Posts filed under ‘Books’

Freedom Redux: This is Water

David Foster Wallace at the Hammer Museum in L...

Image via Wikipedia

So, that review was kind of snide and snarky. And I did like the book in one way, and that is that I thought that it was entertaining, even if it was only half-way original. I think Jonathan Franzen is definitely talented. So, I have some second thoughts.

Even if the date rape was clichéd, I still recognize that the reason that it may feel clichéd is that is so true to life. After all, I wrote my own post that was somewhat similar to a Lifetime movie, only it wasn’t fiction, it was from my very own damn life.

[https://gooseberrybush.wordpress.com/2010/08/09/monster-at-the-picnic-table/]

It’s not just a cliché, it’s also my life.

In addition to that cliché there was also the love triangle between the “nice” guy and the “sexy” guy, as if nice can’t also be sexy. It struck me, after reading the book and then also reading interviews and biographies of Jonathan Franzen, that perhaps this book was somewhat personal. Richard and Walter are stand-ins for someone else, and that someone else is Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.

Even though Franzen is the bigger environmentalist and the bird watcher and probably the less flashy of the two, and even though Wallace superficially resembles Richard, with his greater charisma and physical beauty and tobacco chew, I think that Walter and Richard are actually just dual aspects of Franzen’s personality. It’s Franzen against Franzen.

Also, if anyone is Walter, the more spiritual one, the kinder one, the more worthy one, it’s Wallace, who couldn’t possibly hurt a fly other than himself, if it weren’t for the one fact of his suicide. Wallace was the “churchgoer,” the one with the reputation as the “nice” guy, and yet it was Wallace, and not Franzen, who hanged himself on his own porch for his wife to find his body. Maybe not so selfless a death as David Foster Wallace would have wished for himself, if he had been in his right mind at the time.

It strikes me that Walter’s eventual forgiveness of Patty, and, by implication, Richard, is Franzen’s final tribute to his friend David Foster Wallace. And with this act, his overvalued novel is somewhat redeemed and maybe even worthy of half of the superfluous over-the-top “critical” literary views, if the idea was to transcend the selfish and self involved characters of his Seinfeldian universe, with this one final act of grace.

It occurs to me that  the repitition of the word and the ideology of “freedom” in David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech and the fact that Jonathan Franzen’s novel is titled, Freedom are no coincidence.

July 28, 2011 at 1:55 am Leave a comment

Freedom

A screenshot from To Beep or Not to Beep.

Image via Wikipedia

After writing a blog post about Franzenfreude nearly a year ago now [https://gooseberrybush.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/ill-weep-into-my-royalty-statement/], I thought I’d get around to finally reading the book that caused the controversy. I ordered a copy of Freedom from half.com and got a hardcover version that had been withdrawn from a library in Schaumburg, Illinois. I read it over the weekend. I have some thoughts about the book, and I’d like to share them.

First of all, even though much of the book is an “autobiography” written in the third person, by the novel’s female protagonist, Franzen doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of women. The only woman who’s really fully fleshed out in the book and still remains likeable, is the daughter, Jessica, one of the few people in the novel who doesn’t have her own vantage point recounted in the book. She is a character who is only discussed upon by her mother, her father, her brother, and her father’s college roommate. She is the only one of the four Berglunds who doesn’t get her own story told.

Freedom is a family drama that’s over 500 pages long. I couldn’t help feeling that the same story could have been told more eloquently and economically, by someone like Joyce Carol Oates, who would have most certainly given Jessica a voice. But I don’t know what I expected from an author who actually snubbed Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club Selection the first time he was chosen, because he feared that it would cause male readers to reject his book. Bear in mind that Winfrey’s book club has included the likes of such gynocentric authors as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. Real pussies, those guys!

Franzen is indisputably a good writer. I’m not arguing that he has no talent. What I am arguing is that he’s not our generation’s Messiah of the Great American Novel. Franzen has been so overly and overtly hyped that, even though he himself comes across as a smug, pretentious and self-satisfied bastard, even he probably doesn’t believe his own press.

