Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review: Look for Our Mother and Our Father

Author: Anonymous
Genre: Spiritual
Pages: 237
Warning: Fiction
Rating: 1/5

In the interest of full disclosure, I received this book through the Librarything Member Giveaway.

"Look for Our Mother and Our Father" is a series of related essays about how European-centric culture is all that is wrong with the world. Most of the author's criticisms are directed specifically towards the United States of America, but a certain about of blame for the state of the universe is laid on it's European predecessors.

First and foremost, I found the writing style to be consistent but jarring. The extensive use of parentheses was distracting. It was not uncommon for there to be several sentences in parentheses on a single page, which doesn't lend itself to coherent essays. There is little logical connection or narrative flow between paragraphs, and it took me a long time to distinguish the point the author was driving at. The style and organizational structure are very similar to preaching. This is effective when the author is trying to evoke emotional responses, but I confess my own responses were primarily negative.

Despite this there were some passages that I resonated with me, and my understanding of truth. For instance, there was a portion of a paragraph that explains how the American/European viewpoint towards animals is barbaric. This is illustrated in part by the historical slaughter of the plains bison in the 19th century. If you don't know what I'm talking about, American settlers killed bison to the point of extinction, ostensibly for their skins. This hunting was subsidized by the railroad industry to starve plains tribes. While I was not personally responsible for this event, I feel great shame to be part of a country that felt this was an appropriate response, and for all the benefits I have received since being born that are a result of the subjugation and destruction of the Native American Nations. Throughout the essays there are several more current examples of wrong-doing perpetrated by America which I also think all of it's citizens should recognize.

On the other hand, there are some things I just blatantly disagree with, like "Gravity and other natural laws are culture-specific phenomena, just like human nature; they are not universal laws."(pg 36) I cannot agree that gravity is a cultural construct, there is nothing that supports this.

The following passage was one that I found particularly frustrating, which illustrates a concerning trend in the logical premise of "Look for Our Mother Our Father". It suggests that only European-ish cultures are the only ones to use irrigation. For clarification purposes PEOC stands for "Person of European-Originated Culture"(pg 8).
PEOC's, on the other hand, would like to control everything and every part of the environment. To control water, we use concrete canals, dams, pipes, and faucets. Instead of letting water flow freely, as it used to move through the world, we try to capture it and direct it's course. The natural water features which used to grace the harshest deserts have all but vanished in PEOC countries (and countries we are forcing to develop). (pg 149)
Awkwardly, many South American civilizations used irritation. The Chimu Empire, which was in power from roughly 800 to 1470 AD, built a canal between the Chicama and Moche valleys to artificially boost the amount of water which would reach their capital city of Chan Chan. While I would agree that Americans have done all of the things referenced in the quote, and we alter the landscape to do so, the author's assertion that this controlling nature is a direct result of having a European-derivative culture is factually untrue. It also suggests the author has made some broad generalizations about human nature that zhe can't back up.

I suspect that some of the authors's assertions arise from a Noble Savage complex. It is possible that the author has chosen to generalize about all Native American cultures in order to preserve the anonymity of the tribes zhe knows intimately about, to which I applaud zhe's respect. However the sheer number of sweeping statements in the text about Native American lifestyle makes this unlikely. The majority of the author's statements about Native American culture are broad generalizations, which suggests zhe knows very little about the individual tribes. Zhe also fails to specify any tribe, although there were many different Native American cultures that existed across time and geography. It seems improbable that every Native American tribe exhibited all of the characteristics the author ascribes to them. My favorite example of the ridiculousness of the author's claims is "If it doesn't break down and need replacement, it needs maintenance. Everything needs maintenance: buildings, roads, landscaping ..."(pg 127) I can only think of two interpretations of this statement: a complaint about everything, or an implication that Native Americans are better because nothing they built has ever needed repairs. Ever. I make this point because if I'm correct and the author is placing Native American culture on a pretty inhuman pedestal, without bothering to learn anything about the cultures zhe claims to revere.

