Thursday, June 18, 2015

Absolute Worst Case Scenarios

Psychologically speaking, this has been a weird month for me. I haven't read a single novel yet. Since you’re reading my book blog, you probably have an idea how weird this is. I will admit with chagrin that I’ve been reading lots of book-length fanfiction, but I’m not sure how to talk about that, so I’m going to skip it for now.

Instead, let’s talk about the one book I did make it through—Randall Munroe’s What If? There’s a good chance you’re familiar with his work from xkcd, his webcomic about science and life and stick figures, which is exactly what any kind of media at all should be—reverent and irreverent at the same time, intelligent and hilarious and poignant by turns and sometimes simultaneously.

“What If” is a column on the xkcd website where people ask unlikely or impossible questions, and he uses science to figure it out. What would happen on Earth if the sun disappeared? How long would it take to print out Wikipedia? What would happen if you made a periodic table wall out of bricks of the different elements?

A surprising number of the answers are “we would all die horribly” (I don’t think that result from printing out Wikipedia, so there’s something), but the level of attention to detail and scientific explanation is absolutely a blast. There are xkcd-style illustrations throughout, there are funny footnotes, there’s dry humor. If you liked The Martian (which you did, of course you did), you might have a lot of fun with this one—I can picture Mark Watney writing in to Randall Munroe for advice.

I used to have a high school teacher who had an Ultimate Dinner Party list—all the people, living or dead, whom you’d want to have at your dream party. Oscar Wilde, Richard Feynman, Ida B. Wells, and, I’m now pretty sure, Randall Munroe.

I don't make any promises about being back on the blogging bandwagon (though a lot of my favorite bloggers are mostly offline, so maybe it's just a different bandwagon? Hi, Aarti!), but I did actually read a novel last week, and I've started another one, and maybe, just maybe, next week will be different.

In the meantime, if anyone wants to rewatch Veronica Mars with me, give a holler.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Feminist Surrender

I'm gonna try to tell this one linearly, with my experience of the book.  It's called The String Diaries, by Stephen Lloyd Jones, and I picked it up randomly from the library new release shelf.  I didn't know anything about it, but the cover was kind of cool, and I liked the blurb.

"The String Diaries opens with Hannah frantically driving through the night--her daughter asleep in the back, her husband bleeding out in the seat beside her. In the trunk of the car rests a cache of diaries dating back 200 years, tied and retied with strings through generations. The diaries carry the rules for survival that have been handed down from mother to daughter since the 19th century. But how can Hannah escape an enemy with the ability to look and sound like the people she loves?

"Stephen Lloyd Jones's debut novel is a sweeping thriller that extends from the present day, to Oxford in the 1970s, to Hungary at the turn of the 19th century, all tracing back to a man from an ancient royal family with a consuming passion--a boy who can change his shape, insert himself into the intimate lives of his victims, and destroy them.

"If Hannah fails to end the chase now, her daughter is next in line. Only Hannah can decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to finally put a centuries-old curse to rest."
So, I checked it out.  And started reading it--even more surprising, since checking a book out is a low bar, but starting to read it is a higher one.
(Warning: spoilers for the first 20 pages or so ahead.)
First scene: Hannah is driving through the night while her husband bleeds out.  As advertised.  It's tense, but they do have a destination, which helps.  When they arrive, she prowls the house for a bit to figure out if it's safe.  This takes a little too long--a little more time is spent peering around corners than is appropriate for maintaining the tension.  But eventually she gets her husband inside, leaving her daughter in the car where she's--safer, I guess?  Or at least sleeping?

Next scene flashes us back to the '70s, where our viewpoint character is a stuffy, slightly OCD academic who finds his favorite table at the library occupied by a beautiful woman and overtly attempts to use entitlement to get it back.  They flirt; she is gorgeous and French and intriguing.