The novel starts off with what could have been a short story on its own, the story of the disintegration of a once happy Midwestern American family, told mostly through the eyes and ears of the family’s busybody neighbors. The son starts up with a neighbor girl, and the wife alienates her son to the degree that he chooses to move out of his family home and in with his teenage girlfriend and her mother and stepfather. This causes the wife to come unhinged. We’re told the neighbors suspect her of slashing the tires on the truck of her son’s girlfriend’s stepfather. They also suspect that she has a drinking problem.

After this preface, we’re treated to several chapters of the autobiography of Patty Berglund, the wife and mother with the drinking problem. The writing assignment was for therapy. She starts with a cursory description of the dynamics of her family of origin and then goes into the story of a date rape that she survived as a teenager, an assault that was swept under the rug by her parents.

The chapter is called Agreeable, and it was originally published as a short story in The New Yorker, a periodical that I subscribe to, which might explain why the story seemed so familiar to me. But nah. On top of having probably read the story already, it reads like a 1980’s afterschool special or a Lifetime movie that I remember seeing once. The story of the dutiful daughter raped by the son of a politically powerful family and then encouraged to accept the boy’s insincere apology as penance for his crime – there’s nothing new here. Franzen serves up Mom’s meatloaf and expects us to praise it as if it were filet mignon.

The biggest example of predictability is the love triangle between Patty, her husband Walter, and Walter’s narcissistic musician friend, Richard Katz. Katz is described as promiscuous, unreliable, irresponsible, and prone to addictive behavior. On top of his finer traits, he also happens to be a fundamentally decent fellow with a glossy sort of asshole charisma.

It’s easy to see why Patty might find him attractive in a superficial way. He’s the sort of guy who believes in gender equality and likes women in theory but in practice has nothing but contempt for virtually any female, or at least, for the ones he wants to fuck. I might have found the character of Richard Katz somewhat attractive myself, but Franzen ruined it for me by describing him as looking like Muammar Gadaffi. Maybe this is an example of the “funny” that the book jacket reviewers credit Franzen with.

After Patty and Richard inevitably scratch their itch at Walter’s mother’s vacation home, Richard records an album of sad love songs with his alternative country band Walnut Surprise and becomes a hit with the middle-aged and pretentious set. The album is reviewed and featured on NPR. Richard Katz experiences his first taste of fame, tours the world with a girl in every harbor, and then eventually bottoms out after a DWI conviction and a stint in rehab. Richard Katz isn’t a character. He’s a conglomeration of hackneyed musician clichés.

Walter is a humanistic do-gooder type, passionate about the ecology and the sustainable living movement. He’s so earnest as to come across as self-righteous, a difficult feat for an atheist to pull off. Walter is so good, and Franzen underscores his very goodness so repeatedly, that Walter’s only fault is in his self-righteousness, and perhaps, in his naivete. He comes across as a caricature of a good man rather than a fully realized character. Still, when he finds love with his young and gorgeous Indian assistant, you root for him. But alas, Lalitha is not long for this world.

Franzen foreshadows the novel’s conclusion, setting you up for Patty and Walter’s reconciliation hundreds of pages before, with a speech from Walter’s mother Dorothy on the virtues of loyalty. I suppose Franzen thought his readers would find this a satisfactory conclusion, but I just wondered how long it would take before Patty decided to shit on Walter again. If Freedom is supposed to be Jonathan Franzen’s oeuvre I think he needs to make like Wile E. Coyote and go back to the drawing board. As far as works of art named Freedom go, George Michael has Jonathan Franzen beat.

July 24, 2011 at 2:58 pm Leave a comment

Castle Waiting

In a more appropriate context, Rulah Jungle Go...

Image via Wikipedia

Princess Celestia is a big fan of comic books and video games, especially role-playing video games. Literature is something that, like most people of her generation, as well as, hell, most of mine, doesn’t inspire her. She thinks of Shakespeare as archaic, and I dare say she resented having to read him in school. I do not like comic books or video games, so at times I have to pinch myself to stay in the conversation.

I have about as much interest in video games as I do in the fact that the New Kids on the Block is joining Back Street Boys for a concert tour. That is to say that it does not interest me. I only know about the concert because they ran ad space on a website that I visited. I feel like my mind was raped.

