In The Franchise Affair, a simple country lawyer gets a thrilling ride into criminal defense (well, thrilling for midcentury Britain) when he is enmesIn The Franchise Affair, a simple country lawyer gets a thrilling ride into criminal defense (well, thrilling for midcentury Britain) when he is enmeshed in the case of a mother and daughter accused of kidnapping and beating a teenaged girl. Robert Blair resists involvement at first, but finds the duo of Mrs. and Miss Sharpe compelling, and the story of accuser Miss Kane a little off, so decides to assist the Sharpes in uncovering the truth to the best of his abilities.
Tey constructs the mystery scenario with great prowess, and pieces the revelations and details together in a satisfying way, so that an open-and-shut case one way inverts into its opposite. The Sharpes are fascinating characters - reclusive, but strong-willed and regal - and it's rare you see a novel of this age with female characters of this caliber. But then Tey's writing gets regressive with its treatment of Miss Kane; (view spoiler)[the breakthrough in the case comes with the discovery of her elaborate lie to cover up her affair with a married man, and it's not enough to reveal her lies - she must apparently be slut-shamed into oblivion. (hide spoiler)] This is a regrettable twist, and one which dates the novel a bit much.["br"]>["br"]>...more
I read Troilus and Cressida because I wanted to go to this year's Shakespeare in the Park with a bit of foreknowledge, but alas, I did not score tickeI read Troilus and Cressida because I wanted to go to this year's Shakespeare in the Park with a bit of foreknowledge, but alas, I did not score tickets. At least I got another one of the Bard's plays under my belt even if I didn't get to see it live. T&C is certainly not his best-known, or best, work by any measure, which even this edition of the book concedes in its introduction. It's a disjointed tale of lovers rent asunder by war, where neither the love story nor the war scenes feel like they have been given full attention.
Also less than appealing to me is the whole plot hinging on Cressida being a 'whore' for flirting with the Greeks after she was traded to them (against her wishes!) for a prisoner of the Trojans. While the text of the play and arguably its Elizabethan performance were all about Cressida's perfidy against Troilus, the critical essays in this edition opened me up to some genius modern (and feminist) interpretations. I think I'd give T&C an open mind on stage - next time I get the chance, that is....more
I was a bit skeptical at first, but Dataclysm won me over. I was worried it would be too much like the aren't-we-so-smart smarminess of the FreakonomiI was a bit skeptical at first, but Dataclysm won me over. I was worried it would be too much like the aren't-we-so-smart smarminess of the Freakonomics folks, but instead it was about the amazing and often scary potential that "Big Data" has to tell us about human nature - filtered through the lens of an Internet dating site, of course.
Although some of the Rudder's 'findings' have the potential to recapitulate boring stereotypes (men of all ages like younger women! etc.), he never draws knee-jerk regressive conclusions from it. His analysis of profile content by gender and race is fascinating in a descriptive demographic way, showing how unique some cultural signifiers are, while emphasizing that in the end we statistically have much more in common across groups. (Apparently we all love pizza.)
The section of the book on data privacy was particularly timely for me, having just attended a talk at the Public Theater with Jon Ronson and Daniel Radcliffe (among others :) ) on the same topic. Both the talk and the end of Dataclysm left me curious but a bit queasy about the future of sharing yourself online; the risks of catastrophic intrusion seem low, but it's becoming blandly de rigueur to let the corporations of the world all have a piece of your mind....more
Where was humanity to go at the end of Dawn, with their fertility and future in the hands of aliens? At the start of Adulthood Rites, Lilith Iyapo hasWhere was humanity to go at the end of Dawn, with their fertility and future in the hands of aliens? At the start of Adulthood Rites, Lilith Iyapo has had a few mixed human-Oankali babies already; Akin is her third, and only male, child. With Oankali intelligence and sensory capacities and human looks, Akin is set up to be a golden boy. But there is the problem: the remaining human resisters crave children. They are willing to ignore one or two alien features to have and to hold a baby, so Akin gets kidnapped and sold to Phoenix, a resister village.
In contrast to Dawn, Akin is the focus, giving the perspective of a "construct" human-alien child. His human captors both desire and are repulsed by him, depending on which characteristics of his heritage he displays. It's not too hard to see this as a parable about racial 'purity' and racist hate, with humans wishing to cut off and cauterize the Oankali parts of these children. Butler makes this about fundamental human nature: Lilith notes that "human beings fear difference" and "persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status." (Damn!) But at the same time, Butler invokes that strong human desire to control your own reproduction and genetic legacy, which is not inherently regressive.
I would hate to think people consider Butler "niche" because she was black and female, because her sci-fi is some of the most complex and thoughtful I've read. Her work is more pacifist and character-driven than other novels in the genre and consistently reminds us what being "other" is truly like....more
Me: (Reads Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, cross-references everything I'm reading with my mental database of Hamilton lyrics) Me: It checks oMe: (Reads Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, cross-references everything I'm reading with my mental database of Hamilton lyrics) Me: It checks out, you guys!