Okay, this was the point where I had this iffy feeling.  The second scene, in which our super-manly intellectual guy is somehow overcome with unfamiliar Feelings due to a mysterious, sexy French woman just seemed way too...pat.  
This was the point at which the "woman thing" in this book became really noticeable to me, and when I started thinking about it.  Here are the things I realized, going back over what I'd already read:
  • Hanna, in the first chapter, was kind of irritating.  She's our viewpoint character, and she wasn't meant to be irritating, but she's hesitant when decisiveness is called for, makes some subpar decisions, and is bossed around by her half-comatose husband.  The last part is important, because....
  • There's this weird balance between being prepared for this eventuality (with implications that there was a plan for this because it was always a risk) and being a novice to this kind of life threatening situation (where her naivete would be quite understandable).  But her husband, who clearly (in the next chapter, if not this one) has the same amount of preparation as her, is calm and cool and giving good advice while bleeding to death, while she fumbles around and leaves her kid alone in the car in the middle of the night for some reason.
  • Nicole (the French lady) falls instantly for our professor who is clearly, like Robert Langdon, an eminent academic who's just been waiting for a gorgeous woman and a globetrotting adventure.
  • The female characters reminded me of Stephen King's women.  They are front and center and in the middle of the fight, but they are slightly foreign, and might not be as good as men (read: people) as others, but they have access to some sort of mysterious Understanding.  There was a time when I found that sort of thing flattering, but that was a long time ago.
Okay, so this is the point at which I glanced at the back of the book, out of curiosity regarding the blurbs.  And can I tell you what the first thing I noticed was?  Six (glowing) blurbs; not one woman.

I gave it one more chance and dug into the third chapter, the historical part where we learn the origin of whatever's haunting these women.  I know what's going on, that we're tracking the bad guy here, I find out about the supernatural elements (which are hinted at in the first chapter).  But when it finally clicks--when this skeevy dude does the thing he's gonna do, even though it's not a surprise, it's somehow a huge disappointment, because our author has put what I'm sure he thinks is a new spin on a story that's all about rape.

The bad guy's a shapeshifter.  A woman rejects him, and he takes the form of her lover and has sex with her.  And then stuff and etc. but whatever--this is just an amazing new way for a character to rape someone and terrorize a woman with violence!  And while I can imagine a book in which this is actually about identity and trust and is an extended metaphor for how well we really know people--this is not a book I'm going to follow down that path.

Maybe from a female author.  Maybe if the main character had seemed like someone who was doing the best she could, instead of playing the horror movie victim.  Maybe even if some women had blurbed the book, saying they loved it, that it touched on something true about the experience of being terrorized.  Maybe.  But none of these were true.

It's possible that I've misread what's going to happen, that there will be a major plot twist and this isn't what it seemed like it was going to be.  I'm not good at subtext, and I'm kind of new to this thing where I notice subtle sexism.  There's some controversy around reviewing (pronouncing judgement?) on a book that you're quitting in the middle.

But you know what?  My reading list is too short.  150 pages into a 400 page book, I'm out. 

On the plus side, I do feel like my critical faculties got a decent workout.  So not a total waste of my time.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Better Than English Class

I suddenly, spontaneously started rereading Watership Down this week, after seeing this post from one of my favorite bloggers, Siderea.

You know how sometimes someone is so smart that you love them, and then they just keep being smarter and smarter until you almost hate them because you kind of envy their genius and being able to live in their own head where they know all this stuff and think all this stuff?  Yeah, Siderea.  It helps that her interests overlap with mine (psychology, books, Boston), but you should read her multi-part essay on the coordinative communication (among other things) in the US health care system, because it's brilliant.

I caution you, that post is actually a series of three post, and there is a LOT of content there.  I actually started just reading them, but as I went along, I realized I really, really wanted to read the book again, and I ended up doing it as a readalong, following each chapter with the relevant part of the post.  Also, I kind of want to read King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, by Moore & Gilette, which she references frequently throughout the essay and which seems so on point.

So it seems I'm now reading Richard Adams' Watership Down again, and trying to convince my book club to read it, too, since I feel like this is meaty.  Although I have to say, Siderea's  theory that the first 65 pages are hard to get through doesn't fit with my experience of the book.  I see her point, that the book is playing out a bigger story than "rabbits looking for a safe home," but you don't know that till later--that's all true.  But I think the search-for-home story is plenty compelling in its own right; it's a ripping adventure story, and the fact that it gets astronomically more complex and beautiful after the beginning doesn't mean the beginning doesn't work on that first, frosting level of the layer cake.

I grew up watching the animated movie (which is super violent, by the way, and not for very little kids), so I remember this story from my very earliest childhood.  It's a great movie, with some amazing voice actors, and does a very impressive job of world building, which is always so much harder in a movie where exposition-dumps are tricky to pull off. 