Comic books and “graphic novels” I see as the further dumbing down of America, anaesthetizing eye candy for the kiddos, something to enforce the good ol’ American values of sexism that we hold so dear. A whole book of men who put on tights and capes and become action heroes while women who look like the mirror image on a trucker’s mud flap display cleavage and gratitude, accordingly! Sounds like just my thing.

The comic books I remember from when I was young were lame. My brother had a bunch of them about Richie Rich. I hate fuckin’ Richie Rich.

In the interest of friendship, Princess Celestia had made a request that I explore alternative forms of entertainment, and, I guess, stop behaving like a little old lady. I draw the line at video games. Well, that’s not really true. I’ve played the Mr. Brewsters’ Wii. I’m just not any good at video games. My hand-eye coordination sucks, and I only win with games that require you to know voluminous amounts of useless information…and Scrabble. I’m not playing video games, especially not role playing games.

So, I said I’d read a comic book and be open minded about it. The book I was given was called Castle Waiting. For a comic book, it’s rather clever. It’s packaged just like a “real” book, hardcover with a ribbon for a bookmark. It’s bound really nicely. The art is appealing, and the story is sort of a send-up of fairy tales. There’s some clever word play and inside jokes. There’s even a nice, long subplot about an “order” of nuns entirely composed of bearded ladies. It has a not so subtle feminist angle.

I still do not like comic books, really. I think much gets lost in the art form, as compared to that of traditional literature. However, comic books have been around since my father was a kid. Maybe before that. There’s no reason why it has to be a case of either or. The two can co-exist. It’s both and. Maybe there’s another comic book out there just waiting to prove me wrong. Maybe there’s a video game…nah!

June 11, 2011 at 10:25 pm 4 comments

The Myers Briggs

Cover of "Please Understand Me: Character...

Cover via Amazon

I discovered the Myers Briggs personality test in college, courtesy of Rev. K. Super Aims. The story of Rev. K. Super Aims is a good one, and you can go check it out. Suffice it to say that he was such an important part of my life that I can very easily divide my life into before I met Rev. K. Super Aims and after I met Rev. K. Super Aims.

I can also divide my life into before and after Rev. K. Super Aims was arrested for child molestation. The incident puts such a stain on that part of my life that I wouldn’t be surprised if old photographs had all turned the color of bile. Like arsenic and brown sugar, viewed in hindsight those years are now poisonsweet. It causes you to question everything you think you know but particularly your judgment of people. So, people I’m no longer certain of, but I still believe in God and the Myers Briggs.

The Myers Briggs is also referred to as the MBTI or Myers Briggs Type Indicator. It was invented by two women: Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. The duo were a mother and daughter team. They wrote the test to help women decide on suitable careers. They based their work on the writings of Carl Jung. The Myers Briggs test was designed to measure differences in people’s choices and the perceptions on which their decisions were based.

The test divides people into sixteen possible types. It’s designed to measure where the test taker falls on a continuum of four different opposite traits. Those traits are:

Extroversion v. Introversion

Sensing v. Intution

Thinking v. Feeling

Judgment v. Perception

Rev. K. Super Aims administered the test through a book called Please Understand Me. The members of his leadership team all took the test. We called ourselves The K Club because we all had a K in our names (Okay. You caught me. My name is Gooseberry K. Bush, but don’t expect me to tell you my middle name). All of us were ENFPs, Rev. K. Super Aims included. Since I’ve graduated from college and joined the real world I’ve become an ENFJ, and that never waivers.

Reading the description of my own personality was like looking into a mirror and seeing my own reflection. It explained so much. It was revelatory. It would be really easy, I suppose, to use it as a crutch or a book of excuses, but I’ve never done so. I just feel like I have a reason for why I am the way I am but not a license for bad behavior.

If you haven’t already taken the MBTI, I urge you to do so. I’ve never known anyone who’s taken the test to doubt its accuracy. If nothing else, you can think of it as entertainment. And if you read along faithfully with this blog and you want to know more about me, you can always read the profile of an ENFJ. If you read up on that and you read this blog you will know me almost as well as someone who, well, knows me. If that’s your thing. Anyway, you should take the test.

