Monday, June 30, 2014

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. - Adelle Waldman (2013)

I was on a doc review project in the Willis Tower for about six weeks in May and June of 2014. Now we are always told by doc review agencies never to browse the web while we are working. I find it hard to believe that anyone actually follows this rule. On a previous project I was paid $16.50 an hour, and for that, I felt it was my duty to browse as often as possible. This recent one paid a fair rate of $25.00 (some still believe that fair is $30) so I was more wary of that rule. I indulged in reading a fair number of book reviews, among other things (but this post isn't a special comment about the vaguely disregarded notion of web browsing at work), and found the book reviews done by Entertainment Weekly to be fun, because they give everything a grade. The reviews themselves cannot hold a candle to what I do here (they are too short and limited in scope) but they seem to have a unified concept of what makes for good literature. (The only “A+” review I saw was for Building Stories by Chris Ware, and truly that looks like an A+ “book.”) 

Naturally, I wanted to see if I had "gotten in right” with The Circle. They gave it a B+, which is about what I would give it, and they said it was “about fifty pages too long,” which I basically implied. Intriguingly, they gave The Goldfinch a B-, which heartened me some, though now I feel obligated to read it. I kept looking through 2013 reviews, vaguely hoping that I would find the book I was currently reading. And there it was! Apparently The Love of Affairs of Nathaniel P. was a big enough deal at the time of publication that EW ran a review of it. Almost a year ago, they gave it a B-. Strangely, they seem to indicate that it’s pretty well-written, but there’s nothing revelatory about it. While I agree to a certain extent, I would have to say it is better than a B-. I would give it a B+. I would say it is not quite as good as Taipei, but was a good “companion piece” to it, as my review of that book led to this recommendation.

Before I get into the plot (which is super easy to tell), I considered this book something of a challenge. I have had a problem in finding female writers that I enjoy. Edith Wharton is one of my all-time favorites, but there just haven’t been many others that have moved me. I can’t pin this down because I don’t want to sound like a misogynist, but I’m afraid it’s inevitable. The challenge for me was to read this book and see if I called “bullshit” on it with regard to the depiction of how men view relationships. I could not do that. This book is better than that. I am sure that there is plenty of “chick-lit” that could get me really pissed off, but this book did not make me throw it down in anger and shout, “You’re wrong about us!”

Nathaniel P., always referred to as Nate, is a writer in Brooklyn who has just gotten an advance for his first book, which is loosely based on his parents’ experience of living as immigrants in the U.S. We first see him run into an ex-girlfriend, Juliet, on the street. She had needed to get an abortion and Nate paid for it. He never really talked to her again after he paid for it, and she is clearly upset over this. He then goes to a party at the home of another ex-girlfriend, Elisa. There he meets Hannah, whom he will eventually date. Their relationship comprises the bulk of the novel’s 242 pages. Along the way, Nate circles back to reflect on growing up, and the girls he liked in high school and college. He eventually gets “serious” with Kristen in college, and lives with her for three years. However that ends because they began “drifting apart” while she went to med school. Eventually, he moves to New York and somehow makes a living as a writer. This is the first and only part that I call “bullshit” on. Ostensibly Nate works a temp job that becomes full-time, indefinitely termed, to pay the rent before any income from his writing emerges. Honestly I do not believe this is realistic. Or rather, while I do think that type of job could cover a person’s costs in NYC, the next paragraph is what I find unrealistic:

“Looking back, he was proud that he’d ‘persevered,’ by which he meant that he hadn't gone to law school. He’d moved to a cheaper apartment, which allowed him to quit the private equity job in favor of shorter bouts of temp work and freelance proofreading for a law firm. He worked on fiction and pitched articles and book reviews, getting assignments here and there. His critical voice improved. He began to get more assignments. Toward the end of his twenties, it became evident that he’d managed to cobble together an actual career as a freelance writer. The achievement was capped off when a major online magazine offered him a position as its regular book reviewer.” (34)

Now, I am sure some people can make it work as a freelancer, but can they afford an apartment they do not share? I doubt it. Hannah is also a freelancer and similarly lives alone in a pretty nice area in Brooklyn (Prospect Heights?). I never tried to be a freelancer and maybe I regret it after reading this book? I didn’t persevere. Aside from my nit-picky demand for “economic reality,” I can’t complain about much else. This book is very well-written, and it’s just subtle enough to appear true-to-life. I remember one particular observation about intellectual tastes at Harvard that seemed so obscure that it had to be true:

 “Growing up, Nate discussed current events at the dinner table; as a family, they watched 60 Minutes and Jeopardy! Apparently, though, some parents read the New York Review of Books and drank martinis. In time, Nate would learn to make finer distinctions between the homes of his most sophisticated classmates—the old-school WASPs versus the academic intellectuals (Jew or gentile)—but in the first weeks of college it seemed to him that all of them, from the children of well-known leftist firebrands to the spawn of union-busting industrial titans, spoke the same language. It seemed that way because they did. (Many of them had gone to the same prep schools.) When it came right down to it, these groups were like the Capulets and the Montagues. Whatever their differences, they were both wealthy Veronese families. Nate’s family was from Romania.” (24)

Maybe that wasn’t the exact quote I was looking for, but it’s close enough and illustrates the point: Waldman is very articulate when it comes to the characteristics of the people she writes about, skirting a fine line between stereotype and fully-realized human being. That is to say, these characters are not stereotypes, and though sometimes they come very close to looking like one, Waldman is effectively writing about a stereotypical cadre of artists in Brooklyn. Nate himself is certainly given a thorough psychological profile. Most of the time it seems like he is the type of guy that most girls would call an “asshole,” but he doesn't come across as a bad guy in the typical sense of boyfriend-material. He is just passive aggressive and doesn't always say what’s on his mind, and Hannah notices this, and calls him out on it. Some of these scenes are great in their intensity—but on the other hand, the actual “incidents” that lead to a fight are petty. This is really where the novel hits hardest. Dating is all about trying to find “the one” that you can share the rest of your life with, and the process of figuring out what you want out of life. Hannah knows this, and she teaches Nate to understand that.

