>Tana French’s Faithful Place: A Review

If you haven’t read Tana French’s  In the Woods and The Likeness: A Novel, then now is definitely the time to start acquainting yourself with this great author. With every new novel (and this is her third one) Tana French is showing signs of a creative growth that are nothing short of remarkable. I have been eagerly awaiting the release of her Faithful Place: A Novel and I’m happy to report that this novel will not disappoint either French’s fans or her new readers who are only now discovering her work.

Tana French is one of those really gifted female writers who seems self-conscious of her literary talent. As a result, she hides her capacity to write good novels behindsthe mask of a detective novel writer. Sure enough, there is always a murder in her novels, and the main chracter is some sort of a plice officer. However, people who come to her novels in search of a straightforward murder mystery often leave disappointed. French’s gift lies in writing about life, about the daily trials of being human. So if you want a murder mystery that will keep you guessing ntil the last page who the killer is, French is not your writer.

Tana French’s writing is beautiful. She has a way of describing modern-day Ireland that will leave you completely enamored of this fascinating country. In my opinion, nobody creates more powerful descriptions of today’s Dublin than this writer. French’s sentences are always beautifully constructed, the characters are incredibly well-crafted, and the plot lines are engrossing.

The best thing about Tana French for me is her capacity to create a very unique first-person perspective in every one of her novels. Each book is narrated in a voice that is very unique and absolutely unforgettable. Faithful Place: A Novel is very different in terms of its first-person narrator from French’s previous two novels. Her fans are used to this author creating very endearing, complex characters whom you cannot fail to admire. In this new novel, however, we encounter a very different kind of character. Francis Mackey is not an extremely attractive character, to say the least. He is self-involved, selfish, and often very mean. He tortures his ex-wife to punish her for moving on after their divorce, he is mean to his aging mother, and he thinks nothing of hurting his little daughter’s feelings just to run off and investigate an old girlfriend’s disappearance, he is a pretty lousy father, and a horrible brother to his siblings. He thinks nothing of intimidating and ssaulting witnesses, even when the witness in question is an overworked mother of three. He has been obsessed with his former girlfriend Rosie for twenty years and has never been able to get over her apparent desertion. In short, Frank is a character one is hard pressed to like.

It’s is a mark of a very good writer, however, to be able to make one’s readers care about the main character who is as difficult to admire as Frank Mackey. Tana French achieves that and more. The book is an absolute pleasure to read. As much as you might want to get to the solution of the mystery of Rosie’s disappearance and Frank’s painful relationship with his family, you will still want to linger over each beautifully written sentence.

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>Immaturity and the Housing Bubble: Review of Edmund Andrews’s "Busted"

Andrews is a long-standing reporter for the economics section of the New York Times. This is what makes the story he tells in Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown so scary. Andrews’s book presents two closely connected stories: the history of the creation of the US housing bubble that started the current economic crisis and his personal story of getting into an incredible amount of debt in the years that led to the collapse of the housing market.

This is a book that needs to be read, even though it will make you lose your faith in humanity for a long time to come. Andrews analyzes in great detail how the lending institutions gradually became more and more driven by the desire for instant profit without stopping to think for a second what will happen long term. The author also brings to light the incredible, mind-boggling stupidity of Greenspan, Bernanke, and Co. He demonstrates how corrupt and dishonest the Bush Jr. administration was.

None of this, however, is very new. At least not to me. From the moment I moved from Quebec to the US, it became obvious to me that the housing prices in this country were ridiculously over-inflated. I saw my friends and colleagues pay really insane, seven-figure prices for poky little apartments in Manhattan or run-down bungalows in Connecticut and immediately realized that this was the game I would never agree to pay. Mortgaging away your life for the next 30 years in hopes that the bubble will get even bigger and the price of your house would magically grow seemed like a genuinely stupid proposition even for someone like me, who at 27 was woefully ignorant about economy. Today, when I understand the workings of this country’s economy and politics a lot better, I am even more reluctant to participate in this insanity.