May 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm Leave a comment

Dear David Eagleman

Neuroscientist David Eagleman

Image via Wikipedia

Dear David Eagleman,

I was 3 minutes late to work this morning because I was busy reading the profile on you and your brain research in The New Yorker. Fascinating stuff. I needed to think about something to write on my blog today, and it was between you and the documentary Inside Job, so I thought I’d lighten up and write about you because our economy is serious stuff. Nothing funny about it. Also, I want to finish the director’s commentary before I write about Inside Job.

I have decided, after reading about half of the article in The New Yorker, that you will receive the honor of being my new “celebrity” crush. I think you are awesome. Studying the brain’s perception of time! And before that you studied literature and tried your hand at stand up comedy and screenwriting! James Franco is so jealous.

*SIGH* What is up with that Chippendale dancer pose with the tight t-shirt and jeans in front of the whiteboard? Where’s your smoking jacket, pipe, and cravat? What kind of an academic are you? Not a very dignified one. I like it.

Dude, I checked out your picture on the Baylor College of Medicine website, too. You got it going on with that smoldering profile against the amber background. Was that photo taken at Geek Glamour Shots? You look like you have a very sexy intellectual secret that you will not be sharing. Seriously, it’s a great photo. I don’t even care if the author of The New Yorker profile said you walk like Pinocchio. Can I be your Jiminy Cricket?

Now, before you answer that question, think about the distinguished company that you will be joining. My past celebrity crushes for the last 3 years or so have been smokin’ hot, and at least one of them is smart. (I limit my celebrity crushes to the last 3 years’ worth because we really don’t have the time to get into the full history, and I used to be in love with both John Denver and Kermit the Frog simultaneously. I don’t want you to think that my tastes haven’t evolved into more sophisticated selections lately.) I have excellent taste in celebrity crushes, really I do.

Take Robbie Williams, for instance. Hot and talented. I really don’t know if he’s smart or not. I’ve never met him or seen him interviewed on The Charlie Rose Show. But, you know, he could be. And he’s an international superstar, so presumably, even though he’s never really caught on in America, he must have something going for him.

More recently, there’s been The Soup Peddler. He’s a local entrepreneur. He is cute, and he writes this funny blog. Really smart. See? If you replaced him in my affections, then this would really give you some bragging rights. I mean, The Soup Peddler is a dream. Nice Jewish boy. He cooks delicious soup. He delivers it on his bicycle. Well, not anymore. But you get the picture. Grassroots business success story: what’s not to love?

Don’t answer yet. I know that you will want to know what’s involved in agreeing to be my new celebrity crush. Well, technically, I don’t have to ask your permission. I’m just being polite. What do you have to do? Precisely nothing.

That’s right. Nothing. Just continue to breathe. It would be nice if every once in a while you might drop a crumb for me like another interview in a magazine or on a website or The Charlie Rose Show or what’s the PBS talk show with Evan Smith — that one, but that’s not required. I will keep scouring the internet for new information daily until my infatuation wears out. If you have any videos on TED, I’ll watch those, too.

I will also read at least one of your books after I purchase it on half.com. I’ll be honest. I’m unlikely to read an academic textbook about neuroscience. I’m pretty fickle. I give this thing about six months. And the great thing is that at the end of that six months, if you are ever the subject of a Trivial Pursuit question or a category on Jeopardy I can guarantee you that I will kick some useless information ass!!

I know that this crush might cause you to be fearful for your life or think about the need to hire bodyguards, but I assure you that even though Houston is less than 3 hours away on Highway 290, I will not be stalking you. I just like the idea of you, and if I met you I am sure that in some way the idea of your perfection would burst like a bubble, and it would kind of ruin the fun for me. Like, I bet in real life that you fart or scratch yourself or something like that. I just really don’t want to be confronted with that, so like I said, you are completely safe. And if you don’t believe me you can just ask The Soup Peddler and Robbie Williams and the Austin Police Department and the FBI. Really. Completely safe.

