Friday, March 25, 2011

In Progress: Nature's Metropolis, or: I finally understand the plot of Trading Places


First of all, William Cronon, the author of Nature's Metropolis is in the news. He lives in Wisconsin and is apparently being investigated by that crazy union-busting governor of Wisconsin for helping organize the recent marches. WTF, America? By the way, Cronon summarizes the whole story here. Let it just be said that I'm starting to love this guy, and not just because of his super-interesting book.

Nature's Metropolis got off to a bit of a slow start for me when the author spent a lot of time outlining his thesis (I think the book was his dissertation) about the interdependence of a city and it's rural areas, or hinterlands. Hinterlands is a word he uses often, and I think I like it. In fact, I'm going to start using in when talking about the rest of Illinois instead of using the more common word, "downstate." There's about 12 million people in Illinois, and the Chicago metro area is about 9 million of those people.

The book takes off once he gets to the meat of his argument, and he starts with the railroads. Having read a bunch of Civil War history this year, some of this felt like a rehash in terms of the importance of railroads. However, I did also learn that it was railroad operators who standardized time and created time zones, and only later were they officially adopted by the government.

I also learned how and why Chicago became the center of the railroad universe. Basically, and this is the briefest of explanations, there were Eastern railroads and Western railroads. The Eastern ones connected Chicago and New York in a more or less straight line and moved large shipments of grain, goods, and other commodities from one metropolis to another without stopping. Meanwhile, the western railroads spread out in a fan shape from Chicago to farms, towns, and villages throughout the western US. These lines stopped frequently and picked up local shipments of grain and cargo and were taken to Chicago to sell. Those commodities were then packaged together with like things and shipped to New York, either by rail or via the Great Lakes. It was to everyone's advantage to have a central city where these 2 types of commodities met, and that was Chicago.

I am in no way doing this justice. The railroad stuff is super interesting not only because of how they worked and were built, but also what it took economically to run one.

Grain Elevators
The grain elevator thing is not only interesting, but I also now finally understand the plot of the movie Trading Places. Ah, Non-Fiction!

Before the railroads, farmers would package their grain into sacks and they, individually or with the help of a middle man, had to get the grain to market. But small sacks of grain are heavy and difficult to move. Once sold in big city like Chicago, St. Louis, or New Orleans, it took hundreds of men hundreds of hours of physical labor to move the individual sacks of grain onto ships bound for even larger markets, like New York.

However, the railroads completely and forever changed the packaging and distribution of grain. First of all, railroads could carry far more grain than the average wagon or raft. The city of Chicago was bursting at the seams with grain, they literally couldn't move it onto ships and get it out of town fast enough. The introduction of a mechanized grain elevator changed all of that. Now, grain was unsacked and combined with other farmer's grain and moved up huge freight elevators, weighed into bushels, and sold in huge lots. After someone purchased the grain, it was released out the bottom--gravity did all the work instead of people.

However, this led to some startling innovations in how grain was purchased and sold. It used to be that a farmer's grain was "tested" on the spot and then a buyer would offer a price for it. But the elevators mixed all of the grain together. To solve this problem, the Chicago Board of Trade was founded. The Board of Trade created different measure of grain quality (wheat 1 was better than wheat 2, etc). Now, a farmer could sell his wheat to the grain elevator and get a receipt which allowed him to get the same quality of wheat back out of the elevator when he wanted to sell it. It wasn't *his* grain, but it was the same quality. This was so reliable that farmers could sell the receipts themselves to buyers without the grain ever changing hands.

I'm afraid I'm making this sound boring, but it was really interesting. The book then goes on to explain how the futures market works (the plot of Trading Places hinges on a scheme to corner the orange market). Alas, that is all so complicated that I doubt I could ever explain it. However, I am quite enjoying this book. Next up is a chapter about lumber, which I fear will be boring, but after that are the chapters on the stockyards.


PS The flickr photo of the train track is from swanksalot, and of the grain elevator is from gail des jardin.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Jenny's Book 4: Nature's Metropolis


I ended up reading 13 of the 16 novels in this year's Tournament of Books. I still have Kapitoil and will read it eventually, but right now, I think I need a palate cleanser, and I think some non-fiction will do the trick.

My next book is Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Since we moved to Chicago, five years ago already, I've been interested in reading books about Chicago. The best one I've read so far, on the advice of my brother, was American Pharaoh. It's a great big biography of the first Mayor Daley, but it's also a history of the city itself during his tenure. I really loved that book. Also, I ended up personally knowing the author when her daughter was my student!

