Best Book of The Year

It’s the time of the year when readers write about their favorite book(s) of the year. All told it’s been a good year for both fiction and non-fiction books. Anyone who doubts this need only have a look at the large group mentioned on two Guardian pages here and here, as well as two in the Times here and here.

My favorite book of the year, In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman, an impressive philosophical novel was mentioned a couple of times. I wrote about it here and will read it again once the paperback version becomes available.

Joyce Carol Oates also gave the novel high marks recently in her review in The New York Review of Books (10/24/14).

What struck me about Oates’ two-page review was that none of the topics she dealt with were discussed in my review. For example, Rahman’s novel often reminded her of others. She felt the mordant tone of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness throughout the novel.

It also reminded her of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the novels of dislocation and inquiry of Graham Greene and W. G Sebald and in the “suspense of its espionage-driven conclusion, the spy novels of John le Carre.”

I read the novel without such a literary background, a background that I never acquired in the first place. My reading was that of a naïve individual drawn to such a novel by its truths based on my study of epistemology as an undergraduate major in philosophy.

My only reference to another novel was to Pascal Mercier’s discussion in Night Train to Lisbon of how it might be possible to better understanding yourself by studying the life of another person, as the narrator of Rahman’s novel studies the life of his friend Zafar.

Oates continues in this view by noting the many ideas cited in the novel, reminded her of Mann’s Magic Mountain. Yet she doesn’t mention which of the ideas had this effect.

She does unfold the story of Zafar’s life, from his birth in Bangladesh to his arrival in Oxford, study of mathematics, work as a derivatives trader, doomed love affair with the temptress Emily Hampton-Wyvern and work with an NGO in Afghanistan. Oates’ emphasis in her account dwells on the class differences that continue to rule much of English life. She writes:

“In vain we wait for Zafar to consider that his infatuation with a member of the English aristocracy is a narcissistic projection of his own: a willful attempt to appropriate a person, and a family of a social class perceived as higher than his own, thus more desirable.”

While I was aware of the importance of this difference and the way it contributed to Zafar’s deep anger and scorn of the English aristocracy, ruling class, and the international aid programs in Afghanistan, it was not a subject I wrote about in my review.

Toward the end of the novel the narrator says his friend appears to him now as several Zafars--the Zafar of their college days together, the bedraggled Zafar who reappeared at his front door one day, and the Zafar revealed by the fragmented stories he tells the narrator and those he wrote in the pages of his notebook.

In like fashion, most readers of this novel view it from their own background, mine from a philosophical perspective, while Oates from her literary/writing tradition. Nevertheless, we both agree that In the Light of What We Know is a powerful novel, a rather unusual work of fiction in this day and age, with a great deal of insight about human relationships.

To view a BBC Interview with Rahman go here:


Economic Inequality: What Can Be Done?

The question of what can be done about the enormous economic inequalities in this country will conclude my discussion of this topic.

No sooner had I posted my first blog on the subject than Nicholas Kristof wrote a short note, “An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality,” in the Times. He reminds us that economic inequality has become increasingly worse in this country, impeding economic growth and creating large “fissures” in our society between the very rich and very poor. Moreover, the very wealthy have gained increasing control of the electoral process and reduced job opportunities for countless individuals.

Kristof concludes: “Inequality and lack of opportunity today constitute a national infirmity and vulnerability—and there are policy tools that can make a difference.”

This leaves wide open just what these policy tools are and, even more uncertain, just how they are ever going to be implemented.

The very next day, echoing the theme of my blog, Eduardo Porto wrote a note, “Why Voters Aren’t Angrier About Economic Inequality,” also in Times. He believes there are several reasons for the public’s passivity.

1. The poor vote less than the rich and they don’t necessarily vote on the basis of their economic interests.

2. Like Kristof, he says the rich have far more political power.

3. And he reviews another study (this one in Germany), reporting that individuals don’t grasp the magnitude of inequality. “Evidently, nobody has a clue.” He claims people in the United States not only seem to accept one of the largest gaps in the developed world but our government ranks among the “stingiest” in doing anything about it.

Two days latter the Russell Sage Foundation reported that the average U.S. household experienced a significant decline in net worth in the ten years ending in 2013. Then it was reported that 35% of U.S. individuals have credit card debts and unpaid bills large enough to be reported to collection agencies. As Caroline Radcliffe of the Urban Institute said, "Roughly, every third person you pass on the street is going to have debt in collections.”

