Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
While the novel is able to imagine decadence turned violent, disaffection seems somehow outside its range, leaving its satire of consumerism poorer as a result. Ultimately Ballard’s vision is still of a world before the fall, but the kind of ruin that he anticipates is very different from the vacant shopping malls and office complexes surrounded by empty parking lots and crumbling infrastructure that have become a common sight in Britain and the U.S.
Surely, high-frequency trading is more complicated than the Manichean portrait of it Lewis draws of it in Flash Boys, but if he hadn’t found a way to boil down this highly technical issue to an emotionally satisfying tale of good vs. evil, most of us would never have known it existed.
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I’ve always had a soft spot for the sweeping multi-generational family saga. I’m continually amazed that a good writer can will us to abandon one protagonist for another, the father for the son; we hesitate, but a hundred pages later, we’ve forgotten the earlier generations as quickly as history does itself. But there’s something a little cruel in this sort of book: it’s not history -- it’s a novel, and its ironic circumstances are wholly constructed. The innocent early days, the invariable fall, the important details that get distorted and misplaced over time: the author is setting us up, and the book would be innocuous -- even pointless -- if we weren’t eventually let down. These books are inherently about loss: the characters we meet at the beginning will die, or if they don’t, something else will be lost to the passage of time. Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is one of those sweeping multi-generational family sagas, and, of course, Hollinghurst is one of those writers who can do most things remarkably well. It’s as beautifully written as his previous books, but it feels like a departure: the last four have been relatively stationary affairs in comparison, centering around young, gay Englishmen with a lot of time on their hands, and the narratives are largely expository and internal. I’ve read three out of four -- the friend who eagerly pressed Hollinghurst on me years ago agreed with the critics and told me to skip The Spell -- and of them, the 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty had been my (well, everyone’s) hands-down favorite. But The Stranger’s Child seems as if it’s been written for me -- or, at least, someone with my proclivities -- with its somewhat traditional subject and straightforward narrative, a plot that moves on dialogue rather than description, and a pervasive Englishness, reserved and class-bound, that encompasses whole swaths of 20-century British literature. Parts of it, to my delight, feel very much like Brideshead Revisited fanfiction -- in the best possible way, of course. (Who didn’t want more of “those languid days at Brideshead,” to actually see what Charles and Sebastian were surely getting up to that summer?) The book’s been repeatedly compared to the work of Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and, as with Hollinghurst’s previous novels, Henry James, as well as that of contemporaries like Ian McEwan (for Atonement, which, on the surface, has many similarities) and Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day). But Hollinghurst brings a precise elegance to the genre, building upon the novels that came before it. In an essay on Atonement written a decade ago, Geoff Dyer said that, “It is less about a novelist harking nostalgically back to the consoling certainties of the past than it is about creatively extending and hauling a defining part of the British literary tradition up and into the twenty-first century.” Hollinghurst, rarely transgressive, occasionally labeled as “fusty,” but an unfailingly extraordinary novelist, is extending and hauling Brideshead into the present day. (Dyer had high praise for The Stranger’s Child and its author: in a review, he wrote that “Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer.”) The novel begins in the summer of 1913 at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family in outer London. The initial Brideshead parallels are reversed: the family is middle class and their houseguest, Cecil Valance, is an aristocrat. He’s a mediocre but deeply charming poet, and during the visit he puts aggressive but rather tame moves on the impressionable Daphne, all the while having it off properly in the woods with her brother, George. Cecil is killed in World War I, as are other characters from the idyllic opening passages, and most of them fade into obscurity by the second part, set a decade later. But Cecil is remembered, even revered: celebrated as a minor war poet, he’s quoted by Winston Churchill in the newspaper and viewed, as with so much of the late-Edwardian canon, as prophetic. The remaining three sections make similarly brash leaps forward in time: the mid-1960s, then the early ‘80s, and finally, briefly, in the present day. Nearly a century after the initial action, all of our old friends have died. It’s inevitable, but it leaves you feeling a little cheated. With each transition you struggle with momentary disorientation, taking stock of who’s still alive and the family entanglements that have grown more complicated in the intervening decades. In a book where sexuality is surprisingly fluid and loyalties often waver, deciphering the two families’ domestic affairs is a tall order, and at times, a frustrating one. The more interesting changes are subtler: with the passage of time, characters’ histories are rewritten. Those who survive -- and a surprising number of early characters make it well into old age -- come to be defined by the decades through which they’ve lived. But those who died remain crystallized in memories, tinted and warped with nostalgia or bitterness. Misunderstandings and assumptions in 1913 become reminisces