Thursday, March 27, 2008

50BC08 #6: The Tipping Point

50 BOOK CHALLENGE # 6
BOOK: The Tipping Point
AUTHOR: Malcolm Gladwell
YEAR: 2002, Back Bay Books (paperback ed.)
PAGES: 301
GENRE: non-fiction, sociology
RATING: 4.5 stars out of 5

My TBR list is so large that it is no longer a goal, but more of a path. I've tried to say I won't buy any more books until I make a considerable dent in the unread pile I currently own. However, my desire to dialogue with the world at large compels me to buy a few bestsellers here and there just so I'm not out of the loop.

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point has called to me for several years now and I've read the back cover so many times now I have it memorized. I usually have some healthy skepticism about books that have been hugely popular (I prefer "healthy skepticism" to "elitism," thank you), but this book has been recommended by a variety of friends, so I finally picked it up.

The idea of a "social epidemic" is important, and the biggest lessons in this book are in the stories about people like Georgia Sadler, who utilized folklorists and hairstylists to get the word out about breast cancer and diabetes. But the book should not breed too much careless optimism: While little things CAN make a big difference, they do not always make a BIG difference. If "social epidemics" become our only goal, I fear the motivation will be lost to do the right thing just because it is the right thing. However, Gladwell does get to the heart of the matter:

"What must underlie epidemics, in the end, is a bedrock belief that change is possible, that people can radically transform their behavior or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus." (258)

It is that bedrock belief that is so hard to nurture, especially now. It is, I believe, the real "audacity of hope" (to borrow from current politics). So, while we might try to be one of Gladwell's "connectors" or "mavens" or "salesmen," we also need to be members of the "dreamers"--that contingent who supports the hope upon which all change rests.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in social phenomena, psychology, cultural dynamics, and/or becoming a "mover & shaker." Be sure to read the edition that includes the Afterword: "Tipping Point Lessons From the Real World" where Gladwell warns us against the "rise of Immunity" as we begin to take our technological achievements for granted.

Friday, March 21, 2008

50BC08:#5 The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

50 Book Challenge #5:
BOOK: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt
AUTHOR: Aimee Bender
PAGES: 184 (Anchor Books, 1999)
GENRE: short stories, contemporary fiction
RATED: 3.5 /5 stars

Having read and enjoyed Bender's Willful Creatures I was surprised at how few of these stories resonated for me. Bender is a master of the quirky, but many of these stories seemed so esoteric that the witty commentary was lost along the way. I felt they were sexually saturated almost to the point of obsession (in many cases), but I'm also open to the idea that it was part of the point.

All that said, there were several stories I did enjoy, including the majority of the offerings in Part Three. The poignancy in "Skinless" (Part One), "The Healer" and "Loser" (both in Part Three) touched me deeply, particularly in the case of "Loser." Bender investigates what it means to be "lost" and indeed, "found." Her protagonist has the ironic gift to find what others have lost and the end of the story made my eyes glisten.

"Drunken Mimi" (Part Two) is a clever mixing of fantasy and realism wherein two outcasts find each other through a world that has long rejected impishness and magic.

I do think that Bender's work speaks differently to the reader depending on his/her frame of mind, place in life, etc. This is a positive, as there will be a story for everyone in this collection. I'll be interested to re-read these stories several years from now and see if they speak any differently to me. For indeed, Bender does have a gift for stories that speak.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Memoir Fraud

I found this article to be very intriguing. John Dolan discusses fabricated memoirs and why people feel compelled to write them and read them. It is a fairly provocative and uncomfortable article in some of its points, and I do find him to be a bit sanctimonious in his condemnation of "middle-class " readers and people who watch TV for escapism.

It got me thinking, however, about the lines between truth and fiction, and how our categorization of literature into different genres has a lot of implications for "artistic license." There are plenty of works masquerading as fiction that are actually memoirs. Is claiming something to be fabricated when it is in fact true any better than falsifying a memoir? I'm not sure. It is a different kind of dishonesty--one that is probably less hurtful to the reader. Yes, I know that fiction will often draw upon the life experiences of the author, but when you can identify real-life people (who are still living) in a fictional work, I think that needs to be addressed. The disclaimer one finds in fiction, about any resemblance of the characters to real and living persons being coincidental, is there for a reason. It exists because too often the connections are not coincidental and are an opportunity for the author to air dirty laundry under the safety net of "fiction."

Sunday, March 2, 2008

50BC06 #7: Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules

50 Book Challenge #7
BOOK REVIEW: Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules
Edited by David Sedaris

This is a compilation of David Sedaris’ favorite short stories by literary greats such as Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Parker, just to name a few. With a crowd like this, you can expect stories that will leave you ever so slightly unsettled, such as Tobias Wolff’s "Bullet in the Brain" and Lorrie Moore’s troubling tromp through a pediatric cancer ward in "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk." The stories seem to gather eccentric value as the book progresses. They are provocative and probably not best read right before bed. But Sedaris has indeed gathered the best of the best, and each of the stories represents an intricate piece of literary art.

Posted here 9/12/08, originally posted 3/2/06.

But there is another reason to buy this book. All the proceeds benefit 826NYC, an afterschool tutoring organization that also does community outreach by way of writing workshops for young people. Literature to help foster literature—it is a great idea and one worthy of support.