Percolating

It’s been a busy week back in New York and back at work.  Here’s a round up of this-and-that, including a few follow-ups on things I’ve blogged about before:

– An interesting New York Times story about rehabilitating Tolstoy caught my eye.  In her diaries, Sofia Tolstoy expresses a great deal of concern about how she’ll be judged by historians. But it never occurs to her that her husband could himself be remembered in a mixed light.

– A piece attempting a humorous take on yoga from NPR’s Sandip Roy irked me.  One commenter summed up the problem nicely: “A man who identifies as belonging to a particular ethnicity, paradoxically ignorant of a particular tradition of said ethnicity, is by virtue of said identity assigned to write an article communicating nothing so much as said ignorance.” Right.

– In this week’s New Yorker, a very enjoyable review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series puzzles over its popularity. “The jokes aren’t funny. The dialogue could not be worse. The phrasing and the vocabulary are consistently banal,” Joan Acocella writes.

– The ever-sharp Elif Batuman reflects on interpreting entrails and suggests prognostications help us find out who we are in this great little essay.

– Earlier this week, my former PW editor Marc Schultz wrote about a new edition of Huckleberry Finn that replaces “slave” for the n-word. The piece set off a cascade of debate on censoring Mark Twain (The Takeaway invited Morehouse’s David Wall Rice to weigh in; he made a strong case against the NewSouth edition).  But one thing that seems to have gotten lost in the discussion is that editor Alan Gribben’s decision to drop the n-word wasn’t part of any agenda — it grew out of countless conversations with readers and educators across Alabama who told him they were staying away from Huck Finn because of the n-word. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” Gribben told PW.  So why not make an alternative edition available?

– Ben Yagoda takes on The Elements of Clunk. Someone should publish a set of stylebooks on the essential conventions of writing for broadcast, print, the ‘net, email, G-chat, Facebook walls and text message.  And then make them into an iPhone app so I can put them all in my pocket.

– Over at The Awl, Heather Havrilesky beautifully sums up a modern malaise (which I, for one, suffer from): Personal Branding Disorders.  “Do you want to be a part of the next wave of rich personal self-promotion, or do you want your child to grow up not knowing what really good sushi tastes like?” she asks.  Okay, okay. I give up on the sushi.

Happy New Year!

photo by Jay: my morning coffee (back in California)

Books of 2010: A Round-up

Presenting the ten best books of 2010 that I’ve read:

The Big Short (Michael Lewis) This book was essential to my understanding of the financial meltdown. Michael Lewis approaches the topic of the housing crisis and short-selling with an insider’s grasp of financial products and derivatives and an outsider’s sense of the absurdity of Wall Street.  What results is a very clear explanation of what drove the economy’s collapse, peppered with colorful anecdotes. While I was reading this, I couldn’t stop recommending it to everyone I knew. I would loan it to you but I’ve given away both copies I had.

The Devil’s Star (Jo Nesbø) I violently hated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But this is Scandinavian crime fiction worth reading.

Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy (edited by Cathy Porter) Sofia was her husband’s secretary, proofreader, editor, housekeeper, agent, and nurse – the person who darned Leo’s socks as well as the person who proofread the first draft of War and Peace.  Spanning 57 years, these diaries chronicle the mundane (“Lev Nikolaevich [Leo] is better today; he has moved his bowels and is no longer in pain, and my soul is relieved of a terrible anxiety”) but also bear witness to her struggles. Sofia yearns for the pleasure of her own creative pursuits, often questions her fate, and sometimes contemplates suicide — but (luckily, for generations of Tolstoy’s readers) she never doubts her husband’s genius or wavers in her commitment to his legacy. By the end of the book, Sofia’s frayed nerves and endless crying scenes had nearly worn me out, but for most of it, I was entirely captivated by her world.  Her life raises difficult questions about feminism, marriage, and the price of greatness in the arts.

Dolly City (Orly Castel-Bloom) In the early pages of this book, I was really put off by Dolly’s perversity.   But as the plot kicked in, the book began to follow its own internal logic and I was completely gripped.  For a taste of Castel-Bloom’s brilliance, check out “My Fallow Years,” a short piece published online by Words Without Borders.

Fordlandia (Greg Grandin) Henry Ford was an odd guy. The story of Fordlandia, his never profitable but truly colossal rubber-growing outpost in the Brazilian Amazon typifies his oddness, as well as his supreme self-confidence and stubbornness. This book is a portrait of a spectacular (and forgotten) failure brimming with historical trivia.

How Does it Feel To Be A Problem? (Moustafa Bayoumi) The last time a TSA agent asked to search my suitcase, he was confronted with the following: 50 packets of Quaker instant oatmeal (embedded in a weekends’ worth of outfits), 2 ceramic soup bowls, 2 grapefruit spoons, 1 ZipLock packet of fresh Pongal rice, 1 set of stinky gym clothes, 1 pair of heels, 1 bag of toiletries … and a hardback copy of How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? with big bright red Arabic letters on the cover.  Rather appropriately, reading this book on an airplane and on the subway cars  turned into a bit of an exercise in seeing how it feels to be an object of misplaced, inchoate suspicion — I always have a bag full of strange items when I return from a weekend in Poquoson, but never before has there been anything that might peg me as Muslim or Arab-American.  Though this book was published 2008, I’m including it on this list because it didn’t become topic of national debate until this fall.

