Fat Books & Thin Women


#Longreads : Farhad Manjoo’s “The Great Tech War of 2012”

Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Farhad Manjoo’s “The Great Tech War of 2012” has been making the rounds, and it’s not hard to see why. Reading this article as I flipped from websites and products operated or created by Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, it became painfully clear just how much of the average person’s life is influenced, even owned, by these companies. And with Steve Jobs gone, it’s hard not to wonder if Apple can continue leading innovations in technology (and make such a huge profit while doing so), or if another company is going to begin exerting greater influence over the technologies we use.

Manjoo looks at the reasons all four companies have succeeded to date, as well as the ways in which they are competing against each other (which aren’t always apparent to the average consumer) and the bets they’re placing on what sort of technologies and business models will work in the coming years. At this point, as Manjoo points out, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook are four of the most high-profile companies in America. Average people are able to tell you who runs each company, who founded it, and what it does, in a way they can’t with companies that may earn more but aren’t a part of this high-stakes war for our technological future.

The best part of this article may well be the links to pages titled “Why Apple Will Win”, “Why Facebook Will Win”, etc., which briefly summarize the strengths of each company.

Who do you think will win the tech war of 2012 – Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, or a company that doesn’t even exist yet? Who do you want to see win?*

* I’m pinning my hopes on Apple, largely because I feel such affection for every Apple product I own. My quality of life improved immeasurably once I replaced my netbook with a Mac, and life without an iPod? Facebook, on the other hand, just seems creepy – I’ll keep my facebook page because having one is an unfortunate necessity for Life Today, but reluctantly and mostly because I want to stalk people I went to high school with, haven’t spoken to in seven years, and hope to never see again. (So maybe it’s not only that Facebook the company is creepy, but that it turns us all into creeps.)

Read Farhad Manjoo’s “The Great Tech War of 2012”

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The women of Game of Thrones

Maybe six months ago, I got pulled out of my Macedonia-induced cultural stupor, introduced to this Game of Thrones phenomenon by a billboard for the HBO show near the Peace Corps office in Skopje. (Yeah, there’s HBO in Macedonia! Just not in my house.) My interest in the series was pretty low, though, because (a) I am not a high fantasy kind of person and (b) I hadn’t read much about the first book of the series except for a review taking a critical look at the roles for women.

But in early July, standing in a Barnes & Noble in Florida with my dad, having already picked out copies of A Visit From the Goon Squad and The Blind Assassin and one other title which clearly means a lot to me, given I’ve forgotten what it was, I picked up Game of Thrones from the massive center display, read the first page. Read the second page, put all my other books down on the floor, and read the prologue as my dad did whatever my dad was doing. (He bought Matterhorn that night. See, good taste in literature runs in the family.)

I usually yell at people for starting reviews (or reflections, in this case) by explaining why they aren’t qualified to write the review they’re writing, but…you know, I have nothing to compare Game of Thrones to, there’s no useful commentary I can make regarding its place in the world of high fantasy, so I’m not even going to pretend. I am just going to write about the women, because I come out so far from that post that introduced me to the series. (I can’t remember who wrote about the women of Game of Thrones – if you know, let me know.) There are plenty of spoilers in here.

Martin’s world is so strongly characterized, so fully described, so elaborately peopled; and the women aren’t left out of this. Some of Martin’s characters can be labeled as types (Cersei: manipulative, cold-hearted bitch) but they’re never defined by those labels, they are always able to act in honest and sometimes surprising (but ultimately believable) ways.

Cersei Lannister, the wife of King Robert of the Seven Kingdoms, is a woman who initially appears to be little more than a woman cuckolding her husband and subscribing to some old time views on the value of pure bloodlines, but reveals herself over the course of the novel to have more power than any of the men around her. By the close of Game of Thrones it’s clear that she’s the one really ruling the Seven Kingdoms, despite her son’s unpredictable actions after being crowned. Not just that but that, without anyone’s knowledge, she has for years been manipulating those around her, sometimes acting without the knowledge of any others, to edge her way into greater power.

