Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Accidental Billionaires

I'm probably the exception, but I thought that the weakest part of The Social Network was the dialog.  With the exception of Andrew Garfield's Eduardo Savarin and Rashida Jones's lawyer, everyone sounded the same.  I chalked that up to their otherness - Jones appeared in framing scenes rather than the main story, and Garfield's natural accent is English rather than American.  Whatever the reason, this distinctiveness made me find Savarin more sympathetic than the rest of the young men involved in the founding of Facebook.

Savarin does not come across quite as well in the source material.  He was Ben Mezrich's main source for The Accidental Billionaires, and serves as the narrator as well.  Saverin met Mark Zuckerberg at a fraternity event and they bonded over the pathetic nature of the party.  A few months later Zuckerberg created The Facebook - a database combining photo databases from the Harvard dorms, crashed the university's system, and altered how we keep in touch.  He's the brains - Savarin is the money.  An econ major who'd used a weather algorithm to make hundreds of thousands of dollars on the commodes market, he's not really up on the technical aspects of Facebook, but he has the cash to bankroll the startup and the business savvy to start the legal battle against the Winklevoss twins who'd asked Zuckerberg to develop a similar database for them.

That division of labor seemed to work until the semester ended and they ended up on opposite coasts.  Savarin had an internship in New York, and even though he gave it up before lunch on his first day, he remained there, soliciting investors.  Zuckerberg took the company to Silicon Valley, where he met Napster founder Sean Parker and immersed himself in programming, with breaks for raucous parties and occasional meetings with angel investors.  Saverin felt squeezed out, withdrew his funding, and another lawsuit began.

The Accidental Billionaires is largely a synthesis of he said/he said transcripts.  Mezerich examined court filings and interviewed some of the participants - but not Mark Zuckerberg.  Perhaps this is why Zuckerberg appears more sympathetic than his compatriots.  He's a cypher, but at least he's not a jerk.  Saverin talks about him, but never seems to know what is (former) friend actually thinks, and compared to Saverin's social-climbing, money-hungry insecurity and the Winklevoss twins' entitled arrogance, the almost personality-free programmer wins Mr. Congeniality by default.  He's a geek, but unlike the thin-skinned Olympic athletes and the socially awkward financier, he's comfortable with who he is.

Saverin is a striver, who seems more focused on status (and joining one of Harvard's exclusive clubs) and has the sort of misogynistic streak that comes from ignorance rather than hatred of women.  His offhand comments about unattractive female classmates and "Asian girlfriends" are rather distasteful, and not the sort of comments I remember my geeky college classmates making (although, to be fair, they might not make them in front of an actual girl).  His final scenes are rather pathetic, showing an almost unimaginably wealthy 20-something, trading on his fame to pick up "hot Asian girls" and his membership in the Phoenix club to impress students at his alma mater.  Zuckerberg seems to have remained so uninterested in his image that he still dresses like a 15-year-old, but maintained a long term relationship with the former classmate he married the week she graduated from medical school and Facebook went public.  I doubt he's a saint, and he might even be a jerk, but if you take money out of the equation, he still won.  And I wonder if that bothers Saverin even more than having his Facebook shares diluted.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Elephants Can Remember

Agatha Christie was over 80 when she wrote her last two books, and Dame Agatha had clearly lost her touch.  I remember reading Postern of Fate (her final novel) on vacation when I was 16, and thinking that it just didn't add up.  In 2009, a pair of Toronto academics analyzed several of her books, and determined that by the time she wrote her penultimate book, Elephants Can Remembershe may have been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease.   The authors also suspect that Christie may have realized that something was wrong.

Elephants Can Remember is a murder in retrospect, but one in which the past is shrouded in fog.  A domineering middle-aged woman confronts Ariadne Oliver after a literary luncheon and asks about the parents of one of Mrs. Oliver's goddaughters.  Did Celia Ravenscroft's mother murder her husband and then commit suicide, or was it the other way around?  Mrs. Oliver can barely remember Celia - she's one of a dozen or more godchildren - but she's more troubled by the fact that she's forgotten the death of her friend, Celia's mother.  She consults with Hercule Poirot, and the two decide to "hunt elephants" with Mrs. Oliver hunting down former hairdressers, maids and nannies and Poirot interviewing retired policemen and Swiss au pairs.  The answer is the sort of twist more worthy of an afternoon soap opera than a canonical mystery writer, but she supports the conclusion and ties it up reasonably well.  The rest of the novel, though, is a bit messy - a few characters appear and disappear without warning, the past scenes are indistinctly written, and while Christie has clearly set the book in 1971, it's a 1971 set barely fifteen years after the glory years of the British Empire.

