The Men Who Shame At Scapegoats

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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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One Must Change or Die

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Studies have shown smell is the most evocative sense for remembering, just like it’s the most evocative sense for sex. I knew this before they proved it, though, and maybe so did you if you think about it. The smell of a place, of a person, of a time: it doesn’t really “take you back” or “throw you” into anything, which would be the trite things to say. It doesn’t. What it does, in my experience, is it suddenly, sneakily, altogether implicates you – it accuses, interpellates, decries you with the realization that you were a previous version of yourself once. It’s a sense so sharp and bare it grazes guilt, teases embarrassment. Oh.

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English Major RPG

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Welcome to English Major RPG!

Press Enter to begin Level 1

>> [ENTER]

You are in a long corridor. All around you is blackness and a foul-smelling odor. You feel dankness and something sticky on the ground. Ahead is a single white dot of light.

What would you like to do?

>> Walk to LIGHT

The world comes into focus. You are passed out on the quad of STATE SCHOOL, soaked in your own urine. The urge to vomit is coming upon you. URGE TO VOMIT attacks!

>> Use HAND

VOMIT wins, and leaves your hand disabled with its toxin attack! A student passing by is slightly sprayed.

>> Run like a coward

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I Name the Next “Silver Linings Playbook” Follow-Up

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It’s easy for people to mock the stock-formula book title schemes of writers like “The Bourne Identity” author Robert Ludlum (his Wikipedia page says “The (Proper Noun) (Noun)”) or “The Firm” author John Grisham (in a story by BJ Novak, he’s enraged when his publisher releases his latest novel as “The Thing” – a placeholder title he gives all his novels and forgot to replace as a formality when he turned it in). Continue reading

Every Hand’s A Winner

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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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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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