Sunday, April 24, 2011

Next week

Next week: Tina Fey's Bossypants.


SCHULTZ, HOWARD WITH JOANNE GORDON. Onward. New York: Rodale, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-60529-288-5. Pp. 350. $25.99.

There's a fad rippling through the American publishing industry. Remember when people used to walk around saying, "There is no way I'm reading an entire book about cod"? Or, "Is it really necessary to write the history of plastic bottles?" But nowadays, people are really into reading lengthy tomes encompassing the history, social and anthropological significances, and mythologies surrounding ordinary things. Mark Kurlansky may be the founding father, or at least the ringleader, of this fad. His books Cod and Salt are both hugely acclaimed. I just hope no one steals my idea to write the history of a grain of sand!

In a similar vein, I believe, is the corporate memoir, for which the reader chooses to spend more than twenty dollars and a dozen hours to read a long, and often repetitive, advertisement. Lucky for me, I went to college where a Starbucks was not within walking distance, and therefore I was like totally out of the loop during the coffee company's corporate hardships. As a consequence, much of Onwards was news to me. Of course it seems natural that a pricey coffee shop chain would suffer during the recession, but I didn't know, for example, that 600 stores were closed across the United States, or that they introduced a new brew called Pike's Place. I tried this magical drink for the first time on Friday. It was pretty good. It didn't have that trade-mark burnt taste, which Schultz attributes to the high quality of the bean, rather than to over-zealous roasting plants. I had my tall Pike's Place with a slice of berry coffee cake and a fruit cup. The cost was somewhere between seven and eight dollars. The fruit cup alone was $3.45, although that may have been due to the two slices of mango. How much does a mango cost anyway? But as I was saying, for less than a full meal, I paid for the full meal I could have gotten at the sandwich shop next door. Schultz may deny accusations of selling $4 lattes, but he's cutting it pretty damn close. The cost may also have been due to the faux-handwritten note on the paper bag in which the barista had put my cake. It was apologetic but also kind of mightier-than-thou. Hey Starbucks, what if I want my cake to be filled with artificial flavoring and preservatives? Now excuse me while I finish this Twinkie that I've sandwiched between two Snoballs.

Much of Schultz's work bemoans Starbucks's recent straying away from its rich heritage (shouldn't something be older than 40 to have heritage?) and his return as CEO (which, in Starbucks-speak, is ceo), during which he pulled his company from the brink with innovative coffee tastings and mass firings. I shouldn't actually make fun. I just found it strange to read about the day when 1,000 employees were fired in juxtaposition to the hiring of people from outside the company. And the chapter on the convention held in New Orleans in 2008 was genuinely moving. One of the organizers stayed in New Orleans a few days after the event and learned from a street vendor he was talking to that Starbucks had paid for this man's monthly mortgage. 10,000 employees had gathered in the city for the conference, during which each person was involved with five hours of community service. The amount they must have accomplished in a few days is mind-boggling. Of course, adding Bono to the mix kind of took the punch out of the whole thing, if you ask me.

I won't become a Starbucks regular, much as Schultz will take this personally. There's a cafe in the building attached to the one I work in. But I will say this: back when I worked in a bookstore in Brooklyn, I used to drink Starbucks coffee almost everyday. There was one right next door. Also, everyone who works at Starbucks is really nice. According to Schultz, one barista gave a kidney to a favorite customer. Now that's service. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Next week

Next week: Howard Schultz's Onward.

The Shadow of Your Smile

CLARK, MARY HIGGINS. The Shadow of Your Smile. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4391-7226-1. Pp. 319. $25.00.

Olivia Morrow. Clay Hadley. Monica Farrell. Ryan Jenner. Sally Carter. Sammy Barber. Douglas Langdon. Michael O'Keefe. The Gannons. These are the names of most of the characters in Mary Higgins Clark's thriller. I'm as surprised as you are. I had no idea New York City had such an exclusively Anglo-Saxon population. Of course, there is a driver/waiter named Garcia and a Polish cleaning lady named Rutkowski. Of course, who ever heard of a WASP driving a cab anyway? Although WASP isn't actually the right acronym I'm looking for, since everyone in New York City is Catholic. And takes a cab to work and back. And has a next door neighbor who's a retired detective.

I refrain from identifying this novel as a "mystery," if only because, like James Patterson's Swimsuit, there is no mystery. Unless the mystery is finding out how many people are going to get bumped off before the baddies get caught and face the consequences. I'll just go ahead and tell you now: 3. The conspiracy behind it all is an old-fashioned squabble over inheritance money that's already been squandered by the time the novel takes place. At the end of the novel, when the real heiress discovers that she is, in fact, an heiress, there's no money to inherit. Kind of anticlimactic, if you ask me. Of course, Clark's philosophy is that "blood is thicker than water" (i.e. adopted children aren't as lovable as one's own) and that only children are the saddest kind of children. The rightful heiress may not get any money, but at least she has a family now. Except that the family is murderously greedy. So I guess she doesn't really get anything. 

