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LitMonkey – April 2014

March 31, 2014

LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way.  It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.”  This is the seventeenth installment.  Enjoy!

Books I Read:

Books I Purchased:

Books I Borrowed from the Library:

  • “See A Little Light” (ebook)
  • “Ladies and Gentlemen”
  • “This Will Make You Smarter” (ebook)
  • “Lying”

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It’s been several weeks since I finished reading Bob Mould’s autobiography, See a Little Light, and still I don’t know what to make of it. Here is one of indie music’s all-time greatest rockers, the lead of not one but two excellent bands (Hüsker Dü and Sugar), a man who still makes good music now well into his 50s … and two-thirds of the way through the book I was convinced that this was the single most boring rock biography that it would be possible to write. Mould takes pride in (some of) the music created as Hüsker Dü – and he certainly takes credit for all of it – but he writes about music as if it was his profession, not his passion. I started off feeling that he’d have been better suited to be an accountant or an engineer and just chose music because it was something he was good at. I want to use the word “sellout” but even that isn’t right – how can you be a sellout when you never had any convictions to begin with? When Hüsker Dü jumped from an indie to a major record label Mould needed no prodding from the label to become corporate-ized. For example, he took it upon himself, at his own initiative, to have “briefings” with his bandmates about the press and “stay[ing] on course.” Later on he talks about how Hüsker Dü “worked hard for years to build our brand.” I was reading the autobiography of a marketing executive posing as an indie rock god! It’s actually hard to say that the book itself was boring; what was boring was Mould himself.

Through the first solo years and the Sugar years (by which time Mould had also stopped drinking) things did not get any better. Suddenly though, as Mould’s life turned around, so did his autobiography. Mould learns how to be a gay man in New York City – not just how to be out as a homosexual, but how to live what he came to see as the gay NYC lifestyle. With that, we have the beginning of a fascinating life journey. At one point he writes, “Here I am in the West Village at the age of thirty-eight, finally experiencing and learning this stuff. I felt like Rip Van Winkle – I’d been asleep for years.” It’s startling how accurate that quote is. The sleepiness was well established through the first 2/3 of the book and for the rest of the way, Mould would be alive. This coincided with his discovery of electronica, which seems to be the one genre of music he is truly passionate about. From there Mould meets a new boyfriend, moves to D.C., puts out more records, starts a dance club, gets involved in professional wrestling … he packs a lot of life into the post-2002 years. As he does so he comes to certain realizations about his past: his childhood, the music he made in his youth, the friends and boyfriends and bandmates he had – miraculously, Mould turns a lost book into a very interesting memoir.

Now that I’ve written this review, I still don’t know what to make of the book. Compared to recent musician autobiographies that I’ve read, it lacks the passion of Morrissey’s Autobiography, and the earnestness and humor of Peter Hook’s Unknown Pleasures. I don’t know if Mould was holding back or if this is all he had to give. Huge fans of the man may want to read it (though risk having your hero turned into something you didn’t expect). Everyone else may want to find a more interesting subject.

One far more interesting subject is Rayya Elias, who made her literary debut last year with her memoir Harley Loco. Reading this memoir one thing is apparent: If there is something in this world that could happen to anyone, it could happen to Elias. Flee your homeland for a foreign country? Check. Flee your parents’ home for a new life? Check. Lesbianism, bisexuality, and even a three-person “marriage”? Check. Homelessness, professional success, heroin addiction, stint at Rikers Island prison? Check Check Check Check. Some people’s lives are too interesting not to be written down for the world to see; Elias is one of those people.

Elias obviously does many things well. You can tell that she is the kind of person that others gravitate towards for her charm and artistry. She is smart, a talented musician, and apparently a world-class hairdresser. She isn’t the world’s best storyteller – which detracts a bit from the book –though some of the blame likely goes to the fact that with all the hard drugs she did her memory of the events that transpired faded, if they were ever quite there. You’re left wondering whether Elias wouldn’t have been better off telling her story to someone else who could have helped the reader live and breath it, rather than just imagine it.

