Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

Books read, early October

Chaz Brenchley (desperance), Shelter. If you are attached to certainty in endings, to endings being spelled out in detail and all threads definitively wrapped up, this is not the book for you. The shift of friendships and other relationships around large, odd events is a great pleasure to read, and some of the lines twisted around themselves in happy squirmy ways.

Barbara Goldsmith, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. Oh, this is good stuff. If you ever went through a period as a young child when you read a lot about the US suffrage movement, go read this. All sorts of things that seemed sort of weird will make sense -- and will be way weirder than you thought when you were 8. (And if you didn't go through that, this is an extremely juicy way to find out what you were missing.) Some maddening, tantalizing references to a few big utopian socialists, and oh, bunches of other good stuff. The Free Love movement all over everything, and 19th century newspapers, and -- just, worth it, definitely worth it.

One of the things that strikes me, having finished this one, is how long it all took. I remembered, from my readings as a kid, that most of the major figures of the early suffrage movement did not live to see women get the vote. What didn't really sink in at the time is that that was no untimely tragedy. It just took a damn long time. I think we have a modern tendency to think that if a social change does not occur soonsoonsoonrightnow that it has failed, that we're not going anywhere and why aren't we there yet? And sure, we have far faster communication and transportation these days, but I don't think those are the only limiting factors on the pace of social change.

James D. Horan, The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty That Made History. I learned all kinds of fascinating tidbits from this book. The elder Pinkerton was a Chartist? Who knew? But what was hilarious is that it got significantly less balanced and more laudatory right around the point in the book's timeline when the head of the company became someone who could give extensive help and interviews to the author. Amazing! Why on earth would that be?

Nick Mamatas (nihilistic_kid), Under My Roof. I zipped through this one. I loved the voice and had a great time with it. It was a great deal more my sort of thing than Move Under Ground, so I was pleasantly surprised. Smooth YA voice. Fun plot. I may sneak it into the homes of several adolescents known to me.

Robin McKinley (robinmckinley), Dragonhaven. And this is kind of the opposite of UMR: I expected to like it better than I did, and the YA voice was grating to me. Don't get me wrong -- it was utterly believable as an adolescent's writing style. It's just that this is not an unmitigated virtue. If this had been written by someone other than Robin McKinley, I would never have gotten to the middle, which I liked a lot, because the beginning took so long to actually go anywhere. "Now let me tell you about the world in which I live and the specific place in which I live and who lives there with me," for pages and pages and pages on end: meh. As far as I'm concerned, McKinley has laurels she can rest on -- and she did eventually get somewhere with all that -- but I suppose the odds were good that I would eventually have a least-favorite Robin McKinley novel, and this is apparently it. If you otherwise like her stuff and don't much care for the beginning of this one, do not give up in despair.

Here is what I really liked about this book: it seems like we mostly started out, as a genre, with books where dragons etc. are a wondrous joyful thing. Then we got some books where they have a Down Side, Dammit. What McKinley has given her hero her is a dragon who is a wondrous joyful thing -- with ample down sides. That do not sum to make the experience any less worthwhile, any less wondrous, or any less joyful. I think what she says here is, The wonder you make in your lives will be a hell of a lot of work and pain, but it will be worth it. It will be the real stuff and not fool's gold.

Hmm. I think I have just talked myself out of this being my least favorite McKinley book, beginning notwithstanding.

Also, this is SF, approximately. If you can accept telepathy as SF, this is definitely SF. But the approach, the character worldview, is a great deal less fantasy than I expected. I enjoyed that part greatly. Wee naturalist (of the early 19th century mode, approximately, sort of) deals with dragons. What my life lacks is reading material about early 19th century naturalists.

Susan Palwick, Shelter. Yes, I actually did say to myself, "I'm done reading Shelter, now what should I read? I know -- Shelter!" This one demonstrates the difference between a leisurely book and a book that takes forever to get anywhere (which difference I suspect is substantially in the reader, but never mind that part): the structure of the journey interested me more than the destination. I suspect that this is one of those books it's nearly impossible to advertise without having people misunderstand through no fault of the marketing department -- it's all too easy to take, "In the future, excessive altruism is considered a mental disease," and have your brain play it with the movie trailer guy's voice: "In the fuuuture -- kindness is insaaaaane -- and one woman's fight to save a little boy pits her against powerful forces -- who want to destrooooy herrr miiiind. Featuring someone I've never heard of as Meredith, etc. etc., and the voice of Tony Shalhoub as Fred the Computer...." And seriously, it's not like that, except the Tony Shalhoub part, which is how I would cast Fred if I was doing it. There are (at least) two types of dystopia, and this is not the melodramatic kind where everything fun is illegal and no one could figure out any historical path from here to there because that's not the point. This is the kind where things slip quietly, things continue the way they are but just a bit more, some things get better but some other things get worse. This is the kind of dystopia that has been formed by human choices, not just the hand of the author reaching down and saying, "Let there be bleakness."

