Anyone who enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Blink or Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, will likely be interested in The Wisdom of Crowds by the New Yorker’s business columnist, James Surowiecki. Surowiecki’s premise is that groups of diverse people can collectively come to a better conclusion than even the smartest individual. Like other books of pop economics, Surowiecki employs dozens of real world examples. Among the most interesting was a discussion of why “groupthink” led to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. Another was Surowiecki’s persuasive argument that a “market” where the probability of terrorist attacks (or other threats) could be bought and sold, would be better at predicting those attacks than our current system of intelligence. Unlike Gladwell, however, Surowiecki fails to make his examples sing. Crowds is weighed down by long stretches of prose in which Surowiecki touches on one academic study after another, continually referring back to his premise, “the wisdom of crowds,” as if trying to drill it into his readers’ heads. Certainly, though, anyone with a passing interest in economics – and especially the behavioral aspects of economics – will enjoy the book, but it fails to compete with the genre’s better examples.
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.The scene: an all-night, drug-fueled party. We could be in New York, London, Berlin or Buenos Aires, until the host turns down the music, telling revelers "Be quiet, or we won't be able to hear it - it should be coming now!" People laugh knowingly and accuse the host of being disrespectful, but then at 5 a.m. comes the Azan, the first call to prayer:A high-pitched male voice, singing in Arabic, soars through the air. The crowd begins to cheer, whistle and clap. Then the music is turned back up and the party continues.Such is life on the Persian hip-hop scene - one of the many examples of how the global influences of the 21st century have fused with tradition in Iran.Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations provides myriad ways to trace the contradictions and dichotomies that define contemporary Iran, especially in Tehran. Fiction, nonfiction, photography, film stills, paintings and illustrations speak to every aspect of the capital's 14 million residents, while also exploring the burden that artists bear as "cultural agents to the West," in the words of contributor Shirin Neshat. These potent and incisive creative acts and cultural investigations are complicated by the current government's imposing role in controlling the flow of information in and out of the country. But it is not only the Islamic Republic that has used authoritarian tactics to maintain power over its people. Transit Tehran presents Islam as just one of many aspects of the country today, reaching back to Persian history, kings, shahs, the influence of foreign governments and oil.Many of the stories and studies in this book hinge on the dilemma of change without change, which according to Neshat dates back to the nineteenth century. "[T]he tragedy of Iran seems to repeat itself, with no escape," he writes, in an appreciation of the exiled illustrator Aredeshir Mohassess. Living in New York since 1976, Mohassess is considered "the most significant living Iranian artist to date... almost entirely forgotten by both the Iranian and the Western public." The strength of Mohassess's work, as Neshat sees it, is that it "facilitates an understanding of the modern political history of Iran, from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries: a history that proves to be overwhelmingly dark and authoritarian." Of the black ink samplings of Mohassess's illustrations in Transit Tehran, chains figure heavily, rendering forced servitude, almost always at the hands of government figures. But just as this work alludes to a bloody history of exploitation, the resilient and revolutionary spirit of the people is celebrated with macabre humor. The illustration "The king is always above the people," for example, comprises a group of modest men, with their king strung up above them.Khosrow Hassanzadeh's series of paintings "Guys in the Hood," inspired by his desire "to remind people that although the Revolution happened, in many ways, beneath the surface, nothing changed," features such modest men. His subjects are his neighbors, who enjoy long-standing pastimes like waterpipes, wrestling and chai. Proud, assured faces define these portraits, which derive from martyrs' portraits and the fact that the "government still says the Iranian people are living martyrs; sixty million people ready to die for their ideology."Women are the focus of several of the pieces in Transit Tehran. Newsha Tavakolian's "Girl Power" photographs convey "one of the many contradictions of life here. The new generation [of women] is completely different from that of their mothers who just ran households." This difference ranges from attending university and running businesses to martyrdom, but even the empowerment generated by these changes does not eradicate the patriarchic reality of the culture at large. "Dragnet Tehran" introduces Iranian policewomen, in