Catelyn Stark, wife to Robert Stark of Winterfell (who becomes the King’s Hand early in the novel), likewise reveals herself to have more depth than the woman who first appears, furious that her husband’s bastard son (Jon Snow) is living with the rest of her family at Winterfell. Apart from that slip, though, she turns out to be a wise mother and advisor to her husband, and even her tactical error of taking Tyrion Lannister into captivity is admirable for the sheer ballsiness of the move.

Daenerys Targaryen, a teenager living in exile with her brother Viserys, the only survivors to King Aerys II Targaryen, who was violently replaced on the throne by King Robert. Easily cowed by her brother Viserys early on, forced into a marriage with Khal Drogo of the Dothraki (horseback riders), she gains a sense of self and of leadership after her marriage to Drogo, eventually ordering the execution of Viserys, who has repeatedly offended and threatened her and her husband. Dany is awesome. She is totally the best character in the book. Killing her last family member! Owning dragon eggs! Learning the limits of compassion and killing a woman she earlier rescued, who she blames for the death of her husband! Awesome, Dany, awesome. If Martin kills her off in the next four books I’m going to be so pissed.

Then there’s Arya Stark. Arya, Arya, Arya. Born to be a lady, doesn’t want to be a lady, close with her bastard half-brother Jon Snow, who gives her a sword, “Needle,” allowed by her father to train in dancing, aka the Braavosi method of sword fighting. Arya is like a Tamora Pierce character transplanted into the high fantasy world, running around hearing secrets, finding secret passages, being mistaken for a boy. It’s not clear, when Game of Thrones ends, what’s happened to Arya, but as with Dany…if Martin doesn’t keep her around, I’m going to pitch a fit.

I tend to think of high fantasy as being the realm of dudes. My reluctance to read Game of Thrones was due in large part to this idea (which I’m still not willing to label a misconception, outside of Martin’s world. Tell me if I should). Even the minor female characters in Martin’s world, though, are notable for their strength, like Catelyn Stark’s sister who opts to sequester herself in a mountaintop fortress with her nutty son, threatening to throw prisoners out of doors in the floor. Women may not garner the notice of the men they stand with, but Martin repeatedly points to the ways in which the women of the Seven Kingdoms wield as much, or sometimes more, power than the men surrounding them. I am so psyched to read the rest of this series.

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Story Sunday: Murray Dunlap’s “White Boy”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

In many ways Murray Dunlap’s “White Boy” is a spare story, one that leaves to the reader many of the details of the 15-year-old narrator’s life. He’s his school’s best runner in the four-forty, a race he classifies by describing all the races it is not:

The four-forty is excruciating.  I’m not trying to sound melodramatic; the race is hard.  With sprints, you never run out of air.  With distance, you work yourself into a rhythm and look for the fastest pace your heart can sustain.  The four-forty is different.  It’s everything you’ve got for a quarter mile.  One lap around the track.  Your muscles run out of oxygen at the final turn and it’s a mental battle from then on.  You can see the finish line. You know it’s almost over.  But the knives start in on your quads, the pins drive into your knees.  Fires burn under your feet.  The last stretch hurts worse than a fist fight.  You have to believe you can’t feel a thing.

With little more than an awkward phone call and wait for his father to pick him up, Dunlap conveys the strained nature of Ben’s relationship with his father. The relationship with the track coach, too, is perfectly drawn, with just a conversation about times and missing the last meet before the State Championships.

What I like best about this story, though, is the description of the running and of the desire to win. I can’t think of a single better description of running than of those Murray offers, and in the final race of the story the tension practically bristles off the page. (Well, screen.) Murray’s narrator, who recognizes himself as the best from his school but nowhere near the best from a wider sampling, who seems at times to want to win his father’s respect and others disgusted by the man and their limited time together, seems to own his world for the paragraphs of his championship race, however unstable the surface he runs on.

