Politics: Too many Boswells?

So some background here (and eventually I’ll explain the picture!): As I was writing my thoughts on Scalzi, I went looking for Dickens quotes and found (God I love Gutenberg) letters!  In one of them (I was searching keywords but this letter made me pause for context) I found this AMAZING line:

I can imagine a succession of Boswells bringing about a tremendous state of falsehood in society, and playing the very devil with confidence and friendship.

-Letter to John Foster Devonshire TerraceSaturday, April 22nd, 1848

Ooooooh…..

Do you know what a “Boswell” is?  It is a confidant who publishes your life.  The famous-ness of the phrase is probably retained from Sherlock Holmes calling Watson his “Boswell” because it was a term known in that age.  But Dickens wrote about it and wrote negatively.  Ok, again this was as I was thinking on Scalzi writing fiction as a commentary on my time… so I couldn’t help but have these two thoughts collide.

Dickens called the excessive use of biography as negative.  Competing biographies degrade trust in society.

There are over 7,000 books in that tower I have at the top of this post – and all of them are about Abe Lincoln. Oh, and in 2012, that was less than half the books that had been published regarding that president… Now granted, not every one of those books is a Boswell Biography (which is a style) BUT… BUT!

I have been mulling in my mind WHY.  This is probably the question that has founded more of my thinking than any other. And this quote (granted, you should read the full context) made me STOP.  Like full mental stop and connect two things (at least in my mind).

We have flooded the market with biographies and monographs on great people or perceived great people AND we have an issue in society where people pick and choose their “experts” based on… intuition?  There is an issue of trusting “experts” in society.  There is an issue of people cherry-picking data to confirm their own bias instead of seeking a truthful answer even if it proves them wrong.

I’m not saying competing biographies and new information can’t change the narrative we understand.  Just taking any information and then applying a lens of declassified information can drastically shift historical events.  But a lot of books are written by folks claiming to be “expert” in some way which compete with each other – and how do we know which ones to trust? And how do we determine who to give our confidence to?

Dickens was a smart man.  I think he might have been on to something.  I don’t want to silence (most) people, but… could this be exasperating some of the issues we have in our politics and social commentary?  This explosion in the past 30-50 years of “experts” without a way for the common person to vet them?

Not having a solution, I am mostly putting the question out there.  I will indubitably continue to mull on this one and look to other smart people to see if they say anything that sounds like a solution.  I don’t like the idea of “committees” who choose what we can read.  This removes any kind of certification board; academic panel; etc.  The closest is some kind of peer-review in terms of non-fiction books. And if it isn’t peer-reviewed, then we (society) can teach our children to read such books with deep suspicions.

I mean, I hope people know Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is fiction but at this point… I can’t help but wonder if there are folks that either think he’s a fictional character (despite the like 15,000 non-fiction/semi-fiction that predates vampire hunting) or there are people who think he really was hunting supernatural creatures.  I’m not sure which makes me grieve more.

Musing: Book of my Time

This is not a review of Collapsing Empire (John Scalzi) because it’s the first of either two or three books – and I am chomping at the bit to be able to get #2.  I am actually really glad I waited to read it until now – if I had read it when it first came out I would have been soooo cranky. Ok, by read I do mean “listen to Wil Wheaton read it” and thoroughly enjoy his performance.

I have been musing over this book since last week – I woke up Saturday morning at 6am and found my mind turning over bits of it.  It is is the first time in my life I’ve read a book and thought “damn, if/when they read this in 100 years, what will they say of us?”

Let me clarify here.  John Scalzi has never considered himself a paragon of literature.  He has said (I am paraphrasing here) a thousand times he writes books he hopes entertains people.  He isn’t writing to make social commentary (again, as I understand from his blog) and he isn’t writing to change minds.

I wonder if Charles Dickens would have said the same thing.

I have been told in my entire academic career that Dickens was writing on purpose to change minds.  But I don’t remember ever seeing a quote from him saying this was his goal. HELL – he called A Christmas Carol “his little christmas book” and he just wanted that to make some money to pay the bills!  THAT I remember. I don’t think he was trying to pen the great novel it turned into.

Did he have a social conscious?  God yes. Clearly.  Do I think he was trying to spark social revolution with his novels? No.  I think he was writing those to entertain. I ran searches for keywords (society, poor, etc.) and he didn’t talk about these things in his correspondence.  The closest I found was a letter where he came to Virginia (1842!) and wrote about slavery.  (seriously, go here and read his letter to W. C. Macready in 1842!)

Interestingly, Dickens & Scalzi have something else in common.  Scalzi has written very openly about the difficulties he experienced growing up.  Dickens’ father went to debtors prison and at 12 Dickens had to go to work at a factory to support his family.  They both had some truly lucky breaks during their teens (Scalzi went to a great school, Dickens got a white-collar job – at the time a truly amazing break for a boy from a lower-income family).