existence as trainees since 1966 but only just making their "first official public appearance during the 2006 demonstration on International Women's Day." "Going Home," perhaps the most personal offering in the book, eulogizes the pre-Revolution days when women would wear bathing suits in the Caspian Sea. Javad Montazeri's images of women enjoying a day at the beach and swimming in the hejab were shot for his daughter, who will also have to cover herself when she turns nine years old: "The change that has taken place didn't evolve naturally. It was imposed on us... They altered surface appearances, but people's minds were unaffected."The Western media tends to cover only certain aspects of Iran, creating a perception that these alone define the country. For those of us on the outside looking in, every page of Transit Tehran peels away a layer of misunderstanding and sheds light on the dynamics of Iran and its people.Update: It's been brought to our attention that the Transit Tehran's co-editor, Maziar Bahari, has been imprisoned in Tehran since June 12. PEN issued a letter last week, signed by a who's who of contemporary writers, demanding his release[Images courtesy Garnet Publishing]
My New Yorker is David Remnick's New Yorker. The magazine was around my house off and on when I was young. My sister and I, ignoring the witty captions, used to use the magazine's iconic cartoons as a sort of coloring book, spicing up a droll bedroom scene with our 24-color set of magic markers. As a high schooler with half-formed thoughts of a literary life, I began delving into the fiction each week, but it was only a matter of time before the rest of the magazine's contents began to tempt me, though I remained utterly unaware that I was discovering the magazine at its point of greatest turmoil, the Tina Brown years. By the time I went to college, I was an avid consumer of the magazine, though without the time to give it my full attention. Once I graduated, however, with only the responsibilities of undemanding jobs, I was able to give in and have read the magazine, more or less in its entirety ever since.The Tina Brown era ended and David Remnick took the magazine's helm around the time I became a New Yorker regular, and he, to a certain extent, epitomizes my New Yorker. Beyond Remnick's editorial influence, any contemporary reader of the magazine has become familiar with his thorough profiles which tend to alight on a few different topics that he has covered closely over the years. Many of these are collected in his recent volume Reporting, which came out last year and is now available in paperback.The book divides the articles, which are all taken from his years at the New Yorker, into five sections covering, roughly: politics/news, literary figures, Russia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and boxing. Nearly all of the articles in the collection are the long, in depth profiles that New Yorker readers will be familiar with. In Reporting, Remnick's subjects include Al Gore, Philip Roth, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (twice), Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyaho, and Mike Tyson.These profiles are impressive in the access they offer - we have dinner with Al and Tipper, visit Roth's writing retreat, and play chess with Lennox Lewis. Taken together, one also notes that these profiles most prominent quality is their workmanlike thoroughness. Remnick takes us into his subjects' homes but he also grabs quotes from dozens of peripheral characters in his quest to offer as well-rounded a picture as possible. There's nothing flashy about Remnick's writing - he won't wow you - but then again his writing carries none of the annoying tics that mars some of his colleagues' work. Here I'm thinking of Adam Gopnick's tendency to view everything through the eyes of a parent or Anthony Lane's dandyish fussiness. For anyone who aspires to practice long-form magazine journalism, you could do a lot worse than starting with Remnick as a model.My favorite part of the book was the last section on boxing. Here Remnick was able to drop some of the necessary serious that his other subjects demand and substitute it with some color. Setting the scene for the 2002 Tyson-Lewis fight in Memphis, Remnick writes:On the night of the fight, the skies of above the Pyramid were choked with helicopters. It took a long time to get through the metal detectors and professional friskers, though it seemed that the women of uncertain profession, along with their raffish masculine handlers, were accorded more courtesy than the rest of us. There were certifiable celebrity types all around, mainly film stars like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Samuel L. Jackson, and a flotilla of NBA players. There was much relief in finding out that one hadn't been given a seat behind Dikembe Mutombo or Magic Johnson.In fact, Remnick's boxing pieces would have made for a nice, slim volume on their own. But Remnick doesn't seem like the type of reporter who, as he ages, will pursue writing only about his particular interests at the expense of taking on a broader array of topics. In its variety of subjects, Reporting is an ideal slice of Remnick's work.