This is a gorgeous story.  That post is a fascinating read.  I'm so glad this hopped back into my hands after all these years.  Book club, please join me!

(Oh, wait, pun not intended, but I just saw it and dammit, I'm leaving it in!)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

On the Veldt

When I try to understand people who say they don't really know how to read science fiction, one way for me to sympathize is to think about my relationship with mystery novels.  I've read ones I liked, even that I count among my favorite books.  But they have their own rhythms, and those are often foreign to me.  There are patterns to a mystery that are unusual in other books, and they can make it tricky for me to get my feet under me.

Malla Nunn's A Beautiful Place to Die comes highly recommended by Aarti, who glows not only about this book, but about the whole series of Detective Emmanuel Cooper novels.  Most of my favorite mysteries take place in fascinating settings, so this sounds right up my alley.  But it turns out, reading this book, that Dr. Siri Paiboun and Mma Precious Ramotswe have more in common than I realized, and Emmanuel Cooper represents a different type of mystery. And I'm still not quite sure how I feel about that.

As a mystery, as far as I can tell, this  is a great book.  Cooper is sent from Johannesburg to a small town called Jacob's Rest after a confusing phone call indicates that there's been a murder.  It turns out that the captain of the local police has been shot; really, there should be a whole squad of detectives on the case. But before he can get backup, the Security Branch shows up--and if you want scary government bullies, I think that Afrikaners in 1950s South Africa are just what you're looking for.

So, Detective Cooper unravels the secrets that Captain Pretorius has been keeping, and the small town scandals, while trying to avoid the dangerous attentions of the Security boys, who are looking for a political arrest.  Along the way, we meet dozens of characters from all walks of life--and South Africa is full of different walks of life.  There are black people, or natives, colored, or mixed-race, and whites, who are divided into English and Afrikaner, or Dutch.  It's a little confusing until you get used to it, but that's nothing to the oppression that the division bring to the people who live with them.

We meet all sorts of characters; the deceased captain had a slew of burly, angry sons; the Old Jew who runs the local general store, in spite of being a skilled surgeon; the native police officer, Shabalala, who grew up with the victim.  Cooper makes allies and enemies and tries to get closer to the truth of who Captain Pretorius was and what someone might have wanted to kill him.

Okay, so let me get at the thing that bothered me most about this book, which was the women.  There were a few--Pretorius's fervidly nationalistic widow; Dr. Zweigman's nervous wife; the shy brown mouse Davida, who works for him and lives with her grandmother.  There are not many, though, and not much is going on with any of them that does not directly relate to the story; for the most part, the women don't get the great character moments that really drive a mystery.

And then there's Cooper's attitude toward them.  Aarti points out that his longing, his objectification, his wavering between lust and protectiveness, are a manifestation of how insidious the power imbalance of a society like this can be--even our hero can't help but be aware of the fact that his status as a white man gives him complete power over these women.  But I feel like this is deeper, like he just doesn't see them. I think it goes further than the power imbalance would imply.

Honestly, I would have been completely turned off the book by how I felt about the female characters, if the author had been a man.  But the author, Malla Nunn, is a woman, and that leaves me flailing a bit.  On one hand, I'm still kind of turned off, but on the other, I can't help but feel that a female author must have been doing this on purpose, making a point not just with Cooper's feelings (which I agree, can fit into his character and society in useful and relevant ways) but also with her narrative depictions.  I'm still having a really hard time reconciling how I feel about this.

(It also brings up an interesting question of whether it's fair to judge a female author differently than a male author, or to bring assumptions based on the author's gender to the table, but I'm going to save that for an upcoming post about another book whose female characters have me scratching my head; stay tuned.)

Something else that threw me off with this book--and I think this worked really well--was the sense, as you're going through, of what Cooper is fighting for.  In most novels, even if the detective is far from home with few resources, there is a sense that if he finds out the truth and gathers enough evidence, that's what's important--he can then bring these things to some sort of central authority and come down on the perpetrator with the power of the system.  But Emmanuel Cooper is part of a system that is more horrifying than even the perpetrator of the crime.  When he's on his own, running scared from murderers and madmen and politically powerful racist bastards, I couldn't see where he could turn, or how anyone could be brought to justice.

