John McWhorter's concise little book, while written in his ever-entertaining style, nevertheless illuminates a serious issue which has vexed the populJohn McWhorter's concise little book, while written in his ever-entertaining style, nevertheless illuminates a serious issue which has vexed the popular understanding of linguistics for decades: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism; the idea that what kind of language one speaks, specifically in terms of how its grammar expresses ideas, shapes one's thought to such a degree that speakers of different languages actually perceive the world differently. Shades of blues are more vivid to Russian eyes, with their two different words for lighter and darker varieties of what English (and many, but by no means all, other languages) considers "one color." East Asians are more attuned to what kinds of materials various stuff is made of because many languages in the region force one to classify objects into certain categories (long, thin objects, flat objects, small animals) when one counts them. These and more are the classic examples which proponents of the Whorfian paradigm put forward as proof that different human groups, because of what their language's GRAMMAR (as opposed to their culture) forces them to take note of, are somehow more "alive" to these particular facets of reality.
This just isn't true. At least not to the degree that has been claimed. McWhorter cites the large body of evidence which demonstrates that outside of highly contrived laboratory experiments (which do suggest some small perceptual differences), the mechanics of grammar do not affect thought to any significant or meaningful degree. Culture affects how one thinks and the way in which one uses language. The structure of one's language (such as whether it assigns nouns grammatical gender) simply does not affect how or what one thinks about in "real world" situations. Experiments trying to prove otherwise give marginal results. The idea that languages shape a pervasive worldview for their speakers is therefore simply incorrect. This should be a closed book except that it sometimes seems as if people who are not linguists simply will not abandon the idea.
Whorfianism in its extreme, all-encompassing worldview-shaping sense, is of those pernicious little concepts which, although largely discredited by empirical research and no longer given (much) credit among linguists, has filtered into the humanities as well as the sort of NPR-listening tier of popular consciousness through journalistic rather than scientific sources and entrenched itself. McWhorter generously acknowledges that the motive behind this is noble; the impulse to celebrate diversity and acknowledge the possible existence and equal validity of radically different ways of perceiving reality. It must be said that Whorf had an agenda when he put forth his theory that language shapes worldview. Specifically, he wished to prove that the Hopi Indians' relationship to time was conditioned by their language, and, in effect, gave them a separate but equal worldview vis-a-vis time to that of Westerners; one that is cyclical, rather than linear (he was also wrong, incidentally, about how the Hopi mark time in their language.)
McWhorter, however, makes what I consider the definitive case for why this is a poor and potentially harmful way to celebrate diversity; Whorfian claims ultimately offer little but exotification and back-handed compliments to (often, though not always, non-Western, low-population size) speakers of other languages, almost always, it seems, by monolingual Anglophones with college educations who are all too ready to chastise themselves for the perceived lack of vibrancy in their own culture ("Whoa, you must be so, like...in TOUCH with modality from all the explicit marking you do, man.") He also shows convincingly that even linguists who embrace Whorfian ideas have a track record of only doing so to the degree that they are "comforting"; i.e. that they show that non-Western or even simply non-Anglophone peoples (such as the French and their different words for knowing facts and knowing people) have an "expanded" worldview compared to that of the English-speakers conducting the studies. Studies that suggest possible deficiencies in "the other" (such as Mandarin Chinese's lack of many of the shades of conditionality that English has, and what that might imply about how its speakers process the hypothetical) are quickly denounced and expunged from the canon.
Ultimately Whorfianism as understood by the benighted NPR listener is one more Noble Savage fallacy with which to pat oneself on the back for grappling with the idea that people in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea might be more "in tune" with group dynamics than us selfish, despoiling Westerners because their grammar requires them to mark certain things about the number or gender of people involved in some speech event. All Whorfian explanations for how grammar effects cognition similarly collapse into this kind of just-so story under scrutiny.
