Lirael, Daughter of the Clayr

Author: Garth Nix
Year: 2001
Genre: Fantasy

This is the second part of a trilogy that I started in October. Like any fantasy series, the Abhorsen Trilogy's first requirement is to build a world, a magic system, and all of that. Nix's world is involving, engaging -- and tremendously complicated. It takes most of Sabriel to cover geography and magic, so through the first half of Lirael, he's still putting into play all of the politics and history that you'll need to understand the final battle that is presumably coming up in Volume III. The background mythology unfolds little by little, mysteriously, along with our heroes' adventure. It's like waiting until the end of The Two Towers to learn that the bad guy is Sauron.

This volume follows two young people who both lack parental guidance (one is an orphan, the other is royal), and who both fail to measure up to the social expectations of who they will grow up to be. They both remind me of pre-med kids I knew in college, so thoroughly indoctrinated to believe that they will be doctors that they never stop to consider whether they want to be doctors. Nix places a liberating message for those kids on the last page of The Book of the Dead: "Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?" In other words, just relax and be yourself.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Author: Samantha King
Year: 2006
Genre: Cultural studies

The topic of cancer "awareness" has particular personal significance to me: in the spring of 2004, when you couldn't leave your house without seeing a bright yellow Lance Armstrong bracelet, I was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin's lymphoma. (I'm now two and a half years in remission with no sign of recurrence.) The bracelets were problematic for me; I never identified with their upbeat message, was always skeptical of what "awareness" these bracelets represented, and wondered about the active role of a corporation like Nike in such a supposedly altruistic endeavor. When the title Pink Ribbons, Inc. caught my eye in the bookstore, I picked up the book, hoping for a little solidarity in my skepticism.

King's book offered more than solidarity: her feminist critique of corporate breast-cancer philanthropy confirmed much of what I had always cynically suspected. She describes corporations that divide up the breast-cancer market while politicians fight over the breast-cancer vote; marketing campaigns for pink blenders and teddy bears that cost far more than they contribute to research, while at the same time treating women as less than fully adult (nobody makes prostate-cancer Matchbox cars); and the broader issues of environmental carcinogens and health insurance for poor women going unaddressed. Perhaps most important, King deconstructs the image of the ideal "survivor" depicted in all the literature, the beneficiary of all our "awareness". She is white, middle-aged, middle-income; a wife, mother, and nurturer; generally self-sufficient (i.e. insured) and concerned with caring for others. She is emphatically not a "welfare queen," and supporting her cause is supposed to transcend any political affiliation.

In fact, the shadow of welfare reform looms in the background throughout Pink Ribbons, Inc. As King points out, every president since Ronald Reagan has actively encouraged corporations to take a larger role in the public concerns of the country, supposedly freeing individuals from the oppressive influence of a paternalistic welfare state. In reality, corporations are designed above all to make a profit. If they are to do right by their shareholders, they must find a way to make their philanthropic initiatives support their profit-making function. Their solution is the sophisticated variety of cause-related marketing that associates Avon with breast cancer, The Gap with AIDS, and Hot Topic with public-school arts. As a result, activists are silenced or co-opted by corporations, significant but controversial issues (like socialized medicine) are ignored, and real engagement and citizenship are replaced with shopping.

The Library Card

Author: Jerry Spinelli
Year: 1997
Genre: Children's fiction

Meaghan always talks about the tremendous potentiality in giving the right book to the right child at the right time. Jerry Spinelli has taken this important truth and put it through the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle machine: books are the magic potion that can cure naughty children of their naughtiness.

Spinelli reminds me a lot of Stephen King. They both put a lot of energy into creating individual, well-rounded characters with distinct identities and a history of personal tragedy, and then throw those characters into ridiculously contrived plots so that they can get an emotional response from the reader. There's a difference, though: I expect horror novels to be manipulative because that creepie-crawlie feeling is escapist, not authentic. (I expect fans of romantic comedies feel the same way.) Spinelli, on the other hand, has delusions of significance. He seems to think that if he can force you to feel sympathetic for his desperate runaways and preteen misfits, then they must be deserving of genuine sympathy.

