Monday, December 08, 2003

By only 29 pages into the 176-page (159-page if you don't count the bibliography) The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance, I was convinced that every American old enough to read should read this book. It shows how unpatriotic the so-called Patriot Act really is, making a good case that it goes against everything the founders of the United States intended in the U.S. Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights, and gives the opinions of both current Republican and Democratic politicians on the erosion of fundamental American liberties caused by this supposed anti-terrorism measure (passed a month after September 11, 2001, when it was a rare Congressperson who dared vote against anything labeled "anti-terrorism," if they'd even had a chance to read the proposed legislation through). Nat Hentoff's tone is not anti-Republican or even anti-Bush so much as anti-John Ashcroft, the Attorney General who seems to want to return the American government's investigation tactics to those practiced by J. Edgar Hoover. Ashcroft's 2002 guidelines for the Department of Justice include such scary thought policing as "The nature of the conduct engaged in by a [terrorist] enterprise will justify the inference at the standard [for opening a criminal intelligence investigation] is satisfied, even if there are no known statements by participants that advocate or indicate planning for violence or other prohibited acts." So, he's encouraging investigation of organizations that have never advocated or planned violence, based on what -- a Oujia board? This is not fighting to preserve American freedoms; this is chipping away at them until only a shell eventually remains. Terror from outside the U.S. will be replaced by terror from the government of the U.S.

No matter what your political views, you should be aware of what government is doing and make your views known if you do not agree with it. (As Thomas Jefferson said in the quotation used at The War on the Bill of Rights' beginning, "The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive...") This book will help with anyone's awareness of what is happening; whether or not you agree with the Bush Administration's other actions, you may find something in here that bothers you.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Wow. I wasn't all that far into The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices when I started thinking that: "Wow." The author of the book, Xinran, hosted a Chinese radio program, "Words on the Night Wind," for several years, focusing on what it was like to be a woman in China. Life is likely difficult enough for any journalist in China, with the extreme care necessary not to cross Chinese Communist Party doctrime; Xinran says it is one of the professions with the lowest life expectancy in China up there with police officer and chemical engineer. But despite being hemmed around by rules, she was able to collect amazing stories of women in situations no one else wanted to talk about. Women watching their children die in buildings collapsed in an earthquake. Women who scavenge junk and live in shanties constructed of these found materials. Lesbians in a country where homosexuality is "a forbidden subject under media regulations." Women driven to madness by interrogations and mistreatment based on who their parents or grandparents were, and women who survived similar mistreatment with no external change. Parents separated from children and lovers from one another because of Communist Party decrees. University students and fashionable businesswomen who live near-Westernized lives but still deal with men who apply old-fashioned standards in sizing up a woman. Arranged marriages, child sexual abuse, religion, poverty -- it's astounding how many issues are touched on in fifteen chapters, each telling one woman's story except for the final one which focuses on women's conditions in the tiny rural village of Shouting Hill, where people live in caves in the side of the hill and women use (and re-use) leaves for sanitary napkins.

Xinran moved to England in 1997 with "the idea that I might find a way of describing the lives of Chinese women to people in the West." She and translator Esther Tyldesley have done an impressive job of that, showing both the samenesses and differences, and I think as many people as possible should hear these stories.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

I was a little concerned about whether my stomach could take reading Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. In fact, I probably wouldn't have checked it out on my own, despite my general love of detailed histories of things you don't normally think about. It was my boyfriend who borrowed it from the library (once the waiting list got down to him) and read aloud a few amusing bits (particularly the footnotes -- we both love authors who go off on tangents in footnotes). So once he'd finished the whole book, I picked it up, and found that it was a fascinating, fairly easy read, with only a few slightly stomach-turning passages. (Though I did abandon it temporarily when it was time to have lunch, preferring The Life and Death of Peter Sellers by Roger Lewis as companionship for my meal.) As a devoted reader of social histories of locations and medical fields, much of the historical material in Stiff was somewhat familiar; it was the current information on the many research and teaching, as well as life-saving, uses for donated bodies and the increasing number of modern ways to return the elements of a body to the environment that were new to me -- and quite interesting. I never much liked the idea of burial anyway. And the book does contain very funny remarks that somehow never seem disrespectful to the dead whose bodies are being made use of by the living. You might want to take breaks between chapters to avoid becoming a little overwhelmed, but it is definitely a book worth reading.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Scary Things About Human Nature and Views On Gender

Well, I've been scanning the the Social Sciences shelves of the library again (the Dewey 300s) and picked up a couple of not-particularly related books that all made me think "People are messed up." Now those are just about the only things these books have in common: that they make you see the worst of everday humanity.

The first book was Trisha Meili's I Am The Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility. I was 16 in 1989 when the story of the Central Park Jogger was splashed all over the news: a twenty-eight-year-old woman jogging after dark in the famous New York park was beaten, raped, and left for dead. She was found with a body temperature of 85 degrees and blood pressure so low the hospital people couldn't get a reading for it; this may be what made her stand out from the other twenty-eight other rapes reported in the same city that week. She was not named in most of the reporting on her case because of most media outlets' policies -- women who have been raped are not named to avoid contributing to the "stigma" traditionally associated with being raped. (Frankly, I think anyone who would look down on a rape victim needs help themselves, and perhaps having real names to associate with people who have been raped would make it seem more like human beings being hurt than stereotypes identified only as "jogger" or some other single characteristic.) The book is interesting because Meili does not remember the events of that evening; such traumatic amnesia is common after such extreme violence and physical brain trauma. She talks about her everyday life before April 1989, when she was an investment banker, an anorexic (though to a milder degree than one normally hears about, never needing hospitalization for her self-starvation), and a dedicated runner -- and then about coming out of a coma in a hospital to relearn the use of her body. The medical care needed to bring down her swollen brain to its normal size, to fix one eye back into its proper place, and much more, before Meili had any likelihood of coming back to normality, and after she regained consciousness, there were months of therapy before she could walk, button her shirt, or remember what was on the previous page of a book after turning to the next. Some damage was permanent, such as her loss of the sense of smell. But Meili continued to push on, relearning or rediscovering as much as possible and eventually returning to a near-normal life (and indeed, better than before the attack in one way -- the urge to starve herself was gone). She testified at the trials of the five accused attackers, a group of minority teenagers who were said to have just gone out to have some fun "wilding" -- but with no memory of the evening of the attack, her testimony was largely about the extent of her injuries and the amount of work needed to recover, plus a few details to knock down a wild theory that her then-boyfriend had been the attacker. (In 2002, Matias Reyes, a man serving 33 years to life for murder and other rapes, made a confession that he was the only attacker, and the other convictions were vacated. If true, and there's no way to prove that it is or isn't, this changes the disgusting creepiness of a group of guys going out to attack a woman for fun into the differently disgusting sickness of a single man who would do attack many women. I don't know if one is any better than the other really, but it's a little less disturbing to think that a few messed-up perpetrators exist than that there are enough of them in any location to band together.)