I can’t help but wonder if Collapsing Empire might be one of those books kids read in school in 100+ years and talk about how Scalzi wrote it as a commentary (he says he didn’t!) on early 21st century society.  Some of the issues it touches on (gender, sexuality, stratified societies, greed & power, language…. God I don’t want know how many times “fuck” is used) are things that are just so real to me these days.

Whether intentional or not, the book does (in my opinion) touch on some of the mental/social fights we are having today.  It might just be Scalzi working through it in his own mind or reflecting his own dreams of how society could be into text.

I can’t wait to see the whole thing play out. I will have to read them again.  Hell, I might even buy some copies in paper-form that I’ll write in/mark up and do I truly in-depth review of them!  I haven’t done that since college…. mmmmm that sounds mentally yummy.

Review: Here, There be Dragons (James Owen)

This book is imperfect (I have critiques) but it is definitely on my list of “books I’ll recommend to someone.”  If that sounds like a contradiction – well, you can enjoy something that is imperfect despite it’s imperfections.

Here, There be Dragons is, at it’s core, a fun adventure novel.  I thought it was a little predictable, but it is a fun twist on the “fairy tale” genre.  It fits into the trend of re-examining the classic tales and/or referencing them without expecting them to be some kind of “TRUTH.”

I listened to this book, and the reader of the audiobook (James Langton) did a great job with the accents and character voices without making them take over the story. Especially in books where the author didn’t plan out audio (and so made sure to say “Said John.” type things) it helps for the narrator to have voices.

The biggest critique I have in this book is some (I suspect unintended) sexism.  There is one female character of note.  Oh, I think one of the 3-fates might be the most memorable but she had one scene versus the woman who was in the book the entire time.  I don’t think (or at least I’m going to assume it) James Owen meant to be sexist, I just think he assumed his primary audience would be young boys and they would want male protagonists.  There isn’t really a romance plot-line, which is more common in male-marketed fantasy (female-marketed fantasy is critiqued if they don’t have a romance plot…)

I DO like the way James Owen tackled myths and their interactions.  I like how he pointed out the “3 women controlling fate” has different names in different myths – and there similarities and differences and how they can be handled.

It is worth getting the end and seeing the twist he included.  I can’t say I “saw it coming” but I had been suspicious of something from pretty early in the book and when the twist happened I was able to think “Ha! I knew that thing I’d noticed couldn’t be an an accident!  THAT’S what he was doing with it.  Nice.”

It is absolutely worth the read, but it isn’t a book I would say “your kid needs to read this to grow up” (like I did with Alanna).  I don’t know that I would even say “it will make you think” – I don’t know that it would make an adult think (I kind of home not).  BUT, it was a fun romping adventure that made me want to find out how they’d reach the end.  It is one of the better “twisted fairy tale” stories I think I’ve seen lately and for that alone, I’d give it about a 3/5 stars.  Good, not brilliant.

Review: Bad Characters

Oh the irony that I got called out for “always liking the books I read” and then I read something awful.  Thanks universe. Thanks a lot. (Thanks OBAMA)

Without naming names, this book was pretty awful.  It’s the first of a trilogy and as much as I hate leaving a plot unfinished, I don’t think I want to drag myself through another 2 books with these characters.  They were terrible.

So the book is urban fantasy – low fantasy so most of the people aren’t “magical” and what magic there is tends to be brushed off and/or explainable.  And the concept of the story is engaging.  It’s the characters I have a problem with.

The main character is a sixteen year old girl with apparently no friends and not caring about it.  This is my primary beef with this book: what sixteen year old is happy when they have no friends?  Hell, any age could be (should be?) unhappy when they almost entirely isolated.  And yeah, she’s got her mom and the random women who live with her mom….

Ok, it helps to know her mom is a psychic – of course a real one.  The women who live with her are also psychic (real ones).  These women are basically the only relationships “Jane” (her name in the book is so terrible another character nicknames her Jane…) has. This caused me serious frustration in the book – there is this character who has lived in this tiny speck of a town her whole life, but apparently is friendless. I know I’m ranting.  The frustration this caused (in me) is that the character felt like she didn’t “exist” before this story.

The other primary characters, her love interest and his two friends were pretty similar.  Well, actually they had more backstory.  One of them was abused, one was a seventeen year old rich kid whose parents are loving but apparently don’t care about him (the one time the character met his parents they were decent people – but it’s like they don’t care if their son is literally just running around the world after a mythical legend….)

It was weird.  It was awful. I dragged myself through the first book and gratefully sent it back to the library.

Musings: Books I want to see on screen

I was looking through this article (here) about 100 books being (maybe) turned into movies.  I found myself rolling my eyes at another remake of 1984.  As much as I’m looking forward to (I hope!) a good movie version of A Wrinkle of Time, there are some titles I think are grossly missing from this list.

