Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What do Women Want? : Daniel Bergner

What do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire
By Daniel Bergner


There is a fine line authors tiptoe to cover science research well.  On one hand you do not want to misrepresent or over-represent the findings of scientific research with its very specific and precise experiments and findings. On the other hand, you need to provide analogies, narratives and/or a human aspect story, in order to make the science understandable and relate-able to the non-science reader,.  Unfortunately, this book just does not get that balance right.

Don't get me wrong, the science is fascinating and delves into findings that are culturally uncomfortable to talk about.  And Bergner does a decent job describing what questions researchers are trying to address and how they go about their experiments. For example, Meredith Chivers showed video clips of erotica to female subjects who were not only hooked up to a plethysmograph, a device that measures blood flow to the vagina, but also were rating their own feelings of arousal on a keypad.  Clips included lone masturbation scenes, straight male-female porn, gay male-male porn, lesbian female-female porn, and even sex between bonobos.
  Chiver's objective numbers, tracking what's technically called vaginal pulse amplitude, soared no matter who was on the screen and regardless of what they were doing, to each other, to themselves. The strength of the pulsings did hold a few distinctions, variations in degree, one of them curious: the humping bonobos didn't spur as much blood as the human porn, but with an odd exception. Among all women, straight as well as gay, the chiseled man ambling alone on the beach - an Adonis, nothing less - lost out to the fornicating apes.
  There was some further discrimination on the part of the lesbians... amplitude leapt more during videos starring women. Yet the lesbians' blood rushed hard during scenes of gay male porn...
 The keypad contradicted the plethysmograph, contradicted it entirely. Minds denied bodies. The self-reports announced indifference to the bonobos. But that was only for starters. When the films were of women touching themselves or enmeshed with each other, the straight subjects said they were a lot less excited than their genitals declared. During the segments of gay male sex, the ratings of the heterosexual women were even more muted - even less linked to what was going on between their legs.
While Bergner does note that Chivers is cautious about not wanting to "declaim more than the data could support," clearly these are experiments that raise a lot of uncomfortable questions. 

My issue is more with Bergner's writing and his approach to the human aspect angle. For example, in the following paragraph, Bergner iterates through and compares the physical traits of researcher Marta Meana's physical traits to those of Annie Lennox's.  He does this all to build up to the subject of relationship intimacy and its impact on female lust.  Wait, what?  What do the researcher's physical traits have anything to do with intimacy?
... there was a poster from an Annie Lennox concert Meana had been to. Lennox's piercing, incantatory voice... seemed almost audible sometimes as Meana spoke... She then laid out, without judgment, without lament, some of the inescapable realities of lust. Meana's face was round while Lennox's was lean; Meana's bangs were pixie-ish while Lennox's hair was shorn half an inch from her skull; Meana's voice didn't hold the singer's unremitting insistence. But there was a shared impatience with the tales people tell themselves about desire. Meana's features were nimble, expressive; her mouth twisted occasionally, faintly, into something akin to a grimace. This happened when she talked about the legion of couples counselors who held to the idea that, especially for women, incubating intimacy would lead to better sex.  
It is not the only time Bergner makes sure to describe the physical appearances of the female researchers.  Here's the very first page: 
When Chivers and I first met seven years ago, she was in her mid-thirties. She wore high-heeled black boots that laced up almost to her knees and skinny, rectangular glasses. Her blond hair fell over a scoop-necked black top. She was a young, but distinguished scientist in a discipline whose name, sexology, sounds something like a joke,...

There is a section in the book on vanity's role in female sexuality.  Perhaps the most generous explanation for Bergner's penchant for these physical descriptions is an awkward attempt at complimenting the researchers. However, it is the not-so-generous explanation that I lean toward - that this is a male author with his own biases, who is letting a fantasy of female sexology researchers, come to surface.

There were also a few passages, which I won't quote here, where Bergner seems to attempt to wax poetic, devoid of any coverage of scientific research and it just does not work.