But what can be done, what can realistically be done given the equally large political polarization in this country? Why is this question so rarely asked?

Perhaps it’s because all too many people believe the poor deserve to be poor and those who are rich have earned it. Or they believe we are focusing on the wrong problem, with the real problem slow growth, or education, or that “thwarting the people at the top” will have no effect on the people at the bottom, other than worsening their condition with as the economy comes tumbling down.

Meanwhile, in a bold post on the New Yorker Web site (1/28/14) John Cassidy did make ten proposals that Obama should mention in his State of the Union address delivered earlier this year, if he is genuinely serious about reducing economic inequality. Among the ten, five deal with taxes.

1. Abolish the payroll tax
2. Raise the top rate of income tax
3. Introduce a consumption tax
4. Tax wealth properly
5. Introduce a financial-transaction tax

In my view, each of these changes is desirable. Obama didn’t mention any of them and, even if he had, this Congress will never approve a single one, nor can the President issue an executive order to implement them.

Would they narrow the gap between the 1% and the 99%, if he could? Not everyone is convinced they will. The Nobel laureate Robert Solow commented at a seminar on inequality,

“I am very pessimistic about the capacity of the American political system to redistribute income within a reasonable period of time…I simply don’t think that legislation either to support the safety net or to tax high incomes stands a chance in Congress.”

In a word, income disparity between the rich and the poor in this country will continue, perhaps even deepen, until the Democrats or progressives of one ilk or another gain control of both houses of the Congress. But even then, it’s not a sure thing.

The other five of Cassidy’s proposals include:

1. Establish a guaranteed minimum wage
2. Give “ordinary Americans” grants to spend as desired
3. Nationalize the public education system
4. Expand technical education
5. Abolish private schools and legacy admissions to private universities

Like the Cassidy’s tax proposals, these additional five seem rather fanciful given the current political realities in this country. But what I find most remarkable about his post is how rarely we hear about any concrete proposals for narrowing the Great Divide(s) in this country.

Eduardo Porter asks (Times 11/4/2014) “Are we condemned then to largely futile efforts to reduce the widening gap?” He wonders if there are better tools that government redistribution to reduce inequality—education, increasing the minimum wage, reducing tax benefits for corporations and the wealthy. At present we have no data to determine their effectiveness. My hunch is that if we ever do, it will be a long time in coming.

Instead, we hear only one description after another about the growing economic gap between the rich and poor. Some accounts try to explain this, drawing on historical and political trends, as well as social policy comparisons with other nations. But more than anything, we hear the rhetoric.

Tom Perkins is one of the 1%, probably the.01%, one of the founders of a large venture capital firm. When asked recently what should be done to improve the lives of the 99%, he replied:

“I think the solution is less interference, lower taxes, let the rich do what the rich do—which is get richer, and along the way they bring everybody else along with them, when the system is working.”

There you have it, in a single, breathtaking sentence.


Plato at the Googleplex

What makes life worth living? When was the last time you heard this question? When was the last time you thought about it? Perhaps you don’t think it’s a question worth thinking about. Or, that it’s one of those perennial, unanswerable philosophical questions that only philosophers mull over.

Rebecca Goldstein ponders the question a great deal in her new book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.

Like Plato, she says that we really have to exert ourselves to make a life worth living. And the way to do so is to pursue philosophy in the way Plato viewed it. That means considering the questions of morality that we are confronted with almost each day—namely, what makes the specific actions and choices we make right or wrong?

The process of reasoning about these questions is distinctly philosophical. Such a life is exhausting, uncommon, and easily ignored. We don’t learn how to do this as young students or even in college unless you take a course in moral philosophy or read some of the Platonic dialogues. And even if you do, its relevance to ordinary life isn’t always clear. Goldstein writes:

The thing about Plato is that he rarely presented himself as giving us the final answers. What he insisted upon was the recalcitrance of the questions in the face of shallow attempts to make them go away. His genius for formulating counter-reductive arguments is at one with the genius that allowed him to raise up the field of philosophy as we know it.

Few people think that a life of reasoning in that distinctly philosophical way constitutes a life worth living. Some, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer claim there really isn’t anything that does. Others believe that religion is the only place where they find meaning in life. I suppose the majority believe that finding happiness is the true measure of a life worth living. And there are those who believe being generous and charitable to others is the only kind of life worth living.