What really bothered me in Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown was not the story of the housing bubble. It was the story of a nearly fantastic immaturity. Immaturity on both sides, the lenders’ and the borrowers’. Those who handed out completely unsecured loans to people incapable of ever paying them off and those who accepted loans they could never even imagine paying off. Andrews was one of those who accepted. And accepted. And accepted some more.

The immaturity and total intellectual impotence of this man – who, once again, writes for the economics section of The New York Times – is mind-boggling. He decides to take out a loan to buy a half-million dollar house. As a result, he knows that his entire paycheck will go towards his alimony payments and the mortgage with not a dime left over for the bills. Of course, he hopes that his new wife will make enough money to cover all of their living expenses. Nothing would be all that wrong about this picture, if it weren’t for one tiny detail. His new wife has been a house-wife who hasn’t worked a day in the past 20 years. Besides, she is accustomed by her former husband to living the life of luxury. She didn’t even do any work around the house because her first husband paid for a housekeeper. On top of that, Andrews gets this woman to move to a completely different part of the country. Then, he expects her to find a well-paying job – with no skills, no connections, no experience of being an employee – and start paying all the bills: “We had both assumed she could earn enough for us to get by. We didn’t have any idea how she would do it; we were both simply sure that she could do it.” It is incredible to encounter such profound intellectual impotence from any one over the age of 12.

This is not the weirdest thing about Andrews’s relationship with Patty, the woman who eventually became his second wife. He left his first wife and proposed to Patty before Patty and he had ANY kind of a relationship. They hadn’t even as much as kissed, let alone had sex or lived together. And these are not some horny teenagers. These are people who are almost 50 at the time. During marriage counselling, Andrews and Patty discover that they do not see eye to eye on 90% of issues discussed. This, however, does not suggest to them that it might make sense to postpone the wedding until they actually get to know something about each other.

Andrews’s path to penury begins when he takes out a sub-prime mortgage on his new house. Over the next few years he gets so far into debt that you couldn’t dig him out of it with an excavator, just to keep the stupid super expensive house. And you know why? In his own words, “Even though it was all about buying a house in the suburbs, it felt vaguely exciting, edgy, and a little gangsta.” When a balding, paunchy, white gentleman in his late forties is motivated to take out an impossible loan because he wants to feel “gangsta”, of all the stupid things, you know that something is seriously wrong here. And this is supposed to be a well-educated upper-middle-class individual, who works as a journalist, for Pete’s sake!

In order to climb out of the financial hole he has dug for himself, Andrews tries every crazy borrowing practice out there. He runs up a staggering credit card debt, empties his pension account, and even hits up for money his elderly mother. There is just one thing he doesn’t do: try to cut down the costs. Andrews goes through his wedding to his second wife in throes of a panic attack over mounting bills and huge debt. After that, he proceeds to pay the caterers that were hired for the wedding. Of course, the idea that people who can’t pay the electricity bill might be able to do without a catered wedding never crosses his mind.

For a while, Andrews’s family income rises to $200,000 per year. I don’t know about you, people, but for me this is a staggering amount of money. One could live like a king on half that amount. Still, Andrews cannot make ends meet. Even though the debt is growing and his interest rates become sky-high, he keeps spending on things that cannot possily be considered necessary expenses: cable telivision, HBO, beach house, Ipods, expensive clothes, the list is endless.

Andrews criticizes the irresponsible lenders virulently. He never stops to think, though, that those who criminally handed out unsecured loans were motivated by the same basic immaturity that got him into so much trouble: have fun now and assume that things will somehow work out in the end. These people, who are so immature that it makes my hair stand on end in horror, are the ones that got us into this mess. They mortgaged away our future, and their children’s and grand-children’s future because they wanted that Ipod, that house, that vacation right now and didn’t want to pay for them. Now, we will all have to pay for their lack of responsibility and their inhuman immaturity for decades to come.