Ian Lancashire, one of the Toronto researchers, saw a kind of heroism in Elephants Can Remember, and I agree.  Her avatar can't seem to remember where she put things and people who were important to her twenty years ago may as well not exist (although she has very clear memories of her own early childhood).  Mrs. Oliver fights the fog, though, and learns what truly happened to Celia's parents.  It's almost as if her creator were fighting to escape the mist which may have been clouding her formerly sharp mind.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles

I'm a bad mystery fan.  I've read very few of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  I don't think it's been a conscious decision, although I found The Hound of the Baskervilles more creepy than compelling when I read it in 8th grade English, but I don't remember being particularly enthralled by the few stories I read in a college class on mystery fiction either.  I have been impressed with Sherlock, though (and not just because of Benedict Cumberbatch's cheekbones, fantastic though they may be), so when my classic literature group chose The Hound of the Baskervilles, I was ready to give it another chance.

Arthur Conan Doyle became bored with Sherlock Holmes and famously killed him off in "The Final Problem."  A decade later, in response to public desire and probably financial considerations, he brought him back.  The Hound of the Baskervilles was Holmes first novel after his return and Doyle, apparently still bored with his creation, sends him off to hide in a cave for most of the investigation.  As for the rest of the story...well, I enjoyed it more than when I was 13, but not by much.  The plot is a bit contrived; I'm not fond of Victorian prose; and when Holmes explains how he solved the mystery, I felt that Doyle held back some of the information needed for the audience to reach those conclusions.  I'd much rather watch "The Baskerville Hounds" - the early scene where a nicotine-withdrawing Sherlock orders a witness to blow smoke in his face alone is more entertaining than the original source.

In the Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food

I really wanted to enjoy In the Devil's Garden, but after a promising start, it disappointed me.  It has an intriguing premise - the examination of the seven deadly sins as they relate to food preferences and taboos.  Lust was interesting, with an aside into why apples eventually became identified with the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (a combination of the suggestive image of the seed sac and political battles between two branches of primitive Christianity).  I also enjoyed gluttony, which was probably an easy chapter for Stewart Lee Allen to write.  Pride had some good points, such as how dinner invitations set and keep the social order, but Allen's less than compelling writing style began to wear on me.  Sloth and (surprisingly) greed seemed to be catch-all chapters, where Allen threw in bits of information he'd uncovered but didn't know how to present.  I expected more from blasphemy, but Allen explored cannibalism rather than religious taboos and seemed to be stretching to fit his examples into his thesis.  Finally, I just didn't buy his arguments on anger.  Among other things, he claimed that sports fans eat crunchy snacks because those snacks are violent.   As a sports fan who is not exactly adverse to said snacks, I have to say that sometimes a chip is just a chip.  Or a way to get the dip into your mouth without using utensils.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Poisoned Season

I've read the second and third books in Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily Ashton series out of order, and I wish I hadn't - not because A Fatal Waltz built directly upon A Poisoned Season but because the latter was a much more tightly plotted novel.  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed in A Fatal Waltz, and if it weren't for my slight obsession with reading in order (and the fact that I'd already bought the rest of the series), I might have just abandoned Lady Ashton.

The titular season is the London social season - an exhausting and expensive whirlwind during which the rich and the well-born try to save the estate or buy some class through an appropriate marriage.  Emily has recently come out of mourning for her late husband and is attempting to navigate the season on her own terms, accepting only those invitations that interest her and not being maneuvered by her mother into another marriage with a near-stranger.

Alexander introduces four threads which unravel Emily's plans.  A man claiming to be the son of Louis XVI arrives in London, charming the ton and becoming the main prize of the season's marriage market.    Soon after, someone poisons an acquaintance of Emily's.  As she investigates his death, Emily finds that she is being stalked and that someone has begun to spread scandalous rumors about her.  Alexander ties the four threads together quite neatly, and in an unexpected way - she didn't quite "get" me, but I didn't guess the identity of the murderer until a few pages before Alexander revealed the killer's identity.  Alexander also gives her supporting characters - Emily's suitor Colin Hargraves, her childhood friend Jeremy, Duke of Bainbridge, her bluestocking American friend Margaret, and Frenchwoman of a certain age Cecile - enough depth that their romantic entanglements and exposition scenes add to rather than detract from the mystery.