Nature's Metropolis is more about Chicago at its beginnings. The premise of the book (I've read about 25 pages, including the preface up until he started naming all the people that helped him write it) is that the urban landscape of Chicago cannot be separated from the rural areas around it. It was recommended on a blog I read pretty regularly, and the person who recommended it said that it included information about a lot of things you'd think would sound boring, but are actually really fascinating--like how grain elevators worked. Believe it or not, this is what sold me. I've always been interested in how things work, and having random knowledge about grain elevators? Awesome.

I'm also hoping there will be some chapters about the stockyards. The Union Stockyards covered a huge swath of the South Side. There's still a neighborhood called Back of the Yards because it was adjacent to the stockyards. Apparently, they just dumped all the waste from the stockyards right into the river, leading one small part to be called Bloody Creek because of all the industrial waste there. Yuck.

There's a different rhythm to reading non-fiction, it's never quite as fast-paced and page-turning as a good novel, but I like books that force me to read slower. I'll keep you updated on my progress.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Weird Coincidences in TOB books


I finished Freedom this morning, and although I have a lot to say, I think I need some time to process.

Meanwhile, I've noticed some amusing similarities in some of the Tournament books. Is this meaningful? No, probably not. But if novelists have some sort of cosmic glimpse into our future, then here's where we're going.

Cats=Bad (which is ridiculous-- Look at that adorable kitten)
In both Bad Marie and Freedom, cats are symbolic of our self destructive tendencies. In Bad Marie, it's just disturbing. An elderly woman died and her cat has been forgotten and locked inside her apartment in Paris. Marie and her lover find the cat before it dies, but it is absolutely awful. The poor cat has lost all of his teeth after trying to open the cat food cans with them. It's terrible. I literally don't think you'd be able to read this book. Things don't go well for that cat after it's rescued, either. Bad Marie is bad, after all.

In Freedom, the main character, Walter, hates cats for killing songbirds. One cat, Bobby, is nothing more than a destructive bird murderer. This cat kills indiscriminately without even returning the kills to his owners. Eventually, Walter traps, captures, and takes Bobby to a shelter several hours away. What does this all mean? I have no idea. But in this year's books, cats are the enemy. Perhaps a thinly veiled metaphor for the destructive hopelessness of humans?

Texting Rules the World
In some of the novels, there's a future where texting replaces speech. In A Visit From the Goon Squad, the last chapter takes place in a not-so distant future where texts are called Ts. In one poignant moment, 2 people having a difficult conversation at a coffee shop find it easier to T each other, even though they are both right there.

In Super Sad True Love Story, the author even goes so far as to rename talking with the clever name "verbal", as in "verbal me later." Once, watching children play, he thinks about how nice it is to see them talking to each other before they learn texting. There's a related problem in this novel, which is that texting has replaced reading. Lenny is the only person who still reads books, other characters, although they can scan or skim text, can't really READ at the level of novels. The concept of "verbaling" doesn't seem to be well thought out because characters talk to each other pretty normally throughout the novel.

Obviously, this metaphor isn't too hard to understand. What does it mean when we lose our ability to interact with each other as humans? It makes sense for novelists to fear what is happening to the written word. This is an interesting warning sign; I know I've felt the urge to just text or email rather than have a human conversation. Sometimes it's just easier. However, the message from SSTLS is even more sinister, that in a world where images are primary, the thoughtfulness and meaning of the written word might also be lost. This was definitely food for thought.

There's Nothing Hotter than a Beautiful, Young Asian Chick
Seriously, in 3 of the books, an older, middle-aged white man falls for a beautiful young Asian girl. Lenny, in SSTLS, falls for the young, nubile, and Korean, Eunice Park. In Freedom, Walter has a love affair with a beautiful and idealistic young Indian woman named Lalitha. In Next, the main character, Kevin, stalks and follows the young woman sitting next to him on the plane. She was reading The Joy Luck Club, so he refers to her as Joy Luck (although it turns out her name is Kelly!). It is revealed that a friend recommended the book to her, and that she didn't like it. Get it: she's too young and hip for a novel as pedestrian as The Joy Luck Club! But it's still just bizarre. What's the point of this revelation? Perhaps that she's hot and Asian, but thinks and acts like a typical American? Well, if that's the case, both Eunice and Lalitha have also turned their backs on their heritage and resent the cultural demands of their parents. What is one to make of this? Coincidence, or an unpleasant look into the middle-aged male mind? Perhaps the message is more simple: you don't have to be an American to be shallow (Eunice), stubborn (Lalitha), or sexy (Kelly/Joy Luck).

