By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

Read: 26 February, 2013

The set up of the novel is as a death-bed confession from Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, called Father Ibacache once he enters the priesthood. He recalls important moments of his involvement with the literati, Opus Dei, and Pinochet’s government.

Written as the ramblings of an old man, the book has no chapters or paragraph breaks, and few full stops. It made it a long and hard read, particularly since, with a toddler, I don’t always have the luxury of a sustained reading session. But, at only 130pages, a reader without a toddler could probably get through the whole book in one or two sittings, so don’t let that necessarily put you off.

I found the book disjointed, which makes sense given the narrative context, but it was still rather frustrating. Characters are introduced, plot lines brought up, and then both are dropped – never again to be taken up. There’s some pretty subtle-yet-scathing criticisms of the literati, literature’s place in a messy and political world, and the Church, but they seem more thrown to the wind than built.

I think that there was something lost in translation. The book read as though the writing should have been poetic, but instead just felt overwhelmingly bland. I’m willing to give Bolaño the benefit of doubt and assume that the narrative reads much batter in the original Spanish.

Overall, I just wasn’t very impressed by this novelette. The ending was quite interesting, and the final line is probably one of the best I’ve ever read (“And then the storm of shit begins”), but I never felt gripped. And while my background and knowledge base allowed me to appreciate the jabs at the literary/artsy scene, many of the criticisms of Opus Dei and the politics just went way over my head. It didn’t help that Urrutia is such a frustratingly passive and dense character, and thoroughly unlikable.

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The Ice Beneath You by Christian Bauman

Read: 2006

I had the pleasure of living in the same neighbourhood as the author for several years. He’s a fantastic guy, despite his peculiar affinity for oversized dogs. He gave me a copy of The Ice Beneath You as a (requested) Christmas gift.

The book is divided into two alternating narratives from the life of Benjamin Jones. In one, he is travelling across the United States, drifting and self-destructive. In the other, he’s a soldier posted in Somalia.

Throughout the story, it’s plainly obvious that something happened in Somalia, although it’s not revealed what it is until near the end. The suspense leading up to the big twist is beautifully executed, and the scene itself is very powerful.

The Ice Beneath You reminded me a bit of Catcher in the Rye, in the sense of aimless desperation conveyed. I found that it did a very good job at conveying the trauma felt by many veterans, and the lack of support available to them as they try to make sense of what they’ve lived through as they return to a society that is totally disconnected from the horrors of war.

I’m not often a fan of war books, nor of “modern” fiction, but I did enjoy this one. It’s well written and interesting, and it conveys it’s message with a reserved poignancy that is rarely successfully executed.

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The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson

Read: 7 July, 2011

I really want to categorize this book as fiction; and, in a sane world, I would. Unfortunately…

It begins in 1983,  when Major General Albert Stubblebine III (a truly Dickensian name), upon realizing that both his body and the wall are made up of atoms and that atoms are mostly made up of empty space, tries to walk through a wall.

Starting from Stubblebine’s sore nose, Ronson takes the reader through a brief history of the US military’s more insane moments. He lulled me into a sense of “oh, that happened in ’70s, but it would never happen today” with stories of men staring at goats to make their hearts stop (and, when goats aren’t available, the odd hamster would do) and a First Earth Battalion that could end conflict with their “sparkling eyes.”

But then he gets into the ‘War on Terror’ and the horrific acts at Abu Ghraib.

The most difficult part of reading The Men Who Stare At Goats is to remember that this is only, as the subtitle says, about a “small group of men” who happen to be placed in some key positions. It isn’t representative of the army as a whole. The problem is that each of these “highly placed” men have subordinates in a culture that does not tolerate dissent – even when the orders are quite obviously insane.

Throughout, Ronson remains very objective. He allows his subjects, and their beliefs, to speak for themselves. This is an amazing feat when writing a book about men who believe that they can walk through walls or stare goats to deaths.

The tone of the book seems somewhat rambly – jumping back and forth through time and skipping from subject to subject – but it all makes sense by the end, when the whole is tied together and the influence of Jim Channon’s First Earth Battalion Operations Manual is made clear. And, really, this is the story of that book – of its history and its legacy.

Men Who Stare At Goats appears to be meticulously researched. Certainly, it comes through in Ronson’s writing just how difficult certain people and facts were to find. And, although some of the connections he draws are speculative (or based on “wink wink” statements from his informants), he does make the case that it’s all at least plausible if not factual. I found it to be a very interesting and thought-provoking read, even if my faith in humanity requires that I remain somewhat provisional in my trust of Ronson’s depictions.

Assuming that it is all (or mostly) true, though, I’d be very interested in a follow up in coming years as to the effect of the book on military policies and strategies. Has Men Who Stare At Goats embarrassed the leadership sufficiently to cause a change? Will it spell the end of First Earth Battalion‘s influence? Or will it increase its popularity?