[To be continued…]

>Struggling with Computers

>Technology doesn’t like me. Back at Cornell, I once managed to destroy both of our departmental copiers. And I did it twice. And it all happened in the space of an hour. So I was not very surprised to discover that over the winter holidays the hard drive of my work computer had “melted” (according to our IT specialist) for no apparent reason. I requested a new computer (which I am owed as per the conditions of my employment). The IT person reformatted the part of the hard drive that hadn’t melted, instead. Needless to say, it took the computer less than a week to stop functioning.

After I reported this disaster, it took the IT person until the day before yesterday to walk to my office with a new computer. Everybody knows that IT people have a tendency to get distracted very easily. Still, he did install a new, out-of-the-box computer on Wednesday. The next day (which ws yesterday) I came to work 2 hours early in order to prepare my classes for next week. My goal was to get all the work out of the way and have an uninterrupted 4-day-long weekend. When I came to work, however, I discovered that my “new” computer was dead.

Not only was I annoyed, I was also very bored. There is really nothing to do on campus at 7:30 in the morning if you have no computer.

When the IT person finally showed up, he started reinstalling (or whatever, I’m not good with the terminology) the computer. When I came to my office after teaching all my classes, I discovered that the computer was, indeed, working. The only problem was that something happened to the screen resolution and after five minutes of working on the computer I was on the verge of going insane. It turns out that the IT person connected a wrong monitor to this computer. How he thought I would be able to work on it is beyond me. We all know, however, that IT people have very weird ways of thinking about things.

Now he tells me that when I come back to work on Tuesday the computer will be in a working condition. Yeah, right. I’m so not going to work without bringing my own computer.

P.S. My home laptop also started acting up. But I think I managed to repair it. I won’t go into the endless story of how long and painful the process was but it kind of seems like it worked. I feel very proud of myself. Maybe now I should take the job of installing my office computer into my own hands.

>Living Oprah by Robyn Okrant: A Review

>A review from an anonymous guest blogger:

I must admit I was excited when I downloaded Living Oprah on Kindle. I was anticipating one of two things: either a very easy unpretentious read with humorous anecdotes (along the lines of Confessions of a Shopaholic) or more of an investigative account analyzing the Oprah phenomenon from a critical standpoint (along the lines of Selling Sickness).

Well, a few pages in I realized that the book was neither. It was just a big yawn of predictable jokes and the author failing to explain what the point of her project actually was. Is she a crazy Oprah fan? Apparently not (at least she says she isn’t, despite her countless recounts of how admirable, wonderful and inspiring Oprah is). Is she a critic ready to discuss openly the negative impact an Oprah-type show can have on its audience? Once again, hardly. Rather, the author positions herself as an intellectual who is above dressing up (sports bras and granny panties being her underwear of choice), an avid feminist (despite feeling a sense of trepidation before asking her husband’s permission to embark on the project and going as far as doubting that her marriage will last through the endeavor. Umm, dramatic much?) and certainly not a fame seeker (after an extremely long explanation of why she wanted to remain anonymous, the author concedes to revealing her name for the sake of being interviewed). I was confused! But worst of all, certainly not entertained.

I will give you a couple of examples. Even though I could go on and on, I do not want you to experience the same sense of boredom to which I subjected myself.

The author makes fun of Oprah’s suggestion that she purchase a pair of leopard-print flats. By making fun of it, all I mean to say is that she tells us she laughed at the suggestion hysterically. Ok, funny. Yet, further on in the book she falls in love with the shoes. Umm, I kept wondering: what was the point of that story?

The author makes fun of Oprah’s fans who nearly worship her and go into a frenzy at her shows. She attends one of the tapings and stresses and underlines endlessly how different she is from all those other fans. Yet, she describes the overwhelming feeling of excitement she, too, succumbed to at the show. Ok, what was the point of this story?

She seems to criticize Oprah’s suggestions to renovate, remodel and engage in other home-improvement projects. Yet, when she follows all these suggestions, she seems happy with the result.

She seems to criticize Oprah’s constant dieting projects. Yet is really excited to have lost weight and shares several pictures of herself in a bikini to prove the point.

