I got this book because I have an abiding interest in science, in the history of science, and in the history of various wider cultural backlashes agai...moreI got this book because I have an abiding interest in science, in the history of science, and in the history of various wider cultural backlashes against science. (I am a STEM/humanities dual degree holder, and came of age in Kansas during the most recent "Evolution Wars," so that's why that sort of thing interests me. How could it not?)
That's kind of what I thought this book would be --- an exploration of counter-trends to the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and empiricism. And, to an extent, it is; the author is a medievalist, not an Enlightenment historian or a historian of science, and he makes the very interesting claim that the "occult" pursuits mentioned in the title were of a piece with the more widely known, and celebrated, empirical investigations of that era.
(This is not the first time I've encountered that idea, but John Fleming does a very good job of making the case for it. His training as a medievalist works to his advantage here, because he can trace the medieval roots of both Enlightenment science and Enlightenment "magic.")
But the thing that was most counter to my expectations was that this book wasn't really the kind of history I was expecting -- one that dealt with places, events, ideas, trends, and in which individual people appeared briefly, like rocks in a streambed, subtly changing the water's flow and then quickly passed by -- no, this was more like a series of long, detailed biographical sketches.
Fleming chooses individuals or groups that he thinks illustrate something important, arrayed more or less chronologically from the late 1600s to the early 1800s, and he focuses on them, bringing in the broader cultural trends as needed.
The people and groups he chooses to profile are: Valentine Greatrakes, an Irish country gentleman who became famous for miraculously curing people of scrofula by touching them; a small French Jansenist sect that venerated a churchyard where a Jansenist deacon who was thought to have been able to heal people during his lifetime was buried, and who were struck with shaking fits when they visited his grave; Alchemists; Kabbalists; Freemasons; Rosicrucians (who these people were wasn't entirely clear to me! They don't seem to have been an order or a club so much as any people, anywhere, who were interested in discovering things? So I'm not sure who wasn't a Rosicrucian?); Count Cagliostro, who was actually a Sicilian named Giuseppe Balsamo, who went all over Europe founding Masonic lodges of his own "Egyptian" rite, and who was imprisoned in the Bastille because Marie-Antoinette believed (unfairly) that he had participated in a scheme to defraud her that is remembered today as "The Affair of the Diamond Necklace"; and the very interesting Julie de Krudener, a Latvian noblewoman who first became famous in pre-revolutionary Paris's literary scene, where she befriended lots of people who are still famous today, like Chateaubriand and Madame de Stael, and who later in life converted to Pietism and achieved further fame (or notoriety) as a sort of itinerant preacher. Most amazingly, she became convinced that Napoleon Bonaparte was the literal Antichrist, and that it was her special duty to stop him.
This is all very interesting, and also very well written; Fleming can be very funny. But what I thought was most admirable about his treatment of all these eccentric historical figures is how much he seems to respect them. No one is a fraud or a charlatan in this book, even when what they purport to be doing is physically impossible. Cagliostro in particular he seems to feel it his duty to rehabilitate, because Thomas Carlyle once called him the King of Liars. Fleming does his best to convince us that Cagliostro was not a liar, nor particularly mercenary; that he seems to have been a genuinely nice person, a loyal and honest person, and perhaps a bit too trusting. He is similarly gentle with Julie de Krudener. Lots of people have written her off as a frivolous, selfish, self-aggrandizing adulteress and social climber. Fleming does not deny the things she did to give people this impression, but he also tries to give us the full context of her actions, and to tell us how she saw things. He sees her as a woman of intense emotion, whose marriage could not give her everything she needed, and who did really love the men she had affairs with. He also does an admirable job of connecting her earlier "worldly" behavior -- her seeking out the literary salons like a flower follows the sun, and also her affairs -- to her later religious conversion, saying that both phases of her life follow logically from her florid emotionality and her need for an outlet for all those emotions. We are sympathetic to men whose devotion to Art, or to Principle, lead them to abandon their duties to family and community; why, besides sexism, would we not extend a woman the same benefit of the doubt?
My only complaint with this book was that it ended too soon; it cuts off abruptly after explaining how Julie de Krudener reached the conclusion that Napoleon was the Antichrist. We are not shown how it affects the rest of her life. What did she DO with this astonishing information? Did she preach against him on street corners? Did she abandon all other pursuits, to devote her life solely to denouncing him? This sounds like a life-changing revelation, but we don't get to see how, or if, it did change her life! We're just left hanging.(less)
I've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead o...moreI've started to review this book a couple times, and just could not get a grip on it. It's a hard book to review, because it's so piecemeal. Instead of a single argument or thesis given a book-length treatment, Feminism Unmodified is a series of transcribed speeches grouped by theme. Each one can stand alone, but they overlap a lot with one another in terms of subject matter and the argument they are making. You can read through them all, cover to cover, or you can flip through the book and read them as they pique your interest.
I knew of Catharine MacKinnon before I got this book --- indeed, having heard of her was the reason I got it; the book itself isn't terribly inviting. (Neither is the other book I have of hers, Toward A Feminist Theory of the State. I probably wouldn't have bought either one if I hadn't been introduced to MacKinnon first, through a philosophy class.) I knew that her primary goal in her legal and theoretical writing is to point out that the abstract "person" is a man, and that there are gaps in law and philosophy where the laws and theories that fit around this theorized man don't work as well for women. (There are tons of other kinds of people who don't fit the mold either, and thus are also ill served by existing laws and social theories, but this book only deals with women. Indeed, probably the book's biggest failing is its supposition that women are all failed in the same way by male-dominated, male-defined laws and social structures --- that's where it is most apparent just how old this book is! There's a big difference between, say, a white, middle-class married woman and how the law fails to protect her interests and, say, an undocumented immigrant woman or a transsexual woman or a lesbian or a woman with disabilities whose caregivers live with her or are a party to her major life decisions. The law fails all of these people, and more, some more than others and all in different ways. The study of those differences is called intersectionality*, and it's a pretty big deal in feminism.)
Anyway, on to a more specific discussion of what this book is about. The essays are grouped in three categories --- Approaches, Applications and Pornography --- but it seems to me that there's a lot of cross-pollination across categories, especially the first two. I don't know that MacKinnon ever talks about her approach to achieving equality between the sexes without bringing in specific examples, or discusses a particular application of her ideas without rehashing the general theory. The third section of the book stands out a little more from the others, since it has a much more specific aim: making the case that pornography isn't speech, but actual violence against women. (This is another thing that most feminists today seem to consider dated and wrong, but I find it persuasive.)
In the first part, Approaches, there are five essays. The first one is a defense of the Equal Rights Amendment (which still hasn't passed, a generation later) given as part of a debate with Phyllis Schlafly. The second talks about how MacKinnon sees the relationship between the sexes: to her, "gender" is not the social roles built on top of naturally occurring sex differences, but is instead a violently imposed hierarchy of male over female. The third piece covers similar ground, but it does so differently, in more philosophical terms. It was derived from a talk she gave at a Marxist conference, so there's a lot of reference to the Marxist doctrine of class struggle, which she uses to describe her understanding of the relation between the sexes. Man is capital, woman is labor, and they are in conflict over the means of (re)production. The last two essays are a bit random; one of them could fit just as easily in the second part, as it is an analysis of one particular court case, and the other deals with what it's like being a woman in the male-dominated legal profession, and how the success of a few women in male-dominated fields doesn't change anything for women as a whole.