My Writing is Awesome!
There were moments in 2 books where where the author essentially compliments himself on his own writing or novel craft. Talk about meta taken to extremes.

The first is a little less egregious, but still elicited a literal eye roll from me. In Model Home, Lyle, the 16 year old daughter says to her brother, "I want my life to be as interesting as it is in books. That's my problem" (267). Perhaps people think that way in real life, but is it really okay for characters in books to wish their lives were as exciting as characters in books? Perhaps this is some sort of Shakespearean urge to, like Macbeth, point out that all the world's a stage. The problem is that it felt an awful lot like the author trying to remind everyone of what an exciting book he'd written. And still his own characters didn't appreciate him!

However, the worst example of this was in Freedom. The novel tells the story of Walter and Patty Berglund. The first chapter or so is sort of a general, 3rd person introduction to the couple. The next 200 pages are ostensibly written as Patty's autobiography. However, this narrative voice is so unmistakably Franzen's that I wonder why he bothered. The entire time she writes about herself in 3rd person, with only the occasional reference to herself as "the autobiographer." As a conceit, this is paper fucking thin. Later on, the autobiography becomes a plot device when she lets others read it, but I really see no reason why there's this pretense that these hundreds of pages of the novel were her autobiography. But here's the best part, when her ex-lover read it, he observes "her writing skills were impressive" (377). Frazen, at this point, I'm about 2/3 through your novel. Clearly, I'm with you. Do you really need to remind me that you're a good writer?

I enjoyed both of these books immensely, but this was a real false note that lifted me right back into reality and jolted me out of the narrative. I'm not sure why it bothered me so much, but it did.


PS Here are my predictions for the Quarterfinals: Freedom beats Room, Goon Squad beats Finkler, Next beats Nox, Model Home beats Lemon Cake.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

TOB: Week Two Picks


This week's match-ups are definitely weaker. All of the "heavy-hitters", the books everyone knows, read, and has given awards to, were in last week's brackets. In fact, a few days ago, A Visit From the Goon Squad won the National Book Critics Circle Award. If you download it, just make sure you read the powerpoint chapter on your iPad and not your Kindle.

This is also the week that features more of the books I haven't read, but that will not deter me!

Nox vs. Lord of Misrule
This match is hard to call since it's a stretch to call Nox a novel. But I loved this book, and somehow it's mysteriousness felt accessible. Since I previously wrote about Nox, I'll turn my attention to Lord of Misrule, which won the National Book Award as a total upset. The book is organized into 4 sections, each one focusing on a single horse race. In each section, there are multiple narrators. I "read" the first section, and you'll see I put it in scare quotes. That's because I found the book almost unreadable. Swear to God, one of the narrators is a old man, a stablehand or groom, and at one point he refers to how hard it was to give up "likker." Come on. Along with the super-annoying narration, there's way too much inside baseball about horses and horse racing, so I didn't get that. And, honestly, I didn't want to get it. Besides little girls and bajillionaires, is there anyone who really gives a shit about horses? By default, this one goes to Nox.

Next vs. So Much For That
Again, a match-up where I've only read one of the books. Next, like The Finkler Question and Super Sad True Love Story, is a book about a middle-aged white guy with middle-aged white guy problems. After reading these books, I can tell you that there are apparently only 2 middle-aged white guy problems: 1)Will I ever get laid by a pretty, young girl again? 2)When will I die?

is up against a book about the health care system and how eff'd up it is, the novel So Much For That by Lionel Shriver. I'm not reading it because it sounds brutally depressing, and because I already have her novel The Post-Birthday World in by TBR pile. I think enough white-guy problem novels have advanced, so I'm calling this round for So Much For That.

Super Sad True Love Story vs. Model Home
I just finished Super Sad True Love Story on Saturday afternoon and I ended up liking it better than I thought I would. This book is sort of hilarious. It's like Gary Shteyngart got a bunch of liberals in a room for a focus group and asked them what they think is wrong with America. Hence, it's set in a not-so-distant, dystopian future: an America where the dollar is yuan-pegged, books no longer exist, and people "verbal" each other only when texting isn't available. All anyone does is shop, and your worthiness is determined by your credit score. The country is run by international corporations rather than the government. Even I, a proud flaming liberal, felt like this was liberal boilerplate run amuck.