The other characters are a lot more interesting than Nate or Hannah. Nate and Hannah are both perfectly likable but almost stock characters. Aurit, to name the most obvious example, is probably the most interesting character in the book, with Jason taking second. Apparently Waldman wrote an “addendum short story” to this novel that is written from the perspective of Aurit. She is Nate’s closest female friend—pretty much a hardcore feminist, but again, not in the stereotypical sense—and he places much of his intellectual faith in her. Jason is like the character the reader may imagine Nate to be after looking at the cover of the book and reading the jacket description. Okay, maybe both Nate and Jason are assholes, but I think it’s clear that Jason is the more offensive of the two—and again, not stereotypically. Some of his philosophical pronouncements are insane, but I find value in at least some of them:

“Nate pressed his palms against the tabletop.
‘You aren’t arguing that the problem is that we don’t really have one—but that meritocracy itself is bad?’ Jason nodded enthusiastically. ‘Fairness in a meritocracy is just homage to exceptional talent. For the unexceptional—by definition, the bulk of people—meritocracy is a crueler system than what it replaced.’ ‘Than slavery? Feudalism?’
‘For every Jude the Obscure,’ Jason continued over him, ‘prevented by a hereditary class system from going to Oxford, there are a thousand other stonemasons who lack Jude’s intelligence. Meritocracy is great for guys like Jude, who had talent. For the others, it’s bad news.’
‘Wait,’ Nate said. ‘How are the other masons injured if Jude gets to go to Oxford? Is this like how straight marriage is injured by allowing gay marriage? Because I don’t get that either.’
‘They’re exposed as lacking. Duh.’ Jason shook his head. ‘If everyone remains in the station he’s born to, there’s no shame in it, but if it’s in one’s power to rise, the failure to do so becomes a personal failure.’” (213)

One other criticism I wanted to make, and this one will probably be insane, but I have to say it: the novel lacks any sort of struggle with sexuality. Clearly a person like Nate, who knows he is straight and who has slept with his fair number of women but has trouble building lasting relationships with them, would at least wonder if he might be gay or bi. This would have made the novel a lot more interesting, but unfortunately it is unpalatable for people to believe that people are not just born gay or straight. It wouldn't even need to be a whole chapter in the novel—a few paragraphs would do. To be a complete and true psychological profile, at least a cursory reference to this issue should be made.

While we are on the topic of other things this book should have done, it also appears unrealistic in that Nate does not really even consider online dating. At one point there is a brief narrative involving girls he met when he first moved to New York, that he would meet in public places (like subway trains). However he decides that the easiest way to meet them is through publishing parties. Maybe there are lots of attractive single women in the publishing industry, but I don’t think so. The “reality” of my experience has shown that once you hit your thirties, it is really hard to meet someone that isn't damaged goods or way younger. I think with guys it is different, but I know very few girls my age that are not yet engaged or married or living with their significant other, their careers in a good place and a plan for a bouncing baby a few years down the line already in place. Of course, such a cynical book might become tiresome, and while I do believe that great literature should reflect "reality," any book that is almost exclusively about “the dating scene” (as this one is) should probably be a little bit romantic, if only to give the inevitable lonely reader hope that they will not be doomed to a loveless existence. I've kind of gone on a tangent here, but what I mean is, Nate doesn't seem like the most outgoing guy in the world, and would ostensibly at least dabble, or go on one date with a girl he met online. But to return to the tangent, there are at least signs that Waldman acknowledges “reality” as I know it:

“When he was twenty-five, everywhere he turned he saw a woman who already had, or else didn’t want, a boyfriend. Some were taking breaks from men to give women or celibacy a try. Others were busy applying to grad school, or planning yearlong trips to Indian ashrams, or touring the country with their all-girl rock bands. The ones who had boyfriends were careless about the relationships and seemed to cheat frequently (which occasionally worked in his favor). But in his thirties everything was different. The world seemed populated, to an alarming degree, by women whose careers, whether soaring or sputtering along, no longer preoccupied them. No matter what they claimed, they seemed, in practice, to care about little except relationships.” (40-41)

One of the blurbs on the back of the book compares this book to High Fidelity, and I have to agree that they are quite similar. However, High Fidelity is also about music and I found it to be a much better book overall. Maybe my opinion of that book is colored by my feelings on the film, which I think is one of the most successful adaptations I’ve seen (I saw the movie first—didn’t like it that much when I was 17—liked it much better after reading the book). So I can’t give this book an “A.” Still, for a first novel, it is quite good. The writing is sharp, and a lot of readers will be able to identify with the depictions of the psychological warfare that longer-term relationships almost always engender. Minor quibbles to the side, I would recommend this book and thank the anonymous reader that suggested it to me. I do think a better book on the subject could be written, but it would also be difficult to craft something as satisfying.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich (2001)

Barbara Ehrenreich spoke at the Printer's Row Lit Fest yesterday (June 7, 2014) but I could not get a ticket.  So instead I went to the God, Sex and Death Variety Hour, which included a reading by Tim Kinsella, who has just published his second book.  I have just put a hold on his first book from the library, so I will review it soon, and I tried to talk to Tim Kinsella afterwards and he said he didn't really like to read reviews, so I didn't need to let him know when I published my review.  Of course, part of me wanted to see Ehrenreich and ask a pointless question during the Q & A (presuming there was one) and film it with my camera and post it here.  Because it is quite ironic that I could have seen her while I had been putting off reviewing Nickel and Dimed for about a week--this gave me a purpose!  But it was not to be.  Such as it is with this review.  It could have been great--with multimedia and almost real-time updating, on an extremely pertinent issue--but I didn't doggedly pursue a spot at the reading, when I probably could have gotten in if I really tried.  No, I wanted to see Tim Kinsella (and actually all of the performers at the GSDVH were wonderful), and since they were both at the same time, I easily deferred to my back up plan.

My first exposure to Nickel and Dimed came in a law school clinic, the Consumer Counseling and Bankruptcy clinic.  We had to work an internship at a placement (which was easy because they basically found the job for you) and go to a seminar once a week.  We had some readings to discuss at the seminars, and our professor had given us a couple chapters photocopied out of Nickel and Dimed.  She briefly mentioned it in going through the syllabus and I looked forward to it as more enjoyable reading material than one usually encounters there.  I am pretty sure we read the final chapter, "Evaluation," and maybe one other chapter that I can't remember.

I wanted to take this book out of the library because I've been obsessed with keeping track of my monthly expenses--particularly when I was doing my post-graduate fellowship at the CTA.  That paid a stipend of $1000 a month.  I would only be disbursed $1000 after four weeks as the school only authorized 20 hours per week.  This worked out to a wage of $12.50 an hour.  I was obsessed with figuring out if I could live on $460 a month, because that was what was left over after paying the rent.  I am sure a lot of people would say they could live on that amount without a problem, but I wasn't sure.  I usually spend about $300 a month on food ($301.46, in December 2013).  I had a bad cell phone deal and was paying $63.86 a month for that.  It was another $64.57 for utilities, which leaves about $40 for everything else (and this isn't even mentioning alcohol).  Commuting alone - $45.00 for ten days of round trips to CTA Headquarters - put me in the hole.  Of course, that they did not give me free riding privileges, like they did for all the other law school externs, stung.

