Libraries’ Transformative Powers

As a student of international development with a boundless love of libraries, I delighted in reading this article from Slate about “The Library’s Global Future.” My involvement in the education sector stemmed from my conviction that education, and libraries by extension, are vital to improving political and economic climates, preventing human rights abuses, and encouraging strong civil societies in developing (and developed!) countries.

As sad as I am to see that a future full of libraries with diminished catalogs of physical books, at least libraries will likely remain in some form as useful spaces for public discourse and inter-connectivity, both in person and via access to the Internet. I would love for the libraries of the future to continue pushing their purview further by providing an increasing array of public services, such as therapy groups and skills trainings. While I applaud the work that the Gates Foundation and others have sponsored, far more can be done in that arena, one in which government, non-profit, or corporate funding could have tremendous impact.

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Steven Lee Myers’ The New Tsar

The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir PutinI must confess that I am slightly obsessed with Vladimir Putin. Not in the hero-worshiping way of many Russians (and some Americans!) but because he is one of the most unbelievable global figures today. From hairless cat doppelgangers to  “Wrecking Ball” lyrics,  Putin has spawned memes almost as baffling as (though more amusing than) his policies, both of which are sure to continue for the forseeable future as Putin continues to rule as dictator in every way but name.

Steven Lee Myers’ The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin attempts to explain how that came about, so of course I had to pick it up. Myers was a reporter for The New York Times in Russia throughout the 2000s as well as the former Moscow bureau chief. As such, he is able to present an unbiased account of Putin through Myers’ own perspective as well as that of his many sources, from his impoverished childhood in Leningrad to his improbable rise through the ranks of the KGB and subsequent entree into politics to his development of a cult of personality and absolute authority in Russia today.

This book is long, nearly 500 dense pages (plus endnotes), but the material is riveting. As a whole, it’s both strongly and thoroughly composed, but a few parts stood out to me:

  • Pictures of Putin throughout the years, particularly his amazing ’80s style while working in East Germany
  • His undistinguished KGB and political careers, in which he succeeded mostly by being somewhat efficient and not quite as corrupt as the next guy (ironically given the current bureaucratic sluggishness and cronyism in his government)
  • His surprising loyalty to his closest friends/mentors and therefore his intolerance for “betrayal”
  • His quasi-rational, but increasingly paranoid, fear/resentment of the West
  • And, of course, conspiracy theories about his personal relationships, including the conspicuous absence of his daughters from the public eye and his rumored affairs with both women and men.

I will say I hate the cover typeface and photo, intimidating though Putin looks, because of its blandness – it doesn’t reflect the high quality of the writing within and I fear many readers might not pick it up after judging the book by its poor quality cover.

Additionally, I wish there was additional analysis on the most recent 5 or so years as Putin’s newest term as president began. Perhaps because of the recency, that portion of the book is the briefest, but given that the geo-political crises still occurring in places like Ukraine and Syria, I am most curious about the future consequences of Putin’s actions and beliefs on those issues. Still, this is a biography, not a policy book, so I guess that’s out of Myers’ scope and I can forgive the lack of prediction.

Highly recommend for anyone interested in Russia/the Soviet Union, the KGB and the Cold War or with a general interest in current affairs and international politics.

5 Stars

 

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Dark PlacesI was one of the odd few who hated Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Naturally I was less than thrilled that my book club picked Dark Places for it’s October read, and so I didn’t even attend. However, the urge to read something in theme with my favorite holiday plus the encouragement of friends who claimed that I’d probably like it more, finally convinced me to read it.

Seven year old Libby Day survives the brutal massacre of her mother and two sisters. Traumatized and injured, she testifies against her fifteen-year old brother Ben, who is found guilty of “The Satan Sacrifice.” Twenty-five years later, the news has moved on to other victims, but Libby’s still stuck in the past, unable to live. As her trust fund of donations from well-wishers dwindles, she agrees to help the Kill Club, a secret society obsessed with true crimes and convinced of Ben’s innocence, discover the truth. But her attempts to reconnect with and interview the players from her childhood end up revealing secrets that the killer would rather keep buried.