The story is told by 2 narrators: Lenny, an old man of 39 (this culture loves youth) and his young, beautiful, Korean girlfriend Eunice Park. I think a triumph of the novel is how different the narrator's voices are. Usually, I think all the narrators just sound the same, but that's not true here. But at the same time, this novel felt like a lot of work to read. It's a glimpse of a future, decaying, destroyed America, but it doesn't feel too convincing. It feels like a gimmick disguised as a novel. It has it's heartfelt moments though, and ultimately the theme is that no one can ever erase the importance of family and human connections, that love, unexpected and tentative, conquers all. And doesn't my inner-flaming liberal just eat that up? Sigh.

I finished Model Home about 5 minutes ago, Monday evening. It's another family drama, more like Bloodroot or Lemon Cake in that it focuses on a family rather than a couple. In this novel, set in the 1980s, the Ziller family faces some extreme hardships. The father, Warren, has bankrupted his entire family in pursuit of a misguided real estate venture in the Mojave Desert. Although I have some issues with the book (too many points of view/too much "head hopping" from one character to another), I loved watching the changing relationships between Warren and his family. There are 2 teenaged children, a daughter, Lyle, and son, Dustin, that are well drawn. The 3rd son, Jonas, seems like more of a plot device and not as fully fleshed out. Despite these issues, it was a more fulfilling story than Super Sad. I don't want to give too much away, because it's a book I'd recommend to anyone. It's not perfect, but it's a good, solid first novel from Eric Puchner.

Bloodroot vs. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Bloodroot should definitely win here. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake just drifted off into bizarro world and never recovered. Bloodroot felt more complete and more compelling. It's just a great story, in a way that Lemon Cake isn't. Lemon Cake starts with an amazing premise that it ultimately can't carry off. Bloodroot starts with the most pedestrian of premises, the generational family story, but it does it well. The questions it answers are, I think, universal and heart-wrenching: What is it that makes people emotionally destructive to themselves and to others? Why do we hurt the ones we love? Why can't we love the ones who want or need us the most?

Of all the books in the tournament, I might have enjoyed Bloodroot the most. We've talked about this before: when I go into a book or movie with no expectations, it's when I have the potential to be the most pleasantly surprised. This book felt like a discovery. I loved it.

Where does that leave me, reading wise? It looks like the next thing to do is try Freedom. I'm sure it will continue to advance, so it makes sense to read. For some reason, I'm dreading it...and it might be because of you. A few weeks ago, you mentioned hating The Corrections. This is the same author! I think I have an existential dread of Freedom because I'm worried I'll feel the same way about it as you did about The Corrections. Hmmm...we shall see. Maybe it's Mercy Thompson time!


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

TOB: Week One Picks


My sentence-making skills are back! (I think. Let's see how this goes).

Room vs Bad Marie
Both of these books feature relationships between a woman and a child. Ma and her son, Jack, in Room. And Marie and Caitlin, a child she babysits, kidnaps, and drags across several oceans.

I think Room should win this one pretty handily. I think it's better, more tightly constructed. Bad Marie is a book I enjoyed way more than expected. Marie really isn't bad, she's just not bound by the same morals as others. She's does whatever feels right, and if that defies all common sense and logic, so be it. If I knew Marie in real life, I'd have strangled her. As it is, she's a pretty interesting character. I just felt like the plot completely peters out. She drifts aimlessly from place to place because that's how she is, but as a novel, it's not a completely satisfying read. There's a series of far-fetched coincidences, and the relationship between Marie and Caitlin isn't very believable. I think that's another downfall of the book compared to Room, where the fierce love between Ma and Jack held me spellbound.

Savages vs. The Finkler Question
Savages is a thriller and a page turner. I really liked it, but it's not great literature. I'm not even sure why it's included. It's as violent as one of those Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, so it's a lot more pulpy than any of the other choices. Either way, I'm going to call it as the winner. Why? Because I despised The Finkler Question. That book was self-satisfied nonsense. Nothing happened. Or maybe I should say nothing believable happened. You know how men bag on "chick flicks" and "chick lit"? This kind of book is total Dick Lit to me. I literally don't even get what this dude's problem is, or why I should be interested in it. Most amazing, this book in many reviews is referred to as a great COMIC novel. But it ain't funny. The funniest joke is the book seemed to be that the main character, Julian Treslove, had affairs with 2 different women who both got pregnant, neither aware of the other's existence. He convinced the women to go with the names Rudolpho and Alfredo. The boys' nicknames are....wait for it...Ralf and Alf. This is supposed to be funny? Barf.