But at least in Meili's case, there was a huge outpouring of support from strangers near and far, definitely enough to counteract the very small number who felt that the issue of a white woman being attacked by black or Hispanic men was a witch-hunt of minorities, and called her a slut or said she must have been in the park to meet a drug dealer. She talks a great deal about everyone from the nurse who cared for her daily to one man out of the many who wrote to her and how all these people's support and prayer helped in recovery and adjustment. And she was eventually able to pass on that support to people in need of physical rehabilitation after injury or emotional support after rapes by working with various organizations -- and by publishing this book to show what kind of recovery is possible.

In Gender Shock: Exploding the Myths of Male and Female by Phyllis Burke, the stories are of children without support, children whose families send them to therapy and sometimes to mental institutions for being too much like the opposite sex is supposed to be. A boy who doesn't like sports? He could have coordination problems that make him bad at sports -- but no, he must want to be a girl. He'll grow up gay if we don't do something! A girl who doesn't want to wear dresses! She needs to be fixed! OK, I identify with this a bit because I was not a girly-girl; I was a bookworm rather than a tomboy, so I guess I lucked into a stereotype that isn't associated with a particular gender, but I climbed trees to have a place to read and dresses certainly would have been a handicap. Not all of these cases were back in the 1950s , either; some of the attempts chronicled here to fix children who weren't broken took place in the late 1970s and '80s, right when I was growing up. The idea that a tomboy might be "at risk for transsexualism, adult homosexuality, neuroticism, personality disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, an unstable work record, depression, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and schizophrenia" seems particularly ridiculous when you read Sharon Lamb's The Secret Lives of Girls: What Good Girls Really Do -- Sex Play, Agression, and Their Guilt and find that "almost half of adult women remember themselves as tomboys." Society is even harsher on boys who might come across as "girly," and yet we wonder why so many of them turn to violence, still seen as a manly pursuit. The truth is that on any scale of supposedly masculine versus supposedly feminine characteristics, the sexes overlap a great deal, and some of the distinctions listed on some checklists seem pretty random.

"If the distance between the buttocks and the back of the chair was four inches or more, 'away from the back of the chair' (keyed as masculine) was scored. Otherwise, 'close to the back of the chair' (keyed as feminine) was scored."
-- Dr. David Barlow, Barlow Gender-Specific Motor Behavior Form
For that matter, what's the big deal if a few of these kids do grow up to be gay? Homosexuality is no longer in the psychologist's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Very few gay people are transsexual (meaning that they actually want to have the body of the opposite sex from what they were born into). But many of those diagnosed with "Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood" are neither gay nor transsexual as adults, and they are often given that diagnosis as children not because they say they want to have the body of the opposite gender but because someone else thinks they don't act the right way. Truly scary to know this happens anywhere, but particularly in the Land of the Free. Other stories in the book, such as the surgeries performed on children with intersexed genitals, are equally disturbing, but there are a few things discussed that allow (at least for adults) some freedom from gender roles defined by stone walls with a no-man's-(or woman's) land in between; I hope that someday more children will have an easier time if they want to inhabit the zone in the middle.

Colette Dowling's The Frailty Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls is much more optimistic than Gender Shock; the completely ridiculous ideas are largely from the past (the Victorian idea that a girl should not attend a school taller than two stories as she would not be able to manage the stairs during her period, for example). However, this examination of the reality of women's bodies and the capabilities they share with men's bodies (just about all capabilities, really) does point out how many beliefs are still current about female frailty, even after such advances as the Title IX amendment to the Civil Rights Act. This landmark said that no organization receiving Federal financial assistance can discriminate on the basis of sex, and it has led to great changes -- particularly in education, including physical education. Women's athletics are supposed to be funded equally with men's at American public schools, colleges, and universities. (They aren't yet, but there has been great improvement since 1972 when Title IX became law.) And coming back to the beginning of this review, Dowling discusses how the myth of women's physical frailty supports their fear of rape and assault, the tendency to hold oneself back rather than go into a risky situation, and even condemn others for taking those risks, as some people did in the case of Trisha Meili jogging at night in Central Park.

The thing is, women shouldn't have to fear. It is not right that anyone thinks that it's OK to commit rape, and one of the things that creates rapists is the fixed gender role idea that men are violent. It is not right that women don't think they could escape or fight back, and I hope that the idea that women are the weaker sex is dying. Women are just as capable of toughness as men; men are just as capable of tenderness as women. All it takes in either case is permission and practice, and these books give examples of the good that happens when people have the opportunity to be both sides of themselves as well as the bad that happens when one side is choked off.