The essays in the second part, Applications, are less theoretical and more concrete and specific. They also deal more with specific points of law than they do with any broad philosophical framework. The first one talks about rape, and why so few women report their rapes; the second one (which is actually pretty philosophical; it could fit in just as easily in the first section) about areas of overlap between sex and violence (MacKinnon, unlike some, sees rape, sexual harassment and sexual assault as both violent and sexual acts); the third is a long dissertation on Roe v. Wade and why MacKinnon thinks it was a bad idea to base Roe on the right to privacy rather than on the right to equal protection under the law; the fourth is about sexual harassment, and looking back on how sexual harassment has been prosecuted since it was first defined as a crime; and the last one is about Title IX and the importance of sports in helping women understand that their bodies are their own.
The third part, Pornography, is about ... you know what it's about. More specifically, it's about Deep Throat, and what it means that Linda Lovelace has said she was forced to perform in it. (MacKinnon says it means that Deep Throat is not mere speech, but the record of a crime, and itself an act of violence against its unwilling star). It's also about Playboy, and why MacKinnon thinks feminist organizations need to stop taking money from the Playboy Foundation. Another essay, "Not a Moral Issue," revisits in broader, more philosophical terms the same points made in the brief discussion of Deep Throat: pornography is not just speech, and obscenity law is irrelevant to what MacKinnon sees as the central harms of pornography, which are 1) direct harms done to the performers themselves, who may, like Linda Lovelace, have been forced to perform; and 2) indirect harms to all other women who have to deal with men who watch pornography and think of all women in pornographic terms. She explores this latter idea more in another long essay, "Francis Biddle's Sister," in which she riffs on Virginia Woolf's conception of Shakespeare's sister, talking about all the ways that rape culture hems women in and makes them divert energy that could be used to do great things into simple survival, and into trying to avoid being victimized. Another essay deals with the ordinance MacKinnon wrote with Andrea Dworkin, which would enable women to sue for damages if they thought they'd been victimized by pornography, and the last one addresses the Supreme Court decision that found that ordinance unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment. MacKinnon is not a First Amendment absolutist, and she thinks it's wrong that one person's freedom to make pornography should supercede another person's right to be compensated for wrongs that she can attribute to the first person's exercise of said freedom. For the longest time I thought I was a First Amendment absolutist, that words were only words and they ought to be protected because they can't really hurt you and they are the one thing the least powerful people can use as effectively as the most powerful, so they deserve to be as unrestricted as possible, but lately I've been reconsidering the part about how they can't really hurt anyone. MacKinnon's writing is one of the first things that made me start to question that.
*There is one essay where she deals with this: "Whose Culture?", where she talks about a 1978 court case involving a Native American woman who was trying to get her children recognized as members of her tribe --- a right that, at the time (I don't know how it stands now), only applied to men who married outside the tribe.(less)
With this enormous volume, the Baroque Cycle comes to a close. While there is the same kind of speeding up, adding new plot threads and jumping from o...moreWith this enormous volume, the Baroque Cycle comes to a close. While there is the same kind of speeding up, adding new plot threads and jumping from one set-piece action scene to another that is typical of Stephenson's endings, I thought he actually succeeded at tying everything up in this one. I guess he can do that when he's got an entire epic-length novel in which to end things, as opposed to the fifty pages or so he tends to devote to endings in his stand-alone novels.
In this volume, unlike its predecessor, the three books blend seamlessly into one another, and the mega-novel reads just like it had all been written at once. (Maybe it was --- it was published first as a three-in-one volume, and only later were the individual books released.)
Daniel Waterhouse, the first of the three protagonists to be introduced in Quicksilver, is also the first to show up here. Having been drawn out of his long retirement in Massachusetts by Enoch Root, to try and mediate Newton and Leibniz's decades-long feud over (nominally) the credit for inventing calculus and (ultimately) differences of opinion on cosmology, he has arrived in England, where he is standing in a field that will be the site of an "Engine for Raising Water by Fire" (i.e., a steam engine). From there, he goes on to London in the company of a mysterious person named Threader, whose innumerable discreet business transactions with various wealthy townsmen make the trip take far longer than it should. Daniel figures out that Threader deals in the newfangled paper money that Daniel finds so baffling. At the end of this long, meandering trip, something explodes near their coach. Daniel recognizes the flame as that produced by phosphorus, which tells him 1) the explosion was not an accident and 2) whoever made the bomb is an Alchemist.
This one simple task that Daniel is given --- get Newton and Leibniz to talk to each other and start working together instead of at cross purposes --- mutates into an imposing snarl of "side quests" in RPG parlance: Newton is Master of the Mint, and plagued by a mysterious counterfeiter named Jack the Coiner, whom Daniel ends up helping him hunt down; Leibniz has found a royal patron for his Logic Mill project, and he wants Daniel's help in getting the thing built, as well as giving it raw information to encode. There is also a succession crisis --- Queen Anne is childless, old and sickly, and both her brother James and her cousin George have claimed the throne --- and a criminal investigation for Daniel to embroil himself in.
Both of the other protagonists, Jack and Eliza, have entered the story by now: Jack is, of course, Jack the Coiner, working covertly for Louis XIV to undermine Britain's economic power, and Eliza has attached herself to the Hanover court, as she is a close friend of Princess Caroline, whose mother wed George August, who is now one of the claimants to the English throne. Eliza and Daniel are playing for the same team --- Daniel is a Whig, mostly for cultural reasons (he's a Puritan, and there is strong overlap between the Puritans and the Whigs), he's helping Leibniz, whom Eliza also tries to help, and he's helping Newton, whom the Tories are trying to discredit as Master of the Mint. But Jack is working against both of them, which must cause him some internal conflict because he still loves Eliza, though he tries to make himself forget this.
Other characters figuring in this volume are Jack's brother Bob Shaftoe, who is still a sergeant in the Queen's (later King's) Own Black Torrent Guards, and who, with his regiment, helps Daniel and Newton raid a castle belonging to a Tory lord where they suspect Jack the Coiner may be hiding, and later takes part in some skirmishes with Tory militiamen. His regiment is also charged with guarding the Pyx, where samples of coins taken from circulation at regular intervals are kept under lock and key, stored until such time as someone high-placed takes it upon himself to have their purity assayed in a Trial of the Pyx.
There is also Eliza's handsome and resourceful German-born son, Johann; a Puritan shipbuilder named Nathan Orney, who has some wonderfully arch exchanges with Daniel (they call each other "Brother Nathan" and "Brother Daniel," though their feelings for one another are pretty far from brotherly); the huge, one-armed Russian agent provocateur named Yevgeny; the wily Jesuit priest Edouard de Gex, who is in England supervising Jack's sabotage of the English currency; Dappa, who has left Jack's employ for Eliza's, and who has taken up the pen to write articles condemning slavery; and Charles White, an odious person who serves the Viscount Bolingbroke, leader of the Tory faction, and who decides that Dappa, being a black man in England, must be someone's property, so he might as well be his, Charles White's, property. He has Dappa thrown into jail, from whence he directs all his pamphleteering at White personally. Their feud culminates in what may be the most absurd dueling scene this side of Twain's "The Great French Duel."
The ending of the book is truly epic: two climaxes build at once, cutting from one to the other. They have been long in coming: they are the Trial of the Pyx and the execution of Jack the Coiner. Stephenson draws them out, longer I think than any other scene in any of the books. But the drawing-out doesn't feel slow at all; it gives those scenes a sense of grandeur and finality.
