The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

March 28th, 2009 at 1:05 pm

The White Tiger

I have always sarcastically insisted that in order to achieve any degree of satisfaction, one must lower their standards.

Ignorance is the shortest path to enlightenment.

That is why I did not like The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. My expectations were too high.

The White Tiger won the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

It has been extolled with words like “blistering,” “arresting,” “compelling,” “riveting,” “coruscating,” “Chuck Palahniuk-style,” “Nanny Diaries ironic insider’s look,” and “dazzling.” In fact, the first 7½ pages of the paperback edition I borrowed from the local library were smeared with blurbs.

Am I the only one who hates books prefaced with masturbatory quotes? Who reads book reviews anyway? Losers. Not to mention that The White Tiger comes with a Reading Group Guide and Author Q&A. Blah.

Because of all the acclaim, my standards had been raised. I was expecting to like The White Tiger too.

But I didn’t.

It seems to me that one who would laud this book with all the praise that it has received would need to be significantly naïve and unimaginative.

Individuals, government and businesses are corrupt in India? No way! You mean India is not actually like our conception of it colored by stereotypes of Bollywood, saffron, saris, and yogis?

(When someone says “Indian,” am I the only one who clarifies, “Dot or feather?”)

Who thought India was a magic happy land in the first place? Who actually thought that other countries didn’t also struggle with issues of race and class and family and love and resentment and money and greed? How is The White Tiger groundbreaking? How can we praise this as fresh and bold? Are we really all that clueless?

Not to mention that The White Tiger is written at an eighth grade reading level.

The White Tiger does, however, redeem itself by successfully illuminating a sentiment I can get behind:

“Standing around books, even books in a foreign language, you feel a kind of electricity buzzing up toward you, Your Excellency. It just happens, the way you get erect around girls wearing tight jeans.”

Reading is Sexy.

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie

March 15th, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Why did I read this book?

We’ve all heard of it. But none of us have ever really read it.

And I know why. It was originally published in 1936. How can it possibly be relevant in 2009?

Plus these types of advice, self-help, new-agey textbooks reek of banal, trite, clichéd, stereotypical drivel. We’re too good for that. They seem a little cheesy at least. They’re all like The Secret, right?

We don’t want to sip on watered down hotel iced tea and listen to Zig Ziglar. We want to take a toke of a high-grade sativa strain and listen to some Creedence tapes!

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Regardless of my skepticism and cynicism, I found How to Win Friends and Influence People to be extremely applicable and relevant.

First of all, a note on the title: “How to Win Friends” is not accurate. It’s not at all about winning friends in the sense that we modern youths would consider a friend. Carnegie seems “how to win friends” to mean the “accumulation of calculated, beneficial relationships.”

I feel very strongly that “friends” are the people we can be dicks to, the people we can get drunk with, yell at, act stupid, and not have to worry about the third of six ways to make people like you (remember their name). Everyone else? Everyone else you’re actually nice to (bosses, co-workers, certain family members, people you pass on the street) are not friends. Friends are the people you can tell to fuck off and they’ll still drive you to the airport at 6am the next day. This book is how to deal with everyone else with seemingly-obvious principles such as smile, be a good listener, talk in terms of other people’s interests, and make the other person feel important.

So friends, not so much. But how to influence people, yes.

Carnegie’s seminal work is packed full of anecdotal evidence illuminating the principle of each chapter and reinforced with a healthy peppering of Emerson quotes:

“Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that, I learn of him.”

Though written in 1936, HTWFAIF is refreshingly relevant in a modern age marked by the dichotomy between incredible scientific accomplishments, brilliant discoveries, understanding, knowledge, curiosity, but yet a stunted ability to talk and peacefully coexist with those we disagree.

Take, for instance, Carnegie’s encouragement to dramatize your intentions in order for them to be recognized and accepted:

“This is the day of dramatization. Merely stating a truth isn’t enough. The truth has to be made vivid, interesting, dramatic. You have to use showmanship. The movies do it. Television does it. And you will have to do it if you want attention.”

And on the eighth day, God created cable news.

Carnegie thwarts our skepticism about the nobility of his intentions and promises that he is no self-help scammer; a Kevin Trudeau, Carnegie promises, he is not:

“The principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks. I am talking about a new way of life.”

And for the most part, I have to agree with Carnegie. I like this book. Its advice and suggestions are totally useful and effective. We tend to consider ourselves living in grim times, what with the wars, crumbling economy, job losses, and uncertain future, why not have a little possitivity and engaged enthusiasm for our fellow man?

And Carnegie even foretold a danger in our current time. He warns us of Obama:

“The ability to speak is a shortcut to distinction. It puts a person in the limelight, raises one head and shoulders above the crowd. And the person who can speak acceptably is usually given credit for an ability out of all proportion to what he or she really possesses.”

