Monday, May 21, 2012

Monday Review Post, 5/21/2012

So, last week there were a series of very good reasons why I couldn't go to the library on Monday. This week, there's a series of very good reasons why Tuesday makes a better library day. Next week, Monday is Memorial Day, and the libraries are closed. So what I'm thinking is, I start too many sentences with "so". And, also, that Tuesday makes a perfectly legitimate library day for the summer. Also also, if I move Review Day to Monday, I'm actually covering everything I've read for the actual week, so I'm going to try that for a change, and we'll see how that goes.

With that in mind, I give you the following reviews:

Gary Younge - Who Are We? And Should it Matter in the 21st Century?

The answer to Younge's first question is "That's complicated." and to the second is "Yes, of course, possible more so than previously."

This was a fascinating book about how human beings build their identities around issues of class, race, gender, and nationality. Younge talks about growing up Barbadian in England, about the rules for being officially Jewish in Israel, about why Barack Obama's election caused such a reaction on both the Right and the Left in the US (and elsewhere), and why young men who were Manchester United fans, who enjoy fish and chips, speak English, and have long family histories in England were willing to take explosives onto the Underground in London and blow themselves up. There's a lot more in the book, but that's a pretty good taste, I think. That's why the first question is complicated - there's a LOT there. For instance, Younge looks at the 2008 election in the US - the primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. There, there was a conflict between race as a primary identifier and gender as a primary identifier.  Younge looks at the difficult question for black women - should they vote with their gender, or with their race, or was the question entirely irrelevant? He traces the dilemma back to the late 1860s, when there was considerable public debate over the 15th amendment to the US Constitution, which granted the right to vote to black men (but not women of any race). Some women suffragettes contended that it was more important to give the vote to women (regardless of race - they contended that it would be better for Irish women and Black women to be able to vote than Irish men or Black men.) Some Black suffragests (which isn't, apparently, a word) contended that it was more important for all Blacks, regardless of gender, to get the vote (that the vote was as important to Black women as Black men, but because they were Black, not because they were women.) It's really really complicated - and it still plays out in politics now - so the answer to Younge's second question seems fairly obvious.

The book is a very "thinky" book which has already prompted a couple of very very interesting discussions with friends.  It's not a particularly preachy book - Younge doesn't tell his readers how they ought to think about identity - their own or others - beyond stating that they ought to think about identity. He does provide a useful tip for those wondering if a friend is gay or not - assume they are, because straight people will quickly make it clear that they are not (by talking about girl/boy friends, showing you pictures, etc). Basically, let other people define and reveal their own identity. In instances where outside forces attempt to define identity on a broad scale (as with the issue of "official" Judaism in Israel, or the nature of "French-ness"), problems arise.

As a book, the book is really well written. Younge includes enough academic rigor to satisfy the educated reader, but writes with a clear prose that the lay reader will be able to digest, with the notable exception of the introduction, which is a little dense, and filled with academic jargon. I think you can skip the intro if it seems off-putting.

Basically, this book will enliven your dinner parties, and you should really read it. And get your friends to read it too, so that you have something to talk about.

Ally Carter - I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You

(Long titles this week) I'm cheating, because I grabbed this last week, but it was SO fluffy that I had to read it right away. It's a boarding school novel, and it's a spy novel - it's James Bond meets Enid Blighton - it's delightful, very cute, and very very fluffy.

Carter does a fantastic job of marrying the very light genre of the boarding school novel (which is all about being a young woman away from home, with your friends who are also young women away from home, and falling in love with boys who don't go to your school, and giggling and pillow fights. Except there are no pillow fights. Animal House lied to us.) and the somewhat darker genre of the spy novel, which is all about identity, and hidden identity, and not being who you say you are, or think you are (see, it's all connected!), and not being sure if you can trust people that you really ought to be able to trust. On some level, the boarding school novel is about discovering who you are, and the spy novel is about hiding who you are, and the pairing really works quite well. (Kinda like boarding school novels and light horror - Hickey of the Beast?)

That being said, the book is really very fluffy - a quick afternoon's read with a little bit more thinking than perhaps you might initially expect.

Andrew Lane - Rebel Fire (Sherlock Holmes: The Legend Begins)

(I'm forcing the "long title" thing here a little.) Lane has been authorized by the Doyle family to write a series of novels about the young Sherlock Holmes. I know I've mentioned this before. His theory is that Sherlock could not have had a normal childhood, because the character as described by Doyle is clearly badly damaged. As Holmes says of himself (in the modernized version, Sherlock), he's a high functioning sociopath. Lane shows us how Sherlock gets damaged.