Although the description sounds like a bad Hallmark movie, I still nurtured hopes of a good read. Unfortunately, from the first pages, I detested Libby (though in fairness, possibly not more than she detests herself). I don’t want to victim-blame, but she hasn’t even tried to pull herself together, instead living off the generosity of others and being cruel to anyone who tries to be kind to her. Thirty-two is too old to be playing the angsty teenager card. She’s a detestable human – not to get into this debate again, but while characters don’t necessarily need to be likeable, they need to be tolerable to read about. I couldn’t stand the pages upon pages of her sniveling and mindless self-absorption.

I did enjoy the alternating chapters between the past and the present, both because it served to build anticipation towards the mystery and because it offered a break from Libby’s perspective. I at least sympathized with her mother Patty for having to raise such shitty children alone and for doing the best she could in bad circumstances, but am not particularly interested in the struggles of being a poor farmer in Kansas or being a wannabe-Goth teenage boy in a small town. Ben was cast from the same mold as Libby, all rage and sulkiness. Thankfully Flynn writes that type well and it’s not surprising that he was suspected of murder.

The truth of course is even worse, and I won’t spoil it except to say that at least Ben embraced the consequences of his actions. Libby never does, ending her story in only a marginally less pathetic way that it started. To be honest, any character development in between I probably missed because I skimmed over a good chunk of the middle out of boredom. Needless to say, this is the last time I’ll pick up this particular author. She triumphs in creating twisted characters, but with so much of that in the news, I don’t need it also pervading my fiction.

2 Stars

A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

A Crown for Cold Silver (The Crimson Empire, #1)First, my heartiest apologies for the long absence – fall at work and school has proven busier than expected. Not that I haven’t been reading, but my writing time has been limited.

Alex Marshall, purportedly the pseudonym for a well-known author of other genres, makes his high fantasy debut with A Crown for Cold Silver. As if the critical accolades weren’t enough, the way the title rolls off the tongue built up the intrigue as did the ferocious cover, a perfect depiction of the bloody struggle for empire narrated in the book.

Feared conqueror Cobalt Zosia and her Five Villains tore and remade the Crimson Empire, until the Queen was stricken down and her mercenary army scattered. Presumed dead for twenty years, Zosia’s peaceful life is disrupted by the assassination of her husband and the massacre of her village. Vowing vengeance, she sets out to reconnect with old allies, discovering that loyalty is not what it once was, nor are her enemies the same.

That summary only captures part of Marshall’s sprawling story, which follows numerous characters across 600-odd pages. Unfortunately though, that’s a little too much reach, as the parts of Zosia’s past are more compelling a tale than the present. Her life has faded into legend, and it’s an interesting contrast to see how such a larger-than-life figure has aged. You don’t get a lot of fantasies with the protagonist in their fifties, as she and her villains are, and they still steal the show, unfortunately for the other characters.

Princess General Ji-hyeon, who is impersonating Zosia for her own glory, is a pale copy of the original, and her love triangle with the bland horned wolf Sullen and priggish Virtue Guard Keun-ju is nothing short of boring. Same with Sister Portales, a conflicted devil-ridden witchnun whose struggles with sinfulness are tedious at best. How can they compare to Villains like Singh with her martial skills and mighty mustache or Hoartrap’s uncanny wizardry and twisted humor?

Poorly, that’s how. I will admit that I admire the diversity found in the characters – I’ve never read a book so nonchalant about gender identity and sexuality. Males have arranged marriages to other men and spawn children. Multiple characters are open to bisexuality, and a few are happily androgynous. All of this is blatantly acceptable as is the crassness and debauchery you would expect from hardened soldiers. They flirt, they drink, they smoke – more attention is paid to this very human behavior than to the politicking and military strategy.