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

I finally got around to reading David Brin's 1985 novel The Postman. It won the Locus & John W. Campbell Awards and was a nominee for both a Hugo & Nebula award, and Kevin Costner thought highly enough of it to make a movie out of it. However, I wasn't much impressed (with the book -- I've never seen the movie). For one thing, this nearly-20-year-old book has not aged well. Some SF stories do and some don't. It's odd, really, how some science ficiton that was clearly written several decades ago, because of the technology uses, assumptions made about people, and overall atmosphere, can still feel like a realistic possibility (even if its existance would require an alternate universe). But some other SF of comparatively recent authorship can seem so outdated, and this is an example. The Postman does so first by referring to things that happened in the 1990s -- quite futuristic when it was written but so very quick to pass. And though the real 1990s did see survivalists hiding out in the woods, they also brought so much new computer technology that the book's idea of a lone room-size supercomputer, or the astoundingly simple video games, both seem at least an extra decade out of date.

And, frankly, the book struck me as a bit sexist. This is odd considering that a) I rarely consider books widely derided as sexist, such as Robert Heinlein's later works, to be sexist, and b) one of the Amazon reviews of The Postman seems to feel that the portrayal of women in the book is meant to appeal to feminists: "Brin's version of feminism seems designed to win bonus points with female fans, but its heavy-handedness and condescension are no less alienating than outright sexism." To me, though, so much in the book's plot hinges on the plans and actions of women, but all female characters are so briefly introduced and then fade offstage, their accomplishments heard of only second-hand. Not that protagonist Gordon, the man who falls into being a U.S. mail delivery man when the U.S. is 16 years collapsed, isn't important, but he's only half the story.

As I said, I haven't seen the movie Costner directed and starred in, but I really can't see the story from the book working as a film for a a related reason -- there's just so much happening "off-screen" and spread out across an entire state worth of land. What reviews I've read of the film indicate that its plot is somewhat rewritten, but perhaps that problem was part of the film's failure at the box office.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Science fiction? Detective novel? Metaphysical musings? David Brin's Kiln People covers a lot of bases, but does them all well. It certainly is a detective novel, but this private eye, Albert Morris, lives in a world where anyone can take mannequins made of a certain type of clay and with the right machinery, animate them to act as living beings with some or all of the psyche of the human who animated them. This is an obvious convenience for a detective, as he can make a gray "ditto" to go meet with clients, a green one to take care of the housekeeping, and an ebony one with a special talent for online research, while his organic body catches up on sleep. But the availability of dittos has shaped society in many other ways, from entertainment (thrill seekers can do all kinds of things via a ditto and then "inload" its memories back into their own minds) to transportation (dittos don't have to be made in human shape; life-size dinosaur bodies are imprinted with human minds and used as buses and trucks). But dittos run out of energy and die in about a day, and a ditto can only be animated if a person is physically present to impress a mind onto it -- ditto-to-ditto copies generally don't work out well.

In this fascinating settting, Albert Morris and several of his dittos (all of whom narrate at one point or another) deal with the ongoing hunt for Beta, a criminal who makes illegal dittos of people (the results of making a ditto from a ditto are good enough to be animated sex-toys and such), and also a new case of a missing researcher for the main manufacturer of ditto bodies. Multiple narrators in a story often become a bit confusing for the reader (from Robert Heinlein's The Number of the Beast to Toni Morrison's Beloved) but in this novel the technique yields complete clarity, whether it's because each chapter starts with a sentence or two stating who is speaking, or because in a way, it's always Albert talking, even when there are three or four Alberts who have lived completely different experiences during the last day.

Particularly interesting is the green ditto who "goes Frankenstein" -- abandons the chores he was created to do and goes off on his own. His story brings up the question of whether he is less or more like the original Albert than those dittos who quietly go about their assigned tasks. Other people's dittos also go Frankenstein, and the reader sees the many ways a psyche can seem to act against itself, but in their case it's only from an outside view. "Frankie" carries the burden of showing these variations to the reader from inside and he accomplishes that while leading into the climax of the book, which is both a solution to both mysteries and a further example of what the latest ditto research might say about the human mind and soul. The setting is fiction, but while reading you never think that the persons aren't completely real.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

I am a feminist agnostic only child of divorced parents who grew up in the '80s -- you might not think I'd have much in common with a patriarchal Mormon-offshoot polygamous family of the '40s and '50s. But when I read Dorothy Allred Solomon's Predators, Prey, and Other Kinfolk: Growing Up In Polygamy, I found some unexpected similarities.

I believe in polyamory, myself, so my main objections to the groups who splintered off the LDS church so they could continue to practice polygamy is that only men are allowed to have multiple spouses (and women are supposed to marry for the purpose of being mothers) and that they seem to require plural marriage, instead of just allowing it as a choice. The author grew up in a family of one husband and seven wives, but herself chose a monogamous marriage despite opposition from some of her extended family members. She says that in her earlier biographical writings, she wrote that "persecution came from outsiders, not from members of the family. But now I had discovered another story to tell." Nonetheless, the lives of Rulon Allred and his many wives and children did seem as if they could have been nearly idyllic if it weren't for the outside world's hostility. (This, of course, is ignoring the first, sole wife who left Allred when he announced his new belief in plural marriage, and considering only those women who married him knowing what they were getting into.) Allred spent six months in prison of a five-year sentence for polygamy before Dorothy's birth, and both before and after that, Rulon and his wives fled to Mexico or scattered across several states when "polygamous roundups" threatened. While the father hid out from the authorities, he could not work, and his families scraped by in extreme poverty. Having to keep the structure of the family a secret meant no birth certificates for most of the children, no insurance or hospital visits for routine health care, and an atmosphere of secrecy that made real wrongs difficult to divulge. For example, in the household of one wife who was on her own with her children during the scattered years, there was a son who sexually abused his younger sister. Might it have been more likely that this sister could have told someone who could have stopped the abuse if they had been with the rest of their family, or at least if secrecy about things happening at home had not been so deeply ingrained into the kids? (Indeed, would the abuse have happened at all if that wife and children hadn't been packed off to an isolated house seventy miles from their nearest family member? One can never tell what makes a person develop into an abuser.)

