Lake Success: Fiction in an Age Beyond Belief

Lake SuccessHow do you write fiction in an age that is beyond belief?

Gary Shteyngart demonstrates how in his funny new novel, Lake Success.

Shteyngart is a novelist of decline, previously aiming his lens at the former Soviet Union in Absurdistan. He writes of societies in collapse, his characters powerless to stop the farcical sweep of history.

The rot that began overseas has now come here, personified by Donald Trump, who loiters on the periphery of this book set in the summer of 2016. He’s the disaster that won’t happen, the New Yorkers in the book assure themselves. We, of course, know better.

Shteyngart doesn’t typically write about winners. But he does so in Lake Success, the book centered on a pair of the 1%, a hedge fund manager and his wife. Despite their astronomical wealth, and all the luxuries it can buy, they are desperately unhappy. Their son is autistic, a diagnosis that they refuse to admit to themselves or their families. All the money in the world can’t fix him, a situation that sends both of them spiraling out of control.

Barry breaks first, making a run for it, with his $2.4 billion hedge fund collapsing and the SEC on his trail. Throwing away his iPhone and going off the grid, he takes a nostalgic journey – on Greyhound – in search of an ex-girlfriend and the path not taken.

Shteyngart is a New York novelist. No one writes better of the delights and terrors of the city. There’s a great passage at the beginning of the book where Barry stumbles into the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 4 AM, drunk, bleeding and incoherent. To the cops stationed there, “he looked just like another New Yorker.”

The bulk of the novel is Barry traveling by bus across the country, meeting a very different world from his hedge fund manager associates. These chapters are not as strong as the New York sections, lacking the detail and emotional connection of his Gotham work. While there are funny vignettes of dead downtowns (Germans on a tour of “The Wire” locations in Baltimore), they seem rushed and superficial.

While Barry goes in search of his past, his wife Seema is left to clean up the mess. After engaging in an affair with poseur novelist, she’s forced to be truthful with her striving Indian family about her son’s condition. She also must confront the truth of her own life. Is she more than a rich man’s wife?

In Lake Success, Shteyngart writes about Trump without writing about Trump. Barry has benefited enormously from our leveraged economy, memorably described as a man who goes like a thief in the night, stealing a little bit from every house he visits. And, like Trump, he makes and loses immense sums, with little consequence to himself, but enormous consequences to the country as a whole.

Despite the topical theme, it’s not his best book about our times.

Super Sad True Love Story is a better novel. Without the burden of the present, Shteyngart creates a New York and a country gone mad, teetering on the edge of financial collapse, and the deluded, dream-like worlds of Americans who don’t realize that their world is about to end. Brilliant, hilarious and heart-breaking, it’s a love letter to a country that’s about to disappear.

Everything by Shteyngart is worth reading but if I was new to the author, I’d start with Super Sad True Love Story, his masterpiece.

America Needs Diplomats

War on Peace

Ronan Farrow has done the impossible in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, creating a story about bureaucracy that’s compelling and relevant to our troubled times. In this account of recent American diplomatic history, he reveals how the State Department has been hollowed out by Democratic and Republican administrations alike, to the detriment of our national interests.

Standing in for a robust, bipartisan American approach to international relations is the towering figure of Richard Holbrooke, who Farrow worked for at the State Department. He brought peace to the Balkans by literally locking squabbling leaders in a room. His mix of personal charisma, backed with American power, was indispensable in the Clinton era.

But not for Barack Obama, who disdained this figure tied to his political opponents. While he was eventually called to serve, and given the hopeless task for bringing peace to Afghanistan, he was undercut by an administration under the sway of its generals. Foreign policy problems, like coming to some sort of accommodation with the Taliban, became military problems and handled with the same kind of counter-insurgency tactics that failed in the Vietnam War.

Holbrooke lived long enough to see America escape one nation-building exercise, Vietnam, only to become embroiled in another one in Afghanistan.

Farrow makes the case that America needs its diplomats in War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. Sadly, the decline that began under Bush and Obama has only accelerated under the nationalist Trump. We don’t even have ambassadors in hotspots like Saudi Arabia, anymore. Instead, our country is represented by double-dealing members of the Trump/Kushner crime family, who are focused on personal profits rather than our long-term national interests. This would be an anathema to Richard Holbrooke and any of the giants that built the peaceful post-war world that we enjoy.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

I won’t link to the clickbait article (since removed) on how libraries should be replaced by Amazon. You’ve seen it or at least heard about the piece, published by Forbes, who will apparently post any piece of dreck that crosses their digital transom.