Read “White Boy” online

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If posts seem more half-assed than usual for the next few weeks, my apologies. Panic over my impending move to the Shqipëri is making it hard to do much besides watch tv…when I am not thinking about how my MakEngAlbanish (a mixture of Macedonian, English and Albanian) may not carry me far in the land of literature Albanian, how I’m going to fit all my stuff in two bags, or what I’m going to do without my host sister/soulmate ringing my doorbell twenty times a day.

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Be sure to visit Shivanee at Novel Niche and Jennifer at Books Personally to read their Story Sunday posts. If you’d like to join in and begin posting your own Story Sunday feature, email story.sundays@gmail.com for information.

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#Longreads : David Segal’s “The Dark Art of Breaking Bad
October 12, 2011, 6:02 pm
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , , , ,

Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Anyone who has had to speak to me in the last few months knows that I have fallen completely and irredeemably in love with Breaking Bad. In my ever-shifting list of Greatest TV Shows of All Time, which Friday Night Lights‘ soulful Tim Riggins has occasionally disrupted with his shaggy hair and love of beer, Breaking Bad has rudely pushed aside The Wire for the top position. This is the best TV show that’s ever been made. I find it impossible to believe that there will ever be a show that will take a closer or more daring look at the disintegration of the moral fiber of a man, or that will do a better job of exploring the power struggles behind the drug scene through the lens of that fallen character.

Maybe you noticed, though, that it’s only in the last few months that I’ve started watching the show. I’d only heard of Breaking Bad in passing until I went home over the summer for the Fulbright conference and took a copy of The New York Times Sunday Magazine to the gym with me.* As I wheezed away on the elliptical I started reading David Segal’s “The Dark Art of Breaking Bad,” which focuses on Vince Gilligan and some of the formative ideas behind the show. All I could think was: I need to watch this. Now.

Segal visits the Breaking Bad crew as they shoot for season four, but writes about the development of the show as a whole. It’s this description that got me interested in watching the series:

The story and setting [of the first season] were an update of the spaghetti Western, minus the cowboys and set in the present.

But it was soon clear that “Breaking Bad” was something much more satisfying and complex: a revolutionary take on the serial drama. What sets the show apart from its small-screen peers is a subtle metaphysical layer all its own. As Walter inches toward damnation, Gilligan and his writers have posed some large questions about good and evil, questions with implications for every kind of malefactor you can imagine, from Ponzi schemers to terrorists. Questions like: Do we live in a world where terrible people go unpunished for their misdeeds? Or do the wicked ultimately suffer for their sins?

Segal does a fantastic job pointing out those things that make Breaking Bad best, and so much more daring than its counterpats; namely, that “Walter White progresses from unassuming savant to opportunistic gangster — and as he does so, the show dares you to excuse him, or find a moral line that you deem a point of no return.” More and more with each season, Gilligan pushes the viewer to find a new moral line for Walter; is [ ] acceptable if he is protecting his partner? his family? his money?

“The Dark Art of Breaking Bad” is a better read once you’ve watched the show – but the Times includes a primer of main characters (including Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman!) that can only pique your interest in watching. And if you’re looking for more on Breaking Bad, Newsweek ran their own Breaking Bad article over the summer, “TV’s Most Dangerous Show.” It hits many of the same notes as Segal’s article, but may help to curb your withdrawal as you wait for season five.**

* Going to the gym having become an alluring activity now that I don’t have that option.

** WHICH CANNOT START SOON ENOUGH.

Read David Segal’s “The Dark Art of Breaking Bad

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Review: Neal Pollack’s Stretch
October 11, 2011, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Neal Pollack’s Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude is an at times joyful and refreshing look at yoga culture in the States. The “at times” is the key phrase in that sentence; Pollack’s book, which describes his journey from being an overweight, balding, mean-spirited, struggling writer to a “yoga dude,” is at its best at the start of his journey.

