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May 1, 2006

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Last Month's Books

Just ‘cause we never mention it, and it’s the first day of the month, here’s what I remember reading last month:

David Leavitt, Collected Stories: I love this man’s short stories. So. Much. But for whatever reason, I’d never read a collection of them until now. Leavitt is a master of depicting the oddness of a family at the precise moment of dissolution. And the endings of his stories leave the world shifted just slightly askew. The cycle of stories about Lord Alfred Douglas near the end kind of disrupt the rhythm, though.

Anita Diamant, The Red Tent: I’ve always been fascinated by the Bible story of Leah, Jacob’s first wife. As the story goes, Jacob sees a beautiful woman named Rachel tending sheep one day, and he goes to ask her father Laban for her hand in marriage. Laban says, “Sure, if you work for me for seven years.” So Jacob does. Wedding day arrives, bride and groom are married, bride’s veil comes off, and surprise! It’s actually Rachel’s un-hott older sister Leah. Jacob’s totally disappointed, and he asks Laban, “WTF?” Laban says, “Yeah, sorry, here we marry off the older sisters first. But work for me another seven years, and you can have Rachel for realz.” So Jacob does.

Of all the stories in the Bible, this one may actually disturb my feminist sensitivities the most. I’ve always wished I could hear this story told from the perspective of poor, unloved Leah. The Red Tent is close. It’s told from the perspective of Leah’s only daughter, Dinah. But it darn near whitewashes all the Biblical references to Leah’s rejections by her husband, or the resentment between her and Rachel. Instead, we get treated to a heaping, Terry MacMillan-flavored portion of sista love. Leah and Rachel’s handmaidens, treated like so much chattel in the Biblical account, are basically elevated to full-on sister status.

But hey, she did her research. Maybe her book better reflects the realities. All in all, it’s nicely paced, historically interesting, and a quick read. But the usually-vivid characters seem to flip between motivations haphazardly. Also, the prose can feel stilted, sometimes teetering towards cliché, and the metaphors may make you throw up in your mouth a little. No Digg.

Kevin Kelly, New Rules for the New Economy: Rex Sorgatz’s recent revisitation of Microserfs was probably in my head when I picked this dot-com-era extended essay off the shelf. It actually deserves a post of its own, but I’ll continue it in this one. It was phenomenal.

Don’t be scared off by the phrase “new economy” in the title of a 1998 book. Kelly’s writing about theories of how networks perform. Eight years after his book was printed, nine years after the Wired essay that spawned it, we can see example after example of Kelly’s rules in effect. Each one of those rules has been the basis for more bestsellers in recent years. If you’d read this book in ‘98 and really gotten it, you could have foreseen the explosions of things like Wikipedia, MySpace, folksonomies, and Napster.

Kelly lets us know over and over that he’s not inventing these ideas, he’s just bringing them down to the layman’s level, like Malcolm Gladwell. I love, for example, this passage:

It took several billion years on Earth for unicellular life to evolve. And it took another billion years or so for that single-celled life to evolve multi-cellular arrangements—each cell touching a few cells near it to make a living spherical organism. At first, the sphere was the only form multicellular life could take because its cells had to be near one another to coordinate their functions. After another billion years, life eventually evolved the first cellular neuron—a thin strand of tissue—which enabled two cells to communicate over a distance. With that single enabling innovation, the variety of life boomed. With neurons, life no longer had to remain bounded in a blob. It was possible to arrange cells into almost any shape, size, and function. Butterflies, orchids, and kangaroos all became possible. …

Silicon chips linked into high-bandwidth channels are the neurons of our culture. Until this moment, our economy has been in the multicellular stage. Our industrial age has required each customer or company to almost physically touch one another. Our firms and organizations resemble blobs. Now, by the enabling invention of silicon and glass neurons, a million new forms are possible. … Unimaginable forms of commerce can now coalesce in this new economy. We are about to witness an explosion of entities built on relationships and technology that will rival the early days of life on Earth in their variety.

Kelly’s neurons-to-butterflies metaphor totally trumps Tom Friedman’s world-is-flat shtick.

I may be overselling it, but this book rocked. And you don’t even have to buy it. The whole thing’s online.

Philip Roth, The Plot Against America: TK.

All right, folks. Spill it. What books were on your bedstands last month?

Posted May 1, 2006 at 8:09 | Comments (5) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such


People might be tired of hearing it by now... but "silicon chips are the neurons of our culture" --

1) sounds like
2)is etymologically related to
and 3) is the 20th-century equivalent of

"Money is the sinews of war."

Which is itself the Greek predecessor/source, probably picked up by the Romans, for -- you guessed it -- "blood and treasure."

So you ask the book guy what he's been reading in April and the answer is. . . uhm. . . actually not all the much. I did so well in March that I took a bit of a break in April. I've been reading Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger as part of a "young people writing shallow fiction" kind of an area I've been exploring.

But March! March was good. I read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, Andrew Hungerford's favorite book, God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell, MSU alum, McSweeney's hanger-on, and part of the aforementioned young travel fiction thing, and Dejavu by John Osborne, which was nowhere near as good as Look Back In Anger.

Last night, I noticed that the two books laying next to my bed were Kenji Yoshino's Covering (about how we try to "pass" in society by "covering" parts of our identities) and Neil Strauss' The Game (about trying to get laid). That's how I roll!

Gavin: For a minute I thought God lived in St. Petersburg, FLORIDA, and I was really excited. So it's Russia. Book still looks really good.

Matt: You are the first person I know of to read The Red Tent who is not a girl standing in the subway. Seriously... Anita Diamant and that Kite Runner guy OWN San Francisco public transportation.

This month I read True Enough by Stephen McCauley which I enjoyed but do not necessarily recommend (in the same way one might enjoy but not necessarily recommend a glazed donut purchased at a gas station food stand). I have no idea where this book came from. Actually... did you leave it here one time, Matt?

Also, Spheres of Justice by Michael Walzer. Seriously.

Re: Kevin Kelly -- his analogy is especially striking if you imagine MySpace as the primitive slime mold of this evolutionary pattern, with the hummingbirds yet to come. (Can we please, PLEASE imagine it that way?)

My reading over March and April blurred together a bit, but here's my most recent reads: Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis; Zodiac by Neal Stephenson; Adrift by Steven Callahan; The Catcher in the Rye (yes, it took me until now to get to it); Shopgirl by Steve Martin.

Right now I'm working on S. by John Updike and City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara by Brad Gooch.

Also Stephen Dunn's Different Hours and Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind have migrated from my bookshelves to my nightstand to hold residency there for a while.

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