I know that a person’s answer to this question is a highly individual matter. In my case, when I think back on my long life, I know that I would never had been satisfied had I not been able to live a life of reasoning in the way Goldstein describes Plato’s life. It was a stroke of luck that I enrolled in a course on Plato as a sophomore in college. More than anything it open my eyes for the very first time to the path I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life.

When I think about all this I am always reminded of some remarks of an English historian, Keith Thomas, that he delivered in 2001 on the occasion of Fifth British Academy Lecture:

Finally, the life of learning still has an exemplary morality to offer. Where else, save in other forms of academic inquiry, can we find the same scrupulous concern for truth, the same requirement that all propositions which are not self-evidently true should be documented, the same conviction that getting things right is more important than a quick fix, the same acceptance of the complexity of things and the same refusal to contemplate any dumbing down? And where else is hard-won knowledge freely imparted, without hope of financial recompense? So long as these qualities remain in evidence, those who follow the life of learning have no reason to be ashamed of their calling.



“As much as we hate to admit it, patients are a commodity.”

Not long ago I had occasion to visit a new doctor, as the one I usually saw was out of town. At the time I was experiencing a rather intense back pain. He stood at his computer taking notes on what I was saying, rarely looked at me, did not examine the location of my pain and quickly ordered an MRI.

I was in his office for not much more than 10 minutes and thought I had been treated almost dismissively.

As documented in Sandeep Jauhar’s Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician, the current pressures upon doctors explain why this is not an uncommon experience. The way managed care operates, insurance companies exert enormous control over medical practices. It is the new reality of medicine in this country today.

Insurance companies don’t reimburse doctors a great deal for spending time with patients. But they do for ordering stress tests, MRIs and CT scans (X-rays from several angles). This often leads to unnecessary testing, spending less time with patients and seeing as many as possible.

Are the tests worth the cost? Consider the evidence. The United States ranks 45th in life expectancy, near the last in infant mortality, and “in last place in terms of health care quality, access, and efficiency among major industrialized countries.”

Jauhar laments: How limited our interactions with patients, I thought. We see them for a few minutes, then pen a quick summary and leave directions for the nurses to follow. To whom are we speaking in these inky chart drizzles? Doctors, patients, a phantom lawyer?

Medical lapses and fear of lawsuits from diagnostic error requires doctors to take out medical malpractice insurance. The cost of these policies is prohibitive. Then there is all the paperwork doctors must complete each day. Jauhar writes:

American doctors spend almost an hour on average each day, and $83,000 per year—four times their Canadian counterparts—dealing with the paperwork of insurance companies); fear of lawsuits; runaway malpractice liability premiums; and finally, the loss of professional autonomy that has led many physicians to view themselves as pawns in a battle between insurers and the government

To compensate for his relatively stagnant income Jauhar begins to take on outside jobs. He speaks in behalf of a pharmaceutical company that makes a heart medication he prescribes and moonlights on weekends and evenings reading medically unnecessary cardiac stress and cardiogram tests for a “shady” physician.

The extra money helps to pay the rent for his apartment, schooling for his son, and needs of his pregnant wife. All this takes a toll on his family, to say nothing of Jauhar himself. He notes he was trained to be a caregiver and not a businessman “The constant intrusion of the marketplace has created serious and deepening anxiety in our profession.”

Burnout is an increasingly frequent response to this situation, with approximately a third of physicians surveyed admitting feeling that way, while others are giving up their practice entirely. Jauhar also comments that only 6% of physicians reported “positive moral” in a 2008 survey. In another study, 30 to 40 percent of practicing physicians said they would not choose to enter the medical profession if they were deciding on a career now.

Jauhar doesn’t offer many solutions to these fee-for-service problems. His one suggestion is to hire doctors as employees as they do at the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics. He believes this will take away the financial incentives to overtest.

After reading Doctored, I don’t think I will ever view the relationship I have with my doctor the same way. Is the test he is ordering necessary? Is the medication he is prescribing going to benefit me? Why has he spent so little time with me?

As I look back on some of the tests and medications he has ordered, I view them in a new light. The tests revealed nothing abnormal, the drugs sometimes did more harm than good. I wonder why he ever ordered them in the first place and I am not sure.

When I was a young boy, my doctor always made a house call when I was sick. Today that is almost unheard of. In 1930 40% of all doctor-patient visits were house calls. Today the proportion has dwindled to less that 1%.