Dealing with stress over a poor review in The New York Times and a six-a-day donut habit, Pollacks’ wife urges hm to attend a yoga class with her at the local gym. Unlike his wife, Pollack ends up hooked on yoga. When they move to L.A. so he can pursue work as a screenwriter he gets more serious about yoga; L.A. Is, after all, described as being to yoga what Paris was to writers in the 1920s.

Even when he’s taking yoga seriously Pollack doesn’t take it too seriously. This isn’t a book you’ll be rolling your eyes at as you read, thinking, “christ, gimme a break about this ‘connection with the universe’ stuff.” But he’s at his best early in the memoir, when his skepticism about yoga is still evident to everyone around him. Pollack never hesitates to take jabs at himself, either, but the best come early on, as when he struggles with bouts of gas during yoga class, effectively deflating the world of yoga (which to us outsiders can too often seem composed of people who have never had to do something so crass as race for a bathroom):

If at all possible, I liked for my farts to get lost in a wave of sound. Therefore, the best time to fart, if I absolutely had to, was during the part of the class where we said “OM.” As a beautiful chorus of human voices (including mine) harmonized as one, my colon expanded and contracted, discharging useless gases. I sent them out to the cosmos as an extra blessing, a karmic bonus.

What makes Pollack’s book so fun and accessible is that, when the book opens, he’s willing (even eager) to reveal these aspects of himself, but also that he is such an asshole. Pollack is a contributor to the first issue of McSweeney’s, and the first book published by McSweeney’s is written by him. He views himself on a path to success, and the self-destructive path he heads down (quickly killing off his best contacts) when the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers do make it big, is recognizable to anyone who’s ever felt overwhelmed by the unfairness of not being viewed as remarkable as their (assumed) counterparts. The joy Pollack feels in his transformation from the sort of man who publicly rips into a perceived competitor’s book, to one who tries to do headstands without farting, is evident and makes the first third of the book a pleasure to read.

What ultimately works against Stretch is the same thing that makes Eat, Pray, Love a hard swallow: Pollack got a book deal to write about his yoga journey while still on his yoga journey. With the writing he does on articles he writes for journals like Yoga Today, and the Thailand yoga retreat he pays for with his book advance, the last two-thirds of the book read like a journey that’s been designed for its narrative arc. Pollack covers a yoga conference for Yoga Today, travels across the country and attends classes representative of types of yoga, like Bikram, that have defined yoga in America, goes on his retreat and then covers a yoga conference/indie rock fest. His observations about “yogis” in America (like the number of middle-upper class practitioners who wear their $100 lululemon yoga pants while turning their yoga poses into poses for the gaze of others) do effectively skewer the commercialization of yoga, but even this loses its pleasure after a couple chapters.

Pollack writes about finding his “best self.” It’s hard to take that effort seriously, in part because of his habit of smoking a bowl before heading in for yoga practice, but more so because his attempts to craft a redemptive narrative are so apparent. Pollack’s book is at times an entertaining read, but it never quite lives up to its potential.

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Story Sunday: John Jodzio’s “This Is All the Orientation You Are Gonna Get”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

John Jodzio’s “This Is All the Orientation You Are Gonna Get” is a powerhouse of a story, one that punches you in the gut, repeatedly, and proves just what a skilled writer can do with 500 words. There is a gorgeous repetition to this story, which underscores not just the routine and drudgery of work and a life but the need for that routine and the reasons behind it.

“This Is All the Orientation You Are Gonna Get” is about a woman who works at a nail salon. Jodzio’s story opens:

Tell your customers they have pretty hands, even if they don’t, especially if they don’t.  Good breath means good tips.  If you get sad, go into the break room and stick your head in the pickle bucket filled with the Mexican nail polish and you’ll get happy real quick.

It’s that image, of the pickle bucket filled with Mexican nail polish, that comes up again and again in the story and gives to Jodzio’s prose, though spare, the feel of verse. And though he never manipulates his reader, if you don’t reach the end of this story feeling like your heart’s been squeezed to a pulp – something’s not right.

Go. Read. Now.