A Visit From the Goon Squad vs. Skippy Dies
Tough match up for ol' Skippy. As you know, I found my peace with Skippy Dies. It's genuinely funny, unlike Finkler, and really grapples with why we tell stories, and what it means to be human. I think Goon Squad is working with those same questions, only from a totally different perspective. Skippy is big, sprawling, and messy. Goon Squad is tightly controlled, with small pieces of information being doled out for the reader to remember and put together. I keep imagining the wall in Jennifer Egan's house where she mapped out the plot, timeline, and characters in this book. It must be epic, because it's seamless and nothing is out of place. The other thing is that I finished Skippy Dies and I feel sort of done with it, I finished Goon Squad a few months ago, and I still think about it. It's destined for the re-read pile, for me, that's the surest sign of a winner.

Still working on reading a few books for next week, so I'll post more about those picks then!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Shocking Turn of Events


Sorry about the title---this post brought to you by hyperbole! Last week I so depressed about my lack of progress with the TOB list. But then something amazing happened: I managed to do a bunch of reading. I have now read 10 of the 16 books, and the tournament doesn't even start until Monday!

Skippy Dies
As you know, I finished Skippy Dies. I liked it way more that I expected. I'm not sure if I'd call it irony, but you know when I really started to enjoy the novel? It was once the event promised in the title actually happened. I stopped waiting for it and just sat back and enjoyed the aftermath. I feel gruesome admitting it, but it's the truth: Skippy Dies improved dramatically once Skippy died.

I got stuck a couple of times over the weekend and through Monday with my phone and finished off Next by James Hynes. I really don't know what to make of this book. Basically, it starts with a middle-aged guy leaving Ann Arbor for a job interview in Austin, TX. He spends the first 2/3 of the novel stalking a girl he sat next to on the plane and thinking back on all his previous girlfriends, relationships, and sexual conquests. This is one of those disheartening books where I found myself thinking, "Is this how men really think about women?" It's also a book where I found myself really wondering where the plot was going.

I will finish my discussion of this novel with the following rule of literature, which I formed when reading Next. Jenny's Rule of Literature #1: When it becomes clear that the events novel will take place all on one day, you know some massive, unexpected (but strongly foreshadowed) shit is going down in the last 75 pages.

NoxAfter reading this, I've decided it's more like a poem than a novel, and it's more like art than a book. I think you will love it. The author, Anne Carson, is a Classics professor. Nox (which means "Night", thanks Elissabeth!) is an elegy she created for her brother who died after spending 25 years living abroad. The writing that tells the brother's story is sparse and poetic; the other half of the book defines all the latin words used in an ancient poem by Catullus. Throughout the definitions, she buries references to her brother and her feelings of loss. It's somehow very moving.

However, the amazing thing about this book is IT, the physical "book" itself. I am literally stunned at it's construction: the unfolding, accordian-style pages, the reproductions of photographs and letters, the amazing level of detail in the reproduction. Many of the photos and letter are a little blurry and hazy, just like her feelings for this brother she hardly knew. It's an artifact of a life lost, and I found it haunting.

Wow. This book by Don Winslow is a killer. It's about 2 friends: Chon, a former navy SEAL, and his best friend, Ben. Chon and Ben are young men who have made a killing by growing and selling some of the best hydroponically grown pot in Southern California. A drug cartel wants a cut of the action, and the cartel kidnaps their best friend/girl friend, O, to ensure their compliance. It's a thriller, pot-boiler, and page turner. But it also has super sharp writing, much of which is composed in a kind of almost-poetry. Mix that all in with a dose of biting social commentary, and that's Savages.

Okay, actually, there's this other teensy-tiny little problem. I asked one of my librarians to get this book, because she's been into the Tournament of Books, too. But this sucker is full of violence, profanity, and a lot of sex. Whoops. Maybe I should "lose" the book and pay the library back? I mean, our library doesn't typically censor or anything, but jeez. This book is NSFW, especially when work is a school.

I guess I should write another post predicting the winners of the match-ups. Or are you bored by listening to me blather on about this?