Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Welcome to the Monkey House

             If you’re not a fan of fiction, then you haven’t read Vonnegut. He’s the only author who I feel complete confidence recommending. Don’t know where to start? It really doesn’t matter much. I could guide you to a certain extent—and I have, in my reviews of Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions. But Vonnegut stays true to his bizarre, dystopic science-fiction themes, his satirical voice, and his philosophical undertones. You know what you’re going to get. And it’s going to be remarkable.

            Welcome to the Monkey House* is a collection of 25 short stories. Vonnegut says in the preface, “the contents of this book are samples of work I sold in order to finance the writing of the novels. Here one finds the fruits of Free Enterprise” (Vonnegut, xiv). I adore the novels and I’m thankful for the work that enabled them, but this collection is intelligent, witty, and entertaining in its own right. The short story format, which I’ve hailed in the past, is ideal for a man like Vonnegut who is overflowing with ideas. He’s able to house an eccentric character in a brief, brilliant world that explodes in its brevity rather than fizzling out in lengthy, convoluted plot. The beginnings and ends don’t need to be neat and tidy; he can throw an interesting character in your face, you accept the world as a given, and you enjoy the story for what it is.

            Although each story in Welcome to the Monkey House is distinct, Vonnegut deals with similar themes. Like: the commoditization of pleasure, the ephemerality of youth, the inevitability of mortality, etc. He tinkers with the parameters of our current planet, changing the rules to explore the realities of life that haunt us the most. 

            For instance, some of his stories feature:
-A world where equality is paramount. Various handicaps are introduced to make everyone on equal footing (ex: to reduce someone’s intelligence).
-Required ethical birth control pills to combat overpopulation. They don’t take away the ability to reproduce; they take away all sexual pleasure to make the act unenticing.
-Prisoners of war subjected to a chess match for their lives. The pieces are human and taking a piece is taking a life.
-A computer that develops sentience.

            His stories make you THINK. Vonnegut is one of the most self-aware authors I’ve ever read and his uncanny ability to challenge his experiences forces you to challenge your own. My only complaint about the collection is that it lists the year published but it doesn’t name the medium. A small price to pay for a work that is such a gift to my own meandering through existence! Welcome to the Monkey House receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Vonnegut, Kurt. Welcome to the Monkey House. New York: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 1968. Print.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Play It as It Lays

            Don’t you just love a really sad book sometimes? Like a Radiohead song that doesn’t make you feel better, it makes you feel the depth of the sadness? Joan Didion is the Radiohead of literature. I read and reviewed her memoir six months ago. Her ability to capture the nuances of emotion intrigued me and I wanted to see how that skill unfurled in her fiction. First stop: Play It as It Lays*.

            Play It as It Lays shows the psychological wear and tear of Maria, a fading actress whose experiences of loss grind her into a shell of a person. The novel is not a pleasant pick-me-up. There’s forced abortion, barbiturate addiction, and a caustic divorce. It’s very theatrical and very Hollywood. It also comes across as very Joan Didion. Joan Didion is cool, okay? She exudes a commanding presence that says: Listen to what I have to say; it’s important.

            The novel jumps around perspectives in the beginning but quickly settles on the third-person for the remainder of the book. I find it impressive that Didion can nimbly move through points of view, but because of her ability, I wish she had continued to do so. As the plot progresses, I yearn for more first-person reactions, because she’s given me a taste of what it’s like.

            TIME magazine included Play It as It Lays in their list of 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005, which is pretty extra. The book indulges your darker side but I can’t say it blew me away. Let’s enjoy it for what it is and leave the lists out of it. Play It as It Lays receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Didion, Joan. Play It as It Lays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970. Print.

*Lacayo, Richard. “All Time 100 Novels.” Time. Time Inc., 06 Jan. 2010. Web. 31 Jan. 2018.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

            Like any starry-eyed millennial in January, I opted to do something self-help related that wasn’t overly taxing. I read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business* by New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. I have zero use for the business portion, but I do have (somewhat) of a life, so here we are.

            Duhigg invokes multiple scientific studies to argue that most of our actions don’t stem from deliberate decision-making. What might have once started as an intentional choice becomes part of a habit loop that your brain regularly relies on so that it can focus on other issues. Duhigg breaks down the habit loop into three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Our mind starts going through the motions like 
and if you want to change the habit, you’ve got to keep up.

            A cue is something that triggers the habit. For example, if you have a habit of incessantly checking your phone, a cue might be the sound of receiving a text message. A routine is the more obvious part—it’s the habit itself. For example, if you have a habit of eating shitty foods, the routine is eating the shitty food. Let’s leave Chili’s out of this. A reward is the benefit that you incur from following through with the routine. For example, if you have a habit of exercising, the reward is the flow of endorphins that you feel at the end of a workout. The muscles are an added plus.

            I didn’t just read this book to learn about the neurological underpinnings behind why I brush my teeth. I read it because I want to brush my teeth more because I don’t have dental insurance. No? Just me?

            But really, the book isn’t just about the power of habits, it’s about the power to change habits. Duhigg gives you concrete tips on how to change an existing habit. Turns out, you can reprogram your brain! And we’re all trapped in a Black Mirror episode.