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The Monarch of the Glen and Black Dog are two of the four titles in Headline’s re-release of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods quartet, timed to raise interest in the television adaption of American Gods, due for release early in 2017. The two novellas (or short stories -- the length is difficult to judge with all the artwork) have been published with American Gods itself and with Anansi Boys, a second novel set in the same universe, in hardback editions illustrated by Daniel Egnéus. American Gods (the novel as opposed to the quartet) was first published in 2001 and then re-published in an expanded tenth-anniversary edition. The latter -- which has been available as a full cast audiobook since 2012 -- is a literal "author’s cut," i.e. Gaiman’s original, published without the considerable editorial redactions of the published version and therefore substantially longer. I thought American Gods was deserving of its critical and popular success although I was disappointed that Gaiman failed to integrate the monotheistic religions into his universe, a strategy which was obviously expedient, but nonetheless inconsistent. The audiobook (but not the tenth anniversary edition) contains a deleted passage in which the protagonist, Shadow, meets Christ, offering a tantalizing taste of how Gaiman might have treated the monotheistic gods, but the encounter raises more questions than it answers. The scene has apparently been included in the STARZ original series and it will be interesting to see if it is developed in any detail. The novellas The Monarch of the Glen and Black Dog share not only the world of American Gods, but also its protagonist, Shadow, who may or may not be an incarnation of Baldr (or Baldur or Balder), who may or may not be a god. The Monarch of the Glen was first published in Legends II, a 2003 collection of speculative fiction edited by Robert Silverberg. The novella takes place in the north-west of the Scottish Highlands two years after the conclusion of American Gods. Shadow has spent the interim backpacking across Europe and North Africa and finds himself in an unnamed village somewhere between Thurso and Cape Wrath. The plot begins when, in quick succession, he is offered a weekend job as a bouncer at a local country house and meets an unconventional barmaid who regales him with stories of the local lore, particularly those pertaining to the strong Norse influence in what is usually assumed to be a hyper-Celtic culture. The suspense is generated first by a mysterious party, then by its mysterious guests, and finally by the real reason for Shadow’s employment. Much like my monotheistic quibble with American Gods, my criticism of the novella is very minor, namely the opacity of the title. The "Monarch of the Glen" is a painting of a red deer stag by Edwin Landseer and has become one of the exemplary and archetypal images of the Highlands specifically and Scotland more generally. Landseer was famous for contributing to the Victorian image of an idyllic Scotland that never existed, and for representing anthropomorphic animals in savage struggles for survival against one another, man, and nature. The painting itself -- or rather, Landseer’s copy of his own painting -- appears in the story, the property of Mr Alice, the host of the party. Its significance is neither explained nor suggested; the only commentary is offered by Alice on its popularity and Shadow’s silent appraisal of the stag as “haughty, and superior”. My understanding of the painting’s significance is that the shared title is a reference to Shadow, who has been hired to take part in a struggle even more savage than those portrayed by Landseer. In this struggle, Shadow is the symbol of both man against monster and Scotland against its (Norse) invaders. But just like the criticism that Landseer created a false image of Scotland, Shadow is being set up as a false symbol. He is, like the English Landseer in the Highlands, a foreigner, and also, as the opening dialogue of the narrative reminds readers, a monster himself -- not quite man and not quite god. Of course, Gaiman is far too sophisticated a writer to allow the simple dichotomies of man/monster, Celtic/Norse, and the relation between them to remain unchallenged. The result is that the explosive climax at the country house does not turn out as expected for any of the participants, as Shadow is measured against his own judgement of Landseer’s stag. The tale concludes with him on a train, heading south with the ultimate aim of bringing his wandering to an end in Chicago. Black Dog was first published in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, Gaiman’s fourth collection of short stories (excluding his fiction for children), in 2015. The novella’s temporal setting is either several weeks or a few months after The Monarch of the Glen, but the spatial setting is the first mystery Gaiman presents. Somewhere between the Scottish border and London, Shadow has gone off the rails. The many clues provided are no more provocative than when they are contradictory: the blurb labels a “rural northern village”; it is not too remote from London; it might bfe near Glossop; it is surrounded by hills and valleys; it features plenty of drystone walls; and it has its own ghost dog, called Black Shuck. Black Shuck is the name of East Anglia’s