Palwick's blog is called "Rickety Contrivances for Doing Good," but I'd say her characters are more about doing the best they can than about doing good. She is not a shining sword of justice sort of writer. No one is going to come in at the end and make it all better. They all sort of work -- fairly hard, and with many screwups -- to make it as okayish as they can manage. Sometimes I really need a book like that.

Carl Ross, The Finn Factor (In American Labor, Culture, and Society). This book does not live up to my expectations. I was expecting sort of an exploration of where Finnish immigrants had affected the larger American culture, particularly with the Finn Halls being hotbeds of communism and labor unrest for awhile there. Instead it was a fairly straightforward history of who came when and where they settled. Sigh. The age of this book makes me think that the sort of book I was expecting wasn't really being written then, nor for another 15 years or so after, but still, a girl can dream.

Brandon Sanderson, Mistborn. Several of you recommended this book to me because it deals with a peasant(-ish) uprising. It turns out that the dynamic is significantly changed when the individual they're uprising against has successfully portrayed himself as a god for the last millennium. But still, there was uprising, that part I liked. And the magic was different and interesting and limited and good. The last hundred pages were extremely exciting, and I did not know in advance which direction Sanderson was going to take things. So there's all that.

The prose. Um. If I had been critiquing this as a manuscript, I would have written, "TRUST YOUR PROSE," in the margin. When I write this, I usually mean that I believe the bit of dialog, the one telling detail, etc. is enough for the reader to discern the character's emotional state. That the problem is not that the writing is flat but that the not-flatness is not being allowed to stand on its own without being weighted down in elaboration that provides neither stylistic fun nor additional information. So there'll be a bit of dialog that reveals a character's emotional state amply -- and a said-bookism or adverb that reveals that same emotion -- and a gesture, expression, etc. that also reveals that same emotion. Not once but constantly.

This is why I won't be buying the sequel in hardbound.

But the more I thought about it, the more I suspected that this was not bad writing so much as it was aimed at an audience that is not me. There are almost certainly readers who have great difficulty discerning a character's emotional state from text. I'm not using this as a euphemism for Aspies, either, because I suspect -- and some of you should please feel free speak up with your own relevant experience -- that some Aspies have no difficulty whatsoever picking up on character emotions in text because writing, "So-and-so frowned," is very different from having to interpret from the twitch of someone's mouth and the shift of their posture that they are slightly displeased. And if the author means, "So-and-so frowned, but his niece could see the smile lurking underneath," the reader doesn't have to be able to perform the decoding the niece has done himself/herself in order to get the information the niece has. So I suspect that there is a set of readers that overlaps only coincidentally with the autism spectrum who just have difficulty figuring out what characters think and feel from prose, and I suspect that this style of writing is far better for them than it is for me.

And I will be buying the sequel. Just not in hardbound.

Scott Westerfeld, Specials. The thing about liking the first two bits of this type of trilogy is that they both had cliffhanger endings, and so it didn't really tell me whether Westerfeld could stick the landing. I think he has. I liked that the basis of the dystopian society was not Pure Evil, but rather something good that was being implemented suboptimally. I liked the way that developed in this last book. I did not like the resolution of the love triangle -- I'm trying to avoid being too explicit here, but -- oh, fine, I'll just say it: death is not the answer, people! If you have two possible love interests for your protag, and one of them dies before the protag's life stuff is resolved, I will make scowly faces at you from my home! Don't think I won't! They're very scowly! Other than that, though, I enjoyed it and will continue buying more Westerfeld. There's still a fair bit more out there for me to find.

Robert H. Zieger and Gilbert J. Gall, American Workers, American Unions. Good overview. Research reading that accomplished at least some of its purpose. I've got another library book with similar purpose on the pile, and then I'm going to have to see what I can do about getting more specific -- a lot more specific. Down to a 20-year period and a region (1940-1960, Southern and Central California). Anybody with labor-related reading material on that period, please give me recommendations.
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