            After addressing individual habits, Duhigg expands his logic to businesses. He talks about targeted-marketing strategies that use data collections to reveal mass habits. He gives examples on how some industries take advantage of our brain’s desire for the familiar, like when the music industry tries to create a song that will “stick”.

            Duhigg ends with a couple of criminal cases that hint at the ethical responsibility to try and change habits that might harm yourself or others. He acknowledges that talking about habits vs. addictions is complicated/nuanced, and there are oftentimes more neurological elements at play. But the impetus behind the book is that there are certain things about yourself you can attempt to change and he gives you the tools to do just that.

            The book ended with a nauseatingly cheesy metaphor. Some parts had a preachy tone. A few of his business anecdotes seemed tangential. But if you want a pretty quick read with some straightforward, actionable advice, I recommend that you check it out. The Power of Habit receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2014. Print.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Lord of the Flies

            Unpopular opinion alert: I don’t like Lord of the Flies* by William Golding. At all. Not even a little bit.

            The book opens on an island where a group of schoolboys are stranded sans grown-ups. How did they get there? Why are they there? Where are the grown-ups? Totally unclear. The novel is only 200 pages and I spent the first 50 stuck on the logistics of their desertion. I’m down to suspend disbelief, but if the boys spend most of the book trying to get rescued, throw me a contextual bone or two.

            A grown-up free playpen? Sounds awesome. Until you need to organize and meet basic survival needs. The novel portrays their floundering attempts to create a civilized society. Boys. Will. Be. Boys. Soooo much arguing. Just constant bickering that mostly leads to nowhere. Truly, the dialogue is excruciating. I know that they’re kids, but can no one express a complete thought? Each one has the memory of a goldfish; most of the banter consists of them wondering where some other kid went. Seriously, stop running off every five seconds, it’s uninteresting. Every boy seems like a dumb dumb, starting a sentence and then forgetting what he is saying. The entire novel is littered with dashes because a kid’s thought will inevitably be cut off.

            The novel never explicitly specifies time, but it seems that the plot is tightly packed and therefore the boys are not on the island for very long (a month, perhaps). Their descent into savagery is rapid, like a snowball effect. Humans are capable of good and evil, and the setting is an allegory for humanity’s base impulses within rule-driven society. When you’re a confused child abandoned on an island with other confused children, your evil side might come out more than you’d prefer. That’s perfectly fine as a premise, but many of the actions and reactions are disproportionate and unbelievable. There isn’t much character development, but I sincerely doubt that a bunch of children, no matter how strange their circumstances are, have totally sociopathic responses to the gruesome deaths of boys their age. Golding hit the nail on the head too forcefully, and I would have appreciated more nuances. 

            My favorite thing about this book is unrelated to the writing itself. I got a used copy, and the person before me wrote “siesore” in the margins in a scene where one kid has a seizure. Other than that, Lord of the Flies receives 1 out of 5 camel humps.  

*Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Perigee, 1954. Print.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Like You'd Understand, Anyway

            Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a petty title and, in a petty mood, I gladly picked it off the shelf. I recognized Jim Shepard’s name from his standout short story in The Best American Short Stories 2013. I still wish it was Shepherd, but I’ll allow it.

            Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a collection of 11 short stories that each draw from a deep well of strained familial relations, namely brother-to-brother. Naturally, Shepard dedicated the book to his real-life brother. The first story follows a man who feels semi-responsible for an accident that results in his brothers’ deaths. When he asks one, “‘Was I ever the brother you hoped I would be?’” I wonder whom Shepard is speaking to (Shepard, 23).  The context of his inspiration creates an atmosphere of intimacy, like I’m reading a diary or sitting at their family dinner table watching them argue over who gets to sit next to dad.

            A word to the wise: Shepard is a poetic craftsman of words, but his stories are designed to bring about discomfort. One story literally says, “All day, every day, I’m sad” (Shepard, 30). Furthermore, he moves and grooves alllll over the map. His characters span a wide range of centuries and nationalities, and most of his stories clearly required factual research (like the Chernobyl disaster and exploration of the Great Australian Desert). One story features a high school football player who is haunted by the disappearance of his father, such that it undermines his playing. Another follows a couple of Nazis who go on a deadly, classified mission for the abominable snowman. Another trails a husband, plagued by an early childhood trauma, who gets a vasectomy without his wife knowing. Another highlights an executioner during the French Revolution tasked with the guillotining of the King and Queen, despite his wife’s reservations. You know, happy stuff! Most of his stories don’t provide a definitive end for the reader, but such is life.

            I stand by my first impression of Shepard, in which he stopped me in my tracks and forced me to recall his name in a bookstore one and a half years after my encounter. Also, the pages of his short story collection are cool! They’re *deckle edged*, which is a term I just learned by Googling! Like You’d Understand, Anyway receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

            Like short stories as much as me? Check out my past reviews of other short stories: Men Without Women, In the Valley of the Kings, Interpreter of Maladies, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Words Without Borders: The World through the Eyes of Writers.

*Shepard, Jim. Like You’d Understand, Anyway. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.