The sad thing is that if he just told stories about these kids without trying to push you so hard (as he did, more or less, in Maniac Magee), you could feel for them. As it is, you just feel cheated.

Night Watch

Author: Sergei Lukyanenko
Year: 1998
Genre: Fantasy

On the question of good versus evil, most science fiction takes the line of Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility ... and it's not hard to figure out where that responsibility lies. Night Watch presents a different point of view. In between fast-paced magical action scenes and suspenseful vampire-stalking, its hero frets over exactly what it means to be an agent of the Light.

This question is particularly difficult in a world where Good and Evil coexist under an uneasy truce. Their Treaty allows every good action by an agent of the Light to be countered by an evil action by the Dark, so there is no real gain. Besides, helping one person could cause unintended harm to others down the line. For that reason, the forces of Light attempt to maintain the status quo while their bosses quietly engineer social revolutions in the background. Only by such drastic means, they believe, can they gain a decisive advantage over Evil. The only problem is that it's never worked before ...

Something about this combination seems characteristically Russian to me. Of course, we associate Russia with fat novels full of implacable moral obscurity; I guess Lukyanenko is like a cross between Dostoyevsky and Joss Whedon.

I can't imagine how well that comes out in the movie, though (not to mention the video game). I've heard the movie compared to The Matrix, which, for all its supposed philosophical symbolism, looked to me like just another action flick.

The Mismeasure of Man

Author: Stephen Jay Gould
Year: 1981
Genre: Science

After the last book I read on standardized testing, I came to this book assuming that the arguments against IQ would be more or less the same as the arguments against the MCAS. Standardized testing in general is problematic, I thought; it tends to be culturally biased and limiting, and when it's used as the sole (or primary) measure of intellectual competence, it invariably gives a one-sided view of the test-taker, conflating true mental ability with mere test-taking savvy. From this perspective, what does it matter if the test is administered by psychologists or by schoolteachers?

Instead, Gould's history of mental testing, from 19th-century craniometry to the eve of The Bell Curve (I believe he addresses The Bell Curve explicitly in a later edition), left me with an appreciation for just how progressive the MCAS is. While it may be narrow-minded and unfair, at least it was established with the goal of raising the performance of the weakest students to meet a universal minimum standard. It's meant to measure learning and achievement in a given subject area, not native mental ability. IQ, on the other hand, has historically been viewed (in Gould's words) as an innate, general, cognitive ability - something that underlies all an individual's intellectual accomplishment, and that cannot be increased by more or better instruction. Just the opposite: low IQ scores have been used to justify everything from segregated professional and vocational educational tracks, to racial discrimination and forced sterilization. Whatever its actual result, MCAS's intent is to help all students learn; IQ has overwhelmingly singled out low-performing children to receive even lower-quality education.

In my review of Edward O. Wilson's Consilience, I mentioned that I was reading "another book that deals with similar themes." The Mismeasure of Man is that book. The two biologists engage different but related themes: while Wilson writes about the place he envisions for scientists in the study of culture, Gould addresses the influence of a cultural environment on the practice of science. The interpretation of IQ scores as measuring a single general intelligence, and their use (like that of craniology before them) to rank human beings in order of innate intellectual capability, was the product of an age whose experts ranked all life according to the "great chain of being," culminating with whites over blacks and men over women. Although test results allowed numerous potential interpretations, scientists' prejudices led them to the one that seemed "obvious" at the time. Gould doesn't mention them explicitly, but one could view the theories of multiple intelligences and "learning differences" as the "inevitable" views of a more pluralistic generation. Despite our best attempts at impartiality, cultural norms and preconceptions drive our interpretations; the data themselves are just numbers.