So then what makes some languages mark certain aspects of reality (like whether something happened in the past) explicitly in their grammar while others leave them to context and yet are still fully developed systems for expressing complex human thought? McWhorter continually emphasizes the linguistic truth of the matter: chance. Whether a language marks something in its grammar or not is virtually random (barring the obvious relationship it bears to the developmental history of that language) and it has nothing to do with the alleged Weltschmerz of a given "ethnos." For some reason, this is very hard for non-linguists to accept. The humanist types in question, especially, seem to only care about the mechanics of language, so fascinating in and of themselves, in as much as they might serve as a window into the "soul" of a people. For a linguist, this is probably the single most depressing aspect of this book. Language, as McWhorter states many times, is just so darn cool on its own terms. Its study, especially the study of small and dying languages, should not need to be justified for any other reason than that its variety is endlessly awe-inspiring, not because that variety tells us anything in particular about how a certain people "thinks." Their cultural practices will tell you that, in all likelihood loudly and forcefully. Why look through a glass darkly for hints that the Japanese are vaguely more sensitive to the composition of "stuff" because they use classifiers, rather than read their literature, or appreciate their art to learn that they have a particular love for all things wistfully transient?
In effect, McWhorter demonstrates what linguists and cognitive scientists have known for a long time; that culture shapes language, not the other way around, and that all people around the world think pretty much the same way, which in itself should be the more comforting realization. Now if NPR would just start sending copies of this book to all its listeners......more
Frank Portman's first novel, King Dork, is as engaging a read as his second novel, Andromeda Klein (which I happened to read first.) It's going to beFrank Portman's first novel, King Dork, is as engaging a read as his second novel, Andromeda Klein (which I happened to read first.) It's going to be difficult for me to resist comparing them somewhat. They're both great books, and you should read them, and let your kids read them (but probably not read them with your kids, that might be awkward.)
The eponymous hero of King Dork, Tom Henderson, is an intelligent, thoughtful high school sophomore doggedly slogging his way through the California public school system, where these traits are not appreciated by either his fellow students or his teachers. His father, who may have shared these traits, is dead, and the strange circumstances of his death "in the line of duty" in the Santa Clara police force (as well as clues to his own adolescent experience during the nineteen sixties, in the form of scribbled notes in the margins of books he read as a teen) becomes a mystery Tom hopes to somehow solve. Tom's stepfather is well-meaning but inept at interpreting the needs of an introverted fourteen-year-old, and his mother is detached and deeply troubled in some unspecified way that involves lots of prescription and non-prescription sedatives. Tom is perpetually and sometimes violently harassed by both students and teachers at school, and has only one real friend by virtue of alphabetic proximity, Sam Hellerman. They are in a band together, which faces some minor obstacles to success such as their not having a drummer, or musical instruments.
Some of this may sound like a caricature of the teenage social outcast who is actually smarter and more sensitive than everyone else in the room, including most adults. But this is intentional, for reasons I will get to that involve a certain widely-read high school English classic. Tom's easy, funny first-person narration, distinctive point of view, and lack of overt self-pity (in favor of wry wit and occasional justifiable rage) make him a fully-realized individual rather than a type. Similar to Andromeda Klein, Portman deftly and realistically weaves "issues" into the back story and environment of his characters in a way that seems integral and true to life, rather than using them as the focus of his plot, and thus subjecting us to another heavy-handed "YA book about issues."
The thing that really sets King Dork apart, though, especially for adult readers interested in a YA book with sophisticated thematic undertones, is its unromantic examination of the baby boom/Vietnam generation Tom's father belonged to, and some of the negative effects of its legacy on the generations that followed. King Dork's plot is spurred into action by and continually refers back to the irony of the institutionalized reading of the book The Catcher in the Rye in schools. Holden Caulfield's cozy, high school curriculum-sanctioned version of now-antiquated mid-century rebelliousness and "free thinking" is contrasted with the reality of adolescence at the turn of the 21st century (King Dork is set in 1999, and teaches your kids about things like pay phones!) The paragraph on page 323 of my edition, which sardonically sums up what the baby boomers have wrought, and links it to the degraded educational system Tom Henderson must now struggle through is overly long to quote here, but it's pure gold.
King Dork is also an indictment of the public school system in general. In this respect it reminded me so much of some of my other favorite YA titles by Daniel Pinkwater, specifically Alan Mendelson, Boy from Mars, and aspects of The Snarkout Boys (both reprinted in 5 Novels: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars / Slaves of Spiegel / The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death / The Last Guru / Young Adult Novel,) that I had to wonder if this was entirely coincidental. Or maybe both authors just paint a terrifyingly accurate portrait of public school drawn from their own, separate experiences. I don't know. But I have been a Daniel Pinkwater fan my entire reading life, and I can only hope that Mr. Portman proves even half so prolific. King Dork is kind of like a new, updated version of Alan Mendelson, now complete with profanity, soft drugs, and girls, girls, girls!