All in all, it's a net positive to get exposure to the science going on, which is some very thought-provoking stuff.   But unfortunately some of the surrounding writing is a bit of a slog to ignore / get through.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Stoner : John Williams

Stoner
By John Williams

The novel starts off with a seemingly depressing two paragraph bio, denoting just how insignificant the eponymous protagonist is:
  William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: "Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues."
  An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves of their careers.
Immediately afterwards, the novel launches into William Stoner's life in detail and lo and behold, although the bio is accurate, his life is quite full and interesting. He stumbles upon a love for his English literature.
  Stoner drew back. "What do you mean?" he asked and head something like fear in his voice.
  Sloane leaned forward until his face was close; Stone saw the lines on the long thin face soften, and he heard the dry mocking voice become gentle and unprotected.
  "But don'tyou know, Mr. Stoner?" Sloane asked. "Don't you understand about yourself yet? You're going to be a teacher."
  Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office reced. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air and he heard his voice ask, "Are you sure?"
  "I'm sure," Sloane said softly.
  "How can you tell? How can you be sure?"
  "It's love, Mr. Stoner," Sloane said cheerfully. "You are in love. It's as simple as that."
  It was as simple as that. He was aware that he nodded to Sloane and said something inconsequential.
The recurring theme seems to be about finding love for something or someone and then about facing significant challenges to pursuing them. Stoner later falls in love with a woman and marries her, but not a week after the wedding, it is clear that their relationship is doomed.  His wife goes from being passively resistant to the relationship to taking on an active nemesis-like role, particularly after they have a daughter, where she drives as deep of a divide between Stoner and his daughter as possible.  Meanwhile in his university life, a talented professor, Hollis Lomax arrives and proceeds to make Stoner's professional life, hellish through political machinations.  Later on, Stoner eventually finds true love with another woman, but both Lomax and Stoner's wife end up challenging his happiness there as well. 

You could also make the case is that it's about an introvert's struggle through life, where Stoner clearly loves and is knowledgeable about English literature; however, really struggles when it comes to defending against those who can use social relationships as weapons. 

The introduction has a quote from Williams on his viewpoint:
I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important... The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job - a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was... It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something you're going to understand it. And if you understand it, you're going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher... I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.
I think it is interesting that Williams thinks that simply finding and truly knowing the love of your life, whether or not it's "successful" is sufficient to say that your life was worthwhile.  I don't happen to agree with him, but I think that just the fact that Stoner elicits thinking about your philosophy on your life makes it more than a worthwhile read.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Round House : Louise Erdrich

The Round House
By Louise Erdrich

A really well-done novel.


Joe is the thirteen year old Native American protagonist/narrator.  A crime befalls his family, and the novel describes his coming-of-age, while working through with the emotional damaging effects of the crime on his parents and him.

A lot of the expository sections, particularly those that describe the episodes of Joe and his three friends reminded of the film, Stand by Me.  In terms of the pacing, the tone and the actual stories, in which they play, get in trouble and fall in love, they tread on familiar ground, but are done well.

The parts that lift this work above other coming-of-age stories are the ones describing Joe's emotional states. Erdrich's word choices and analogies are just particularly striking:
  I had to do what I had to do. This act was before me. In the uncanny light a sense of dread so overwhelmed me that tears started in my eyes and single choking sound, a sob maybe, a wrench of hurt, burst from my chest. I crossed my fists in the knitting and squeezed them against my heart. I didn't want to blurt out the sound. I didn't want to give a voice to this roil of sensation. But I was naked and tiny before its power. I had no choice. I muffled the sounds I made so that I alone could hear them come out of me, gross and foreign. I lay on the floor, let fear cover me, and I tried to keep breathing while it shook me like a dog shakes a rat.
  I lay under this spell for maybe half an hour, and then it went away. I hadn't known whether it would or not. I had clenched my whole body so tightly that it hurt to let go. I was sore when I got up off the floor, like an old man with joint pains. I shuffled slowly up the stairs to my bed. Pearl had stayed by me all along. She'd huddled next to me. I kept her with me now. As I fell into a darker sleep, I understood that I had learned something. Now that I knew fear, I also knew it was permanent. As powerful as it was, its grip on me would loosen. It would pass.
Also, Joe's relationship with his parents are well-written: it's refreshingly loving, honest, but still anchored in reality with nuanced differences in opinion and feelings of teenage confusion.
He came downstairs sweating again, and tole me that every night at six o'clock I was to be home for dinner, which we'd bring upstairs and eat together. Like a family again, he said. We were starting this regimen now. I took a deep breath and carried up the tablecloth. Again, though my mother was angry, my father opened the shades and even a window, to let in a breeze. We brought a salad and a baked chicken up the stairs, plus the plates, glasses, silverware, and a pitcher of lemonade. Perhaps a drop of wine tomorrow night, to make something festive of it, Dad said without hope. He brought a bouquet of flowers he'd picked from the garden that she hadn't seen yet. He put them in a small painted vase. I looked at the green sky on that vase, the willow, the muddy water and awkwardly painted rocks. I was to become overly familiar with this glazed scene during thse dinners because I didn't want to look at my mother, propped up staring wearily at us as if she'd just been shot, or rolled into a mummy pretending to be in the afterlife. My father tried to keep a conversation going every night, and when I had exhausted my meager store of the day's doings, he forged on, a lone paddler on an endless lake of silence, or maybe rowing upstream.
Lastly, the story is set in a Native American reservation and almost all Native American characters. I am unfamiliar with the culture at all, but I thought this was done well.  She was able to mix in the general aspects of any teenage boy growing up in the US (Joe and his friends are Star Trek fans, they sometimes sneak out to drink and smoke) with activities more specific to their culture (picking up
"grandfather" stones for the sweat lodge, the cultural acceptance of visions in dreams), without the exotic-ification or the "look at these interesting things I, as an outsider, know of this culture" proud tone that so too many authors fall prey to.

