you pick this one up and, like trail mix or a bowl of Lucky Charms, pick out the tastiest-looking bits and leave the rest alone.

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Compulsively iconoclastic!

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