Twaddle, came the response from librarians on the Internet.

Among the many things that the author (an economist!) gets wrong is that libraries solely provide books. While they’re very good at that, today’s libraries supply a valuable “third space” to meet, learn and check your email without having to buy anything. This alone is an invaluable service to the community.

Libraries Under Threat

I’m fortunate to live in Washington, DC, which has a wonderful public library system. This wasn’t always the case (see the Marion Barry era) but today the nation’s capital is graced with beautifully renovated branches, like the West End Library. I love checking their online catalog at home, putting a hold on a book, and then picking it up.

If an entrepreneur pitched this concept to Silicon Valley (it’s Uber for books!) it would be worth a billion dollars. But, since libraries have been around since the dawn of civilization, we take them for granted.

Don’t.

Seminole County, FL, where I grew up, is considering outsourcing its library to the lowest bidder, a project that will make a contractor slightly richer and the community much poorer.

A Catalogue of Wonders

Instead, let us celebrate and appreciate libraries. A good place to start is The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells.

This book is less a history of libraries (though you’ll get that) and more of a wonderful collection of stories about bookish pursuits from a master storyteller. You’ll learn how books created the world, from Sumerians scribbling down accounts of grain surpluses to the sweeping tales of the Bible. Every great society has valued books and libraries, from the Romans who treasured (and stole) Greek manuscripts to hidden collections of books amassed by Elizabethans.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is a world tour of libraries, both real and imagined, from the secret stacks of the Vatican to the biblioteca of Borges. Along the way, you’ll learn the scurrilous methods used by collectors to assemble their libraries and how collectors were deceived by unscrupulous booksellers. Henry Clay Folger bought a lot of dubious crap marked Shakespeare when bringing together the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Libraries made us. Without books, and the ability to transmit knowledge across time and space, we would not have civilization. Let’s celebrate our one of our oldest and most valuable inventions: the library.

 

Weekend Read: In the Midst of Winter

In the Midst of Winter
In the Midst of Winter

My reading is guided by serendipity. I let books like In the Midst of Winter find me. Reading should never be required but something you do because you enjoy it.

One night, going through Netflix, I found Allende, a portrayal of the last hours of the Chilean president, who was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1973. The Spanish title for the film is even better: Allende en su laberinto or Allende in His Labyrinth. The movie is not magic realism, despite the title, but gritty realism, as Allende single-handedly defends his revolution against nearly every other institution of the state. His loss results in decades of dictatorship.

The movie left me curious about the thin country so when I saw In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende, I had to pick it up. This new novel by the niece of Salvador Allende concerns itself with social justice. Not what’s legal, but what’s right for vulnerable people such as refugees. As a child, Isabel Allende was driven from Chile following the overthrow of her uncle.

The novel starts with a car accident on a snowy day, an incident that upends the lives of everyone involved. Richard Bowmaster, a stuffy norteamericano academic, gets drawn into the lives of Evelyn Ortega, an illegal immigrant, and Lucia Maraz, a lusty 60-something Chilean. All three are haunted by painful tragedies, their lives shaped by the loss of loved ones. Drawn together in conspiracy, they grow closer as they share the stories of their lives.

The plot is a bit of a melodrama (a mysterious body in the trunk of the car), but, after reading of how much Richard, Evelyn and Lucia have suffered, you want a happy ending. You want them to discover an invincible summer in the midst of winter, to quote Camus.

How do you respond to tragedy, from the loss of family members to the inescapable indignities of growing old? What are our obligations, beyond the law, to refugees? How do you build a just society in an age of cruel states and dictatorships?

In the Midst of Winter offers the simplest of solutions – take care of your fellow humans – a revolutionary act to counteract a world steeped in tragedy.

The Swamp: Early Reviews of My Book

Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.
Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.

One of the most gratifying things about being an author is hearing that people enjoyed your book.

And readers have enjoyed THE SWAMP!

Here are some early reviews of my funny new novel about Washington, DC, and the times we live in now.

Even better than experiencing good reviews is meeting readers, like Mandi in Florida! Her extended family has been some of my biggest supporters. Her aunt Rachel (the cool aunt) designed the cover of my novel.

Check out the hilarious world of THE SWAMP, available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

While The Subtle of Art of Not Giving a Fuck contains revealing and profane stories of personal dissipation and blogging-fueled awakening, at its core is the timeless message of the Stoics: life is short. Make better choices with your time.