All in all, this novel was both easy-to-read as well as thought-provoking.

Friday, October 03, 2014

A Visit from the Goon Squad : Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan

This is a non-linearly structured novel, with each chapter showing the perspective of a different character.  All of the characters relate to at least one other character; however, each chapter does not describe the same time frame (i.e. there is a bit of bouncing back and forth in time from one chapter to another).

So the good: Egan's writing draws you in and can absolutely dazzle at times.  In particular, I found chapter 10 to just stick out as a really tightly written, emotionally nuanced section.  (I quickly realized I had read it before - it was actually selected as a short story in the 2011 Best American Short Stories Series).  Other chapters, however, also are successful in portraying unique personalities in situations that are engaging to want to read about.

The bad: Non-linearly structured narratives were novel and exciting for me, back in the 90's, what with films like Run Lola Run, Go, Pulp Fiction, Magnolia and Memento bringing the structure to the mainstream and my having read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five during that period.  In this novel, Egan does not bring a new spin to it and in particular, the super intertwining relationships between the characters feels both forced and tired.  Secondly, the non-linear narratives really live or die by how well-done the end-reveal of how the different strands relate to one another and here, well, the ending was ok, but it just didn't really pop.

With that being said, this was a fast, relatively fun read and if I get a chance, I might pick up another of Egan's works, just purely out of appreciation for her writing ability.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West : Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West
By Cormac McCarthy

Like Phillip Meyer's The Son, this novel not only describes the relentlessness and unforgiving nature of the West during the formative times, but also the tough, chaotic and unpredictably violent people it attracted.

A few notes on the form.  First, the protagonist is never named and is referred to as "the kid." He uses physical violence to survive: think of if the protagonist from A Clockwork Orange was by himself in the West.  Beat and kill first, then take the money, food, etc.

Second, the narrative initially focuses on the kid, but he later joins up with a group of men, who are paid to hunt and scalp native Americans and who either are as or even more chaotically violent than s the kid.  The narrative shifts focus to cover the group, to the point where there are swaths of text, where the kid is not mentioned at all.

Lastly, and I am not a master of grammar, but the novel starts off with a fascinating initial tense (past continuous?):

  The kid wasnt going to do that and he saw no use in discussing it. He kicked the man in the jaw. The man went down and got up again. He said I'm goin to kill you.
  He swung with the bottle and the kid ducked and he swung again and the kid stepped back. When the kid hit him the man shattered the bottle against the side of his head. He went off the boards into the mud and the man lunged after him with the jagged bottleneck and tried to stick it in his eye. The kid was fending with his hands and they were slick with blood. He kept trying to reach into his boot for his knife.
  Kill your ass, the man said. They slogged about in the dark of the lot, coming out of their boots. The kid had his knife now and they circle crabwise and when the man lurched at him he cut the man's shirt open. The man threw down the bottleneck and unsheathed an immense bowieknife from behind his neck. His hat had come off and his black and ropy locks swung about his head and he had codified his threats to the one word kill like a crazed chant.
A few other notes: there is not a strong plot-line.  It more follows the kid / the group's travels through the west and their series of violence, but in doing so, you get a sense of the environment and the different personalities.

