City of Girls — Elizabeth Gilbert

City of Girls is Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, and it’s well-summarized by its protagonist’s comment on a play: “To my mind, there was never anything better than those simple, enthusiastic revues. They made me happy. They were designed to make people happy without making the audience work too hard to understand what was going on.” If you want a fun story about being young in the 1940 – 1960 area, with lots of sporting that doesn’t involve a foot-, basket-, soccer-, or ping-pong ball, this is that book. Had someone less famous written it, it likely wouldn’t have been noticed, but that’s not the case, so it has been, or is being, noticed. There’s some weak prose and many interesting moments, and the beginning effectively and rightly tells you not to work too hard, only for you to realize by the end that you’ve been deceived. It tells you not to work too hard and to have fun instead frequently: “People will tell you not to waste your youth having too much fun, but they’re wrong. Youth is an irreplaceable treasure, and the only respectable thing to do with irreplaceable treasure is to waste it,” lest you forget. And it lulls you. I was lulled. In a lot of books, characters focused on frivolous and intense pleasures get a comeuppance; in this one, they just have a good time, a bit like Funny Girl.

There’s a lot of great dialogue, which I can be a sucker for:

“Isn’t it your theater, Peg?”
“Technically, yes. But I can’t do anything without Olive, Billy. You know that. She’s essential.”
“Essential but bothersome.”
“Yes, but you are only one of those things. I need Olive. I don’t need you. That’s always been the difference between you.”

Almost no character says what they mean and means what they say, delightfully. Yet early comedy moves into later pathos, and this is a paragraph, from the end of the novel, expressing ideas we see expressed too infrequently in the Internet, social media age:

In that moment, I felt overcome by a sense of mercy—not only for Frank, but also for that younger version of myself. I even felt mercy for Walter, with all his pride and condemnation. How humiliated Walter must have felt by me, and how dreadful it must have been for him to feel exposed like that in front of someone he considered a subordinate—and Walter considered everyone a subordinate. How angry he must have been, to have to clean up my mess in the middle of the night. Then my mercy swelled…

It seems there are many stories passed around online that could do with a little bit of mercy and understanding—thoughts and emotions hard to fit into a Tweet. Twitter is low-context medium, novels are full of context, and life has the most context of all, if we can notice it.

The playhouse where most of the novel occurs is like a startup: “I had nobody to report to and nothing was expected of me. If I wanted to help out with costumes, I could, but I was given no formal job.” Except in a startup, every duty is expected of everyone, but the lack of formality is because without constant effort, nothing happens. There are things I didn’t know exist—what exactly are “doeskin trousers?” The eye for fashion is novel to me. It’s not a type of leather, as I’d assumed: “It is similar to duvetyn, but lighter; usually softer and less densely napped than melton.” That clears things right up.

Most of all, City of Girls is about what it means to be a child versus an adult—an idea I missed the first time through. The adults pay for their fun with personal responsibility; the kids don’t, or don’t quite, and learn to deal with responsibility for frivolity and pleasure. Vivian is a kind of early Karley Sciortino, without some aspects of sex-positive modern culture to fall back on.

The book is humane: it doesn’t feel political and almost none are purely types; the absence of outright villains and heroes refreshes. The characters’s many weaknesses are not signs of evil, but signs of humanity. Weaknesses don’t cancel a person’s existence, particularly because weaknesses are often the flipsides of strengths. On some level these points are obvious, yet we seem to forget them easily, particularly but not exclusively on the Internet.


A so-so interview with Gilbert.

Links: Tin House, sugar’s dangers, the productive madness of ’80s Bennington, moon bases, and more!

* Remembering Tin House, a Literary Haven for ‘Brilliant Weirdos.’

* It’s time to treat sugar like smoking.

* “Money, Madness, Cocaine and Literary Genius: An Oral History of the 1980s’ Most Decadent College.” There’s a TV series in this entertaining article; while noting Bennington’s flaws, it’s also a reminder that almost all colleges today are trying to be the same: follow the same model, churn the students the same way, seek prestige the same way, chase the same professors. Some notable schools, like Caltech, deviate, but similarities far outweigh diversity diversity. A friend noted in an email that there seem to be few colleges with a distinctive grass-roots culture, and, that if you went to a school like Bennington back then, you were really cut off; you probably didn’t have a phone in your dorm room and only a handful of people had TVs. A different world.