But during these scattered years, the children's experiences seem to have been very much like mine, growing up with first separated, then divorced parents. Dorothy's feelings now about telling the family's bad times as well as good -- "silence is the death within death that none of us deserves" -- echoes my own feelings in speaking out about having been sexually abused.

Given some of the tragic things that happend either due from monogamists tearing themselves out of the family , or because of Dorothy's family's acquaintance with people whose polygamy was the least of their religious oddities, the author would probably have trouble seeing how I could see positives in the polygamy shown here. Indeed, things might not have worked even this well for some people in this situation. But it seems to me that the loving extended family whose bonds survived all the events they went through is an example of how responsible non-monogamy really does work for those who truly believe in it.

Friday, August 22, 2003

A land of people living where their ancestors had been for thousands of years, until foreign conquerors moved in and, with the implied permission of other foreign powers, take over. There are many places to which this description might apply, but to most of the Western world, Israel is far from the first location that comes to mind. Ghada Karmi's In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story could change that for its readers, for the Palestinians certainly feel their land has been taken over by foreign conquerors. This is an autobiography by a woman born in what was then Palestine. Her early childhood took place in Jerusalem in the 1940s when the area was ruled by British mandate after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. At this time the fighting that was going on was essentially recently-arrived Jewish people versus British government, with the Arabs regarding both as foreigners.

But then came a big change. "The UN had decided to accord the proposed Jewish state 55 per cent of the land and the Arab one the remaining 45 per cent, though Jews made up only one third of the population," Karmi explains. Or as her father put it, "How could anyone imagine that they would want to give half our country to immigrants?" Is it any wonder Palestinian Arabs fought for their homeland and continue to do so fifty-five years later? After all, in what is now the United States, the Native Americans reacted exactly the same way to the colonist and pioneers who came to take over their homelands, once they realized where things were going. Karmi points out that Christians, at least in the British Isles where her family fled in 1949, tended to be steeped in the Old Testament enough to also see Palestine/Israel as the land of the Jews. This view combined with horror at the Holocaust to make the creation of a state for Jewish people in their ancient place of origin seem fair. However, just because Jewish people had been treated abominably and unforgivably does not mean that there was any reason that Palestinian Arabs should be mistreated either. The Karmi family's story gives a view less often shown in the U.S.

Karmi's years in England are also interesting to read about -- when is she "a dark-skinned English girl," having lived there since the age of eight, and when is she a Palestinian in a world that views Arabs as incomprehensible and just other? Her parents and particularly her mother always seem to have considered themselves Palestinian foremost, creating a circle of friends of the same origin, and in her mother's case, refusing to learn English. Things were very different for the children, a situation familiar to any reader of American immigrant stories but complicated by the fact that the parents did not really want to leave their home country, and also by the relatively few immigrants to England in the 1950s and 1960s.

However, events such as the Six-Day War of 1967 and the generally pro-Israeli feeling in Britain led Karmi to embrace her heritage. I dare say any Palestinian hearing Golda Meir of Israel say in 1969, "It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist," would have felt the same way. Even the United States did not come up with such ridiculous statements about the existence of Indians being displaced.

Karmi seems to have mixed feelings about the use of violence by Palestinians for political aims: "The hijackings were indefensible; yet watching events in Jordan, I and many other Palestinians could not help but feel impressed." However, her frustration with Westerners who blame her personally for all violence by Palestinians is evident. She nonetheless manages not to stereotype all her opponents, keeping separate in her mind those who have wronged Palestinians and those who have not, and even mentions the small groups of Jewish people who have supported her views and pro-Palestinian activism.

The book ends with Karmi's visit to Israel, a place she has previously avoided since her childhood flight. Her description of the separate lives of most Arabs and Jews in the country now as essentially "apartheid" was shocking, but really hit home, given my upbringing in the U.S. in the 1980s where South African apartheid was universally considered wrong (the controversy was between people who believed it was America's business to work against it and those who felt we shouldn't police the rest of the world's internal affairs).

I don't approve of violence on anyone's part; an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. But after this book, I feel I understand more deeply the source of the violence over Israel. Most of all, I pity the nearly hopeless task of those actively working for peace there. However, I also admire them sincerely for taking on so thankless and difficult, yet needed, of a project.

Friday, July 18, 2003

A few years ago my dad sent me a copy of David Weber's On Basilisk Station, a paperback version which was being sold cheap as a promotion for a later book in the series featuring the same characters. He and I (as well as a good chunk of science fiction readers) are fans of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books, which feature several members of the Vorkosigan family as main characters, but mostly Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. My dad Joe wondered if Weber would be as successful in writing his female protagonist Honor Harrington as Bujold was in writing her male protagonist. I read On Basilisk Station and ranked it good enough to stay on the shelf but not nearly as interesting as the first Vorkosigan book I'd read (Barrayar, when it was being serialized in Analog magazine and I was so mad that I'd have to go home from my summer visit before the final portion was published). I had no urge to go and read the rest of the books about Honor Harrington.

I think it was only a few months ago that I spotted a later book in the Harrington series on the shelves of my friends Ben and Jodi. (I assumed it was Ben's because I never had any idea Jodi was a science fiction reader, but it turns out it's hers.) It was something I could read while Jon and I visited their place to catsit, but once I got started I wanted to keep going. Without pause. I think I just about did so; it didn't take more than two or three days to finish. The fact that the majority of the 10 novels in the series have some play on "Honor" in their titles makes it really difficult to keep the names straight; I had to look up the fact that it was Echoes of Honor, the eighth novel in the series. But after reading that one (and having skipped the intervening six books made no difference), in which Honor escapes from an enemy prison planet, I DID want to go straight to the library and check out all they had.