I Curse the River of Time (Per Petterson) I’m starting to notice that this list is heavy on less-than-sunny material, but so be it.  This brooding book sees protagonist Arvid Jansen through the midst of a mid-life crisis (“There was a fissure in my life, a void, and that void only beer could fill”). He’s unpleasant company, but his self-loathing has the virtue of a searing clarity.

Negative Space (Robert Steiner) This book traces, in elegant, obsessive detail, the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage of 20 years over the course of one evening. As they sit on their French terrace overlooking a 300-year-old olive grove, drinking wine and smoking, the narrator’s wife begins to explain to him that she has been unfaithful.  The narrator feels flattened: “… I became the husband in a novelette devoid of martyrs or fevered Russians.  No booming voices, no Bach, nothing of an epic scale — instead small, brutish, unsympathetic.” Infidelity is an old theme, but the single-mindedness of the protagonist’s introspection is what makes this book fascinating — and what elevates the crude betrayal, jealousy and loss at the center of the story into something far more rarefied.

Tail of the Blue Bird (Nii Ayikwei Parkes) A lovely detective story set in rural Ghana, Tail of the Blue Bird draws heavily from folklore and — though it follows a number of modern whodunit conventions — isn’t afraid to leave some things shrouded in mystery. The book ends up being a gentle critique of story-telling in all its forms. As a tribal hunter tells the forensic pathologist, “On this earth, we have to choose the story we tell, because it affects us – it affects how we live.”

The Tiger (John Vaillant) I’m reading this now.  The book follows the trail of destruction left by one man-eating Siberian tiger in the farthest reaches of eastern Russia.  My favorite line so far: “As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it, ‘The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace.’ But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator.”

 

To be fair, more than half of these were assigned to me (what can I say? I’m lucky to have editors who have good taste). To round out the list, here are 5 more books/editions released this year which I’d like to read, but have not yet: Freedom (Jonathan Franzen), The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson), Prejudices (H. L. Mencken), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot), Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann).

How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

“Opposition to my book seems more symptomatic of our moment than produced by its contents,” Moustafa Bayoumi, writes in an October Chronicle for Higher Education article.  I just finished reading How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? and I agree. It’s not a “radical” book. It’s a multifaceted celebration of the contradictions of Arab-American youth, seeped with a love for New York City and respect for the country at large.  But the content of the book is not what set off the controversy surrounding it. The New York times reported:

The seeds were planted last winter, when professors in the [Brooklyn College] English Department, with Donna Wilson, the dean of undergraduate studies, chose this year’s ”common reader”: a book given to all freshmen and transfer students in an effort to provide a common experience at the outset of the school year. The books are generally memoirs set in New York City, by authors available to speak on campus.

In past years, the committee has selected Frank McCourt’s ”Angela’s Ashes” and Jonathan Safran Foer’s ”Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” This year it picked Dr. Bayoumi’s 2008 book, which profiles seven Arab-Americans in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

The young Arab-Americans profiled in the book have a range of aspirations and conflicts.  There’s the Iraq War veteran, the high school student who launches a legal battle with her school’s student council, the rebellious Iraqi teenager who runs away dozens of times before growing into a conservative, devout Muslim herself.  The book is interested in the roadblocks these young people hit on the way to adulthood — and the negotiations they make with their background in the process.  It’s a coming of age story particularly relevant in these times and in this city: The young men and women in the book are interested in school, friendships, dating, their families, and their careers, as well as politics, current events, and religion.  They’re figures most 20-somethings can relate to, making their clashes with contemporary culture all the more thought-provoking for a college-aged audience.

But when the English Department announced it had picked How Does it Feel to Be a Problem as its common reader, Bruce Kesler, an alumnus living in California (writing in a blog post entitled “I Just Disinherited My Alma Mater”) blasted the book as an attempt to inculcate political views in Brooklyn College’s entering class.   “I just updated my will and trust,” he wrote, “and, with heavy heart, cut out what was a significant bequest to my alma mater, Brooklyn College.” The post went viral, sparking widespread opposition to Bayoumi’s book and prompting plenty of other objectors.

“My first reaction was one of disbelief,” Bayoumi writes. “Wow, I thought, is my writing really that powerful? But on closer inspection, it became clear to me that my detractors hadn’t actually read the book.” Reading the book weeks and months after the crisis’s peak, I see why Brooklyn College picked it in the first place. Spirited and opinionated, it’s written in colorful accessible language.  It’s an easy read, but not a light one.  This is a book that wants (and deserves) to be talked about.  So I’m glad to see Bayoumi hasn’t dropped the topic yet because, as  The Daily News reports, neither have New Yorkers:

Last Thursday, a [book club] discussion of Moustafa Bayoumi’s “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America,” quickly turned personal.

Kerry Sahadi, 38, a blond married to a Christian of Lebanese decent, explained how she and her husband were both pulled over for speeding while following each other. Her husband was ticketed. She wasn’t.

Brooklyn-born Thikra Esa, 25, wearing traditional Muslim dress, admitted to anger over having to miss her prom and pass on an internship in Manhattan because of her parents’ strictness.

Bay Ridge mom Omayma Khayat, 31, opened up about her decision during college to cover her hair and her less-religiously strict mother’s embarrassment over it.

Muslims in the heavily Arab-American area are often reluctant to branch out of their tight-knit community, fearful of being rejected amid images of them as terrorists, said Linda Sarsour, 30, the Arab-American Association’s co-founder and a book club member.

“This is an opportunity for people to have a regular conversation,” Sarsour said. “If this can happen in Bay Ridge and be successful, it can happen anywhere.”