version of the old English legend, but East Anglia is notoriously flat and the name ‘The Gateway to Hell’ seems decisive, identifying Eldon Hole in the Peak Forest and the Peak District (also known as the Derbyshire Dales) more generally. This relocation of Black Shuck to one of the few regions of England that does not have its own ghost dog is the first indication of the categorical originality of Gaiman’s re-invention of the legend. Gaiman very quickly provides a series of reflections on and allusions to many of the linguistic and conceptual associations with dogs that are such a prominent part of English culture: the love of dogs as pets,; the eternal conflict between cats and dogs and consequent division of human beings into "cat-people" and "dog-people"; "black dog" as a description of depression (made famous by Winston Churchill); "black dog" as a favored name for brands of ale; and the curiosity of a ghost dog that portends or causes death without possessing any corporeality. As the tale develops, he adds the conceptions of prehistoric dire wolves, Odin’s wolves (although Odin’s nemesis Fenrir would have been more appropriate), and the myth of the Wild Hunt. There are also explicit references to Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and implicit references to Stephen Booth’s Cooper and Fry crime series, which is set in the Peak District and was initiated with the novel Black Dog, published the same year as American Gods. The combination of these references also serves as a clue that this is as much a mystery as it is a work of speculative fiction. The story starts with Shadow in a public house, where there is much spooky talk of big black dogs and cats walled up in buildings. The village has no accommodation available and a local couple, Ollie and Moira, offer him a room for the night. As the three of them walk home, Ollie thinks he sees Black Shuck and falls into a narcoleptic state. This introduces the natural dimension of Gaiman’s take on the black dog, as a manifestation of depression, which grounds the narrative in reality: depressed people recognize their own despair, exemplified by the ghost dog, and either try to kill themselves or simply lose the will to live. Following this motif, Ollie self-harms as soon as he emerges from his semi-conscious state, setting the scene for Shadow remaining in the village for a few days to help Moira look after him. What raises Gaiman’s contribution to the black dog legend from the original to the exceptional is the way he not only offers a rationalization of its continued existence, but binds the supernatural explanation to its own special logic. The relationship between the villain and the ghost dog and between Shadow and a benevolent ghost is explained by the metaphor of flame and moth. Human beings, warm with their life blood coursing through them, are the flames that attract the attention of moth-like ghosts, which clarifies the reciprocal relation between corporeal and non-corporeal: the moth flying too close to the flame can either extinguish that flame or be destroyed by it. If there is a weakness in the work it is that Black Dog does not stand alone as well as The Monarch of the Glen, requiring knowledge of Shadow’s encounter with Bast in American Gods for full appreciation. There is a subtle play of similarity and difference in the two novellas. Both, for example, begin with Shadow sitting in a bar, a new arrival in a strange place. Both include a mysterious woman who initiates Shadow into the secrets of the locality, Jennie in the Highlands and Cassie in the Dales. Both include a disguised antagonist who appears very early on before revealing savagery in one case and banality in the other. Both narratives are works of fantasy, firmly rooted in the American Gods universe, but the most profound difference is their emphasis within this genre: the combination of fantasy with horror in The Monarch of the Glen and fantasy with mystery in Black Dog. This difference in intention is exquisitely expressed in the subtle variation of Egnéus’ artwork. He cites his influences as Arthur Rackham and Gustave Doré, displaying the former’s flair for line and the latter’s ability to represent the otherworldly, and there is also a strong surrealist sense of the fluidity of shape, reality, and reason in his depictions. The interior illustrations are black and white, with Egnéus employing the full range of tint and shade from white to black to produce images that surprise, puzzle, and haunt. In The Monarch of the Glen, he leaves no doubt that Shadow has arrived in a vital, visceral, and volatile place where the trappings of modernity conceal a primitive and unchanged way of life. In Black Dog, he represents a more hospitable locale, where an evening on a hilltop is an experience to be enjoyed rather than a death sentence -- or should be. The drawings in the latter novella lack the violence of those in the former and with a few exceptions evoke wonder rather than fear while retaining a decidedly disturbing quality. The strengths of the two tales are also distinct: the complexity of character and depth of symbolism explored in the Scottish Highlands versus the faultless internal logic and meticulous supervenience of contemporary banality on ancient malignancy in the Derbyshire Dales. They are nonetheless both atmospheric and intriguing, both intellectually stimulating and unpredictable.