In the meantime, while you contemplate my heartfelt proposal, I will leave you with this: our song. Think about it. And then don’t call me. Really. I mean it. Don’t call me. You’ll ruin the magic.

Sincerely,

Gooseberry Bush

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/25/110425fa_fact_bilger?currentPage=5

http://neuro.neusc.bcm.tmc.edu/?sct=gfaculty&prf=38

April 27, 2011 at 11:39 pm 3 comments

Greg Mortenson & 60 Minutes

Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan 3500ppx

Image via Wikipedia

Previously I’ve written about Greg Mortenson, his non-profit, the Central Asia Institute, and his book about his journey to build schools for the children of rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. The book is called Three Cups of Tea, and its accuracy has been called into question by Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes and journalist Jon Krakauer. In addition to alleging that Mortenson’s autobiography is less than truthful (remind anyone of James Frey?), there are even more serious allegations of money mismanagement.

In addition to the tall tales that Mortenson supposedly told in his books, Krakauer and 60 Minutes  are saying that Mortenson has not built as many schools as he claims he has.  Many of the schools Mortenson claims that CAI has built or is funding are not currently functioning. Central Asia Institute has only furnished one audited financial statement in its 14 years. Several board members have quit over misgivings about financial accountability. And Mortenson’s travel costs are paid for by CAI while Mortenson himself retains speaking fees for speaking engagements and promotional tours for his books. The proceeds from the books go to Mortenson and not to the institute.

Some of the allegations here shouldn’t be terribly shocking to anyone who read Mortenson’s book. Mortenson himself admits that he is a poor planner, ineffective with time management, money management, and people management. But for some reason he has a knack with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And no one is alleging that he isn’t an effective advocate for girls’ education in developing countries. No one is stating that he hasn’t vastly improved the lives of literally thousands of children. What they are claiming is that Mortenson has not been a good steward of CAI resources and that perhaps he’s indulged in some tall tales or some creative license with his story.

In one portion of the scandalous expose, 60 Minutes interviews a man that Mortenson identifies in a photo from his book as a member of the Taliban who kidnapped him for several days. Kroft interviews the man, and the man says he’s not Taliban and that he didn’t kidnap Mortenson. But honestly, if you were a member of the Taliban or if you had kidnapped someone, would it be in your best interest to admit to it on American national television? Why would we take this guy’s word at face value any more than we would Mortenson’s? And what due diligence did 60 Minutes undertake to ensure that this guy really was who and what he claims to be? We’re not told.

Three Cups of Tea was co-written by a seasoned journalist named David Oliver Relin. I have a hard time believing that he didn’t do any research on Greg Mortenson and his claims. After all, his professional reputation was on the line. I’d be interested in getting his take on things. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has asked that the public reserve judgment about Mortenson. Kristof is unimpeachable.

As for 60 Minutes and Krakauer, I’d like to say that, to be fair, the piece isn’t a complete hatchet job. Kroft indulges in some sensationalism in following Mortenson to a public book signing. Shame on you for grandstanding, Steve Kroft! It’s beneath you. And Krakauer may feel duped for having given $75,000 to a man who’s perhaps been less than truthful. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s envious of Mortenson’s greater success with his books. Krakauer wrote two bestsellers, one of which was made into a movie that was directed by Sean Penn. But his books haven’t sold as many copies as Greg’s, and Jon Krakauer probably can’t command the same speaking fees. Maybe his motivations are not entirely pure.

Even if Greg Mortenson has done a lot of good in the world, as I’m sure he has, he should still be held accountable. At the very least, Mortenson should start freely sharing audited financial statements on an annual basis. I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone contribute one penny to CAI until this happens. Mortenson himself has admitted that he’s a lousy businessman. Why shouldn’t he continue to be the front man for his charity and hire someone else who’s experienced and knowledgeable to handle the day to day nitty gritty of being CAI’s executive director? I am sure that there are plenty of qualified individuals who would love the challenge of reforming such a worthy charity.