This adds an enormous layer of tension and, I think, of verisimilitude, since the fact is that the white hats don't always get to save the day.  It also makes me hate South Africa even more acutely, knowing that even a good man with the power of the law on his side can't save the world.

I highly recommend the audiobook, too.  The reader does an amazing job with the accents and voices, and that makes an enormous difference, I think, in this world where everyone is so clearly separated by status and origins.  A fascinating book.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Orthodox

I love books about religious groups, whether it's novels about cults or memoirs of nuns.  Mennonites, the Amish, Mormons (mainstream and fundamentalist), Orthodox Jews.  Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation after My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, by Leah Vincent, clearly fits in here, and it isn't the first "leaving Judaism" memoir that I've read.

Leah Vincent was the favorite daughter of a Yeshivish rabbi in Pittsburg.  Yeshivish was not something I had heard of, but apparently it fits between Hasidic and Modern Orthodox in the triumverate of conservative Judaism.  Leah grew up with ten brothers and sisters and knew that she would go to seminary for a year after high school before getting married.

But there were places where should couldn't quite make herself fit, and the small rebellions brought such oppressive consequences that the rebellions began growing larger, until her family was estranged and Leah was living on her own in New York, neither exactly a good Orthodox Jew nor a secular woman.

It's a pretty familiar story, if it's the kind of book that you read.  The interesting angle here is the sense of solitude, and the importance of sex in Leah's life.  You get the strong feeling that, if she had been given the smallest chance, Leah would have ended up exacgtly where her family wanted and expected her to be--married to a good Yeshivish man, mother to a dozen children.  But instead, her first small, curious rebellions--exchanging letters with the brother of a friend, buying a clingy, V-neck sweater--were met with such ruthless cutting off that she had no room to try to repair things.  She's left as a person with no preparation for the real world, who must navigate it anyway.  The pitfalls of this are one of the most interesting parts here.

The role that sex plays in Leah's transition is also unusual, and fascinating.  I think the main thing is that it seems more intensely personal than a lot of other memoirs that I've read, although that's probably me misinterpreting personal and simply private.  Anyway, from the first things that cause her trouble--wanting to talk to a boy, wanting him to like her--to the ways she finally tries to connect with people (men) when she's on her own, so much of her experience with the secular world revolves around sex.

I find this interesting for a few reasons.  First, it seems to relate to how a lot of people coming from sheltered environments first interact with the wider world; since everything is "evil," there's no sense of what's really risky, and so they don't fully understand that watching an R rated movie is fundamentally different from doing dangerous amounts of drugs.  This might be an exaggeration, but the point is that, without the cultural calibration that comes from years of living in the world, it's hard to know what choices are healthy ones.

So, this brings me to my biggest criticism of this book, which is the unexamined nature of a lot of the things she thought at the time.  In the afterword, the author talks about how, in writing the book, she's explicitly trying to relate things through the eyes of the girl she was, how that girl saw things.  I appreciated that note, because my reaction would have been worse if she hadn't acknowledged this.  There are some things she does that are dangerous or morally wrong, and within the story she doesn't really acknowledge that at all.

But even with this caveat, I feel like the book didn't do a good job with some of this.  For example, when she was living on her own in New York for the first time, some of her only human contact came from hanging around in basketball parks, watching pickup games.  She eventually becomes a regular and makes friends, becomes involved with the men she meets there.  Now, she's explained how the culture she grew up in was very racist, and in befriending these men, she's clearly stepping outside her comfort zone.  But there is a very uncomfortably racist overtone to this whole section.  The sleaziness of the way she was used by these boyfriends is played up, without getting any sense of even one of these men (the ones she slept with or the ones she didn't) as real people.  They were "black guys" she was spending time with.

There are other things--an affair with a married man, the fact that she has virtually no female presence in her life at any point--that are presented in such a matter of fact way that it's awkward to read them.  The book is clearly a memoir, told from a later time, so the sense is that of remembering the events with Leah, not of living them firsthand.  This is fine, except that it makes the absence of any kind of critical eye, any kind of analysis that comes with distance, all the more distinctive.  The author doesn't criticize the narrator's perceptions, but neither do we live so intimately in the narrator's mind that these perceptions seem right, nor do we see the narrator go through any process of growth wherein she realizes that hey, maybe all these other people are people, too.

