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

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Books read, early September [Sep. 17th, 2010|10:49 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl. This won the Hugo, so I may be the last person in my immediate social circle to read it. I don't know. It was not what we might call upbeat, and while I think I get what Bacigalupi was aiming for both in his treatment of the titular character and in his worldbuilding, there are several spots where I would have just quit reading if I didn't work in the field and want to keep up on influential, important works, because I am just kind of done with the graphic, humiliating rape scenes for the moment. Just--done, thanks. But it was in the service of--done. But the character later goes on to--done. Really. We can find some other way for this particular metaphor to be expressed, this particular point about humanity to be made, I would hope. I do hope. Because I'm going to have to keep reading important, influential works in this field, since, y'know, this is what I do. Professionally. Socially. This is what I do. And I am very, very tired. (Before anyone says so, no, I have not called for censorship of graphic, humiliating rape scenes; I have not called for a moratorium on you writing whatever is in your heart or your mind. Do your thing. I have just said that I would really like to be done reading them for awhile. And I'd like you to think about whether that is the best, most creative way for your thing to be done. If it is, go to. It's just that when I get there, I will probably not race through the book turning cartwheels of joy at that particular bit.)

James Bradley, Flags of Our Fathers. Grandpa's. This is the story of the Marines who raised the US flag on Iwo Jima in the iconic photograph of that event. Bradley's father was one of them. It was a fairly recent book, and in some ways an odd one: there were places where it pulled far fewer punches than I expected and was much more straightforward about things like VD testing and alcoholism. And this was in some ways inevitable: one of the six Marines involved died of alcohol poisoning after his return to the US. While a more modern book probably has less temptation to be a patriotic hagiography than one closer to the event, it was still a great deal more balanced and thoughtful than it had to be to sell. There were a few passages where he was trying to sell the East/West culture clash thing, where it would have surprised the heck out of the Chinese or much of the rest of Asia to learn that Japanese military culture represented them at the time. Where in this case "surprised the heck out of" is Minnesotan for "offended beyond belief, and rightly so." Bradley does better when he's sticking to the American soldiers and their specific action than when he's trying to place the war in context.

And yet--a little problematic even on the personal level. Because Bradley's father was the straight-arrow, the good guy, the one whose story was the least iffy. He lived the longest, raised a family that loved him, ran a solid business, and really does appear to have been a pillar of the community. And it's got to be easier to choose not to pull punches when your dad is that guy, the Catholic kid who helped the priest with mass on Iwo Jima and came home from the war to cry himself to sleep instead of drinking himself to death. It's got to be easier when the punches you're not pulling are in someone else's family member's face. But on the other other hand, Bradley can't help it that his dad was that guy. I know how that goes. Some of the stories about my grandparents are of the form "and your grandma sure bailed me out of that one!" or, "Boy, I don't know what I would have done if your grandpa hadn't come along, sober like he always was, and gotten me out of that jam." You can't manufacture iffy decisions or terrible diseases for the people you love just to make it more balanced; sometimes the people you love really are the lucky ones or the ones who come out smelling like a rose.

And I think Bradley dodges some of the worst judgments people have made of Ira Hayes, the flag-raiser who died of alcohol poisoning. He explicitly rejects those who blame it on his ethnic background (Hayes was Native American), pointing out that many white men who fought in that war came back from it with similar drinking problems. I think this could have used a little more examination, but on the other hand it wasn't a history of alcohol abuse and alcoholism in WWII vets, it was a broader thing than that, and also more focused. In general, if you're interested in this kind of focused history of American servicemen in WWII, you could do worse, but there are very obvious things to look out for and discount.

Don Cook, The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785. logovore recommended this at 4th St. when we were talking up Fred Anderson's Crucible of War; I still think if you're going to read one book about British/North American relations of that period, the Anderson is a better choice, but they're doing very different things. The Cook is covering the period after the 7 Years' War, the bit where England's relations with its colonies are going to heck. It's sort of a companion piece to a knowledge of the Revolutionary War. It assumes that you know, more or less, what's going on with Washington and the like, and it fills in what the British politicians were doing at the time in regards to the situation. Which is highly relevant and interesting, but sometimes it gets a little unfocused, and if you don't have a thorough grounding in the American Revolution, better go get that first, before you read this, or you will be fairly adrift.

