Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Poring over POUR YOUR HEART INTO IT: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time

By: Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang
Where: N-train
Who was reading: A mild-mannered Sara Crewe type with a tidy blue pea coat, bottle green galoshes crossed daintily at the ankles, and the face of a porcelain doll.
Printed on the book was: Property of the Hoboken Public Library.
Property, eh? I remember back before there was property (this is a bald-faced lie), before the enclosure movement, when words sprang forth unhindered like wild blackberries in the common fields. Their bounty was free to be enjoyed by lowly peasants and feudal lords alike.
Then the capitalists came... and after they had slain all the diggers, they appropriated the common land for themselves, and bound it with fences so that it was accessible only to a privileged few. But it didn’t end with land. Oh no. Suddenly all our best resources had to be divvied up into wee packages, stamped as commercial goods and sold for a hefty premium. Bread was portioned into slices (which was actually a pretty good idea in retrospect…), words were forced into constrictive narrative arcs under the savage whips of editors, then sold in inky little rectangles called “books”, and vast urns of coffee were emptied into scores of identical cardboard cups that would go on to sell for upwards of 4 bucks a pop at Starbucks.
Starbucks? Hey—that’s what this book is about! Cool, right?
To learn more about how the privileged few converted the blood, sweat and tears of working men and women into sparkly gold coins, read Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Spotted: Stolen Lives: 20 Years in a Desert Jail by Malika Oufkir and Michele Fitoussi

Not to be confused with: Stollen Loaves: 20 Years in a Dessert Jail which is kind of an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel only longer and, ultimately, fatter.
Where: N-train
Who was reading: A young woman with dark circles under her eyes and a harried look about her. The flared cuffs of her jeans tumbled like heavy drapes over silver sneakers.
Barnes and Noble sez: On August 15th, 1972, Malika Oufkir was probably the most privileged teenager in all Morocco. The eldest daughter of King Hassan II's top aide, she had been raised in the opulent seclusion of the monarch's harem. But within 24 hours, her father would be tried and summarily executed for treason, and she and her entire family would be arrested and imprisoned in a remote desert penal colony. For the next 20 years, her accommodations would only grow worse.”
Ok, so I’m sure what happened to the author was really bad and all, but… It sort of bothers me that this particular story garnered so much attention simply because it happened to a child of the leisure class. Alright, it really bothers me. Must a tale of injustice involve rich pretty people before we the book-buying public deign to care? And at the end of the day, what do we take away from such a sensationalistic story? It’s an isolated incident that sucked for a handful of people, but it doesn’t have wide-ranging implications for society and it doesn’t call attention to any particular wrong in need of being righted.
If you want to hear about how prisons suck, why not read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander? Did you know that more black men are currently incarcerated in America than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began? That’s fucked up. And it’s happening right now on a large scale. It’s also an issue we can do something about. And to me, that makes Ms. Alexander's book 100 times more worthy of being read than Ms Oufkir’s. It doesn’t just give the reader a fleeting sense of smug good samaritanship—that vacuous “I just concentrated on a serious issue” feeling you occasionally get when you listen to NPR. It gives them the opportunity to stand up for something and potentially make a difference.
Also? It's worth noting that Malika Oufkir’s father did stage a coup and try to kill the king. Of course his family didn’t deserve to be punished, and in my opinion, the death penalty is always unethical, but it’s not like he was 100% innocent.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Q is for Queasy

Prior to hopping on the train this morning, I purchased an iced coffee at a local cafĂ©, thinking it would wake me up for work. Instead, the chilled liquid immediately started roiling like acid sludge in my belly, threatening to come up in waves. And the jerky movements of the train weren’t helping any. It was dreadful. More dreadful still, there was no place to dispose of my beverage, so I had to hold the sweating plastic vessel for the entire ride watching it’s contents slosh around in a gross imitation of what was happening in my stomach.

