Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday Library Post, 8/19/2011

Three books this week. Incidentally, I go back to work in a couple of weeks, so my reading will probably drop off a little then. Such is life.

J.D. Robb - Conspiracy in Death

This is part of Robb's (aka Nora Roberts) "in Death" series. It's set in the near future (which is a problem), and follows the exploits of Lieutenant Eve Dallas, of the New York Police. In this book, Dallas tackles a serial killer who is harvesting organs from street people.

I had read the first (for me) of this series, Holiday in Death, during one of my research trips, earlier this summer. It was a trashy book, but somewhat better, I thought, than the other ones I was reading that week. This week, this book sort of pales in comparison to what else I've been reading, and it feels especially trashy. It was a fun read, and I don't want to put you off of the book, or the series - just go in knowing that it's not high literature, and you may want something deeper to clean your palate afterwards.

I had two problems with the book. First, Roberts writes romance novels, and she doesn't want to totally lose her romance audience in these books. As a result, every couple of chapters culminates in a steamy sex scene between Dallas and her husband, Rourke (just one name, like Madonna). That begins to feel a little excessive by the end of the book. Also, I don't know Roberts' romance novels, but I'm beginning to wonder if she dances on the edge of the whole "it's not rape if you enjoyed it after" romance trope - several of the sex scenes felt a little non-consensual at the beginning, although Dallas gets into them before they're done. Rourke seems to think that a roll in the hay is always good for what ails Dallas, and Robb seems to agree - it's a little off putting.

My second problem is that the book is set in the near future - but it was written in the recent past (1999). So some of the stuff that Robb presents as fabulously future-y ... isn't, so much. Further, it's clear that Robb doesn't have a particularly rosy view of human nature. In the future, there are still street people in New York. People are still doing the same drugs (with different names). Politics are the same (Liberals v. Conservatives, over the same issues, using the same tactics). It's a little depressing, frankly.

That being said, as I said above, I don't want to put you off. It was a perfectly fine book, all things considered, and I'll be grabbing another when I head out for research in the future.

Trevanian - Shibumi

By contrast, we have this book, which I do want to put you off of. A little background. Trevanian is apparently something of a celebrity, publishing under a pseudonym (one name, like Madonna - it's a theme!) in such a wide variety of genres that some people speculated that the name was actually a cover for a consortium of authors. It turns out, no, Trevanian was actually Rodney Whitaker, a professor of film studies at the University of Texas, Austin. At least, when he published his first two novels. His wiki is here. The thing which isn't in the wiki is the fact that Dr. Whitaker was a huge pompous ass.

Ok, that needs some support. The novel is about Nicholai Hel, this super assassin who works for anyone willing to pay to eliminate terrorists. Hel is a huge pompous ass - although Russian-German by birth, he's Japanese by upbringing, and it's clear that he doesn't think that any other nation comes close to Japan as a worthwhile place to live. He's cold, he uses people, he's an altogether unpleasant person. Ok, I can see him as an anti-hero, perhaps, and it's not fair of me to accuse Trevanian of being an ass just because his character is an ass. Trevanian could just have written a really good ass of a character - that would make him a good writer, not an ass.

No, what marks Trevanian as an ass is this rich little footnote:

In the course of this book, Nicholai Hel will avail himself of the tactics of Naked/Kill*, but these will never be described in detail. In an early book, the author portrayed a dangerous ascent of a mountain. In the process of converting this novel into a vapid film, a fine young climber was killed. In a later book, the author detailed a method for stealing paintings from any well-guarded museum. Shortly after the Italian version of this book appeared, three paintings were stolen in Milan by the exact method described, and two of these were irreparably mutilated.Simple social responsibility now dictates that he avoid exact descriptions of tactics and events which, although they might be of interest to a handful of readers, might contribute to the harm done to (and by) the uninitiated. 
In a similar vein, the author shall keep certain advanced sexual techniques in partial shadow, as they might be dangerous, and would certainly be painful, to the neophyte.
*Hel can kill people using anything. At one point, he kills a bunch of people with a comb, a plastic cup and a magazine.

So, the author is an ass. The hero is an ass as well. That's not, perhaps, enough to warn you away from this book. How about this - the book was published in 1979, and it has not aged well. The use of giant mainframe computers with punch cards, for instance. Interesting, perhaps, as a historical artifact. The attitudes are painful too - the casual misogyny (the violence towards women is unnecessary, and contributes nothing to the plot), and the casual antisemitism (both against Jews and Arabs; also not necessary to the plot). The bizarre cultural chauvenism (Hel is totally focused on Japanese culture and how it is superior to all other cultures - but he's not Japanese - he's a white guy who is more Japanese than the Japanese - cultural appropriation? Racism? A little of both? Hard to say.) The long section describing caving in the Basque mountains - purely to set up a later description of caving with evil evil bad guys in the background later. The use of foreign language without translation or gloss. I dunno - by that point, the whole book was setting my teeth on edge. I finished it, but I didn't like it much, and I won't be reading any more by Trevanian.

