Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What I've Been Reading

"The Finkler Question" - Howard Jacobson

Rargh agh ah. I really just don’t get this book. It was recommended to me by someone who hadn’t read it, and they said it would be great, and now I know the only possible reason they could have said that is because 1) they never read it, and 2) they aren’t an old white Jewish man.

I don’t really feel qualified to talk shit about this book. Hell, I’m not really qualified to talk shit about any book at all, especially not one that one the Man Booker and is written by someone undoubtedly infinitely more knowledgeable about writing and life than I am. But to start, there was absolutely no plot. None at all. I’m not some kind of short-attention-spanned simple reader who needs big, continuous events to keep her interested in a book, but I think when it comes to the point that you’re bored by the middle of a sentence (let alone page, let alone book) you question the lack of movement in the text.

Apparently it is paraded for ‘wit’ but I laughed three times. That might be okay for a book of another genre (what the hell genre is The Finkler Question anyway?) but apparently this book is supposed to be comedic. It’s paraded as that black kind of comedy, but I couldn’t see anything too dark in it and laughing three times doesn’t make it a ‘funny’ book. Jonathon Safran Foer speaks very highly (so highly, in fact, that he’s quoted on the cover of The Finkler Question) of Mr. Jacobson’s with and special kind of black humor. I like Mr. Foer, that’s for sure, but I just cant agree with him. I don’t see it. This review in the New Yorker describes quite accurately what I mean – “Jacobson has a weakness for breaking into one-line paragraphs, so as to nudge the punch line on us. The effect is bullying, and, worse, bathetic: we have probably already predicted the joke by the time we reach its italicization.”

I’m getting annoyed now, because maybe this is one of those things that only adults can like. It’s a book version of olives. Or quiet baths. Is there something in this book that identifies the maturity level of the reader and says “you may not enjoy or even remotely begin to understand this book’? That’s just ridiculous. I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy plenty of adult books (not that kind of ‘adult’) and I love olives and quiet baths.

My conclusion is that it must be the Jewish thing.

At first this made me worry that I was an anti-Semitist. I mean, the whole book is about anti-Semitism, you couldn’t be human and not question your status towards Judaism after reading any damn book that was about it. I came to the conclusion that I was not an anti-Semitist, I mean you know, I don’t think I am. I’m pretty sure I’m not. But I’m willing to admit that I know next to nothing about Judaism. Is that why I can’t enjoy this book? But that’s not fair. I should be able to enjoy the greater meaning of a book without understanding every inch of the detail within. I should be able to identify with the characters on some kind of human level, regardless of their gender or religion.

I mean, I pretty much hate all of the characters in this book. Julian Tresolve is pathetic literally to the point of incongruous. He is such a big failure that I actually find it difficult to believe he has the companions he does. Not that they are really any better – no. The three main characters are three old white Jewish men who, between the three of them, almost scrape together enough substance for one. Almost.

Of course, there was a reason I didn’t stop reading entirely. I believe that there is some wisdom in the book. A few times I found myself paused after a sentence and just thinking about things. Not too often, though. (I.e. not often enough.) The other reason I kept reading, is that I thought maybe if I kept going I would learn more about Jewishness (or as the book says, Finklerishness) and then maybe I would be able to understand more as I went along. This delightful idea of simultaneous learning and then understanding did not come to fruition though, and it just made me angry at Mr. Jacobson. It wasn’t fair. The book must be good to with the Man Booker – right? Who is he to deny me the right to enjoy a Man Booker recipient? Who do you think you are, Mr. Jacobson! This book itself makes me feel alienated from the Jewish faith/culture/everything. And that’s what the book is kind of about… which just adds a whole other level of confusion to the mix.

To be fair, I think most people reading this book would probably actually know what ‘Zionism’ actually is (not just a contextual understanding of the work from hearing it sporadically through one’s short life so far) before they begin, and not have to google it (and other definitions) hastily between sentences. Perhaps an almost 20-year old girl is not who Mr. Jacobson had in mind when he wrote this book all about old white Jewish men. But regardless of the specificities, I refuse to downplay my ability to connect to the human experience – and I could not connect to any of the characters in this book. The Washington Post review  mentioned the novel has elements of absurdism, and I think that’s definitely true, and when it’s done well it accounts for 2/3 of the times I laughed(so that is literally two of the three times) but the trouble with it elsewhere in the book, is that it removes the ability for people to connect with the characters.

In closing, I would say: do not bother with this book unless you have some kind of Jewish thing in your life somehow. If you have studied it recently, if you are Jewish yourself, if you have close Jewish friends – anything at all, then read it and get back to me. You must be able to see something I don’t. Even if this is the case, and I am the missing link in the reader/text relationship, then I still maintain this as a failing on the side of The Finkler Question. Why? Because I should not have to read the blurb of a book, and only become interested in it if I resemble to protagonist. Because books, in the heart of them, should have themes and ideas and characters with human universality that any open-minded human can connect to.

"Superfreakonomics" - Stephen J. Dubner & Steven Levitt

Okay. HOLY SHIT THIS BOOK IS SO SO AWESOME EVERYBODY HAS TO GO OUT AND READ IT. It made me laugh and it made me smile and it made me sad and then happy, and also inspired, awed, amazed and most importantly, it left me enlightened.

I feel like I shouldn’t actually have to say much about this book simply because of how incredibly good it is. I used to hear the word ‘economics’ and think ‘accountant’. Oh – how very wrong I was. Economics in the hands of these two geniuses has the power to not only be supremely entertaining, but also seriously educational. This book taught me a whole lot about human nature. The motivations behind our actions, the patterns in our behaviour, and the way we interact with the modern world. And I laughed while I was learning – how great is that!?!?

Mr. Dubner and Mr. Levitt came together for Freakonomics (essentially the prequel to Superfreakonomics) and for some strange reason I just came to have the second book in my hands first. Needless to say, there is absolutely nothing that I could not understand or appreciate for having not read the first book. No worries there. In fact, I’ve already ordered Freakonomics. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of their material.

I think the quality of this work lies in those two great things I keep coming back to – originality and impact. There is crazy high levels of originality in the work that these men are doing. The way they use traditional economics to looks at totally uncouth but real-world situations is something that the world has never seen before. The impact comes from the conclusions they can draw from their data. They make you laugh while they’re telling the story, but this book has gifted me with several long hours of hard though about the idea of humanity. To spurn such thought is talent on the part of the writer/s. Nobody can deny that.

The other awesome thing I want you to know, is that these guys do podcasts. They aren’t quite as good as the books, I’ll be honest with you there, but they are awesome companions. I haven’t listened to all of them (there are tons!) but at least ten have passed through these ears and into this mind and this mind is both entertained and thankful. I don’t think you should listen to the podcasts if you haven’t already read either Freakonomics or Superfreakonomics, but you should definitely consider it as an incentive to buy and read the books themselves. For me, knowing that I have hours and hours more of listening pleasure to continue what reading the book began, well – it just makes me happy.

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