In fact, that’s another thing I didn’t like. Marshall often told rather than showed. Zosia narrates what her plans are, but we don’t get to see them unfold. We hear she’s a great tactician, but we don’t directly hear her and Ji-hyeon plotting war strategy. Hoartrap, Colonel Hjortt, Wan – all these men come across as cartoon caricature bad guys because they spend time declaiming their plots to their captives.

Meanwhile, we learn about all this intrigue, but other parts of this world are left unexplained. This is practically the only fantasy I’ve read that doesn’t include a map, so I’m boggled at the scope of the Crimson Empire from the Immaculates to the Chain. We know little to nothing about how devils work, which is acceptable because neither do most characters, but unacceptable when the horned wolves or the wildborn are thrown in without explanation about how they’re related to devilry. (If you didn’t understand this paragraph, don’t worry, because I don’t either even after finishing the book.)

So I concluded with mixed feelings. A Crown for Cold Silver is certainly unique, but between the length and my general confusion/boredom, I don’t think I’ll be picking up the sequel.

3,5 Stars

Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance

Modern RomanceI don’t usually find things funny that normal people do. For example, I like Tina Fey well enough but well before the point of obsessive. Will Ferrell has made maybe two movies I’ll chuckle along to, and I can’t stand Chelsea Handler. Somehow though, Aziz Ansari cracked through my humorless shell and legitimately cracks me up.

In Modern Romance, comedian Ansari and NYC sociologist Eric Klinenberg team up to conduct a massive research study across the United States and spreading to Paris, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires, about the ups and downs of dating nowadays. They analyzed Reddit surveys, interviewed the world’s leading social scientists, and conducted thousands of conversations with men and women of all ages, races, and relationship statuses. With the rise of online dating and the perks/pitfalls of technology, Ansari humorously uncovers how finding a mate has evolved through the years along with providing solid advice on how not to find your soul mate.

I do admire Mindy Kaling, but was utterly unimpressed by her book Why Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which also takes a comedic view of romantic relationships. It felt like a drunken pixie’s verbal vomit – each chapter, even within chapters, leaped hyper-actively from topic to topic. Comparatively, what I love most about Modern Romance is that it’s the exact opposite. It’s generally cohesive and each chapter sticks to a theme to gets its point across. Yes, there are frequent random interjections and footnotes, but they add to the overall picture that Ansari is trying to present.

He effectively uses both data and anecdotes throughout the book, throwing in (easily understandable) graphs and charts alongside stories from his shows and focus groups. Every so often a fact just staggered me, though some of his information is obvious and/or repetitive to anyone involved in the online dating world. Still, it is comforting/hilarious to hear about Ansari and others experiencing the same issues and also fascinating to hear from non-Americans about the different romantic problems their countries face.

I would highly recommend it (and in fact already have!) to any millennial struggling with modern romance. It’s not perfect, but is by far the wittiest, most insightful book I’ve heard of on the topic, and will lend you much needed perspective. Perhaps a bit science-y for some, but it will surprise you into laughing out loud.

4 Stars

Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive

Luckiest Girl AliveI’m sick of things being labeled “the next Gone Girl.” Maybe because I didn’t love Gone Girl (I know, blasphemy, right?) or maybe because of half of the books with that label are absolutely nothing like it. Like Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive.

Ani FaNelli seemingly has it all – good looks, a glamorous NYC job, and a filthy rich fiance. But a dark secret from her past haunts her, threatening all she’s worked to achieve. When a documentary crew seeks to reveal the truth behind a terrible incident that occurred when she was a teen at the prestigious Bradley School, will it ruin her perfect life or will it set her free at last?

(Spoilers ahead)

In addition to having the worst fictional name ever, (Tif)Ani FaNelli is no Amy Dunne – I admit Amy was creepy brilliant, even if I couldn’t stand reading her voice, but being in Ani’s head is mostly dull. She tries too hard at being bitchy, at being cool, at being anything but the bland needy crazypants she is. I understand that her childhood trauma has screwed her up, but unfortunately I can’t feel that bad for her because she’s so awful to nearly everyone in her life and, until basically the last few pages, has had no character growth over the last 15 years.