The author tries to show that watching every single episode of Oprah alienated her from her friends and loved ones. In order to prove the point, she tells us about her family’s Thanksgiving dinner where she had to go upstairs to watch a taped episode of Oprah while her family was downstairs laughing and enjoying the holiday. Ok, again I am confused. What was the rush of watching the episode at that particular time? It was taped anyway. Well no, I do get it. It was a far-fetched attempt at creating drama and showing how hard the project was.

I forced myself to read the book to the end. I was curious to read the author’s conclusion. After all, she spent 365 days following Oprah’s every word of advice. So, is Oprah’s show a god-send or an evil creation? Is following Oprah’s suggestions detrimental or a great idea? But no, the conclusion is not about that. Actually, it’s not about anything. It goes on and on to tell us how happy the author is living her own life and not following someone else’s advice (again, despite the author’s countless examples of her million-and-one insecurities listed throughout the book). I have one word to summarize my impression of Living Oprah: blah.

From Clarissa:

I have to confess that I was the one to recommend this book to the reviewer (without having read it.) I’m interested in this type of books (although not enough to read them myself :-)) because they represent a curious social phenomenon. One of the prime examples of this phenomenon is Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. A blogger decided to follow Julia Child’s recipes within a year and blogged about it. The experiment was so successful that it turned into an inane book and an equally inane film based on it. Robyn Okrant decided to do something even easier and simply attached herself to the image of wildly popular Oprah Winfrey.

Many people decided to do something similar and start some kind of project that would later morph into a book over even a movie. This is the book equivalent of reality TV shows. For the most part, even when the original idea is not bad (like in Living Oprah), the authors lack even the most basic sense of humor and intelligence that are needed to make the project a success.

Celebrity culture encourages everyone to think of themselves as potential celebrities, as possessing unique if unacknowledged gifts.

People readily turn away from the unhospitable reality, where achieving fame and fortune requires hard work, dedication, and sacrifice, and plunge themsmelves into the world of make-believe, where they are entitled to everything just because. As a result, the publishing market will keep saturated with insipi books like Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk.

>Using Puzzles in Job Interviews

Puzzles are the latest fad in the job interview process that the corporate world has taken on recently. A candidate for JP Morgan or Microsoft is subjected to a humiliating process of being asked to solve a really weird puzzle that has absolutely nothing to do with their area of expertise. Many people who have been through this type of interview compare it to hazing.

There are many examples of such puzzles. There is an entire book and website industry dedicated to preparing you for this type of job interview. The one you see on the left is particularly popular, although there are many others (How to Ace the Brainteaser Interview, The return of the brainteaser interview: puzzles that challenge your logical thinking are back. , Brain Teasers, Book of Puzzles & Brain Teasers, etc.). This is an example of such a puzzle:

Three men and one woman find themselves on a deserted island. They only have two condoms between them. How can these 3 men have safe sex with the woman?

Believe me, people, I am not making this up. This is an actual question people are asked during actual job interviews. I am not even going to address the entire set of nasty, hateful assumptions that inform this so-called puzzle. Like, who said these men are necessarily interested in having sex with this woman, as opposed to with each other. Or, why would the woman want to have sex with all of them.

The main question here is what is the purpose of making this type of idiotic puzzle the central part of the job interview process. Contrary to what Microsoft and Wall Street companies claim, the goal of introducing puzzles into the job interview process is not to find the most creative thinker among your candidates. The real purpose is to find the most obedient, robot-like one. No self-respecting person with a degree from a respectable university will tolerate being asked stupid, irrelevant, and often offensive questions like “How many piano-tuners are there in New York?” or “How to design a spice-rack for a blind person?” The goal of such companies is precisely to weed out self-respecting, intelligent candidates. All they need is employees who would obey any humiliating task they are given without questioning their bosses on the legitimacy of the assignment.

>Zygmunt Bauman’s Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?: A Review, Part II

As I mentioned in the first part of this review, Bauman’s vision of today’s world is, at the very least, flawed. The impression his analysis often makes on me is one created by a person who is so afraid of certain aspects of life that he never ventures outside of his ivory tower. He hides from reality and theorizes about it from the
place of his fear. As a result, a lot of what he has to say bears no relation to reality. For instance, Bauman sees us as constantly moving away from coercion and towards freedom. He observes (or he believes that he observes)

the ever more evident dismantling of the system of normative regulation, and thereby the releasing of ever larger chunks of human conduct from coercive patterning, supervision, and policing, and relegating ever larger numbers of previously socialized functions to the realm of individual “life politics.”