If I had been working 40 hours per week, there wouldn't have been a problem in covering those costs.  But people tell me I should consider myself lucky--I am not working at Wal-Mart or a fast food restaurant for $7.75 an hour.

Nickel and Dimed has a simple premise: Barbara Ehrenreich goes out to lunch with an editor at Harper's to discuss future articles she might write for the magazine and they start talking about how difficult it is to live on the minimum wage and Ehrenreich says somebody ought to go out there and try it for themselves as a sort of old-school journalism project.  The editor tells her she is just the one to do it.  The year is 1998.  From there, she travels to Key West, FL, Portland, ME, and Minneapolis, MN to work as a waitress, maid, and Wal-Mart associate, respectively.


For anyone who has worked these jobs, moments of this book will seem instantly familiar.  Personally I think the strongest chapter in the book is "Selling in Minnesota," because it delves deeply into the culture of Wal-Mart and gives Ehrenreich the occasion to unleash her most sardonic barbs.  I was under the impression that it was the longest chapter, but at 72 pages, it barely edges out "Scrubbing in Maine"'s 70 ("Serving in Florida" is only 40 pages).  However, this entire book is a pleasure to read.  It does feel a bit dated at times, but I have to say that rent is not obscenely higher than it was in 1998.  Nor is the minimum wage--but it seems inevitable that will not be true much longer.  While it is at $7.25 presently, when Ms. Ehrenreich worked as a waitress at "Hearthside" in Key West, it was $5.15.  It looks like it will change to $10.10 soon, and then maybe $15.00 in certain states.  The jump to $15 is unprecedented and could dramatically shift the landscape of the low-wage workforce.  And while Ehrenreich may not be directly cited as an influence on this positive trend, this book has gotten major attention over the past 15 years, and through a kind of cultural osmosis, the sad reality that life on minimum wage is unsustainable has seeped into the public consciousness.  The only criticism I can make is that the book is not pure reality.  It is a great social experiment, but Ehrenreich's desperation is only temporary.  Because she does not need to try and figure out some way to get out of the mess she's in, or resign to struggle throughout the rest of her life, the book is less valuable than the genuine article could be.

Perhaps that gives some of Ehrenreich's observations an air of hyperbole.  While she is looking for a place before craigslist, she does not come across any shared apartments, so naturally any apartment she keeps to herself will be more expensive.  But she writes often about staying in dirty motels:

"There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs.  If you can't put up the two months' rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week.  If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can't save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead.  You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved in a convenience store." (27)


While going back through the book to try and find passages, I found too many.  I didn't want this review to just be a huge collection of quotes.  But it made me realize that, when I did the same thing for The Circle, I had a lot of difficulty finding good examples.  At a very basic level then, this book is better than The Circle, but it's less surprising and more depressing because it's real.

Ehrenreich does a wonderful job portraying the life of a server--and I say that as a former server of 18 months at 2 restaurants.  She works at two restaurants concurrently to make ends meet, and she provides a fantastic account of a sensation every server must have felt at least once in their past:

"Ideally, at some point you enter what servers call a 'rhythm' and psychologists term a 'flow state,' where signals pass from the sense organs directly to the muscles, bypassing the cerebral cortex, and a Zen-like emptiness sets in.  I'm on a 2:00-10:00 PM shift now, and a male server from the morning shift tells me about the time he 'pulled a triple'--three shifts in a row, all the way around the clock--and then got off and had a drink and met this girl, and maybe he shouldn't tell me this, but they had sex right then and there and it was like beautiful." (33)

A personal favorite part of the book for me is Ehrenreich's experience flushing out her system to take a drug test for Wal-Mart:

"If it weren't for the drug test, I might have stopped looking right then and there, but there has been a chemical indiscretion in recent weeks and I'm not at all sure I can pass.  A poster in the room where Roberta interviewed me warns jobs applicants not to 'waste your time or ours' if you've taken drugs within the last six weeks.  If I had used cocaine or heroin there would be no problem, since these are water-soluble and wash out of the body in a couple days.  (LSD isn't even tested for.) But my indiscretion involved the only drug usually detected by testing, marijuana, which is fat-soluble and, I have read, can linger in the body for months.  And what about the prescription drugs I've been taking for a chronic nasal congestion problem?  What if Claritin-D, which gives you a nice little bounce, shows up as crystal meth?" (125)

Her tales of life as a "Wal-Martian" belong in any anthology of literature or essays on corporate culture.  As I've said, this is the highlight of the book, but I don't want this entire post to be about Wal-Mart either.  Because this book is not about that store--but the way it allows its employees to remain in poverty.

Ehrenreich gets hung up on a few topics: housing, transportation, health care, and food (a dearth of each).  I found her comments about housing surprising, because, while it is understandably difficult to get started on a new apartment on a limited budget and without a job, I still thought the rents would be cheaper in the places she lived.  I say this as a former resident of New York and Los Angeles and current resident of Chicago.  I know rents are cheaper elsewhere, and I am currently paying roughly what the "deals" were for a one bedroom or studio apartment per month, if you added up the weekly rates.

The food issue of note is the lack of nutritional value in the meals the poor can afford to eat.  One footnote, an example of the foodstuffs obtained through a pantry, seems almost too ridiculous to believe, but obviously is true:

"Middle class people often criticize the poor for their eating habits, but this charitable agency seemed to be promoting a reliance on 'empty calories.'  The complete inventory of the box of free food I received is as follows: 21 ounces of General Mills Honey Nut Chex cereal; 24 ounces of Post Grape-Nuts cereal; 20 ounces of Mississippi Barbecue Sauce; several small plastic bags of candy, including Tootsie Rolls, Smarties fruit snacks, Sweet Tarts, and two bars of Ghirardelli chocolate; one bubble gum; a 13-ounce package of iced sugar cookies; hamburger buns; six 6-ounce Minute Maid juice coolers; one loaf of Vienna bread; Star Wars fruit snacks; one loaf of cinnamon bread; 18 ounces of peanut butter; 18 ounces of jojoba shampoo; 16 ounces of canned ham; one bar of Dial soap; four Kellogg Rice Krispies Treats bars; two Ritz cracker packages; one 5-ounce Swanson canned chicken breast; 2 ounces of a Kool Aid-like drink mix; two Lady Speed Stick deodorants." (174, n.8)