Uh oh.

Stop Me if You’ve Heard This by Jim Holt

March 9th, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Did you hear the one about the joke book?

Is it funny?

Not really. It’s not a book of jokes. Rather a book about jokes. History and Philosophy. Well, there are a few jokes in it. But that’s not the point.

I don’t get it.

Stop Me If You've Heard This by Jim Holt

The most obvious criticism one could make about Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes by Jim Holt is that it is too short. In the preface, Holt admits that, “Some readers will consider it exiguous, but to me it is much of a muchness, and that is more than enough.”

(How does an author decide between writing a preface, introduction, or prologue? Jim Holt went for a preface with this book, but I think I would have preferred an introduction.)

The second most obvious criticism one could make about Stop Me if You’ve Heard This is that it makes no mention of The Aristocrats, that bizarrely delightful documentary consisting of nothing more than comedians telling the same joke. It’s a glaring omission in a book about jokes. The Aristocrats stands as a hilarious deconstruction and love song to the Modern Joke, an ever-changing art that has evolved to a state in which how has taken precedence over what. (Thus The Aristocrats Executive Producer Penn Jillette’s comparison of stand-up comedy to jazz music.) Holt was handed a case study in his topic and for whatever reason, decided it did not apply.

I know jokes are the forest and stand-up is a prominent thicket of trees. And Jim, I know you work for The New Yorker and I’m just a blogger and your author photo has you looking very professorial and writerly, and my WordPress profile pic has me looking like a Hunter S. Thompson wannabe, but I really was expecting a bit more. Despite your much muchness.

Jokes, those splinters that build comedy, deserve much more. I wanted more Bruce, more Pryor, more Carlin. You could go back to Twain. Gimme gimme gimme. And yes, you went back to the ancients and what not. But gimme gimme gimme!

Ultimately, there’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t pick up and read Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. Grab it from the library. Borrow a copy from a friend. Read it on your iPhone. Download it to your Kindle. Pick it up in a few months from the bargain bin. Ah hell, buy it.

But whatever you do, pay special close attention if some Holt guy publishes a big book about jokes. It’ll be good. He’s on to something. It’s a worthy, fascinating story.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

March 4th, 2009 at 12:00 pm

I just finished a 474-page book about rabbits.


This is why I love books. I am absolutely giddy just thinking about the fact that there is a book, a 474-page book, about rabbits.

And it’s goddamn good!Watership Down by Richard Adams

I once read a 116-page book about farm animals, a 1008-page book about hobbits, and I even once managed to complete a 1,418-page book about airplanes (but that was a coloring book).

But this was my first 474 pages of rabbits. Watership Down is extraordinarily imaginative, well written with a steady, suspenseful plot, and a cast of furry, cabbage-loving bunnies. It is epic in scale and contains some of the best descriptions of nature that I have ever read. It’s Lord of the Rings and Dickens. With rabbits.

My family had a pet rabbit for a very brief period of my early childhood. My sister was found to be deathly allergic to all things lapin. So when Tea Taffy inadvertently pissed in my father’s mouth during a routine cage cleaning, the bunny was quickly liberated. My sister and I were led to believe that Tea Taffy ran away.

Watership Down. Have you heard of this book? Read it? High School was supposed to be the time for that, white rabbits or other. But who are we kidding? You and I spent high school at marching band practice or sucking up to the English teacher.

Who doesn’t love bunnies?

Big Effing Rabbit

Though I am personally a little more partial to that sweater!

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

March 1st, 2009 at 2:18 pm

I have a passing interest in writers and writing.

Someday, I aspire to be an aspiring novelist.

And some days, the good days, my vanity and stubbornness subside enough so that I am open to advice and instruction.

So recently, on one of these rare days of clarity and calm, I picked up a copy of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

While  not as practical and straightforward as Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, nor Kundera’s Art of the Novel, nor even Wood’s How Fiction Works, Bird by Bird is far more enjoyable to read. It’s the writing guide for the budding scribbler looking for their writing advice to be translated to them by a moody, pessimistic Sarah Vowell who is absolutely hilarious and kind.

Lamott proves to be frankly blunt and honest about writing, limiting none of her acerbic sarcasm. She relates a story about a friend’s imaginary company whose business was having cats put to sleep; the slogan being “The pussy must pay.” Lamott encourages writers to let someone do this with their manuscripts.

Inbetween parables relating the act of writing to the act of executing family pets, Lamott peppers her memoir on writing with straightforward advice:

“To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care.”

“Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.”

At the very most, I will eventually write something. At the very least, I will have a few Lamott quotes up on my walls. Like this one:

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”