Now I’m an able-bodied person still in the bloom of youth, so most days I’m happy to stand up and let others take what seats are available. But today it was my greatest wish to sit calmly, set the coffee cup down between my knees and let the acid tides recede. Imagine my delight, then, when the train started to slow at Atlantic/Pacific, and the person right in front of me (a middle-aged man rocking Men’s Warehouse) lifted his backpack as if preparing to get up. Oh frabjous day! The doors slid open, and… and... he just sat there. False alarm. I sighed in resignation while the acid sludge tossed more angrily than before.

The man picked up a book that had been sitting off to the side, but it was nothing interesting, some workbook-y paperback textbook like “Microeconomics for Manchildren” or what have you. In cases like this where the reader matches the book too closely I often lose interest. It would have been more intriguing if he’d been reading that revamped Bella and Edward edition of Wuthering Heights, for example. Anyway, the train once more started to slow, and this time, the man not only picked up his backpack, he closed the book with what I perceived to be an air of finality and slipped it inside, zippering the pocket behind it. Was ever there a surer sign of getting off? He held the pack on his lap and looked purposefully at the door, while I looked purposefully at him. The train stopped in a series of shuddering jolts, each one heightening my anticipation of the upcoming seat vacancy. But when the full stop came, the man remained firmly rooted to the bench. Wtf? I think Lewis Carroll would agree that this was not frabjous at all! He went through this same routine at every single stop as the train rumbled and jerked its way over the Manhattan Bridge and up towards Midtown. By the time the he got up to leave, I was two stops from work and thoroughly nauseated.

Now at first glance it might seem like this is a rambling string of complaints about nausea and public transportation etiquette—but it’s not. This is a rambling string of complaints about motion sickness: the feeling you get on a moving train when no one is reading. Because the very worst part of this morning’s commute—worse than the coffee and the standing and the hopes dashed to smithereens over and over again—was the fact that aside from Mr. Backpack, the train was scarily devoid of books and readers.

I would have been reading, if only I had a seat.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why Books Make Us Mad: a top 10 list (part 2)

Yesterday we examined a vitriolic comment from this very blog and discussed some of the top reasons why books can cause their readers to experience unpleasant emotions. And you can bet your best bonnet that Ayn Rand was mentioned. Today, we continue that list, with less Rand but more rant.

6. It's not nearly as funny as it thinks it is: One of the most grating books I've ever picked up was Christopher Moore's Lamb, a light-hearted retelling of Jesus' life that relies almost entirely on hackneyed, toothless jokes. I didn't mind Moore's irreverent approach to religion. What got under my skin was the humor, which couldn't have been safer or more predictable. Ho ho, someone said "wanker"! Oh man, they did the thing where a character is like "No WAY will I ever do X. Not in this life, buddy." And then in the next scene they're TOTALLY DOING X. "The King of Queens" tries harder than this.
7. It tries way too hard to impress you with smarts: If the author keeps name-checking philosophers and Great Canonical Writers and using five-dollar words when there's no need. That's usually a sign that there's nothing else there. A variation of this is when the author tries to go all brainy-punk and combines coarse vernacular with academic language, so we have "fucking faggot-ass reconstructivists" and "Carolingian as shit." Nobody talks like this in real life.
8. It’s like everything else: “So, yeah… I’m a white dude living in Brooklyn. I have this novel and it’s sort of about isolation and stuff. Stuff like yearning. And how women don’t understand me. In Brooklyn.” A handful of disaffected musings about the banalities of day-to-day life in an urban setting do not the next Ulysses make. Generally speaking, this kind of stuff makes the reader sleepy, not angry. But it CAN make the reader angry, IF…
9. It’s totally overrated: “Chabonathan Safran Auster’s latest unreliably-narrated nonsequential memoir in verse is an unputdownable tour de force of wry, but shockingly honest, compellingness.” —The Adulation Press
I’m not entirely certain what it’s about, but I instinctively dislike this book already. Problem is, my friends are reading it, so now I have to too if I want to be able to participate in conversations with them. Of course, the added element of duress is doing nothing to alleviate my previously existing disinclination to like, but whatever, I’ll just read it really fast and get over—hey wait a minute, is this a new narrator or just some weird drug sequence? Now I’m confused. And I feel like a failure. Curse you, book! You did this to me. Curse you and your sequels. And your sequels’ sequels!
10. It doesn't believe in anything: One of the problems with "South Park" is that its creators will wade into some hot-button debate, make fun of everyone and their strong feelings, and then back out, leaving a mouthpiece character like Stan to say, in effect, "You're all giant babies and the only intelligent response to this problem is to not care about it." Caring about things doesn't make people weak or foolish; it just makes them people. This is less a problem with books, since writing a book is a big pain-in-the-ass undertaking and you probably won't try it if you don't actually have something to say, but it pops up sometimes in prankish, intellectually posturing works like those of Mark Leyner or Tao Lin. (No offense...)

