Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Review, 11/11/11

Illness abounds in the Timonin household, and it's playing merry hob with my schedule. Also, it's that point in the semester when everything goes out the window (strange - when I was a student, I thought it was just students that felt that way, but clearly I was wrong). Frankly, the only thing that is getting this post out on time is the fact that it's 11/11/11, and how could I resist a post with that date stamp?

I suppose I could post a place holder for the cachet, but that would be cheating, right?

So. Three books this week.

Tamora Pierce - Mastiff

This is the third, and last, of the Beka Cooper novels. (I suppose it's possible that Pierce will return to the Cooper setting in a future book or series of books - let's say, this is the last of this particular trilogy.) Wait, though. I don't think I've reviewed a Pierce yet, have I? No, I haven't! What fun!

Tamora Pierce writes YA fiction. She's been writing YA fiction since before there WAS YA fiction, starting with the Alanna the Lioness series. She features strong female characters, often working in a tightly restricted male world. Also, she is brilliant. If you are not yet familiar with her work, I strongly encourage you to go, as soon as possible, and read some. Alanna is pretty cool, but clearly an early work - it lacks polish in some places. The Defender of the Small quartet is better (except you need to read Alanna first), and the two Circle of Magic quartets are excellent - I'm reading those to the big kid right now.

The Beka Cooper books are set in the past of the Alanna/Defender of the Small books, and follow the adventures of Beka Cooper, one Provost's "Dog" - basically, a police officer. Beka has some small magic - she can talk to ghosts - which she uses to help her investigate murders. The trilogy follows Beka from her beginnings as a trainee through this book, which presents Beka at the midpoint of her career. The books are written as Beka's diary, which has some ... issues. Like an epistolary novel, a novel framed as a diary is a step removed from the action. Everything is reported after the fact. In some instances, the action is presented long after the fact - days, even - which Pierce covers by having Beka trained in memory retention. Which is, admittedly, a useful thing for a police officer.

This novel, I should say, is not a good place to enter the trilogy - Terrier is the first one. That being said, this novel follows Beka, her scent hound, and her friends as they track down a gang of slavers who have kidnapped the royal prince. It's a police procedural novel, mostly, and it's exactly the sort I like - where the reader knows exactly as much as the detective - delicious! Pierce presents delightfully complex characters and a very pleasing romance. A completely satisfying conclusion to the trilogy - if there are no more books from this perspective, I am entirely happy (although I would be just as happy for there to be more!).

Frances Fox Piven - Who's Afraid of Frances Fox Piven?

Piven is an historian teaching at City University in New York (CUNY). During the 1960s and '70s, she was closely associated with the Poor People's Rights movement, and articulated a political theory about why poor people riot. Recently, she has been cast into the limelight by Glenn Beck (and may that be the only time I write his name here. Bleh) because of a proposition she made in the '70s - that everyone eligible for welfare should apply for welfare en masse, thus showing the instability of the welfare system, and hopefully result in some sort of guaranteed income policy. Beck (sorry) presented this proposition as a) current and b) a plan to destabilize the US economy, ushering in an era of anti-capitalist anarchy (which, sometimes, doesn't sound so bad). Piven responded to her sudden fame/infamy by publishing a collection of her various essays on economic inequality.

On the one hand, I'd love to say "if you want to understand what is happening with the Occupy Wall Street movement, read Piven." A lot of what she says makes sense. It is difficult to organize the poor in any society, because they are not, by nature, a cohesive group. Unlike, say, workers in a factory, you cannot organize them around their work place; nor can they be organized around a common shared experience, like military vets. Instead, Piven argues, the poor need to be shaped into brief moments of rebellion to shock the system - or, rather, the poor tend to rally themselves into brief moments of rebellion, when they, as a class, can be convinced that their misfortune a) has a clear cause and b) can be reversed through direct action. That - a moment in which direction action can reverse widespread misfortune - is what is happening right now. I'd love to say that it would be easy to see this if you read Piven - and, perhaps it would, assuming that you read fluent academicese. Because most of Piven's most fascinating work is written for a very specific audience - an audience of historians and political scientists - and so it's dense, and full of jargon. I must confess that I gutted* a lot of the book, like a well trained graduate student.

More recently, Piven has contributed to The Nation magazine, and those articles are far more accessible, and pertinent. Here is one of her articles for The Nation, from early this year - it's in the book, but you can read it online. So, I can say "if you want to understand what's happening with Occupy Wall Street, read Piven" - just not, necessarily, this book.

*graduate students of the humanities are often expected to read and discuss 3-5 lengthy academic texts a week, in addition to teaching classes and having lives. This is difficult or impossible. Thus, graduates "gut" books - they read the intro and conclusion, and then aggressively skim the material within the book, reading paragraphs which catch their eye, but not the whole work. Ideally, in discussion, different students have noticed different things in the work, and thus the book is reconstructed. Some academic authors clearly write their works in such a way that gutting is easily accomplished - spelling out in the intro and conclusion what, exactly, they thought they had proved, and including bold section titles throughout the chapters so that readers can quickly see what the important points are. Other authors write such compelling prose that gutting is acutely difficult - many times, I have found myself engrossed in a work that I really need to be done with so that I can move onto the next one. Yet other authors write such dry, dull prose, and bury their points so effectively, that even the closest reading cannot tease out meaning. Those books are the worst.

Jim Butcher - White Night

I'm midway through the Harry Dresden books. I've reviewed a couple of these earlier. The series invites a certain amount of skipping around - Butcher is skilled at presenting enough background material that new readers don't feel the need to read everything which proceeds, yet not in such a way that existing readers feel like they are reading the same book over and over. This book is set towards the end, perhaps, of the war between the Wizard's Council and the Vampire Courts. Dresden is called in to investigate a series of suicides which might not be suicides, and finds himself dealing with some old enemies.

Butcher, perhaps, is writing himself into a corner here. Dresden is amassing power from book to book, which means that his enemies must also have a great deal of power (or else we can't believe them), and his allies must also be extremely powerful (or else they are not much help). Eventually, this becomes ludicrous - Dresden and his enemies and his allies will become like unto gods, and combat between them will shatter worlds - that would be boring. So, I suspect, in future books, Dresden will find himself battling political issues more and more - which, actually, I kinda like in a book. In this one, though, he's just fighting really powerful bad guys, and that's pretty cool too.

Butcher is playing with the idea of power, though. At what point does Dresden cease to be human? What does it mean to be human, anyway? It is often difficult to tell who the monsters are in Butcher's books - and that, I think, is what keeps me coming back for more. I like complex books, I like complex characters, and I also like the whole over the top power struggle that Butcher writes so very well.