The pacing is off throughout the story. It was so slow to get into, especially with chapters shifting between the past and the present, and there’s like 0% twist. Painful hidden past, yes – Ani was drugged and raped as a fourteen year-old, which partially led to a series of incidents that culminated in a school shooting. This is all terrible, but not terribly surprising as it’s heavily foreshadowed. I thought the twist would be that Ani had something to do with the massacre as retribution on her the popular kids who assaulted and bullied her, but she only thought about revenge and didn’t actually do anything wrong except killing her ex-friend (one of the shooters) in self-defense.

With no compelling characters (though snaps to Mr. Larson for mostly not being a pervy teacher!), no shocking plot points, and after all the millennial bride-angst, not even a wedding (!!), I can’t give this book anything but a mediocre rating.

3 Stars

 

Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGuys, go out and read Go Set A Watchman.

Twenty-six year old Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird) arrives back in her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama from New York City to take care of her aging father Atticus. Amidst civil rights tensions and political turmoil, Jean Louise must question her values and assumptions as she reconciles uncomfortable truths to her childhood experiences.

As I mentioned, it was our August book club pick, but I had pre-ordered it months before and intended to read it anyway. To Kill A Mockingbird, which I read in eighth grade, is one of my favorites and a book that I regularly re-read. Although billed as a sequel, and chronologically so, in some ways Go Set A Watchmen exists as a prequel since it was written first, never to be published because it was revamped to become Mockingbird.

Besides the controversy regarding the author’s intentions about publication, the other major point of conflict for readers was its portrayal of Atticus. All the reviews I read beforehand divulged Atticus’ racism, (rudely) with no spoiler warning I may add. But upon reading the book, I discovered they were making a mountain out of a molehill. Yes, Atticus does join Maycomb’s community council, which I gather is more-talk/less-action version of the KKK, and yes, he does espouse some backward racial beliefs. However, his misguided paternalistic notions are largely a product of his experience and nowhere does he demonstrate an unwillingness to be dissuaded from them by logic.

Unfortunately Scout is unable to be reasonable in this situation. Like many of the readers, she built up Atticus as a God in her head, when he is just a man with a man’s failings. Having been presented with her biased perspective in To Kill A Mockingbird, many of us experience the same loss of innocence and are catapulted into adulthood in parallel with her in Go Set A Watchmen. The primary difference is the former is very black and white, no pun intended, whereas the latter enters into morally grey territory – Scout grows up color blind but can be narrow-minded in other ways.

As her uncle Dr. Finch mentions, the only way to hash out the differences between her understanding and that of the friends and family she loves is to stay, using her conscience to guide them to the morally correct way.  In this climate of racial tension in America, I think its a great book to exemplify how we should be holding our conversations. Even if you disagree with someone, anger and irrationality isn’t going to solve anything anymore than running away is. With humor and wisdom, Lee is brilliantly able to divulge the many facets of a complex situation- she presents a more nuanced portrayal of our racial history than what we get in textbooks or on the news.

Lee’s writing is deeply evocative of the time and place the book was set in as well as the experiences that shaped Scout’s growth. The pacing was slightly off, with the beginning being far too slow and the last hundred pages being crammed with the major plot points, but I think that was partially because it wasn’t intended as a sequel. She had to set up her story without knowing of the reader’s foreknowledge.  Certain passages were repetitive or contradictory from To Kill A Mockingbird, but I forgave that because of the powerfulness of the climax and conclusion – honestly, the last few pages were among the most moving and apt that I’ve ever read.

While perhaps not as classic as the original Lee masterpiece, you won’t regret reading this book. I highly encourage lovers of To Kill A Mockingbird to put aside doubt and experience it, and those who haven’t read Mockingbird to read both now in juxtaposition. Both books are individually vital to the American canon and essential companions in defining an historically-significant era of transition.

5 Stars