The best is saved for last, when Ehrenreich steps back from being the fearless hero of low-wage adventures (which gives this book an appeal similar to Dishwasher) and puts on her Ph.D garb and analyzes the situation.  She makes some wonderful points, and writes powerfully about her subject matter:

"It is common, among the nonpoor, to think of poverty as a sustainable condition--austere, perhaps, but they get by somehow, don't they?  They are 'always with us.'  What is harder for the nonpoor to see is poverty as acute distress: The lunch that consists of Doritos or hot dog rolls, leading to faintness before the end of the shift.  The 'home' that is also a car or a van.  The illness or injury that must be 'worked through,' with gritted teeth, because there's no sick pay or health insurance and the loss of one day's pay will mean no groceries for the next.  These experiences are not part of a sustainable lifestyle, even a lifestyle of chronic deprivation and relentless low-level punishment.  They are, by almost any standard of subsistence, emergency situations.  And that is how we should see the poverty of so many millions of low-wage Americans--as a state of emergency." (214)

I've said about all I can.  Please note that I did not  read the 10 year anniversary edition, released in 2011, as I did not know it existed until now.  Obviously, after the financial meltdown of 2008, Ehrenreich was going to have more to say.  She wrote a long essay that is posted here and is definitely worth checking out:

I could go off about the minimum wage, and the debate that the cost of goods will go up if it is increased, but I am glad it is happening.  I could also go off about my options as a law grad, and how they barely pay more, but I will desist for another day.  I am just glad that a small victory seems likely, and hope that other bigger ones will follow.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Circle - Dave Eggers (2013)

Oeuvre rule: I started paying attention to Dave Eggers right around the time most people did.  That is, the early 2000s, when he published his debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a book some may describe as indulgent, but justly lauded for it originality.  I took it with me when I left for my freshman year at NYU, and read it concurrent with the beginning of my classes.  I had already wanted to be a writer, but AHWOSG definitely influenced me in a way that few other modern day authors ever did.  It helped that Eggers was from Lake Forest, IL, the town in which my family was presently residing, and where a fair part of that book took place.  Later came You Shall Know Our Velocity!, his first novel, which I read in Paris and also liked very much.  I felt it was "better edited" than his previous volume, but not quite as unpredictable and compelling.  I got a copy for my older brother, because he had said something like, "Dave Eggers said he was never going to release another book," and I wanted to show him he was wrong.  I picked up a copy of How We Are Hungry, a book of short stories I still have not read, and got both signed by Eggers at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago one year.  He wrote, "Hummus is not good," in my copy, and some other comment critical of hummus in my brother's.  Later I picked up What is the What and got about 1/2 or 3/4 of the way through, but never finished.  It's not that I didn't think it was good--I just remember thinking it was repetitive and gruesome and depressing, though vivid and well done, and liking the present-day scenes more.

I guess I forgot about Eggers in between 2006 and 2013, though he published Zeitoun in 2009, which is apparently a non-fiction book about a Syrian-American's plight after Hurricane Katrina, and the 2012 novel A Hologram for the King, which takes place in Saudi Arabia and is apparently being made into a film starring Tom Hanks.  But when I read about The Circle towards the end of last year as a notable new book, it seemed like a departure for him, and I guess I was interested.

The Circle is not a perfect novel by any stretch, but I do think it has a near perfect opening--maybe the first 100 pages are very excellent.  Then, I think, the mystery and intrigue of what is going on begins to fade, and the action that is supposed to mark the turning point of the plot ends up feeling anticlimactic.  Still, for its great opening, for its inventiveness, and for the interesting philosophical questions it poses, it is definitely worth checking out.

The story opens with Mae Holland walking onto the campus of the the Circle, which is somewhere in Silicon Valley, and seems like a hyper-driven version of the stories one hears about Google's or Facebook's headquarters.  Yes, there are great perks to working there, but then it appears to take over its employees lives completely.  Mae is 24 and had been working at a utility company as an administrative assistant or something or other until she gets up the guts to ask her college roommate, Annie, who has a high-ranking job at the Circle, if she can hook her up.  She does, and is overjoyed by the prospect of working there.  This makes the opening of the book very exciting.  And it is when Eggers is stretching his imagination to guess at what could be the next big internet thing that the book is at its best.  The Circle is essentially a social media network, but taken to a new extreme.  It is laid out during the tour by Annie, particularly when she is talking about a corny painting of the three Wise Men, who run the company:

"Ty had devised the initial system, the Unified Operating System, which combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy--users' social media profiles, their payment system, their various passwords, their e-mail accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests.  The old way--a new transaction, a new system, for every site, for every purchase--it was like getting into a different car to run any one kind of errand.  'You shouldn't have to have eighty-seven different cars,' he'd said, later, after his system had overtaken the web and the world.
Instead, he put all of it, all of every user's needs and tools, into one pot and invented TruYou--one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person.  There were no more passwords, no more multiple identities.  Your devices knew who you were, and your one identity--the TruYou, unbendable and unmaskable--was the person paying, signing up, responding, viewing and reviewing, seeing and being seen.  You had to use your real name, and this was tied to your credit cards, your bank, and thus paying for anything was simple.  One button for the rest of your life online.
To use any of the Circle's tools, and they were the best tools, the most dominant and ubiquitous and free, you had to do so as yourself, as your actual self, as your TruYou.  The era of false identities, identity theft, multiple user names, complicated passwords and payment systems was over.  Anytime you wanted to see anything, use anything, comment on anything or buy anything, it was one button, one account, everything tied together and trackable and simple, all of it operable via mobile or laptop, tablet or retinal.  Once you had a single account, it carried you through every corner of the web, every portal, every pay site, everything you wanted to do.
TruYou changed the internet, in toto, within a year.  Though some sites were resistant at first, and free-internet advocates shouted about the right to be anonymous online, the TruYou wave was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition.  It started with the commerce sites.  Why would any non-porn site want anonymous users when they could know exactly had come through the door?  Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable.  The trolls, who had more or less overtaken the internet, were driven back into the darkness."  (21-22)


It seems clear that Eggers is presenting a modern update on Orwell's 1984.  Of course, The Circle cannot touch 1984, but in one respect it prevails: the potential for our world to mirror that of the Circle's is maybe two steps away.  The societies depicted in both can also be readily defined as "surveillance states," and Mae even creates her own slogan redolent of War is Peace/Freedom is Slavery/Ignorance is Strength: Secrets are Lies/Sharing is Caring/Privacy is Theft.