in the ‘20s, memories in the ‘60s, vague recollections in the ‘80s, and all but completely forgotten in the present day. At the heart of these rewritten histories is literature: this is, after all, a book about a poet, and eventually, a book about books. The fourth and, at times, most tedious section, follows a biographer’s somewhat incompetent attempts to unravel Cecil Valance’s short life. Valance’s brother, Dudley, who winds up marrying Daphne, is a writer as well, but by the ‘80s, his work has faded from public consciousness. Daphne writes a book that is dismissed for its factual inaccuracies; she thinks back later about how her memories, cloudy with years of heavy drinking, are just as inaccurate: “The fact was that all the interesting and decisive things in her adult life had happened when she was more or less tight: she had little recall of anything that occurred after about 6:45, and the blur of the evenings, for the past sixty years and more, had leaked into the days as well.” The elderly characters, with their shaky recollections, leave you immensely frustrated: “I was there!” you want to shout. “Four hundred pages ago! Don’t you remember?” And when Daphne continues on, worrying over lost memories, the resulting passage is heartbreaking: She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she'd read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art -- she could remember nothing about them at all, so that it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent's Park, rain in the streets outside -- a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years. A bleak epigraph marks the start of the book’s final section: “No one remembers you at all.” It’s from Mick Imlah’s poem “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson” (the phrase “the stranger’s child” is from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”). Imlah passed away two years ago, and Hollinghurst has dedicated this book to him. There’s something so grim about the idea that even books will be forgotten: memory is fickle, sometimes faulty, but shouldn’t something printed and bound hold more permanence than that? In the final scenes, we follow a relative stranger into an antiquarian bookshop, and there’s a moment of hope that the characters that were scribbling away dozens of chapters ago will be remembered. At one point very early on, a character says that Cecil’s poems “will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things.” A century later, this seems doubtful: he is known, but he is barely remembered. The First World War, which feels palpably less present with each step forward in time, is now firmly in the past. A book of this scope writes its own history, and if you find that history compelling, you’re doomed to fall in love with it. This was the first novel in a long while that pulled me in wholeheartedly: I stayed in on the weekend, and didn’t grumble about getting stuck on the train one night, just to finish it faster. I’ve pressed it on people at work, on friends at parties, and on strangers in coffee shops. The majority of them have never heard of it, or even of Hollinghurst himself. When I finished it, I went to look it up on Wikipedia, to read about its influences (cross-referenced, I assumed, with all the historical cameos, Rupert Brooke and Lytton Strachey and the like). Instead I found a skeletal plot summary and a brief paragraph on the reviews (“generally received positively”). I was indignant. Why wasn’t it tagged as an “instant classic”? We live in a time when things struggle to stick: competing influences, recommendations, and links, bombarding us and casting aside one new thing for the next. But perhaps one of the best lessons to be learned from The Stranger’s Child is that things have never stuck particularly well. People and their words can tilt the world on its axis, however briefly, but the world will always tilt again. Imagining not remembering a thing about The Stranger’s Child decades from now, of it falling out of print, of Hollinghurst fading into obscurity, is hard for me to comprehend. But Hollinghurst’s characters carried some version of Cecil Valance with them through the stretch of their long lives. It seems difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t take all of these characters with us through our lives in turn.
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Though I've heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I've read - well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me - 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It's a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa's history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa's sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the "bush," the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren't trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa's urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
Like a greased manatee, Florida eludes capture. It’s too big, too ungraspable for tidy description. Scarcely is one aspect understood (it’s the Sunshine State) before an oppositional trait emerges (it’s our fifth wettest). Yet paradoxically, Florida is also the state most in need of an explanation. Why is it so bizarre? Why is it trying to kill us? Why does it produce so many outrageous headlines, like "Florida man changes name to Bruce Jenner to preserve name's 'heterosexual roots'" and "Florida man who died in cockroach-eating contest choked to death, autopsy says?" In fact, why has it produced so many outrageous headlines that the phrase "Florida Man" has become a meme, a nom de guerre for a demented, often nude antihero complete with his own Twitter account and Wikipedia entry? There’s a temptation to answer these questions like a pointillist -- to list headlines, write vignettes, and enumerate the weirdest, most depraved stories one can find. One hopes that from a far enough remove, such disparate dots will blend into a cohesive