Speaking of girls, I was disappointed to see that some readers disliked or rated King Dork poorly because they felt it was "sexist" and "objectifying" of women, so much so I feel I have to address it. It is currently fashionable to endlessly analyse every piece of media and human interaction through this lens, and in my opinion it has become an extremely lazy form of criticism. King Dork is a smart book, and given everything else about it, there is certainly more artfulness to its portrayal of girls than quote-un-quote "casual misogyny." For one thing, alienated from the high school social order as he is, Tom Henderson kind of dehumanizes everyone of any sex who he views as "normal" (and thus psychopathic and invested with a universal mandate to keep the dorks of this world in their place, though violent means if necessary.) Yet oddly enough, I didn't see any reviews decrying Tom for objectifying jocks as subhuman, testosterone-driven brutes, because he totally does this. His view of them is simply uncomplicated by the lack of a conflicting desire to grab their butts (it's just not that kind of book.)
I thought Tom's attempts to grapple with the fair sex seemed like an honest portrayal of both the thrill and the anguish of being fourteen and male (I have never been male, and some people might argue that I have never been fourteen, so I can only guess here.) Given that Tom's stepfather at one point gives him a painfully awkward, absolutely impotent and disorienting "respect women" speech, which somehow also manages to be about guns, Vietnam, and his own fragile self-esteem more than it is about any of Tom's real problems indicates to me that this is yet another comment on how the boomers' collective attempt to remake the world failed, and failed their children. Free love is a messy, messy business. (view spoiler)[Plus, if you didn't almost kind of choke up at least a tiny bit at Tom's wistful description of what it might be like to be in a true Sex Alliance Against Society, you basically have no heart. (hide spoiler)] And if you're still unconvinced that Frank Portman can write anything other than some kind of author surrogate character who spends half his time fetishizing Portman's own tastes in classic rock music and the other half ogling girls, kindly direct your attention to Andromeda Klein, whose protagonist IS a girl, whose knowledge of music ends with composition dates after AD 1500.
That being said, some people might find the frequent digressions about classic rock a little irritating. Andromeda Klein is open to similar criticism. I get it, not everyone reads novels in order to excel on panel games in the categories of Rock and Roll History or Great Minds of Western Occultism (though Tom Henderson and Andromeda Klein would certainly find this a kinder, gentler world if they did.) What can I say? In my opinion, Dr. Frank makes it work. And I don't even know that much about rock and roll history.
I could list so many other great things about this book, like all the hilarious band names and first album titles Tom and Sam come up with (which are helpfully collected at the end of the book for easy reference!) or the pop-up devil-head vocabulary mispronunciations, or the fact that Frank Portman's books both contain glossaries, which is really neat for the kind of people who say things like "How neat! This book contains a glossary," and who are exactly the kind of people who would like Frank Portman books.
Because I had read Andromeda Klein first (and I'm sure this would have happened if I had read King Dork first), by about half-way through the book, I thought I pretty much had the Frank Portman Formula down; alienated, detail-oriented youth with minute knowledge of obscure subject matters, seemingly-unrelated-but-converging mysteries, clues hidden in old books linked to dead people by sets of initials, high school basement parties rekindling hope of lost or previously-undreamed-of romantic possibilities. But ultimately I could not have guessed how King Dork was going to end, and there were still several surprises before I turned the final pages. As Tom Henderson is forced to conclude, not everything in life can be fit into a neatly unified theory of events. There is no great manual to the universe which, if we could somehow read it, would tell us exactly why things happen the way that they do. Sometimes, it's pretty random. Some coincidences really are just coincidences after all. Of course, Andromeda Klein would tell him that's ridiculous.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This is the first and so far only book by Kingsley Amis I have read, and judging by some of its other reviews, it isn't his best-loved work. I enjoyedThis is the first and so far only book by Kingsley Amis I have read, and judging by some of its other reviews, it isn't his best-loved work. I enjoyed it though, and so this encourages me to read other books by him. I did not find it laugh-out-loud funny as some reviewers have, but it definitely had me smiling, sometimes broadly, on more than one occasion. As a satire of contemporary-to-publication British and American culture in the sauced up, swinging former half of the 1960's, however, I did feel like I was missing some of the subtlety of the social commentary simply because it's now so removed in time.