Despite this limitation, it’s clear that her journey through life has been extraordinary; reading it was an eye-opening experience. And while extraordinary, you can appreciate that there are others who have probably had similar experiences (maybe not all of them, but some subset), either as an outcast in society or as a rebel or a junkie or even a hairdresser, and may see themselves in her story. It’s both unbelievable and completely believable. After everything that she’s been through, Elias understands that too. She knows she is unique in having had these experiences, but maybe not as different from the rest of the world as she thought in her youth. She sums it up with this, a thought I suspect many of us have had some variation of:

For as long as I could remember, I had tried to do everything I could in order to feel something other than pain, insecurity, and humiliation, as well as wanting to do something to distinguish myself. I had always felt I was unique, and that I’d be one of the “chosen” ones – someone who could hone my talents and be accepted and admired and loved. But now, I realized, the legend existed only in my head. I was a regular girl, or worse; I was a junkie and a fuckup.

Elias, unlike Mould, isn’t a legendary singer-songwriter. She’s just a “regular girl.” As such, she doesn’t have the flair for storytelling that Mould does. When all is said and done though, I’ll take Rayya’s account of a life less traveled than the better-told but more mundane story told by Mould.

Adam Ross’ Ladies and Gentlemen is a book of short – well, medium-length – stories. There are only seven stories in the 241 pages and each is rich in detail. I could easily imagine any of the seven having been used as the starting point for a full novel and am a bit surprised that Ross didn’t save some of his excellent material for that purpose. What most impressed me is that I was not for a single moment of my reading the least bit bored. Short story anthologies can be hit and miss; often the lack of development of the characters makes them too one-dimensional to care about. Ross doesn’t suffer from that at all. He launches full steam into each story and provides enough information to build a full character sketch, generally by keeping everything confined to a single narrator’s unwavering perspective. Unwavering, that is, often until the very end – the common thread among the seven stories is that each represents a defining moment in the narrator’s life. In fact, in one of the stories (which you can read in full online) the narrator states explicitly something that I think applies to all of the main characters in Ladies and Gentlemen, when he explains about defining moments, and the one that happens to him in his story:

We don’t invent them; they happen to us. And I think about that night all the time. That was the night I woke up. For the first time in my life, I started to feel whole. Because from that night forward, as often as possible, I began asking myself: What are you doing? This isn’t to say I necessarily do the right thing. It just means that I can’t say I didn’t think about it.

That statement could have been said by any of the narrators and it would have rung just as true. Meanwhile, Ross is clever enough to tell stories within his stories, lead us down unexpected roads, shock the reader with twists and turns and surprise endings (but not always) and generally keep us on our toes at all times. The stories don’t follow any particular pattern or formula. If there’s an overarching theme I suppose it’s that the world can be a cruel place, but this comes off more as a fact of life than as some sort of lesson that Ross is aiming to teach. Brothers fight. College friends form jealousies and undermine one another. Ex-spouses have strange relationships with one another. It all feels very real – Ross has a gift for showing how real people communicate and relate to one another. I wonder whether in time I will confuse which of these stories were from Ross and which are memories of my own. Given some of the violent endings, I suppose I kind of hope not.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is one of two books I read this past month which hasn’t hit store shelves yet (the other being Exile in Guyville). I won this book in Goodreads First Reads giveaway. I entered the giveaway because I read both of Joshua Ferris‘ prior novels, Then We Came to the End, which I really enjoyed, and The Unnamed, which I very much did not. Hoping this was more the former than the latter, I gave Ferris another chance. Not again.

I convinced myself that this novel would be more like Then We Came to the End because that book took place in an office and was your typical workplace comedy. It was smart, right on point, clever without being overbearing. I decided that The Unnamed was a misfire but that Ferris was going back to his bread and butter, as To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is nominally about an ordinary dentist, a baseball fan and otherwise nondescript middle-aged man. He is the victim of identity theft, which gets him to question his own place in the world. This is how the book is pitched. Had this been what the novel was really about, I think it might have been humorous and a little touching. But it isn’t that at all.

Instead, Ferris’ latest novel is about religion, specifically the question of what it means to be a Jew. I never would have expected that. And even though the topic isn’t foreign to me, I found it painful to work my way through a novel with this as its central theme. Maybe it’s me. Or maybe I just don’t enjoy being duped by a book jacket. But the characters that Ferris draws aren’t interesting and are completely two-dimensional; I literally did not care about any of them. And so since I didn’t care much about this central theme, the book was a waste of my time.

I suppose a second theme was man’s isolation in the world and a desperate longing to connect with a larger group, to share a history and culture. That’s a well-worn theme and one I normally don’t mind. I just feel that other authors have done so much more with this. I suppose this secondary theme was the one reason I felt somewhat emotionally for the protagonist. So there’s that. But that’s not much.