whole and a central narrative will emerge. There has to be a set of qualities linking crossbow-mutilated genitals, invasive Burmese pythons, and nude face-eating zombies because if there isn’t, we’re looking at unpredictable madness. And isn’t that terrifying? These are the questions Craig Pittman attempts to answer in his latest book, Oh, Florida!: How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. Part travelogue, history, and memoir, it’s altogether best understood as the author's quest to establish a Unified Theory of Florida’s Weirdness, and to make the argument that none of this is new. It’s an impressively difficult task, but it’s also one that Pittman, a veteran reporter and a Floridian by birth, is supremely qualified to undertake. (Case in point: his Twitter account.) In more than 300 pages, Pittman capably demonstrates that throughout history, Florida’s served as our nation’s testing ground, or a Petri dish from which localized events have mutated and spread into national trends. The state was the first one settled by Europeans, for instance. It was the first to preserve a national wildlife refuge. Miami’s ubiquitous cartel violence led in no small way to the modern War on Drugs, and Anita Bryant’s antagonism accelerated America’s gay rights movement. Florida begat the moon landing. During the Cold War, its proximity to Cuba almost led to our mutually assured destruction. Twice. More recently, it was where the 9/11 hijackers trained, where the housing bubble burst, and its rapidly changing demographics will surely shape our political future. As goes Florida, so follows the nation -- if not the world. (Of course, one major challenge with any Florida book is that the state moves swiftly. When Pittman submitted his manuscript to press, there were five Florida Republicans running for president; now only one part-timer remains, and not the one most expected. Furthermore, in the past month the state's dominated the news because it was the site of the nation's most-deadly mass shooting, which couldn't have been foreseen, let alone by the time the book was written. Already a sequel is needed.) To make sense of all this ignoble influence, Pittman reduces the most outlandish headlines to their basic elements, and from there he attempts to ascribe reason. Drugs are abundant because there's so much exploitable coastline, and drugs lead Floridians to fight. Floridians also fight because the weather is hot, and they're frequently nude (or at least shirtless) for the same reason. Additionally, Floridians fight because there are so many recent arrivals who've moved to the state from elsewhere, and they "haven't yet built up any trust with the folks next door." And when squabbles make it to court, juries are often lenient for the same reason: "so many of [them] are transient and feel no strong connection to [their] community," Pittman writes. Meanwhile, we learn about each crime's scandalous details because of the state's robust open records laws, which make police reports and court transcripts accessible to journalists anywhere. While these answers adhere to a convincing logic, the effect of learning that logic can be disappointing. It’s like a magician revealing the secrets behind his tricks -- sure, now it makes sense, but don't we wish it didn’t? Where's the whimsy, the fantastic? Readers hoping to find some exotic cause of the state's residential craziness -- tropical brain rot, maybe -- instead learn that, actually, the government is tragically awful at treating its mentally ill. That so many financial hoodwinks occur has less to do with some evil enzyme endemic in citrus groves than it does with the fact that there are a lot of wealthy retirees ripe for the swindling, and a lot of opportunistic criminals. There are so many shark attacks not because Floridians taste good, but because so many of them go swimming. In fact, a lot of Florida's strangeness can be chalked up to simple geography: Put nineteen million residents and nearly one hundred million tourists in such a narrow space and you're bound to generate conflict over whose turn it is at the drive-thru or whether oak trees or palms should line the streets. Adding fuel to this fire is the discovery that Florida is full of perils to life and limb, ranging from sand spurts to hurricanes, sinkholes, and shark bites. In this sense, Pittman's service journalism makes Oh, Florida! an invaluable addition to the Florida canon, which urgently needs serious voices to balance out the farcical, hyperbolic works produced by Carl Hiaasen and bloggers the world over. Likewise, Pittman does necessary work to highlight the forgotten or unheralded influence of Floridians who've shaped modern life -- both for better and worse -- such as Robert Hayling and Marion Hammer, respectively. He also demonstrates that for as long as the state's had settlers, it's also had shady real estate scammers; and he does a nice job calling out the state's qualities that are objectively fantastic: the beaches, the preserves, the weather. Truly, there's a lot to like in here, and the book should be required reading for Florida completists as well as outsiders cracking jokes about the state's foibles; don't mock that which you don't understand, and recognize that before Florida Man, there was something like Homo Floridius, or Floridopithecus perhaps. And to the extent that the book has any shortfalls, they are entirely matters of personal taste - of not going far enough. For instance, while Pittman's gaze focuses on the state overall, I would've liked to see more attention paid to South Florida specifically, which to my eyes serves as the state's driving engine of transformation, and also as the best indication of America’s future: multicultural, defined by income equality, and existentially threatened by climate change. (Maybe the oversight is explained by the fact that South Florida is distinct from the rest of the state, and doesn't fit neatly into Pittman's central theses.) Also, instead