Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bourgeois Book Club

Precious Objects by Alicia Oltuski

An examination of the diamond trade, specifically the New York diamond trade on 47th Street, from the viewpoint of the scion of a trading family. Using her own family history and interviews with a diverse array of diamond industry characters, she particularly explores Jewish identity of the New York diamond trade. It's an interesting glimpse into an opaque world (ha ha, I made a gemstone funny), but I admit, as someone who collects and is fascinated by gemstones, it didn't really grab me.

Oltuski has an interesting angle with her family connections, but in some ways it was too personal. Oltuski has an MFA in writing, and it shows. Her focus was on stories, whereas I found the more prosaic stuff more interesting. A worthwhile read, if not one that quite did it for me.

Man Seeks God by Eric Weiner

One man's journey to figure just what it is he believes. Raised Jewish, but only nominally and gastronomically, an ultimately minor and inconsequential trip to the hospital sends Weiner on a journey around the world to "find God" by studying Sufism, then Buddhism, Catholicism, Raelianism (a UFO-based religion), Taoism, Wicca, Shamanism, and, finally, Kabbalah.

I identify a great deal with Weiner. I, too, almost an atheist, but not quite, full of doubt and anxiety. We both love books, and are passive by nature, always looking for a push instead of pushing himself, looking for someone to GIVE him an answer for fear if he answers himself he'll get it wrong, and, above all neurotic. In fact, his description of neurosis is one of the most incisive I've ever seen:
Theologian Paul Tillich defines neurosis as “a way of avoiding non-being by avoiding being.” He’s right. Neurosis is a psychic purgatory that leaves its victim suspended between pain and relief. It’s also exhausting. The care and feeding of my pet neurosis increasingly leaves me with little energy for anything else.
Yet, sometimes, my identification worked against my enjoyment. I get sick of me, so to read another person who's a lot like me... Well, it can get annoying. I'm in my head too much as it is; why would I want to explore one all-too-similar? Also, Weiner gives off the whiff of that bane of white neurotics who travel for enlightenment: "Oh, isn't all this suffering in this country so authentic! These lucky, lucky indigenous people; their lives are so real!" Annoying, to say the least.

Also, the conceit of finding God via personal ad (one for each religion opens the chapter), flirtation, and courtship, is cute, but brings absolutely nothing except cuteness to the proceedings.

But my biggest problem with Man Seeks God is I couldn't help feel it was all predetermined. I mean, of course he didn't find god in Buddhism; we still had five or six chapters to go! And of course he doesn't come to some real conclusion about God, just decides he learned something from all of the religions, kumbaya. The whole project ultimately strikes me as an excuse to write a book and travel. It's contributing to the "let me read the encyclopedia for a year, or live according to the Bible, or stand on my head for a month" memoir genre, not actually saying anything really interesting. Weiner would never have done this, I believe, without a book contract or an agent's go-ahead.

And ultimately pointless and cynical endeavor, if well-written and occasionally interesting.

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley

Myffanwy Thomas is gone. Someone else is in her body, now, and that someone has to figure out who in the shadowy supernatural organization known as the Checquy Group tried to kill her before they try again. And as she goes deeper into the inner workings of the Group, the new Myffanwy finds that an even deeper, and much darker, conspiracy lurks in the shadows, waiting to cut her and everyone else in the Group down.

Witty and well-written, I must highlight one conceit that I found particularly enjoyable: The original Myffanwy uses letters to bring the new one up to speed on her job as an administrator and the world of supernatural spying. Its an ingenious use of epistolary elements for infodump purposes. It also allows us to get to know the "old" Myffanwy even as we get to know the new one.

Part spy-thriller, part urban fantasy, part bureaucratic comedy, The Rook is an extremely fun read with fantastic world-building.

Version 43 by Philip Palmer

In the future, criminals and undesirables are dumped by the civilized planets on distant worlds via quantum teleportation (of which there is a 50/50 chance of survival). On one of these worlds, Belladonna, lies Lawless City, a "wretched hive of scum and villainy" (to borrow the words from another science fiction universe), a cyborg cop struggles to bring law and order to Lawless City on the planet Belladonna, uncovering layer upon layer of conspiracy while trying to maintain his humanity. Meanwhile, a ravenous hive-minded alien species plots to destroy humanity.

An interesting look at identity, revolution, and evolution. A bit of quantum woo-woo, but it doesn't really detract from anything.

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