Despite its roots among the ancient Greeks, Stoicism is a philosophy that’s still relevant today. First practiced by men such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, its core tenet is that while we can’t control circumstance, we can control our response to circumstance. Born from troubled times, the Stoics admired people who played the cards they were dealt, no matter how bad, searching for a way out of difficulty.

The Obstacle is the Way in other words, a (much better) book that popularizes this ancient belief system with examples from throughout history.

What makes The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck unique is its rejection of happy talk. Mark Manson shreds the relentless positivity of the self-help industry which is not helpful at all. Divorce, illness, joblessness – sometimes life is just going to suck and trying to talk yourself into happiness won’t get you there.

In fact, as with writing, concentrating on being happy will just make you less so, for it is an emotion that flies from you as you seek it.

Manson prescribes the doctrine of the ancient Greeks: don’t worry about happiness, for you will be dead soon.

Instead, focus on being useful. Put aside your illusory dreams of riches and fame. Be a better person today, to the people around you, for that is the ultimate measure of a life.

Books and Beer: Everybody Behaves Badly

Bell's and behaving badly
A Hemingway-themed beer to go with a Hemingway-themed book.

For the friends of Hemingway in 1920s Paris, everything was dated B.S. or A.S. Before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, their lives were complicated and largely anonymous. After Sun, their flaws were exposed to the world.

The story of the making of this literary masterpiece is told in Everybody Behaves Badly, an account of Hemingway, his friends and the events that inspired the first modern American novel of the 20th Century.

I paired the book with Bell’s Two Hearted. One of the early IPAs, it’s been a favorite ever since it first surprised my taste buds on a 100 degree day at the Capital Fringe Festival. Tangy and citrusy, it defines summer to me.

Named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan, a favorite vacation spot for young Hemingway, and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, it’s perfect the beer pairing for a book about Papa at work.

And it was recently named the best beer in America.

What does it take to create a novel? For Hemingway, it meant betraying nearly everyone in his world – mentors, drinking buddies, literary rivals and even his wife – as he strived to become a giant in American letters.

The Sun Also Rises was a revolution when it was published in 1926, a fusion of high/low style, in which Hemingway took postmodern “less is more” prose and married it with a scandalous story of dissipation among the idle rich. What lifted it above a drunken yarn was the epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “You are all a lost generation.” This defining quote, as well as the title, turned the novel into a representation of youth scarred by war, seeking for a meaning in a landscape without God or authority.

The novel is less a story and more transcription of a disastrous trip to see the bullfights in Pamplona. Following the debacle, Hemingway wrote the book in a period of weeks, not even bothering to change the real names of people that he used in the first draft.

The characters in Sun are all real, and scarcely disguised from their actual counterparts. The most appalling depiction is that of Harold Loeb, who admired Hemingway with almost slavish devotion. In return, he gets mocked in the novel as Robert Cohn, a Jew who doesn’t know his place, with the temerity to romance Lady Brett, a woman that he certainly doesn’t deserve. It was a portrayal and a betrayal that Loeb never got over and one that he spent decades trying to understand.

After the publication of the book in 1926, there was a craze to be like Lady Brett, the hard-drinking sex symbol of the novel. Like her literary counterpart, Lady Duff Twysden was a broke alcoholic of a dubious lineage. Fleeing debts and family complications, she ended up in Santa Fe, before dying of tuberculosis. Hemingway, cruel to the end, told his biographer that her casket was carried by former lovers, who dropped it at the funeral – a fictitious tale.

Her husband in the novel, Mike Campbell (the real Pat Guthrie), the very model of the dissipated English upper classes, died of a drug overdose, owing money to bars and hotels all over Paris.

Depicted as trying to trick Cohn into marrying her, Frances Clyne (the real Kitty Cannell) went on to one of the most fascinating lives of all the people mocked in The Sun Also Rises. After surviving Paris during Nazi occupation, she become a game show guest, noted for her expertise in everything from timeless glamor to surviving prison. One subject she wouldn’t discuss: Hemingway. She thought he was a bastard from the very beginning.

While the backstories in Everybody Behaves Badly are fascinating, what makes the book great is the story of how Hemingway created his masterpiece. Everybody Behaves Badly is a writer’s book – I’ve never read a book that does a better job explaining how a novel actually gets written, showing how Hemingway took real events and transmuted them into his novel.

One character Hemingway leaves out of the book: Hadley, his wife. The Paris Wife depicts her as crushed by this omission, knowing that she was losing her husband.

