Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saturday Review, 4/9/2011

So, last weekend I hunkered down with some Patricia Briggs Mercy Thompson novels. My wife had a huge stack of them, and she had devoured them over a couple of days - I figured I could binge on them, and they knock out the Raj Patel. It turns out that either my wife reads more quickly than I do (possible) or that she was able to schedule more time without distractions (also possible - she's breast feeding, which kinda pins her down for long periods of time.) Either way, by Monday morning, I had only finished two of the Briggses, and then Raj Patel took longer to read than I expected. At any rate, here is this week's review post.

Patricia Briggs - Blood Bound

This is the second of the series - the first is Moon Called. Mercy Thompson is a skinwalker - she can become a coyote, but is not a were. She was raised by a pack of werewolves, and she currently works in the Pacific Northwest as a VW mechanic. She has a degree in History (she mentions this several times). She lives in a world - in our world, more or less -  where she is surrounded by Fey and vampires and werewolves and sorcerers and witches. The Fey revealed themselves sometime in the 1970s, and many of them now live in Fey reservations around the country - by their own choice, apparently. Werewolves "came out" between book one and book two, and are currently fighting for recognition as full humans - there is some legislation in Congress to regulate werewolves under the Endangered Species Act, which would render them animals. All of this is background stuff.

Skinwalkers, apparently, are good at hunting vampires. Vampire magic doesn't work well on them, and they can speak with ghosts (ghosts congregate around vampire lairs, because vampires kill people on a fairly regular basis). In this book, Mercy is called on to hunt down and kill a rogue vampire who is messing with people. She also finds herself trapped in a love triangle between the head of the local werewolf pack (who has, for political reasons, announced that Mercy is his mate, although they have not done anything to create that relationship in any meaningful way) and the son of the Marok - the head of all werewolves in North America (and also an old family friend). So, kinda powerful figures.

Plot wise, the book wasn't awful. Briggs did an excellent job in creating a creepy atmosphere - the villain is very villainous. Briggs also includes several twists and turn which keep the interest of the reader; very nice. Romance wise - I dunno. It's fairly clear which of the two men Mercy is going to end up with, but I don't really buy the relationship. Mercy is a strong female character, but both of the men in her life are very very dominant, to the extent that entering a relationship with either of them will mean that Mercy has given up a lot of what makes her an interesting character. It may be that things change in later novels, but if Mercy allows herself to slip into a submissive role, I don't think I will be able to enjoy them.

Also, a note on covers - I really don't know. She's supposed to be a tough woman, self sufficient, a mechanic and a woman of action - so why do all the covers depict her half-dressed? Ok, I know why, but the cover art is largely inconsistent with the internal characterization - quite disappointing.

Patricia Briggs - Iron Kissed

This is the third book in the series. Briggs is called in to solve a series of murders in the local Fey reservation, and then to clear the name of her friend, a Fey who sold her the mechanics business she runs. Here, the romance continues - Mercy ends up making a decision, and seems to move further towards a submissive role. There seems to be an implication that if she is willing to submit to the pack leader she will gain a dominant role in the pack; I'm not sure it's a worthy trade off. We'll see where book 4 goes.

The plot here, I think, is stronger than in the previous one. I found the character of the villain to be far creepier and more surprising than the previous book as well. Significant trigger warning for a rape scene, but I liked Briggs' depiction of the recovery from the rape.

Raj Patel - Stuffed and Starved

Of the food ethics books I've read over the past month and a bit, this is, I think, the least fun. Patel approaches the problem of our food system from a variety of different angles, most of them far outside the United States. There is a chapter on farming in India, a chapter on Brazil, a chapter on Africa, and several bits on South Korea, Mexico, England, and the United States, but the US takes a largely backseat role in this book, which is a nice change. In approaching the problem from places where US food policy has had a significant effect, Patel shows, very clearly, that fixing the system is going to take more than farmers markets and eating more veggies.

Since World War Two, US food policy has managed to set up a situation where a very few big companies have captured control of the middle-man role in the food market - receiving food from farmers and then distributing it to grocery stores. Patel presents these as bottlenecks in the system - it is these bottlenecks which cause farmers' wages to remain low while prices in stores remain relatively high - farmers get very little of the cost of the final product, because much of the money gets trapped by the bottlenecks. Patel shows this quite well with coffee from Uganda. Farmers sell coffee to a middleman for 14 cents/kilo - the middleman sells it to mills for 19 cents/kilo. The mill processes the coffee for 24 cents, and it is shipped for 26 cents. After roasting, Nestle pays $1.64/kilo - and then sells it for $26.40/kilo. And that's why coffee is expensive when we buy it, but farmers who produce it are starving to death. The problem is vast, and fixing it is not something we can necessarily do from our end as consumers.

Patel does mention things like farmers' markets, Community Sponsored Associations (CSA), and the Slow Foods movement. He points out that these are all realistically, quite expensive. As a fix, these have problems. Patel also discusses, at quite length, the Via Campisano movement - the movement, or loose affiliation of movements, of peasants struggling to take over the food system from the production end. This is a very long term fix to the problem, but should guarantee that the payment for food goes to the farmers, and the savings go to the consumers. The advantage of a CSA or of a farmers' market is that they create a relationship between the farmers and the consumers. The Via Campisano movement does that too, but from the bottom up.

In terms of writing - Patel writes a lovely clear prose which is easy to read. He also includes significant dense endnotes and lots of charts. It's depressing, but also hopeful, its dense but readable. Fantastically thought provoking, and highly recommended.