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Books read, early August - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Books read, early August [Aug. 16th, 2010|08:02 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Marie Brennan (swan_tower), A Star Shall Fall. Discussed elsewhere.

Colin Cotterill, Love Songs from a Shallow Grave. This is the new Dr. Siri mystery, in which he goes to Cambodia. I really liked most of it, but it's a terrible place to start the series--it relies on your investment in the characters. Also it was an example of something that happens in some of my favorite mystery series with a fair amount of frequency: the author gets caught up in writing about the characters and the setting (good) and ends up with what is theoretically the central mystery plot coming out fairly thin and unsatisfying--in this case in a way that left a sour taste in my mouth. Which is not the first time this has happened in this series, sadly. It's not enough to ruin the series for me, because I really do like the characters and the setting, but it was a major "Oh seriously, Cotterill" moment, when I wanted someone to go whap him one. But only in the last five pages or so. Be forewarned. I will still want the next one in the series when it comes out.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven. For such a large book, it's a pretty intimate story. A familial story, almost. I loved the premise of the beginning, the son laying battlefield ghosts to rest by the dozen and the hundred to honor the father. I loved the ending one of the characters got, riding to a home that wasn't home any more but could become home again. I couldn't love the whole book. It just wasn't one of the Kay books that wrapped itself around my heart and my brain quite that thoroughly. But I did like it, and I think it's worth reading for sure.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey. Discussed elsewhere.

George Mann, The Osiris Ritual. Discussed elsewhere.

Nevil Shute, Beyond the Black Stump. This is the first Shute that has really not managed to work for me. I like what it's doing in not flinching from depicting what can happen in a genuine cultural clash between two people who want to have a romantic relationship. It goes wrong for me in two places. First, the man in question is an American of almost exactly my grandfather's age, and the value judgment that he and his friends and family--that Americans of their age and class--are portrayed as having is one I simply do not believe they did. These are people I know very, very well--better, I will venture to say, than Mr. Nevil Shute. I will be quite ready to say that Americans of this age and class had, on average, many appalling beliefs and practices in 1956 when this book was set, and I am not trying to say my grandpa would never have been like that, because my grandpa was clearly several, several steps above the norm and cannot be used as a standard. No. I am saying that the things Shute portrays a nice, kind, normal American man as viewing as ordinary are things that the sneakiest, nastiest wretches my grandpa knew would have gone to some trouble to hide at that time. It was simply not realistic. The second thing that bothered me in this value clash was related to the handling of race and racism. I absolutely believed that the white, small-town Americans of 1956 had a great many racial prejudices, on average, and would react poorly to the situation presented by the main Australian character in this book. Absolutely. Yes. But the Australian character is so completely smug about a situation that is so completely appalling. Throughout the book, any character who has any Aboriginal ancestry is not permitted to eat in the same room with the white folks--they are not referred to as "man" or "woman" (rather than things like "gin"--like a jenny-mule, essentially--or "half-caste") because "man" and "woman" apparently imply pure white blood--they are presumed to have mental capacity proportional to their European ancestry--and the sign that the Australians are more racially enlightened is that they are willing to say openly that their male relatives screw the so-called Inferior Race and make so-called Inferior Half-Breed Bastards upon them? So far beyond ick. And in Shute's calm and reasonable voice, it was even worse than it would otherwise be, it made me feel sick. It felt like a favorite uncle had just started hitting me in the stomach. At this point the culture clash really did look like Your Appalling vs. My Implausible, and the book completely fell apart for me. Which was very sad, because I've really liked the other Shute I've read. I still look forward to reading more, because you have to take people in their context, and he was in some ways trying awfully hard in his. But it doesn't mean making excuses, and this was just wrong and awful in large chunks. I'm still reeling a bit from this one.

Janni Lee Simner, Bones of Faerie. A fun, quick read, where teenagers find that things--including themselves--are not as they thought, and what can--and should--be done about them varies accordingly. Post-fantasy-apocalypse Missouri is particularly vividly done, which skills people would have in which towns that seem close to each other now but would be very different with a major cultural upheaval--good stuff, with characters making choices that make a lot of sense in their context. Recommended without regard to age.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: asciikitty
2010-08-17 04:06 am (UTC)
Bones of Faerie was love. It was quirky and different and fantasy in a way that I'm not used to. Reviews of it always make me smile, because I remember reading it, and it was so very much its own wonderful thing.
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From: diatryma
2010-08-17 03:11 pm (UTC)
It's been a while since I read it, but it really does feel right-- it's not secret faeries, it's not sweet and lovely, it's what would probably be an option if Fairyland showed up on our doorsteps.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-08-17 11:09 am (UTC)
Yah, that's part of what I meant by the mental capacity remark. "I will teach these children basic herding, these children carpentry, and these children Latin! Because that's what their brains will hold due to their racial composition!" EW, step away from the kids, that guy!
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-08-17 11:22 am (UTC)
I also thought of the use of 'gin' in the Australian song Now I'm Easy (by Eric Bogle). First two verses are:

For nearly sixty years I've been a cocky
Of droughts and fires and floods I've lived through plenty
This country's dust and mud have seen my tears and blood
But it's nearly over now, and now I'm easy

I married a fine girl when I was twenty
But she died in giving birth when she was thirty
No flying doctor then, just a gentle old black gin
But it's nearly over now, and now I'm easy


So assuming Bogle got it right, I get the sense that 'gin' can also be used with some affection, rather in the way 'nigra' was used in the US South by people who were trying to be polite and not racist, and who weren't quite succeeding.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-08-17 11:38 am (UTC)
Yah, I hear a lot of the not-succeeding in both of those examples.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-08-17 11:48 am (UTC)
Rather like standing on the first step out of the swimming pool: you're still completely immersed in water, but at least you've gotten one step out of there.