Battle Royale

Author:Koushun Takami

It's not often I read a book that's billed as a "high-octane thriller," but when I do, I guess I usually enjoy it. This was no exception - it's a gritty, ultraviolent story of 42 junior-high classmates who are forced by a totalitarian government to fight each other to the death. It could easily have turned into a one-dimensional hack-and-slashfest, but the author decided instead to give some little bit of personality to each character. It sort of felt like being in a big public school class - some people only appear briefly and you only know them as "track and field girl," "pop idol-crazy girl," or "baseball jock." The others - the ones you spend more time with - you get to know well, especially who they have a crush on. Yes, in between machine gun rounds, jungle tracking, and survivalist techniques, these 14-year-olds are realistically boy- and girl-crazy.

While I was along for the ride, I enjoyed Battle Royale, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations in the end. For one thing, it invited comparisons to Lord of the Flies, but I remember Golding's book as having much more to say about tribalism, mysticism, and brutality, while Takami falls short. The first few deaths did seem to symbolize the vicissitudes of life under a totalitarian regime - the student killed on a whim of a government agent, the couple whose love is so perfect that they commit suicide together rather than risk being murdered apart - but in the end, the story just hammers away on the idea that people will do anything if circumstances are extreme enough. I didn't really need "Sweet Valley Death Match" to tell me that.

My other complaint was that the ending was too easy to figure out. If you take it as a given that the end of the "game" can't go as the government intended, you're only left with so many possibilities. Really, most of the suspense comes from wondering which supporting character will die next, and how.

Most of the deaths are pretty gruesome and graphic. Seems like this guy hated junior high school even more than I did.


Author:Edward O. Wilson

I didn't get to finish this book because I moved from one town to another, and I had to return it to the library, and it was overdue anyway. But I'm reading another book now that deals with some similar themes, and I wanted to get this down before I start to lose it. I promise to go back and read the last thirty pages.

Consilience is the more or less personal manifesto of Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, who believes that all the natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities should be united in one great chain of human endeavor. As a scientist, he holds science-centric views - he's especially unkind to the social sciences, which he considers a castle built on sand - but he does make some interesting points about how much the different fields of knowledge have to learn from one another. After all, the social sciences and humanities are basically elaborations on human nature, and what is human nature but a product of genes and environment?

The unifying thread here is epigenetic characteristics, the inherited traits that influence human learning and behavior. They are not rote instincts, like the bees' dances that do not change over generations, but exist on the boundary between genes and culture. The language-learning instinct, for instance, is an epigenetic characteristic, but the particular language that each individual learns is dependent on their cultural environment. Other examples that Wilson provides are the incest taboo (in spite of Freud, he says, this is not purely cultural) and fear of snakes. The point is that while human beings are diverse, the diversity is not limitless, and exists within boundaries that are more or less prescribed by our biology.

The great challenge, then, is to use the varied tools of neuroscience, anthropology, criticism, art, and philosophy to explore the boundary regions. Rather than being taboo areas that academics shy away from, they should be (Wilson says) the most active areas of study. Furthermore, as a natural scientist, he holds that all of these researchers should take their cues from empirical evidence of how the mind/brain works.

As a linguist, I find this idea appealing (and more or less inevitable). Linguistics is just such an interdisciplinary field as what Wilson is proposing. After all, language is a key component (perhaps the defining component) of human nature, and its students include cognitive neuroscientists, anthropologists, literary theorists, philosophers, and everyone in between.

Wilson himself is an interesting figure these days. With the likes of Richard Dawkins having such a loud voice in the science vs. religion debate, Wilson recalls his upbringing as a born-again evangelical and subsequent scientific training and "conversion" to humanistic deism. While he himself is not a science-bashing religious freak (he does take specific objection to the Intelligent Design movement), he does have respect and understanding for people of faith. As he outlines in his chapter on the relationship between epigenetics and ethics, he sees some benefit in scientists' and theologians' listening to one another. (This perspective has got him on the cover of this month's Seed Magazine.)

Palomar: The Complete Heartbreak Soup Stories

Author:Gilbert Hernandez
Genre:Graphic Novel

First, I'll point out that this is the largest comic book I've ever read. It's nearly six hundred pages, about 9x12 inches, hard cover, and weighs a ton.