This book is a character sketch and psychological portrait as much as it is a satire, though, and I found it a compassionate, if unshrinking one. But then I'm probably also the president and sole member of the Real Life Women Who Like Roger Micheldene Fan Club. You can read other reviews as to why he's a completely unredeemed and insufferable character (they are lies.) Roger is an anti-hero - fat, bigoted, womanizing, prone to violent impulses; repulsive by design to be sure - but a comprehensible and sympathetic one, if you can allow yourself into his frustrated and dissipated British Imperial Old Guard worldview.
Indifferently married to another woman, the corpulent, middle-aged Englishman Roger has come to America on professional pretexts to pursue the endgame with his sporadic, transnational mistress Helene; either to persuade her to leave her own handsome-but-pin-headed Danish academic husband and marry him, or to conceded the race once and for all. I don't tend to stick with books the premise of which I find hard to believe, and at the outset it is a little difficult to understand why the very beautiful, satisfactorily married and significantly younger Helene ever bestowed her favors on the physically and morally distasteful Roger in the first place, or continued to hold out their promise across a variety of land masses and the course of five years.
However, in this case I didn't find it SO improbable that I rejected the story outright. Because the narrative is unshakably rooted in Roger's point of view, we encounter Helene as he does; as an entrancing female enigma, whose whims are capricious and whose motives and next move are uncertain. It provided a successful hook and mystery to keep me reading at a fast clip. Why should Roger think he even has a chance with Helene? DOES he? Might she leave her husband for him? If so, what will become of her irritatingly precocious young son, whom Roger detests? These questions and more made the book solidly engaging at the plot level, as well as its satire and humor. The pacing of each chapter propelled me effectively into the next.
The book is not long (only 162 pages in my edition), and its small cast of characters are tightly integrated, each one plays a necessary role in the ultimate payoff. The majority of them seem two-dimensional at first, because that is how they seem to Roger, all lampooning some different aspect of boozy, wife-swapping professional and academic early 1960's America, but on closer inspection, each one possess some subtle, individuating characteristic. By the end we, along with Roger, gain a glimmer of insight into even Helene's character and motivation as well. Most of the time though, it seems like Roger is the only real, thinking, feeling human being on the continent. This isn't a flaw in the writing, this is also how Roger feels most of the time, and goes a long way towards explaining much of his behavior. He's very careful to almost never show it, of course (he is English), but the inside of his head is a swirl of turbulent emotions, and we are, for all intents and purposes, inside his head.
I also found the picture Amis paints of how such a disgusting man could still manage to attract women surprisingly convincing. Roger's whole outward persona is a calculated mask (until he occasionally slugs someone), and he is very well practiced at turning on a particular kind of refined, Oxford-educated charm when he wants to. Amis portrayed it in such a way I could actually believe it was sometimes effective. We see proof within the book that, no matter what Roger would like to think, it isn't 100% effective with all women, but Amis convinced me by the deftness of his writing that it could be effective enough, enough of the time. This especially impressed me, given that he also goes out of his way to show just what a stupendous glutton and boor Roger can be, and often the two things happened within pages of each other. The little cracks of vulnerability that sometimes show, especially when dealing with the almost perpetual disappointment that is Helene, whom he seems to really love, touchingly round off the grating edges of a realistic and complex character.
All in all One Fat Englishman is probably most worth your time if you are making a serious study of satire, or have a particular interest in the time period it's set in. At such a short length, however, it's worth taking the time to make up your own mind about this fat Englishman, one way or another....more
Anyone who rubs shoulders in the worlds of feminism or neopaganism/new age spirituality has probably already confronted and formed some opinion on theAnyone who rubs shoulders in the worlds of feminism or neopaganism/new age spirituality has probably already confronted and formed some opinion on the subject matter of this book. However, I would also recommend it to anyone interested in human prehistory, historical linguistics, anthropology, or social science who may only be peripherally aware of it. If you are involved in any of these fields, you will likely have heard, at least in passing as I had, about the concept of matriarchal prehistory. Especially if you deal less with academics and professionals in these fields and more with people who have gleaned their information from popular culture or publications, or are a critical reader of popular publications yourself, it would behoove you to have the information from this book at hand. At 188 pages without delving into the detailed notes, it is a quick read (I'm not a fast reader and it took me about a day) and well worth the investment. Eller is a good writer in addition to being well-versed in her subject matter (although she is a professor of religion she has done her research on the prehistoric topics that I'm more familiar with very well), and her prose are not dense and easy to read despite the thorough coverage of the subject she gives in such a small space. She is also extremely tactful and sympathetic on delicate topics without undermining her argument, sometimes wryly humorous, but mostly straightforward and matter-of-fact in her presentation.