Another thing I loved about the ending of this book --- which, after the two climaxes play out, consists of a series of epilogues showing where each major character ends up --- was its thematic coherence. Toward the middle of the book the title is explained: Princess Caroline is presiding over the reconciliation of Newton and Leibniz, and she tells them she wants them to work together because she senses that a new System of the World, a more rational one guided by science, technology and commerce, was being born, but that it was a fragile one that would require both of their combined efforts to keep on track. She specifically worried that the flowering of science would lead to a withering of Christianity, and she called on both philosophers to try to forestall that. At the end of the book, Daniel is standing in the middle of a mine that has been pumped dry by one of the new steam engines, and he reflects that the new System has succeeded in displacing the old. Throughout the saga, Daniel and Eliza have been instrumental in bringing it forth: Daniel has furthered the cause of Natural Philosophy, and Eliza has championed commerce. Eliza's anti-slavery labors also fall under the rubric of this new System: as Daniel sees it, the machines the new System enables man to build will do the work that slaves used to do, and will render slavery obsolete as well as morally wrong. (I do not think that this is true; I know that slavery has survived the machine age.) Newton seems to have one foot in the old System and one foot in the new; he's the world's pre-eminent Natural Philosopher, and as Master of the Mint he oversees the rationalization of England's economic system, but his great passion is Alchemy. Indeed, he tells Daniel he only took the Mint position to try and get his hands on the fabled Solomonic gold, the gold suffused with the Philosophic Quintessence that makes it heavier than all other gold and that, distilled, hardens into the Philosopher's Stone that grants eternal life. And Jack seems to be entirely a man of the old System, thriving on chaos and unpredictability. Everything he does --- undermining Newton's coinage, trying to have Daniel, Newton or both of them killed, throwing his lot in with the absolutist King Louis XIV, as opposed to the ever-more-republican English government, stealing the Solomonic gold and unleashing it upon the world --- seems opposed to the forces of Reason and Modernity, except that he also exemplifies some very modern values, like individualism and egalitarianism. As King of the Vagabonds, his command of the Mobb, and his appreciation for the Mobb's power and knowledge of its nature, prefigure the modern era when most countries are democracies. And in that way, Jack comes off as the most forward-looking of the characters, seeing the potential of mere peasants to be political actors when Daniel and Eliza are fixated on Kings, Barons, Dukes, Princes and Princesses.
Long story short, Neal Stephenson is a genius. I do not doubt I will revisit this series many times.(less)
This book blew me away with its depth of feeling, characterization, fast pacing and deceptively simple language. I was also astonished at how seamless...moreThis book blew me away with its depth of feeling, characterization, fast pacing and deceptively simple language. I was also astonished at how seamlessly Madeline Miller interweaves her own smaller stories into the larger backdrop of the Iliad.
I'm a huge Greek mythology nerd, have been so since childhood, so this is a book I theoretically could have written: taking something huge, like the Iliad, and adding your own small details to it. Filling in between the broad strokes of these archetypal characters. Retelling this ancient story in a modern way, while retaining a sense of its epic scale.
It accomplishes that by deliberately limiting its perspective to that of Patroclus, Achilles' beloved companion. Patroclus does not participate in the fighting until the very end; he stays with Achilles in his tent, and sometimes helps the medic, Machaon, tend the wounded. So the epic battles are largely happening in the background. What's in the foreground is Patroclus's relationship with Achilles, which is told to us in a series of vignettes covering a much broader time interval than the Iliad does, starting in their shared childhood at Achilles's father's court.
We see the action of the Iliad approaching, first from a distance, and inching closer and closer as the book progresses. The seeds of the Trojan War are planted early in this narrative, in a scene placing the child Patroclus in a room with all the other kings and heroes vying for Helen's hand, and swearing the oath with them to come to the defense of whomever Helen marries if anyone steals her from him.
There were a couple of other things I loved about that scene, besides the foreshadowing: first, Miller's ingenious sketching of all the other major Greek heroes of the Trojan War --- she gives only a few lines to each man, but those lines are so evocative that you immediately know who everyone is before she names them --- and second, her impressive rendering of Helen. Helen appears only once in the story, in this betrothal scene, and Miller makes the counterintuitive choice not to describe her.
(What ambitious writer could resist the temptation of describing the most beautiful woman who ever lived? There were lots of points in this book at which I had to stop and acknowledge Miller's cleverness as a storyteller, and the decision to keep Helen veiled was one of them.)
Anyway, once that scene is over and the war, and Patroclus' and Achilles' deaths, are looming ominously in the distance, there's a long lull in which Patroclus and Achilles become close friends, and then lovers. The scenes between them are probably the most romantic thing I've ever read. I can't do them justice in this review.
Besides their heartbreaking tenderness, these scenes also stand out for their characterization of Achilles. Reading Miller's writing of Achilles feels a lot like watching someone walk a tightrope, or successfully make a series of increasingly precarious leaps. There is so much that could go wrong trying to write a novel about someone like that, someone so much larger than life. The most obvious risk to me is making him seem arrogant, selfish, spoiled or rude. It would also be easy to make him a Mary Sue, too perfect to be believed. Somehow Miller manages to give him flaws, make those flaws believable, and also keep the character likeable without compromising the disastrous nature and grand scale of his flaws.
(Another masterful bit of foreshadowing: when Achilles is just getting to know Patroclus, and asks him what he did that his father would exile him to Achilles's father's kingdom, Patroclus answers that he killed another boy who was trying to take something from him. Patroclus wants to know what Achilles would've done in that situation, and Achilles says something like, "I don't know, no one has ever tried to take anything of mine! I imagine I'd get quite angry at them if they did." And does he ever.)
Around the same time Achilles and Patroclus are falling in love, we meet Thetis, Achilles's sea-nymph mother. Her characterization was another thing I thought was absolute genius on Miller's part; rendering a convincing, psychologically complex and realistic character who is also obviously not human is HARD, and Miller does it beautifully. This Thetis has a lot more going on than the Thetis we see in the Iliad, who acts solely as Achilles's advocate to the Olympian gods. Her interests are identical to his in the poem, but not in this novel! Here, she has certain ideas about what kind of a person she wants Achilles to be, and what kind of life she wants for him, and those ideas are not necessarily what Achilles wants for himself. He's torn between Thetis's dreams of godlike glory for him and his love of Patroclus, which brings him closer to the human side of his nature. Accordingly, this Thetis hates Patroclus and tries to chase him away from her son.
I also just like the way Thetis is described. You tend to think of the Greek gods as looking just like people, writ large, because that's how they act most of the time, but yet you also know that in their true forms they're almost unbearably fearsome. Miller's description of Thetis walks this line perfectly; she's a woman, with black hair and pale skin, but she's also scary and otherworldly. Her voice is not a woman's voice; it's a horrible rasp, a noise made by saltwater and stone, not vocal cords. Miller always uses the same sets of similes to describe her: her skin is as pale as bone, the line of her jaw is like the blade of a knife, her mouth is a jagged red rent in her face. She doesn't blend into a scene: she appears, and there is one or two people in particular she's appearing to; no one else even registers to her. You get the impression that she sees people --- mortal people --- as annoying brief intrusions on her timeless, eternal solitude. Characteristic of her are the words with which she dismisses Patroclus the first time she meets him: "You will be dead soon enough."
The last thing I want to single out in this review is Miller's handling of the relationship between Patroclus and Briseis, the girl taken prisoner by Achilles and then taken from Achilles by Agamemnon. In the Iliad, we never really see them together (they're both secondary characters who don't get a whole lot of lines in the poem, though Patroclus gets more than Briseis) and don't get the idea that there's any special bond between them until Briseis speaks at his funeral, saying she loved him. This novel, with its more intimate scope, shows us this relationship from start to finish. It also gives Briseis a personality and desires of her own, which is tough when your only role in the story is that of human MacGuffin to be fought over, and traded between other, more important, characters.