* “The Race to Develop the Moon.” A bit snarkier and less technical than one would hope.

* Alone. See also Lost Connections, a book covering similar territory. Many of us individuals haven’t adequately responded to changing macro forces. We’re overweighting some factors and underweighting connection.

* The public humiliation diet. Could this be related to the links immediately above?

* “Why Don’t Women Vote For Feminist Parties?

* “Why Housing Policy Feels Like Generational Warfare.” Because that’s what it is, and housing can’t be both affordable and a “good” investment. We’ve collectively implemented the latter value over the former, particularly via 1970s zoning reforms, and we’re living with the consequences today.

* More Millennials Are Dying ‘Deaths of Despair,’ as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb.

* The climate renegade, an interesting story about an irascible-seeming fellow right out of a Stephenson novel.

* “Oberlin College case shows how universities are losing their way?”

* “Americans Need More Neighbors: A big idea in Minneapolis points the way for other cities desperately in need of housing.” Obvious but needs to be repeated.

* Depressing: “agents and publishers want a book–any book–tied to a big name, to promote. They know that most readers don’t get past page 30. As long as there’s a commercial hook, that’s what they care about.” When I don’t get past page 30 it’s because the book is no good.

* Welcome to my secret underground layer: About building a neutrino detector. Don’t get too caught up in the day-to-day unhappiness on social media: lots of people are doing cool things, but “doing cool things” is less viral than social outrage and social virtue signaling.

* “The idea of criminalising prostitutes’ clients is spreading,” the major downside being that it seems to make sex workers less safe and doesn’t seem to have many, if any, of its intended effects. Laws against sex work are like laws against housing construction, they frequently do the exact opposite of what their proponents say they want to see achieved while remaining astonishingly popular.

* “China’s ‘Thought Transformation’ Camps:” If you look back at history and think to yourself that, during the 1930s or 1940s, you would have been one of the “good guys,” you may want to ask yourself: what should you be doing about this? (I ask myself that.)

* “Canadian permafrost thaws 70 years earlier than predicted.” Climate change models may predict change more slowly than actual change happens—it’s possible that they understate how rapidly the climate will change and is changing in response to human CO2 and methane emissions.

* “Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds.” He of The Three-Body Problem. Comments on kindness versus cruelty at the macro level, and the relationship of that to China versus the U.S., are notable. Like many others, I will observe that China hasn’t had a substantial economic setback in 40 years (largely because it started from such a low point after implementing socialism). We’re going to see how well that model works when a recession finally hits, which it will, eventually.

* Old-school car guy and reviewer buys Tesla.

Links: Lightsails in space, wow, what is that?, the opening of the mind, the cost of costs, and more!

 

* Dear Millennials: The Feeling Is Mutual. Notice: “at least it means he isn’t prepared to capitulate to the icy codes of personal decorum written by people who don’t know the difference between exuberant human warmth and unwarranted sexual advances” and “Does it ever occur to some of our more militant millennials that the pitiless standards they apply to others will someday be applied pitilessly to them?”

* “Why books don’t work,” for some things, anyway.

* “‘Wow, What Is That?’ Navy Pilots Report Unexplained Flying Objects.” Also, piggybacking on that, “Multiple F/A-18 Pilots Disclose Recent UFOs Encounters, New Radar Tech Key In Detection.”

* “The Lure of Western Europe.” Rather depressing that this needs to be written.

* “Expand vs Fight in Social Justice, Fertility, Bioconservatism, & AI Risk.” Similar to the “growth mindset” theory prevalent in education.

* “Room 222: Four Seasons in Academic Hell.” More of the same, content-wise, and in keeping with iGen and The Coddling of the American Mind, both fundamental statements about current mores.

* Is the Democratic party going from being the party of formal entitlements for the poor to the party of the informal entitlement of the affluent?

* An amazing thread about healthcare in France.

* “The Reopening of the Liberal Mind: Bard College President Leon Botstein explains how his school remains free of the student outbursts that afflict similar institutions.”

* “‘If I disappear’: Chinese students make farewell messages amid crackdowns.” I’m a bit of a China skeptic, long term; I don’t think that most intelligent, high-capability people will want to live in such a regime.

