Sunday, May 27, 2007

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith (Anne Lamott)

For anyone who's been visiting this site for a while, I probably don't need to say again how much I like Anne Lamott's nonfiction (you can see it here, here, and here). Her latest book Grace (Eventually) continues with the same style as her previous books, but I would suggest anyone who wants to read Lamott start with the previous books, not this one. This one's good (with great such as Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos being wrapped "in their little paper panties"), but with chapters that are shorter and less connected than her previous books.

She continues trying to grapple with how one copes under the current administration, feeling remarkably good on some days when she finds that she doesn't hate anybody, not even Bush. She teaches Sunday school to children at her church, and I wish someone like her had taught my Sunday school classes when I was a child:

Next, as always, we did Loved and Chosen.
I sat on the couch and glanced slowly around in a goofy, menacing way, and then said, "Is anyone here wearing a blue sweatshirt with Pokemon on it?" The four-year-old looked down at his chest, astonished to discover that he matched this description---like, What are the odds? He raised his hand. "Come over here to the couch," I said. "You are so loved and so chosen." He clutched at himself like a beauty pageant finalist.

Sam, her son, is now a teenager, and she describes daily battles of wills, and why she decided to have a child in the first place (in a beautiful chapter about why some "unlikely candidates," like herself, do have children).

As long as she keeps writing, I will keep reading. It's like listening to a good friend who admits all her faults and triumphs, secretly knows how you feels, and lets you know that somehow it will all work out.

The Stone Raft (José Saramago)

I bought The Stone Raft when I was about halfway through Blindness (review), since it had been obvious from about the second page of that book that I was going to have to read more of Saramago. I was not disappointed.

Like Blindness, Raft opens with a mysterious event that demolishes a fundamental pillar of life—in this case, the Iberian peninsula suddenly splitting off from the rest of Europe and drifting west into the Atlantic—and then follows the main characters as they and everyone else try to cope with their strange new existence. Here, the story focuses on five people who had other unexplained experiences when the split occurred, and may or may not have caused it. Early on, the authorities apprehend several of them and put them through a gauntlet of tests, trying to understand what happened and whether it can be stopped (or perhaps, in the spirit of bureaucracy, trying to figure out who can be blamed), but soon the question of why and how the split happened gives way to more practical concerns, with the peninsula bearing down on the Azores and ultimately heading toward North America.

While Blindness had an unrelenting urgency to it, Raft is more of a meandering tale. The five main characters (and the strange, silent dog who travels with them) eventually take to a nomadic life in a horse-drawn wagon, selling clothes to make money, as they make their way across the peninsula toward what remains of the Pyrenees so they can see what the split actually looks like. On a technical level, it uses the same run-on style and unmarked dialogue as Blindness that, while sometimes difficult to follow, help sustain the surreality of the story. It isn’t as compelling as the other book simply because it lacks the fight for survival that fueled the other book and its tight focus on the moment-by-moment detail of that struggle, but it’s more playful, drawing back from the main characters periodically to follow how the Portuguese and Spanish politicians are handling the situation and how other world leaders are responding (the U.S., naturally, is secretly excited at the potential for a large mid-Atlantic military base), and even having the narrator stick his head into the story from time to time to comment on how the writing is going.

And it shares many of the same strengths and themes as Blindness as well—the surprising suddenness of love, the value of companionship, the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of an inexplicable and often hostile universe. At one point the group sits in the shade of a tree while eating lunch, arguing over whether they will be able to make enough money and why they’re doing what they’re doing:

Maria Guavaira had been listening in silence and now she began speaking like someone beginning another conversation, perhaps she had not fully grasped what the others had said, People are reborn each day, but they can decide whether to go on living the previous day or to make a fresh start.

In Saramago’s tales, eventually everyone learns how to make a fresh start.

Friday, May 25, 2007

36 Views of Mt. Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan (Cathy N. Davidson)

36 Views in Mount Fuji is the title of a series of woodblock prints by Hokusai (which actually includes 46 prints) and also a title of Davidson's memoir of her travels in Japan back in the 1980s and 1990s. The book has recently been reissued with a new afterword, but the library copy I read was the original 1993 paperback. I'd be curious to read the new afterword (and might duck into a bookstore to do just that) because I very much enjoyed this book, I read it quickly, and often, whenever I had a few minutes.

Davidson's main thread throughout the book is what it is like to be a foreigner, mostly in a foreign country, but even somehow in your own country after returning from abroad. She's adept at picking up minute details in body language, nuances in what is said and what is not, and gives a snapshot of the Japanese culture and people she experienced during her travels: her participation in what she believed to be a mandatory health screening, the willingness of her Japanese friends to step out of their own cultural practices when she needed them most, and her found happiness in Paris (which turns out to be related to Japan in ways she couldn't have imagined).