I believe the author's fundamental argument is untrue. European-centric cultures commit wrongful acts, but this has less to do with some inherent flaw in only European-centric cultures than with a basic flaw in powerful agrarian societies. The author constructs Native American culture as the opposite, and in doing so ignores their complexity and humanity. The author just generally has an inability to tell reasonable critiques of agrarian societies from nonsense. While I am aware, at it's heart, the argument that American society has problems is true, "Look for Our Mother Our Father" is a terrible critique of it. This book is little more than one disappointed individual complaining about their lives, and indiscriminately laying blame.

I struggled through 162 pages of this book, but now I'm just happy I've given up on it. It's a lovely day outside, and I'd much rather enjoy that.

Questions or Comments Welcome~

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review: Machine of Death

Author: Various
Genre: Fiction Anthology
Pages: 439
Warnings: Lots of Death
Rating: 4/5

"Machine of Death" is a fiction anthology in a universe where there is a machine that can predict the exact cause of an individual's death. Every short story comes starts an illustration. I haven't enjoyed such a high image/word ratio since I was in elementary school, but this anthology is the exception which changes the rule. As far as the content goes: sometimes the Machine was required for the storyline but usually it was part of the background of the story.

I was surprised by the huge variation in the quality of the stories in the anthology. Most of them were fun. I would say I really loved maybe five, and I completely skipped two. There's something very liberating about starting a story, realizing you're already counting the pages to see how many are left, and deciding to screw it. There are enough stories that's it's worth sitting down to enjoy only the ones you want to. And no matter what your fancy, I predict you'll find enough stories likable to make it worth purchasing the book.

Plus, because I love the internet, I want to point out the idea for the "Machine of Death" was conceived at Dinosaur Comics! I appreciate that the anthology pays tribute to it's origins by placing the comic on the second page. It's adorable, so you should follow the link and see for yourself.

I was also surprised to see some of my favorite online personalities contributing. Kate Beaton of  Hark a Vagrant (who draws the most adorable web-comics in the history of the internet) was an art contributor so I was delighted before even starting the story. Ben "Yatzee" Croshaw also wrote a story, which was unexpected. I know his cutting wit from the Escapist where he reviews video games, but his story is devoid of cock-related jokes. The entire work is an exciting collaboration of young artists and authors who make the internet worthwhile.

I don't read anthologies a lot, so I'll review four of my favorites and touch on four of my least favorites. The summaries will be borrowed from the official website.

Flaming Marshmellow
Author: Camille Alexa
Summary: This story of high school cliques was funny and genuine, with a great, punchy ending.
Rating: 4.5/5
I was surprised by how much this short affected me. "Flaming Marshmellow" was a disturbingly accurate illustration of a teenager just beginning her life by receiving a slip of paper that tells her how she'll die. I took an immediate liking to the main character, and to her father, who shows up to drive her to the MoD. The ending made me cry and laugh at the same time.

Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions
Author: J. Channing Wells
Summary: Hands down the funniest story we read, this one also had a great take on the insurance implications of the Machine.
Rating: 5/5
I think I giggled the entire way through this one, just like the summary said. Not just because the main character has a healthy sense of humor (and irony?) but because it's great to imagine a world where finding out how you're going to die makes you happy. Who would have though "Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions" would be the most exciting part of your life?

Author: Alexander Danner
Summary: A pitch-perfect story about a magician who hates insipid party games.
Rating: 4.5/5
Another humorous story: I'm sensing a pattern here. Unlike "Devoured" this one is all about the punchline. I mean, yes it's entertaining to read before that, but the last bit really makes this story. If you don't like it, don't worry. Most of these stories are hardly more than 20 pages.

Prison Knife Fight
Author: Shaenon K. Garrity
Summary: The worst fate for a child born into privilege? Perhaps, but a delightful story for the rest of us.
Rating: 5/5
I usually have very little sympathy for characters who are too "well off". That just sounds ridiculous to me, like they're complaining about how being able to eat ice cream whenever they want destroyed their love for the food because it wasn't a treat anymore. Boo hoo. "Prison Knife Fight" made room in my cold heart for children of the wealthy. I'll never pity Cotton (the main character) but I can respect his loneliness.

Author: Kit Yona
Summary: [The] story of a young couple forever(?) in love.
Rating: 2/5
Erk. Even I can tell that the main character's going to have trouble in his relationship. Even though he's supposedly "in love"  his description of his girlfriend sounds more like an advert for a porn-bot than a person. Wow, she's blond, hot, loves to wear the naugh-tay lingerie you buy her and go shopping. I mean, yes, there are women who have those characteristics but only if you cut out lots of other interesting bits.