Diane Duane, Omnitopia Dawn. Joining This Is Not a Game and For the Win in online-gaming-related fiction I've read recently. There were really obvious character things I thought she was doing that she was not, in fact, doing (alecaustin: those things I said in IM: I was wrong), but the things she was doing were not much farther afield. This was a fun read--Diane Duane can write, always--but not a ground-breaking one. Which is all right; not everything has to be.

Dave Duncan, The Alchemist's Apprentice, The Alchemist's Code, and The Alchemist's Pursuit. A fun set of alternate histories set in Venice, good for reading while sick. The Alchemist in the title is Nostradamus's fictional nephew, whose prophecies seem to be more immediately useful, though still in quatrain form. There are swords and cloaks and costumes. These books will not change your world, but they may well while away your afternoon.

Nevil Shute, Pied Piper. The last Shute I read was bad Shute. This is good Shute. This is a story of an old man getting an ever-increasing number of young children of varying ethnicity and religion out of France ahead of the Nazis. It is charming and practical and really well done, and also a fast read. It's the sort of book that makes me wish my grandmother could read books that had anything to do with war, because it is that rare thing, a plot we could both really enjoy, not treacly but really sweet. (Grandma lost a favorite brother in WWII and has been officially Done With War ever since. The world has, in its inevitable way, not complied with this request, and she has coped whenever the nonfiction world has demanded it of her, but she does not see that she should volunteer for more war in her worlds of fiction, and I don't see why I should make her.)

Janni Lee Simner, Thief Eyes. Contemporary YA set in Iceland! My alley: you are up it! Janni has, as I knew she would, done her research very thoroughly, and not in a direction that makes the book suffer, and also not in a direction that's unsympathetic to my own reading of the sagas. And the modern teenagers are a thorough delight and make believably teenage choices, and I loved the ending, and this is highly, highly recommended.

Frank Noel Stagg, East Norway and Its Frontier. This disappointed me. Stagg is, I think, too much a product of his times (mid-1950s): he wanted to write a regional history and still focus too much on kings and crowns. There were a few of the things I wanted to know, but not nearly enough of the peasant cloth of the land. Ah well; win some, lose some, on a used bookstore gamble like this one.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: poeticalpanther
2010-09-17 04:14 pm (UTC)
I hear and agree on the "done with rapeyness" thing. It's what made me stop reading GRR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, because even the "good guys" seem to be rapey when they get a chance. It's one of the reasons I can cope with the one early in the Covenant series, because it turns out to be pretty much the only one not committed by ancient demon-spirits, and because it has serious long-term effects on all kinds of people. As important as the work is, I think I will probably not read it, or at least not for some time. Thanks for the reviews. :)
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2010-09-17 05:42 pm (UTC)
I am much more in sympathy with your "done with reading rape books" than with K. Tempest Bradford's "people who want to meet with my approval shouldn't be writing rape books, because it's been done" attitude.

I'm still trying to figure out a proper response to that Wiscon panel -- one that will not be full of fail; it's been simmering for months now.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2010-09-17 06:04 pm (UTC)
Due to circumstances, I'm assuming you never saw Letters from Iwo Jima, which was the movie that Clint Eastwood directed in Japanese, showing the Japanese side of that battle, in parallel to making Flags of Our Fathers. I definitely hear you on the East/West culture clash thing being absurdly reductionist, but that movie was quite good and moving, even for someone who is naturally unsympathetic to the Imperial Japanese military, like me.