Unfortunately, our branch didn't have the whole series and I was about to go on a trip, so I didn't have time to have them sent from other branches. I took the four they had, one short story collection with stories set at different points in the series chronology, Changer of Worlds and the novels The Honor of the Queen (Book 2), Field of Dishonor (Book 4), and War of Honor (Book 10). All but the last and thickest one went with me on the trip; it wasn't until I got home that I discovered the CD-ROM in an envelope attached to the endpapers of War of Honor -- which just happened to contain the text of all 10 novels and 3 short story collections published so far, as well as several other novels and collections also published by Baen. In rich text format, HTML, and a couple of PDA formats. All this is apparently also available on Baen's web site, but a) I didn't know that and b) it's a lot faster to copy all that from a disk.

One of the things I like about this series and that I particularly noticed in War of Honor is that Weber writes both sides of the story. Indeed, all sides of the story, which frequently requires insight into the people high in the governments of at least three multi-planet nations, citizens of those nations' views on their governments and those of other nations, and even of non-human species. And the vast majority of them are portrayed as well-intentioned. There are certainly some evildoers who are flat-out amoral, but most of the characters really believe that they are working for the right cause (even when the reader, having knowledge the character doesn't, can see that they are doing exactly opposite). It may be adventure fiction, even space opera, but there are very few flat characters who only exist to provide enemies for the protagonist. Throughout all the series that I've read, the complexity of real life with real consequences for any action applies. (This may be why the most recent four novels, which delve a little more into political situations as Honor's rank and influence increase, are about three times the average length of the earlier ones.) The parallels with real life incidents are not always subtle (in case the government of the People's Republic of Haven after the coup against the Legislaturalists doesn't remind the reader of the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France, Haven's new leader is named "Rob Pierre" and his next-in-command is "Saint-Just") but perhaps remembering our history will help us analyze the events of real life.

But the core of the series is the symbolically named Honor, a member of the (space) Navy of the Star Kingdom of Manticore who takes a book or two before she comes across as a relatively normal human being. She is a wonderful leader and commander no matter what the situation is, but frankly, seeing her anger at a foreign planet's sexism and grief over the death of a mentor in The Honor of the Queen was the first place in the series chronology where the character herself really resonated with me. The books are generally written so that references are explained and reading them in series chronology is not necessary, so I would probably recommend leaving On Basilisk Station for later and starting with one of the other books.

Would my dad think these books are good as the Vorkosigan ones? Maybe. Despite both series' being military/adventure science fiction, Honor's position is always a lot more "within the system" than that of Miles Vorkosigan and his other family members. There's also a lot more technology and actual shooting war in the Harrington books; the Vorkosigans seem to do much more one-on-one conflicts with their enemies on Barrayar, a planet still working itself back up from years of being cut off from the rest of the universe, and even when visiting elsewhere. I note that Baen did not include any of the Vorkosigan books on the CD that came with War of Honor even though they do publish them -- perhaps they don't think there's much audience overlap, perhaps they just preferred to promote single books and shorter series on the disc, or perhaps Bujold didn't give permission to have her books made available this way. Nonetheless, both series are definitely worth reading.

Monday, July 14, 2003

I read a book recently that was a biography of two people; a modern history of one country; a family saga of three generations of love, break-up, and their repercussions; and a political mystery/thriller. How can all that go into one book? It's The Devil That Danced On The Water: A Daughter's Quest by Aminatta Forna, whose parents were Dr. Mohamed Forna, former finance minister of the African country of Sierra Leone, and his Scottish first wife. The book tells the story of her father's life and her own childhood (in and out of Sierra Leone, depending on the danger to her family from changing regimes). It is both a child's-eye view of having a father who is successively a doctor, a politician, and a political prisoner, and an adult's search for corroboration of her fragmented memories and information she never knew on the trial leading to her father's execution on trumped-up charges. The book makes clear the tangled politics of the decades since Sierra Leone's independence and the complex web of extended family, as well as brief jaunts into European and African racism and even the differences in children's stories. Overall, I found it so absorbing I had trouble putting it down to get other things done.

Friday, June 20, 2003

Your average American can't find, say, Yemen, on a map and probably forgot where Kuwait was about six months after the first Gulf War. Courtesy of Dr. ap Zylstra in Arts & Humanities Honors, I know a lot more geography but still suffer the standard American history education with regard to the Middle East (nothing later than ancient Sumeria in grade school; one college course that got up to Alexander the Great). The National Geographic Society's 2002 book Cradle & Crucible: History & Faith in the Middle East is a great introduction to geography, history, culture and religion for the region, making it a lot easier to understand whatever treaty, organization, or bombing is in the news at any one moment. (And given the publication date, this is probably why it was written and published, although one could say that about any time in the last 25 years.)

The history portion of the book is an easy-to-read overview of more than nine millennia, getting more detailed as it gets closer to the present, so the reader doesn't feel like they're getting flooded in a procession of ancient empires at the expense of events with a more direct influence on today's problems. Even if you have some knowledge of European history (and the Islamic world's role in preserving knowledge during Europe's Dark Ages), seeing everything from the Crusades to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire from the Arab and Muslim points of view (and remembering that the two are not identical groups) really makes you think of familiar history in a different way. I couldn't read the section on European powers' "mandates" to divide up the former Ottoman territory into new countries after World War I without thinking "Wow, the people actually living there got really screwed over!" -- and that's before Israel as a state even became an issue.