By the time The Sun Also Rises is published, Hemingway was moving on from the woman who subsidized his early writing efforts for a richer catch: the heiress Pauline Pfeiffer.

Thirty years later, in the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tried to blame the pernicious influence of rich friends on his decision to leave Hadley. They said that Hemingway deserved someone more stylish than doughty Hadley.

But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald predicted back in 1926, with every major new book, Hemingway would have a new wife. After Pauline would come Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.

Write what you know. That’s the cardinal rule of writing. For Hemingway, that meant mining his own life for the material to create The Sun Also Rises. It’s his best book and the novel that frees American literature from its fussy and florid predecessors. Like a good IPA, it’s a sharp and refreshing shock to everything you’ve experienced before.

Five Novels for the Age of Trump

trump jalopy at the CapitolNothing makes sense anymore. You wake up one morning and your country has changed. It seems absurd. Laughable. Yes, America really did elect Donald Trump.

How do you survive this new vulgar age? By reading fiction. According to a recent Time magazine article, books will not only make you smarter, they can provide comfort during a traumatic time. The immersive experience that good books provide is cheap therapy for the disaffected.

Here are five books to help you cope with recent events. Five novels that provide a comic perspective to understanding the Age of Trump.

Super Sad True Love Story

No one is better at identifying a failing and corrupt state than a Soviet emigre. In Super Sad Love Story, Gary Shteyngart draws a portrait of a dystopian New York in the near future. No one works anymore, everyone seeks social media fame and the Chinese are threatening to foreclose on the country. It’s a comic ruin of a book, one that will break your heart while it keeps you laughing. And one that will make you determined that this dystopia never comes to America.

The Nix

Our poisonous politics began during the culture wars of the 1960s, according to the The Nix by Nathan Hill. Hippie vs square, young vs old, liberal vs conservative – it’s a battle that was never resolved and continues to today. In the book, a failed writer puts down the gaming console to discover the mystery of the mother who abandoned him for radical politics.

The Sellout

Racism. That’s the explanation for Clinton’s loss, according to her supporters. It’s America’s original sin. Okay. But what do you next? If you’re the narrator of The Sellout, you decide to reinstitute segregation in your LA neighborhood as an attempt to bring people up. And you keep a slave, one that has forced himself into your service. That the nation is outraged by these efforts is not surprising, as “The Sellout” is brought before the Supreme Court in a tour de force of comic writing. It’s a searing novel that deserves the mother of all trigger warnings but one that contains the tiniest threads of hope for the American project.

Catch-22

What do you do if caught in a world that doesn’t make sense? Thousands of bureaucrats in DC are about to find out, being whiplashed from the soft socialism of Obama to the incoherent populism of Trump. In this WWII novel, Yossiarian finds himself in a system that doesn’t make sense. He’s a bombardier and has to fly dangerous missions. If you’re crazy, you don’t have to fly missions. But being crazy is a rational response to flying missions. Therefore, you’re not crazy and have to keep flying. Catch-22 is a hell of a catch. This novel by Joseph Heller illustrates an absurd system, one instantly recognizable to any federal government employee.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

American politics are tumultuous. But not as tumultuous as Macondo, the fictional world created by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. The doomed Buendia family suffers war, revolution, murder, magic, dueling, insanity, incest, massacre and a hurricane in this sprawling human comedy. It’s seven generations of suffering, as history repeats itself, going from hope to tragedy. A simple election doesn’t seem so bad by comparison. At least, you’re not being lined up in front of a firing squad, dreaming of ice. Lose yourself in this thick book.

Reading can provide consolation to those suffering trauma. Or at least distraction. Forget the news. Put down the iPhone. Pick up a novel instead. These five books will help you survive the Age of Trump.

The Up Side of Down by Megan McAardle

The Up Side of DownMegan McArdle has failed. By her own admission, she has failed multiple times, from her love life to her career choices. Which makes her the perfect person to write the book on failure.

The Up Side of Down argues that we all must learn to fail a little better, a little faster and to, most importantly, learn from the experience. There is no growth without failure, whether we’re talking economies or individuals.

McArdle bolsters her case with examples from business, medicine, physchology and economics. Discussing everything from the learning styles of children to the Solyndra debacle, she offers a kaleidoscope-look at the varieties of American failure.

And she makes a really important point on failure – we’re a nation founded by people who couldn’t hack it in the Old World. It wasn’t comfortable lords who built this country but starving peasants willing to risk a sea voyage for the opportunity to start anew. These failures created the greatest nation on earth.

