Aug. 17th, 2017

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I loved Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation and I revere his own series, Master of None. The "Thanksgiving" episode of Master of None is one of the best things I have ever seen on television. So I picked up Modern Romance with some enthusiasm.

In a classic Tom Haverford move, rather than just write the obligatory you-have-succeeded-as-a-comedian-on-TV book (Bossypants, Girl Walks Into a Bar, I'm Just a Person, Paddle Your Own Canoe, Self-Inflicted Wounds, The Bedwetter, Yes Please... yeah, it's a genre), Ansari teamed up with Stanford sociologist Eric Klinenberg to figure out both why technologically-mediated dating is such an unrelieved horror show and, reading between the lines, why Ansari was finding it difficult to meet a nice woman.

The resulting book reminded me a bit of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything in that it's as curious and interesting as it is funny. Ansari's quizzical sweetness shines especially in his reporting on the specific dating scenes in Buenos Aires, Doha, Paris and Tokyo.
In Japan, posting any pictures of yourself, especially selfie-style photos, comes off as really douchey. Kana, an attractive, single twenty-nine-year-old, remarked: “All the foreign people who use selfies on their profile pic? The Japanese feel like that’s so narcissistic.” In her experience, pictures on dating sites would generally include more than two people. Sometimes the person wouldn’t be in the photo at all. I asked what they would post instead.

“A lot of Japanese use their cats,” she said.

“They’re not in the photo with the cat?” I asked.

“Nope. Just the cat. Or their rice cooker.”

“I once saw a guy posted a funny street sign,” volunteered Rinko, thirty-three. “I felt like I could tell a lot about the guy from looking at it.”

This kind of made sense to me. If you post a photo of something interesting, maybe it gives some sense of your personality? I showed a photo of a bowl of ramen I had taken earlier in the day and asked what she thought of that as a profile picture. She just shook her head. OH, I GUESS I CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE TO THAT STREET SIGN DUDE, HUH?

For me, the most engaging part of the book was seeing insights that later ended up as jokes in Master of None. I endorse and seek to emulate this kind of creative reuse! As for meeting a nice woman, the gossip rags tell me that Ansari was in a relationship with pastrychef Courtney McBloom for a while, but they parted amicably last year. So it goes.
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Ian McEwan's acclaimed novels On Chesil Beach and Saturday both take place over the course of a single day, in an improbably lily-white version of England. Race-bending this formula is the fundamentally good idea beneath Black Bread White Beer. When we meet Amal and his white wife Claud, they have just lost a pregnancy in the first trimester, but they go ahead and visit Claud's parents in East Sussex as planned.

The novel is at its sharpest and funniest when Amal is reporting his Pakistani parents' reactions to his horrible in-laws:
‘What she means is, we wish you all the luck in the world, Amal, but you must watch your back. Her people look like a bunch of backstabbers. Never trust them for an instant.’

There are also some moving passages where Amal imagines what he and Claud would be like as parents:
Theirs would not be paraded about like Sussex show ponies. There were plenty of cool, funky children they could take as their template.

or what their lives would be like child-free:
They could buy a holiday home abroad. Two. One on each hemisphere if that is what would make her happy. He racks his mind to think of the childless couples they know – not the kids from the office; guys their age and older – but cannot dredge any up. In their immediate circle, there are no trailblazers, only conformists. No matter. They are taste makers, she and him. They can set the precedent.

As with McEwan, though, I found these characters difficult to warm to. Amal and Claud both struck me as joyless corporate drones, preoccupied with status, their world devoid of beauty and pleasure. A technically adroit book, but not for me.

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