(I do think it's an important distinction, though: in the US South whether someone used 'nigra' or the other n- word tells you a lot about their attitudes and aspirations even though both are submerged deep within the context of personal and institutional racism. Similarly, you'd probably find this distasteful either way, but more informaiton on how 'gin' was used in context would say something about the character that we in this time and place might be missing.)
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-08-17 11:49 am (UTC)
Sorry. Not meaning to lecture on characterization, since it's something you've thought about and worked on a lot more than I have.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-08-17 12:01 pm (UTC)
See, for me the "I am a total racist but want you to think I am genteel" version reads in many ways as worse, not better. But different, I agree.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-08-17 12:20 pm (UTC)
I think it depends how aware you are. To me there's a distinct difference between "I am a total racist and want you to think I'm genteel" posturings, like one of the nastier characters out of EF Benson (those aren't very racist because there's no one much of other races around, but that kind of brittle facade) and "I want to be kind but I'm so steeped in racism that I don't even know how to treat other races as people." I don't give credit for faking it, but I do for trying, even if they're clueless a about it. I can't comment on the Shute book because I haven't read it; the Bogle song gives me the impression of the 'cocky' getting along in neighborly fashion, though not full equality, with the aboriginals in his area because that's what you do when there's one farm and one tribe for miles around - and when the farmer isn't too stupid to see when he needs help from people who understand the land a lot better than he does.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-08-17 01:10 pm (UTC)
"I'm not willing to treat you as a person, but I'm willing to take advantage of your superior skills because I'm in a position where I can make you let me do that" is not actually something I find neighborly. Not stupid, true. But not what I would call neighborly.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-08-17 01:21 pm (UTC)
I guess I don't see it as being that binary, racist or not-racist. To move to a different literary example, I don't think Huck Finn saw Jim as an equal. I do think he saw him as a friend and was willing to both help and be helped by him.

I think Huck was racist. But I think he was a lot less racist than the society around him, and I think that step is an important step even if it's nowhere close to the full journey. I think what I'm trying to say in my ungainly way here is actually pretty similar to what ddb has been saying about Heinlein, over in assorted comments on Tor.com. ("What's of interest, it seems to me, is the degree to which he attempted to overcome some of the social programming he got. That degree is considerable. And the degree to which he succeeded in overcoming them; a lesser degree.")

However, I've wandered pretty far from your original point - and I have no reason to think that Shute's characters made even the slightest attempt to overcome their programming. Which is, I agree, reprehensible and not fair to blame entirely on their time and place.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-08-17 01:31 pm (UTC)
(I suspect you are talking about dd_b instead.)

Yes, I think that's important here: I have been talking about this in the context of a specific author, character, and book I am not willing to let off the hook. Sometimes people manage to start within a racist context and make some effort towards justice and come out with a racist result that's still better than what they started with. I think the problem with Beyond the Black Stump for me--one of the several problems--is that Shute believes he has done that without any particular evidence. He is incredibly, incredibly self-congratulatory about doing that. And I really, really, really don't think he has. I think that what he has done instead is at least as nasty and destructive if not more so.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-08-17 01:50 pm (UTC)
Yeah, sorry, I was just wandering afield, trying to figure out the context of 'gin'. And of course it's also possible that it's used completely differently in your book vs the song I quoted.
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[User Picture]From: jhetley
2010-08-17 02:30 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure you have the sense of "nigra" right. I lived in the Atlanta area in the 1950s and 1960s, and that was the pronunciation of "negro" used by, for instance, Ralph McGill. Who used his position as editor and then publisher of the Atlanta newspapers to support civil rights, and who I heard use that pronunciation from Dr. King's pulpit.

http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/ArticlePrintable.jsp?id=h-2769

This was before "black" became common usage, and after "colored" fell into disfavor.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-08-17 02:49 pm (UTC)
I could well be wrong - I wasn't there. My source is a Molly Ivins story about John Henry Faulk and J. Frank Dobie, who had grown up hearing polite people say "nigra" and who, on being about to go study outside the state of Texas and having heard that polite people elsewhere said "negro" when they wanted to be taken seriously as anti-racists, solemnly practiced the word over and over so they wouldn't make a mistake and use the wrong word out of habit. Ivins actually spelled it out phonetically, something like "knee-grow".

Could it just be a matter of different accents? (Or, of course, it could equally well be a matter of me being completely wrong, especialy as I'm working from memory and don't have the Ivins book here.)
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[User Picture]From: jhetley
2010-08-17 03:01 pm (UTC)
I think it was more of an accent or dialect thing. I noticed it because we moved there from the Chicago area when I was seven or eight, and I'd never heard it before.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2010-08-17 12:35 pm (UTC)
What's your favorite Guy Gavriel Kay book?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-08-17 01:10 pm (UTC)
Tigana, I think. I've been meaning to reread it. It's been ages. I just got a lovely new trade paper edition for my favorite 16-year-old for her birthday.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2010-08-17 02:49 pm (UTC)
Mmm, Tigana.
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