One of the best chapters in the book discusses the plague of long-term unemployment, a problem once unique to Europe that has become an American scourge. McCardle writes with great compassion about people who have been unemployed for longer than a year, and the cruelties of the job market that keep them that way. She likens unemployment to a dark room that you’ve stumbled into. The people who get out are the ones who keep moving, pursuing multiple opportunities in hopes that one of them will pay off.

The Up Side of DownMcArdle’s career illustrates this principle. An MBA who was jobless following 9/11, she (among other activities) started blogging, which led  to positions at The Economist, the Atlantic and Bloomberg View. Blogging was just one of several different options that she pursued during unemployment.

It is to our benefit that she found success as a blogger. McArdle is one  of the best explainers of economic ideas (far better than the needlessly wonky and overrated Ezra Klein). She takes the dismal science and puts it into terms anyone can understand, using examples from her own life.

For example, her desperate pursuit of a man who didn’t want her illustrates the idea of “sunk costs.” She had put in too many years to give up, having invested too much emotionally to just walk away. The failure was so devastating that she left NYC, moved to DC, and found her future husband – an example of the positive aspects of failure.

Interestingly, she cites surveys where many people cite failures – getting fired or divorced -as the best thing that ever happened to them. These calamities prompted people to try new things and find love elsewhere. We are “failure machines,” willing to try different solutions until we find the one that works. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We need more failures. Like Steve Jobs. Prior to the Macintosh, he failed with the Lisa, an overpriced personal computer that no one wanted. And before the success of the iPhone, there was the ignominy of the Newton. Jobs kept iterating, coming up with new ideas and new products, undaunted. Taking lessons from each failure enabled Jobs to find his way to success

McArdle discusses young journalists who sabotage their own careers by just giving up. So afraid of turning in a lousy manuscript, they write nothing. But a terrible first-draft can be fixed; one that doesn’t exist cannot. McCardle tells writers that they have permission to suck, realizing that this simple bit of advice is key to unlocking creative potential.

America needs to regain its taste for failure, something we have lost in the malaise of the Obama Economy. Risk-taking needs to be encouraged once again. Failures are learning experiences. Failures indicate confidence in the future – we’re willing to try new things, to make investments, to take chances.

“We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” I love this quote by Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines. It perfectly expresses the optimism and can-do nature of the American spirit. We’re going to keep trying things until we find what works. Even if that means failure. Especially if it does.

The Up Side of Down is an overview of failure. We must embrace failure, treasure it, and, most importantly, learn from the experience. The secret to success is rooted in the hard lessons of failure.

Instagram Does Video!

I’ve never been much of a YouTube user. I never saw the point in Vine. I was impressed with the video capability of the iPhone 5, but didn’t use it much, without the ability to share the clips.

Until now. Instagram does video!

The little square photos that Instagram produces are cheesy and amateurish, like Polaroids sitting in an old shoebox. That’s the point – Instagram is a fun way to share pictures of daily life.

And now you can create short video clips in Instagram. It works the same as taking a picture except you the hold down the video camera button in the app. You can take 15 seconds worth of video, in one long clip or several smaller clips. Video stabilization is on automatically. Once you’re done, you can apply filters to give it that Super-8 look or just use it as is.

You can’t edit your clip. It’s pretty much point, shoot, share.

For photos, I shoot with the iPhone Camera app first and then import the ones I like into Instagram. You can’t do that with videos. You can only shoot clips using Instagram.

Without the ability to edit, and having to use the Instagram app, you have to plan out your video shoots. You only have one take to get it right.

I shot this at Gravelly Point, near Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. I wanted to get a video of a plane of going over the bike trail as it came in to land.

In my first take, I ran out of film. I hit the video button when the jet turned toward National but it didn’t reach me before my 15 seconds were up. For the next shot, I waited until the airplane got closer and panned up as it went over my head – the video stabilization was impressive!

Instagram Video is not quite dummy-proof (it took me a couple tries to figure out) but it’s pretty damn close. While it has some major limitations (no way to edit), it’s the easiest way to share short video clips.

You can save your clips to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even FourSquare but not Flickr or YouTube.

Mind-boggling to think how far iPhone video has come in just the last couple of years. In the old days – 2010 – you needed a video camera, a Mac and Final Cut Pro to make a movie. Your iPhone has replaced all those tools.

Oh, and I used Embed Instragram to embed this video.