#1: Codex of Alera (Jim Butcher)

I reviewed this series here.  There is some seriously fun imagery and ideas in here.  It would probably need to be a TV series.  Tavi would be a tough guy to cast, but I think as long as they managed to find someone who could pull off “small and skinny” and then bulk up (some)…. He wouldn’t need a lot of bulk.  I totally think Kitai should be played by Millie Bobby Brown – she can pull off the “scary but not at the same time” look perfectly.

#2 Alanna (Tamora Pierce)

I have wanted a “Tortall” series since I first read these books in middle school.  If HBO wants their next series…. Tortall would not be a terrible one to tackle.  There might not be enough blood/sex/violence for HBO though.  CW could expand beyond super heroes.

You would only have 3 seasons, because I’m not sure you’d want to try to expand out the last 2 books into 2 separately seasons.  I think they would work best as a single season.

#3 Akata Witch/Warrior (Nnedi Okorafor)

The review  for this book should tell you a lot of why I want to see this book on the large screen.  This would make for an amazing 2 movies.  Or 3.  I could see turning this into something of a trilogy – without giving away anything in the plot… yeah if I were to put my hand to screenwriting this I would make it a trilogy.  Oh the end of that second movie…. would drive you all wild! Cliffhanger!

#4 Tiger Burning Bright (Bradley, Norton, & Lackey)

(Goodreads link) As I was looking at my bookshelves my eyes alighted on this jewel in and lit up. And I have to fight with myself over TBB or The Elvenbane, but I decided this one is less famous and would make a great one-hit-win. I might need to reread and write my review on it to do justice, but this would be a kick-ass movie.  I almost re-ordered my entire list to put this as #1!  If you don’t know these three names by last only, they are Marrion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, and Mercedes Lackey.  Anyone who loves 2 out of those three is probably now drooling.  (I may have written four paragraphs of fangirling over these authors and had to edit it out…)

This book follows three women, a mother and her two daughters as they seek to save their kingdom from the hungry powerful empire that is attempting to swallow them up.  With secrets, magic, and each having their own skills and talents they manage to not only save their own lives, but save their people.  OMG. Excuse me while I go get lost in Merina now.

#5 Dark Horse Series

I’ve already reviewed Mary H. Herbert’s series (here) and I have long loved these books.  The fact they haven’t ever gotten picked up just seems dumb to me.  They are perfect movie material.  Literally, casting is the only question in my world.  How they handle the Hunnuli is also vital – they have to do it right. Seriously, don’t try to handle magical awesome horses if you can’t handle magical awesome horses.

I have so many images in my mind of what I think would work well, I would love to see a good director/producer tackle this one and do it right.  With the rise (finally!) of acceptable female-lead movies, I think this books series not only would make AWESOME movies, but might finally be able to be done right.  Not too much focus on the relationships of men + women, but not ignoring them entirely either.

OK Hollywood…

So These are my suggestions.  There are others I could list (hell, a lot of the books I read I might recommend….), but I will let these 5 stand as my recommendations for 2017.  Maybe I’ll do this again NEXT year, see which ones stay on the list and if I change any out….

 

Review: Akata Witch/Warrior (Nnedi Okorafor)

This is Nnedi Okorafor’s young adult books.  I can’t wait to start reading Binti next (I found it on Google Play sale and already have it downloaded… now I just need time).

Akata Witch & Akata Warrior both follow Sunny as she learns her albino curse isn’t a curse but a sign that she is a witch.  In the best of ways.  Americans hear the word “juju” and think New Orleans and voodoo, but Nigerian juju is neither good nor bad itself- it is just the word for magic.

The book starts with a bang and follows some relatively traditional paths as far as plot points.  Both books I knew when I was coming up to the climax not because of rising action (and with ebooks not by how much paper each hand is holding…) but because we’d hit some pretty clear plot-arcs.  That would be my harshest criticism – its plot is awesome but patterned.  Especially the second book. To be honest, when we hit that mid-point of “oh, something is going to go very, very wrong here…” yeah I thought that.

BUT, this a young adult novel so I think that pacing isn’t inappropriate.  I have read hundreds of books – of course I might notice the patterns.  It also doesn’t mean the patterns are bad – they get used for very good reasons – THEY WORK.

Ok, so let’s get into this:

Characters: Sunny, Orlu, Chichi & Sasha are friends & Leopard People – people with magic in Nigeria.  Sunny was born in America, lived here for 9 years, and then her family moved back to Nigeria (where her parents were from).  It creates a character who can think about “this would be weird in America – here’s why” without feeling like exposition or condescension.