It's not just my raging Hamilton obsession which brought me to this book, as I've enjoyed Sarah Vowell's writing before, but it certainly did help. In presidential election years I crave American history, and even I am prone to fits of odd nostalgia for that gallant time of fightin' for liberty - even though I know intellectually how simplistic that is. Thankfully, Vowell's take on history is always fascinating, refreshing, and relevant (if a bit scattershot!).
The Marquis de Lafayette now seems to be the American revolutionary figure Americans know the least about today, undoubtably because he was French and didn't hang around too long after he helped us with the whole Independence thing. But he was undeniably crucial in both the personal effort and political capital senses: he fought valiantly at the Battles of Brandywine and Yorktown and rallied France to support the under-resourced Continentals (which they mostly did to stick it to the British, to be honest). Vowell's story of his life - and of the Revolution in general - zooms back and forth to Lafayette's contributions to the war and to his later triumphant return to America, where he was greeted like a living deity. Hence Lafayette Street, etc.
Vowell brings up some excellent points about how contentious American politics have always been - there has been no golden age of complete agreement. The colonies were a "a loosely cinched bundle of states trying to collaborate for the greater good" which managed to kick out the redcoats due more to the determination of George Washington and French matériel rather than a vast groundswell of public support. It's also fascinating the effect the Revolution had on the parties in Europe: there were pro-American MPs in the British Parliament (!) and there's a strong connection between the ruinous effect of war financing on the French government's coffers and Louis XVI losing his head. ...more
I've been reading a lot of sci-fi lately where I wonder, "Is this really sci-fi, or should it be called speculative fiction, or fantasy?" That is notI've been reading a lot of sci-fi lately where I wonder, "Is this really sci-fi, or should it be called speculative fiction, or fantasy?" That is not to knock those works, which have generally been worthy. But when I picked up Octavia Butler's Dawn, it hit me right in that sci-fi sweet spot: here are real aliens! with tentacles! kidnapping humans and doing weird things to them! At the same time, Dawn isn't some B-movie script-to-be. It's an intricate, clever hypothetical about aliens trying to save humans from themselves.
So Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war, and a kindly species called the Oankali have decided to save us and clean up our environment. The catch? They treat us like we treat non-human animals, however benevolently: they put us to sleep, treat our diseases, and may also want to modify our genetics. Lilith is a human survivor tasked with becoming accustomed to the strange, be-tentacled Oankali so as to Awaken other people from suspended animation and re-form social groups. Butler writes convincingly about the humans' xenophobic fear of the Oankali; it's so visceral that it causes certain Awakened members of Lilith's group to rebel violently.
Butler is as thoughtful as ever about group dynamics, female leadership, and reproductive control. Lilith is given a choice between being 'enhanced' by the Oankali or remaining an unaltered human, but what kind of choice is it, given her confinement on an alien ship? I do find something odd about Butler's dialogue between characters, but I can't fault her expansive imagination, which in Dawn is on vivid display....more
Neil Gaiman has a phenomenal talent for creating worlds of superhuman characters with entirely human motivations. American Gods is a great example ofNeil Gaiman has a phenomenal talent for creating worlds of superhuman characters with entirely human motivations. American Gods is a great example of this talent (the Sandman series is another), where an entire pan-pantheon of gods emerges from the American melting pot. The animating concept is immigrants bringing over their gods, then abandoning them - what can these deities do without the former faith of their people? Most are apparently living in obscurity in various corners of the country, until their leader-apparent, Mr. Wednesday, warns them of a new threat trying to eliminate the old gods. Wednesday recruits Shadow, a recently released ex-con with nothing to return to, as his right hand man. Shadow is our brooding hero, street-smart but still a bit naïve, hulking but regretful of his violence.
I won't give away too much else, but there are mystical visions, surreal settings, and weird violence galore. I can forgive Gaiman for the awkwardness of "media" and "the Internet" being the new personified gods because, well, it's accurate.
I will also return to reread Sam's delightfully contradictory monologue sometime.
And it will also make a fantastic TV series. ...more
Thomas Pynchon, international author of mystery, must be as crazily intelligent and eccentric as his novels. How else could you explain his hinging thThomas Pynchon, international author of mystery, must be as crazily intelligent and eccentric as his novels. How else could you explain his hinging the action of The Crying of Lot 49 on a (maybe elaborately fake) battle between rival mail delivery companies? This decidedly weird novella often feels like a postmodern scatterplot, but also sharply skewers 60s-era subcultures and drug-induced paranoia. There is plenty of poking fun at Southern California, Nazis, and British invasion bands too, in case it doesn't sound strange enough.