of generalizing or exaggerating, Pittman's journalistic instincts often limit his arguments to those that can be fact-checked and confirmed, which means he stops short of some key points. This is a particular hindrance when it comes to Florida Man and his origin story. Left unanswered in Oh, Florida! is the question of why we've become so fascinated with him in the past few years. Why now, Florida Man? To some degree, the answer lies in the proliferation of social media, which provides a platform for turning small town news headlines into viral content. But there's got to be more to it. Perhaps the answer can be gleaned from trashiness, one of Florida Man's most inextricable features, and a trait made evident to viewers of the recent Florida Man documentary, or readers of John Lingan's convincing piece for Pacific Standard: Florida Man could only come from our most geographically self-contained, ecologically forbidding state, the one full of sinkholes, swamps, wild gators, and urban coastal flooding. Florida Man is a Yankee nightmare in human form. He is everything frightening about white trash life in one meme -- particularly the fear that your poor, aimless life will beget little more than a backwater local news curio and subsequent jail time. Yet while both of those examples focus on a particular brand of trashiness -- that is, white trashiness -- I submit that the conditions responsible for creating Florida Man are more egalitarian. And while Pittman lays some groundwork to establish the foundation of this argument -- breezily recounting the struggles of early Florida Crackers, and identifying the state's long history of enforced impoverishment on members of certain races and ethnicities -- he doesn't quite make the leap necessary to sure up class's overall influence on Florida Man. It's a fact often ignored when weird Florida news makes the rounds that the subjects of those stories are so often poor people being arrested for crimes associated with poverty, such as those motivated by addiction, or linked to domestic violence, larceny, or burglary. It's also not a coincidence that the most archetypal Florida Man stories originate in counties more similar to Polk than Dade; indeed, the flavor of a Central Florida Man story is distinct from that of South Florida Man story. If tragedy is comedy plus time, then an archetypal Florida Man story is trashiness plus irony -- and a South Florida Man story is all of that plus ambition. Put another way: the ideal Florida Man story involves a woman named Crystal Metheny firing a missile into a car, while a South Florida Man story involves bodybuilding ex-soldiers getting their international Molly ring busted because of a pornstar's temper tantrum. While the ideal Florida Man candidate bought a bunch of houses he couldn't afford before the 2008 Recession, the prototypical South Florida Man is probably the former bartender who sold those homes to him. Do you see the difference? At the same time, do you see the similarities? Whereas South Florida's infamy stems from botched get rich quick schemes and deliberate, organized crime, the lifeblood of the more typical Floridian weirdness originates in something more intimate and tragic still. That's why for every one of Florida Man's calamities, there are a handful of more despicable and humorless episodes -- like Quran-burning pastors and outright hate crimes -- that originate from a similarly dark, sad place. All trashy Florida stories are alike; each trashy Florida Man story is ironic in its own way. That only the ironic ones make national news tells you more about the audience than the perpetrators. So why have Florida Man stories drawn so much more attention since, say, 2008? (Pittman traces to "modern" era of Florida's influence to the 2000 election; in that sense, 2008 marks the start of our post-modern one, and years henceforth could be known as A.F.M.: After Florida Man.) Well, since that time Florida's been dealing with ground zero of the nation's housing crisis, an ongoing raid of government programs, a rapidly deteriorating ecosystem (which in turn leads to more polluted waters, more contaminated water sources, more powerful natural disasters, etc...), a stagnant job market, and an escalating opioid epidemic -- all factors affecting disadvantaged populations more than their better-heeled peers. And against that backdrop, those same disadvantaged populations have become more desperate. Meanwhile, rather than paying attention to Florida Man's originating factors -- such as Florida's abysmally run state government -- outsiders have preferred paying attention to Florida Man only as a source of amusement. It's a particular kind of amusement, too, that's motivated by a need for the comparative reassurance that, bad as it is for them in their states and in their hometowns, at least they're not at a point that low. At least they'd never do that. The nation at large looks at Florida Man in much the same way privileged, yuppie audiences look at contestants on Jerry Springer or Maury. Yet the scariest thing about Florida Man, and what gives his mythos such sudden traction, is that his originating factors could be coming for us all, and I think on some level we all recognize that. As Florida goes, so follows the nation. As Florida's shoreline is eaten away by rising seas, so, too is the rest of the East Coast's. As income inequality in Florida becomes more and more pronounced, so, too widens the divide between the nation's rich and poor. From 2000 to 2010, Florida was the most corrupt state; that other states recently surpassed it in the rankings doesn't mean Florida got better so much as it means the rest of the country got worse. So on and so forth. It's possible that the conditions leading to Florida Man's creation are rapidly becoming more common elsewhere, and before long California Man and Texas Man will rise to their own infamy. Get your laughs in now, America, because Florida Man's coming to a town near you.