Sep 19 2017

Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett

Death’s adoptive granddaughter. A perfectionist clockmaker. An unassuming monk. An uncannily talented novice, who’s prone to stealing things. These four form the primary cast of Thief of Time, the twenty-sixth Discworld novel.

The conceit of the story is that if time is ever measured with perfect accuracy, it is captured, and stops. Completely. AFTER ONE O’CLOCK NEXT WEDNESDAY THERE IS NOTHING. JUST ONE O’CLOCK NEXT WEDNESDAY, FOR EVER AND EVER. (p. 105)

Pratchett is, however, in no particular hurry to get to the main action of the plot. Time, like light, runs a bit differently on the Disc than it does in more familiar parts of the universe. Many of the characters in this book have even looser relationships with time than the average denizen of the Disc, so Pratchett’s jumping about at the beginning prepares readers for the messing about that will continue through the rest of the book. True, he shows within the first dozen pages of narrative who has it in for all of the universe, and he hints at what their method might be, but then appears to bounce randomly through several periods of Nanny Ogg’s life and then briefly stop in during a conversation between the clockmaker and an exacting client before settling firmly on a tangent involving the granddaughter’s current occupation.

The other teachers in the school were known as Stephanie and Joan and so on, but to her lass she was very strictly Miss Susan. “Strict,” in fact, was a word that seemed to cover everything about Miss Susan and, in the classroom, she insisted on the Miss the way that a king insists upon Your Majesty, and for pretty much the same reason.
Miss Susan wore black, which the headmistress disapproved of but could do nothing about because black was, well, a respectable colour. She was young, but with an indefinable air of age about her. She wore her hair, which was blond-white with one black streak, in a tight bun. The headmistress disapproved of that, too — it suggested an Archaic Image of Teaching, she said, with the assurance of someone who could pronounce a capital letter. But she didn’t ever disapprove of the way Miss Susan moved, because Miss Susan moved like a tiger.
It was in fact always very hard to disapprove of Miss Susan in her presence, because if you did she gave you a Look. It was not in any way a threatening Look. It was cool and calm. You just didn’t want to see it again.
The Look worked in the classroom, too. Take homework, another Archaic Practice the headmistress was ineffectually Against. No dog ever ate the homework of one of Miss Susan’s students, because there was something about Miss Susan that went home with them; instead the dog brought them a pen and watched imploringly while they finished it. Contrary to the headmistress’s instructions, Miss Susan did not let the children do what they liked. She let them do what she liked. It had turned out to be a lot more interesting for everyone. (pp. 32–33)

Death’s granddaughter makes for an interesting elementary school teacher.

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Sep 18 2017

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

It’s a John Le Carré book, so you know that someone is going to get screwed in the end. In his Cold War books, which were on the whole more subtle in their plotting if not as deft in their characterization, it wasn’t always possible to tell who was doing just what to whom, because the characters themselves did not know for sure, and the looking-glass effect was one of his points about the superpower confrontation. I remember that Le Carré endings would unfold in my mind for hours, or sometimes days, as I turned events around and around, each flip revealing more possible layers of deception and intent. A Most Wanted Man is not like that.

The ending, when it comes, is hard and brutal, upending the carefully balanced forces Le Carré has spent the book detailing. It’s his comment on how the shadowy worlds of espionage, private banking, and the fight against Islamist-inspired terrorism worked in the middle part of this century’s first decade, when he was writing this book. There are subtle planners, updated versions of his Cold War subjects who were often skilled improvisers (both bankers and spies in this book observe that one of the few true constants of dealing with clients is the cock-up), and then there are people who don’t care about any of that and just want to blow things up. That last group, when they come from the US government, have the power to do nearly anything, though they seem to have neither the will nor the wit to do anything except smash and grab.

Parts of this book — most of its scenes, in fact — are very good indeed. His portrait of the banker Tommy Brue is idealized but melancholy, a representative (he thinks) of a world that has passed, enjoying one last tilt to redeem both his personal choices and the sins of his father. On the other hand, he falls for the much younger woman (though she is no naif, at 35) who starts as an adversary. On the other other hand, Brue the character knows that his interest is terribly cliché. On the other other other, Le Carré still lets it happen in his book. Brue also stands in for waning British power in a world order that has long since passed the main action to other players. The Brits are still subtler and cleverer, and willing to do more or less the right thing. Le Carré hasn’t changed in that regard.

