Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Review Post, 10/21/2011

I wish to note, should I not finish this this evening, that I am actually sitting down to write it on Friday.

Four books this week.

First up, I found that I could not resist the allure of:

Simon Garfield - Just My Type

This is a book about fonts. It is, perhaps to some, surprising in its goodness. Garfield presents a history of fonts from Gutenberg to the present. He also highlights several specific fonts in a series of "font breaks" - interstitial chapters devoted to several fonts (plus one on the interobang, which Garfield describes as the Esperanto of fonts - something which clearly needs to exist, and yet which no one actually wants to use). Each of the font breaks features the font in question in the first paragraph of the break, which is a nice touch.

This is an interobang
Fonts, it turns out, are fascinating. At least to me, anyway. This kinda fits into my existing experience of things I find neat. I took a class on material culture (the history of objects - using objects as primary sources. Archaeology for historians, perhaps), and since then have been noticing architectural elements in my built environment - particularly the American Gothic window (not the painting - the iconic architectural style for which the painting is named - the house behind the couple has an American Gothic window in its peak.) and the Mansard Roof.

Fonts, it turns out, are the same for me - having read the book, I'm finding myself noticing fonts a lot more. Which is neat, but also a little frustrating. This would seem to be one of those cases in which ignorance is, actually, bliss. I ... I had dreams about fonts as I was finishing the book. Which is just, frankly, odd. I - guys, I changed the fonts on the computer. All of my icons, all of the tags at the top of my browser, the URL, even the clock on my desktop - all are now in Poor Richard font. Because it's pretty. (especially the ampersand! Did I mention that there's a whole chapter on ampersands? There is!) This is, perhaps, not healthy.

Case in point - My new favorite font? Doves. Which doesn't exist. Because the designer, Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, was so obsessed with the idea that lesser type setters than himself would use his typeface for projects to which it was ill fitted that he threw the entire collection of type into the Thames.* I wouldn't have known about the typeface if it weren't for this book - but, given that I can't actually USE the typeface (thanks ever so, Mr. Cobden-Sanderson!), perhaps I would have been better off as a result. Thanks, Mr. Garfield?

Anyway, if you are geekily inclined - that is, inclined to take odd things entirely too seriously - this book might tickle your fancy. If you are already a font geek - and you know you're out there - this is a must read. 

*I am not alone in have been struck by the typeface. Here's a lovely essay on the type face, on the nature of beauty, and on why it's a shame that Unitarian Universalists should be less inclined to reject the Bible. There's a lovely image of the first page of the Bible, printed in Doves typeface, in the middle of the essay. Perhaps you'll be captivated too... If so, sorry.

Second book -

Alison Goodman - Eon: The DragonEye Reborn

This book was amazingly good! It had so many things that I like in books. It had a strong female character (although, you know, she spent most of the book pretending to be a guy - more on that in a minute), it was inspired by Asian narratives instead of Western ones (more on that in a minute too), it had a strong transgendered character (who wasn't the main girl-pretending-to-be-a-boy character), it had great heaping gobs of politics, it had dragons (Asian style dragons) - lots and lots of really great stuff. Plus, it was really well written - a plot which just pulled me in and dragged me forward. Over 500 pages, and I finished in in just over a day - simply marvelous story telling.

So, I really really liked the book. But, having finished it, I started pondering. (Actually, that's probably the sign of a really good book, isn't it? It makes you keep thinking about it after the fact?) I pondered two things. First, I had just had a conversation with a friend about how we wished there were more fantasy/sci-fi books based on narratives traditions other than the Western tradition. I mentioned Lloyd Alexander's The Iron Ring, which is set in India, but we really couldn't think of many books where a strong non-Western tradition informed the story. So, I was excited by this book, because it is clearly inspired by Asian traditions. But, when I started thinking about it, I didn't have a strong impression of the characters as Asian. Which makes me wonder - to what extent is that my fault as a product of white privilege (characters in books, unless clearly denoted otherwise, default to white, because I, the reader, am white, and I assume that the characters look like me), and to what extent is that Goodman's fault in that she didn't denote the characters as Asian? Which, what more could she have done? I mean, the book is clearly set in an Asian background - why am I seeing Eon/a as white? So, question to ponder: how can an author denote a character as non-white without hammering the reader over the head with the character's non-whiteness? To what extent should the author be responsible for doing this anyway?

So, that got me pondering the gender tropes in the novel. Gender and gender identity are a big deal in this book. Eon/a is masquerading as a boy because the position she aspires to, Dragoneye, can only be held by a male. This, ultimately, becomes a major plot point, as Eon/a is forced to make a decision regarding her gender presentation - I think I can say that without spoiling anything. Beyond that, however (because "girl pretends to be boy" is an ancient plot device - look at Shakespeare, for instance), Eon/a interacts extensively with a eunuch, Ryko, who is recognized as serving a male role in society (forcing consideration of what it means to be male - how much of it is biology, and how much of it is performative?) and a transgendered individual, Lady Dela (a male to female trans). Dela forces Eon/a to confront her own sense of gender, and in the end (and, again, I hope this doesn't spoil anything) Eon/a is forced to make a decision between being Eon and being Eona. Dela's strong sense of who she is, regardless of biological gender, aids Eon/a in making her decision.

