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.