* The city guide to open source.

* “Buyer’s Remorse: High Debt and Low Pay Leave Some College Grads Rueful.” You don’t say! None of these articles cite Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education, but they should.

* “College Enrollments Fall Again: Overall enrollment at colleges and universities is down for the seventh year in a row, continuing a trend that is putting pressure on many smaller schools.”

* “Why Your Next Home Computer Should Be an Old Xeon Workstation.”

* “The Long Road to the Student Debt Crisis: A series of well-intentioned government decisions since the 1960s has left us with today’s out-of-control higher education market.”

* Adding ‘luxury’ housing to a city reduces rents elsewhere. Supply and demand: they still function!

* What’s the Difference between LightSail 1 and LightSail 2?

Briefly noted: Delta-V, Permission, and The Stand

* Delta-V by Daniel Suarez is an SF novel with an SF novel’s typical poor writing. The second chapter begins with the scene: “The United States Senate Appropriations Subcommittee…” is in Washington DC. Two paragraphs later, “Three US senators sat…” Well, yes: would they be Mexican senators? Or Knesset members? Can’t we assume they’re US senators? Clumsy writing on almost every page made me give up, like “That meant eighteen people were definitely going into space on Joyce’s dime. Tighe hoped to be one of those people.” Suarez doesn’t need “of those people.” These basic errors are representative, not cherry-picked. Don’t be fooled, as the interesting premise can’t be sustained into a good novel because of consistently low prose quality.

There are some good moments; in one scene, on the first asteroid to be mined, two characters discuss creating metal parts via chemical vapor deposition (CVD):

“It’s existed since Ludwig Mond invented it back in 1890.”
“I’ve honestly never heard of it.”
“Back on Earth it’s less toxic to just use a blast furnace. Up here in space, though, CVD is going to be critical for precision manufacturing.”
[…] “It’s like alchemy.”
“No, it’s better than alchemy—it’s science.”

A fine point too rarely encountered, and a high end to the chapter.

* Permission by Saskia Vogel, an okay book but its timeline seems somewhat random and muddled to me. Too many novels are in the improbable reaches of the movie/TV glamor industries; people substitute “hope” for wages in those industries, with results that are often not good. In this novel, a dominatrix conveniently moves next door to a woman who becomes interested in her. Rather than what you may be thinking, more of the novel is like this: “Everything inside me, ocean. I inhaled with both my nose and mouth, greedy for air, feeling my lungs expand. My body was mostly water, but only mostly, still” than like this: “I was wearing a semi-sheer basque with a matching thong. He buried his face in my cleavage,” but there is some of both—like life, one could argue.

You have to be okay with the one-sentence paragraphs:

Only her.
Only this.
Only now.

So deep, man, right? Pass the joint. I didn’t regret reading it but am not sure it’ll stick with me, or most people. You could say that Nine and a Half Weeks got there first and is still colonizing this territory.

* I read Stephen King’s The Stand when I was 11 or 12, and it holds up better than Robert Jordan but not as well as I’d like: it has moments—a rural cop describes how his wife “neatens” the cells, for instance, the word being wholly appropriate—but it has some howlers in it too, like the doctor who says:

They are the symptoms of the common cold, of influenza, of pneumonia. We can cure all of those things, Nick. Unless the patient is very young or very old, or perhaps already weakened by a previous illness, antibiotics will knock them out.

Colds and influenzas are viruses, not bacteria, and antibiotics don’t affect them. If anyone had a cure for the common cold, they’d be a billionaire. It’s conceivable that we could today have a vaccine for the common cold, but the regulatory structure put in place by the FDA doesn’t favor it.

Still, the paranoid style in it is depressingly modern (look for all the mentions of not just government failure but active malice), although in the novel the paranoia and distrust are correct. It could be contrasted with the movie Contagion in “Bureaucratic Heroism,” a great essay with an unlikely title. Today, it feels like a product of disillusionment from the Vietnam war. But excess skepticism may be as bad or almost as bad as excess trust.

It’s also still scary, when the prose doesn’t interfere with the fear.

Links: The story around stories, the bored and the lonely, Danielle Steel’s mania, and more!

