Cubicles, Punk Rock Dads and Torque
Then We Came to the End
Joshua Ferris(Little, Brown, hardcover, $23.99)
If you have a full-time job, you probably spend more of your waking hours with your coworkers than anyone else, including your spouse or children, on any given weekday. In fact, coworkers often become like a second family to many—a family to love despite some nutty or embarrassing quirks of its members.
Thus, it's easy to relate to this funny and heartfelt novel about coworkers in an ad agency who gossip and bicker and engage in petty obsessions over who has which chair, but who also care about each other deeply, even if they have a strange way of showing it.
The plot involves the struggle of an ad agency to stay afloat during an economic downturn. Employees get laid off one by one amidst another crisis: Lynn, their unmarried, hard-working, 40-something boss finds out she has breast cancer. But instead of being a dreary tale, the book hilariously and accurately dissects the personalities and lifestyles of today's white-collar workers. It's hard not to think: "I've worked with someone just like this."
Rest assured, the novel is not simply another office satire. The strength of the book is that these characters aren't caricatures. They are very much like real people and they act out in original ways.
Chris, the high-strung, sweaty guy, refuses to leave the office after he is laid off. Benny, the office gossip, has a secret crush on Marcia, the office bitch whose fashion sense is stuck in the ’80s. Amber, who should be force-fed Xanax, gets knocked up by Larry, who is married and wants Amber to have an abortion so he won't have to confess the affair to his wife. Tom has a surprising heart of gold, along with an affection for Walt Whitman, under his cranky, tough exterior. Carl really hates his job, gets depressed and steals antidepressants from Janine, who can't cope with the fact that her daughter died. Hank and Dan are really just wannabe writers, spending all their spare time cranking out novels and screenplays, respectively. Karen is too ambitious for her own good. And Jim's just a dork. But despite their differences and the inherent competitiveness of their jobs, their affection for each other shines through. You can tell that Ferris had a "family" like this of his own at one point, and his affection for his old coworkers is just as clear.
Neal Pollack(Pantheon, hardcover, 23.95)
Is it possible to have kids and still live a cool, hipster lifestyle?
This is the question raised by Neal Pollack's parenting memoir Alternadad, which tells the story of how he met his wife, settled down and became a father. Of course, this isn't “Leave It to Beaver.” Even after Pollack "settled down" and had a son, he formed a punk rock band and went on tour. But whose rules say you can't be in a band and be a dad, too?
For Gen Xers who want to live a little more creatively than their parents, Alternadad presents an interesting look at one man's thought process in raising his son. It's important to say that Pollack is not speaking on behalf of an entire generation. He's simply presenting his experience and his views. And he's well aware that others disagree with some of his decisions. (One of his parenting essays on Salon.com hit a nerve and resulted in a flurry of letters telling Pollack and his wife they were bad parents. The whole incident is recounted in the book, and it shows that if you are going to be a public commentator, you better have a stomach for hate mail.) But his memoir provokes an important discussion that young parents should be having. How do we raise good, interesting, creative, productive children? Can we avoid the lame, overhyped, underintelligent corporate propaganda aimed at our kids?
Pollack's book raises another question, albeit unintentionally. The real question Pollack seems to be facing is, "What is 'cool,' anyway?" The cutting-edge neighborhood that seemed so interesting and hip in your 20s starts to appear dingier and somewhat scary in your 30s. Is that because you are no longer "ecool," or because safety and quiet become more of a priority? When music festivals become less compelling, is it because you have lost your taste in music or because the heat and crowds are not as interesting after you've been to a dozen events? If what you're looking for is a new experience, the experiences that come with having children will have more of a draw simply because they are new. That may have less to do with being cool and more to do with the natural impulse for growth in life. Most hip twentysomethings cringe when they think back on the stuff they thought was "cool" in high school, so why wouldn't one's perception of "cool" continue to evolve into one's 30s?
Alternadad has already prompted plenty of debate. Some, as mentioned earlier, think Pollack's parenting skills are too slack. Others think that Pollack isn't alternative enough. (One blogger wrote that a true punk rocker wouldn't put out a book through a corporate publisher. He should be stapling his own zines, for goodness' sake!) But the fact that the conversation is taking place is pretty cool.
The Physics of the Buffyverse
Jennifer Ouellette(Penguin, paper, $15)
The only thing I remember from high school physics is that we sat on uncomfortable stools. I have forgotten the things I was supposed to learn--formulas for mass, force and torque. And even though we did dozens of "experiments" with batteries, I couldn't have explained the properties of electricity. But that's probably because I never could relate these scientific principles to things that interested me. If only my textbook had been The Physics of the Buffyverse. Jennifer Ouellette has used the television show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spin-off “Angel” to illustrate a wide variety of scientific principles and facts. Ouellette explains in clear terms why it would not have been possible for teen witch Amy to turn herself into a rat, at least not without destroying Sunnydale in the process. She explains the principle of electricity by using Gwen, a character with an electromagnetic field that kills others on contact, as an example. The Gentlemen, who were the subject of the famous silent Buffy episode, are used to illustrate principles of sound. And did you know there is, in real life, a creature called the hagfish that acts very much like the notorious snot monster that killed its victims by suffocating them in mucus? Ouellette even dissects the mechanics behind Buffy's martial arts moves to explain how she, as a tiny human female, is able to overcome the force of some of the much larger demons that she must fight. It's inspiring to know how it could work in real life. The book probably wouldn't make much sense to someone who has never seen “Buffy,” but for Buffy fans who want to understand their universe a little better, it's a great refresher for all those things you forgot from high school physics.