That's probably the essence of this book's genius, right there: centering the book on characters who are secondary, or even peripheral, in the Iliad and giving them enough depth to anchor a novel.
This is the book I will probably always wish I had written.(less)
This is the third book in the eight-book Baroque Cycle, and also the third part of the first volume. So it involves a fair amount of tying together se...moreThis is the third book in the eight-book Baroque Cycle, and also the third part of the first volume. So it involves a fair amount of tying together separate characters and story arcs introduced in the first two books, Quicksilver and King of the Vagabonds, which is mostly accomplished by having Eliza meet up with Daniel Waterhouse in England. (Jack Shaftoe does not appear at all in this book, though he is alluded to a few times by other characters. His brother, Bob, does make an appearance near the end, introducing a story arc of his own that intersects with those of Eliza and Daniel.)
Structurally, this book follows the latter part of King of the Vagabonds in switching back and forth between two geographically distant characters' points of view. Where in the second book it was Eliza and Jack, here it is Eliza and Daniel, who are much more similar in temperament and habit --- both are smart, cautious characters who observe, plan, and then act, rather than heedlessly throwing themselves into the thick of things. This makes for more suspense, and more sense that each narrative is building toward something, as opposed to just listing along from one episode to the next. But it also makes for fewer entertaining incidents, so if you really liked Jack's part of the last book, you might find yourself bored by this one.
Eliza by now is ensconced in King Louis IV's court at Versailles, where she has a sponsor of sort, the comte d'Avaux, whom she met in the previous book and who has gotten her a position as governess to the children of some noblewoman. That's only a pretext for her to be at Versailles, though, where she has several more important roles she keeps shrouded in varying degrees of secrecy. Nearest to the surface, she acts as personal finance manager to practically the entire court, most of whose members are nearing bankruptcy trying to maintain their households and wardrobes at a suitable level of opulence. Known to fewer people, she corresponds with d'Avaux, keeping him updated on what goes on at court; she also corresponds with the Natural Philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who has published his calculus. She uses a couple of different codes to write her letters; the letters she writes to d'Avaux are written in a simpler code that she anticipates will be broken by Dutch spies, who are her real audience for those missives. (D'Avaux, it was revealed in the last book, is working to undermine King Louis, but is not pro-Dutch either. I'm not 100% sure how much his agenda and Eliza's overlap, though I don't THINK he knows the Dutch are reading his correspondence ...) Anyway, at the highest level of secrecy, she's spying for William, the Prince of Orange, who intends to seize power in England.
And, reading that paragraph, you will start to see why I don't like the title of this installment in the Baroque Cycle. An odalisque is a woman whose defining feature is her idleness; she's kept by others to be idle, and beautiful, for them. Eliza, who has to be the one the title refers to, is dizzyingly active ALL THE TIME, simultaneously doing two or three incredibly difficult things, and making sure no one sees her doing them, at any given time. Stephenson might well have chosen the title ironically; that's the only way I can see it making any sense.
I mentioned that Daniel Waterhouse comes back into play in this book; he does, and when we meet him he has come into his own as a political power player. He's still a Fellow of the Royal Society, but he doesn't conduct any research of his own. Instead, he hangs around King James II's dwindling court, watching his doctors try to treat his advanced syphilis and talking with other people about what's going to happen next. He intercedes on behalf of his fellow Puritans, getting them released from jail whenever they get rounded up on suspicion of fomenting another rebellion (remember that in the first book, Daniel's father Drake was instrumental in bringing Oliver Cromwell to power, and was rewarded for this by having his head cut off once Charles II was restored to the throne). While he's watching and waiting, the Glorious Revolution happens around him. He knows he has played some role in bringing it about, but he mostly just wanders around dazed once it actually starts unfolding. Mostly, he tries to keep an eye on his friend Isaac Newton, who is going off the deep end, abandoning physics for some sort of esoteric metaphysics. His parts of the book, especially compared to Eliza's and especially toward the end, are anticlimactic. (less)
As with any Austen work, calling Lady Susan a "romance" is to court controversy. This is because the title character doesn't have a romantic bone in h...moreAs with any Austen work, calling Lady Susan a "romance" is to court controversy. This is because the title character doesn't have a romantic bone in her body, and she --- along with just about every other female character --- regards courtship and marriage as less a search for True Love and happiness and more as a woman's only way to provide for herself and, eventually, her daughters.
Lady Susan is more frankly mercenary than any other Austen character, and she is not facing down the spectre of poverty, so she's more a hilarious, cynical antiheroine than a sympathetic character. She's no Elizabeth Bennett, one of many daughters of an obscure gentleman of modest means; she's the widow of one rich husband seeking out a second, and also trying to set her (maddeningly obtuse) daughter up for life with a rich husband of her own.
This is a very early Austen work, so the satire is much more pointed and direct, and there isn't as much subtle shading of character or gentle fun poked at the eccentricities of the landed gentry.
I also felt like the epistolary structure of the novel made it harder to follow the plot, especially near the beginning when there are so many different characters to keep straight. And while Lady Susan's letters are delightfully wry and catty, I didn't think any of the other characters was given enough space to establish a voice of their own. They mostly act as either hapless dupes or disapproving spectators of Lady Susan's schemes.
So, Lady Susan is a lot of fun, but Lady Susan is kind of a lightweight novel whose structure works against it. (less)
Just about everybody knows the story, whether they've read this book or not. That makes it a little harder to judge the book on its merits, since you...moreJust about everybody knows the story, whether they've read this book or not. That makes it a little harder to judge the book on its merits, since you can hardly fault an author for failing to maintain suspense if you pick up the book already knowing what's going to happen.
Even with that difficulty, though, I thought the first part of the book --- chapters written as diary entries for the lawyer Jonathan Harker, who has gone to the forbidding Eastern European country of Transylvania, in the Carpathian mountains, to help a local nobleman called Count Dracula sort out his paperwork in preparation for moving to London --- was absolutely spellbinding. Jonathan's slowly unfolding terror as he realizes what the Count is, and finds that he has no way to escape the castle, infects you as you read it. It's amazing that it does this, because these pages are not written in real-time narration. They're Jonathan's diary, so with each entry we know he survived long enough to write it. That doesn't make his encounters with Dracula, once Dracula's pretense of friendship has been dropped, or with any of the other creepy denizens of his castle, any less spine-tingling.
If I was just going to rate that part of the book, I'd give it five stars. That part, Jonathan's captivity and narrow escape, is absolutely word-perfect. But there's more, and while it's still interesting, and still pretty suspenseful, the tension never mounted as high at any other point in the book for me as it did in that first chunk.
Part of the problem, for most of the middle chapters, was the constant shifting of narrative vantage point. Dracula is an epistolary novel, which means that everything in it has to be a letter, pages from a diary, clippings from a newspaper or anything else that could be written, or read, by the characters themselves. We meet the two women characters, Mina and Lucy, through their letters to one another; around the same time, we meet Dr. John Seward, a psychiatrist who is treating a really strange patient who eats bugs. All of these people write about very different things, and it can be hard to piece together a narrative from their correspondence and random musings.
Eventually, of course, the things everyone remembers from the movie start to happen: the deserted ship lands (as chronicled by a very excited newspaper reporter, whose article is clipped and saved by Mina), Lucy begins to be plagued by sleepwalking episodes, and then, after one really bad night, she falls mysteriously ill. She is pale, anemic and tired all the time. Here Dr. Van Helsing, the guy who knows vampires, shows up, and the characters try to protect Lucy from her nocturnal visitor, and, later on, to find his lair and destroy him.