I thought about this statement for a long while, but for the life of me I can’t see how anybody can say that the world today is moving away from supervision and policing. I don’t want to keep belaboring the point of those new airport scanners ad infinitum, but what about the US Patriot Act? If that is non-invasive and non-coercive, I honestly don’t know what is.

Bauman spends quite a lot of time attempting to construct an argument on the basis of this perceived disappearance of coercion and its substitution with something else:

Coercion is being replaced by stimulation, forceful imposition of behavioral patterns by seduction, policing of conduct by PR and advertising, and the normative regulation, as such, by the arousal of new needs and desires.

I have no idea why Bauman needs to present PR and advertising on the one hand and policing and coercion on the other as mutually exclusive. Coercion and advertising are part of the same system, two sides of the same coin. The arousal of new needs and desires is a product of both PR and policing. If we know that we will be policed (say, at an airport), we are very likely to provide ourselves with a kit that will make the process of being policed easier. People who travel a lot nowadays have a special personal grooming and make-up kits that come in small bottles and that are packaged separately. Before your trip, you can just grab your pre-packaged kits and head to the airport. In a similar fashion, one could give many examples of coercion and stimulation working together to impose new behavioral patterns. Advertising often serves not so much to provoke new desires as to give us a justification for accepting the needs imposed on us by coercion.
Another topic where Bauman’s argument is wide of the mark, is his description of an ideal employee for big corporations. For some reason, he has decided that in order to be competitive on the job market one has to be single, unattached, and not burdened with responsibilties:

Bosses tend nowadays to dislike having employees who are burdened with personal commitments to others-particularly those with firm commitments and especially the firmly long-term commitments. The harsh demands of professional survival all too often confront men and women with morally devastating choices between the requirements of their career and caring for others. Bosses prefer to employ unburdened, free-floating individuals who are ready to break all bonds at a moment’s notice and who never think twice when “ethical demands” must be sacrificed to the “demands of the job.”

Nothing in this statement makes sense. A commitment-free individual, unburdened with a mortgage and dependent family members, is the worst nightmare of repressive employers. Such an employee feels free to leave the second she feels unhappy with the conditions of her employment. A “free-floating” individual doesn’t scare as easy as the one who is the only breadwinner for a group of people. If I have several mouths to feed, I am more likely to swallow a lot of shit coming from my bosses in order to keep my job at any cost. If, however, I don’t owe anything to anybody, I will leave the company without a second thought and will have no trouble moving to a different city, state, or even country. This is precisely why we are so constantly brainwashed into marrying and having children. Free people pose the greatest danger to the system. Why Bauman would wish to claim the opposite is incomprehensible to me.
In his desire to signal his rejection of the way the world is today, Bauman allows his argument to become sloppy. For instance, the philosopher bemoans the lack of interest in politics in today’s world:

All over the “developed” and affluent part of the planet, signs abound of fading interest in the acquisition and exercise of social skills, of people turning their backs on politics, of growing political apathy and loss of interest in the running of the political process.

He fails to mention, however, when that happy age of political participation that is “fading” today actually took place. I believe that any argument about things getting much worse absolutely has to mention the time period with which today’s reality is being compared. Otherwise, there is no value to this line of reasoning.
To summarize, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? offers an insightful discussion of identity construction. However, as soon as Bauman begins to theorize about the subjects of ethics and consumerism, he cannot avoid the need to massage reality into the confines of his flawed system.

Zygmunt Bauman’s Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?: A Review, Part I

Zygmunt Bauman is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers. His interest in the mechanisms of identity construction is enough to make me follow his work with great dedication.

