Saturday, July 2, 2016

CBR8 Review #5: How May We Hate You? by Anna Drezen and Todd Dakotah Briscoe

Ever worked in the service industry? If the answer is yes, then you are probably aware of the magnitude of stupidity and rudeness that the general population possess. It doesn't matter if you have waited tables, worked in retail, dealt with customer service phone calls, worked in a hotel – there is something about being in these "How may I help you?" positions that somehow elicit some of the worst behavior from people who are typically nice in their everyday lives.

In my six years living in New York, I bartended and waited tables in four different places. The worst establishment was a very popular restaurant in the West Village that was essentially a tourist trap. We used to get hordes of tourists there who ranged from interesting to rude to misogynistic. Not everyone was terrible, but if I had to mete out a percentage, the scale would definitely tip over towards "Humanity Sucks."

It was there that I also met the coolest, funniest bunch of weirdos, some of whom I am still friends with today. One of them is Anna Drezen, a co-author of this book, who had a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor which sometimes flew under the radar of customers. After working at said terrible restaurant, she worked as a concierge in hotels in Times Square – a tourist trap in a meteoric sense – and it's there that she and her friend Todd decided to start a tumblr filled with some of the most ridiculous but true conversations they had with customers.

How May We Hate You became a huge fucking hit! Of course it did, because everyone who's ever worked in service recognizes the frustration of it, but also because Anna and Todd – both comedians – were able to capture the laugh/cry quality of dealing with the public.

Here are some examples of people being rude, people being dense, and people with thick accents/language barrier which can lead to some hilarious misunderstandings.

Anyway, from this runaway hit tumblr, they parlayed it into a book!! And the book has a ton of new stuff, along with actually helpful advice on how to be a tourist in New York/how to not inadvertently be an asshole. There is also a hilarious section where Anna and Todd classified the guests. For instance, I laughed out loud on the plane when reading about The Miracle, "a person who can be classified as a miracle based solely on the fact that they've survived this long." They can be identified by "an 'I [heart] New York' shirt, a camera around their neck, and an aura that just says "ROB ME." There is also The Unprepared, and their appearance "varies, but it's never weather-appropriate."

There are also people who aren't really tourists, such as the Wealthy Retail Tourists hailing from places like Brazil, Qatar and Germany, who "do not mess around when it comes to shopping." They can be easily identified by their "gorgeous bone structure, amazing hair, all the time in the world to ask you the price of every single goddamn bag in the Coach outlet in New Jersey. This may not sound like a visual trait, but you'll notice it by the haze of blood that clouds your eyes because your brain is bleeding because it is trying to kill itself."

If you think this book is only bitching about people, eh, you're kind of right, and you'll probably be totally delighted by it. However, there are also stories of people being actual human beings, and they talk regularly about concierge staff who really do love helping customers. I also got weirdly choked up at the end when Anna wrote about how a tourist she had been helping all week invited her to see an opera, a totally unexpected gesture that resulted in a genuine friendship.

At the end of the day, you will love this book if you've ever worked in service, and you might even recognize yourself in some of the characters mentioned (everyone has been a clueless tourists somewhere). The important takeaway from it is Treat Others the Way You Want to Be Treated... and maybe that high schools/colleges should make it mandatory for students to spend a semester working in the service industry to curb the public's asshole behavior towards service staff. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

CBR8 Review #4: Slade House by David Mitchell

I bought Slade House not long after I finished The Bone Clocks because I didn’t want to stop living in Mitchell’s world. It ended up being the perfect accompaniment to Bone Clocks, almost like a side note into the world of Atemporals, souls who are able to live on for centuries in different bodies.

Described as a “haunted house” book, Mitchell exercises his horror writing skills in describing Slade House, which is hidden behind a small black iron door down a narrow, winding alley. Nathan Bishop, the 13-year-old narrator for the first chapter set in 1979, said, “If somebody killed you down here, nobody’d see.”

Dragged there by his put-upon single mother to visit a Lady Norah Grayer, Nathan meets Jonah, a kid who proposes a simple game, “Fox and Hounds.” Both kids must start from opposite end of the impossibly large manor (“How does this exist between the two alleys?” multiple characters thought this at multiple times) and run anti-clockwise and if one catches the other, then the catcher is the fox. Innocent enough – but Nathan doesn’t realize how fatal the game is until it’s too late.

Each chapter is set nine years apart, introducing a new unsuspecting visitor to Slade House. Fans of Mitchell’s other novels can expect to see familiar faces and names – the sibling of a character in The Bone Clocks who committed suicide turns up as a side character; Spyglass, the magazine that Luisa Rey works for in Cloud Atlas is also the employer of one of the narrators; a sinister figure from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is mentioned several times by the residents of Slade House. Best of all is the reappearance of Marinus, who plays a pivotal role here.

Now that I’ve read pretty much all of Mitchell’s books (except for the one he translated to Japanese with his wife), I am starting to see recurring themes. I very much still had Bone Clocks on my mind while reading this, and I couldn’t help but connect it to the environmental themes of climate change and wastefulness that cropped up in the final chapters of Bone Clocks. As Marinus confronts the two residents of Slade House about their methods for immortality, he went on this rant about how he’s sick of hearing all the excuses that Atemporals do to seek survival.