I did like one of his characters, Bernard Le Cagot, a Basque poet and freedom fighter. Le Cagot swore, colourfully, on the various balls of Catholic saints - the perforated balls of St. Stephen, the four balls of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, by the perfidious balls of Judas - like that. It was an endearing thing. I'd read more about Le Cagot, perhaps.

Charles Stross - Rule 34

No sign of WWII propaganda posters. Oh well. This was a perfect antidote to Trevanian. Stross is a smart guy, but he doesn't seem forced to prove it to his readers quite as forcefully as Trevanian. So that was nice.

It's a murder mystery. It's set a little way into the future - it's not clear quite how far into the future, but not too far, maybe a decade or two. Like Robb, Stross seems to have a dim view of human nature - folks are still up to the same sort of fiscal shenanegans - but he posits that, at some point between now and then, we get our act together and start prosecuting ethics violations by businesses. So that's nice. The mystery involves internet memes, and porn (that's clear from the title, you may recall), and spam. It sort of follows Halting State, in that it's set in the same version of futureEdinburgh, where everyone uses virtual reality all the time, and the cops use it to do their jobs better. I like the future Stross presents, it appeals.

Something that starts out a little off putting, but eventually fades into the background - Stross has written the book entirely in 2nd person - "you, your, you've," etc. There are multiple points of view, but it's "you" all the way through. At first, that feels a little odd, but you get used to it.

A satisfying police procedural. I figured out the murderer before the end, which is nice, but the joy of a police procedural is that you get to watch the cops figure it out, through intuition and good research. Stross does the genre proud. I think it is likely he will re-visit Edinburgh in the (near) future, and I'll take that trip with him when he does.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Many Things for Thursday

First up, I'd like to point you to this post by Juliet McKenna on the Representation of Women in Fantasy. McKenna is an outstanding fantasy author who has no problem doing unspeakable things to her characters. She clearly operates under the Bujold theory of writing, which is "think of the worst thing you could possibly do to your character, then do that, and watch them wriggle out of it. Then think of the next worst thing, and do that..." McKenna is out promoting a new book, doing the blog tour thing. I've found her books somewhat hard to find in local libraries - not sure why, although perhaps the fact that she's British and thus doesn't do much promotion here in the States has something to do with it. I own her first series - The Tales of Einarinn - and it's lovely.

Why, you may ask, am I so interested in the issue of women in speculative fiction? Three reasons, basically. One, a better representation of women in the genre that I like makes for better stories for me to read. Two, I have two daughters, one of whom reads speculative fiction (the other of which is only 7 months old, and so doesn't read anything yet), and I want them both to be exposed to strong and realistic female characters in the fiction they read, to make up for  the lack (or, ideally, to support the existence) of strong female figures in the non-fiction they may encounter. Three, my dissertation topic focuses on the political actions of women at the end of WWII - I am basically interested in stories of strong women where ever I find them.

Second thing. The Help - I reviewed it a while back, it's currently on Amazon's best seller list (because of the movie which has just come out), I enjoyed it a lot, and I know several of you enjoyed it too. The Association of Black Women Historians would like to remind us all that The Help is a work of fiction:

An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help:
On behalf of the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), thisstatement provides historical context to address widespread stereotypingpresented in both the film and novel version of The Help. The book hassold over three million copies, and heavy promotion of the movie willensure its success at the box office. Despite efforts to market the bookand the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, TheHelp distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domesticworkers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of blacklife and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rightsactivism.
During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation andeconomic inequalities limited black women's employment opportunities. Upto 90 per cent of working black women in the South labored as domesticservants in white homes. The Help's representation of these women is adisappointing resurrection of Mammy-a mythical stereotype of black womenwho were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve whitefamilies. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites,the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemicracism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs whereemployers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recentiteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for thedays when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House ratherthan reside in it.
Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech andculture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to achild-like, over-exaggerated "black" dialect. In the film, for example,the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, "Youis smat, you is kind, you is important." In the book, black women refer tothe Lord as the "Law," an irreverent depiction of black vernacular. Forcenturies, black women and men have drawn strength from their communityinstitutions. The black family, in particular provided support and thevalidation of personhood necessary to stand against adversity. We do notrecognize the black community described in The Help where most of theblack male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Suchdistorted images are misleading and do not represent the historicalrealities of black masculinity and manhood.
Furthermore, African American domestic workers often suffered sexualharassment as well as physical and verbal abuse in the homes of whiteemployers. For example, a recently discovered letter written by CivilRights activist Rosa Parks indicates that she, like many black domesticworkers, lived under the threat and sometimes reality of sexual assault.The film, on the other hand, makes light of black women's fears andvulnerabilities turning them into moments of comic relief.
Similarly, the film is woefully silent on the rich and vibrant history ofblack Civil Rights activists in Mississippi. Granted, the assassination ofMedgar Evers, the first Mississippi based field secretary of the NAACP,gets some attention. However, Evers' assassination sends Jackson's blackcommunity frantically scurrying into the streets in utter chaos anddisorganized confusion-a far cry from the courage demonstrated by theblack men and women who continued his fight. Portraying the most dangerousracists in 1960s Mississippi as a group of attractive, well dressed,society women, while ignoring the reign of terror perpetuated by the KuKlux Klan and the White Citizens Council, limits racial injustice toindividual acts of meanness.
We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses inthis film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of theirtalent. It is, however, an attempt to provide context for this popularrendition of black life in the Jim Crow South. In the end, The Help is nota story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women wholabored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather,it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths aboutthe lives of black women to make sense of her own. The Association ofBlack Women Historians finds it unacceptable for either this book or thisfilm to strip black women's lives of historical accuracy for the sake ofentertainment.
Ida E. Jones is National Director of ABWH and Assistant Curator at HowardUniversity. Daina Ramey Berry, Tiffany M. Gill, and Kali Nicole Gross areLifetime Members of ABWH and Associate Professors at the University ofTexas at Austin. Janice Sumler-Edmond is a Lifetime Member of ABWH and isa Professor at Huston-Tillotson University.
Suggested Reading:Fiction:Like one of the Family: Conversations from A Domestic's Life, Alice ChildressThe Book of the Night Women by Marlon JamesBlanche on the Lam by Barbara NeeleyThe Street by Ann PetryA Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
Non-Fiction:Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the PlantationHousehold by Thavolia GlymphTo Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors by Tera HunterLabor of Love Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, fromSlavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones Living In, Living Out: AfricanAmerican Domestics and the Great Migration by Elizabeth Clark-LewisComing of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
Any questions, comments, or interview requests can be sent>
It is, of course, possible to respond to this statement with indignation - "I really liked the book, how can you say such mean things about it" - but that is unproductive, I think. Ideally, if you enjoyed the book, it should make you interested in looking at other representations of the period in question. To that end, I am glad that the ABWH has provided some additional reading, both fiction and non-fiction.