Annabel Richter rings true as a committed German lawyer who acts as an advocate for people in irregular immigration situations in Germany. I’ve met her type in various guises during the nearly two decades I have lived in Germany, and Le Carré sketches this character very well, complete with the personal dynamics within the non-profit where she works, and the mix of competitiveness with a complex relationship toward the privilege of her family background. She’s also a step ahead of Brue in recognizing that he will fall for her, and not above using that for her goals.

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Sep 14 2017

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

I should say two things right up front about Europe in Winter. First, intermittently during a bicycle tour across one of Europe’s smaller polities that steadfastly refuses to disappear completely is both the right and wrong way to read this book. Wrong, because it surely deserves closer attention that I was sometimes able to give it on mid-stage breaks or evenings at the campgrounds. I am sure I missed things, possibly even important things, for it is a subtle and uncompromising work. Right because I kept crossing old borders that are still there if you know to look for them, as Hutchinson’s main character Rudi (or Ruudi in his native Estonian, as readers learn in this volume) has learned to look in the course of the two previous books about fractured Europe (Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight). The death strip between East and West Germany is long gone, but as the train wends its way through southern Thuringia on the way to Bavaria, settlements dwindle and there is far more forest than anything else. It’s not hard to imagine that the topology of the hills might lead to some of the unexpected places that characters in Hutchinson’s book find themselves in after a funny turn in the Warsaw Metro or the Estonian woods. Bavaria itself, once reached, proves unreliable, or at least not as unitary as it appears from a distance. Franconian flags and coats of arms appear in the towns, but even that fractures into Ober- Mittel- and Unterfranken if one asks the local people. Cities remember their old Imperial freedoms, Baroque palaces perch on the sites of older fortresses atop high hills, and Germany’s old Kleinstaaterei seems just around the next bend. After ten days or so, Legoland appears, brighter, louder and shinier than any place in Hutchinson’s down-at-the-heels Europe but its own country in a sense, distant cousin to the extraterritorial railroad, the Line, that plays a key role in the novel.

Second, for me it was worth reading the whole novel, possibly the whole series, just to have a chapter called “The Justified Ancients of Muhu.” The tip of the beanie to Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson is lovely, and I liked it all the more because I have spent more than time than one would expect on the Estonian island of Muhu. I, too, have failed to have a dinner at the gorgeous estate where Rudi misses a long-planned meal, though for less deadly reasons.

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Sep 13 2017

One Summer by Bill Bryson

The summer of 1927, to be precise. The summer that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, that Babe Ruth returned to form and led the New York Yankees to dominate baseball, a summer that Calvin Coolidge didn’t have much to say (not that that was unique to 1927), the summer that Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, and the summer of the invention of a key part of television technology. Bill Bryson uses each of these events as the main element of a chapter covering one month of the summer of 1927. Together, they are intended to form a portrait of America at a particular time in its history, to capture the spirit of the 1920s at their dizzying height, before the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression ushered in a completely different era.

One Summer is typical Bryson in that it is conversational, congenial, chock full of facts, and completely conventional. I used to be a great fan of Bryson, and I can still see the appeal, but now he feels incomplete to me, especially when he is writing about history rather than, say, personal travel experiences. (I would return to A Walk in the Woods; it’s very unlikely that I will re-read One Summer.) I liked and still like his wry tone, his drollery, though I worry sometimes about the details of his research. But the problem is right there in the structure of the book: the five events that Bryson chooses as the supports for his book are all about men, and white men at that (even allowing for whether contemporaries would have considered Sacco and Vanzetti white, which obviously many did not). Bryson never makes more than an implicit argument about why he chose these five, leaving the reader to wonder whether he is blinkered, whether his publisher is, or both of them worked together to overlook well more than half of America’s population. Bryson’s America of 1927 has two regions at most: the Northeast, though really the bulk of what he describes in the Northeast happens in and around New York City, and the Midwest. Parts of the South flood, but the region is otherwise almost entirely absent, except for a brief excursion into the absurdities of Florida real estate markets. The West provides a place for Coolidge to play cowboy and a location for Mount Rushmore. There are a few more incidents on the West Coast during aviation tours, and Bryson describes the Utah childhood of Philo T. Farnsworth, the television inventor, but the West is also conspicuous by its absence in Bryson’s view of America.

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Sep 12 2017

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

In Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, things are not as they seem. She and her first-person narrator tell readers that from the novel’s very beginning: “Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” Nor is the valley’s Dragon a dragon — “he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man” — but he still claims a girl every ten years, and the people of the valley see both sides of that coin. “He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

The narrator is clear on how the price looks from the outside: “He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier … they don’t want to marry anyone. They don’t want to stay at all.” They’ve been uprooted.