What makes The Circle more than just your typical dystopian thriller is its ambiguity.  For almost the entire book, while there is certainly a dark edge to the technological innovations introduced, the reader will need to check themselves and think about whether the world imagined might actually be improved by a similar system.  This is probably why I liked the first 100 pages so much.  It functions as a fantasy, and you can really feel the excitement of obtaining a dream job.  This mood carries over into the first "Dream Friday" presentation by Eamon Bailey, one of the Wise Men.  This is for the product SeeChange, which is essentially a very small camera that runs on a battery for two years and will transmit high-quality streaming video via satellite to the Circle, which allows them to see any location in the world in real time.

"Bailey continued.  'Instead of searching the web, only to find some edited video with terrible quality, now you go to SeeChange, you type in Myanmar.  Or you type in your high school boyfriend's name.  Chances are there's someone who's set up a camera nearby, right?  Why shouldn't your curiosity about the world be rewarded?  You want to see Fiji but can't get there?  SeeChange.  You want to check on your kid at school?  SeeChange.  This is ultimate transparency.  No filter.  See everything.  Always.'" (69)

SeeChange brings the promise of instant accountability, and soon politicians opt to start wearing cameras so that anyone may watch their "backroom dealings."  There are no chapters in this book--it is separated around page 300 as "book one" and "book two."  I'm wary of spoiling the plot, but I don't think there's really much you can spoil except for a couple of events and a revelation in the last fifty pages.  These moments also feel underwhelming for some reason.  I will just say that Mae is a "newbie" at the beginning of the novel and eventually becomes one of the most important members of the company.

Along the way, The Circle does tend to run over the same ground more than a few times: what value do we attach to our privacy?  What is the endgame of true transparency?  There is also plenty of human drama: Mae's pseudo-relationship with her co-worker Francis, her mysterious lover Kalden, her parents dealing with her father's debilitating MS, her ex-boyfriend Mercer who recognizes the sinister elements in the Circle, and kayaking.  At one point Mae commits a very minor crime, and the effect it has on her professional life is not difficult to believe, but does not ring true.  Finally, one other annoying aspect of this book: the people on the internet have just become a bunch of nerdy losers who have exhaustively positive outlooks.  There isn't debate on any topic.  There is little counterpoint, except for Mae before she becomes a "convert," and Mercer, who cannot be considered a major character--though he is quite important in the plot of the novel, he only appears a handful of times.

The novel seems to hit its climax when Mae comes up with the idea of DeMoxie, which would automatically register users to vote, and result in approximately two hundred billion dollars savings in government spending:

"The night was cold and the winds were lacerating but Mae didn't notice.  Everything felt good, clean and right.  To have the validation of the Wise Men, to have perhaps pivoted the entire company in a new direction, to have, perhaps, perhaps, ensured a new level of participatory democracy--could it be that the Circle, with her new idea, might really perfect democracy?  Could she have conceived of the solution to a thousand-year-old problem?
There had been some concern, just after the meeting, about a private company taking over a very public act like voting.  But the logic of it, the savings inherent, was winning the day.  What if the schools had two hundred billion?  What if the health care system had two hundred billion?  Any number of the country's ills would be addressed or solved with that kind of savings--savings not just every four years, but some semblance of them every year.  To eliminate all costly elections, replaced by instantaneous ones, all of them nearly cost-free?" (392)


My third time sitting down to write this review, and I've felt strangely unsure of what to say about it.  I guess that this has been a hard review to write, because I think this book consists of genuinely interesting subject matter, but have found it difficult to highlight passages from the text, or portions of the novel I found particularly compelling.  I've written about the first 100 pages of course, but my interest began to wane and occasionally rise around page 200.  I read on for two reasons: (1) keeping my blog the way I do, I strongly dislike leaving books reviewed as "(incomplete)" and would not have put down What is the What after April 2008; (2) I wanted to know how it would end.  As I've mentioned, the ending feels a bit underwhelming.  But I'm not sure what would have been more satisfying.  Maybe the aftermath of what happens?  Like, if Mercer's imagined society, with Circlers on the one hand and rebels on the other, actually manifested themselves?  I feel the book could have been shortened and maybe added to its ending, but maybe that ending could be tough to write:

"I will always wish all good things for you, Mae.  I also hope, though I realize how unlikely it is, that somewhere down the line, when the triumphalism of you and your peers--the unrestrained Manifest Destiny of it all--goes too far and collapses into itself, that you'll regain your sense of perspective, and your humanity.  Hell, what am I saying?  It's already gone too far.  What I should say is that I await the day when some vocal minority finally rises up to say it's gone too far, and that this tool, which is far more insidious than any human invention that's come before it, must be checked, regulated, turned back, and that, most of all, we need options for opting out.  We are living in a tyrannical state now, where we are not allowed to--"(368)

That's not even the passage I was thinking about.  I guess maybe part of my problem with the book was the lack of chapters.  Basically, because The Social Network was popular, The Circle should also be made into a movie.  I think it's the type of thing that is meant to translate to film, and could lend itself to interesting interpretations (it would certainly come with visual challenges--but that's also what can make for more interesting films) that might possibly outdo the book.  I also think this isn't really the type of movie to make a lot of money, but perhaps could be marketed pretty easily to do well.

Now I want to go read AHWOSG again.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Taipei - Tao Lin (2013)

Taipei is Tao Lin's third novel, and his fourth book to be reviewed on Flying Houses.  There is a lot I could potentially write about here, but I think once I hit a certain number of books by one author on this site, I need to rank them:

#1: Taipei
#2: Shoplifting from American Apparel
#3: Eeeee Eee Eeee
#4: Richard Yates

Reading all of these past reviews, I am embarrassed.  This is actually a pretty significant milestone because the last one I reviewed was Richard Yates, and I wrote that almost exactly when I started law school.  Now I am done (and have been done for almost 11 months now) and I often say that law school did very little for me except gave me two more letters to put after my name and improved my writing.  So this will be the test.

I have corresponded with Tao a number of times over the past six years, but for some reason, I don't feel like going through the motions and asking him if he would agree to answer a few interview questions.  This is mainly because Taipei doesn't perplex me in the same manner of some his earlier material.  Taipei is, as I'm sure has already been noted, Tao Lin at his most "accessible."  To be sure, it is still "weird" in that it doesn't really concern itself with the trope of a "plot," but it is consistently his most entertaining work to date, and arguably the one most likely to inspire a film adaptation.  However, I don't think that movie would make a ton of money.  So too with this book.  While it is Lin's "major publishing house debut" (I wanted to write "major label debut" but it seemed like something I would do 4 years ago) and while I hope it earns him a greater following and more sales, it's not exactly going to be his big splash that puts him on Oprah's Book Club (I am assuming that still exists).  But it is a step towards that level of fame.