In the woodblock series, Mount Fuji is sometimes off-center, very small, or not visible at all (in the case of a scene taking place on the mountain), and Davidson feels her experience of Japan is fragmented in the same way. I would recommend this book to everyone, those who have traveled abroad, who want to, or who feel like their travelers in their own city.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John le Carré)

Maria bought me John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold as a gift a few years ago, somewhat out of the blue, after she’d heard it described on NPR and thought it sounded like something I would like. I knew le Carré wrote spy novels, but that was about it, so I suppose I was expecting a tightly plotted genre novel of some kind, perhaps featuring microfilm and silencers.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I read it to find it was much more than a spy novel. Like Hitchcock, le Carré has a gift for turning taking the raw material of a genre plot and turning it into a story of great resonance and meaning, more than the sum of its parts. Certainly it had little in common with the series of Connery-era James Bond movies we’d recently run through at the time I read Spy. The spies of Le Carré, who worked in the British MI6 during the Cold War, were more mundanely human than Bond, their work more about planning and deception and elaborate, chess-like strategies than about parachuting down into exotic locations to infiltrate an evil organization’s volcano headquarters, sometimes with more in common with their supposed enemies than with their own countrymen. In the course of elaborately and endlessly deceiving their opponents about their intentions and the kind of person they were, they were just as likely to wind up deceiving their friends and themselves. And meanwhile, the great machinery of the war used them and threw them away with a cold relentlessness.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is every bit as good as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Based on the Kim Philby case, it follows George Smiley—a minor character in Spy, who has since been forcibly retired—as he attempts to track down an alleged mole in the ranks of the British intelligence service. But, of course, it’s about much more than that, touching on how the double lives their jobs require reflects the double lives at the heart of most relationships, and how the trust at the heart of those relationships is both necessary and, in some ways, impossible.

Le Carré is as good as he was on Spy at manipulating point of view in key places to keep the suspense taut while simultaneously showing us different sides of the main characters. He does stay closer to the characters here than in Spy—which kept even Alec Leamas, the main character, at arm’s length—which gives the story a warmer and more intimate feeling. And he’s capable of remarkable turns of a phrase to bring even minor characters to life:

“We budget for a hundred and twenty.” With numbers, with facts of all sorts, Lacon never faltered. They were the gold he worked with, wrested from the grey bureaucratic earth.

Lovely—he could say not another word about Lacon, and you would feel you knew him.

(Although he does sometimes lose me with his Britishness, which I suppose is hardly his fault:

In the scullery Smiley had once more checked his thoroughfare, shoved some deck-chairs aside, and pinned a string to the mangle to guide him because he saw badly in the dark.


Tinker, I’m pleased to say, is the first book in what turned into a trilogy. And I’m thoroughly looking forward to The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan)

The Omnivore's Dilemma got a lot of press when it was first published, the doomsday oh-the-horror kind of press, the kind I don't seek out because I really don't want to spend my free time reading about how horrible the state of American food is, especially when I'm doing my best to eat well and naturally. But then Michael Pollan kept creeping up everywhere: there were the open letters he and John Mackey (the CEO of Whole Foods) wrote to each other, their Berkeley showdown (available as a webcast), which turned out fairly amicable, and a highly recommend (by me) essay where he lists 12 rules of eating (his take on nutritionism and food science). Michael Pollan was saying some sound, reasonable things, and I was finally convinced that I should read The Omnivore's Dilemma.

In full disclosure, I have to say that I did skip some parts of the book, like the chapter on slaughtering chickens and the one on hunting a pig. Other than the puppet show Tim Cunningham and I presented in eleventh grade re-enacting the atrocities of Sinclair's The Jungle using sock puppets, I tend to stay away from that kind of reading.

I'm also more of a glass half-full kind of person and would rather focus on what I can do (or what is being done) to help make a bad situation better. And after a rather lengthy opening section on the horrors of subsidized corn (that corn makes its way into most processed foods in one way or another, this processed food contains more fat/sugar than natural foods, which makes us fat and unhealthy, and growing corn the current industrial way is bad for the soil, environment, and the economic health of the farmers who grow it . . . I could go on with even more examples; really, it's very depressing), he eventually turns to what I thought was the best part: the story of Polyface Farm, a sustainable farm that runs on grass management. Not grass management through pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but grass management through cow grazing, chicken grazing, earthworms, pigs, and rabbits (each playing an integral role at different stages), with the farmer orchestrating which animals go where when, and for how long.