Dela, I think, is an excellent character. She's fully rendered, with a realistic approach to her situation. Goodman indicates that Dela has not merged seamlessly into the society she inhabits - she has been attacked for her nature. She also has Eon/a ask Dela if Dela has ever considered surgery (Dela has). Eon/a experiments (for magical reasons) with some drugs which enhance and/or diminish various elements of her gender identity (it's magic, and magic works differently depending on your gender in Goodman's world - this is internally consistent, even if I'm not explaining if properly). My overwhelming impression is that Goodman has done an excellent job depicting issues of gender, and transgender. Moreover, she has done it without making those aspects the entirety of the characters in question - these are fully realized people.

At least, that was what I thought when I finished the book. But my musings on racial identity forced me to wonder how well equipped I, a cisgendered male, am in assessing these things. So I went looking for a review from a transgenered point of view. I found this essay, which seems to agree with me re: Dela, but suggests that Eon/a is more troublesome, gender-wise. I'm not sure that I fully agree with the final assessment (that Eon/a plays with gender for reasons of convenience - I think it's deeper than that), but the essay gave me some food for thought. That being said, I remain convinced that Goodman has done something significant with her portrayal of Lady Dela. Dela doesn't quite approach the stage of being trans just because she's trans** - her transgendered nature serves the plot, and the character would not work in her role as anything other than trans - but it's certainly a good first step.

One significant complaint - the book doesn't end. Instead, it clearly leads into the sequel (Eona). However, since I really really want to read more, and since I know the sequel exists (I'm not going to be left hanging), I'm willing to forgive, just this once.

Highly recommended to anyone who likes really well written YA fantasy.

** We never ask "why is this character straight or white?" Indeed, we assume, unless otherwise indicated, that a character is straight and white, even if there is no clear reason to think so. Thus, the ideal situation, vis a vis a minority character, is for the reader to be willing to accept them as trans, or gay, or a person of colour, without wondering why they have been written that way. This, of course, requires a change on the part of the author/publisher, but also (and more difficult to achieve, I think) on the part of the reading public in general.

After two hefty novels which gave me deeply complex dreams and ponderings, I wanted something a little lighter, so I went with

John Sandford - Bad Blood

First up, a great big trigger warning on this book, and possibly the review - the book is about ritual sexual abuse, including rape and incest. There aren't significantly graphic presentations of this abuse, but there are several scenes with fairly hefty implications.  Those aren't things which a triggering for me, and I found places in the book where it was hard to continue. So, you have been warned.

Sandford, as you know, is a guilty pleasure of mine. The plots are fairly straightforward. The good guys are good - they sometimes bend the law a little (a judicious use of judicial wrangling to ensure that critical evidence ends up in the right place at the right time - that sort of thing), but they never break it completely. Plus, the bad guys are so clearly bad that some bending feels kosher. (even though, on an intellectual level, I register that it isn't.) Sandford doesn't push any of my personal buttons - his villains are villains for individual reasons, and not because they belong to a particular racial and/or religious group. That is, Sandford sometimes writes black villains, or gay villains, or Arabic villains, but they are villains because of what they do, not because they are black, gay, or Arabic. His cops seem willing to accept different genders, different sexual orientations, different races, and different religious views, provided that those elements don't get in the way of doing their job. His characters are reasonably well written, and the plots are hook-y enough that, if you like the sort of stories he's telling, you don't mind that the characters are only reasonably well written. I feel like I'm defending my literary choices - I guess I am. I know that the books are trashy; that's why I read them.

Anyway, Virgil "that fuckin'" Flowers is called in to look at a suspicious prison cell suicide, which turns into a multiple murder investigation, which uncovers a deep, and deeply sordid, local secret involving a local religious sect which uses sex in its idiosyncratic version of Christian worship. The whole thing ends, as this sort of story often does, with fire, and blood, and highly trained psychological counselors.

The only musing this book prompted was some thought on the nature of police procedurals, and the possibility that there are two sorts: one where we follow the detective as he plods through clues, and thus unravel the crime at the same rate as he does; and one where we, the readers, have a clearer sense of what's actually happening than the detective, and so we get to watch him piece the bits together in such a way that he arrives at the place that we've already seen. I know Sandford writes both kinds, and I greatly prefer the former type. This book was decidedly the latter, alas. That, and the dreadful subject matter, kinda left a bad taste in my mouth.

Finally, a rare graphic novel:

M.K. Reed and Johnathan Hill - Americus

This was a book clearly written more or less exactly for me. It tells the story of an attempt to remove a series of books from a small town library. The books tell the story of Apathea Ravenchilde, who is a witch. A conservative Christian group decide that the books are having a negative effect upon their children (with no evidence of this, naturally) and decide that they have to be removed from the library. The main plot focuses on this struggle, with Neal Barton (young reader, and library page) and Charlotte Murphy (youth librarian) organizing the champions of the library.

The book is also about Neal's transition into high school, without his best friend, who has been sent to military school because he is caught reading an Apathea Ravenchilde novel. Neal feels true to me - awkward teen in a somewhat foreign environment, trying to figure out who he is and how he will make his way in the world. Yeah, I identify with him.

The book also features snippets of the Apathea story. These, oddly enough, seem more realistically drawn than the drawings of "reality" - very interesting.

It's a black and white comic. The art is excellent, I found the lettering a little tough to read, but that may have been the light and the tired conspiring against me. A great book for anyone working on growing up (especially if they are awkward teens who like to read fantasy), and anyone who loves libraries. Here's a poster that Hill and Reed did for Banned Book Week - you can find the original here:

That would be Apathea on the left, and Neal on the right. Just, you know, FYI.

Look at that - it's only just 11 pm, and I'm done. I can post reviews on a Friday, I really really can!