World Building: This is one of those things I really liked.  I don’t like a lot of urban fantasy because sometimes it’s hard to see the inter-mixing of the magical & non-magical.  There is either a strict divide (ie Harry Potter) or an underworld.  And although technically Sunny’s magical world could be argued as the latter, it is intermixed in a way I haven’t seen and I like better than the standard.  Especially because “the wilderness” is something I have read of in myth (I even have a story idea where I use it).

Overall: 4/5 it is young adult and though I think anyone who has read Harry Potter will probably enjoy it, there are some elements that closed-minded people might not be able to handle. Like imperfections providing strength.

Review: Shanghai Girls (Lisa See)

I’m going to start out that there are sections of these 2 books which are 5/5 stars and parts that are 2/5.  So an average would be about 3.5/5 score between them, but they can be a bit of a wrestle.

These books span about 20-25 years, focusing on Pearl Chin, her sister May, and her daughter Joy.  In the first book we spend 100% in Pearl’s head.   In the second book we split pretty much 50/50 between Pearl & Joy.

  • I didn’t like these characters much.  None of these women.
  • The plot had strange ways in which it did-but-didn’t-quite follow the traditional cycle of rising and falling action.
  • The world building and research Lisa See put into these novels was phenomenal.

The lack of strong judgement on the potentially explosive politics around issues like the Chinese Exclusion Act, WWII Japanese internment camps, and Moaism/Communism as it impacted Chinese-Americans is actually quite impressive.  She mentions these issues but manages to never sound preachy. (It is really difficult to look at the abuses of power in Moaism, the control of communication, art, etc. from an American perspective NOT get a little dumbfounded.)

Shanghai Girls (book1 of the series) focuses on the relationship (and 20 years of animosity) between Pearl & May. There are secrets (god the secrets) which is one of the core elements of the books.  The lies the sisters tell themselves, each other, and the outside world… I can’t imagine living like that. It drives a huge wedge into every relationship they have.

Lisa See occasionally has Pearl say something like “a good Chinese doesn’t tell others…” and then whatever lie Pearl is about to tell is somehow justified.  I began to wince every time Pearl said it in the first book (she was worse there) because I knew things were about to be bad. Joy does the same shit only through stupidity instead of choice.

Seriously, if your mother and father tell you “you don’t want to do marry him – he lives in a shithole” and you’ve never seen his shithole, maybe you should go look at it before you marry him? Just maybe? Understand where he comes from by like having a conversation with his parents instead of just amusing yourself with romantic stories of who you think they are?!?! Maybe ask him what he wants in 5 years or 10 years and make sure you want remotely the same things in life? Even writing this review, I have to stop and take a deep breath and remind myself that Joy was 20 and 20-year-olds in America are frequently stupid.

So why, if I hated these characters so much did I read two books by this woman?  Lisa See, for all that these main characters were terrible people, writes a great cast of diverse characters.  The main characters were selfish and stupid, but there were a LOT of wonderful, generous, kind, and interesting characters around them.  Then there were some whose greed, and selfishness and… God, I could hate them and part of me railed “who could do that.” even while I know people DO THAT.

And then there was the interesting pacing.  It wasn’t bad. There were a few places (usually when she was skimming months or years at a time) that it lagged, but there were these peaks and valleys that were beautifully subtle.  So one of the comments I’ve made about Pearl Buck’s Imperial Woman to friends is that because it’s based on someone’s life, it doesn’t/can’t follow the “traditional” novel plots’ ups-and-downs.  Lisa See manages to feel like she is following someone’s life (which shouldn’t have those “normal” flows) AND yet if I were to go back and plot the points – I bet she did actually follow that normal peak-and-valley template. ESPECIALLY for something that spans 20 years. I thought about it as I waited for book 2 to become available and realized she HAD done this well enough I didn’t notice it until later (which is pretty unusual to me).

Lastly, there is the world-building.  This is some amazing storytelling of the 1930s-1950s experience of Chinese-Americans.  I said it before, Lisa See somehow managed to touch on things like Japanese internment without sounding judgemental.  Hell, she managed to make Maoism sound positive (until all the starvation and death). -And granted, it helps that the idealism of communism/socialism appeals to some part of my bleeding-hearted-soul.  STILL – it is hard not to come into a communist state with an American character and not sound/come off as super judgy.

Would I necessarily recommend these books?  I mean, I said it ends up being like 3.5 on average, so yeah.  To the right person/audience I would absolutely recommend them.  To anyone who likes historical fiction absolutely.  To anyone who has come from abusive families of lies…. maybe actually.  It’s a good study in why lying tears people apart from the inside out.  Most people? If you want to explore a different voice, a different view of the world than the “shiny” side of the “American Dream” 1930s-1950s – damn is this a good one.  Let it say that if/when my library has more Lisa See books on audiobook available in the future I WILL probably pick them up and add her to my regular roster of authors I enjoy (I hope I’ll like other protagonists better, but I am very willing to give her that chance).