What I came away with from this book is to focus on eating as much locally grown food as possible and eating as much unprocessed food as possible. And while this may seem overly simple, I realize it can be very hard to do in our society today. One of my former commuters on the CalTrain talked about the produce at the local farmer's market as being as expensive if not more so than the produce at the grocery store. When I said, but you're helping your local community by supporting the farmers (trying not to get into the politics of it all, which was pretty hard considering how much food literature I read), he said, but I've got two kids to feed. And I understand that. But I'm also guessing that most of his weekly food budget is not being spent on fresh produce and may be used for processed, or convenience foods. In Pollan's book, he states "Americans today spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world." It's definitely worth thinking about and reassessing priorities both in our spending of money and time in food preparation (i.e., less money on prepared/packaged foods and more money on high-quality produce, fruits, and grains).

And I know I've been spoiled by the bounty at the local farmer's markets in California, which I can visit year-round and get lots of fruit, but we did a pretty good job of eating locally in Madison. And I know I do more from-scratch cooking than a lot of people, but I'm not the only one out there. Here are just a few examples of women in the blogosphere who are spending quality time cooking: The author of the French Laundry at Home blog writes about her attempts to cook the recipes (all of them) out of the French Laundry Cookbook (from the premiere Northern California restaurant known for its complicated, exquisite tasting menus), and her postings are quite entertaining. In Washington, Jennifer McCann takes photos of the bento-style lunches she makes her grade-school son before he takes them to school in her blog Vegan Lunch Box (and rates them based on how much he ate and enjoyed the meals). I wish this woman would make my lunches! And there's Rebecca Blood's blog Eating Organic on a Food Stamp Budget, where she's feeding a family of two following the USDA's thrifty food plan budget, here's the catch, eating organic food.

I would also like to point out that the three nominated books for the Writing on Food category of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Awards were The Omnivore's Dilemma, The United States of Arugula, and Heat, all of which have now been reviewed on this site. While I think Heat is the most entertaining read of the group, Omnivore's Dilemma won, and I agree that it is probably the most thought-provoking of the three and the one most likely to create change throughout our national food system.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Barbarians Led by Bill Gates: Microsoft from the Inside (Jennifer Edstrom and Marlin Eller)

John Gruber wrote an interesting article back in 2004 on his Daring Fireball Web site about what he sees as a persistent and erroneous myth, namely that if Apple had only been willing to license its OS to PC makers, it could have become the industry-dominating giant that Microsoft eventually became—“an industry colossus sitting atop a Scrooge-McDuck-style mountain of gold.” He believes that this is unlikely for a number of reasons, but he also offers, as a theory about why Microsoft became so gigantically successful while Apple struggled through much of the late 1980s and early 1990s, that it came down to pragmatism vs. idealism. Microsoft, after convincing IBM to license MS-DOS, was able to build on that success with early versions of Windows (which, importantly, still ran DOS software and would still run on the same kinds of PCs that DOS did), and then able to build off of Windows with Microsoft Office. Microsoft wanted to dominate the PC software market, and particularly the OS market, so compatibility was key.

Apple, in contrast, had developed the hugely successful Apple II . . . and promptly abandoned it in favor of the Mac, which had nothing to do with the Apple II. The Mac was revolutionary—but anyone who wanted one also had to buy all new hardware and all new software, a not-insignificant obstacle. Rather than making the sound business decision of building off the Apple II, they wanted to make something insanely great.

To hear Jennifer Edstrom (daughter of former Microsoft PR rep Pam Edstrom) and Marlin Eller (a lead developer at Microsoft for over ten years) tell it in Barbarians Led by Bill Gates: Microsoft from the Inside, however, Microsoft practically stumbled into its monopoly on accident—almost in spite of its business strategies rather than because of them. Far from the clear-headed prescience often assigned to Gates, which would have him cackling as he talked IBM into handing over control of its OS and then relentlessly pushing forward with the ubiquitous Windows, Edstrom and Eller describe Windows as something of an ugly stepchild at Microsoft, a project seen as little more than a temporary stopgap product while they worked with IBM on a graphical OS/2, one that was almost wholly abandoned at least once, and one that Gates himself only saw as important after it was well on its way to monopoly status.

Although Microsoft might not have had deliberately and strategically built off of DOS the way Gruber implies, he and Edstrom and Eller certainly agree on one thing—by the time Windows rolled around, Microsoft was pragmatic to the core. Rarely do you hear anyone in the book talk about making a great product, something cool that people would like, or even something that they themselves would like, much less anything truly innovative. Everything they did was instead motivated by a competitor: in describing Microsoft’s floundering attempts to build sophisticated software to automate people’s homes—lights, music, heating, air conditioning, everything—Edstrom and Eller write, “No other major companies were working on it, and that was exactly the problem. Microsoft does best when it has a successful competitor it can copy and then crush.” Gates’s constant refrain throughout the original development of Windows was “Make it more like the Mac!”* And after devoting a lot of time and effort, during a brief craze for handwriting recognition technology instigated primarily by a company called GO, to developing an OS called Pen Windows, when Eller’s manager points out that it hasn’t really sold well and seems like a disaster, Eller tells him,

“Greg, look. This wasn’t a thing about making money. This was all about ‘Block that kick.’ We were on the special team. We were preventing GO from running away with the market. That was our job. . . . We weren’t trying to sell software, we were trying to prevent other people from selling software.