60 Minutes has tried to turn a hero into a charlatan. The truth is most likely somewhere between those two extremes. The jury’s still out on this matter, as far as I’m concerned. However, there are many questions that need to be answered. If Greg Mortenson is really concerned with helping the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan, then he’ll do his best to answer those questions honestly and to behave honorably with regards to the money that has been entrusted to him for those children’s welfare. Mr. Mortenson, the excuse of naivete will only get you so far. It’s time to grow up and do the right thing.

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7363068n

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/04/15/60minutes/main20054397.shtml

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/greg-mortenson-author-of-three-cups-of-tea-nicholas-kristof-and-others-respond-to-the-controversy/2011/04/19/AFo6Zt4D_blog.html

http://danielglick.net/2011/04/60-minutes-expose-on-three-cups-of-tea-is-weak-–-and-wrong/

April 26, 2011 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

Twilight Had a Past Life

Beauty and the Beast (TV series)

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday I was at work, chatting with a young friend, and we were bitching about the stupidity of Twilight, like I like to do, when somehow it occurred to me that Twilight has been around before. How, you might ask? Am I talking about Dracula? Interview with the Vampire, perhaps? No, it doesn’t involve vampires at all.

Over 20 years ago now someone in television had an idea about a lion-man who was living in an underworld of misfits in a sewer tunnel beneath New York City. And that lion-man saved a rich, spoiled attorney after she was viciously attacked in a city park. He nursed her back to health, and they formed a special bond, one where he could read her feelings. She gradually got better and went back to the real world where she decided to become an assistant district attorney and fight crime.

Eventually, the woman (Catherine) became a helper, someone from the real world who helped the misfit creatures keep their underworld labyrinth a secret. The lion-man (Vincent) came and saved Catherine from danger every week when he sensed that she was distressed, and then he read her poetry. They did not make love. A wealthy, super hot businessman was in love with Catherine, but she strung him along, caught between her powerful bond with Vincent and the hope of a normal life.

Hel-lo! Beauty and the Beast is Twilight. The parallels are amazing! Well, all except for the fact that I kind of liked Beauty and the Beast. First off, both Vincent and Edward are supernatural creatures. Both Vincent and Edward have psychic bonds with their objects of affection. Both Vincent and Edward have families of likewise unusual beings whose secrets must be guarded at all costs; in fact, both Vincent and Edward have a “Father.” Beauty and the Beast has a wealthy businessman. Twilight has a hot werewolf. Both the werewolf and the businessman are rivals that represent the hope of a more normal life for our heroine.

And perhaps the most important parallel of all: no one is having sex. Nobody is getting any. But it isn’t that they don’t want to! No. The reason Vincent and Edward don’t touch their lovers except to save the constant damsels in distress is because they are both afraid that they will hurt their lady loves. This is the most crucial parallel: the crux of the stories.

Oh, sure, eventually Edward and Bella and Catherine and Vincent get around to doing it. But you have to wait for the last book with Twilight. And Catherine has Vincent’s baby but then later dies in the jump the shark moment from Beauty and the Beast. Sex is a killer. Gotta save it for the last book.

I’ve totally discovered the route to commercial success! It’s a blueprint. First, create a mythical man-beast. Then have him rescue a young heroine, repeatedly, as in so often that you wonder how it is possible for one woman to be so clumsy and/or attract so much danger. Have the heroine be smitten with the man-beast but torn between him and a more conventional life represented by a rival who’s hopefully both hot and rich. But just hot will do.

Have the hero risk his life repeatedly for the heroine but selflessly refuse to have sex with her, even if she begs him to do it. And voila! You have a blueprint for success. And I think what Stephenie Meyer has learned is that if you absolutely remove body hair or any semblance of post pubescent masculinity, that you can appeal to teenage girls with this formula! Amazing!

Now that I’ve figured this out I can write my own bestselling saga. In fact, I can write a bunch of them. I’ll just change the hero out. My first page turner will be called Minotaur. That’ll get me a five book deal at least. Next, I’ll write Satyr. Oooh. I wonder if you could remake The Fly as a teen romance. I’m going to be very busy writing crap. If you have any story ideas for some mythical men who won’t have sex, feel free to comment here.

April 19, 2011 at 11:12 pm Leave a comment

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