(The second high point of the novel for me, as far as suspense and terror go, is the part where they're trying to flush Dracula out and leave him without a place to retreat to during the daytime to restore his powers. He has some huge number of boxes full of earth from his homeland, like forty or fifty, and he has spread them out among several properties in London. The heroes have to find them all, and render them all unfit for Dracula's use by crumbling bits of communion wafer into them, before the sun sets, or else Dracula will know what they're up to and either slip their grasp or kill them.)
One of the things that undermined the tension in a lot of the key places for me --- particularly during the hunt for Dracula's boxes --- was the author's insistence on recording long, mundane conversations in dialect. The characters go around the city quizzing day laborers about recent jobs they've had, to see if any of them were involved in moving the boxes: a reasonable and clever thing for them to do, sure, but did they need to transcribe every interaction in this vein verbatim? I think not. Also, the dialect is really thick, and a lot of it sounds twee to the modern ear, I think.
One of the other reviewers said something about class in this novel: how the middle and upper classes mix freely (e.g., Arthur, Lord Godalming, hanging out with professional men like Harker and Seward, and considering them more or less his equals) but the working classes are shown to be cheerfully subservient. They "recognize their betters", is how he puts it, and I think that describes the tone of the various day laborers' interactions with Seward, Harker and Van Helsing pretty well. So that's a little odd to the modern reader, too, as is the really obvious Victorian idea of women as inherently unsuited to do anything because of their superior virtue and inferior everything else. (I found that *very* annoying, myself. Even Mina, who is very intelligent and resourceful, and who is always gathering and compiling information for the male characters, gets a whole lot of "oh, the poor dear can't handle it" exclusion from both the decision-making and the action).
The characterization of Dracula is very interesting, particularly what Van Helsing considers to be his great strengths and weaknesses. His strength is that he adapts, and also that he was such a smart, brave and ruthless person in life; his weakness is that he does not yet know all that he can do. Van Helsing enigmatically describes him as having a "child-brain", which seems to me to connote a lot of native intelligence and curiosity, but not a very large body of knowledge or experience to draw on. But this is unexpected when you think of how old he is, or the later conceptions of the vampire psyche as one burdened with an excess of knowledge and experience! What was he doing for all those centuries? Sleeping?
Difficulties aside, though, he is a massively interesting not-quite-human character. (I have a special love for those, you may have noticed). I don't know that any movie portrayal has ever captured what a strange and terrible creature he is: Bela Lugosi's suave, sensual Count embodies his capacity to overrule other people's minds, but in the book this just *happens* when he's around, not even necessarily in the room with you. That incarnation of Dracula also didn't include his more predatory-animal qualities. Really, although the sexual and sensual elements are there, I think they have taken on a greater significance in the modern vampire stories than they have here; here, Dracula is far more fearsome than he is beautiful or sexy. I don't think he is represented as being at all sexy in this book; it's clear that vampirism, especially in a woman, is like a sexual awakening (or degeneration, to a Victorian: becoming fallen), but what is sexy isn't the vampire who bites you, it's the power you gain and the loss of inhibitions. Dracula is the serpent, only instead of tempting you, he creeps up on you and makes you just like him. (less)
A couple years went by between my reading the first book in this series and getting my hands on the second, but given how little the characters and ev...moreA couple years went by between my reading the first book in this series and getting my hands on the second, but given how little the characters and events in this book overlap with the first, it really doesn't matter.
Where the first book followed Daniel Waterhouse, Natural Philosopher and scion of a staunch, politically active Puritan family, and took place mostly in England, this book follows "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe (whose nickname refers as much to an anatomical peculiarity of his as it does to his spontaneous and intemperate disposition) and a mysterious, beautiful and very clever woman named Eliza, and takes place mostly on the European continent.
It also has much less of an emphasis on 17th-century science than the first book, delving more into that era's political and economic developments. (Indeed, so much of the action of this book revolves around schemes relating to the buying and selling of shares of stock that I was both bored and somewhat confused for long stretches in the middle. Finance is like intellectual Kryptonite to me; can't understand it, have zero interest in understanding it.)
Anyway, the characters. Half-Cocked Jack sounds like someone took the most dramatic, colorful elements from Dickens (Jack's motherless childhood with his brother Bob, earning money hanging onto condemned men's legs as they swung from the gallows, ensuring a somewhat quicker death), Hunter S. Thompson (Jack is slowly losing his mind to syphilis, and as his side of the story progresses he becomes increasingly prone to vivid hallucinations which he cannot distinguish from reality), Jonathan Swift (in the frankly scatological descriptions of the kind of life Jack leads - hygiene is apparently a luxury a 17th-century Vagabond learns to do without), John Kennedy Toole and Gary Shteyngart (Jack's lewdness, sensuality and his knack for accidental heroism), and blended them all together in a single character. The actual experience of reading about this character's adventures is only slightly less awesome than whatever you've conjured up in your head while reading the previous sentence; the only problem is that they're so disjointed and episodic there's no sense of narrative momentum, just one damn thing after another.
The other main character is Eliza, a beautiful woman Jack rescues from a Turkish army camp during one of his brief spells of soldiering. When she first appeared, I wasn't sure I'd like her: her first interaction with Jack is a strained, eyeroll-inducing stretch of sexualized banter revolving around the tired, ages-old "battle of the sexes" scenario: the man has every kind of power imaginable over the woman, but because he desires her, that somehow evens the scales, or even secretly gives her the upper hand. Whatever. But luckily, Eliza is more than that: she's incredibly clever and a gifted storyteller, spinning tall tales that captivate Jack, who has lived more tall tales than most people have even heard. Like Scheherazade, she doles out portions of her life story (how she came to be a slave in a Turkish officer's tent, for instance, when she is a European woman who speaks English) strategically to make sure Jack keeps her with him long enough for her to get where she wants to go, which is Amsterdam.
Once Eliza gets to Amsterdam, she and Jack split up; she stays put, hoping to get in on the expanding mercantile economy and getting swept up in a scheme involving shares in a silver mine somewhere in the mountains of Germany, which gets her running in such high-rolling circles that she runs into a couple of lordly types who seize the opportunity to use her to further their various political intrigues. Her story gets more and more interesting and suspenseful as the stakes of her game rise and the rules get more complex; Jack's, on the other hand, seems to lose steam once he parts company with her. He continues to wander around Europe, with some vague notions of selling the fine warhorse and other loot he picked up in Turkey and thereby financing x more years of Vagabond life, and maybe also leaving something for his children. (He's never met them, but he knows he has some). He goes from place to place, stuff happens to him, he is increasingly unable to distinguish what's really happening from his hallucinations, which tend to resemble Elizabethan morality plays. It's all fairly anticlimactic, even though there are a couple of really awesome episodes. The book seems arbitrarily cut off at the end, for both of them, though. Eliza's arc in particular still seems to be building toward a future climax when the narrative ends and the (very long) section cataloguing the Dramatis Personae begins.(less)
As you can probably surmise from the huge collection of tags I've attached to this book, there is A LOT of stuff going on here!
Even the structure of t...moreAs you can probably surmise from the huge collection of tags I've attached to this book, there is A LOT of stuff going on here!