The narrator, Agnieszka, was born in a year that meant that when she turns seventeen, the Dragon would choose someone from her cohort as the next girl to come to his tower. “There aren’t so many villages in the valley that the chances are very low … There were eleven girls to choose from in my year, and that’s worse odds than dice. Everyone says you love a Dragon-born girl differently as she gets older; you can’t help it, knowing you so easily might lose her. But it wasn’t like that for me, for my parents. By the time I was old enough to understand that I might be taken, we all knew he would take Kasia.” So the story opens, with Agnieszka at seventeen telling her story, and by the way filling in some of the background of the valley with its villages, all overshadowed by the likelihood that at the next festival she will lose her closest friend to the sorcerous lord and his closed tower.

Agnieszka does not have the womanly virtues that her village society esteems, and she has seen nothing else of the world so she barely questions that judgement. “My parents wouldn’t have feared for me, very much, even if there hadn’t been Kasia [who was all the things thought best]. At seventeen I was still a too-skinny colt of a girl with big feet and tangled dirt-brown hair, and my only gift, if you could call it that, was I would tear or stain or lose anything put on me between the hours of one day. My mother despaired of me by the time I was twelve … ‘You’ll have to marry a tailor,’ my little Agnieszka, my [woodcutter] father would say, laughing, when he came home from the forest at night and I went running to meet him, grubby-faced, with at least one hole about me, and no kerchief.” Novik has set up the first opposition of the book — Agnieszka and the expectations of those around her — with the Dragon’s choice soon to tear her best friend away, and lurking in the background whatever it is about the Wood (as opposed to the forest where her father works) that earns its capitalization and the need for the Dragon’s protection.

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Sep 11 2017

Grace And The Fever by Zan Romanoff

What struck me most about this book is that it’s really about conspiracy theories and how they just fuel insanity like a monstrous feedback loop enabled by the Internet. Because look, I’ve been a fangirl all my life but the kind of crazy ass behavior the fans of One Direction, um, I mean, Fever Dream indulge in makes even me pause. I understand the dorky love for these cute guys you’ve never met, and I absolutely understand the adrenaline that comes from being in their presence, but there’s a lot of weird shit in this book that made me go “yo, that ain’t healthy.” The convoluted conspiracy theories that the FD fandom come up with felt invasive and dehumanizing. It’s one thing to have fantasies and write fanfic, but to jigger together snapshots of people’s lives and to present them as proof for your personal theories about said lives is borderline psycho.

Which, fortunately, is an issue that Zan Romanoff deals with well in this smart, entertaining novel about what it’s like to be a shy high schooler who really, really loves a boy band. Grace, our protagonist, runs into Jes one night and becomes more involved with the band than anything she could ever dream. Overall, it’s a well-executed book, even if I felt the coda incredibly unlikely. Sure Jes is needy, and I’m glad he and Grace part on good terms, but I do not for a second see the last chapter as anything but fan wank (for a fandom that doesn’t even exist! How delightfully but unnecessarily meta!)

Thing is, I didn’t like Grace. She’s one of those people that expects those closest to her to be psychic and find out what she wants instead of actually speaking up, which is incredibly tiresome. Her interactions with the boy band and their entourage were pretty great, but I found myself rolling my eyes at her a lot when she was talking to her mom and her actual friends. Like other people who forced themselves to outgrow self-consciousness in middle school, I don’t have a lot of compassion for people who are narcissistic enough not to, no matter how it manifests in external behaviors. Which doesn’t make her any less realistic. My opinion of her (she sucks, but she has her moments) doesn’t detract at all from what a overall solid book this is.

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Sep 11 2017

Underground Airlines by Ben H Winters

As a young Asian girl with shallow roots in Virginia and a voracious reading appetite, I was absolutely seduced by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Once I settled permanently in America, moving north over the course of a decade from Virginia to DC to Maryland, widening my circle of colleagues and friends, and becoming more aware, politically and sociologically, of the realities around me, I realized why a friend (shoutout to Colin!) of mine hated GwtW so much: because it is bullshit that perpetuates bullshit and hoodwinks generations into romanticizing a system founded on abuse and immorality. There is nothing good about slavery. NOTHING. All the “advantages” purportedly offered to the slave come at a price too high to be humane, and anyone who defends this hideous devil’s bargain (which, for the record, the slaves did not enter into willingly) is not a good human being. And then 45’s election and subsequent grotesque abuses of office empower white supremacists to crawl out from their holes, and it becomes hard to forget that the racism that allowed slavery to happen in the first place is alive and thriving in the Land of the Free.