Now the encounters I have with my doctor, often take place online or mediated through his nurse and it often takes weeks and sometimes a month to actually arrange an appointment with him.

Jauhar concludes: Most of us went into medicine to help people, not to follow corporate directives or to maximize income. We want to practice medicine the right way, but too many forces today are propelling us away from the bench or the bedside. No one ever goes into medicine to do unnecessary testing. However, this sort of behavior is rampant.


Let's Go to the Movies

Just a Sigh

They glimpse one another on the train. They are traveling from Calais to Paris. He is a literature teacher from England going to a funeral. She is an actress going to audition for an Ibsen play.

Their eyes frequently meet during the trip. As they leave the station, she overhears him asking directions to the Basilica of Ste. Clotilde.

Emmanuele Devos, 39, plays Alix, Gabriel Byrne, 63, plays Douglas. The chemistry between them is vivid and believable. After her audition, with much uncertainly and without much cash, she finds herself going to the church where the funeral is being held. Douglas is one of the mourners.

After the service, they exchange a few awkward words. Thereafter, they stroll through Paris, spend the rest of the day and night getting to know one another. We learn their history, heartbreaks, and fragilities.

It cannot last, they must depart, neither wants to. He asks her to come to England with him. She would like to. But she is pregnant and has a boyfriend in Paris. We sigh, they sigh, “Just a Sigh,” a beautiful film and touching story.

Queen to Play

I first saw Queen to Play (Joueuse) about five years ago. It is a French film about talent, about discovering your talent and how it often occurs by chance. Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) works as a chambermaid at a posh hotel on the island of Corsica. One day she notices a young couple playing chess on the balcony, flirting with every move. It is a seductive scene that leads Helene to try to revive her marriage by giving her husband a chess set for his birthday.

He has no interest in the game and so Helene begins to teach herself how to play. In the afternoon she also has a part-time job cleaning the home of a Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline), where she notices a chess set is prominently displayed. She volunteers to clean his home, without pay, if he will give her chess lessons.

They start to play and eventually she begins to beat him. Meanwhile, in her obsession with the game she plays constantly—at home in the middle of the night, at the hotel mopping the black and white tile floors, on a chessboard in her mind’s eye.

Dr. Kroger tells her she has a rare gift for the game, a natural talent that can’t be taught, that a few people have and most don’t. He encourages her to enter a local contest. She hesitates, finally enters, and ends up winning the tournament. The film ends as she is taking the boat from Corsica on her way to Paris to enter the French national championship.

Queen to Play is a charming, amusing fairy tale, thoroughly refreshing in a season of utterly tasteless films.

Wendy and Lucy

She is walking by railroad tracks with her dog. She is Wendy (Michelle Williams), the dog is Lucy and together they are the subjects of the film, Wendy and Lucy. They meet a group of vagabonds who appear to be slightly drunk. They ride the trains once in a while.

Other than that, we know nothing about Wendy except that she is heading in her old Honda to Alaska. She doesn’t have much money, goes into a small market in a small Oregon town, stuffs a doughnut in her pocket and is caught by a young clerk. Taken to the manager’s office, Wendy apologizes, then hauled off to jail for a few days.

Lucy had been tied to a post outside the market and when Wendy is released from jail she returns to find her missing. Her car can’t start. Across the street is a mechanic who tells her what it will cost to fix everything wrong with the car. When it’s completed, she can’t afford to pay for it and walks away from the car.

The rest of the film she searches for Lucy, walking everywhere, visits the pound day after day or calling them. A friendly police officer sees her comings and goings, offers her the use his phone. Eventually the pound calls to tell her where Lucy is.

She walks over to the house, sees Lucy in a fenced yard, they greet each other gleefully, tears begin to roll down Wendy’s face, as she realizes what she must do. She leaves, walks away, and hops aboard an open boxcar on the train passing by.

This is the story of Wendy and Lucy. Nothing more, but Wendy’s expressive face, even if it’s rarely expresses much of anything. The tale is heartbreaking, a film I will never forget.

Wendy hasn’t dropped out of life, but life has given her nothing but grief. She doesn’t have a friend, loses the only thing she loved, doesn’t have a job, doesn’t search for one, all she wants to do is get to Alaska where there is money in the salmon canning factories.

We very much want her to, it’s too late to turn back, but we sense her wish is a pipe dream. Luck rarely comes to the Wendys of the world, Wendys who begin with nothing and spend the rest of their life trying to find just a little something.


