100 in ’11: Shriver, Hosseini and Isaacson

The Post-Birthday World – Lionel Shriver

Summary: The ultimate what-if scenario; Irina’s two very different possible lives play out, one in which she succumbs to an adulterous attraction, and one in which she doesn’t.

Here’s the deal: Irina is dopey and spineless. Her defacto, Lawrence, is dull, emotionally stunted and won’t marry her. She’s forced to choose between him and Ramsey, the snooker-playing cad who offers a life of colour, excitement and hot sex. He’s also terrible with money, immature, jealous and temperamental. And that’s the choice, really – a happy-enough existence, or a turbulent one of high highs and low lows? What would you choose?

Shriver plots very tightly; Irina’s divergent futures parallel each other closely, usually mirroring the other. While it works well (they are alternated chapter by chapter) it’s also predictable; I  wonder if the book would have been stronger had her alternate realities diverged more strongly. And it’s not a short book. It could definitely have had the axe taken to it; some of the exhaustive pool passages could have been trimmed, or the vaguely political ones. But by the very end, Shriver makes it pretty clear which side she’s on. Irina ends up in exactly the same position either way, except for one crucial point. And that disappointed me. A novel based on this premise, IMO, should be ultimately ambiguous.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Summary: After Amir witnesses an unspeakable atrocity on his childhood friend/servant Hassan, who endures it for his master’s sake, his guilt haunts him for years to come, through Afghanistan’s war and over the ocean to his new life in San Francisco.

Afghanistan’s history is pretty depressing. And so is Amir’s sorry story. Unable to deal with his guilt, he drives Hassan literally out of the city, and doesn’t get the chance to begin to atone for his sins until decades later. He’s drawn back to his home country to try to set things right in a small way and slay his demons once and for all.

What’s wrong with The Kite Runner? Hosseini prefers to tell even more than show. He beats you over the head with cliches and foreshadowing and symbolism. The first person viewpoint didn’t help in that regard – one of the many reasons I preferred A Thousand Splendid Suns. That said, it’s a nice history lesson, an ode to the once-great Afghanistan of old, and a tearjerker. It also always breaks my heart to read about immigrants starting over in poverty in a new country – that saddened me possibly even more than the atrocities in Kabul and elsewhere.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I hated this book; I enjoyed it. And to Hosseini’s credit, for all my criticism of his heavyhanded plotting, the conclusion was decidedly not neat and tidy, but delightfully grey. But I think it could have been so much more, with a less contemptuous and cowardly narrator, and less long-suffering, endlessly loyal secondary characters.

Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson

Summary: An intriguing, if not intimate glimpse into the workings of a flawed and mercurial genius.

It’s not often I read biographies. But I actually wanted to read this one, and when a copy popped up on my work desk, I was stoked. And because I didn’t get to do it justice in my 200-word review, you’ll get the full unpolished monty here.

I think we all know the Steve Jobs story. It’s great stuff; you couldn’t make it up if you tried. But it gets better; Isaacson has managed to extract some fabulous quotes, eg: “She [mother Clara] just wanted him to be healthy, and he would be making weird pronouncements like, ‘I’m a fruitarian and will only eat leaves picked by virgins in the moonlight.”

(One of my 100 in 1001 is to do NaNoWriMo, which I probably won’t pull off, but I reckon I could do a fair job of a biography. It’s just longform journalism, after all.)

As well as following the narrative of Jobs’ life, it offers an insight into the tech world and the tensions of Silicon Valley- open vs closed, Apple vs Microsoft, Apple vs Google, Disney vs Pixar, etc. It doesn’t shy away from his failures: NeXT, the Lisa, Antennagate, etc. What it does leave out is the Foxconn suicides – while I don’t believe there’s anything unique about Apple’s use of cheap labour, I do think the major negative publicity surrounding worker deaths warranted a mention.

It’s not a particularly flattering picture of Jobs. He was a genius at what he did – almost everyone who knew him agreed on that. He drove others to perform beyond their expectations – his reality distortion field, as they call it, sucked others in, hypnotising them almost. While not a technical guy, he pursued perfection at all costs, demanding beauty in his products and in his personal life – house, plane, boat. He married technology and design like nobody had before.

But he was ruthless. He’d dismiss others’ ideas, then claim them as his own a day later. He cheated Woz (whom I think of as a giant teddy bear) out of money in the early days and denied founding member Daniel Kottke any stock. He wanted to let employees go on the spot without severance. He saw things in black and white, dismissing those who weren’t A players, and everything was either genius or a piece of crap to him. No middle ground. He had no time for social niceties. He was volatile and complex and played favourites with his children. And of course, he eerily echoed his own father’s abandonment of a child at 23. And he did not endure his illness well.

But to his credit, it was never about the money. I especially loved the moment when Jobs told the head of Oracle to stop thinking about making more money, because he already had more than enough to last him a lifetime. It’s these anecdots, collected by Isaacson and supplemented by exhaustive interviews with family, friends, business contacts and material from other published interviews, that really start to offer insight into his essence, his quirks, his drive.

Steve Jobs was an enigma. Some say his issues came down to his adoption and feelings of abandonment. Others say he may have been undiagnosed bipolar. Did Isaacson truly get inside his head? I’m not sure. On the other hand, I’m not sure he himself, nor anyone who knew him, could truly say they fully understood Steve Jobs

3 thoughts on “100 in ’11: Shriver, Hosseini and Isaacson

  • Reply Two Degrees November 9, 2011 at 16:40

    Did you know there is a graphic novel of Kite Runner?

    What I enjoyed most about this book was is how Amir’s father was transformed from an important character into a ‘silly old immigrant’. It made me wonder – the people I meet in Toronto, where did they come from and what sort of past did they have?

    • Reply eemusings November 9, 2011 at 20:32

      Yes – in fact I accidentally requested the graphic novel version from the library initially! I didn’t pick it up once I realised. I’m kind of a traditional book gal.

  • Reply 100 in ’11: Eggers, Rubenfeld and Brandt | Musings of an Abstract Aucklander December 2, 2011 at 11:19

    […] founder Jeff Bezos is classically driven, like many ambitious tycoons. (Having just read the Steve Jobs biography, I couldn’t help but draw parallels). From his childhood spent buried in books and pulling […]

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