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According to John Updike's "Rules for Reviewers," critics review books, rather than reputations. Then again, most readers also expect reviewers to situate a book in its proper generic context, and here Charles Bock's debut novel presents a sort of paradox. Beautiful Children's burgeoning reputation - the unusual amount of attention it has garnered from media outlets including The New York Times and this blog - positions it as a literary novel for grownups, part of the great tradition that runs from Flaubert through Updike and down to Rick Moody (the writer to whom Bock is most often compared). In at least one respect, this claim may have merit. But at the level of several of the basic elements of fiction - plot, character, setting, prose style, themes - the book comes across as something quite different: less a novel about its titular children than a novel for them.The story centers on - or circles around - the disappearance of 13-year-old Newell Ewing one summer night in Las Vegas. At first, we surmise that Newell has been kidnapped; later it turns out that he has run away. Specifics notwithstanding, the novel insists on the magnitude of Newell's fate by tracing its effect on other characters, much as Rutherford studied the nucleus by examining the way it scattered smaller particles. And so Beautiful Children takes on complexity, moving backward and forward through the lives of nearly a dozen characters, at times quite beautifully. The melodrama of Newell's disappearance may enforce narrative momentum, but it's the fractal structure of the novel that actually earns it. Like Donald Kaufman in the movie Adaptation, Charles Bock is "good with structure."The problem is that he seems unsure how to fill a structure meaningfully. Inner life, in Beautiful Children, consists more of sordid backstory than of consciousness, or perhaps Bock sees the two as interchangeable terms. With the possible exception of Newell's father, his characters never rise above the level of caricature. He seems unwilling to imagine a thinking, feeling human being sinking to the depths of the novel's sleazier denizens. But our literature is full of characters who are unpalatable but alive, like Joseph Heller's Slocum, or Henry James' many schemers.Bock's discomfort with interior life puts an added pressure on the surface details he uses to deliver characters, and here, too he falters. The strained banter of the younger characters consists largely of dated catch-phrases - for realz - and their attire, on which Bock lavishes detail, tells us little more. Beautiful Children is the sort of novel that refers to a major character only as The Girl With the Shaved Head, as though that, at this late date in history, still connotes anything.To the extent that plot arises from human choices, the novel's characterological vacuum sucks steadily at the foundations of its story. Because Newell is so generically a pain in the ass, and because his sorrows exist mainly to serve Bock's tee-shirty themes - Modern Life is Rubbish; Growing Up is Hard - his actual disappearance, when we witness it, seems wholly unmotivated. The many events that follow from it chronologically (though they precede it in the novel) become random, the products of a counterfactual.Bock seems to sense and to fear the moral unintelligibility his book builds toward, and attempts to salvage significance in fits of inflationary prose. As one suspicious reader's letter to the Times pointed out, Bock's grandiosity is often clumsy:Electricity lit up Ponyboy's skeletal structure as if it were a pinball machine on a multi-ball extravaganza, and the mingling odors of brimstone and sulfur and sweat and burning skin filled Ponyboy's nostrils.But I'm not convinced that Beautiful Children doesn't sometimes stumble into a kind of Dreiserian grandeur. And, as I learned from Charles McGrath's profile of the author, Bock came to writing rather late; his sentences may, with time, mellow into eloquence. Likewise, his gift for warping narrative time into audacious shapes seems to hint at better novels to come. On the strength of word-of-mouth, this one could have found a respectable natural audience: seventeen-year-olds eager to hear their melancholy reaffirmed, explicitly. But now, through the good offices of Random House et al, the woeful tale of Newell Ewing will have to contend with the expectations of a much larger group of readers...at least one of whom holds out hope that Bock's bestseller status won't blind him to the need to work harder to satisfy those expectations. That might be an actual tragedy.
