Thursday, June 28, 2007

Get to Work: A Manifesto for the Women of the World (Linda Hirshman)

Genre: Nonfiction
Year Published: 2006

Get to Work is the kind of book that shakes the world, or at least the country, and makes believers in Hirshman's thesis hope that we can actually make radical change in this day and age (while critics hope things just settle back down). Hirshman's idea: that privileged, educated women are doing a disservice to themselves, their families, and their fellow countrywomen by dropping out of the workforce to have children.

Hirshman's critics far outnumber her supporters, and their arguments run along many different lines, the most strident being 1) "you shouldn't tell women how to live"; and 2) "women should be homemakers." If you find yourself nodding your head, dear reader, at either of these statements, you will hate this book, unless you are one of those rare souls whose openmindedness knows no bounds. Hirshman doesn't spend much time trying to convert her opposition; she just states her facts and opinions and leaves us, the readers, to either grab hold of them or reject them in her wake.

This is probably not the place to throw my lot in with Hirshman (though I'd do it in a heartbeat), but I will say that when I brought this book to work with me to read on my lunchbreak (it's very short; it can be finished comfortably in one day), one of my coworkers with whom I'm very close asked me what it was about. She's an immigrant to this country who started a degree at a prestigious university but was forced to leave school when she found she couldn't work enough hours to keep up with the tuition payments. That was twenty years ago; she's never managed to earn her Bachelor's.

When I told her what the book's about, she expressed anger and frustration that anyone who had the chance to get a great degree would give it all up to stay home for the rest of their lives. She's having her first child this fall, but she's determined to keep working after her baby girl is born, and then begin the classes that will enable her to finish her degree. I'm hoping with all my heart that she succeeds. In the meantime, she's borrowed my copy of Get to Work. Thus I can say with complete honesty that I have personally seen this book resonate, and not just with my white, privileged agemates.

Recommended? It's bitchy, preachy, and . . . brilliant. Only you know whether you can handle it.

Kafka on the Shore (Haruki Murakami)

Genre: Foreign fiction
Year Published: 2002

Here are some of the things you will encounter in Kafka on the Shore: a malevolent spirit that takes the form of imaginary corporate spokesmen (e.g. Colonel Sanders), an Oedipal prophecy, a flute made out of the souls of cats, a magical town without memories, a murder committed via astral projection, and the nicest old man in the world.

It's a weird book. I'm not above tarring an entire nation with one brush, so let me say that it's a weird book in the tradition of Japan's often weird pop culture phenomena. That having been said, it's not weird for weirdness' sake, and there's much more to the book than its various oddities.

In short, the story is executed by telling alternate chapters from two points of view: the odd chapters are told in first person by Kafka Tamura, a young runaway who is escaping his father's cruelty. The even chapters are in the third person; they follow the adventures of an elderly man named Nakata who has only "half a shadow" due to a terrible incident during WWII. Over the course of the book, they both become entangled in a mystery involving an "entrance stone," a pop song, and a bereaved librarian, and each has his part to play in solving it.

Kafka is a good book, and it certainly kept me interested, but I have to admit that there were large swaths of plot that left me slightly baffled. Apparently I'm not alone in that feeling, either. Despite my lack of understanding, though, I'm glad I read it, if for no other reason than the window it provides into Japanese culture.

Recommended? Depends on whether you're the kind of person who's all right with open-ended books. If you are, then go for it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rise and Shine (Anna Quindlen)

Genre: Fiction
Year Published: 2006

For my money, Anna Quindlen is one of the best columnists alive. Her essay "Life Begins at Conversation" is one of the finest popular pieces ever written on abortion. So we know the woman can write. The question about Rise and Shine is not whether Quindlen can write, but whether she can do the unseen work necessary for fiction. After reading it, I'm not convinced she can.

