Posts Tagged ‘New York City’


Review: These Days by Jack Cheng

These DaysThese Days by Jack Cheng

I am seldom a reader of fiction that is not rooted in fantasy or science, so books set in our modern world are foreign to me. So I was pleasantly surprised to find how engaging These Days was. Author Jack Cheng has a fluid narrative that is colorful and evocative of New York City and the characters' physical sensations. Reading a book where the events are realistic — two twenty-somethings meet, one who's planning his future, the other who's escaping her past — was actually a refreshing change and gave me ideas for my own life.

The characters were also very relatable, at least on a personal level. I saw much of myself in the protagonist, Connor: makes his living online, connected to the social web, and perhaps a bit naive and needy in relationships. But I also related to his love interest, K, who never carries a cell phone and enjoys her time offline. It was in fact that technological divide between the love interests that led me to originally back Cheng's Kickstarter to self-publish this book.

But this is not "a story about technology", as the crowdfunding video suggested. Connor uses technology to distract himself from the present but capture and relive the past, through photos, videos, tweets, and status updates. K, by contrast, is all about living in the moment but wants desperately to forget her own history. The scene describing her motivation for doing so was so evocative, I cried — I can't remember the last book to have that effect on me. These are the true challenges the characters are facing.

The book takes us through several anecdotes that demonstrate these opposing philosophies, but the narrative never really builds. Connor hates his job, quits, and gets a new one. He doesn't like his new job, thinks about quitting, but decides to stick around. He and K go out to dinner and have a conversation. They ride on the subway and make observations about the other commuters. With the exception of some flashbacks that are occasionally hard to place in the tale's chronology, it's vignette after vignette, without any real momentum.

That's why the novel's ending came as such a shock. And again, it's one I relate to personally, as something nearly identical happened to me, which may color my reception of the book. I look to fiction to vicariously experience situations I've not yet encountered and to get into other people's heads and learn how they feel, that I might better empathize. But These Days offered neither alternative to, nor insight into, reality. I had hoped that the message would be either "Things don't have to be this way" as I find in the unreal fiction I normally gravitate to, or at the very least, "Things are this way, but here's why". I received neither source of closure from this book. It was an abrupt and heartless ending that left me unsure why anything had just happened, what the characters' motivations had been, or what either of them was supposed to learn from this experience or how they were expected to grow from it.

I normally dive right from book to book, but I was preoccupied with These Days for days afterward. Perhaps that's a sign of a good book, that it stays with you and makes you think. But, like Connor, I don't know what just happened, and I don't know that I ever will.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A country of typewriters

The New York Times recently reported that Cormac McCarthy, author of such novels as No Country For Old Men, would be auctioning the typewriter on which he wrote his 2005 bestseller. He's replacing it not with a computer, but a newer typewriter.

It's no surprise that there are authors who prefer typewriters, just as there are videophiles who insist on vinyl or retrocomputer enthusiasts who use computers with 16K of memory. But what is surprising is that such antiquated production methods are still in use in modern industries.

My father was once in a similar situation when he remained committed to running his home business using the same spreadsheet software for two decades. The files were kept in a format inaccessible to his lawyers, brokers, and accountants, so information exchange was never as easy as emailing an attachment; more often, he had to print the files himself, and sometimes then bring them to a printshop to be concatenated into a single larger document. He was tolerated as a client because he'd been with these firms since before Microsoft Office was standardized. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when his computer finally gave out, forcing his upgrade to a modern platform.

I suspect the same is true of Mr. McCarthy, who has been a published author since 1965; his track record has earned him a leeway that would not be afforded to fledging writers. The likelihood of one of his novels being a success is worth the added cost of hiring a transcriptionist to convert his work to digital format.

Still, the cost of such unwavering technological devotion must at some point be question — as the New York Post did earlier this year when it reported that the New York City police department had spent a million dollars on new typewriters. Much of the police department's work has been computerized, but, as evidenced by these bills, a few artifacts remain. Wouldn't this money be better spent on bringing our civil servants into the 20th century? Typewriters may be fine for the entertainment industry, but the time and cost of accommodating diehards like Mr. McCarthy is not a luxury our government may always have.