With that in mind, this book has some fairly hefty trigger warnings. There's a gruesome death scene midway through. The villain has a thing about leaches which is really kinda creepy. There are several scenes of fairly significant peril involving large animals and drowning. And, remember, Sherlock, as described by Doyle, is a pretty dark guy, with a strong tendency towards depression and, consequently, drug use. In this novel, we see all of that (well, no drug use) - damage, depression, and darkness. Also, Sherlock learns to play the violin.

Again, this is a book about identity - about growing up and figuring how you fit into the world, and pondering if you WANT to fit into the world. What is important - friends, family, nation - humanity? Like Carter's novel, this book is surprisingly deep.

It's also delightfully cinematic. I recently heard an interview with Stephen Moffat (who is one of the writer/producers of Sherlock) in which he argued that Holmes was perfect for television - Doyle conceived of a series of episodic short stories; complete by themselves, but containing and being contained by an over arching storyline. Lane takes this a step further - the action is remarkably suited to the screen, and I can't wait - it's almost inevitable.

To that end, I have a treat (if I can figure out how to make it work) - a representative of Macmillan Press contacted me to offer me a short clip of the audio book, with permission to pass that on to you, my tens of readers. The audio clip is pretty nice too, good voice actor, nice accents, I can easily conceive of listening to the whole book read by this reader, possibly while on a road trip. It's the prologue, so it's not going to spoil anything. It does feature a leach, so if that sort of thing freaks you out, maybe don't listen to it.
This link should take you to the Audio File. Please do let me know if you can't access the file.
(I should say, incidentally, for legal reasons, that my review has not been affected by this largess in anyway.)

Jenny Lawson - Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Jenny Lawson is better known as The Bloggess - she blogs here - and this is her first book. It's part memoir, and part compilation of blog posts, and it's all amazingly hilarious. But, be warned, it's the sort of hilarious where, if you laugh at it (and you can't not laugh at it - I challenge you to try), you're going to hell. Well, probably not immediately, though.

Lawson has become internet famous by leveraging her unique style of describing her life on line. Her style is highly confessional, and displays a tendency to deliberately misinterpret what people are saying, for humorous effect. Oh, and to over react to things, and to spin things into lengthy stories.  Lawson is often the butt of her own stories, which takes the sting out of her snark a little (which it needs, because Lawson's snark is powerful strong). She bring all of that and more to her book, which is why, when the library told me this book had arrived on Saturday, I had to drop the serious academic book I was reading, and read this instead, because I knew the book was going to be AWESOME. And it is.

The book is about a whole bunch of things:

swimming squirrels
leukemia, and how Lawson may or may not be dying from it*
growing up in rural West Texas
drug use
child birth and child rearing
getting married
a very happy wild boar, and
(among other things) how and how not to send pictures of your penis to your co-workers.

Mostly, though, this book is about identity. See, it's ALL connected! This is a book about growing up, figuring out who you are, deciding which bits of your seriously fucked up (Lawson swears. A lot. This is a warning) childhood you want to keep and which you don't. It's about figuring out how you fit into the world, and about how you don't fit, and about how you want to change to fit, and how you don't want to fit enough to change important parts of who you are. It's about discovering that women are not necessarily scary. And it's about cougars. The whole book is written in Lawson's delightfully scatty style, and it WILL make you laugh. Parts of it will probably also make you cry. Some parts will make you cringe in recognition, or in sympathy, or both. Parts of it may well be difficult to read - there are a plethora of potential triggers in this book, because Lawson is presenting large swathes of her life to her readers, more or less unfiltered, and some of it is pretty raw. In a lot of ways, Lawson is as damaged a person as Sherlock, and, like Sherlock, she has developed skills to work around her damage. Just like we all do, really. (Yes, I do believe I just compared Jenny Lawson to Sherlock Holmes...)

Anyway, the book is remarkable - a deeply emotional, and deeply satisfying, book. There are probably bits that you will like a great deal, and those will almost certainly make up for the bits you don't like as much (if they exist.) In a lot of ways, this may well be the best book I read this week.

*spoiler - she isn't.

That's it for this week, but watch this space for a contest announcement, and tomorrow's library post.