This disconnect was the main flaw, but it really brought the book down for me.  While the account was intimate and raw, it was an account of a sheltered young girl going through a lot of emotional upheaval, and by keeping us locked in her perceptions, the book prevented a lot of insight it could have offered in the process of integrating into mainstream culture, or of finding yourself after a oppression and estrangement.

On the spectrum of insular community books, I would probably give this a good 3.5 stars.  It was worth reading, and it was a good account, but it left me wanting to know more about what now-Leah thought of the experiences of then-Leah.  With that, this could have been an amazing book.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Traitor

In I Am the Weapon, his name was Ben and he was sent to kill the mayor of New York.  I loved it.  In I Am the Mission, his name was Daniel and he had to infiltrate a terrorist militia compound.  Good stuff.  And finally, the third one, I Am the Traitor, has arrived, and he's come back to his own name--Zach--and he's out to take down the Program that turned him into a killer.

If that sounds like it's from a movie trailer, it should, because that's what this whole series reads like--a rampaging action movie. And it moves--all the deep background stuff that's been going on in the first few books pays off here--Zach's friendship with Howard, his confusing relationship with Mike, Mother and Father and Zach's memories of his childhood.  He's driving toward the truth throughout this book, and it's just where you want him to go.

There are some drawbacks along the way.  There's a girl (as there was in each of the other two books) who seems to be jammed kind of forcibly into the plot.  There are a lot of scenes where they're going from one place to another in what, if you stop to think about it, isn't really a very well-thought-through plan.  Howard manages not to get killed in some of the most unlikely scenarios.

But you don't want to nitpick with a book like this.  If the costuming isn't perfect, if the setup isn't convincing, well, the scenery whips by fast enough for it to go unnoticed if you squint.  The building is intense, and the denouement (if one can use such a word for such a book), if unlikely, is a satisfying ending to what's gone on so far.

So, is it as good as the first two?  No.  Does it deliver what you need to wrap up a really cool series?  Yeah, I would say so.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Rat Queeeeeeeens!!!!!!!

Guys, guys, Rat Queens volume 2 is coming out!  In just a couple of weeks!  AND I GOT AN ADVANCE COPY TO READ AND I'M SO EXCITED AAAAAUUUUUUGHHHH!

(If I was a blogger who did gifs, there would be a gif here.  Picture it.)

The book begins the morning after the debauchery that ended the first volume, with a lovely post-house party scene that involves hangovers, breakfast, and random bedmates wandering through the living room.  There's no shame--everyone says a cheerful hello (and a few raunchy comments are made), but someone shows up from city hall and we're off on a new adventure.

Over the course of this volume, we get some great character development on most of the Queens--snippets from Violet's life as a dwarf, where she gets the "just a girl" treatment and works for the family business as a model, and bits of Hannah's past, including the reason why she and Sawyer are on-again-off-again despite their clear chemistry and affection.  And these are the minor bits--most of the past in this story belongs to Dee.

It turns out Dee has left a lot behind, and that someone has stolen an important relic from her people that could put the world in danger.  Also, Sawyer's in trouble, and, of course, the rest of Palisade is, as always, in danger (in addition to the world-danger).

So all this is going on, and in the meantime, we're getting the bits that really make this series sing--the broad, interwoven cast of characters, many of whom have twining history (Hannah's nemesis used to be a college friend; Sawyer's second in command is another AMAZING woman; Orc Dave gets some nice moments, both with Violet and without).  Betty gets a little bit of the short shrift here, but she still has some nice moments--funny ones, of course, because she's the stoner and that's her role, but another great moment when she realizes someone she cares about is in trouble and goes berserker. 

This is everything that I loved about the first one--the sass, the affection, the heroism, the human drama, the horrifying monsters.

There was a change in artist last year, after the original artist and co-creator, Roc Upchurch, was arrested for domestic violence.  He was replaced as the artist for the series, which means that the last two issues in this volume had a new artist, Stjepan Sejic [sic].  I was worried about this, because I did love Upchurch's art.  But I'm really happy with Sejic's art--it's different, but it's clear and easy to follow (I'm pretty easily confused by muddy visuals), the characters all seem very much themselves, both recognizably and intuitively.  It feels nearly seamless, and I'm left happy--happy with the whole series and wiggling with delighted anticipation for the next one!