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When I was a child, I developed a set of deliciously painful fantasies to reach for whenever my life felt stifling: running away, contracting a wasting illness, being orphaned (or kidnapped) and raised by disciplinarian ninjas. One of the most potent dreams involved becoming a latchkey kid, free after school hours to move around the city on my own dubious recognizance. I grew up in the suburbs, so my notions of “the city” were vague, but I supposed that I would live by my wits, sneaking through back-alley shortcuts and shoplifting candy bars when the need was great. In Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari is a near-perfect stand-in for the scamp of my childhood dreams. She makes her own breakfast and escorts herself home at the end of the day; she knows swears. But her world is more fraught and dangerous than the one I had in mind. For one thing, her mother is dead, and, unlike the sympathetic thugs from my fantasy (who always showed up in the nick of time to grab my hand and tell me to run), the adults who remain in her life don’t follow her around to keep her safe. They each stay in their place, and she skips between them like a stone. Some of Bertino’s characters are more stuck than others. For instance: Lorca, the owner of the titular club, who spends most of the book trying to keep his business running in the face of blatant city code violations. Or Mrs. Santiago, the deli owner who feeds Madeleine and asks about her day: she provides a necessary stability for the girl, but seems so fixed in her routine that she won’t even chase her dog (the marvelous Pedro) during his frequent bids for freedom. But what’s enchanting is the way that most everyone – no matter how fixed at the story’s outset – is moving towards the same sublime adolescent freedom as Madeleine. It’s our privilege as readers to not just witness this mass unfettering, but to share in it: we feel the new lightness in each character’s step. Sarina Greene – Madeleine’s schoolteacher – is the clearest example: she starts off woebegone, still wearing her high-school-era discontents and sitting silently in the corner at a Christmas party. Soon, though, she’s chasing her new paramour through ice-cold fountains, making snap decisions, having fun. And so are we. As we follow the antic momentum towards the Cat’s Pajamas (and, we assume, the hour of 2 A.M.), the book shimmers with pratfalls and wit, feeling at once real-to-life and larger-than. Not everyone is perfectly happy: Madeleine – an aspiring jazz singer – discovers the club and decides to make her way there, but despite her age and her Puckish quest, she’s not innocent. Her father, locked away in his grief, sleeps in their apartment like an ogre underneath a bridge; caustic and dangerous when startled awake. (He’s also the one exception, so far as we see, to the rule of stuck characters breaking loose.) Still, it’s his alienation that gives Madeleine the leeway she needs to step out into the evening and play her part. And this seems to be another loose rule of the book: no redemption without suffering. Fair enough. One question: is it possible for a group of characters to be too charismatic? If so, that was my only real objection to Bertino’s novel. The cast is large, and many more than our three major players (Madeleine, Sarina, and Lorca) take over as point-of-view characters for a page or two. Quite rightly, Bertino lets most of these personalities fall to the wayside so her plot can progress, but a few stuck in my mind long past their expiration dates: Clare Kelly – Madeleine’s nemesis – for example, is such a delicious brat that I couldn’t help but want more time with her. I also snagged on the suggestion of a parallel between Madeleine’s competition with Clare and her mother’s long-ago rivalry with a woman we know as Principal Randles (who expels Madeleine from elementary school, seemingly to get back at her mother for being too pretty), but the connection goes largely unexplored. It’s fair to say, though, that all this really points out is that Bertino draws rich and real human beings with enviably few strokes of the pen. Instead of feeling overcrowded, the book feels lively, with the jostling energy of…well, a club. It’s packed. You might elbow someone to get to your table. But in the end you don’t really mind, because those electric connections are part of the fun.