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Book review: Bringing Down the House

We’ll talk more about metrics during the Q1 report I post next week, but one of my key metrics for the year is the number of books I read. Somewhat related to this, I recently noticed that it’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve tried to read an entire book on a plane, so on a recent trip to Tucson I decided to finally try it again. I’ve had Bringing Down the House sitting on my shelf at work for the past year and decided on a last minute impulse to chuck it in my bag before heading to the airport. Here are some general impressions of the book:

  1. It’s written at about an eighth grade reading level. Author Ben Mezrich is apparently a Harvard grad, but there are passages of this book that struck me as surprisingly bush league: an awkward metaphor here, an overly earnest description or unimportant detail there. I found myself consistently having to stop and wonder, “Who edited this? Ronald McDonald?”
  2. This book is supposedly a true story — one is led to believe that not even the names were changed, though my guess is that they had to have been — and yet given how fashionable it is to elaborate on the truth these days (I’m looking at you, James Frey) I couldn’t help realizing what a falsehood most of these memoir-ish books have to be. In the case of Bringing Down the House, there are scenes, dialogue and even plot points that are just a little too convenient. The book unfolds suspiciously like the perfect blueprint for a movie, which — congrats! — it looks like they’ve ended up making.
  3. It’s so fashionable to time travel in your narrative these days, but I found the book’s device of jumping between the main character’s rise to fame and the present-day interviews (with the author actually inserting himself into the story) overly clunky.
  4. The motivations of the characters aren’t particularly well-drawn; I wasn’t entirely certain why several of the characters would want to continue playing blackjack in spite of their difficulties once they’d been profiled.
  5. Even with a book written at the eighth-grade level, I read ridiculously slowly. I estimate this book took me about four and a half hours total, which is probably at least two hours longer than it should have.

Despite all these gripes, it’s a compulsive read — by the end of it I actually wished I’d gone to MIT (or lived in Vegas) myself. Also, despite freely giving away some blackjack secrets I’d wager this book probably ended up doing Vegas a net positive, encouraging people to throw even more money down at the blackjack tables. And I’m actually really curious to see 21 now, the movie adaptation starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Bosworth. Because nothing says MIT to me like Kate Bosworth.

The cult of Marissa Mayer


Looks like the media just can’t get enough of Google executive Marissa Mayer, and wouldn’t you know it: I can’t either. This woman is ridiculously fascinating to read about. The latest profile from San Francisco magazine is clearly a puff piece – you can almost hear how breathless the writer is – but I really don’t care. This is truly stuff that inspires. And I’m so insanely jealous of people that can get by on four hours of sleep a night.

New Yorker Stories: “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro

All I can say is WOW – leave it to a frakkin’ legend like Alice Munro to screw my head back on about New Yorker fiction. If reading the weekly New Yorker story is like a dubious session of panning for gold, reading Free Radicals by Alice Munro is like finding a big fat nugget of the good stuff in your pan. She sets up this story with such straightforward innocence it totally had me fooled, though I really should have known better. I love how it builds a sort of quiet foreboding in the early paragraphs, even though you’re not really sure what to suspect. It’s got that rustic gothic mood most recently felt in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, and before you realize it the plot’s already turned on you. Several times at that. And while the ending might feel one turn too frivolous, this is brilliant stuff. I’m not even gonna summarize, you should just read it now. And I really need to be reading more Munro.

Today on the Muni Metro (2/7)

This is actually an amalgam of the past several days but shhhhh it’ll be our little secret. Recently observed:

  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
  • Angels by Marian Keyes
  • Home to Holly Springs by Jan Karon
  • Choke by Chuck Pahlaniuk

New Yorker Stories: “Friendly Fire” by Tessa Hadley

I’m sure expectations for some sort of profound revelation are building with each passing day, but for now I’d just like to try and get back into an executional groove with this blog so I’m going to start out with one of our recurring features and a promise to make it more recurring than history has thus far indicated.

Friendly Fire by Tessa Hadley is the first New Yorker story I’ve read in several months, and while it went remarkably quickly and had some charming details, there’s simply no plot to speak of – the main character is a middle-aged woman named Shelley who’s earning extra money by doing some work for her friend Pam’s cleaning business. The two clean a warehouse in the middle of the night. The end. Shelley also has a son in the British army stationed in Afghanistan, which is an interesting wrinkle given our (understandable) preoccupation with American soldiers overseas but the perspective ends up being under-utilized. While visiting Karan in New York last summer I vaguely remember having met a literary girl who cited Tessa Hadley as a favorite author, and there are indeed some nicely observed moments here – the soldier son now kisses his mother goodbye “as if he were putting her aside, kindly but firmly” – but there just isn’t enough here to hang a hat on.

Winter meetings

In that time-honored tradition of winter break, I’ll be spending the next two weeks at home. There are honestly a ridiculous number of things I want to get done during this time – to the point where I know I won’t be able to get to all of them – but let me just state for the record that I’ve never been happier to be going home. Seriously. All in all 2007’s been something of a minefield, but mostly in the “th-th-that that don’t kill me” sort of way. At least, that’s what I choose to believe. And I truly do believe it.

What I’m looking forward to the most: seeing the fam, having some time to think, and plotting out 2008. Oh, and making end-of-year lists, of course. I’m all about the lists.

Things I (used to?) love: Gmail edition

Listen up, Gmail: You’ve been my favorite web app for years and single-handedly started the whole Web 2.0 revolution so I’ve been cutting you some slack but WHAT’S WITH THE SUDDEN PROBLEMS LOADING PAGES??? What are all these new scripts I imagine must be churning in the background? The colored labels are nice (takes away the need for that Greasemonkey script) but if this is the price of admission I must strongly reconsider. Consider this your penalty flag.

Note of irony: I actually hesitated a moment just now before posting this until I noticed my Gmail got stuck again so NOW IT’S ON.

Devin Hester, you are ridiculous

It’s been a pretty rough year for the Bears, but the two redeeming facets have been a) They’re responsible for the only Packers loss thus far into the season, and b) Devin Hester still manages to capitalize on the (few) opportunities he’s given.

Love the Forrest Gump moment at the end. The man is a baller.