The Circle, by Dave Eggers

The CircleWhen The Circle ended up as a book club pick earlier this year, I was like, ennnnhhhhh. As much as I liked Zeitoun when I read it, my book club learned more than a few things about the story and the people involved that have changed my stance on the book since. It didn’t help that I had heard all sorts of things about The Circle that left me with absolutely no interest in reading the book, but I am a good book-clubber and I dutifully put the book in my office and read the whole thing in five days of breaks.

I was about as meh as predicted on enjoying the book, which I only kept reading because a) book club and b) I didn’t have anything else to read on break. But let me tell you this: if you need a good book for your next book club meeting, this is it. This book lends itself to some great discussion, fueled by paranoia and whatever paranoia is called when someone’s really out to get you. My book club is still remarking on things in real life that are very Circle-like in nature…

Right, so, the story. The story follows bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Mae, a new Circle employee whose friend is a higher-up and pulled a few strings to get Mae this customer service gig that is way better than any other job Mae could get on her own. Lots of money, lots of prestige, lots of opportunity for advancement, lots of fun stuff going on on the Circle campus 24/7. Pretty sweet deal.

Or is it? After just days, Mae finds herself staring down something like nine screens on her desk — one for her actual customer service queue, one that lets her chat with her boss and get help, on that lets her chat with the underlings and give help, one for her Circle account that she’s expected to update constantly and also spend time on to smile or frown or comment on friends’ statuses, one for… I don’t even know. Lots of screens, lots of expected screen time. Mae is also getting in trouble for not checking her email constantly enough and missing meetings that she’s been automatically RSVPed for and not going to allegedly optional events on campus and not recording all of her reactions to everything that happens in her life.

It’s got all the makings of a really fascinating story. The Circle is billed as the next step after Facebook and Gmail and Amazon and all the big internet players get swallowed up by this giant corporation that gives you a single sign-in to everything and connects everything you say online to your real name, which is something that could totally happen and is probably on the way to happening right now. Spooooky. And Eggers introduces all of these technologies that sound completely reasonable and useful, like tiny cameras that you can put at your favorite beach so you can see if the waves are good for surfing or that you can put in your favorite public protesting place to capture police brutality, until they start being used for more Big Brother-ish activities. Suddenly Facebook’s Nearby Friends feature is even creepier.

But I just couldn’t get into the story as written. I sometimes found it tough to even pick up the book and continue reading, because I knew what I was going to get — a new technology that’s cool until it’s evil, Mae getting a lecture about enjoying the outdoors without taking video for poor quadriplegics who can’t go outside and need her video to make their lives better, Mae’s ex-boyfriend being completely anti-Circle and Mae just not getting it. The ending of the book is pretty fantastic in its horribleness and correctness, but it’s really not worth the 500 pages of dull that it takes to get there.

Recommendation: Read it for your book club, but really for no other reason.

Rating: 5/10

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Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

ZeitounSometimes I get a book club read that makes me regret the day I joined a book club, like A Reliable Wife, and sometimes I get a book that makes me super glad that I had a book club to make me read it, like Zeitoun.

I had heard a bit about this book when it came out, but it’s a memoir-ish thing and it’s about race and class and Hurricane Katrina and so I was like, snooze-fest, and moved on with my life. And when my dear Mary-friend suggested it for the club, I was like, well, let’s try to stay awake for this.

And at first, yeah. The book starts with basically an introduction to the Zeitouns and the impending hurricane and how people in New Orleans eat hurricanes for breakfast and all that, and I was certainly interested by this Muslim lady called Kathy and her husband (generally called Zeitoun) with the overdeveloped sense of responsibility. I read probably the first half of the book in bits and pieces, appreciating the dramatic irony of the hurricane non-preparations and then regretting that appreciation when people’s houses became pineapples under the sea.

But then right in the middle of the book Eggers finds the hook that really catches me — Zeitoun, in New Orleans, wanders away from the phone to see who’s at the door and Kathy, on the other end of the line and in Arizona, doesn’t hear from him again that day, or the next, or the next. Eggers does a fantastic job here of panicking me, a person who knows that Zeitoun kind of has to be okay. And when he picks back up with Zeitoun the story isn’t much less anxious-making. And so when I looked up again the book was over and it was a couple hours later!

It was fantastic to read this book with my book club, because I know next to nothing about Hurricane Katrina or Muslims or Middle-Eastern culture or having a family that makes you angry but there was someone in the group to explain everything to me! I still don’t really understand it, of course, but a lot of things made a lot more sense after talking it over. I highly recommend this course of action.

So the book is definitely educational and intriguing, and I got through the bulk of the book feeling like it was pretty well done (for a memoir, you know), but you know what happened then? An epilogue. Ugh. Y’all know how I feel about epilogues, and this one irked me more than most, I think largely because after Eggers spends the whole book getting into really minute detail about Zeitoun’s brother’s swimming achievements or whatever, he just tosses out facts about our protagonists without a lot of context or discussion. There’s PTSD and it sucks; there’s litigation against a metric crap-ton of people who did Zeitoun wrong and it’s not going very well. Mmhmm. Fantastic.

Right, anyway, so, aside from that last part I do think that this book is totally worth a read, especially if you managed to avoid a lot of the Katrina shenanigans like I apparently did. Though if you’re already depressed and/or disgusted by government mismanagement, you might want to give this one a pass.

Rating: 9/10 (if we just forget about that epilogue, which, what epilogue?)