Well, that wraps up our list. Once again, thanks to my DC correspondent for his contributions, and I encourage one and all to chime in with quibbles of their own. In closing I'd like to say that while I may be critical from time to time (and more so than usual in this post) I love all books--especially the ones that make me mad.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Books Make Us Mad: a top-10 list (part 1)

A few weeks ago, an anonymous commenter wrote the following in response to a blog post I had written about Ellen Raskin:
“i would never have know about Raskin of i didn't have a book report of "The Westing Game" bitch!!! fuck her!!!” [sic]
I was personally taken aback by this expression of vitriol, and for a moment, considered playing censor and removing the comment. But then I got to thinking: while it’s in poor taste to attack an author because you dislike what they have written, anger is a perfectly valid reaction to a text. I can recall a few times when books have made me really and truly livid, as I’m sure most of us can if we rack our brains.

So what is it about books that can get people so steamed? Here are a few ideas pertaining to fiction specifically.

1. Reading Under Duress: It is a scientific fact that necessity diminishes enjoyment. Ancient cavemen did not go hiking and fishing for fun as we do today, they were obligated to do these things for survival and I’m sure they hated every minute of it. It’s the same with books. When I meet someone who loathes Dickens, it usually turns out that they had to read him in school—not unlike our angry commenter. Because the commenter read this perfectly delightful book in the context of a school assignment, he/she was predisposed to see it as a burden rather than a source of glee. As such, the reader probably spent the entire book nursing a steadily growing resentment rather than learning something new or allowing him/herself to get swept up in the plot.
2. The characters are unlikable/unrelatable. Nothing draws the ire of readers like bad characters, but characters can suck in more ways than one. Some characters are boring and whiney and you want to see them fail; some are underdeveloped and shallow, and who cares?; some are downright dastardly and you know that their success will occasion suffering for others. Now don’t get me wrong, evil characters can be fun and interesting, but they’re fun and interesting largely because of how much you hate them. A friend of mine claims that when she read The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, the deceitful ways of its eponymous anti-heroine actually caused her to throw the book across the room—this is anger at its most fun.
Kenneth "Anger" Anger: reader and author
People hate bland characters, too, but it’s not as enjoyable as with villains. The blands tend to leave you seething quietly, rather than raging around breaking anything that isn’t nailed down. Sometimes you don’t even know how much you dislike a boring character until you meet someone else who’s read the book and the two of you tease it out in conversation.
3. The characters are likable, but they constantly make terrible decisions: No! Don’t open that spooky-looking door! Remember the warning from the old crone? “Venture not past shadow’d gate?”—Wait, no. NOoooooooo!
     It bears mentioning that likable characters who make bad decisions often become unlikable characters as the book progresses.
4. It flattens entire categories of people: All the men are smug dicks, or all the women are clingy psycho bitches. Every poor person is either venal and resentful or a dirt-smudged saint. Every black person is hip and easygoing, or else they're an Angry Black Person with right on their side. I was going to try and keep this balanced, but let's be real here: most of the time when this flattening happens, it's in a book written by a white dude, and it's affecting a category of person other than white dudes. White straight dudes. Women get it worst in most of the fiction I read, but I'm not sure that means they have it empirically worst; it may just be that authors (=bookish white straight dudes) spend more time brooding over loving/hating women than any particular racial or ethnic or sexual minority.
5. The author is clearly using fiction to manipulate people into adopting their own evil worldview: I’m sure Ayn Rand isn’t the only author who does this, but no one else immediately comes to mind.