Some readers may be familiar with Edge.org, a loose organization of people who get together – online – to “arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.” Every year Edge asks a single question which is answered by over 100 scientists and other thinking people and assembled into a book. In 2011, that question was “what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”. A “scientific concept” was defined as something that “may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or “in a phrase”) but has broad application to understanding the world.” Examples that are already in some or most people’s cognitive toolkit include concepts like “placebo effect,” “random sample,” and “regression to the mean.” In proposing 165 new such concepts, the book was aptly titled This Will Make You Smarter.

Early in the process of reading This Will Make You Smarter, I found myself wondering whether that statement was true. This book was filled with so many concepts, each given just a brief (1-4 page) chance to occupy my attention, that I felt overwhelmed. There was just no way I could retain so many scientific ideas. Then I listened to a podcast that completely changed my mind. The March 4 episode of Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast covered, as it always does, three topics, the first of which was this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and the state of statistical analysis in 2014. That included a sub-discussion of the latest research on whether the “hot hand” exists in basketball – previous research suggested that it did not, while three recent Harvard students say they have discovered a “small yet significant hot-hand effect,” overturning years of previous studies on the topic (their paper was presented at Sloan and is pending peer review). Slate’s Mike Pesca used this study to illustrate what is wrong with the Sloan conference. (It begins at the 13:04 mark of the podcast which you can stream or download below. His exact words: “What this all raises to me is the very meta-question of statistical analysis and everything Sloan stands for.”) He essentially argued that because old theories are constantly being overturned by new data and new studies, the role of analytics in sports has gone “too far.” Co-host Josh Levin smartly calls him out, saying,

Mike, it sounded like you were criticizing science for being science. The reason that we have new understanding of the hot hand – if this is a new understanding – is that there’s new data and people looked at it in a new and different way. That’s how science works in any field, whether its sports or whether its medicine or whether its biology or anything else. And I think that it is fair to criticize teams for refusing to engage in scientific inquiry. And if our observations about how things work didn’t change and didn’t evolve and weren’t different then I think that would be something that would be concerning. The fact that new data allows us to make new insights – and perhaps change what had been the smart person’s conventional wisdom of five years ago – is kind of an endorsement of what these folks are doing. They’re not resting on their laurels.

Bam! There it was, right in front of me, in the first media I encountered since starting the book – a discussion that implicated at least a half dozen or so of the ideas presented in This Will Make You Smarter. Lo and behold, I was smarter. It was easy to see that Levin was right and Pesca was wrong (and, perhaps more importantly in the grand scheme of things, to understand what fallacies Pesca found himself prone to that led to his misguided views and why those views can be appealing). Pesca claimed to backtrack a bit but then piled on more, bringing as example the great stats-driven football website Football Outsiders. He argued that because FO revises the prediction metrics for what makes a college quarterback a good NFL prospect “every 2 years” (what some would call refining their approach) they should abandon trying to quantify it. Because – and here’s where you know someone’s argument is off the rails – some things can’t be quantified.

After hearing the podcast, I went back to the book, whereupon I came across physicist Carlo Rovelli’s piece, “The Uselessness of Certainty”. In it Rovelli states:

Failure to appreciate the value of the lack of certainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society. Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up, if we do not do anything? Are we sure of the details of the current theory of evolution? Are we sure that modern medicine is always a better strategy than traditional ones? No we are not, in none of these cases. But if from this lack of certainty we jump to the conviction that we better not care about global heating, that there is no evolution and the world was created six thousand years ago, or that traditional medicine must be more effective that the modern medicine, well, we are simply stupid. Still, many people do these silly inferences. Because the lack of certainty is perceived as a sign of weakness, instead of being what it is: the first source of our knowledge.

Silly, stupid, use whatever word you like. Mr. Pesca, have I got a good book for you. I can’t promise that any of the 165 ideas presented will stick in your cognitive toolkit, but reading all of them will collectively stimulate your mind enough to make you (and anyone else) a little smarter.

Finally, there are a few books I read in March and haven’t reviewed here, so allow me to explain. I wrote a detailed review of Exile in Guyville by Gina Arnold several weeks ago which I really hope you read. Lying, by Sam Harris, is barely more than a pamphlet and while I grasped the key message – don’t lie EVER – you could spend about the same amount of time and learn the same lesson by watching this (which I think you’ll enjoy more). As for Brave New World – I know when I’m not smart enough to review something and that goes for this classic. It was everything I hoped it would be and not as intimidating as I feared. It’s a must read, and if you need a review first there are plenty of them out there. Just know that Brave New World Revisited is now on my list.

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