Maybe it goes without saying, but Mary Higgins Clark has an almost spectacular lack of imagination. I think it's been mathematically proven that the more books one writes, the less creative one is. I believe it was the great horror writer Garth Marenghi who famously said: "I've written more books than I've read". (Note: Garth Marenghi is not a real person.) For example, in The Shadow of Your Smile, Greg Gannon is a descendant of Alex Gannon, whose medical patents provided the family with a vast amount of wealth. Therefore, Greg Gannon is married to Pamela, who likes jewelry, wears "breathtakingly expensive perfume," and is often mistaken for Catherine Zeta-Jones. We all already know that it's a cheap trick to describe a character in a novel in comparison to a celebrity. But to compare a character to a celebrity who also happens to have played the role of said character (see Zeta-Jones in "Intolerable Cruelty") is pushing the limits of banality. It might not even be worth mentioning that Pamela is a cliched stereotype to begin with.

My other bone that needs picking is Clark's use of frequent and drawn out inner-monologues, from which I've learned that people think very deliberately, and in complete sentences. For example, Monica Farrell, the novel's heroine, has escaped being assassinated once, and is also falling puritanically in love with a fellow doctor, Ryan Jenner. Her inner-workings: "Ryan may call at anytime...I'll keep both phones right next to me and close my eyes. I don't think I'll fall asleep, but if I do I just can't miss his call. I need him". Monica isn't the only one who thinks in whole sentences; these dully drawn out personal musings are everywhere, unnecessary and tedious. Not unlike this book.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Next week

Took the week off to work on another project. Next week: Mary Higgins Clark's The Shadow of your Smile".

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Social Animal

BROOKS, DAVID. The Social Animal. New York: Random House, 2011. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6760-2. Pp. 424. $27.00.

On a personal note, I learned from reading David Brooks's The Social Animal that I am living with some kind of psychopath. Earlier this afternoon, during a last-minute reading frenzy to finish the book, I read this paragraph: "Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia provides example after example of this sort of instant moral intuition in action. Imagine a man who buys a chicken from the grocery store, manages to bring himself to orgasm by penetrating it, then cooks and eats the chicken. Imagine eating your dead pet dog. Imagine cleaning your toilet with your nation's flag. Imagine a brother and sister who are on a trip. One night they decide to have protected sex with each other. They enjoy it but decide never to do it again...most people have strong intuitive (and negative) reactions to these scenarios". I read each example with the "natural" reaction of disgust. Except for the one about using a flag to clean my toilet. I honestly see no problem with that. So I said to Koch, "Can you believe this guy compares eating your dead pet dog to cleaning your toilet with the American flag?" To which Koch replied, in earnest, "Yeah! That's preposterous! I don't see anything wrong with eating my dead pet dog." To which I shrieked, "What the hell is wrong with you?" Then I listed the other examples (sex with chicken, incest). To which Koch, who doesn't have a sister, said, "Well, if the brother and sister are into each other and rape isn't involved, what's the big deal?" At which point I think I must have lost consciousness. When I awoke, Koch had prepared a delicious meal of some exotic meat. On an unrelated note, I haven't seen my cat Claudius since this morning...

David Brooks's new book is hard to describe. He claims to have borrowed Jean-Jacques Rousseau's method for writing his work Emile, which employed hypothetical characters in a manual on education. I haven't read Emile, so I don't know to what lengths Brooks's piece emulates this earlier work, but I can't imagine The Social Animal enduring quite as long as its model. Perhaps because this isn't an out-and-out novel, The Social Animal will become dated almost immediately, given that the entire thing is based in the immediate, early twenty-first century present, even as the narrative spans several generations. This is probably a useful trope in describing all the current social stimuli that play a part in our lives, but its heavy reliance on research (psychological, economic, social) means that this piece would potentially need to be updated every few years or so to remain current.

Which isn't to say that this isn't a fascinating study on (strictly American) social trends. Brooks covers most bases, including having one of his two lead characters become an aide to a presidential candidate (and eventual president) in order to explain voter trends. My main problem is that Harold and Erica, the two main players, are only developed to a certain point. Once they reach college and graduate school, Brooks no longer treats them as people. His keenest interest in his subjects endures from the mapping of their disparate childhoods to young adulthood. Then he loses interest, moving away from them as players, and leaning more and more heavily on the hundreds of studies cited in this book. Fortunately, Brooks is incredibly good at recapitulating research, and while Harold and Erica become less dynamic, the author deftly manages to compensate this one deflation by the zest he uses in describing research studies. Such as, did you know that if you remind an Asian American woman that she is Asian American, she will do better on a math test? But if you remind her that she is a woman she will do worse? Or that Southern states are twice as likely to have the word "gun" in the name of a town, and that Northern states are twice as likely to have the word "joy"? Similarly, Southern men experience an aggressive hormonal surge when you bump into them in the street. Northern men don't.

The problem that eventually arises from this book is the amount of success both Harold and Erica experience. Erica comes from an unstable background: Hers are a bipolar Asian mother and an inconsistently present Mexican father, neither of whom are terribly good at holding down a job. Erica's childhood housing and economic status vacillates between lower-middle-class and poverty, but she manages to overcome these setbacks and eventually marries Harold, a white, upper-middle-class male, and becomes the organizer of a successful presidential campaign that leads to tenure in the White House. Before her success, Brooks spends an acceptable amount of time on the failure of her parents, but once Erica goes off to college, failure is never really touched upon again. Although the consulting company Erica founded eventually went under, she got a job as a higher-up at a cable company, eventually becoming CEO. According to Brooks, all failures are just stepping stones on the road to success. Somehow this seems a little unrealistic, given that earlier on in the book, the author was contemplating the causes and effects of poverty in the United States. People fail. Just not as much in Brooks's hypothetical world. As he says in the introduction: "This is the happiest story you've ever read." Not so, though it is one of the most optimistic.