Bauman’s recent Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? (Institute for Human Sciences Vienna Lecture Series) made a dubious impression on me. Everything Bauman has to say about identity is really good. Everything he has to say on other topics, however, is really not. This is unusual, since normally philosophers are provoked by the topic of identity into uttering strings of annoying platitudes. Bauman avoids this danger and talks about identity in a thought-provoking and profound way. The other subjects he addresses in Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? , though, are analyzed in a much weaker way. Unfortunately, a moment comes in everybody’s life when our brain cannot process change as effectively as it used to when we were younger. As a result, we see any change in our world as at worst terrifying and at best negative. This is, sadly, what happens to Bauman. His fear of today’s reality taints his analysis and robs it of any intellectual value. I have no patience with anybody whose sexism and racism do not allow them to recognize that life today is without a shadow of a doubt better than at any other point in history. Bauman’s lamentations about some unspecified past when everything was better, fresher, and sweeter are a testimony to his nostalgia for his lost youth. This nostalgia is so strong that it overruns the obvious ethical considerations that should have helped Bauman remember that the current historical period he dislikes so much is characterized by an incredible progress in the rights of women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

In this review, I will first address the parts of Bauman’s argument that I really liked. Then, I will proceed to discuss the much weaker second half of this book.

Bauman starts his discussion of identity formation by observing how much the task of creating an identity is linked to fear, anxiety, and constant insecurity:

Identities exist today solely in the process of continuous renegotiation. Identity formation, or more correctly their re-formation, turns into a lifelong task, never complete; at no moment of life is the identity “final” There always remains an outstanding task of readjustment, since neither conditions of life nor the sets of opportunities and threats ever stop changing. That built-in “nonfinality,” the incurable inconclusiveness of the task of self-identification, causes a lot of tension and anxiety.

The idea that identity today is negotiable, fluid, and non-static has, of course, turned into something of a favorite platitude among the theorists of identity. What is different in Bauman’s analysis is that his thinking does not stop there. He realizes that the qualities of fluidity and variability of contemporary identities do not in any way rob them of their potential to do harm. It is a given that everybody today moves seamlessly between identities. This mere fact, however, does nothing to alleviate the dreadful burden of identity.

By its very nature, collective identity requires a common enemy. The ever-growing complexity of today’s world makes the need for this enemy stronger, instead of weaker:

The act of selecting a group as one’s site of belonging in fact constitutes some other groups as alien and, potentially, hostile territory: “I am P” always means (at least implicitly, but often explicitly) that “most certainly, I am not Q, R, S, and so on.” “Belonging” is one side of the coin, and the other side is separation and opposition-which all too often evolve into resentment, antagonism, and open conflict. Identification of an adversary is an indispensable element of identification with an “entity of belonging”-and, through the latter, also a crucial element of self-identification. Identification of an enemy construed as an incarnation of the evil against which the community “integrates,” gives clarity to life purposes and to the world in which life is lived.

Consequently, when the world becomes less clear and more complex, a group needs to construct an enemy who is more and more evil with every passing day. Thus, those who believe that we live in a post-identity world are completely wrong. I have no idea whether these people even follow the news or turn on the television. There are no structures in place today that would dilute the strength of collective identifications. Just the opposite.

After this impressive discussion of identity, Bauman proceeds to talk about the actual subject of his book, which is the relationship between ethics and consumerism. And here, unfortunately, his argument begins to fall apart. In order to introduce the topic of ethics, the philosopher comes out with the following bizarre statement:

In order to have self-love, we need to be loved or to have hope of being loved. Refusal of love-a snub, a rejection, denial of the status of a love-worthy object-breeds self-hatred. Self-love is built of the love offered to us by others. Others must love us first, so that we can begin to love ourselves.

It honestly took me a while to realize that the author was completely serious in this statement. When I finally saw that no punch line was coming and this is exactly what he meant to say, I felt pretty embarrassed for Bauman. You cannot proceed to theorize on the basis of your psychological insecurities and neuroses. Of course, we can never escape them, but the least we could do is avoid projecting them onto the entire world. The kind of self-love that is so dependent on the aceptance and approval of others is beyond unhealthy. A theory constructed on the basis of this vision cannot convince anybody.