Wednesday, 15 July 2020

My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Wikipedia

Published: 2018
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 289

I finally picked up My Year of Rest and Relaxation after seeing it in the front display of every bookshop I walked into for a year straight. I figured that the almost universal endorsement meant that it must be a worthwhile read, and picked it up just before lockdown. I learned the hard way that while this book is excellent, it may may be the best book to read in quarantine.

MYoRaR follows a newly graduated heiress living alone in New York City in the year 2000. Although it seems that she has a life that any young woman would envy, she decides to go to sleep for a year. With the help of her questionable psychiatrist, she hatches a plan to hibernate in her Manhattan apartment, only waking up to eat, wash and watch drugstore vhs tapes.

So for obvious reasons this was a weird book to read during the COVID-19 lockdown, during which time started to lose all meaning and I never left my house. But despite the weird vibes, the book really held my attention. It’s darkly funny, so dark in fact there are a lot of people in my life I would not recommend this to as it verges on inaccessibly dark. None of the characters are likeable, especially the main character, but unlikable female leads are really in at the moment. Everyone in the book is a little unhinged, ranging from Trevor, the protagonists on-off boyfriend, and his common-garden assholery, to the therapist’s coo-coo conspiracy theories. Reva, the protagonist's best friend is almost relatably mad, her lack of self esteem leads to a lot of darkly funny conversations and a weird codependent relationship with the protagonist.

Body image and the effect it can have on women is an important theme of the book. It’s Reva’s main pain point. She struggles with bulimia and, she constantly compares herself to her waifish, heroin-chic best friend and feels that she can’t measure up. The protagonist knows that she is beautiful, and understands how it affects her life. While she doesn’t suffer from the same body image issues as Reva does, being beautiful doesn’t seem to make her any happier. In fact despite being beautiful she is totally miserable, providing a perfect example to Reva that being thin won’t make her happy. Of course Reva doesn’t recognise this at all.

The protagonist is not only beautiful but comes from a very wealthy background. She can afford to buy an apartment in Manhattan and has enough left over to hibernate for a year in total comfort. She has an interesting attitude to her privilege. She’s totally aware of it, she intends to take full advantage of it, and refuses to feel guilty for it. She tells Ping Xi, an artist friend, that she “was born into privilege” and won’t squander it as she’s “not a moron”.

Pi Xing and his art is one of my favourite parts of the book. He’s a bizarre modern artist and the descriptions of his art sound like mad libs. I don’t know if Moshfegh is familiar with the world of modern art or if she created Pi Xing’s art by pulling random nouns out of a hat. However she came up with them, I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Bad Blood : Secrets and Lies of a Silicon Valley Start Up - John Carreyrou

Bad Blood eBook by John Carreyrou - 9781509868094 | Rakuten Kobo

Pages : 301
Publisher : Picador
Published : 2019

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou is a business book/industry thriller following the Theranos scandal and it’s founder, Elizabeth Holmes. This is not the sort of book I would usually read, however I absolutely devoured it. There’s so much to unpack with this book, but I can’t cover it all so I’m going to pull out a few themes that jumped out at me.

Elizabeth Holmes’ success seems to be a product of her confidence and charisma, instead of any sort of talent or good ideas. Elizabeth was horrifically unqualified on both the business and engineering/science fronts to run a biomedical start up. Anyone who knows anything about blood testing knows that the Theranos minilab design won’t work, but Holmes’ confidence hoodwinks anyone without a scientific background, and quite a few people who do. It’s an upsetting reminder that in our post-expert society, it’s more important to have a confident opinion than actual scientific training.

Holmes’ also heavily leans on the idolisation of young entrepreneurs. She either truly believes that she is the next Steve Jobs, or cynically brands herself as such in order to inspire confidence. By buying into the idea that Holmes' is a genius and will change the world like the tech entrepreneurs who have gone before her, her investors are buying into the idea of the exceptional individual and the one good idea that will change the world, rather than coming to terms with the fact that successful individuals are beholden to their teams and a huge amount of luck in order to achieve their success.

Holmes' and her partner Balwani are unsurprisingly both terrible scientists and terrible managers. They manage their staff using bullish work practices, and attempt to keep them in line using intimidation. They have no trust in their employees, especially their younger ones. They have a strong culture of presenteeism and personality. Their organisation is full of the classic red flags of poor management, and it’s no wonder that they have a huge turn over of staff. The only thing that keeps the employees around is their belief that they can do something with Theranos to help people, so once they find out that’s not what’s happening they jump ship. As someone who is starting out on their career, it was a good guide (though hopefully an extreme case) for what to look out for in a toxic workplace.

There’s far more to explore in Bad Blood than the few points I’ve pulled out, and is definitely worth the read. I’m not a business book fan, but this book honestly read more like an industry thriller. I hadn’t followed any of the Theranos scandal in real time so I found watching Holmes’ rise and fall absolutely riveting. Carreyrou manages to condense and deliver a massive story featuring a huge number of key players into something that can be consumed without wrecking your brain.

Four Stars