“No, please, no. I’ve heard it so often. ‘Humanity is hardwired for survival’; ‘Might is Right is nature’s way’; ‘We only harvest a few.’ Again and again, down the years, same old same old… from such an array of vultures… from feudal lords to slave traders to oligarchs to neocons to predators like you. All of you strangle your consciences, and ethically you strike yourselves dumb.”

This resounded for me, especially when I had only just read about the Endarkenment in the 2040s in The Bone Clocks (I would be in my 50s when 2043 comes along) – when people are plunged back to a time before electricity and technology and resources were readily available. There are marauding gangs of thieves who steal solar panels and people’s food to survive, and when confronted by older people, their responses were, “You did this to us. You forced it upon ourselves with your decades of waste.”

And I think back to how I speak about the environment, about my carbon footprint, and about how I am willing to continue to be as wasteful and thoughtless about life on Earth as I am. I say that I just want to live my life, and that one person can’t do enough to make everything better in the future. I say I don’t want children and will likely not have any, so who cares? I strangle my conscience; ethically, I strike myself dumb.

Which brings me back to Slade House/Bone Clocks. Mitchell might be using the theme of immortality that is sought by these Atemporals as a parallel to how we humans sought for immortality, by making ourselves more comfortable at the expense of the Earth’s longevity. We are the parasitic souls seeking a prolonged life at the expense of future generations’ lives.

Realizing that was an incredibly sobering experience for me. I finished Slade House while seated at an airport food court in the US, and I was struck by how thoughtlessly wasteful we are as a society. Something as simple as grabbing five napkins instead of one, something as unnecessary as having individually wrapped ketchup packets, or having all the lights on in an entire airport despite it being the middle of the night. We are chopping trees, creating more plastic, burning more oil – and these won’t be available to us even twenty years from now if Mitchell’s future becomes a reality. It’s a terrifying outcome and we would have been complicit in it.

CBR8 Review #3: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The best part about The Bone Clocks – besides being able to live in Mitchell’s excellent prose – is that the structure is a variation of what he usually does. His past work are usually epic sagas spanning decades (Clock Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) from intersecting points of views that culminate into a general theme; but Bone Clocks focuses on the life of a single person, Holly Sykes, and this is shown through either herself or from people in her life.

The first and final chapters are narrated from Holly’s point of view, while all the years in between are filled in by family, lovers, etc. In that sense, we get to see her go from being a teenager to being an old biddy. We get to compare how she has grown as a person, how she has changed, what she still retains from her old teenage self. This is especially interesting to me because I am someone who subscribes to the belief that we don’t really fundamentally change, but we do grow into a truer – or more corrupted, depending on our lives – version of our selves.

Beginning on a summer day in 1984, Holly is an obstinate teenager who ran away from home to be with an older boyfriend that her mother disapproves of. Cut to her catching her boyfriend in bed with her best friend, cut to her biting back tears, cut to her deciding to actually run away to punish her peers and her parents. During this sojourn of teenage rebellion, Holly encounters an old woman who requests “asylum” in exchange for some tea. Not knowing what it means, she agreed. Roughly 24 hours later, she learns that her little brother, Jacko, had disappeared without a trace.

Seven years later, we switch abruptly to the point of view of Hugo Lamb (who Mitchell followers will recognize as the asshole cousin of Jason Taylor in Black Swan Green). It’s now 1991, and he is part of the snobbish Oxbridge crowd. The small-scale swindling that he engaged in in Black Swan Green has escalated to full-blown grand larceny, such as hocking valuable objects from dementia-ridden professors and orchestrating a gambling-fueled downfall of a wealthy classmate. Lamb appears to lack a conscience, and he refers to most people who speak of love or sentiment as “Normals.” But during a holiday trip to the Alps, he meets Holly, and she sparks something close to human emotion in him.

And on, and on, and on. Mitchell manages to capture each individual’s life with a sense of ordinariness, punctuated by flashes of the supernatural. For against the backdrop of Holly’s life and the people who surround her, there is a war being waged between two groups over the consequences of immortality. Holly has a role to play in this great saga, but it’s not clear until near the end why she is important.

As is always the case with Mitchell’s work, there’s a lot to love about The Bone Clocks. He again dabbles with the themes of fate and pre-destination, but I think more prevalent throughout it is the idea of human selfishness, which really comes into form in the final chapter. The year is 2043, and the world has run out of petrol and electricity, hailing in a period called The Endarkenment. I don’t want to give away too much, but this chapter was actually such an unexpected gut punch for me – I had no clue that this was where the book was gonna end up, though he did give plenty of hints throughout – and I found myself reading it closely for what’s to come. It’s an entirely all-too-believable forecast for our future.

Mitchell has said in an interview that the Bone Clocks was his “mid-life crisis novel.” It shows, in a way. He is writing about immortality, about a contract with the devil for eternal youth, about the excessive use of fuel and humanity’s disregard for future generations – “all so we didn’t have to change our cosy lifestyles.”