I think the best thing about Eller's deconstruction of the matriarchal prehistory myth is that she is not content to merely catalog the lack of evidence for matriarchal societies, past or present, in the archaeological and ethnographic record or the absurd lengths those looking for them go to read goddess iconography into every swirl and dot and wavy line found in prehistoric art. That is as easy as shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.* She, however, goes a step further to demonstrate how the very premises upon which feminist matriarchalists (Eller's preferred term for those who believe that human prehistory before about 3000 BC was matriarchal) base their arguments for what creates the conditions of matriarchy are false. The classic explanations include that in hunter-gatherer and subsistence horticultural economies women's activities provided the majority of calories for the community and thus took pride of place, but more importantly, that it was not understood that men had any role in reproduction, thus giving women and the female body a perceived miraculous monopoly on life, causing prehistoric peoples to practice exclusive goddess worship, and consequently privilege and adore real women. Eller shows with cross-cultural examples how each of these assumptions is groundless. There are many societies documented in the historical record and continuing into modern times which practice hunting and gathering and subsistence horticulture and worship goddesses. The ethnographic record even contains record of groups with a shaky grasp on the concept of biological paternity (though Eller gives good reason why any claims that such groups really exist should be taken with a heaping handful of salt). The presence of economic arrangements heavily reliant on women's work, goddess worship, and shallow understanding of reproduction do NOT correlate to improved status of women in observed societies which have them (edit 9/11/13: as this riveting new Indian campaign against abuse starkly demonstrates: http://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/india.... By showing that the basis upon which past matriarchy is postulated is fundamentally flawed, Eller goes much farther towards discrediting it than simple demonstration of an absence of evidence would.
She also gives very good reasons why the myth of prehistory matriarchy SHOULD be discredited. All versions of the myth are ultimately based in difference feminism, and emphasize (alleged) absolute biological differences between the characters of men and women as well as prescribing rigid and deterministic definitions of what is feminine versus what is masculine. In addition to its sexism and more or less benign misandry, this also levels or ignores the diversity between cultures and individuals. Some words of feminist matriarchalist writers quoted by Eller could have been imported, unaltered, from the 19th century (incidentally also a time that laid the foundations of some of their theories), which was at times full of rhetoric of the moral superiority of women and the brutishness of men, but was in reality generally oppressive and restricting to all individuals not comfortable with precise pigeonholing. Eller has more sympathy than I can muster for the positive effects on women the myth of prehistoric matriarchy can have.** This book is never the less a powerful argument as to why an imagined past is not a firm foundation on which to build a future of equality.
*Itself obviously symbolic of the primordial cosmic womb.
**Whether upon reading this one still sees this myth as potentially empowering even in light of its lack of historical grounding, or as nothing more than a blatant inversion of the excesses of patriarchy facilitated by a masturbatory power fantasy set in magical golden age so simplistically idealized it is an insult to all flesh and blood humans who have actually experienced the backbreaking hardships of life in subsistence economies everywhere for all time, is up to the reader....more
In The Jefferson Brothers, Joanne Yeck's original research sheds light on a long-neglected facet of the biography of America's third president: the liIn The Jefferson Brothers, Joanne Yeck's original research sheds light on a long-neglected facet of the biography of America's third president: the life of his younger brother Randolph Jefferson. This book will be of interest both to Jefferson enthusiasts for its insights into Thomas Jefferson's role as an older brother and mentor to the much younger Randolph, and more generally for the conclusions drawn about early American plantation life using the case study of Snowden, the home of Randolph Jefferson in his adult life as a planter, which Yeck makes a convincing case for being a more representative example of rural life in late 18th and early 19th century Virginia than Thomas Jefferson's unique experiment at Monticello. This well-crafted and engaging work of history opens a new window into the family life of one of American history's most remarkable men, as well as the hidden value of those who live on the sidelines of history....more
This is an excellent book. At only 207 pages (plus almost 80 of notes) it does not pretend to give an exhaustive survey of the history or anthropologyThis is an excellent book. At only 207 pages (plus almost 80 of notes) it does not pretend to give an exhaustive survey of the history or anthropology of the West's relationship with Tibet, but especially for someone not very familiar with that relationship, it is eye-opening. Lopez is a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism (as the large number of notes suggests) who trained at the University of Virginia, one of the oldest and best academic centers of Buddhist study in North America. Yet this work is a fast, accessible read aimed for a general audience and occasionally tinged with an understated, wry humor.