The book ends with a chapter each on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, discussing both the basic theology of each religion and the cultural experience of its practitioners living in the Middle East. (Being a Christian there certainly differs from being one in the United States, not only because of being a minority but because different sects of Christianity are prevalent there. However, the book points out the great differences between Judaism in Israel and Judaism overseas.) Since Islam is the majority in the Middle East, that chapter has the most political and cultural explanation attached, but members of all these faiths have to decide what degree of power religion is to hold in their lives and what power it should or should not hold in their governments. The book does not endorse extremism, but it helps you understand where it's coming from without being a difficult read.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

The "sword & sorcery" subgenre of fantasy doesn't usually hold my attention. I got through the Lord of the Rings books, but just barely, and was never tempted to reread them. There are a few books that sort of fall into the category that I like -- T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Tamora Pierce's books in the Song of the Lioness Quartet, the Immortals Quartet, and the Protector of the Small Quartet (all chroncling one kingdom starting with Alanna: The First Adventure), and Diane Duane's Tales of the Five books (starting with The Door Into Fire. All of these are set in medieval-style kingdoms, though only White's bears any resemblance to the actual Middle Ages of our world. And they all tell stories of people and how they grow and change, with quests, battles, magical beasts, and spells only important in that they propel those changes. That is what makes them readable not just once but over and over to me, and what sets them apart from the other "sword & sworcery" I've read.

Lois McMaster Bujold has done the same in science fiction for quite a long time -- her Vorkosigan books, from the meeting of Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan amongs interplanetary conflict in Shards of Honor to their son Miles Naismith Vorkosigan's continued work as an Imperial Auditor in the most recent, Diplomatic Immunity, focus on people despite the very exciting "space opera" events that befall them. It should be no surprise that a recent venture into fantasy, The Curse of Chalion grabs the reader the same way. Though it is the will of the gods driving the plot rather than the march of technology in Curse, the politics of governments in the medieval-style setting is just as complex as in the Vorkosigan books' multi-planet empires, and the people just as human. Vorkosigan fans will not be disappointed in this book as some of them (myself included) may have been in her earlier fantasy work The Spirit Ring. I would also like to mention that the pentatheistic theology of the people in Curse makes far more sense without excessive explanation than the worship systems of any fantasy universe I've encountered, even the ones listed above as my favorites in the genre. (This may not be completely realistic, judging by the complexity of Greek mythology or any other polytheistic system I've read about, but it clicks into place immediately and provides a firm foundation for the events of the story.) I would definitely read more stories set in this universe.

Sunday, June 08, 2003

For a few years around 1990 I loved all of Anne Rice's work. I picked up Interview with the Vampire partially because Slash of Guns 'n Roses said it was his favorite book, and partially because a high school classmate recommended it. I remember immersing myself in The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned over Thanksgiving break 1989. Non-Vampire Chronicles books Cry to Heaven and The Feast of All Saints fascinated me too, despite their lack of supernatural beings. And when I started college in 1991, my group of friends pretty much passed around the Beauty trilogy -- whether it was good or not, it was explicit!

But The Tale of the Body Thief bored me, and Memnoch the Devil wasn't even finishable. So I never bothered to pick up new Vampire books as they appeared. I thought Rice might have gotten back into readability with The Witching Hour, which I really like, but I can't really remember what happens in its sequel Lasher even though I own it, and I'm prety sure I sold Taltos to the used bookstore with The Mummy (as well as giving away the Beauty trilogy once I had access to better erotica).

Nonetheless, I had enough good memories of Anne Rice universes to pick up Blackwood Farm off the library's new books shelf and read the inside front cover. My curiosity was piqued by seeing that it claimed to combine the Vampire Chronicles and Mayfair Witches series, so I checked it out. And once I started, I was as hooked as I was thirteen and a half years ago on the Vampire books. Really, there are three storylines in this book: the vampires, the Mayfairs, and the story of Quinn Blackwood and his family. The Blackwoods on their rural Louisiana estate are very different from the relatively urban Mayfairs of New Orleans, so their history doesn't feel like a retread of The Witching Hour. But Rice's strength seems to be in complex stories that span decades and generations, and the union of the different series gives her the opportunity to be even more complex. I've got to agree with the reviewer who says "Blackwood Farm has an unusual flaw: it isn't long enough." The ending is awfully sudden and leaves you wanting more, but I'd rather have that situation than end up disappointed in the book I've already read. I'm rather looking forward to the upcoming Blood Canticle -- not with the excitement of a kid waiting for the new Harry Potter, given the rather iffy summary given on Amazon, but curiosity to see if she can stay at this high level for a while.

Monday, May 26, 2003

It all depends on what you consider heavy metal music, and if you even think there's any heavy metal around anymore. Two books in the bookstores at the moment take quite different views of what constitutes metal, and which one you prefer will depend on how you define the genre. (Which makes me wonder what people with no prior exposure to metal will think -- too bad I can't think of any friends of mine who have lived under a rock that long.)

David Konow's Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal and Ian Christe's Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal start out in the same place: Black Sabbath as the progenitors of metal, with some help from Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. But Konow takes a much broader view of metal -- his 1970s include a lot more Kiss and Aerosmith than Christe's; his 1980s focus much more on bands that got MTV play during the daylight hours as well as the Headbanger's Ball on Saturday nights, while Christe prefers the bands most people only knew from reading the black t-shirts of their high school's headbanger clique. So Bang Your Head deals with the end of the most high-profile days of glam metal, while in many ways the relatively underground scene Christe chronicles had nothing to lose from changing fashions and the grunge explosion.