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The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As An Experiment by A.J. Jacobs

Read: 28 June, 2011

I listened to the audio book version of this. I’m finding that my ability to hold books is being seriously hampered by Captain Wiggly’s wild gesticulations. And it’s only gotten worse now that he’s started teething and requires holding at all times. So, at the recommendations of several friends, I’m giving the audio reading experience a try.

In The Guinea Pig Diaries, A.J. Jacobs conducts a number of experiments on himself. For a while, he tries to life according to George Washington’s code of conduct, he tries to scrub his brain of all irrational thinking, he outsources much of his life, and he dabbles with radical honesty.

Since the book is episodic, with each experiment serving as a discreet section, I thought it might be best to give my thoughts on each separately.

What would George Washington Do

In this segment, Jacobs tries to incorporate George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. In the process, he learns about the ‘founding father’ and learns a new respect for Washington.

I found the history of this piece to be very interesting, but it may have been the weakest of Jacobs’s experiments in terms of its impact on his life. Keeping a straight face and adopting good posture isn’t exactly revolutionary. Ha ha! See what I did there?

The Unitasker

After a failed multitasking attempt causes Jacobs to lose driving privileges, he decides to experiment with unitasking – focusing on a single task at a time. This section had quite a bit of relevance for me as I’m almost never doing fewer than at least two things at a time. Even while I’m playing with the baby, I’m generally reading a book or even getting dishes done at the same time!

The human brain can’t multitask, says Jacobs. What we end up doing instead is simply switching back and forth between our tasks. This is inefficient because there’s some “now where was I?” time between each switch. He argues that we’re actually faster and more productive if we simply stop and focus on one thing at a time. From personal experience, I find that I get more enjoyment out of the task too, because it’s actually “there” mentally. It wasn’t a great chapter, but he made his point and I think I’m provisionally convinced.

I Think You’re Fat

In this section, Jacobs gives radical honesty a try. The concept is that you must tell the truth, all the time. All the time. Lying by omission is also out. If you’re a fan of gimmicky detective shows, you may have encountered the concept of radical honesty on Lie To Me (featuring Mr. Orange). Personally, my first exposure came when my brother-in-law started practising it.

Jacobs’s experience seems fairly similar to what I’ve seen first hand. There are quite a few occasions where it serves everyone well. It gets uncomfortable topics out in the open, initiating a dialogue that can actually fix the inter-personal problem. It can also help achieve short-term goals by forcing you to ask for the things you want. But on the other hand, it can also cause quite a bit of negative feeling.

For the project, Jacobs meets with radical honesty’s inventor, Dr. Brad Blanton. During his description, he mentions that Dr. Blanton has been married multiple times. This is shocking given Blanton’s claim that radical honesty “leads to intimacy in relationships.”

And that’s my main observation of radical honesty – the disconnect between the claimed benefits and the reality of its practice. Jacobs also points out a psychological quirk that voicing thoughts solidifies them in our minds. So, feeling a little down in the dumps about your job today? Vent about it and your opinion of your job will actually become more negative overall, even on the good days.

That’s why I’m much more in favour of a little thing I like to call radical positivism. Always say nice things until you train your brain to believe them. This doesn’t exclude constructive criticism, by the way. It’s merely a policy against whining.

240 Minutes of Fame

Jacobs happens to look a great deal like an actor I’d never heard of but who apparently had a little spot in the sun a couple years ago. When the actor decided not to attend one of these fancy Hollywood award ceremonies, Jacobs attended – letting people think that he was the actor.

He soon realized just how intoxicating fame can be, and how constant praise skews an individual’s perception of reality. I quite enjoyed this section because it pointed out just how fallible we are and how quickly any one of us, no matter how nice, could turn into one of these tantruming celebrity monsters.

My Outsourced Life

This may have been the best section, if only for the entertainment value. Jacobs uses firms in India to outsource parts of his life. It starts out fairly normal, outsourcing research for his articles and other menial tasks. But then he starts pushing the boundaries, even outsourcing a fight with his wife.

The lesson for this section is a good one. He starts off with what I think is a fairly common perception in the West that the people we’re outsourcing to are somewhat brutish. They’re great for simple, mindless work like the call centre screen reading that passes for tech support. But he soon realizes that his virtual assistants are every bit as intelligent and creative as American workers – if not more so.

The Rationality Project

This project struck a chord with me because it’s something that I’ve been working on for a few years now. In this project, Jacobs tries to eliminate as much irrational thinking from his brain as possible.

What he learns is rather similar to what I’ve learn, that simply being rational doesn’t necessarily eliminate subjectivity, nor does it allow us to find “correct” answers. For example, he experiments with toothpaste – does the rational mind choose based on cavity protection or taste? Well, as one of his sources points out, 10 years without a cavity may be worse than 9 years without a cavity but spent enjoying a much more pleasant brushing experience. Even though the latter is the “wrong” choice based solely on the cavity protection metric, the actual answer is far more complex and involves subjective preference.