Final thing:

From my facebook friends list over the weekend:

Oh, wait, one more thing! Here's this thing about independent book stores, thriving in this painfully thin economy. Couple of thoughts - the article is spot on about starting book groups in big box stores. My wife and I organized a small group in our local big box, back in VA. Despite enthusiastic buy in from one of the PR folks, and the fact that my wife worked in the store, we never got signs, we couldn't guarantee access to a space to meet, there was no official recognition, or support (no 20% off the book the group is reading, or anything like that). Bah. Second - my parents just did a book promotion thing. (Did I mention that my parents have written a book? They totally did - Chinese Characters, a collection of informative e-mails from their year teaching in China. It's pretty cool!) They couldn't get access to big box stores, but our little local bookstore gave them space, put books on the shelves, advertised the event - it was a good time! Independent bookstores for the win!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hickey of the Beast Wednesday, 8/17/2011

(This is a link)

Chapter 23

Plot plot plot...

Connie figures out that her younger brother, Julio, is having the same dreams she is, more or less (which, I think, we all figured out several chapters ago, but we have the excuse of not being recently awakened from scary dreams ourselves, so...). The images are geared down to his level, and he isn't seeing real people, but he registers a cloud which is eating people. Connie calms him down:

 Police are there to make sure nothing bad happens to people. And being eaten is bad, right?" He nodded. "So there you go. Nobody's getting eaten. That cloud's just your mind showing you a scary movie. That's all." I stroked his hair, and held up the other hand Boy Scout style. "I promise, if anything's out there trying to eat people, someone will make it stop."
That part was, well, more or less true. I would've felt a lot better if "someone" hadn't been me, though.
Isn't that the point, though? I mean, isn't that what growing up is all about - the idea that, eventually, the "someone" who has to do something - wash the dishes, scrub the floor, take out the trash, kill the incubus - that "someone" is just as likely to be you as it is anyone else? Being grown up means killing your own incubi.

Also note that Connie's history teacher is, btw, a lesbian in a committed relationship with kids. Izzy slips that in as a total aside, because she's cool like that.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Monday Library Post, 8/15/2011

Three books today.

Jasper Fforde - One of our Thursdays is Missing

Fforde is a very odd man and he writes very odd novels. This is part of the Thursday Next series, and, beyond that, I know nothing - I grabbed it because I already know I like Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next.

Paolo Bacigalupi - Ship Breaker

I've tried a couple of Bacigalupi's books before, and for some reason I never finish them before they're due back. This is a YA novel, so maybe I'll be able to finish it in time. Bacigalupi writes in a post-apocalyptic world where bio-engineered foods have resulted in a world wide famine. This book is about people living on the fringes of society in Texas, making a living by busting up ships that drift in to shore from the Gulf of Mexico. His books tend to be depressing musings on human nature under considerable pressure.

Charles Stross - Rule 34

Rule 34: On the internet, if you can imagine it, there is porn for it. (that link, btw, is totally Safe For Work - it goes to an xkcd comic) In 2023, Liz Kavenaugh of the Edinburgh police department works with the Innovative Crime Investigation Unit - or the Rule 34 Squad - which keeps track of internet memes to see if people are getting up to actual illegal stuff. It's a murder mystery on the internet. Stross is good at these, so I'm looking forward to it. And I'm watching for a reference to this poster, which he swears he hasn't included in every book he writes...