As a child I had a copy of Mordicai Gerstein's beautifully illustrated story book The Mountains of Tibet The Mountains of Tibet, but despite pouring many times over its lyrical watercolors, and in later years cultivating a deep interest in many other parts of Asia, I never developed the fascination for Tibet many people apparently have. I think I was about 10 when I realized that Tibet was part of the PPRC, and (ever the staunch atheist) came to the conclusion that were Tibet "freed" in the sense of being delivered back to the Tibetan government in exile, it would be placed under the rule of a theocracy (the situation has of course changed somewhat since then with the Dalai Lama's abdication as a temporal leader), and that if the Tibetans claim to be Buddhists par excellence, shouldn't they recognize the impermanence of all transient states, including their, uh, state? Though I did not grow up to become either a good Chinese communist or an esoteric philosopher, I have always viewed the stereotypical bleeding heart Western response to the Tibetan occupation as at best usually under-informed and emotional, and at worst toxically hypocritical. My engagement with Tibet and the Tibetan problem ended there.
I was dimly aware of course that much romanticism surrounded the plateau. I had no idea of the real extent and sheer fantasy of what has, for most of the modern era, constituted the West's "knowledge" of Tibet. Victorian notions of a barbarous and decadent country run by malicious and despotic priestcraft are no more partial and unbalanced than the idealized visions of a uniformly enlightened nation which holds the key to mankind's spiritual awakening, both of which are ultimately just as grossly patronizing and objectifying to real Tibetans. Without even the need for much commentary, Lopez often simply lets the equally absurd claims of colonialists, missionaries, Theosophists, and New Age spiritualists speak for themselves, evoking feelings of alternate shock and amusement.
One impression the book left particularly strongly on me is how there is essentially NO notion of Tibet to Westerners separate from Tibetan Buddhism. As Lopez points out, Tibet is an Old World country with an unusual history, as until 1950 it was never occupied by a colonial power (and never by a European one), nor forcibly opened to European contact in the 19th century, and undertook no modernization from within. A point could be made, then, that as an essentially medieval society until the mid-twentieth century, it makes no more sense to consider Tibet without Buddhism than it does to discuss medieval Europe without the Church. That as may be, Lopez leaves one with the impression that the West essentially sees "Tibet" not as a piece of geography, nor a nation of people and a culture dispersed and under assault, but as a religion sustained by organic hosts. This creed has been viewed both negatively and positively, but always hyperbolically. He suggests that, in part in an attempt to throw off the stigma of "Lamaism", even in modern scholarship the study of any aspects of Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism that do not fit its image of ultimate spiritual subtly and sophistication (such as folk practices or texts addressing the more earthly and pragmatic concerns of religion) have been severely neglected.
Ultimately he leaves the reader with what I imagine to be his own sense of troubled unease. Unease that even with the best of intentions, the West cannot help Tibet, nor, perhaps, can Tibetans (who in diaspora begin to appropriate the categorizations the West has placed on them) help themselves, if they continue to be viewed through a lense, even a rose-tinted one....more
[Edit: I originally gave this book 4 stars (I mention why in the original review below, which is unchanged), but given that I haven't been able to sto[Edit: I originally gave this book 4 stars (I mention why in the original review below, which is unchanged), but given that I haven't been able to stop thinking about it or its fascinating main character since I read it, and keep recommending it to friends, it definitely warrants 5. This is a great read (though not for everyone, see review below) and if it doesn't deserve 5 stars, I don't know what does, it just leaves you a little pensive and wistful at the end (at least that's how it left me) so be forewarned.]
I enjoy a good YA novel a lot, sometimes more than books written for the adult market. The territory comes with a certain liberty to incorporate quirky and bizarre themes, and their meditations on coming of age and self-discovery remain identifiable at any age, because everyone either has or is still experiencing them.