Read “This Is All the Orientation You Are Gonna Get” online

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Be sure to visit Shivanee at Novel Niche and read her Story Sunday post. If you’d like to join in and begin posting your own Story Sunday feature, email story.sundays@gmail.com for information.

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Review: Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Look, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of those books that’s so good there are only a few ways of writing about it, one being “awesome awesome awesome” and another being “go read it right now, this second.” The novel deals with memory, with personal and cultural history, as though they are real and tangible things that can walk into someone’s life or move objects in a house; and it does not only this, but looks at the way the perceptions of outsiders can “create” or change what they are perceiving; and looks at slavery and the power a name has and what impact not owning oneself or the world one looks at can have on a person’s life and their ability to view and create themselves.
 
The novel centers on the former slave Sethe and her daughter Denver and their house at 124 Bluestone Road. The house is haunted and avoided by everyone in the neighborhood, and in some way holds both Sethe and Denver to its confines. Morrison gradually reveals an image of the house from years before, when it was a hub for the neighborhood and recently freed or escaped slaves. Not until Paul D, an escaped slave from Sweet Home (where Sethe, her husband Halle, and his mother-in-law Baby Suggs were also slaves) enters the home and throws out the ghost, returning it in its physical form of a grown woman, does the history of the house and its family begin to reveal itself.
 
There is too much here to fairly address in a short review, so I’ll focus my attentions on Paul D and specifically on the way he recognizes perception as forming the world. At one point near novel’s end some of Morrison’s characters begin to question their lives at Sweet Home and after Sweet Home, how the way they were addressed (as “men” at Sweet Home and as “children” elsewhere) affected how they viewed themselves. Did being called “men” make them, really, men, or was it simply another way of controlling them? Although they felt at the time of their enslavement somehow, slightly, empowered by the word “men,” was that title any better than being called children – as they were treated, regardless of the relative kindness of their owner? And how, after they escaped slavery, did the reclaiming of the word change their lives and their way of viewing themselves? Once Morrison’s characters were capable of perceiving the world through their own eyes, through the eyes they did, for the first time in their lives, own, could they think of themselves as men? At one point one of the slaves at Sweet Home, Sixo, is beaten by “schoolteacher” to “show him that definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined” (190). It is only those who are free and have the power to label their world who can truly own it.
 
Paul D, though, recognizes too the way the perceptions of others can influence or change what a person is. He repeatedly notes the way women “glow” when they’re around the man they’re attracted to; it’s why he is able to seduce (though that seems the wrong word) Sethe when he walks into the home that is controlled by the ghost of her daughter. One of the other slaves from Sweet Home, Sixo, arranges with the 30-Mile Woman (so called because of the distance he traveled to meet her) to escape slavery with the Sweet Home slaves; for a time, Paul D waits alone with the 30-Mile Woman. After Sixo arrives:

She is lit now with some glowing, some shining that comes from inside her. Before when she knelt on creek pebbles with Paul D, she was nothing, a shape in the dark breathing lightly. (225)

Paul D isn’t just noting the mechanics of sexual attraction, but rather the way perceptions change reality. More than that, there seems to be almost a sort of ownership in the relations Paul D sees between people, in the understandings he sees between them. By envisioning Sixo and the 30-Mile-Woman’s relationship as a visible thing – not as a public display of affection, say, but something that cannot be controlled – Paul D suggests a sort of inevitable and permanent relationship not dissimilar, in its shape though not in the details or the affections, from the sort of ownership the two are escaping. It’s not that there’s a slavery to the visibility of their relationship, but that even after gaining freedom and the ability to view the world through eyes they own, they cannot decide how they are viewed.

Morrison’s novel? Extraordinary. Amid all the hubbub about the insularity of the Nobel Prize Committee (who will seemingly never award another Nobel to an American writer because they are “too insular”), I have to note that this is one time when they got it right. Read Beloved this second, or go see Jeff O’Neal’s post at Book Riot about the two Morrison novels you should read before hitting Beloved. And then read Beloved.

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