Rise and Shine is narrated by Bridget Fitzmaurice, a 43-year old New Yorker whose sister Megan is the most famous woman on television. When Megan's life starts falling apart, Bridget has to deal with her own problems and shoulder the burdens that Megan has left behind. The opposing-sisters gambit -- they're alike, but different! -- is not necessarily what I would expect from a writer of Quindlen's caliber, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt up until the very end, when I felt vaguely dissatisfied by what I'd just read.

I'm trying to decide what, in the end, is my problem with Rise and Shine. Partly it's the arc of the plot, which feels altogether too linear and unsurprising. Partly it's the ridiculous "insights" about New York and each other's personalities that the characters are constantly spouting. And partly it's that the book isn't weighty enough to justify its lack of fun. (It is funny in parts, but never fun.)

Recommended? Nah. If I pick something else up of hers, it'll be nonfiction.

The Magician's Assistant (Ann Patchett)

Genre: Literary fiction
Year Published: 1997

Of the books I have loved in my life, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett stands out as one of the most mature and beautiful. For those of you who haven't read it, I won't spoil it -- I urge you to go pick up a copy and see for yourselves.

So naturally I began The Magician's Assistant with high hopes, but (perhaps inevitably) these hopes were dashed. The Magician's Assistant is not in the same universe as Bel Canto. You'll forgive me for making the obvious comparison, but if the latter is opera, the former is musical theater.

But let me for a moment examine the book on its own merits. Certainly I enjoyed The Magician's Assistant, but I found it to be too generic and predictable to really recommend it to you all, dear readers. And you must take me seriously when I call a book predictable, because I'm generally terrible at working out how things are going to end up. Yet I saw the arc of this as clearly as a contrail on a clear day.

The plot is simple: Sabine, the eponymous assistant, is the recent widow of Parsifal, a gay, HIV-positive magician who married her so that she would be taken care of after his death. Sabine had thought Parsifal had no family, but he did, and her interactions with them form the bulk of the novel. Self-discovery (often in the form of too-rational dreams) ensues.

I hate to bring up Bel Canto again, but that novel felt like a book that no one else could write, it was that original and heartbreaking. The Magician's Assistant felt like a book you could pull off the shelf and see any American woman's name on the cover. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was just like every other middlebrow, female-authored book aimed at women from coast to coast. I prefer my reading to be a little quirkier, a little less marketable.

Recommended? You can pass it up.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers (Paul Hoffman)

Genre: Biography (mathematical)
Year Published: 1998

While I was walking to the train station yesterday, having just finished this book, I tried to think of a historical figure to compare Paul Erdős with, so that non-mathematicians could appreciate the enormity of his legacy. The best I could come up with was an unholy cross of Buddha and Bach: Buddha for his itinerant, indigent lifestyle and complete generosity; Bach for his highly prolific genius. (Now try to imagine Buddha with Bach's crazy white wig. Doesn't the imagery alone make it worth it?)

With that bizarre hybrid in mind, I admit it cannot be easy to begin to contemplate how to write a fitting biography of Erdős. There are probably a dozen directions in which an author could go. As much as I enjoyed The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, it never quite achieved whatever lofty ideal was in the back of my mind. Apparently the book grew out of a biographical story that Hoffman wrote for The Atlantic, and it shows: it retains the jumpy, floating structure of a typical high-class magazine piece instead of assuming the more linear pace of a typical work of nonfiction. Even more tellingly, we as readers are never made to think too hard in a mathematical sense: never are we given even a sketchy outline of one of Erdős's thousands of proofs, nor do we learn much more about number theory (Erdős's field) than the definition of prime numbers.

Having said all this, I'd like to reiterate that I did enjoy this book very much -- I barely put it down once I'd begun it. I simply wish that it had achieved more. This volume is a mere glimpse into the life of one of the most intriguing mathematicians to ever live (and that is saying a lot!) If someone could marry the very good, anecdote-heavy legwork that Hoffman has done with a bit more serious biographical information and a deeper insight into Erdős's mathematics, we'd have the makings of a first-rate biography. As it stands now, it feels somehow incomplete . . . part book and part fog.

Recommended? Only if you are a mathematician, or particularly fond of same.