Even the structure of this book is complex and multifaceted: two stories, told by two narrators, in alternating chapters. The first narrator is Shira Shipman, a young, upper-middle-class Jewish woman who has recently become a wife and mother. Her life is also almost completely controlled by her employer, a huge biotechnology corporation, not only because they have a very strict, conformist corporate culture (there are even rules, unwritten of course, dictating how women of varying degrees of seniority within the company should dress), but also because Shira lives in what is essentially an upscale version of the company town: it's like a sealed-off, climate-controlled suburb/office park where everyone in the middle and upper ranks of salaried workers and management lives and works. Shira's narration, especially in the early chapters, is therefore suffused with nervousness, and a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, since her husband has recently been promoted and their family moved into a bigger, nicer house. Shira is certain there must be a catch, since she knows she's not exactly a team player, and not exactly in her bosses' good graces.
When the other shoe does drop, Shira packs up and leaves, heading to a place that's the polar opposite of the stuffy corporate-controlled environment she's just fled: it's a free Jewish settlement out in the middle of nowhere, unaffiliated with any of the major corporations that dominate this denuded, radiation-spoiled future Earth. Her grandmother (who brought her up) lives there, and she soon learns that her mother, who left her when she was born, is also coming to stay there. She also soon finds that her grandmother and the father of one of her childhood friends are working on something mysterious and fantastical: a robot that looks, talks thinks and feels exactly like a person, but has superhuman physical and mental abilities.
This robot, who is named Yod (a letter in the Hebrew alphabet; Aleph through Tet were his predecessors, all but one scrapped because of horrible, sometimes deadly, flaws), might be the most interesting character in this novel. That's saying a lot, because this novel is stuffed to the gills with interesting characters. Unfortunately, Shira Shipman isn't one of them --- that's the biggest thing that disappointed me about this book, that practically all of the real-time narration is done by the most boring character. (The other narrator, Shira's grandmother Malkah, spends almost all of her chapters telling the story of the seventeenth-century Rabbi Judah Loews --- also called "the Maharal" --- who created the Golem to protect his people, living as they did in the ghetto of Prague, where Christian mobs could attack them at will. This story is also hugely interesting, but because it's all very external to Malkah herself, the reader doesn't spend as much time in her mind as they do in Shira's. And that's a pity, because Malkah's mind seems like a fun place.) Yod owes his moral and emotional complexity entirely to Malkah's programming; her involvement may well have been the thing that saved Yod from the fate of all the failed attempts before him.
(And now, a random note on terminology: Yod is not a cyborg. There are some cyborgs in this book, but Yod is an android. Cyborgs are people who have been technologically augmented; androids are humanlike technological constructs. Carry on, then.)
Chaos ensues once people outside the tight circle of people who've been working on "the project" learn about Yod and his abilities. There's a lot of corporate-espionage type stuff, amped up by both the apparent absence of laws in this future world (assassination raids, abduction and hostage-taking are apparently standard practice), and the immersive nature of the "cyberspace" the denizens of the free settlement must navigate to earn their livelihood, since they specialize in cybersecurity. (Cybersecurity being very important in this world, what with all the aforementioned corporate espionage.)
This conception of cyberspace --- a three-dimensional "space" that you, virtually embodied as an avatar, move around in to talk to other people, download data, build firewalls or "patrol" existing firewalls looking for signs of intrusion --- is pretty much ripped from the pages of William Gibson's novels, as is the anarchic, impoverished megacity in which Everyone Else (i.e., the poor and the non-corporate) lives. "The Glop" (from "megalopolis," which is one of my favorite science-fiction neologisms ever, and one of the minority that seems like real people might use it) looks a lot like a lower-tech version of the Sprawl from Gibson's novels; Marge Piercy even acknowledges this debt in an afterword.
Derivative as all this is, I still found the worldbuilding in this book to be pretty solid. It helps that Piercy spends most of her time developing settings that aren't the Glop or corporate bubbles: her most original, most interesting "world" is the small, tight-knit community of Tikva, which marries freedom and openness with airtight security and a technological specialization that basically buys them their autonomy. (As in, every major corporation wants to buy their firewalls, so they all tolerate the upstart little city-state's existing outside any one of their control). It's a really interesting, well-realized picture of an intentional community, with a sharp focus on day-to-day survival in an uncertain world.
Another juxtaposition this settlement (and the book as a whole) tries to embody is that of future and past. Everyone in Tikva is a practicing Jew, and Jewish religious and cultural identity are just as integral to the place's cohesion and survival as its cutting-edge technology.
But the best thing, in a novel where everything is done amazingly well, has got to be the characters. I did not find Shira very interesting, but almost every other character who was in the book for longer than a scene or two was absolutely fascinating. And even Shira, though boring (to me), was well-developed, believable and even relatable. She evolves over the course of the book, and we see a lot of different aspects of her character: her feelings of confusion and betrayal when she has to confront her mother for the first time, and her slow metamorphosis from a closed-off, emotionally stunted, timid woman to someone bold, spontaneous and loving, which coincides with her finally moving past a schoolgirl crush on another character. And Yod! Yod is an absolutely masterful work of creation; he's not human, exactly, and he's also not male in the way that a man is male (psychologically, that is; physically he's quite male), but he is certainly a person, and despite the title he is not an "it." (His ambiguous status comes up when he wants to participate in some ritual, I forget which, that is restricted to Jewish men. He wants to be considered, not just human, not just a man, but specifically a Jewish man). His emotions were about half familiar to me (as an autistic person, I am well acquainted with the angst of wondering whether one is really human or not) and half alien (he was made for violence, and takes a predatory delight in it that bothers the moral and relational parts of his psyche), and all beautifully described and conveyed through his confused-but-eloquent speech and his halting, work-in-progress manner. He's definitely one of my favorite non-human characters I've ever encountered.(less)
This biography of the former Emperor of Japan, who reigned from about the 1920s through the 1980s, has a definite agenda: it seeks to prove that, cont...moreThis biography of the former Emperor of Japan, who reigned from about the 1920s through the 1980s, has a definite agenda: it seeks to prove that, contrary to what was apparently conventional wisdom when it was written, Hirohito knew about, and was actively involved in planning, Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor and its invasion of China.
Because of that, even though its subject's reign covered such a vast span of time, most of the book deals with the war years, the late 1930s and early-to-mid 1940s. That stuff was all very interesting and informative, but I think I would've wanted a bit more about the later years of his reign, since so much changed about his role after the war. The book addresses that to an extent: the abrupt change from his being thought of, and treated as, a god incarnate to being a sort of ceremonial head of state more like the British monarch. But I would have wanted to see more of how he adapted to that diminished role, especially since the book had done such a good job of showing how resourceful and adaptable he proved to be during the war years and the American occupation.
One thing that might be really interesting to some readers, but also confusing and potentially boring to others, is all the intrigue, plotting and behind-the-scenes negotiation that goes on in Hirohito's court. I found myself hard pressed to keep track of who was who, who was doing what and who knew about who was doing what. Especially since the revolving cast of characters includes not just princes and courtiers but also prominent army and navy officers. That adds up to A WHOLE LOT of names to keep straight.
There are some exciting parts, though: one of these plots leads to an attempted coup by a rogue faction of army officers, who plan to sneak into the houses of various high-level ministers and kill them in the dead of night; the other highlight was an incredible plan, at the start of the Occupation when no one was sure if the Allies were going to let Japan keep its "emperor system", to spirit away a child of royal blood and bring him up in secret as the real heir to the throne, which he would claim when he grew up.