Into this milieu comes Ben H Winters’ Underground Airlines, an alternate history that imagines a modern-day America where the Civil War never happened and the Hard Four states of the deep south were allowed to keep slavery, with the practice subsequently protected in the Constitution. I personally did not have an interest in reading this book till a colleague (shoutout to Doug!) brought it up in a conversation regarding, I believe, cultural appropriation. He wanted to know what I felt about a white guy writing from the first-person narrative of a black guy. I immediately put myself on a waitlist for the book from the library so I could give him an answer specific to this book. And no, I don’t think it’s automatically verboten for a person to write as if they’re a member of another race/religion/nationality etc. because writing isn’t representation in the way that acting is. Writers aren’t denying jobs to an already disadvantaged minority by writing their books, or erasing the presence of other writers with their own. And generally, I’ve found most writers who write “outside their race” to be sympathetic to their subjects.

Of course, sympathy means nothing if the output is damaging, which is why I had to read Underground Airlines for myself. Setting aside the race of the writer and the alt-history decor, this is a pretty terrific spy thriller. The protagonist, an unreliable narrator who we’ll call Victor, works for the US Marshals, going undercover to track down escaped slaves and return them to their owners. It’s a sickening job that he performs under duress, being essentially an escaped slave himself. When his latest case starts to go awry and he finds himself more involved with a single white mother and her biracial son than he anticipated, things go south in more ways than one.

For an alternate history novel to work, it has to be believable. And Mr Winters has written a doozy of a book: his America is more overtly racist (obvi) but is so familiar to anyone here who doesn’t live in a bubble that the parallels will occasionally make you uncomfortable. But what really makes this book worthwhile is that at no point does Mr Winters pretend that any of it is okay. He doesn’t pretend that any of it is easy or better than the alternatives or unfathomable (which I thought was the main weakness of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, that the protagonist of that book kept exclaiming over how people could “let” this happen to themselves.) The fear of physical pain and death are huge motivators, and to equate those with fear of poverty or hard work or even embarrassment is the sort of depraved moral equivalency that allows books like GwtW to keep poisoning the public psyche instead of being relegated to the “quaint but so fucking wrong” section of history. Which is not a call for censorship, btw, but a call for people to better educate themselves as to why slavery is wrong through and through. Perhaps reading Underground Airlines will help with that. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t written by a black person because it doesn’t displace anything written by a black person, and it certainly doesn’t perpetuate awful monolithic stereotypes like Catherynne M Valente’s Deathless (which was the book that kicked off this discussion) did.

Of course, I say all this as someone who is not a black person, but if this book was about, say, Southeast Asian people in an alt-history where the Japanese weren’t pushed back after WWII, written this unflinchingly by a Japanese or even not-Asian person, I’m fairly certain I’d be okay with it. Because Mr Winters’ doesn’t make excuses for the past at all. He doesn’t make excuses for the present either: he just writes a sharply detailed, entertaining and above all humane book that is an antidote to all the antebellum romance out there.

Read Doug’s less political, more descriptive review here.

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Sep 06 2017

Kindred by Octavia E Butler

I’m not ordinarily a fan of editions that feel compelled to shoehorn critical essays of the novel into the same volume, but I must say that Robert Crossley did provide me with a significant insight into a thing that had been bothering me about the book: Dana’s occasional and exceedingly grating naivete. About 40% of the way through the book, I actually wondered to the members of my Ingress book club if this might have been due to the book being written in the 70s, as I cannot imagine any remotely politically aware female person of color in present-day America marveling so at how people could so easily succumb to the horrors of both inflicting and living under slavery. For real, people in positions of power can be greedy to the point of erasing the agency of others, and the people under their thumbs can care more about survival than rights much less dignity (which I think was something that I also didn’t really care for in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. My survival instinct is, like Kindred’s Sarah’s, way too strong.) Pain and fear are great motivators, and it irritated me whenever Dana would think she would somehow be impervious to these when the black inhabitants of antebellum Maryland (God, when oppressed people anywhere!) were not.