At first it's a confusing read. The book follows about thirty important characters in this rural Mexican town, and you have to have some idea of the relationships among all of them to make any sense out of it.

Then, in a way, things get worse. When I'm reading a comic, I expect it to be picaresque; every new story starts off in more or less the same place. After all, I don't believe Archie and Jughead ever graduated from high school. This is different, though - it takes place over about twenty years of the life of the town. So, as you progress, you have to remember who has a crush on whom, who once slept with whom, who went to the big city, who went to jail, who moved to the United States, and why.

On top of this, there are some flat-out surreal episodes, especially the one where the town is infested with monkeys and some workers from a nearby archeological dig have to help kill them, and one of the workers turns out to be a serial killer, and one local kid is an artist who witnesses the killing but doesn't tell anyone. You have a feeling sometimes that these episodes are somehow symbolic, but they're also real in the lives of the characters, and they look back on them in future episodes.

Initially, it took me a while to get into the soap-opera (telenovela?) storyline, but eventually the characters' lives go through so many twists and turns that you get caught up in it. It's like one of the "big novels" of classic literature, where you really need to see the entire life of the family before it makes any sense at all. In fact, one of the blurbs on the jacket compared Hernandez to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton talks about recognizing people you know in the characters in great literature. Hernandez is one of those kind of writers; as you follow the characters over their whole lives, they become less like soap-opera types (the femme fatale, the snob musician, the strong earth mother) and more like real people.

Runaways 1: Pride & Joy

Author:Brian K. Vaughan
Genre:Graphic novel

Six kids find out their parents are supervillains. Then they learn about their own super powers that their parents had kept hidden from them. In the end (to nobody's surprise) they decide to team up and fight crime.

The metaphor is obvious, but superhero comics have always dealt in obvious metaphors. (See The Incredible Hulk.) Vaughan's dialogue is snappy, if not Whedonesque, and the more or less believable teenage characters should keep future installments from becoming a typical X-Men soap opera. All in all, it was a pretty interesting spin on the supergroup team-up story. Plus, Chapter 5 includes a kiss between the two kids with the coolest hair in all of comics.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Author:David Foster Wallace
Genre:Short Fiction

Most of these stories are brainy and quite dense. (Wallace himself describes them as "belletristic," and I had to figure out the meaning of the word before I could go on.

Did you get it yet? Comes from belles lettres. See what I mean?)

The most interesting story to me was "Octet." It's published as a failed attempt at a series of eight "pop quizzes" about human relationships. The quizzes are an increasingly complex series of impossible situations where the characters are using one another in some blatantly selfish but more or less abstracted way.

What happens is, the author can't manage to complete the series. Several of the pop quizzes don't work, he has to rewrite one of them (both 6 and 6A are included in the series), and you end up with a series of three-plus-one-rewrite of the intended eight. To resolve this, he adds a ninth pop quiz: You are a fiction writer who is trying to publish a series of eight pop quizzes ...

Pop Quiz 9 is a ridiculous attempt to salvage a failed piece of writing, so Wallace acknowledges how ridiculous it is. His acknowledgement is a cheap metafictional trick, so he acknowledges his own cheapness. In fact, the ninth story can be read as an (extremely verbose) apology for its own existence whatsoever - a fact which Wallace freely admits. The strange thing is that on a certain level it works: through his cheap trickery and desperate postmodern-lite artifice, Wallace is using his audience in the same way as his other pop-quiz characters are using their friends and families. It's a delicious paradox: if "Octet" is a failure, then that sneaks it in through the back door of success; but if it succeeds, then the ninth story makes no sense, and the whole thing is a failure.

In all the stories, Wallace loves/hates this kind of navel-gazing. Here are some more things he repeatedly analyzes/dissects/loves to hate/hates to love:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Pretentious psychobabble
  • Horrible people who speak deep truths in a horrible fashion
  • Vivid childhood memories
  • False, fabricated childhood memories
  • People using their difficult childhood as an excuse for their failure to be fully adult
  • Sex
I would probably read something else by him.