- Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett
- The Social Animal, David Brooks
- Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson
- Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra
- The Sabbath World, Judith Shulevitz
Which of these things is not like the others? Four of these books were excellent. One made me literally scream out loud with frustration. Read on to find out more!
First up: fiction! I had a lovely brunch with a newly admitted TC student, and we ended up talking books. (Because I always end up talking books, eventually.) She told me she’d read Sacred Games, and then immediately started it over again because it was so good. With a recommendation like that, I wasn’t going to wait! The book begins with the death of a Mumbai gangster, Ganesh Gaitonde, as Inspector Sartaj Singh attempts to capture him. The story explains what brought Gaitonde to his unlikely end, and follows Singh’s investigation into the death and its consequences. That’s a very bare summary that hardly does the story justice: it’s simultaneously a fantastic thriller, a moving personal journey, a glimpse into the many worlds of Mumbai, and a repository of beautiful language. What I enjoyed most is how big the book felt. The characters are larger-than-life, but without becoming less than human. The plot is huge and not afraid to be huge. The language shifts between dialects and voices, bringing a whole world to life. I didn’t start it again immediately upon finishing, but I’ll definitely read this one again soon. Highly, highly recommended.
Truth and Beauty, on the other hand, was short and small: small the way a neutron star is small, with a deep gravity that draws you in. I found it a terribly moving, but terribly difficult, book to read. Patchett describes her lifelong friendship with Lucy Grealy with compassion but without sentimentality. They both come off as deeply flawed – Patchett staid, Grealy needy, Patchett cowardly, Grealy self-obsessed – but also as beautiful in their love for each other and for writing. The hardest thing for me was grappling with the intensity of their relationship. It’s not how I relate to my own friends, and it made me wonder if I’m missing something very important in life. At the end of the day, though, I think I wouldn’t want a friendship like Patchett and Grealy had. I have lifelong friends who are like family to me; they bring me joy and I know I can count on them if I’m in trouble. However, I don’t expect my friends to solve all my emotional problems or vice versa. There was something exploitative in their relationship, despite (or perhaps because of?) its intensity, that I wouldn’t want in my life. So I’d recommend this book, not only because it’s a beautiful portrait of a friendship, but also because it will make you think hard about your own life as a friend.
Speaking of friends: you know how it’s way worse if a friend does something crappy than if it’s a total stranger? That’s how I felt about The Social Animal. It’s almost an awesome book, but it fails so badly precisely because it could be so good. Brooks’s basic argument is that unconscious ideas, non-cognitive skills, emotions, and relationships are important, and rather underrepresented in our popular discourse about how people work. I totally agree! But Brooks distorts the research and comes to some problematic conclusions. Some of this may be happening unintentionally, in the process of simplification and integration, but anyone who spends a wholly uncritical freaking chapter writing about evolutionary psychology has pretty much lost the benefit of my doubt. I was also deeply pissed off by the two characters he constructs to “humanize” his argument. One is an upper-middle-class white dude who is clearly a David Brooks stand-in. And the other character is … The Other. She’s non-white, biracial, female, grew up in poverty, etcetera, etcetera. I kept waiting for the moment where she reveals she’s a lesbian or in gender transition, just to make the othering complete. ARGH DAVID BROOKS PLEASE SUCK LESS WHEN DISCUSSING THINGS I CARE ABOUT. Part of me hopes this book changes the public conversation, and part of me hopes it gets ripped to shreds by people who actually understand what he’s talking about.
Fortunately, Robinson gave me some excellent fodder for thinking through my problems with Brooks and his ilk – and for thinking hard about my own approach to research. These essays look at the history of what she calls “para-scientific” positivism, or the notion that behavior can be explained without reference to experience. Then she proceeds to take that idea apart, without pulling punches. (My summary of her take on evolutionary psychology: “Have evolutionary psychologists ever actually met a human being? Or been one?”)
Finally, Shulevitz’s book on the history of the Sabbath was absolutely terrific. She ties together memoir, historical research, anthropological investigation, philosophy and more, to try to understand the “temporal technology” of Sabbath observance. I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, and these days I call myself ‘observant’ (for many rather boring reasons), so Shabbat is an enormously important part of my life. I loved that she took the topic so seriously, and I was fascinated by all the connections she made – from looking at how Christianity moved to a Sunday ‘Sabbath’, to how labor laws encode a particular set of ideas about the fungibility of time. I’ve been pondering a series of posts about Shabbat and its function in my own life, so you may hear more about this book in the future. Until then, let me just say that I recognized a lot of the issues she grapples with, even if I’ve made very different decisions on how I want my Shabbat experience to be.
I haven’t done any of these books justice, so I suggest you go read them all … just don’t pay any money to David Brooks!