You have heard my opinion on rape books before, so I will not reiterate it here, but I think that whole thread of the discourse falls very firmly under the rubric of my current "Your Decadence/Evil is Boring and Shitty" kick.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-09-17 06:18 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen the Eastwood movie, no, although it got discussed in the book some.
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From: swan_tower
2010-09-17 07:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks to the vagaries of Netflix's streaming selection, I've only seen Letters from Iwo Jima, and not Flags of Our Fathers. (Which is probably the reverse of how most Americans not of Japanese descent have done it; if they've seen one, it's probably Flags.) I know there's been some debate over certain points of its historical representation, but I will always give Eastwood props for going out and trying to show both sides of that event.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2010-09-18 12:07 am (UTC)
Yeah, I was very impressed by that decision. (I, also, have not seen Flags of Our Fathers - just never really felt like it.) I hadn't heard much regarding the accuracy of its historical elements, but then, as I alluded to above, I am not generally one to give the Imperial Japanese military (as opposed to individuals within it) credit for anything. Having your grandmother barely escape a Japanese advance (ETA: this used to say the Rape of Nanking, but that wasn't accurate) carrying your newborn father during WWII will do that to you.
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From: swan_tower
2010-09-21 06:30 pm (UTC)
Oof. Yes, I can see how that would make you less than sympathetic to their point of view.
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[User Picture]From: caoilfhionn
2010-09-17 07:23 pm (UTC)
I, too, have a rapidly dropping threshold for rape-as-plot-driver. As a young reader, I took pride in never quitting a book. The point at which I came to the magical realization that I didn't have to finish books that made me retch involved a book that turned out to be a thinly veiled collection of the author's sex fantasies, consensual and not. At the same time, the books that (in my opinion) use it well hit me much, much harder.

Last month someone sent me a book proposal pitching rape as the edgy! new! thing! in his sexxay fantasy epic. Words cannot convey the depths of cynical exhaustion that I felt.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2010-09-17 08:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks for warning me about the rapeyness. I was going to pick it up next time I went to the library, but I'll get something else now.
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2010-09-17 08:43 pm (UTC)
But it was in the service of--done. But the character later goes on to--done. Really.

Yes. There comes a point in a trope where you--"you" is another reader of the book who is trying to convince me it's worthwhile--start to have five-minute monologues explaining why it's okay, really, it doesn't count, no one should be upset by it. And at that point, I prefer books that don't require a cadre of apologists.


I am worried that I'm also coming up on my quota for books whose climax involves a dramatic and redemptive confrontation with entropy personified. And that would be sad, because I really like Duane's books. I don't actually want to get to the point where I don't need her new ones.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-09-17 08:46 pm (UTC)
Actually, her latest YW book didn't do the YW thang quite that way. I was pleased.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-09-18 01:13 am (UTC)
The US history thing is a two-tiered system. There are the extremely cheerful patronizing volumes that tend to also be rather flag-wavey and assume you know absolutely nothing (except that the US is the greatest!) about anything. Then there are the ones that assume that if you know anything about anything, you know a great deal about the American Revolution and probably the US Civil War as well, although there are gaps this sort of book is permitted to explain.

European history does some of this in that if you read in English about anywhere that isn't France or England, they will explain things by comparing them to France, with the assumption that naturally you know the French stuff they're referring to. This is particularly useless if you know a great deal about, say, Austria-Hungary and very little at all about France, not that we have anyone in-house like that.
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2010-09-18 12:09 am (UTC)
I wonder if I'd like those Dave Duncan books. Of course, the author name caught my eye. But I also have a Venice ... thing.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2010-09-18 12:38 am (UTC)
There was an extended rant about how everyone seemed to think it was a book about Nostradamus, even the people who had quotes on the cover, when really it was about his nephew, and probably they all thought it was by Dave Duncan the pitching coach, too. You would have enjoyed it.
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2010-09-18 03:48 pm (UTC)
Well, there's that guy, plus it's the last 2/3 of my husband's name so I'm always on the lookout. :D I sometimes tease him that if we have a boy, we've got to name him "Shelley." Then he gives me a Look.
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[User Picture]From: crowinator
2010-09-18 02:00 am (UTC)
I'm glad you enjoyed Thief Eyes -- I thought the Iceland setting was really well done, and I thought the romance angle ended kind of refreshingly, without the One True Love aspect. Seemed true to life of teenage characters.

I'm glad you warned with the rape in Windup Girl. I hate to be surprised by that sort of thing, even when it's non-graphic, and I feel it's been in a lot of books I read lately and didn't expect, like The Warded Man and Prospero in Hell. It's gotten so that I'm nervous anytime I read fantasy/sf that's marketed as dark or edgy and has female characters.
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