Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Review Post, 6/3/2011

Three books this week. I know! I'm as surprised as you are.

First up,

Francis Fukuyama - The Origins of Political Order

This was a monster. Fukuyama was clearly aiming for a nice middle ground between scholarly and readable, and he mostly hit it. Nonetheless, the book was very dense, and the topic was hugely ambitious. Fukuyama has set out to explain where politics comes from. This book, the first of two, starts with the philosophical construct of the State of Nature - literally, Fukuyama starts with primates. It ends on the eve of the American and French revolutions, the point at which politics and state organisations changed for ever.

In simplest terms, Fukuyama is arguing two things. 1) Human beings are, by nature, social beings, and always have been. Hobbes' position (and Rousseau's) that humans, in the State of Nature, were solitary (and, for Hobbes, brutish; for Rousseau, gentle) is wrong. Any attempt to explain group cooperation as some sort of gamesmanship - "we work in a group because it gets us what we want as individuals, even though we really don't like working in groups" - ignores the fact that, biologically, we are inclined to work in groups. 2) There is no one route to a "modern" state (one which, politically, a) has a strong central government; b) operates under the Rule of Law [the strong central government sees itself as subject to law]; c) the strong central government is accountable to the people). Fukuyama looks at a variety of states, in Europe, in the Middle East, and in Asia, and shows how each approach modernity by different routes. This second thing is, perhaps, more important than the first. Modernity theory, especially in History, has often been condemned as Eurocentric, in that it seems to suggest that "modern" is synonymous with "western" or "European". Fukuyama argues quite the opposite - a state can attain "modernity" without looking anything like a European state. Further, not all European states evolved in the same way.

So. It was dense. It was heavily cited, and the bibliography is daunting. On some level, Fukuyama isn't saying anything that I haven't read elsewhere. On the other hand, noone else has said it all in one place before. As an historian, I liked that Fukuyama put his theory at the end of the work instead of the beginning, thus allowing his theory to flow from his evidence, rather than the other way around. As a reader, I found it somewhat distracting that he kept referring to chapters as yet un-read ("as we will explore in chapter X"). A glossary would have been nice - I don't know that he ever really defined latifundia* (maybe it was in the endnotes). If you are taking a political theory class, or an introductory historiography class, you may well encounter this work. Under those circumstances, it's worth the effort. Otherwise, maybe not.

* Basically, large farms - a situation where a single person owns a lot of different pieces of farm land. Wikipedia explains it here.

Well, so. Dr. Fukuyama wasn't exactly beach reading, so I didn't take him with me to the beach on Monday. Instead, a friend has asked, all wide eyed, if I had any Charles de Lint I could lend to him. Yes, I allowed as how I might, given that I have a whole shelf of de Lint - I gave him Waifs and Strays, but I also pulled Jack of Kinrowan off the shelf - I had, apparently, already loaned him that once. But I re-read it myself, so no harm done.

Charles de Lint - Jack of Kinrowan

This volume comprises Jack the Giant-Killer, which is de Lint's contribution to the Terri Windling Fairytales project, and Drink Down the Moon, which is the sequel. Both are set in Ottawa, in Canada, which was where I was living when I read them. Both are absolutely delightful - de Lint had just begun playing with the idea of fairies and magic impinging on our world, and these are a great example of that. Reading them made me a little homesick - not so much for Ottawa, but for being 19.

Anyway, Jacky Rowan discovers that the fairies of ancient myth and legend live more or less on top of the "real" world, leading a shadowy life that we know nothing about. Due to an accident, she is dragged into that world, and becomes the Jack of the Seelie Court (the good fairies, more or less), killing a pair of giants, and rescuing the fairy princess. In the second book, Jacky's friend, Kate, has an adventure of her own, in which she becomes, more or less, a wizard. Both are nice, simple stories with strong female characters, lots of magic and music, and some lovely descriptions of Ottawa landmarks. My only complaint is that there is no third book - the second book leaves some plot points very badly unresolved (mostly romance-y stuff) and I'd love a book to finish that story out, even if it meant buying another compilation.

Michael Thomas Ford - Jane Goes Batty

This is the second of Ford's Jane Austen books. The premise is delightfully absurd - Austen is a vampire, turned by Lord Byron (also a vampire) and currently living in upstate New York, where she has a bookstore. In the first book, Austen (as Jane Fairfax) has published a book (Constance), which, oddly enough, is viewed by many critics as being very nicely Austenesque. It becomes a modest best seller, and in this book, it is getting the Hollywood treatment. The director has decided to film in Jane's town of Brakestone (which does not, as far as I can tell, exist). Jane's nemesis, Beverly Shrop, has decided to hold a big romance convention in Brakestone at the same time. Jane's boyfriend, Walter, announces that his mother would like to come to visit, to meet Jane. At the same time. Oh, and by the way, Walter's mother is Jewish. Oh, and he may have suggested to her that Jane was thinking of converting. And Jane's editor has decided to come and babysit Jane, who is supposed to be writing her next book, which is greatly behind schedule. So, all that is happening at the same time - lovely complications.

Ford has some lovely characters, and he really puts them through the wringer, tossing in vampire hunters, bringing back characters we thought died earlier, having the movie re-set in the 1950s, twisting a sub-plot involving a pair of twins (one a vampire, the other, not) with annoyingly similar names (Ned and Ted) that no one can tell apart, and generally messing around with everyone at every chance he gets. I think, towards the end, he gets in over his head. In the last 1/4 of the book, he has one of the characters get murdered. My thought was "oh my, that's awfully close to the end of the book," and it was. Everything gets resolved, and the whole thing is pleasantly madcap, but the ending felt a little rushed, and also a little ... tidy. The characters carry the work All in all, I preferred the first book. I will read the third (Jane Vows Vengeance) if and when I see it.