For me, Bang Your Head was a lot more fun to read -- it tells the amusing stories of the bands' attempts to life the wildest rockstar lives possible. One of the Amazon reviews calls it a "puff piece" for this reason, but seeing the details of the bands' lives is what many fans like (hence the popularity of such shoes as MTV's "Cribs" where the camera tours famous people's houses, and of course "The Osbournes" which enthralls people who never bought an Ozzy Osbourne album in their lives). Sound of the Beast loves to categorize -- power metal, death metal, nu metal, etc. -- and for those with eclectic tastes like me, putting everything into its own little box gets annoying pretty quickly. "OK, I own three out of ten albums on his list of definitive '70s progenitors, but only one of the list of paradigmatic New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands" -- well, the list titles aren't really so pompous, but they still made me feel like I was supposed to measure up to his standards or be considered a "poser." Remembering the comment in Chuck Klosterman's metal-fan memoir Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota about the surprising popularity of certain non-metal artists, like the B-52's, among his head-banging friends, I'm sure I can't be alone in wanting to ignore the habit of sticking a label on every group (then and now).

Metal music is escape -- the kind of escape you prefer is up to you. If you want to escape fluff and find something that holds up to even some non-fans' critical analysis, you'll probably prefer Sound of the Beast. If you want some energetic fun, you'd do better with Bang Your Head. However, if you just want to know about the evolution of the music that has held so many people (and particularly disenchanted young people, and those who remember being one) in thrall for decades, you might want to set aside the time to look through both.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

I used to read Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero a lot as a teenager, mostly when I was depressed. When life didn't seem to matter to me, I felt in tune with Clay, the narrator, an 18-year-old coming home to Los Angeles after his first semester at college. Disconnected, nihilistic, willing to go out on a limb. The rich, wild, not-old-enough-to-drink cocaine users of the book had very little to do with my nerdy life, two hours a day on a school bus to the IB magnet school -- I was living vicariously through the characters, while some of my classmates were going out and drinking, fucking, whatever, stuff I only knew from bits of overheard gossip. But there was a sort of envy in me of people not saddled with shyness or a sense of responsibility; their lack of care about anything seemed kinda glamorous. They were doing something, not sitting at home with a science-fiction novel.

Now, I'm 30. I pulled the paperback off the shelf a few days ago -- it's been years since I last read it. Now, I'm no one's picture of "settled down into adult responsibility." I work part-time, sleep late the rest of the days, and cohabit with my boyfriend in an apartment full of Simpsons and Powerpuff Girls toys never touched by physical children. Nonetheless, Less Than Zero hit me in a new way -- as a chronicle of boredom. Constant boredom. Hanging out in restaurants and movie theaters waiting for your drug dealer to show up. Sitting around alone, watching TV. Going to parties that don't turn out to be very good. One gets the feeling that Clay isn't even bothering to look for something interesting -- he's just passing the time because he can't get rid of it any other way. It's not that the things he does couldn't be fun -- but the interactions and conversations transcribed are superficial and don't seem to bring people closer. Some of this is the narrative style -- Clay's story of accompanying his friend Julian, who's working as a prostitute to pay his drug bill, on a trick and having to go throw up in the bathroom, is given in the same tone as he talks about Christmas with his family or having a one-night stand. We don't know why Julian ran up such a drug debt, but when Clay has to do some lines of cocaine to get through lunch with his dad, and Clay's younger sisters steal his cocaine if he doesn't lock his door, Julian's problem seems like only a slight difference of degree. None of these people are seeking extensive thrills; they just want to bring their moods from negative to average. (The movie based on the book is a very different story and makes Clay an average guy with some feelings.) I don't find the book's characters at all glamorous anymore -- I think they need to find something to do with their lives, some people they can actually get close to, and maybe some anti-depressants. (And that change in my view makes me feel a little old.)

Monday, March 31, 2003

I first saw Stephen Fry as an actor on the British comedy series Blackadder, in which he plays several different parts over the four seasons, each set in a different historical era. Then Jeeves & Wooster and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, both comedies pairing him with the equally funny Hugh Laurie. So of course I've also read Fry's written work. Novels The Liar and The Hippopotamus were okay but didn't much stick in my head; Making History wasn't bad either but since I'm a longtime science fiction fan, it seemed to cover ground already much seen in other alternate-history stories. I really preferred Fry's autobiography Moab Is My Washpot, though, so I tended to sum it all up in "His nonfiction is better than his fiction."

I'm going to have to stop saying that now that I've read his most recent novel Revenge. The basic plot is not new; it's a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, and I knew about that before I started reading. But even knowing what's going to happen didn't stop me from having an intense desire to find out how it was going to happen -- I started the book around noon and finished by 4:00 p.m. Though I'm always an extremely fast reader, I usually put a book down after a while to avoid developing a headache from prolonged reading -- that didn't happen this time.

The modern setting adds an extra spice to the "kept away from the world for twenty years" plot device -- Rip van Winkle encountered the effects of time on people, but to this can now be added the effects of time on technological advance. However, the people are the interesting part: who they are at the beginning, how they change over twenty years, and how their own pasts are used against them. The setting of imprisonment in a psychiatric hospital rather than a prison adds to the opportunity to see inside the protagonist's head compared to the original (I think -- it's been nearly two decades since I read Count of Monte Cristo). Normally, thrillers don't do much for me, but Revenge is the exception.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Written 11:30 p.m., 19 March 2003: Despite the end of President Bush's ultimatum to President Saddam Hussein today, it was unsure when/if the U.S. was going to attack Iraq exactly. (And it is the U.S. -- no matter what Bush's attempts to say it's a "coalition," the fact that the U.S. has two or three allies is basically the same as Japan's being allied to Germany and Italy during the Second World War; the fights in the Pacific were still essentially American forces against Japanese ones.) The uncertainty may have been there, but the tone of the news in general may have been what prompted me to pick up science fiction anthologies rather than the non-fiction more usually reviewed here.