These asterisks signify that I have broken up this review into multiple sittings.  Crucially, this is my 3rd time sitting down to write on it over the past couple of weeks.  My 2nd time, I wrote a lot--perhaps 1,000 words--and for some reason it was not saved, even in this post-security world.  I will whine a fair amount about everything I lost, but I will construct a new rule out of this disaster: from now on, every review that I write in multiple spurts will be marked by asterisks.  It is unfair to pretend that I am as disciplined as it may appear from each post.

But I know I made a few points I want to repeat as I try to unearth the past.  I recounted the plot of Taipei:  Paul is a 26-year-old novelist in November 2009, who goes to parties in Brooklyn and then goes to visit his parents in Taipei, Taiwan.  He then returns to the U.S. and decides that the period between April and September 2010 will be an "interim" period which he has to get through until the book tour for his second novel begins.  He breaks up with his girlfriend, Michelle, during the beginning of the novel; then, he goes out with a girl named Laura for a little while; finally, he reconnects with a girl named Erin, and the story of their relationship is probably the whole point of the book being written.

It should also be fairly obvious to anyone with more than a passing interest in Tao that this book is very autobiographical, and I would say his most "personal" book yet.  I say this even though he told me that Shoplifting from American Apparel was "100% autobiographical."  I say Taipei is more personal because, while it still trades in some of the minimalist language of Tao's earlier books, it represents a leap forward stylistically along with a willingness to examine psychological interiority.  Some of the sentences are so long you could mistake this for any number of more "mainstream" authors.

As a corollary to this last point, if Tao's books are drawn from his life, then his friends are the supporting characters.  And there are a ton of supporting characters.  Here let me try to list them, excluding the three girlfriends already mentioned: Jeremy, Kyle, Gabby, Traci,  Anton, Juan, Mitch, Lucie, Amy, Daniel, Matt, Lindsay, Fran, Walter, Taryn, Caroline, Shawn Olive, Harry, Charles, Jeannie, Calvin, Maggie, Cristine, Sally, Mia, Beau, Gary, Alethia, Rodrigo, and Peanut.  From this list perhaps you can tell that this book is primarily a collection of social encounters, which act as a framing device for the three relationships.  None of the relationships is probed very deeply either, except for the one with Erin.

Thus, many of Tao's friends appear here, though I do not.  To be fair, Tao and I have only met twice.  The first time I met him is briefly referenced:

"Paul's book tour's fourth reading--after another in Brooklyn and one at a Barnes & Noble in the financial district--was in Ohio, on September 11.  Calvin, 18, and Maggie, 17, seniors in high school who'd been friends since middle school and were currently in a relationship, had invited Paul and Erin and other 'internet friends' to read at a music festival and stay two nights in Calvin's parents' 'mansion,' as Paul called it." (94)

That reading, I am reasonably sure, took place around September 9 at Book Court on Court St. in Brooklyn.  I had moved there a few weeks earlier, and one of the first pieces of mail I received was a copy of Richard Yates, which I reviewed.  I also received Think Tank for Human Beings in General  by Jordan Castro.  Many people have said that Erin is clearly Megan Boyle, but I have not seen anyone postulate that Calvin is Jordan Castro.  But those are the only two "beat" connections I can make.

Tao would not write about me because I said basically nothing to him at that reading.  He seemed to offer a glimmer of recognition when I mentioned that I ran this blog.  He was friendly, but seemed a bit distant, perhaps because he may have been on drugs.

Tao notably took magic mushrooms before a reading in San Francisco and asked readers of his blog to guess which drug he was on after posting a video of the proceedings.  This is also detailed in Taipei:

"Around two weeks later, in early October, he stayed for eights days in San Francisco in his own room, on the second floor of a house, which Daniel's ex-girlfriend and ex-girlfriend's sister shared.  An employee at Twitter invited him to its headquarters, where he ate from two different buffets.  Daniel's ex-girlfriend'sister's boyfriend sold him MDMA and mushrooms, which he ate a medium-large dose of before his reading at the Booksmith, which was livestreamed on the internet.  His publisher left him a voice mail the next afternoon, asking him to call them to discuss 'some problems.'  He emailed them late that night apologizing for missing their call and said he was available by email.  He met someone from Facebook and ingested LSD, which she declined, before watching Dave Eggers interview Judd Apatow for almost two hours in an auditorium.  On her full-size mattress, three hours after the interview, they watched a forty-minute DVD of a Rube Goldberg machine and kissed a few minutes, then Paul 'fingered' her and, after seeming to orgasm, she rolled over and slept." (110)

There are a lot of drugs in this book (primarily a lot of Adderall and Klonopin) and I noticed Tao writing more about drugs on his blog during this period.

Thus, October 1, 2011, perhaps 4 months after the date where Taipei ends, in the vestibule of the Whole Foods at Union Square, with Slutwalk and a rainstorm going on outside, I met Tao for the first time since the reading, more than a year earlier.  I asked him if he remembered me, and he said yes.  I asked him if he had really done heroin.  He said yes.  I asked him what it was like.  He said it was like a really strong painkiller.  An older woman walked by and said, "Excuse me!" I replied, "Do you know who this is?  This is the greatest writer of our generation!"  Tao said, "Don't say that."

So I am hoping that Tao will write another book (though I read an interview where he said he just wanted to write shorter books from now on) and that he will include this anecdote.  If he doesn't, then I will.

But back to this book and away from my egomania: at one point Tao mentions going to see the movie Somewhere with Erin.  For some reason, I feel this book is a lot like that movie.  It conveys a mood, a feeling, but doesn't really have much of a story.  The relationship with Erin is the main point of the book, but she doesn't appear until page 90 (out of 248).  There is a great short reference to what must be Center on Halsted, too:

"Paul sensed she was busy with college and maybe one or more vague relationships, but allowed himself to become 'obsessed,' to some degree, with her, anyways, reading all four years of her Facebook wall and, in one of Chicago's Whole Foods, one night looking at probably fifteen hundred of her friends' photos to find any she might've untagged."  (109)

There are moments of this book that seem plucked from a work of "award-winning literature," like Paul and Erin's pseudo-breakdown in Taipei, and pages 35 through 43, which recount Paul's childhood in a way that is both charming and heartbreaking.  Also, the friendship between Paul and Daniel, who seems almost like a precursor to Erin, is very nicely sketched.  Overall, this is not a perfect book, but it is definitely Tao's best.  There are six chapters, and it reads pretty quickly.  It's a good place for newcomers, but fans that have been reading from the beginning will recognize it as his strongest work, too.