Calories on Menus

Perhaps you read earlier this week that late next year the Food and Drug Administration will require calories on menus in many restaurants, movie theaters, convenience stores and amusement parks. The intent is to lead consumers to choose lower calorie items and be a “major weapon” in reducing obesity.

But will it have those effects? The evidence is far from clear. While some research indicates a slight influence, the bulk of the research does not.

One investigator noted: “upper middle-class people making menu-labeling policy often have little insight into how the lower-middle-class people whom the policy was aimed at would use the information. Just getting consumers to understand what the numbers means his hard…the people who most need the information don’t know how to use it.”

Several years ago New York City required fast-food chains to post the caloric content of their items. Simultaneously a study tracked food choices at four fast-food chains—McDonalds, Wendy’s Burger King and Kentucky Friend Chicken—where customers were informed or the calorie content of food items.

The outcome of the study should not be surprising to anyone familiar with the long line of previous field studies of the effects on information on modifying behavior. Research as far back as the energy crisis of the 70s and 80s demonstrated over and over again that posting requests to save energy or informing people of their actual consumption with and without cost feedback did not turn them into energy conservers. Still we continue to rely on information techniques in trying to regulate or change behavior

Evidence from the recent study in New York found that about half the customers noticed the posted calories associated with particular items of food. About a quarter (28%) of those who noticed claimed the information had influenced what they ordered while almost 90% said it had led them to make less caloric choices

But when the investigators analyzed the receipts (during a four week test period), they found that slightly more calories were ordered than the subjects in the control condition where customer choices were measured during a two week baseline period before the law went into effect—a common control condition in field studies.

The research was carried out in what were said to be “poor neighborhoods” where there are high rates of obesity. “One advocate of calorie posting suggested that low-income people were more interested in price than in calories.”

I laughed when I read this knowing full well that while those more financially endowed are probably less concerned about price, they are just as likely as anyone else to ignore the information and let their taste buds govern their choices.

Since information approaches are not costly and can be easily implemented, the more central issue is how to make them more effective. Simply posting information or passing out a leaflet doesn’t guarantee by any means that it will be translated into action. Several suggestions have been made on how to overcome this limitation.

• Vivid and highly concrete information should be employed: Instead of posting caloric values, show a symbol of a clogged artery.

• Take account of the motivation of the target population: If you are working in an area where price is important, offer an incentive, say a free low calorie item for every nine ordered, as many coffee shops do for coffee purchases.

• Emphasize the trustworthiness of the message: Pair the information with respectable physician, hospital of government agency rather than McDonald’s or Burger King

• Personalize the information as much as possible: Instead of posting the caloric information, arrange to have the manager hand out a colorful card with the same information to each patron with a few words of encouragement.


On Evidence and Belief

Maybe you can’t change the world, but at least you can change the way you look at things and how they affect you. Zia Rahman

What do we do when our beliefs conflict with the facts? For example, when our belief in evolution conflicts with our religious convictions? Or when our belief in a free market economy meets head-on the increasing economic inequalities in this country?

Do we stick with the facts and if they are contrary to our beliefs and then modify them? What a dreamer! No, most people tend to discount or reject the evidence in these kinds of situations, especially for deeply held beliefs. Weakly held beliefs may be less resistant to contrary evidence, but given our predilection for selective perception, we are unlikely to know about it.

In the Times (7/5/2014) a while ago, Brendan Nyhan cited evidence from a Pew Research Center study that found 33 percent of the public believes “Humans and other living things have existed in the present form since the beginning of time.” In the same study 26 percent don’t believe there is convincing evidence that the average temperature on earth has been increasing in the past few decades.

Even more striking was his report that individuals are sharply divided along political lines on such issues. “For instance, 46 percent of Republicans said there is no solid evidence for global warming, compared with 11 percent of Democrats.” This suggests that knowing more, being more aware of the evidence tends to increase the polarization between proponents of different belief systems.

So what can be done to bring a person’s beliefs into conformity with the facts? Nylan suggests that we need to break the bond between a person’s political and cultural views and beliefs. That means, for example, dissociating the evidence for global warming from being a conservative or a Republican. Let the facts speak loudest. Understand that you can still be a conservative and believe in global warming. Again, dream on.