Well that's 5 points down, and 5 more to come tomorrow when this little haterade cocktail hour  recommences. In the meantime, a special thank you to my DC correspondent for collaborating on the list.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Spotted: Dungeons and Dragons Eberron Campaign Guide

*Title ctd. A Fourth Edition D&D Suplement
Where: N-train
Who was reading? A fair-skinned pencil pusher wearing a mildly professorial jacket of indeterminate fabric--some mind-boggling variation on plaid tweed that seemed to involve corduroy or possibly even velour. 
His manner and appearance were reminiscent of a young Severus Snape. Circa James Potter's reign of terror at Hogwarts.
The book was opened to: a map of Karrnath, but his eyes spent more time flickering about the car than focusing on the page.
Which begs the question: Why would you run the risk of being seen reading such a potentially embarrassing book in public, only to NOT read it?
From the publisher: "Featuring all of the character elements from the core rulebooks, this updated version of the Eberron world is a must for any gamer that likes the magic-as-technology, film noir, high-adventure campaign setting that was chosen from over 15,000 game submissions."
This one was a near miss for me. While I'm a huge fan fan of magic-as-technology and film noir-based gaming, I absolutely insist that my high-adventure campaign settings be chosen from a submissions pool of 16,000 or higher.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Spotted: The Instructions by Adam Levin

Not to be confused with… Adam Levine: Singer from a band with one big hit that nobody remembers (like Semisonic minus the awesome) and celebrity judge on NBC’s new American Idol ripoff.
3 different covers for the same edition? How cool is that?!
Where: N-train
Who was reading: A man in his 30s with rain-dampened hair and a rather boastful jacket that said: Iron Man 2008 FINISHER—in case you were wondering whether he started the race and then got bored partway through.
Boastful, yes, but informative too! The jacket also listed the exact distances of each leg of this grueling triathlon (Swim 2.4 miles, Bike 112 miles, Run 26.2 miles). As a result, I will never enter an Iron Man competition under the mistaken impression that finishing is humanly possible. Jacket be-damned!
Anyway, this book is an Iron Man Competition in it's own rite, clocking in at 1000 pages! 1000 pages? Heavens to Murgatroyd! 
The Onion's A.V. Club euphemizes its length, saying "The Instructions bears the mark of Infinite Jest in its maximalist style. . . like David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Instructions falls into digressions, but with a poignancy that steals over the hyperverbal frenzy without warning." 
Hyperverbal frenzy? Ok, but I think what we're all really wondering is: Does the reader use it to do bicep curls when he’s resting his eyes?
This is precisely how... I used to pass my time when I worked the circulation desk at my local library. Only instead of a hip new novel from McSweeneys, I used an out-dated Portuguese dictionary and emitted guttural Brazilian swears whenever I really felt the burn. Come to think of it, this is the one kind of "book burning" I advocate.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spotted: The Five Love Languages--SINGLES EDITION! by Gary Chapman

Where: Q-train
Who was reading: A woman in a dingy olive trench coat and textured linen suit, with limp, straightened hair glued right to her scalp. Her face was so bright and youthful peeking out of this drab costume that it resembled a rosebud emerging from a dead mass of vines.
And metaphorical flowers weren't the only thing blossoming on the train-car... love was in bloom too. The woman cast more than a couple longing glances at a fellow reader standing in the aisle.
Tall dark and handsome, the beige-sweatered object of her affections was scrolling through the news on his iphone. The type on his screen was set extremely large and you know what they say about men with large typefaces....
Unfortunately, he either failed to notice, or made the conscious decision to spurn her ocular advances.
More on this in the sequel to Chapman's book: The Five-Hundred Dialects of Scorn
Random Pet Peeve: While the text-resizing feature on e-readers is useful, I kind of prefer when things are unnecessarily difficult. Like with analog and garter belts. Is there a love language for people who think like this?