Taipei may not be "about" much, but it is a pleasant story about relatively carefree days and the daily life of a quasi-famous artist.  I don't know if Tao's prose represents "the future of literature" anymore, but I still think he is at the forefront of 30 or 31-year-old authors and still writes more intellectually honest material than younger writers looking to cash in on a cinematic trilogy adaptation.  I'm sorry I didn't receive this book in the mail and review it about a year earlier, but I enjoyed reading it, and I'll look forward to whatever Tao does next.  The only question I have is why his website has been stripped back to almost nothing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Happy 6th Birthday

Today, Flying Houses turns 6.  Truthfully, it has not been a very exciting year for us.  There were only 25 posts all year.  In my defense, the months of May - October were spent in a daze, studying for an exam and then worrying constantly about if I passed or not.  Then, November through the present has been spent in a different sort of daze, trying to make some sort of way in the world.  Still, we will go on, and hope for a better year.  This year should get off to a good start, as the next two reviews will be books by Tao Lin and Dave Eggers, certainly two of literature's most interesting subjects (just don't be surprised if they don't show up until May).

While this year has not been the greatest cause for celebration, some figures are worth noting.

Today, our total number of views is 59,169.  I can only tell from last year's post that "we cracked 30,000 views," and foolishly did not provide an exact number.  I also hoped to hit 75,000 and go over 300 posts by this point.  Thus we have failed, and if I don't crack 300 posts by next year I will probably stop posting altogether.  But that is highly unlikely.

The month of May 2013 had more visits than any other month in our history (2,790).

The most popular post was on scamblogs, NIED #23, but that got me into so much trouble that I won't even link to it.

The review of We All Sleep in the Same Room was the 2nd most popular and I will link to that.

I feel that Wild Bill is one of the best reviews I wrote this past year.  But The Confessions of Felix Krull was also quite noteworthy.

Thank you all for reading, and please continue to visit!  I've increasingly felt this blog is most useful for people that need to kill time while at work, and read something that is vaguely intellectually engaging.  Of course it is still a record of my constant education in literature, and I am continually proud of how much material I've produced.  This blog may never be a comprehensive encyclopedia, but it is an encyclopedia of the life of my mind in art.  My goal has been to turn these reviews into an art form.  Whether that has come off is up for debate, but I will always keep trying to do better.  

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Marbled Swarm - Dennis Cooper (2011)

It's not often that I read other reviews of a book before I attempt to write my own.  I used to think that was "cheating" when I wrote film reviews for Washington Square News Weekend at NYU.  It was "cheating" because it was almost like I was afraid to say how I felt about something--or more specifically, afraid that I would praise a film that would be dismissed as a cinematic disaster, or pan a film that would show up on every critic's year-end top 10 list.

We are reaching an important point on Flying Houses.  Recently I applied for a Press Pass for the Pitchfork Festival.  If I get one, it will be the most audacious experience in our history, as I will try to bring in a cameraman and film interviews with the likes of St. Vincent and Beck.  But I won't find out until June and dreams tend not to come true.  Moreover, April 1st will mark our sixth birthday here, and I will post as I have the past couple of years an "MD&A."  After more than 270 posts, one would think I would have the courage to state how I felt about a book without consulting other reviews.  But The Marbled Swarm is one of the more troubling books I have read.  I both liked it, and didn't like it.  It's probably easiest for me to list all of the other books by Dennis Cooper that I have reviewed here and state that I liked it less than all of them.

That's my knee-jerk reaction before even checking all of the others.  But between Closer, Ugly Man and Try, I certainly rank it below Closer and Try, and probably beneath Ugly Man too, though maybe I would say it's on par with that.  More importantly from the Ugly Man review, I list and rank all of his books that I've read (six others, three or four of which I would re-read), and from this list I would not put it any higher than #7.

It will be fun to try to explain what this book is about.  First, to continue with the comparison theme, I will say it is most similar to Period in that it is extremely experimental.  I would also say it is better than Period, but maybe I wouldn't stand by that statement if I re-read that book.  But the plot:

The narrator (who is nameless, I am pretty sure) is rich--apparently he is a 22-year-old billionaire (though it doesn't really seem like he is that rich) whose parents were famous French actors.  Well, at least his father, Pierre Clementi, was (I'd need to re-read to check on his mother).  He wants to buy a chateau.  He meets the owners--the father, the mother, and their 14-year-old son Serge--and decides he wants to buy it.  They had another son--16-year-old Claude--who died (Maybe, I think?  For some reason I'm not concerned about spoilers in this review).  Basically, Serge is "interested" in the narrator, and the father seems to think he is a nuisance so he says he will "include him" in the price of the house.  The narrator puts Serge in the trunk of his car and is driven back to Paris (he has a driver, Azmir, of course).  Serge is then raped, murdered, and eaten (Maybe?).  The narrator then starts reminiscing about his younger brother, Alfonse, who was very into Manga and was also eventually raped, murdered, and eaten.  By the narrator and a couple cohorts.  One of those cohorts has a son named Didier who is eventually groomed to look exactly like Alfonse.  Finally, there is the issue of the narrator's father, who apparently dies at some point after Alfonse (though this is confusing, too), and has another property in his will that nobody really knows about in a remote part of France.  There is another story about this house and the people that stayed in it/the reasons why his father built it, that seems to coalesce with the chateau from the beginning of the novel as well as the lofts in which the narrator, Alfonse, and their father reside at in Paris.  Then, the novel ends, and the ending I have to admit is one of the more beautiful endings that Cooper has written.

Why is the ending beautiful?  Because, as may be clear from my plot summary, this book is fucking bonkers and basically impossible to "get."  The most obvious "themes" are younger/older brothers (and this is not the first time Cooper has touched incest--see My Loose Thread), rape/murder/cannibalism (the first two are in nearly every single one of his novels; the last is something new, but seems more "out there" for some reason, and just there to shock), and most conspicuously, secret passageways.  But the ending ties things together as best as it possibly could.