But hardly "escape literature," no. Today's pick was Harlan Ellison's Angry Candy, impressive stories from an impressive author. Ellison is a great favorite of mine, but I only read his fiction when I'm in certain moods. Angry Candy collects stories about death, Ellison says in the introduction, and I say that war is undoubtedly death. Despite Bush's little speech about doing his best to keep from killing innocent Iraqis, and of course his (most likely genuine) hopes that American casualties will be kept to a minimum, war between countries cannot happen without people dying. "Faces twisted in anguish at the precise moment of death, or more terribly, at the moment of realization of personal death, each soldier looked up at me with eyes just fogging with tears, with mouth half-open to emit a scream, with fingers reaching toward me in splay-fingered hope of last-minute reprieve." ("Eidolons")

It's by no means all sad and depressing. "Laugh Track," for example, is wickedly funny -- imagine a woman's soul caught on tape when she laughed as part of a studio audience at a comedy taping, and after her body's death the ability to say things on the soundtrack of newer shows re-using that laugh track! But all the potentialities of humanity are covered, real-seeming beings in real-seeming situations, even when the situation is that an alien being is taking the souls of human suicides and putting them into alien bodies, or that a vampire encounters a sort of half-plant/half-human (in Paris, no less). Many science fiction writers can make you suspend your disbelief and submerge you in another universe; not nearly as many can do that while also making you look inside yourself and your own beliefs. Other authors have used the same themes -- while reading "The Avenger of Death" I was reminded of Piers Anthony's On A Pale Horse, since both deal with a human being who is Death, in charge of all humans' ends. But Ellison provokes more thought in fourteen pages than Anthony did in a thick mass-market paperback (my copy of which eventually got donated to the library). In summary, Harlan Ellison is the kind of writer who makes me feel less depressed that the Bush Administration has pushed the U.S. into the role of the world's bully, saying that we can dictate who is allowed to have weapons of mass destruction and who isn't (for example, France has nukes, but all the U.S. government has done is rename its cafeterias' French fries). "I think we dream to forget. And sometimes it doesn't work," the protagonist of "The Function of Dream Sleep" says. Ellison's dreams should not be forgotten, and it benefits the world to read those that he's put into print.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

As a longtime fan of Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear books, I wonder about the accuracy occasionally. It starts to get annoying that their protagonist Ayla, or someone she knows, invents everything from needles to spear-throwers, and that obvious bit of literary license provokes my curiosity about other possible factual fudges. Especially since the five books in the series so far have come out over two decades, and theories current when Auel started writing might have fallen out of favor. Maybe that's why I picked up The Neanderthal's Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers by Juan Luis Arsuaga, translated from the Spanish by Andy Klatt.

The book wasn't always easy to get through (and I don't know whether Arsuaga or Klatt is responsible for the duller sections and their overuse of technical terms) but on the whole, it was an interesting look at the hominids of the past, the environmental conditions that influenced their very evolution, and the archeological/paleontological research being done now. The inferences that can be drawn from ancient bones, teeth, and chipped stones are truly amazing, and Dr. Arsuaga does not hesitate to tell about both views on a disputed subject.

(On a tangential note, his focus on excavation sites in Spain was particularly interesteing, and I feel like I picked up a lot more information on the geography, geology, and ecology of the Iberian peninsula than I had before. Reading a translated work also exposed me to references to authors and philosophers that might not have been brought up in an originally English-language work.)

In short, the book summarizes current knowledge on the origins of human anatomy, consciousness, language, and behavior, while staying firmly based in physical evidence (unusual for discussions of some of those subjects). Jean Auel's stories may have made the Stone Age seem human, but it takes a work like this to make hers seem truly non-fiction.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

I was born in 1973, and raised wearing pants and playing with erector sets. (And my mom wondered why I didn't show much interest in makeup and stylish clothes in high school -- didn't she expect her child-rearing tactics to have an effect?) Lynn Peril's Pink Think: Becoming a Woman in Many Uneasy Lessons details all the stuff I was lucky enough to miss. It's a collection of ads and products aimed at women from the 1940s to the 1970s, from pink Lionel train sets to douching with Lysol so your husband wouldn't think you smelled bad. Peril makes it amusing and ridiculous instead of completely flinch-worthy; your "oh my God!" reaction to the things in this book is a laughing "I can't believe that happened!" like a an edge-pushing comedy gets, rather than the horror that some serious news reports evoke. Yet her final chapter reminds us that "pink think" indoctrination for women hasn't ended, as the success of books like The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, described in its review as a "return to pre-feminist mind games." Pink Think should be read by all women, for those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief is the book that the movie Adaptation is sort of based on. "Sort of," because The Orchid Thief is essentially a documentary on orchid lovers and south Florida, while Adaptation, from what I have read (I have yet to see it) is more about the process of adapting the book as a screenplay, despite the fact that it isn't really the sort of book that would work as a screenplay. If a camera had followed Orlean around as she did her interviews and looked at all kinds of orchids, it could have played on PBS or the Discovery Channel and would have been very interesting, but it wouldn't be in mainstream movie theaters with big-name stars in it. The book isn't fiction; it doesn't have a single plot, just the individual lives of quite a lot of different people who are interested in raising orchids, hope to make money from selling orchids, or just happen to be connected with the south Florida orchid enthusiasts in some way or another.

As a resident of Florida, though a few hundred miles north of where most of the events of the book take place, I found a lot of familiar things in the book. Heat, swamps, gators, Seminole Indians, transplanted plants and people -- they're all to be found in Tampa as well as down in the Everglades. And I have read enough books on weird little specialty areas of interest that the orchid fanaticism displayed by the people interviewed didn't surprise me as much as it did Orlean. But her outsider viewpoint makes the stories of trudging through swamps in search of the elusive ghost orchid blossom a lot more amusing than they probably would be if told by someone who did this regularly.

So how the hell did anyone come up with the idea of making a movie about trying to make this book into a movie? I don't know, but I'm really curious to see the movie now since I've read the book, even though I don't really think any of the things Orlean talks about in the book will actually be in Adaptation. I just want a peek into the brain of the guy who came up with the screenplay that they actually made.