That’s not to say that rationality is bunk. There are unquestionably “wrong” answers that we should make every effort to purge from our brains. But what Jacobs learns is that it’s perfectly rational to be an emotional human being and that subjective experiences are legitimate.

My life as a beautiful woman

This section was an extremely close runner-up for entertainment value. For this project, Jacobs tries online dating on behalf of his very attractive nanny. What he finds is fairly expected, that saying “no” to forceful advances all day gets tiresome and that there are some really mean manipulative jerks out there.

To be fair, his experience as a beautiful woman is only online, so he’s meeting a large collection of the scummiest individuals in high concentration without additional worries such as physical safety. As a result, his ability to really learn from the episode is somewhat stunted. But still, his writing style brings the adventure to life in a really funny way.

The truth about nakedness

Included for your edification

This is the deep feminist piece that “My life as a beautiful woman” couldn’t be. Jacobs’s job is to edit an article by actress Mary-Louise Parker on the experience of doing a naked photoshoot. Additionally, Parker is asked to illustrate her piece with a nude photo. But Parker, brilliantly, turns it around by only agreeing to write the article if Jacobs will also pose for a nude photo, which she gets to choose for the final print.

Jacobs isn’t writing any kind of deep analysis, but the lesson of sexual objectification does get conveyed. He experiences the shame of being exposed, the loss of control of having someone else get to choose which picture makes the cut, the emphasis on status when his shoot isn’t catered as nicely as Parker’s, etc.

Whipped (a.k.a. the perfect spouse)

For this experiment, Jacobs vows to be the perfect spouse for one whole month, doing everything his wife (who is a saint!) says. As expected, he quickly learns to appreciate just how much she does for the household. As Jacobs puts it, she was doing chores that he didn’t even know existed!

Though treated lightly, he brings attention to a very serious issue with our “post-feminist” society – that women are now working as much as men, but are still expected to come home and do the bulk of the housework and childcare. Not an issue in my household, thankfully, because my husband is every bit the feminist I am (and a fabulous cook to boot!).

Conclusion

I really enjoyed The Guinea Pig Diaries. As expected, this isn’t an in-depth treatment of any of the subjects Jacobs covers, and the lessons he draws are, for the most part, fairly superficial. But what he does is provide a light, entertaining, and humorous introduction to a wide range of social and global issues. There’s plenty of food for thought, served with a spoonful of sugar.

It works well for what it is.

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Autism’s False Prophets by Paul Offit

Read: 29 May, 2009

Autism’s False Prophets is a biography of a controversy. Offit traces the life of the autism-vaccine myth from the first studies conducted by Andrew Wakefield to the latest ‘Mommy Warriors’ crusade of Jenny McCarthy. Despite his obvious dislike for those who promote this ‘manufactroversy’ and fear for the children who are affected, Offit adopts a matter-of-fact tone. He covers the facts and dates of the various steps in the story with little subjective injection.

Offit clarifies many of the myths and misinformations surrounding the autism-vaccine scare. His writing style is accessible and interesting. And despite a very weak final line, I could not recommend this book any more highly for all parents and parents-to-be who have heard of the autism-vaccine link and are concerned (or who simply want to make a more informed choice).

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Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Read: 20 October, 2008

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s story is one of extraordinary courage. Growing up in a culture that is oppressive to women, Hirsi Ali first tries to find her sense of self in religion – trying to find the freedom she sought through Allah. The tipping point occurs when an arranged marriage sends her out of Africa and into Europe where, like a bird that has suddenly realized its cage door is wide open, she flies to Holland and seeks refugee status and, finally, comes to terms with the atheism that had been growing in her from her earliest days.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first part is devoted to her childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. I say her “childhood” even though she remained her twenties because the culture as she describes it kept women as children, stiffling their intellectual growth. I think Hirsi Ali would be the first to agree with my use of the term. The second part of her biography opens with her arrival in Europe and subsequent cultivation of her Self.

These two parts are different in more than just content. The first shows a vulnerable girl, a child ruled over by her parents, culture, and religion. Though she does defy the authorities of her life at times, she is by and large kept as a victim. In the second part, we see her as an active participant in her life (despite the regression she suffers after the death of Theo van Gogh). Because of this, these two parts feel very differently. I found the first to be intensely powerful and emotional, frequently reducing me to tears and causing me to sleep quite poorly for a few nights! I think this is the first book that has affected me quite so deeply since childhood. The second part is far more intellectual, an exposé of the conclusions Hirsi Ali has drawn from her experiences. The reading was much slower from that point on, but no less satisfying.

Though I can’t say that I agree with every idea Hirsi Ali espouses, she certainly manages to provide a convincing and rational case for them. My mind was certainly changed on a number of issues. This is a book that satisfies on a great many levels. Though I feel that many (of all faiths and from every end of the political spectrum) may be offended by Hirsi Ali’s writings, Infidel is well worth reading. Hirsi Ali is unguarded as she speaks her mind and this is a rare quality. I recommend that everyone read it and digest it slowly. You may not agree with her conclusions, but you can only benefit from having read them.

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