* “We don’t really know how to tell sociological stories.” Superficially, this is about why the last season of Game of Thrones has been terrible (it is), but it applies to many other stories. Highly recommended.

* “An Interview With A Man Who Eats Leftover Food From Strangers’ Plates In Restaurants.” Pairs well with The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt; you’ll see why when he describes his “moral disgust” questionnaire that doesn’t include any harm but still elicits moral disgust from many participants. Could there be sociological elements to this story, too?

* “Why young South Koreans aren’t interested in dating,” a hugely depressing but also fascinating article. What do people think they are getting educations for? Jobs for? No wonder there are a lot of bored, lonely, isolated, and depressed persons out there. Does no one go one or two steps beyond whatever they’re told by their society to do?

* “Nuclear War Is Still Very Possible and Very Scary: Worry about nuclear weapons has faded, but the threat has not.”

* How the Hell Has Danielle Steel Managed to Write 179 Books? Speed, determination.

* Why books and lectures don’t work, but I’d ask what most people read books for (a common element in many of these links). This podcast with Michael Nielsen is also great, as he discusses spaced-repetition software like Anki and how it can be used to memorize great quantities of information. Raw memorization is presently underrated in the culture and education systems.

* “There’s a high cost to making drugs more affordable for Americans.” Almost no one is talking about this. We can likely force the cost of today’s drugs and treatments lower, at the cost of not having new drugs and treatments tomorrow. This seems like a poor tradeoff to me, but that’s a philosophical point. The interesting thing is that no one advocating for price cramdowns admits the tradeoff.

* Red Pills and Red Hats. See also my earlier comments about how the appeal of “Red Pills” is a failure of socialization, among other things.

* Dr. Ruth, “The Goddess of Good Sex,” probably the most amusing piece in this patch and relevant, at least, to links #2 and #6, above. I’ve never read any of her books.

* “Climate Stasis: German Failure on the Road to a Renewable Future.”

* U.S. 2018 Births Fall to Lowest Level in 32 Years. Kinda depressing.

* Is it possible to make academic philosophy worth a damn? Probably not, I’d guess, but maybe I’m wrong.

* This essentially explains why Apple no longer gives a shit about Macs.

* Memes, Genes, and Sex Differences—An Interview with Dr. Steve Stewart-Williams.

* “Resistance to Noncompete Agreements Is a Win for Workers.” This is an area where the left and right are aligned: the left worries about worker rights, and the right (putatively) worries about free markets.

* Anarchy is [even] worse than socialism.

* “Can ‘Indie’ Social Media Save Us?” No. It’s not addressing the problem as most people experience it; most people want a way to share

* When Boris Yeltsin went grocery shopping in Clear Lake.

* The New Right Is Beating the New Left. Everywhere.

* Impossible Foods’s empire of lab-grown clean meat. I tried Beyond Meat burgers and think they’re pretty good.

Links: Literary freedom, freedom of thinking, gigging, boredom and loneliness, code, and more!

* “The WIRED Guide to Open Source Software.”

* The U.S. Has a Battery Problem in the Race for Electric Car Supremacy.

* “Karl Ove Knausgård on Literary Freedom.”

* “Bret Easton Ellis Nails Contemporary America?” Unconvincing, but one never knows.

* “Down and Out in the Gig Economy: Journalism’s dependence on part-time freelancers has been bad for the industry—not to mention writers like me.” Journalists are taking part of their income in glamor, like actors, musicians, etc. When I graduated from high school, it was obvious that the Internet would fillet the journalism industry. What was obvious then is still obvious now.

* “UFOs Won’t Go Away,” due to radar and pilot sightings.

* “Maybe Europe Can’t Recover From the Financial Crisis.” It’s not just financial.

* “‘The Adjunct Underclass’ Review: Teachable Moments: College teaching has become a pickup job, like driving for Uber, for small stipends and little or no guarantee of permanence.” Or, as I wrote, “Universities treat adjuncts like they do because they can.”

* Bored and lonely? Blame your phone.

* The Coming Obsolescence of Animal Meat?

* A World Run with Code, by Stephen Wolfram of Mathematica fame.

* “What Explains the Resistance to Evolutionary Psychology?” and “The New Evolution Deniers.” Scientific ideas that conflict with deeply held beliefs about human nature or the human experience tend to be attacked.

