20 Books of Summer challenge update

by Sunita

I’m woefully behind on my #20BooksofSummer reading challenge, but I did manage to finish a few books and wanted to write about them.

Triad Blood coverI reviewed Nathan Burgoine’s paranormal gay novel, Triad Blood, over at Dear Author jointly with Sirius, so I won’t write a lot about that here. I enjoyed it, especially Burgoine’s voice and the sense of place I got from the world-building. And I liked the characters! I’ll definitely read more of his work.

Doris Day book coverAfter that I read a 2015 rom-com by Fiona Harper, The Doris Day Vintage Film Club. It features a skittish heroine and a can’t-commit hero who spend much of the first half of the book in a Big Mis. If that sounds way too tropey, it’s not, or at least it wasn’t for me because I like how Harper mixes romance, women’s fiction, and chicklit. She’s also very good with supporting characters and that was true here. The Doris Day theme didn’t entirely work for me, mostly because while I acknowledge her talent, she’s never been a favorite. So reading about people who just love her movies and seek advice from her life was … not compelling? But that’s a fairly minor quibble. Overall, it was a fun, sweet read.

The Circle coverFinally, I just finished Dave Egger’s The Circle, which I avoided when it was released in 2013 (I grew up in and spend 4 months a year in Silicon Valley, do I really need to read fiction about it?). But the way technology and social media have evolved over the last few years, plus teaching privacy in the digital age, kept me thinking about it, and when Rosario reviewed it positively I put it back on the list. And I’m really glad I did.

The Circle got pretty mixed reviews, with tech people saying he got the tech world and its motivations entirely wrong, while other reviewers thought it was chilling and insightful, a contender for being called a 1984 for our era. I think they’re both right. This is a tech campus with very few non-white people, two of the main characters (both of whom are or become powerful) are young women, and no one codes. But while I’m usually a stickler for accuracy or at least authenticity, the unreality didn’t bother me, for two reasons:

First, the book is a satire. Verisimilitude isn’t the point. There’s enough in the setting and characterizations to make them familiar, which is more to the point in my opinion.

Second, and more importantly, the book isn’t about the people who create technology nearly as much as it is about the way we, the users, interact with it and what it does to us and to our relationships. If everyone in the Circle weren’t using the tech they create and disseminate, the book wouldn’t work. The whole point is that the protagonist, Mae, takes us on the journey from naif to evangelist. And that is very, very believable. Not so much in the specifics of her journey, but in the way she becomes incrementally more enmeshed in and devoted to the social media and transparency initiatives which make the company so powerful.

(I think that the fact that almost the entire story is set within the confines of the Circle’s campus makes it seem as if the novel is about the company, which may be why tech-company-oriented reviewers had more trouble with it.)

In the first part of the story, Mae is transformed from someone who barely remembers to update her social media information to a Circler who constantly and compulsively checks her engagement statistics. She moves from a customer-service position to representing the company to tens of millions of viewers. And in the process, she jettisons family, friends, and love interests (she keeps one love interest but that seems more for convenience and companionship than anything else).

The characters aren’t that interesting for the most part, although I found Mae compelling; it’s quite a feat to make an empty-vessel protagonist capable of carrying a whole novel. I think Margaret Atwood called this a novel of ideas in her review (yes she did, in the NYRB), and I think that’s exactly right. The book explores how easy it is to give up our privacy bit by bit, and to the extent we think about it we believe the trade is worthwhile because connectedness has its rewards. But not everyone makes the same tradeoffs, and not every tradeoff is easily measured.

The books spirals almost out of control in the last quarter, and there are some scenes that are both shocking and entirely predictable (again, not easy to do). The writing is good but not great, the characters are OK but not particularly insight-filled or illuminating, and some of the plot twists are pretty unbelievable. When I break the book down into parts, I can criticize each part (just as many reviewers have). But taken as a whole I found the book enormously effective. As a novel of ideas it succeeded brilliantly for me.