This book is not totally inscrutable.  Cooper does pull back the curtain a couple of times and acknowledges that  he knows that he is not presenting anything close to a linear narrative.  Even so, it is very hard to tell what happened, and I'm not really sure what the whole point of it is:

"The play was set in a chateau whose history of on-site murders, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena required a lengthy spoken foreword, which Claude's father had recited through the speakers for what would have felt like months were not the bloodthirsty details of this story so custom-made for mordant teenagers.
To cite the most agentive of these details, the couple's older son had either killed himself, been murdered, died by tragic accident, or faked his death within the previous few months.
The anguished man and wife had put the crime scene on the market, and the young Parisian, struck by certain parallels between their son's obituary in Le Monde and the clueless death of his own brother years before, found himself inspired to visit the chateau and then acquire it." (171)

I think I've made most of the points I wanted to make about this book, but it is worth noting that in my search for reviews, I came across an interview that Cooper did for The Paris Review in 2011.  You may find it here.  I highly recommend it, as I do most interviews in The Paris Review, which is probably the most important literary journal apart from The New Yorker (though I find The New Yorker to be pretentious most of the time, and really consider an interview in The Paris Review one of the highest honors a writer can receive).  In it, Cooper had this to say about this novel:

"With The Marbled Swarm, I was trying to write a novel the way a sound technician mixes a song or piece of music into its final form. I’ve been studying recorded music and trying to transpose its principles into my fiction ­going all the way back to my first novel,Closer, where one thing I did was try to simulate the sonic effect of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy album with my prose. In The Marbled Swarm I found a voice that let me do that. I thought about each element of the novel, whether it was a narrative thread or character or reference point or an ongoing motif or tone or rhythm. The idea was that they would all always be there, but they would be emphasized or de-emphasized at different points, mixed into the foreground, middle ground, or background, being moved around constantly so the reader’s attention would be directed all over the place. My idea was that it would give the writing a three-dimensional quality, as the reader is carried along by the musical surface of the novel, but he or she would also be chasing different story lines and recurring ideas as they waver and scamper about and hide inside the prose."

This novel certainly creates that sort of feeling.  Cooper also says in the interview that he wants to write one more novel, and then be done with them, so that he can finish with an even ten.  That makes me sad, but he has been pretty prolific over the past 25 years, and the world of literature is richer for the contributions he has made.  I'm sure some people would take issue with that statement, but one of the factors that makes his work more interesting than 90% of his contemporaries is its divisiveness.  While this is not my favorite book by him by a good stretch, it was still a worthwhile read, and the ending was very nice:

"I've failed the marbled swarm as I semi-understand its rules and premise, and, although you'll never know the difference, barring errors that weren't meant as an insidious direction, there is nowhere deeper or more intricately stifled by my story than this hotel room, and I'm out of means to keep you waiting for the secret that involved my sleight of hand unless you think a very frightened thirteen-year-old boy who looks vaguely like Pierre Clementi seems magical or promising enough." (194)

I also loved the references to Isabelle Adjani.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

V for Vendetta - Dir. James McTeigue (2005)

V for Vendetta (2005)
Dir. James McTeigue

F for Fake
Jack Knorps

This will be short.  Sometimes I like to review the films made from the books I review.  I watched V for Vendetta last night and I just have to say a few things about it.

My #1 complaint about this film is that it takes serious artistic liberties with the source material.  Here are all of the things I can remember that were different from the book:

In the very first scene, Evey Hammond is not trying to prostitute herself, but is looking for her "uncle," which makes the scene with the Fingermen much more hackneyed.  She does not work in a sweat shop, but instead works for a news program.  There is no radio program, as in the book, but it is changed to this news program.  Derek Almond and his wife Rosemary do not exist in the film.  The leader, Adam Susan, has had his named changed to Adam Sutler.  Dascomb does not work for the radio program, but is still part of Norsefire, and does not die.  Ally Harper, the Scottish crime boss, does not exist.  Gordon Dietrich is not a petty thief, but a TV personality who hosts a variety show.  Lewis Prothero does not go insane, traumatized by the burning of his dolls--he just gets killed.  "Old Bailey" is blown up at the beginning--not Parliament, which gets blown up at the end.  V does not take out the surveillance system of England, but instead ships hundreds of thousands of masks for people to wear and escape detection.  Oh, also Finch doesn't take LSD and "kill" V.  

Now I did not think the book was truly that amazing, but I felt the film would have been better if it had stuck more closely to it.  I can't think of any reason why so much was changed except that this is more "accessible" for American audiences/2005 audiences.  

This really isn't a terrible film, to be honest, but it's one that you can't really enjoy after reading the book (in my opinion).  I do think Natalie Portman does a very good job at playing Evey Hammond, and think Hugo Weaving makes for an excellent V.  I also enjoyed Stephen Fry as Roger Dietrich--that was the only change that I think was an improvement over the book (as Dietrich is not very well developed in the book).  There is also a nice "aha moment" when John Hurt first appears as Adam Sutler, who is obviously modeled after "Big Brother."  Most viewers probably won't know that Hurt played Winston Smith in the film adaptation of 1984, so this is a nice (albeit troubling) bit of casting.  (Still, I prefer Adam Susan in the book to Adam Sutler in the movie, because Susan is less of a cookie-cutter totalitarian leader).  

The most noteworthy sequence--where Evey is tortured and has her head shaved--is 100% true to the book.  Maybe this is why it's one of the best parts of the film too.  Valerie Harper's story is beautifully evoked on film, and you can also chart the time differentials from the adaptation (it's not a dystopian 1997/1998, but more like 2018 or so).  Some of the shots from this sequence seem directly lifted from the page--and this is where adaptations of graphic novels can be nearly as powerful as their source material.

But the climax of the film is false as compared to the book.  The entire film itself is relatively dark, but a lot of times it just seems "cartoony."  I found the ending to be rather sugar-coated in comparison with the book.

Basically that is all I wanted to say.  And while I think the adaptation of Watchmen has nothing on the book--I found that much more faithful, and a better film overall.  I am a bit shocked that this film's rating on IMDB is 8.2 and that it is rated the #148 film out of the top 250.  It also got a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  By contrast, Watchmen is at 65% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.6 on IMDB.  Regardless, the films serve their purpose.  While Alan Moore may not watch them, most people that read either one will probably have their curiosity piqued just enough to check them out.  Thus, like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games et al., on a much smaller scale, these films turn the story into an even more successful "product."  Unfortunately they also detract from its artistic cache.  In today's world though, it seems likely that most writers/artists would rather produce the next Divergent than the next Watchmen.  We're all just too damn poor.