Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Review 7/30/10

Four books this week.

Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families
There is a divide between red (conservative, Republican) and blue (liberal, Democrat) states in the US. This is a widely accepted, if rather simplistic, view. "Traditional" family models are under stress - another broadly accepted idea.  Cahn and Carbone accept both these premises, and back them up with legal precedents and strong statistical analysis. They then propose a solution. If marriage as an institution is to be saved, they argue, the institution must be expanded to as broad a group as possible - same sex marriage is vital to preserving the idea of marriage, and restricting marriage to hetero-normative couples actually weakens the institution by forcing the creation of lesser forms of social unions short of marriage. If families are to remain the locus of child-rearing, comprehensive sex ed is vital. Our education driven, information based economy is not friendly to young couples with a kid straight out of high school, so we need to empower couples to postpone childbirth until they are able to support themselves. (An interesting point made here - Cahn and Carbone suggest that sex ed should not stop in high school - that it should extend into the early 20s, because that is where the current bump in pregnancies is). Finally, the authors advocate some sort of mandated civil service - military or civilian - for teens coming out of high school to serve as a buffer between high school and the "real" world.

The book was interesting. The ideas espoused were not really new ones for me, but I don't think I'd seen them all put together like that before. However, there was a strong sense of preaching to the choir - I don't think the ideas would go over well if you were not already inclined to accept them. Cahn and Carbone acknowledge this - they state that their "fixes" for marriage will satisfy neither the staunch traditionalist nor the radical who argues that marriage as an institution should be abolished. This, however, creates a sense of glibness - "see, we've fixed the problems if only you are willing to accept our point of view" - which is both defensive and off putting. Since the groups arguing for a traditionalist view of marriage and families are one of the larger, or certainly louder, groups in the political arena today, perhaps a greater effort needed to be made to bridge towards them. Ultimately, I think the book is ineffective, despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact, that I agree with nearly everything within it. I am convinced - but I am not the group which needs to be convinced.

That was a little disappointing, but the only thing I really didn't like about the book was the choice of illustrations. Periodically, the authors - or, possibly, the editor - attempted to break up walls of text with some cartoons which had tangential connections to the text (at best), and they added nothing. In deed, to the extent that the cartoons were ugly and largely irrelevant, they may even have detracted from the text.

David Gordon - The Serialist
Harry Bloch is a pulp writer somewhat down on his luck. He earns his rent and grocery money by writing a variety of semi-popular genre series under pseudonyms, including a series of sci-fi novels (soft porn, clearly a spoof of the Gor novels), a series of "urban" novels (where urban = African-American), and a series of vampire romance novels (for some reason, popular right now). Oh, and he also writes essays for rich kids in prep schools. As the novel opens, Bloch is having his photo taken for the vampire novels. He is dressed as his own mother (who's name and image are the pseudonym he writes those books under), and his 15 year old manager/accomplice hands him a letter from a notorious serial killer. Said killer asks Bloch to ghost write the true story of the killer's killings - an "as-told-by". Bloch takes the commission, and suddenly a new series of killings begins, much like those of the killer for whom Bloch is writing. This launches Bloch, who is already a complicated mess of a man, into a complicated mess of an investigation.

"Complicated mess" actually describes this book quite well. It's fairly densely layered, playing with several different genre's, while taking the air out of a literary contempt for genre fiction. Gordon is playing a dicey game, one that writers like Michael Chabon do quite well - writing literary novels in a genre-esque style, and getting away with it. Gordon stumbles a little on the getting away with it - his voice is snarky (which is good) but sometimes verges on snide (which is bad) - but on the whole the book was enjoyable. One caution - it's somewhat gory in places, so some might not like it for that reason. Additionally, I would totally read the urban crime novels that Bloch excerpts, although the vampire novels and the soft porn sci fi, not so much.

David Liss - The Devil's Company
Oooo, I like Mr. Liss. This is the 3rd of his novels about Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish prize fighter turned thief catcher in 17th century London. Weaver walks a fine line between detective and thug, and Liss walks an equally fine line between detective novel and historical novel (and, in this book, spy story). The detailed descriptions of 17th century London life, especially within the Jewish sections of the city, are as gorgeous as in previous books. The plot, involving the East India Company, and politics, and France, and silk, and fashion, is delightfully twisty and kept me guessing up to the end, which is a good thing in a book of this nature. So, yes, I liked this book a great deal, and would recommend it highly. The only thing lacking is a historical note - Mr. Liss, this is what is lacking from ALL of your historical works, including The Coffee Trader and The Whiskey Rebellion - I want to know what your thoughts on the period are, I want to know what your sources are, I want to know where you diverge from the facts, and where you embroider material which is otherwise lacking. Other than that, a fine book, indeed.

Amal El-Mohtar - The Honey Month
I've had this sitting around for a while, but Amal was just interviewed by CBC Radio in Ottawa (the interview is about half-way down the scroll box, and will probably won't be there for very long, so go, listen, now!) so it seemed fitting to read it. I know Amal - not all that well, but well enough that it feels odd to review her book. Seriously, what if it was awful? How do you say that a book was awful, when you know the author? Luckily, I am spared that problem, because this book was delightful.

The premise - last February, Ms. El-Mohtar set out to taste 28 different types of honey (there are 28 different sorts of honey? I boggle.) and write something inspired by each. The result is a compact work full of lush descriptions of the honey (how each sample looks, how it smells, how it tastes) and then a poem or a piece short short fiction inspired by the honey. Amal is clearly influenced by Catherynne Valente - the short fiction echoes Valente's style and deep (and deeply odd) descriptive voice - but this work is in no way derivative. The whole collection sparkles, but I especially liked the two sonnets (ed - I am informed that they were not actually sonnets, but rather villanelles. Sonnets have 14 lines, villanelles have 19, and if I had counted, I would have noticed that.), and the story about the ring, and the story about the ravens.

My only complaint has entirely to do with my reading style - I devoured this in less than a day, and that was wrong. Just as consuming 28 different samples of honey over the course of a few hours would leave you feeling a little nauseous, so too, consuming the book in a few hours left me not nauseous, but a little overwhelmed. Perhaps I will return to the book in February, and just sip at it over the course of the month. Perhaps some of you will join me. Perhaps there will be honey?