There's also a lot of very interesting stuff about what the culture was like in Japan at the time; mostly, though, the book focuses a fairly narrow band of scrutiny on the military, diplomatic and political events of World War Two, specifically with an eye to tracing Hirohito's involvement in Japan's aggression. This is interesting, too, but maybe more interesting to someone with a specific interest in World War Two than to someone with a more general interest in Japan's history. The latter reader might find herself wishing the narrative could "zoom out" a little; I know I did sometimes.(less)
At the start of this installation in the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss and her friend and teammate from District 12, Peeta Mellark, are getting ready...moreAt the start of this installation in the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss and her friend and teammate from District 12, Peeta Mellark, are getting ready to go on a victory tour through the twelve districts. The creepy President Snow tells her that it's her responsibility to calm the people in the districts down, as there's been unrest in several of them since Peeta and Katniss's defiant refusal to kill each other at the end of Book One. (The way she's supposed to do that is, inexplicably, to keep pretending to be madly in love with Peeta, only MORE! And BETTER! Or her whole family will DIE!! ... yeah, I found that whole storyline annoying, ludicrous and contrived).
I can't say too much else about the plot of this book without spoiling it, but I can tell you this one is just as exciting and action-packed as the first, with the suspense ratcheted up several notches now that Katniss has made an enemy of the Capitol. In this book, the influence of "Battle Royale" starts giving way to the influence of "Spartacus."
There are other elements besides the plot worth discussing: relationships between characters get a lot more complicated and messier in this installment, as Katniss, Peeta, and Katniss's other close-friend-and-possible-love-interest, Gale, have to deal with fallout from Katniss and Peeta's very public romantic entanglement during the previous year's Games. (See, Katniss had been faking the romance to try and catch the interest of outside sponsors who could help her get through the Games, while Peeta meant every word he said. And as this book starts, he has just found out that Katniss hadn't meant every word *she* said ...) It's a classic love triangle, and while there's nothing new here, the characters are well-drawn enough and the emotions real enough that it works. Which is more than I can say for the reality-show aspect of the novel.
We also meet more interesting supporting characters (and delve deeper into the background and motivations of existing supporting characters, like Cinna the costume designer and Haymitch Abernathy, the District 12 winner of an earlier Hunger Games who "mentored" Katniss and Peeta, coaching them on how to stay alive in the arena) and see more of the other Districts. District 12 has also changed, very much for the worse, since Katniss and Peeta's victory: there's been a brutal law-enforcement crackdown, with a new Head Peacekeeper just sent in from the Capitol. Katniss realizes that the reason for the crackdown is her defiance of the Capitol, and she agonizes over what she ought to do to protect the people she loves from further punishment.
Now, the thing that bugged me the most about this book: President Snow. He's got a huge country to run, and a civil war to avert, and yet he has all this time just to hang around giving Katniss the creeps? The man behaves like no despot I've ever heard of, and while his actions make no sense in the context of statecraft, or rebellion-quashing, or the consolidation of power, they are very obviously intended to ramp up the drama for Katniss. So when he's not being one-dimensionally, cartoonishly Evil, Snow is, essentially, relegated to the role of dramatic background music. Dun dun DUNNNNN!
(I realize the above doesn't really read like a four-star review ... I guess what that means is that, while the book has lots of problems, I still really enjoyed it, and it's problems aren't so bad that they got in the way of me enjoying it. It was less, "okay, Book, you've lost me" and more "This is ridiculous! .... But what happens next??")(less)
I'd heard a lot of really good things about this series, and now that I am finally reading them, I see that all the praise is totally justified. These...moreI'd heard a lot of really good things about this series, and now that I am finally reading them, I see that all the praise is totally justified. These books are exciting, suspenseful, emotionally engaging, flawlessly plotted and fiercely political. They also keep surprising you with the unexpected depth of their deceptively simple characterization and worldbuilding.
In the first book, we're introduced to Katniss Everdeen, who is sixteen years old and head of her small household, caring for a younger sister and a widowed mother who had fallen into a deep depression after losing her husband when the coal mine he was working in caved in. Katniss keeps her family fed by hunting wild game and gathering edible plants in the woods near where they live.
We are also introduced to the totalitarian state of Panem, which has taken the place of the modern USA (and maybe some of Canada and Mexico as well) and which is comprised of 12 districts, demarcated by geography and industry (District 12, where Katniss lives, is in Appalachia and its economy is centered around coal mining), and a capitol city, which is not Washington DC but somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The districts are vassal states of the Capitol, subject to economic exploitation, military occupation and a horrible yearly reminder of their enslavement: the Hunger Games. Each year, every district has to surrender one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, chosen by lottery, to fight to the death in "the arena," which isn't really an arena but a wilderness environment that's been extensively booby-trapped, scattered with weapons and survival gear (for those lucky enough to find them, and skillful enough to use them effectively), and stuffed full of hidden cameras to broadcast the action on TV. People in the Capitol love the Hunger Games, because they're such a spectacle (Suzanne Collins compares them to Romans, not only because of the gladiator fights they love to watch but also more explicitly, giving them Roman names like Claudius, Caesar, Cinna, Octavia, or Cato where people in the Districts have different names; she also gives them outlandish fashions and hairdos to heighten their air of decadence and artificiality), but to everyone else, they're hateful and cruel.
The action of this first book starts when Katniss and her sister attend the "reaping," or the ceremonial drawing of names of people who will go to the Hunger Games; Katniss is worried because it's her little sister's first year of being eligible. Sure enough, the sister's name is called, and Katniss jumps up to take her place.
The rest of the book deals with Katniss's odyssey to the Capitol, where she is introduced to the audience and we see through her eyes the contrast between the pampered, entertainment-obsessed Capitol dwellers and the marginal life she's accustomed to living in District 12. She struggles with her feelings about these people, because almost everyone she meets is kind to her, and not a bad person, but at the same time she knows that their wealth exists because of her, and her people's, poverty.
Most of the book takes place in the arena, where Katniss's wilderness skills keep her alive and allow her to hide from her competitors, some of whom have trained for the Games all their lives and will not hesitate to kill her. She struggles with the knowledge that she'll have to kill them; some of them she would have no problem killing in self-defense, but others, like a very small girl from another poor district who reminds her of her sister, and the boy from her own district, who once gave her bread when she was starving, get under her skin.
The most surreal aspect of the book is the fakery and theatricality of the personas everyone creates for the cameras, which they keep up in the arena. That contrast between the remoteness of their physical environment and the knowledge that the audience (and also their mentors and sponsors, who can send them gifts throughout the Games) are always watching, is just bizarre. The cagier characters, including Katniss, figure out that they have to play to their audience's expectations and feelings to get food, medicine and other helpful things from their sponsors. I have a really hard time reconciling the wilderness-survival elements of the story with the more claustrophobic, wheels-within-wheels interpersonal stuff --- not because Collins isn't making it work, because she is, but just because it's so inherently jarring. It's so off-putting I'm amazed Collins manages not to alienate me completely from Katniss, but she does.
This book occupies a lot of the same thematic territory as the Japanese movie "Battle Royale," and in a lot of ways it's telling the exact same story: kids fight to the death in a future police state. But I think The Hunger Games tells the story better, because it gives us a deeper, longer look at all the characters, so that we know who they all are, and start to care about them, before they start dying.(less)
The thing I liked most about this book was its conception of what a modern-day Amazon society would be like: in some ways, Lori Devoti's vision makes...moreThe thing I liked most about this book was its conception of what a modern-day Amazon society would be like: in some ways, Lori Devoti's vision makes a lot of sense to me, but other choices she made were very surprising.