Andromeda Klein is a really good YA novel. In fact it's just a really good novel which happens to be centered on a mental being whose temporal prison of (in her own eyes) rather disappointing flesh has yet to find release from that circle of existence which is called High School. And who also happens to practice occult magic (to varying degrees of success), only ever had one more-than-kinda-sorta friend (who is now dead), and is so divorced from contemporary culture she doesn't recognize the band (view spoiler)[Led Zeppelin (hide spoiler)] when she hears it.
Despite her more than usual ouijanesse (possessing the qualities of eerie, metaphysical potency), you don't have to be an ectomorphic and extremely introverted occult adept with osteogenesis imperfecta, partial deafness and incorrigibly limp hair for Andromeda to be an identifiable character. Anyone who has ever felt bullied, betrayed, sub-normally attractive to the opposite sex, alienated from their peers, out of step with the world around them, suffered parental persecution or feared they loved someone more than that love was returned can empathize with her plight. Any one of these would be bad enough for a high school junior, and Andromeda has them all in spades. Yet despite her litany of problems, Portman's well-paced and witty writing keeps the specter of "wallowing" at bay, now poking gentle fun at his heroine's genetic under-performance and ironic misfortunes, now exposing an aching vulnerability and pathos that is as deeply moving as it is familiar, without ever allowing it to become contemptible or self-pitying.
I saw one review which complained that the action doesn't get underway until the middle of the book. That is undeniably true. But from the description above, it should be clear that this novel is at heart a character study. The entire plot culminates in the revelation of two acts which set in motion and explain all the other events leading up to their discovery, which only comes together in the last 50 or so pages. So like a mystery, the majority of the book is devoted to planting clues and convergent the significance of which is shadowy until key pieces of knowledge make sense of them. This structure closely parallels Andromeda's own worldview; that the Universe is rational and knowable (though not without the right tools and skills, and maybe not at all in this lifetime) and her obsessive self-tarot readings are her attempts to fill in the gaps in her knowledge to make sense of what's happening, though she learns that she can't ultimately find the answers in isolation.
This is an extremely contemplative book, but despite that and the fact that most of it could be considered one long set-up to the big reveal, it's the complete opposite of slow. It's very funny (I laughed aloud at (view spoiler)[the descriptions of the Gimpala's special form of locomotion (hide spoiler)]), the pacing is superb, chapters are just the right length and the elements of mystery and (literally) existential anxiety kept me up through the night to read one after another. But it's not for everyone. You definitely have to think Andromeda's is a psychology worth discovering, because if you find her the least bit tiresome, there is not enough of a plot outside of her to offer any relief.
Some people might find the integration into the entire book of the Andromeda-specific vocabulary brought on by her hearing defects tedious and a little forced, but I thought it was true to the way we all develop our own idiolectic quirks, which in her case, like everything else, reaches new extremes. I didn't need a lot of the explanations of certain (sub)cultural and literary references or the meaning of basic Latin, but they're entirely appropriate to the target audience and slipped in subtly enough to not grind the narrative to a halt. I haven't read the work of authors like Crowley or A.E. Waite, so I can't speak to how accurate or well-researched they are, but they seemed credible (view spoiler)[though I thought reference to Lovecraft mythos as legit phenomena was a little weird considering how everything else Andromeda is involved in, as far as I could tell, was something that has been believed or practiced historically by someone (I've never encountered any actual mythos "believers", but that might just show the limits of my experience). Anyway, I suspect the treatment of the 19th century occultists is much more substantial, since Andromeda draws most of her practice from them while Lovecraft only comes up in passing. (hide spoiler)].
Until I finished the last 60 pages of this book, I would have given it 5 stars. I still think it's a great, expertly-crafted book, but something about the resolution left me just let down enough that I couldn't. It shouldn't be taken as too much of a mark against this book though; I have serial difficulty with endings. They're ever harder to write than to read and I think most authors must struggle with them. I guess I also had some implicit expectations that weren't quite met. (view spoiler)[Strong inoculations Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the like made me assume Andromeda's troubles would have more cosmic implications than they actually did (this book does contain what has to be one of the most low-key demon banishing rites ever committed to print). The ultimately mundane origins of most of her problems strike a definite chord of truth about the changeable nature of love and friendship that is very poignant if not outright tragic. (hide spoiler)] Still, this shouldn't take away from the fact that the ending deftly brings around everything that came before it, their ultimate meanings revealed. This book is very polished, and very lean. Everything is there for a reason. Reading it, you start to believe, along with Andromeda, that there really are no coincidences.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more