* “Facebook’s Unintended Consequence,” better than 99% of the material you’ve read on the company.

* “Selective Blank Slatism and Ideologically Motivated Misunderstandings.” I read this piece after writing the tagline to the link two above.

* “‘Deep Sleep’: How an Amateur Porno Set Off A Massive Federal Witch Hunt.” Probably the most entertaining story of this batch.

* “Don’t Let Students Run the University.” Pretty obvious, but here we are.

* “Amazon Prime Pulls Back the Curtain on China’s Propaganda.” Odd that no one talks about this.

* “There’s a high cost to making drugs more affordable for Americans.” No one talks about this, either.

* On Tolkien’s story “Leaf by Niggle.”

* NuScale power’s nuclear plant design.

* They Got Rich Off Uber and Lyft. Then They Moved to Low-Tax States. Makes sense to me; California and New York are increasingly inhumane places to live.

* After Academia. Also, “Quit Lit,” another of those stories about people quitting academia. Somewhat boring by now, but word doesn’t seem to be quite out.

* “Private Colleges Offer Record Discounts as Tuition Costs Rise.” The complexity and secretiveness of the financial aid system is one of the unstated ways superficially progressive schools aren’t so progressive.

Recent books: The Earth Below, A Mind at Play, An Economist Walks Into a Brothel

* The Earth Below by Katy Barnett, a dystopian novel that seems promising but has way too much “My heart was racing and sweat poured down my face” and “for a moment his eyes lit up with an unalloyed smile” kinds of sentences. There isn’t much novel in the language of this novel, though “Then, like a drop of black ink diffusing through water, a dark thought spread across my mind” is impressive. Problem is, The Earth Below loses the war against cliché. I’d read the next one Barnett writes; The Earth Below shows promise.

* A Mind at Play by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman, an okay biography of Claude Shannon, a guy whose accomplishments happen almost entirely in the mind, leaving us not much of interest in his life itself. If you’re deeply interested in information theory and its history, this is probably good. If you’re looking for a good yarn, less so. The lives of brilliant intellectuals often don’t lend themselves to interesting biographies.

* An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk by Allison Schrager. It sounds entertaining and is entertaining; there is a bit of the Gladwellian strategy or formula of story leads to research leads to conclusion, so if you’re tired of that structure you may not like this book so much. I wonder how many people are like this woman: “Before starting at the brothel, Starr lived a double life: marketing executive by day and exotic dancer on the site. Or it might be more accurate to say she was a high-paid exotic dancer ‘on the conference circuit’ who had a corporate job on the side.” There is also an implicit warning about academia, as Schrager describes her dissertation: “I shut myself away in the library and spent the better part of my twenties isolated, trying to solve that single math problem. Five years later, when I actually solved it, I expected something wonderful to happen; instead, everything fell apart. My relationship with my adviser deteriorated, and the sudden death of a close friend left me emotionally shattered. My worse enemy, however, was my ambivalence.” This would be an interesting book to read next to Lonesome Dove. Have you read Lonesome Dove? I saw copies of it many times before I did and wish I’d read it sooner.

* The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve by Steve Stewart-Williams. This is more evolutionary biology; if you’ve already read a lot of it, you don’t need this one. The highs are high, though:

In many ways, the world today is a primate paradise. Compared to any other period in human history, we’ve got lower infant mortality rates, longer lifespans, less violence, greater wealth, and more opportunities to pursue the goals that suit us. We should be over the moon… but we’re not. Most of us are reasonably happy, sure. But we’re hardly ecstatic, and some of us are simply miserable. As Geoffrey Miller observes, the world has never been better, and yet many people have to take special medications to avoid suicidal despair. Now obviously, life has never been a picnic. However, some aspects of the modern world may be misaligned with human nature in ways that produce novel psychological problems – problems that, like breast cancer and endometriosis, are largely diseases of modernity.

or

We’re carnivores that sympathize with our food. We’re biological mechanisms designed to pass on our genes, but which fritter away our time playing games and weaving a web of fantasy around ourselves. We’re clusters of chemical reactions that contemplate deep truths about the nature of reality. And we’re little pieces of the Earth that can get outside our mother planet and venture to other worlds.

I found myself skimming a lot of familiar material.


As always if you know what I should read, let me know.

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