The book is set in the modern USA, in Wisconsin, but with one major difference: Amazons are real, and they've been living undetected among "mundane" humans for about 2,000 years. For the most part, they live nomadically, moving between Amazon encampments scattered across the country and only mixing with regular people to conceive children. (This setup reminded me of about equal parts The Gate to Women's Country and the Harry Potter series).
These Amazons aren't all warriors, though: they have four castes, each specializing in different things. Most Amazons are warriors, gifted with strength and speed beyond what even an elite human athlete possesses and trained in the use of sword and spear, but there are also priestesses, who can do magic using the four elements; artisans, who learn the craft of tattooing and give each Amazon the two tattoos that mark her tribal membership and augment her powers; and hearthkeepers, who are domestics. They cook, clean, take care of children and basically keep the whole society alive and functioning from day to day. They are held in contempt by the other three castes, which strikes me as very odd, and weirdly sexist.
One of their number --- the book's protagonist, Melanippe Saka --- has left that world to join mainstream society. She owns a tattoo parlor, and lives with her mother, daughter and grandmother. She left the Amazons because she was pregnant with a son: Amazon tradition dictated that she had to give up this son, but she wanted to keep him. She lost the son, and held an elder Amazon in her tribe, a priestess, responsible for that loss.
The plot of this book is a murder mystery: ten years into her voluntary exile, Melanippe starts finding the bodies of girls who've been murdered, and whose tattoos mark them as Amazons. She tries to avoid getting involved, but of course she can't (there'd be no story otherwise) and soon enough she's forced to confront her old enmities and work with the women she walked away from ten years ago to stop this new danger that threatens all of them. (less)
Overall, I really, really liked this book --- I withheld one star for some minor complaints that made it fall short of perfect for me, which I will ge...moreOverall, I really, really liked this book --- I withheld one star for some minor complaints that made it fall short of perfect for me, which I will get to later.
It's very well plotted --- things are introduced early on in the story, in the vignettes capturing the protagonist's childhood on Titan, that all get woven into the plot much later, when he comes to Earth to give a speech at the United States's quincentennial celebration.
It also has great character development; the protagonist, Duncan Makenzie, is a clone, and Clarke does a wonderful job of drawing subtle distinctions between Duncan and his two elder clones (whom Duncan thinks of as both his father and grandfather, and also as much-older brothers ... which they are!) to show that even though they are genetically identical, their lives have given them different outlooks, personalities and skills, even though they remain close enough to guess each other's thoughts and complete each other's sentences.
The character I found most intriguing wasn't any of them, however. It was Karl Helmer, Duncan's best friend in childhood (and lover in adolescence --- apparently this future society is "bi-normative" as opposed to heteronormative, because most of the characters assume Duncan is bisexual and Duncan himself says he finds people who are exclusively gay or straight to be somewhat odd) who fell out with Duncan and hasn't spoken to him in years. Karl is very intense, and also very emotional. He's also a genius at math and physics, and it is in his capacity as brilliant physicist that he re-enters the story much later. You don't often see characters in science fiction who are both highly emotional and also masters of some rigorous discipline like astrophysics --- more often science-fiction writers seem to go with the Coldly Impersonal Scientist trope, or The Scientist Who Loves His/Her Work More Than Anything Else.
The last thing I thought was really clever and wonderful about this book is the two worlds it depicts --- Titan, where the atmosphere is made out of methane and ammonia; and Earth, where civilization has advanced to such an astonishing degree that there's no more violence (even Duncan, the rugged colonist, has never handled a weapon, eaten meat, or killed anything), everything is very safe, and Earth's high-technology civilization coexists peacefully with its resurgent wilderness.
The main thing I didn't like was an odd failure of characterization: the one major female character, Calindy, never seemed quite real to me. Part of this is because most of our first impressions of her come from Duncan's rosy, soft-focus recollections of her from early adolescence, when he and Karl both became infatuated with her, but some of it does come from Clarke's failure to give her a discernible inner life.
Finally, there was one scene near the end of the book that made me very, very uneasy. Duncan was going to get himself cloned, to perpetuate the Makenzie line, and while he's doing that we find that the surrogate mothers have volunteered for that duty because they want to have children. That sounds laudable, but consider that when most women say they want children, they mean they want to keep the children, and raise them. Precious few women just want to go through pregnancy and labor, and then hand the child off to some stranger. (Read Ann Fessler's history The Girls Who Went Away for some corroboration of that statement). To make the ethics of this arrangement even murkier, Clarke gives the impression that many, if not all, of these women are developmentally disabled, which calls into question how well they understood what they were signing up for.
Anyway, it's a terrific novel, well realized, well plotted and well characterized, with only one jarring exception, and one troubling detail in its utopian future society.(less)
We first meet Melanie, the protagonist and narrator of Daniel Isn't Talking, at a particularly vulnerable point in her life. She's a new arrival in an...moreWe first meet Melanie, the protagonist and narrator of Daniel Isn't Talking, at a particularly vulnerable point in her life. She's a new arrival in an unfamiliar country, having emigrated from the United States to England to set up house with her new husband in a cottage owned by his family; she's not working, and is dependent on her husband for both financial support and social ties; she doesn't really know her husband all that well, as she seems to have turned to him soon after losing her boyfriend at the time in a tragic motorcycle accident; and she has two small children, the elder of whom is four years old and, you might have guessed, can't talk.
It's soon made clear that young Daniel has autism, and on the heels of that discovery, all hell breaks loose in Melanie's personal life. Her husband abandons her, leaving her the cottage but cutting off his financial support of her. With no job, two children to feed, and Daniel's various expensive tests and therapies to pay for, she is soon reduced to selling off everything in the house that isn't nailed down.
The rest of the book is about how Melanie gets on her feet again, establishing herself independently in this new environment, finding the right therapist for her son, getting her daughter started in school, and falling in love. This story --- Melanie recovering from the shock of her husband leaving her, and finally getting past her grief for her lover, and starting to live for herself again --- is good enough, if a bit cliche.
Supporting characters make it more interesting, like Melanie's friend Veena, another immigrant (albeit from India, not the US), who works as a cleaning lady while studying philosophy. She is funny, interesting, supportive of Melanie and understanding of Daniel in ways that Melanie, mired in her angst, can't be. She also gives Melanie needed perspective: she reminds her, gently but firmly, that worse fates exist than having an abnormal child. (I wanted to stand up and cheer when she said that; Melanie's woe-is-me, my-son-is-broken act REALLY got on my nerves!)
That said, the Melanie/Veena relationship smelled uncomfortably like white-lady patronage to me. Melanie pays Veena to clean her house, though she is not very good at it; what Melanie is really buying is her conversation.
Another supporting character I liked was Melanie's brother, who is barely in the book at all but who intrigued me. He lives in the US and takes care of traumatized parrots. Melanie doesn't like him very much, chiefly because he doesn't help her in any way when she's on her own and broke. She is disgusted by the fact that he has so much empathy for his birds but none at all for her.
The biggest thing that bothered me about this book was its treatment of Daniel, and, through him, autism in general. See, Daniel is really not a character in this book so much as a plot device, a Thing Melanie Must See Through. It's kind of hard to articulate why I think he's objectified in the text, since the story belongs to Melanie --- I would be unreasonable to expect all Daniel, all the time --- but it seems like Marti Leimbach never gives any hint, not only of what Daniel is thinking or feeling at any time, but that he can think or feel at all. He seems reduced to a collection of sullen silences, bizarre behaviors and random temper tantrums. In this, the book compares really unfavorably with Keiko Tobe's manga series "With the Light," which tells a very similar story about a young mother and her autistic little boy, but in which both characters are portrayed with equal depth, nuance and sensitivity.(less)