The optimist's daughter : Eudora Welty

The Optimist's Daughter
By Eudora Welty

The Optimist's Daughter focuses on Laurel McKelva, a young widow, who returns to New Orleans to see her father, before he passes away from complications of an eye surgery.  It then describes her dealing with the death and the tensions between her and young step-mother, as well as her with other small community members, who have their own agenda.

I was slightly reminded of Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? when reading this.  It comes nowhere as close to being as biting and acidic as that classic, but each character, even minor ones, have their own distinct (irrational) personality and the conflicts due to these difference comes across in dialogue.
  "I couldn't save him." He laid a hand on the sleeve of each woman, standing between them. He bent his head, but that did not hide the aggrivement, indignation, that was in his voice. "He's gone, and his eye was healing."
  "Are you trying to tell me you let my husband die?" Fay cried.
"He collapsed." Fatigue had pouched the doctor's face, his cheeks hung gray. He kept his touch on their arms.
  "You picked my birthday to do it on!" Fay screamed out, just as Mrs. Martello came out of the room. She closed the door behind her. She was carrying a hamper. She pretended not to see them as she drummed past on her heels.
  Laurel felt the Doctor's hand shift to grip her arm; she had been about to go straight to the unattended. He began walking the two women toward the elevators. Laurel became aware that he was in evening clothes.
  At the elevator he got in with them, still standing between them. "Maybe we asked too much of him," he said grudgingly. "And yet he didn't have to hold out much longer." He looked protestingly at the lighted floors flashing by. "I'd been waiting to know how well that eye would see!" 
The above passage gives an example of the level of distinctness of all three personalities: Fay (the step-mother), impetuous and entitled, the Doctor, rather emotionally clueless in responding to an unexpected death (caring more about how the eyesight would have turned out rather than the two members affected by the death) and Laurel, quietly reflecting and absorbing.

I would not be surprised if this novel is commonly taught in classrooms and dissected, since there's a lot of details to think on, (the first of which that I would bring up being the unusual title.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Bonobo and the Atheist : Frans de Waal

The Bonobo and the Atheist
By Frans de Waal

Enjoyable and interesting.   de Waal discusses research on how bonobos, chimps and other animals empathize and live by social behavior rules, which ensure smooth social relationships.  He posits that human ethics/morality developed in a bottom-up fashion, evolving from emotions and good day-to-day social interaction behaviors, rather than in a top-down approach of religion dictating good ethical behavior.  In this manner, he argues that ethical and moral behavior existed long before any organized religion and can therefore exist in a society without any central religion.

I found his description of the research on animal behavior to be the most interesting.  He particularly focuses on bonobos, since they are unusual for the ape family: the groups are led by females, and bonobos are comparatively peaceful (i.e. unlike chimps, who are highly territorial and will brutally kill others, it's possible for two separate groups of bonobos to merge or coexist with one another.)  However, he does describe experiments and anecdotes with a number of varying animals, which demonstrate psychology and social traits, which are very familiar to us.