“From my view, Pen Windows was a winner. We shut down GO. They spent $75 million pumping up this market, we spent four million shooting them down. They’re toast. That company is dead. They won’t sell their shit anymore. We did our job.”

Barbarians is, unfortunately, plagued by strange decisions in the writing. They make occasional stabs at a misguided breeziness, referring to Microsoft as “the Soft,” and to Gates as “Field Marshal Gates” and (once, weirdly) “Supreme Techlord William Gates.” More significantly, although Eller is a coauthor, he is also described in the third person: Marlin Eller did this, Marlin Eller said that. They mention this in the introduction, and explain that the book had evolved beyond an autobiography when they wanted to include more varied material, but it still gives the book an oddly disingenuous feel—particularly since it seems that Eller’s colleagues and managers, and Gates himself, are always missing the big picture, pushing forward with unrealistic goals, and wrongheadedly refusing to listen to Eller’s invariably sensible ideas:

Myhrvold was just throwing out some random and utterly convoluted way of doing the same thing Eller was already going after on a much more direct path.

. . .

Plenty of developers resented Myhrvold. They were the ones who actually wrote the code and knew the nitty-gritty. . . . Myhrvold argued that you could design a new graphics architecture in only two weeks. People like Eller, who had personally spent three years developing graphics for Windows, knew better.

. . .

A long silence hung suspended between the two. Eller knew Gates had heard him. But Gates gazed off in the distance, seemingly oblivious to the Willits canoe, to the black and white stills of early Seattle settlers—and to Eller’s point.

“Uh huh,” Gates muttered.

In a first-person autobiography, it would be understood that the author is just presenting his own view of things. Here, though, the third-person narrative gives it the weight of journalistic objectivity, a weight it doesn’t always bear well. Still, Barbarians is a quick, interesting read on how one of the most dominant companies of the last quarter-century arrived in that position—full of fits and starts, fights, and accidents, and driven as much by internal politics and competitiveness as anything else.

* A refrain he seems to have been keeping up during the development Windows Vista, as David Pogue points out in this tongue-in-cheek video for the New York Times Web site.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dance Dance Dance (Haruki Murakami)

Reading enough Murakami gives you the feeling that he is profoundly mystified by his own internal workings. If he has a theme, a subject he keeps coming back to, it would have to be people’s essential inability to understand themselves, much less everyone else around them. Characters in his books are always doing things they feel mysteriously compelled to do, unable to explain even to themselves their motivations. The more malevolent characters in his books are often at the mercy of forces both internal and external that seem beyond their control, and even his relatively featureless narrators tend to be troubled by an unknowable presence at the center of themselves that ultimately manifests itself in the world around them. He even devoted an entire novel—the singular Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World—to the story of a man literally disappearing into his own unconscious.

Dance Dance Dance, the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, finds the still-unnamed narrator toiling away as a freelance writer—“shoveling cultural snow,” as he calls it—and unable to shake the feeling that he has left something undone at the Dolphin Hotel, where much of A Wild Sheep Chase took place, and that the woman he stayed there with has something vitally important to tell him. Needless to say, particularly for those who have read Murakami before, strange things turn up once he arrives: the small, empty place he stayed at in A Wild Sheep Chase has been replaced by a giant luxury hotel, and after beginning an uncertain sort of relationship with one of the receptionists, he hears stories of an elevator that sometimes opens on dark, otherworldly floors. His quest later leads him to take up with an old school friend, a teenage psychic, her famous parents (one of them a washed-up writer named, amusingly, “Hiraku Makimura”), and, of course, the Sheep Man from the first book.

Dance Dance Dance suffers simply for being an unplanned sequel—almost by definition, it can’t feel as whole and complete as the first book—and although Murakami has keen instincts for when to get the story moving, large stretches go by more or less like this:

Day after day I was thinking about almost nothing. Just swimming and lying in the sun getting tan, driving around the island listening to the Stones and Bruce Springsteen, walking moonlit beaches, drinking in hotel bars.

Murakami’s voice is irresistible, and I’m happy enough to follow as his narrator wanders around, having metaphysical crises and struggling to understand what he wants and what this lost woman is trying to tell him, but at times the story was crying out for a little more urgency. I wouldn’t recommend this one as much as I would the other books I’ve mentioned so far (or the tour de force of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), but decent Murakami is still awfully good.