The Men Who Shame At Scapegoats


In his newly released book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Jon Ronson takes a few jabs at “pop psychology” writers like Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer, at times for over-simplifying complex issues and at times for craftily including a “self-help” element in all their books. Because Ronson is smart, funny, and often self-deprecating, I’ll assume it was with a knowing wink – and perhaps even deeper irony – that he titled his own book like a self-help pamphlet, but it isn’t just a joke. Much of the book does actually focus on questions of how to help: how to help people recover their lives, recover their reputations, recover their will to live, after tragedy strikes.

What kind of tragedy? Ronson, of “The Psychopath Test” and “The Men Who Stare At Goats” fame, tackles a relatively contemporary topic: What happens when people are torn apart on social media? He especially focuses on Twitter, whose denizens most act as a righteous brigade, setting forth to right what wrongs they perceive in mob form and leaving shattered lives in their wake: shattered lives they quickly forget.

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Spoilers for Life

Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich

The “conceit,” or unifying thematic idea, behind Simon Rich’s Spoiled Brats is not simply “Millennials are spoiled” or “Millennials are silly,” as so many surface-skimming reviews and blurbs suggest. Rather, some stories in the collection, like a piece where aging parents are represented by prideful, over-the-hill chimpanzees, and one where they are oblivious, backward-looking ghosts in the modern world, poke fun and point a thoughtful eye towards the older generations as well. The object of exploration here is interaction and change: between generations, between individuals and groups, between the young and their changing ideas of themselves, between dreams and the pragmatic onslaught of maturity in the real world, between a person, culture, and life.

And the real “conceit” that Rich employs is a fun one: extreme, exaggerated what-if scenarios played for dry humor, like a teenager’s self-absorbed obsession with her shallow relationship during her study-abroad semester on Venus, where alien races are engaged in a fierce and genocidal battle. Or a rock band of young adults on the cusp of pursuing more practical life paths like law school and finance being visited by the literal Angel of Death at their big show (it’s not what you think).

All of these idea seeds are brought into intelligent, self-aware short stories that play as fun speculative shorts on their own – and most of them will make you laugh out loud in your pajamas, like it or not. Together, though, they create an extended allegory that speaks to the unique and yet universal experience of growing up – in your late 20s – in a world with mixed feeling about us Millennials: some justified, some not, some simple, some as complex as the strange places we inhabit.

I defended Millennials in a previous post on this blog in response to a viral article that I felt grossly over-simplified and pandered to generalizations that, in most of the individual cases I personally know, simply aren’t true. I also highlighted there that in addition to the broad brush-strokes of our joint negative traits, there are broad brush-strokes of positive traits: the level of supportiveness we exhibit towards each other, the earnest desire to make the world a better place through activism and choice, the eagerness with which we hold onto a drive for personal growth and cultivation.

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Every Hand’s A Winner


I’ve been a male cheerleader for Matthew Quick’s writing since the quirkily insightful and laugh-out-loud-worthy Silver Linings Playbook, which he followed up a few months back with the Young Adult novel Forgive Me Leonard Peacock (which I reviewed). Now he’s back with another novel for grown-ups, The Good Luck of Right Now. It follows his trend of an emotionally damaged main character most people would call “different” on a journey of self-discovery with a colorful cast of friends. Does it find another strange formula for meaning, or just re-hash the same old ground? Continue reading

All the Small Things

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Shrine Auditorium

Some people like to start conversations with “What would happen if.” What would happen if there was a black-ops team that hired out to help you get actual closure after a relationship by erasing all traces of the ex’s existence? What would happen if the guy who invented that “A train leaves Chicago at” math problem was upset that he never received adequate compensation? What would happen if you secretly won a big cash prize in a box of Frosted Flakes when you were 10 but your parents were staunchly opposed to sugar cereal– you get the idea. 

For most people, these become a running gag of conversation with the kind of friends who tolerate that sort of thing. For author B.J. Novak, famous from his work as actor and producer on The Office, they became a book of stories: One More Thing. The question is, is it any good?
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Battling the Currents


While I was eavesdropping on two girls talking in the student center at Northwestern, one posited rather intelligently that dystopias were depressing but showed the persistence of humanity. That’s what makes dystopian fiction so compelling: it shows us a future gone very wrong, but it also shows us how the human spirit can go very, very right. The thing about On Such A Full Sea, the new novel from Chang-Rae Lee that has been getting attention from the New York Times and The New Yorker on down, is it’s not depressing. Continue reading

In Her Pockets She Found the Feathers


You should read J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst’s new book “S.”

When I lived in New York, I’d go jogging down the Queensboro Bridge late every night and sometimes I’d see this homeless man pushing his cart back from Manhattan on my way. One night I saw a notebook lying on the pedestrian side of the bridge. Ever-hopeful, I picked up the notebook and brought it home, where my then-roommate-now-blogging-partner Jeff and I pored over it.

In the notebook were this homeless man’s diary entries, from every day for over a year. He talked about the shelter where he slept, his friends at the convenience store where he hung out, and about his sister, who he saw at Christmas to pray for their dead parents. It wasn’t particularly well-written, nor did it contain any great mysteries or yarns. But we all have a soft spot for that Found Story, the discovered artifact that will let us in on some unexpected real-life tale we get absorbed by.

J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst’s new book “S.” is that, only perfect.

Its perfection, at first, is its greatest strength and its biggest fault, but we’ll get into that in a minute. Continue reading

Scott Adams’s School of Smart Knocks


Everybody wants to be awesomer. That’s a part of the appeal of books by authors like Malcolm Gladwell: they offer research and fun stories that can also teach us tricks on how to be more awesome. Those things can translate into more money, sociability, and positive outlooks. Their focus, though, remains on the story, whether it’s personal experience or a massive idea. Books in the “Self-Help” category, on the other hand, try to offer you direct advice and paradigms you should believe, like a how-to manual. Self-Help Books tend to be poorly-written, over-simplistic, and lacking nuance.

I first read Scott Adams when I was a kid. Dilbert was my favorite comic, and led me to Adams’s “thought-experiment” book, God’s Debris, which was fascinating and exciting: most of the ideas in it are bullshit (like an alternate hypothesis of gravity), but they’re interesting bullshit that makes you think, and some of it turned out to be right (like an evolutionary idea of the internet). I also read books like The Dilbert Principle, most of which were boring for a kid but proved that Adams was a smart and funny man. When his new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, came out last week I picked it up. Continue reading