So when she did finally realize that her 1970s standards couldn’t apply in the early 1800s, I was far more sympathetic to her as a main character, and especially so after I read that Dana was meant to be a stand in for/critique of the black middle class of the 1970s, with their self-satisfaction and disregard for the suffering and struggles of earlier generations, as Octavia E Butler saw it. And this book began to make a lot more sense to me, because it is essentially a case for hyper-empathy particularly in re moral relativism (and, I suspect, the seed for the splendid character of Lauren Olamina in the Parable books.) For every Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, you had thousands of black women just trying to survive, to take care of themselves and their loved ones in the face of a system that was intent on destroying their personhood. This kind of everyday, quiet bravery, this determination to nurture the spark inside and keep it away from the hurricane gale of systemic oppression, is also the reason I have no patience for women today who won’t make themselves uncomfortable in order to help the vulnerable. We are so lucky in the right here and now to have these rights that our foremothers risked their lives for, and to not use our privileges for good is shameful. A little embarrassment, even the occasional humiliation, is nothing compared to the perils those courageous women faced in order to bring about a better world.

Anyway, I’m also unsure why Dana at the end didn’t just tell Rufus the truth about why she kept being drawn back to help him, because maybe that would have stopped him from triggering that last confrontation between them? He obviously cared about his children, so I felt it an odd narrative choice for Dana to keep him in the dark on that. Tho I suppose it needed a violent ending to complete the metaphor of her returning to the present permanently marked by her time travel (but also, wouldn’t he have come back with her? I’m willing to handwave this tho.)

Ms Butler’s books always make me feel uncomfortable because they insist that I care more and do better, and I love them for that. I try to foist the Parable Of The Talents on anyone who will read it, but I haven’t read much else of her oeuvre precisely because I like feeling comfortable with myself (and who doesn’t?) They’re a good beachhead against complacency, tho, and worth reading every time.

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Aug 26 2017

The Hangman (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #6.5) by Louise Penny

I reviewed the entire series for work a few months back so you can imagine how startled I was to discover that I’d not only never read this but hadn’t the slightest notion of its existence till I was scrolling through my library website for the latest in the series. Given that it doesn’t really have much food in it, and that it’s a slight novella written to promote literacy, I can see why it wasn’t included in The Nature Of The Feast, the cookbook that kicked off my Louise Penny binge.

Anyway, it’s an excellent introduction to both Inspector Gamache and Three Pines, and were I a beginning/novice reader, I’d enjoy it, too. You can see where she refrains from using her usual language in favor of writing in a simpler style, and while it does make for a slightly less lyrical read for those of us accustomed to her elegant prose, it is still a delightful whodunnit (which might also be the first of hers I figured out on my own.) Recommended not only for the completist but also for those dipping their toes in mysteries or reading in general.

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Aug 26 2017

The Light Fantastic (Discworld, #2; Rincewind #2) by Terry Pratchett

I was too busy to do a proper review of the first in the series once I’d finished reading, so this covers both, sorry not sorry.

With the help of my local libraries, I’ve decided to read all the Discworld books that I haven’t yet attempted in order. I actually picked up The Color Of Magic ages ago but found the beginning, for whatever reason, too frivolous for my mood at the time (so wound up reading Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange instead, which was definitely not the better choice.) But the passing of years before I came back to these books was probably for the best, as at this point in my life, I’m rather sick of authors who take themselves too seriously, and can better appreciate Terry Pratchett’s skill and humor. I was actually prepared for TCoM to be terrible, and was ready to forgive it in sight of how excellent Small Gods and Nation and many others after have been: after all, I’ve already read the exceedingly awful Interesting Times and still feel the worth of his books overall outweigh the perishing rare duds. So I was extremely happy to find that not only was TCoM not awful but that it did lay a decent groundwork for what was to happen next here in The Light Fantastic.

I really enjoyed this book, as well, and probably more than TCoM. It builds keenly off of the foundation of the first book, taking all those loose fantastic elements and making for a sharp-witted, bitingly observed novel of wit and mostly good humor. I did very much like Mr Pratchett’s criticism of order for its own sake, and how that desire for order when combined with fear can make monsters out of everyday people. And, of course, it was pretty amazing to see how outstandingly feminist this book is. Is it weird for me to feel that way about a book written in 1986, as if that year was somehow all that distant in time? Perhaps it feels revolutionary because he was a male mainstream fantasy writer, and some thirty years on, the battle over whether women have and should have autonomy and representation in that particular field still rages. It’s nice to be reminded that we have support in his legacy now, and perhaps allies in fellow fans, especially whilst living under this miserable American administration.

And now I’m sad not only because of politics but because Terry Pratchett was a great man who wrote great books, and his passing was a loss for all thoughtful readers. RIP, Sir Terry.

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