Is there any realistic way belief and evidence can be brought into closer agreement? Nothing in the research on changing behavior indicates that any technique, direct or indirect, modest or forceful can do this. Individuals need to find their own reasons for altering a deeply held belief and that will rarely, if ever, come from external influence

But there are times when we change a strong belief or habit. How does that happen? Consider Bertold Brecht’s short story, The Unseemly Old Lady. A respectable seventy-two year old grandmother, who managed a household of five children in a small town in Germany, is suddenly transformed after the death of her husband.

She begins going to the cinema, something she never did before her husband died. Then she starts spending a good deal of time at a nearby cobbler’s workshop located “in a poor and even slightly notorious alley, frequented by all manner of disreputable characters.” During the summer, she would often rise very early, around 3 am, and walk about the deserted streets of the town by herself.

“When you come to think of it, she lived two lives in succession. The first one as daughter, wife and mother; the second simply as Mrs. B, an unattached person without responsibilities and with modest but sufficient means.” Brecht concludes, “She had savoured to the full the long years of servitude and the short years of freedom and consumed the bread of life to the last crumb.”

I view Brecht’s tale as metaphor for how significant changes in belief/behavior can occur quite naturally. They occur after a major change in one’s life, the circumstances in which individuals find themselves.

Her grandmother’s metamorphosis is not an entirely unknown reaction following the death of a spouse. A divorce, job layoff, a personal or spiritual crises, a physical illness, a family inheritance, even a good book, etc. can often set the occasion for striking out on a totally new path.

These are not the kind of conditions that can be induced by an agent of change or, for example, a communication campaign or incentive program. But when they occur naturally, they can exert a powerful effect. They are also relatively infrequent and, as a result, do not often induce a major transformation in one’s life.


Greg Baxter's Novels

There isn’t a great deal to say about The Apartment by Greg Baxter. There isn’t much that happens. The tale takes place in a single day in an unnamed city, during a month of snow and extreme cold. The unnamed American narrator has come there to live for reasons that are somewhat puzzling. “They asked me why I’d come and I said, I didn’t know”

In a museum he meets a woman, Saskia, and together they spend much of the day searching for an apartment for the American. They walk everywhere, sometimes take a bus or subway, meet a friend occasionally, and spend a fair amount of time talking. They speak of Dante, Mozart, artists and writers.

Their relationship for now is a platonic one. We have fallen into a swift intimacy of pure circumstance…Our relationship probably could not bear any conflict at all. The force that stabilizes the intimacy is politeness.

It takes them forever to reach the apartment Saskia has found for him, they wander in and out of cafes, department stores, coffee shops, all the while the unnamed narrator is recalling his days in Iraq, first in the military, then as an independent contractor. We get a hint of the terrible scenes he has witnessed and those he has committed or in which he was implicated.

One might wonder if he has come to this bitterly cold, unknown city to expiate the bloody crimes of that war. It has led him to a hatred of America and all that it stands for and, in turn, a hatred of himself for the crimes he committed while there.

The narrator says it is “the eve of a life that I hoped would represent the entombment of the violence I have witnessed or imposed upon the world.”

Eventually he finds an apartment he likes and continues his wanderings about the city, sometimes alone, sometimes with Saskia, but always ruminating about his past, himself, and a world in which violence is everywhere. And then the novel ends, the same way it begins, without a clear idea about where it is headed or why.

I hate myself today; I hate the whole human race. I am coursing with rage at the thought of every man and woman alive. Greg Baxter

I read Greg Baxter’s A Preparation for Death on the basis of his first novel, The Apartment. Don’t ask me why. This book appears to be a memoir of a few years of Baxter’s life. He moves to Dublin from Texas, then to Vienna, and returns to Texas from time to time to visit his mother. Throughout he wallows in his own misery.

He meets one woman after another, has sex with all of them, wild sex described in detail and ad nauseaum, spends sleepless days and nights drinking. He teaches writing to students he cares little about, tries to write with results that appall him. He is ambivalent about every thought and experience.

I am never content, but I approach contentment through longing, through disappointment.” “…life was meaningless without impact. I believed that I could alter society. How pathetic that seems to me now.” “Sometimes when I remember the unhappiness I felt at twenty-five, I can’t imagine why I didn’t kill myself. I sensed that I was an outcast everywhere. My characters were all exiles, and I hated them.”

On and on this way. The novel is little more than reveling in despair and venom, while worshiping both.

What can I say? I’m a reader. I read novels. Some are better than others. Some days are better than others. That’s life.