Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saturday Review Post, 1/28/2012

Two books this week.

Steven Brust - Iorich

Thursday or Friday last week, Amazon sent me the copy of this I had ordered (for 12th Night, sort of). Tor has clearly decided not to publish further editions of the Vlad Taltos in mass market paperback, so this is a Trade Paperback, which means it doesn't match my existing collection, which is surprisingly distressing, while not really being that important. Also, not to judge a book by it's cover, but this has the same sort of rubbery feel as Dark Jenny, which I reviewed several months ago. As with that book, I did get used to the feeling of the cover while reading, but it bugged me every time I picked up the book.

Ok. All that aside, the book was really quite good. It picks up sometime after Dzur. Vlad returns to Dragaera City when he learns that Aliera has been arrested. His efforts to get her acquitted plunge him into a complex plot to subvert the Empire. Meantime, he's busy dodging assassins who are still trying to kill him.

None of the big issues of the series are resolved. Vlad and Cawti have some civil conversations, and Vlad gets to know his son a little better, but there isn't a simple way even beginning to find a way of fixing that mess without there being a way of fixing the mess with the Jhereg, and there probably isn't a way of fixing that second mess. The novel begins with Vlad on the run, and it ends with Vlad on the run. The Empress owes him a favor, but cannot help with his significant problem. We still do not know what happened to Vlad's finger, even.

That being said, all of the issues within the novel are resolved. Brust presents an interesting legal drama twined around some political issues. There seems to be some gentle propagandizing about the nature of war - could be a reference to Vietnam, could be a reference to Iraq, could just be musing on the nature of war, it's really hard to tell sometimes. If you already feel that Brust is too political, you probably won't like this - but then, you probably stopped reading several books back anyway, right?

This book is somewhat less fun than some of the books set, chronologically, earlier in the series. At the same time, it's nowhere near as sad as, say, Teckla - about even, really. There are some nice jokes within the text - and Brust ends the book with a series of "deleted scenes" - snippets of dialog, mostly, positing how the book would be different if written in different styles. The scenes conclude with a snippet in the tone of Paarfi, which is both spot on and absolutely hilarious.

This is not the book to read if you are just starting the series - it assumes a certain familiarity with the characters and their various back stories.

Jill Lepore - A is For American

I've reviewed one of Lepore's works earlier - The Whites of their Eyes - and so, when I saw this book at the book fair, I knew I would like it. I was right. Lepore explores issues of language in the United States, mostly before the Civil War. There was considerable interest, prior to 1860, to create some sort of unifying language which would paper over the divisions between North and South. (and, by "prior to 1860", I mean "from the 1780s on" - this wasn't a last ditch effort to unify the country, it was a lasting movement to respond to well known tensions.) Lepore discusses that, and also various ways in which language is used to define a culture - either to bring that culture more in line with the dominant culture of the region, or to set a minority culture more solidly apart.

Lepore presents Noah Webster (who wrote the American dictionary), Samuel Morse (inventor of the telegraph and Morse code), William Thornton (who tried to invent a universal alphabet, which would allow all languages to be learned by all people) Sequoya (who developed a syllabary for the Cherokee language - not quite an alphabet, but a collection of symbols for the various sounds in Cherokee - a non-universal language), Thomas Galludet (who introduced French sign language to the United States - and who was convinced that sign language was the "natural" language of humanity; the common means of communication which would unite all people and bring about the Millenium), Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima (who used his knowledge of Arabic to win his freedom from slavery), and Alexander Graham Bell (who, while promoting his father's "Visible Speech", ended up inventing the telephone). All of these men, Lepore suggests, are linked through their thinking about language, what it is for, and where it comes from.

The book is scholarly, with extensive footnotes and considerable evidence of research. At the same time, it is written in an accessible style - I think that the educated layman could easily handle this book. My only complaint is that, in her concluding chapter, Lepore makes what feels like a clumsy attempt to connect the rest of the book to the current moment, with a discussion of the Graffiti alphabet designed to help people write on Palm PDA computers. In 2002, when the book was published, Palm PDAs were state of the art - they aren't anymore, and so the Epilogue dates the book a little. More, though, it feels tacked on, and unnecessary. Other than that, an excellent book. Scraps of it have already started showing up in my lectures.