But what's it about? In brief, young housewife Oedipa Maas goes on quite a trip sorting out the estate of her onetime boyfriend, industrial magnate Pierce Inverarity. She finds herself investigating a conspiracy - following the muted post horn symbol left by the mysterious Trystero group - and feeling further endangered, but endlessly curious. This would be a deeply serious plot if not for the presence of the strangest and most oddly named characters throughout (my personal favorite: Mike Fallopian).
So I did enjoy my first Pynchon outing, but I'm also still not quite sure what to make of it as a whole. It seems like he's trolling us and having a great time about it, which I can respect, because readers' heads are fun to mess with.
[Side note: I am happy that the book introduced me to Remedios Varo, whose art is so wonderfully surreal that she seemed plausibly a Pynchon invention!] ...more
How do we best judge a book - by its originality in historical context, or by how the book makes us feel now? I think about this often when doing my oHow do we best judge a book - by its originality in historical context, or by how the book makes us feel now? I think about this often when doing my own reviews. Am I able to overlook cringeworthy anachronisms or off-putting sexism for the sake of a good story? I'd like to think I don't solely view literature through 21st-century goggles, but enjoyment and relevance are crucial to a book's continued readership.
That is all to say that a book like We is hard to judge. This is because given when it was written (1924, a mere two years into the existence of the USSR), it is stunningly visionary. Zamyatin imagined a dystopia that everyone else has been refining since, with a mysterious, all-powerful leader, enforced social homogeneity, eugenics, and - of course - a rebel movement against state power. At the same time, Zamyatin's vision of the One State is hemmed by the materials of his time, with the buildings and spaceship made of glass, and the main form of transport being small planes. Flying cars were apparently still yet to come in sci-fi.
As the book is the main character D-503's "record" of events, the plot mostly circles around his internal struggle against the ultra-rationalist orthodoxy of the One State, seeded by the rebel temptress I-330. She is a delicious femme fatale in lipstick and yellow dresses, bringing color to the grey and transparent surroundings.
Although the translation was excellent, I felt strained by Zamyatin's writing style. Besides making D-503 a bit insufferable, the constant trailing off of sentences broke the narrative up too much. We get it - he's having a crisis of (non-)identity!...more
Fluent Forever doesn't make any get-fluent-quick promises. Instead, what you get is the outline of a strong program for language learning which emphasFluent Forever doesn't make any get-fluent-quick promises. Instead, what you get is the outline of a strong program for language learning which emphasizes the hard work you need to put into acquiring vocabulary and grammar. What's particularly different from many books in this genre, though, is that Wyner brings some real cognitive science to the table so you can achieve better results. As a sometime linguist, I'm very excited that readers will learn that IPA isn't just a style of beer. (Snerk.)
The book is definitely aimed at more self-directed types, but it doesn't seem incompatible with language classes - although it might turn you into the most annoying one there! I haven't fully tested the methods yet so further comments may be required when I do, but I already know this book will be a fantastic resource for future language expeditions....more
The "Essential" Dykes to Watch Out For comprises most (but not all!) of Alison Bechdel's lesbian-focused comic strip, which ran for an unbelievable 25The "Essential" Dykes to Watch Out For comprises most (but not all!) of Alison Bechdel's lesbian-focused comic strip, which ran for an unbelievable 25 years before being put on hiatus in 2008. The earlier strips she drew were quick one-offs on particular lesbian issues and jokes, but once she started bringing in recurring characters and developing plots then DTWOF really took shape. Being able to read the strips continuously helps you appreciate the character development over the years, as well as focus on her lively drawing style and small easter-egg jokes in the background of the panels.
Bechdel skillfully plays with counter-cultural stereotypes (wheat-free dairy-free pizza w/ no tomatoes!) without being mean, and the result is hilarious. The characters' dating lives, gripes about the political situation, and career highs and lows are most of the fodder, and become both one-liner jokes and moments of high lesbian drama. Most of the strips are light-hearted, but there are moments of blistering critique and moving humanity; her strip about 9/11 is perfect, and will probably make you cry.
And like most people who have read DTWOF, I wish she were still drawing it, only because our political situation is so ludicrous and we could use more of her sass.
Even though I didn't buy the book, at least I borrowed it from the library instead of buying it from Bunns and Noodle or Medusa.com, right? ...more
David Sedaris seems more nostalgic in his recollections for his latest collection, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls. Once again there is the humor ofDavid Sedaris seems more nostalgic in his recollections for his latest collection, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls. Once again there is the humor of getting older (and perhaps a bit grumpier), but his looks back at his childhood are warm, although never euphemistically told. He is still as weird as ever, enjoying his visits to his French periodontist and the taxidermist's shop more than the average person would.
This collection differs by throwing in a few short fiction pieces written in vastly different voices; I'm not sure they work, but a few deliver chuckles. It is certainly disorienting to think you're reading his story and instead discover it's in the voice of a slow-witted homophobic woman.
Some stories were so-so for me, but two are simply great: the Costco story and "Happy Place", about his colonoscopy experience. The latter is gut-bustingly (pun intended) hilarious....more