For example, a story of how bonobos care about the social welfare of others:
Apes do seem to worry about the possible death of others... Upon hearing sudden screams in the swamp forest, fieldworkers found a male, Malusu, crouching with a metal snare around his hand... Other bonobos unfastened the snare from the lianas, and tried to remove it from Malusu's hand. He kept getting stuck, however, and was left behind while the others traveled to the dry forest where they usually slept. The next morning, these bonobos did something never observed before: they returned over a mile distance straight to the same spot where they had last seen Malusu. Once there, they slowed down and searched around. Given their knowledge of snares, the bonobos may have made the connection with the loss of a group member. They failed to find Malusu, but a month later he rejoined the community.  Despite a permanently mangled hand, he had survived his ordeal.
Some of their experiments demonstrate that apes have a psychological sense of fairness:
This became an immensely popular experiment in which one [capuchin] monkey received cucumber slices while another received grapes for the same task.  The monkeys had no trouble performing if both of them received identical rewards of whatever quality, but rejected unequal outcomes with such vehemence that there could be little doubt about their feelings... The monkey receiving a cucumber contentedly munches on her first slice, yet throws a tantrum after she notices that her companion is getting grapes. From then on, she ditches her measly cucumber slices and starts shaking the testing chamber with such agitation that it threatens to break apart.
He also gets into the environment of scientific testing and specifically, how scientist bias in believing that humans are unique, negatively influences research:
This bias was ignored not too long ago when humans were considered good at face recognition. Apes had done poorly on the same tests as applied to humans with the same stimuli, which meant that the apes had been tested on human faces. I call this the "anthropocentric bias" in ape research, which is responsible for much misinformation.  When one of my co-workers in Atlanta, Lisa Parr, used the hundreds of photographs I had shot in Arnhem to test chimpanzees on portraits of their own species, they excelled at it. Seeing the portraits on a computer screen, they were even able to tell which juveniles were offspring of which females, doing so without personally knowing the pictured chimps.
His intention in bringing up research into empathy, social behavior and fairness of bonobos and chimps is to make the link that humans may have similarly developed their sense of ethics and morals from being in a social communities, well before organized religion.  I found this linkage to be rather weak.  As de Waal's focus is in animal research, he does not go into any similar human psychology experiments, which would make this point more explicit.

With that being said, he does have some nuanced thoughts on the current atheist vs believer and science vs religion 'war' taking place in American media/society.  His thinking goes along the line that it's completely feasible for a society to be ethical and moral without organized religion.  He, however, disagrees with neo-atheists' view that 1) those who believe in religion should be mocked and 2) religion should be replaced with science and rationality:
Science isn't the answer to everything. As a student, I learned about the "naturalistic fallacy" and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong. This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution. Scientists had been very much involved in the genocidal machine... Children had been sown together to create conjoined twins, live humans had been operated on without anesthesia... I have never forgotten this dark postwar period, during which every scientist who spoke with a German accent was suspect.  American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics...
  ...As a biologist myself, I am glad those acrimonious days are over, but at the same time I wonder how anyone could forget this past and hail science as our moral savior... While I do welcome a science of morality, I can't fathom calls for science to determine human values. Is pseudoscience something of the past? Are modern scientists free from moral biases? ... I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality's handmaiden.
Lastly, I should mention that de Waal also refers to the works of the artist, Hieronymus Bosch, frequently throughout the book.  He mentions on the first page: "I was born in Den Bosch, the Dutch city after which Hieronymus Bosch named himself", so clearly the works of Bosch seem personally special to him.  However, his descriptions of the works and his attempts to link to the other topics were both weak and distracting to me, particularly without being able to see the works being described.

All in all, the research and points that de Waal does explore and discuss were interesting enough to make this a worthwhile read.

Monday, June 02, 2014

If White Kids Die : Dick J. Reavis

If White Kids Die
By Dick J. Reavis

I met an older Caucasian gentleman in a bar, who to my utter surprise told me that he had participated in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's.  He ended up recommending this short memoir, written by another Caucasian volunteer in the movement.

From the get-go, Reavis gives a disclaimer that he was simply a foot-soldier in the movement, so while he has some interactions with the more well-known people of the movement, he solely had limited view into what was going on locally.  I actually found this view really refreshing and much more accessible. 

I loved his a first-person perspective on the atmosphere...
On two or three streets, in blocks just east of Strawberry [street], an oddly interracial pattern had evolved. Blacks lived on one side of these blocks, north or south, and whites lived on the other. Late in the afternoons, they'd gaze at each other from their front porches, never crossing the pavements to exchange neighborly news. Those blocks were, I always thought, slices from divided Berlin: wary encampments, living cheek by jowl.
... and the context he's able to provide:
 In the South from Reconstruction until 1964 - and in some places, afterwards - all social arrangements reflected a caste system based on color. Under penalty of law, whites and blacks used separate bathrooms, eateries, water fountains, etc. Blacks weren't permitted to try on clothing at department stores, nor to be on the streets of white residential districts after sundown. The regime was so thorough that the Southern Building Code called for racially separate waiting rooms in bus stations, hospital offices, and the like. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 supposedly removed these barriers, but it couldn't always reach into behaviors governed by custom: blacks weren't customarily permitted to enter the front doors of white people's houses, for example, and no law could give them entry there.
From how other documentaries and history books are written, I don't think one would ever get the sense of how loosely structured the movement was and that were tensions between local and national efforts:

  Then he explained.
  "You see, SCLC has a strategy. SNCC and sometimes some of us call it, 'Local failure, national success.' What that means is that SCLC goes into a place, gets the existing leadership to back its plan, and then creates a crisis that will bring in TV and the press. When they do that, see it puts pressure on the politicians up in Washington to pass the kind of bills that we need."
  I was at last learning the basics, but I didn't like what I heard.
  "Dr. King comes in," he said, "at the point of the crisis, to bring it to a head or to dramatize it. He doesn't stay there afterwards, he doesn't go beforehand. That's not his role."
  "Now, the trouble with the strategy," he continued, "is that it's just what it says, 'local failure, national success.'  People lose their jobs, get evicted, things like that.
  ...
  "If you go back there [to Selma] now, you'll find that a lot of people are disgusted with the Movement. They'll feel like that they've been left holding the bag. They'll say, 'Where is Dr. King now? He's run out on us,' because they don't understand.
I think with all the accusations of racism today over people publicly saying inappropriate words, folks may have forgotten that racism isn't solely words.  As described in this memoir, it's a truly awful sense of powerlessness, simply because of your race.
A few days later, Charlie, still a prisoner, was brought to a Linden courtroom for trial. The sheriff, the judge, and his assistants began furtively paging through law books, apparently perplexed. This went on for twenty minutes before Charlie was called to the bench. "Charlie," the judge said, following  the Southern custom of addressing blacks by first names only. "You were brought here on a charge of Peeping Tom. But we can't find any law against being a Peeping Tom. So we're going to change the charge to Public Disturbance. We'll bring you back for trial in two weeks." The bailiffs took Charlie away.
Lastly, there are subtleties and shades of racism (that still exist today). That they had to split hairs when it comes to terrible conditions is pretty gut-wrenching.  
These incidents showed me Cooper's understanding of his role. He saw himself as being the man in charge of stopping or slowing the Movement. That's why he'd ordered the arressts on the driver's license charges, and that's why he had bent the truth in his testimony at my vagrancy trial. He felt that persecuting us was the duty of lawmen - but that it was not a job for uncertified racists, for Klansmen and the like. He was a by-the-book racist. Not all Southern police chiefs were so restrained and the Marengo sheriff's office was not so restrained. I concluded that under the prevailing political conditions, we were lucky to have Cooper as Chief.
All in all, this was really eye-opening to read and I whole-hardheartedly recommend it.

Martin Dressler : Steven Millhauser

Martin Dressler
By Steven Millhauser

An odd one this. 

The novel follows the eponynmous Martin Dressler, from when he's a boy, helping out his father at a cigar shop to when he's a young man, pursuing an ambitious entrepreneurial path.

The story starts off fairly straightforwardly and with a direct, forward movement.  After Martin is recruited to work as a nearby hotel, due to his dedication and hard-working nature, he soon finds himself moving up the career ladder.  He also gets his first taste for entrepreneurial success, opening up a cigar shop in the hotel lobby.  As he accrues success after success, there is a sense that this will be a story like Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and in some ways, there are similarities between the two stories.

However, unlike the protagonist in The Fountainhead, Martin does go through spells of cluelessness and indecisiveness, particularly when dealing with women.  Millhauser details these experiences in an off-kilter dreamlike way.  For example, a sick hotel guest seduces Martin:
And Martin entered her fever-dream, at first awkwardly, then easily: it was all very easy, easy and mysterious, for he barely knew what was happening there in the dusk of the parlor, in a world at the edge of the world - Mrs. Hamilton's dream. The silk-smoothness of her skin surprised him, and under the skin was bone, lots of bone, skin stretched over bone, and then a sudden warm wet sinking and sinking, and somehow he was standing his uniform with an empty pitcher in his hand and Mrs. Hamilton was looking at him with wide-open eyes over which the lids came slowly down halfway. And she said, "Mind you don't catch a fever, Martin," and raised a forefinger that she waggled lightly. Then her eyelids closed decisively.
Also, unlike The Fountainhead's simple unimpeded success story, this one ends with a more ambiguous tone, when it comes to unabashed ambition, both from a career standpoint and a personal life one.