Author: Tom Francis
Summary: This story about the accidental inventors of the machine felt brutal, desperate, and real.
Rating: 0/5
I don't know why this story rubbed me the wrong way. Part of it's probably the reductive description of the main character's girlfriend (again). Maybe it was the choppy storytelling. Either way, I didn't make it through this story, so I don't have anything else to complain about.

Author: Randall Munroe
Summary: What happens when physical science rejects the idea of precognition?
Rating: 0/5
I don't like westerns. This story wanted to cast John Wayne for the main character so bad it made me cry a little. Or Bruce Willis. Either way, this story screamed Manly, or Rugged. I only made it two pages in.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Review: Fool's Errand

Author: Robin Hobb
Genre: High Fantasy
Pages: 662
Warnings: Acts of torture are mentioned
Rating: 3/5
Series: 1/3 of The Tawny Man

Before I comment on the quality of "Fool's Errand", there is a rant that I have to get out about series in general. For reasons I cannot fathom, every time a new book in a series comes out, the first quarter of it is devoted to recap. Who is this recap for? Not the loyal fans, who if they have free time have already re-read the entire series so the knowledge is fresh in their minds, and if they don't will remember it as they go. I can almost, almost imagine the author is recapping for the first-time reader of the series, but so often I get to hear about crap that doesn't matter to someone who just picked up the book. It's such a waste! It makes me a little crazy, because it's such a common narrative choice.

"Fool's Errand" is more guilty of this than most book's I've read, but in Robin Hobb's defense there is significant action which takes place well before the book starts. This book is actually the seventh book in this universe, following two other trilogies. While it does help the reader to know who is friends with who, and why their bond is so close, I could have lived with a book that felt like it was jumping into the middle of a story. There's nothing wrong with a detailed history that the reader doesn't know about. It creates a sense of mystery, which is something high fantasy books don't have a lot of.

I should warn you that I haven't read the Farseer Trilogy or the Liveship Trader's Trilogy, so the first 200 pages or so of this book were a complete surprise for me. I think those pages would have dragged much, much more if I had known any of the things that were being recapped. I don't know a lot of the details even now, and that's okay for me. It's a better motivation to go back and read the first six books. I would strongly suggest you try reading from the end at least once.

Anyway, on to the actual novel. "Fool's Errand" is the (continuing) saga of FitzChivalry Farseer. From what I estimate, the book picks up 15 years after the previous trilogy. Fitz has been living a simple life raising Mishap, his adopted son. Nigheyes, his awesome wolf companion, has grown old and Mishap is ready to make his own way in the world. While Fitz is slowly coming to the realization that his life must change, Dutiful, his royal son, vanishes. It takes a lot of convincing from all of his old friends (and lots of oh-so-subtle references to the previous two series) to get Fitz moving. Eventually he rescues his son and saves the day, but I figure you should read the book to find out how.

I feel like the action in this book isn't very smooth, but it works out well enough. The first third of the book involves lots of talking and place-setting, which makes the character's interplay during times of high stress much more believable. The other two thirds of the book are lots of travelling interspersed with some fight scenes. It played out nicely, because constant action or constant talking gets boring.

As usual the most fascinating part of this book for me was the characterization. Fitz, the main character, is difficult to like and to get along with, but since the story is first person, it's hard to tell that he's scary. There's a disconnect between how Fitz sees most of his actions (and therefore how the reader views them) and how others interpret his behavior, and Robin Hobb does an excellent job of highlighting this. At one point his companion runs away from him in the middle of the night. In addition, Fitz's has many secrets, and no single character knows all of them. It's wonderful to see an author that can write such a complicated set of characters well.

Nighteyes and Fitz's friendship was lovely for me. As far as magic systems go, the Wit is one of my favorites. In terms of story-telling, the lack of barriers between Nighteyes and Fitz is a counter-point to the levels of secrets between Fitz and everyone else. As odd as it is to see characters keep things from each other for longer than a book, it's odder to see two characters who are essentially soul-mates.

So, typical fantasy fare. I think the main attraction to me was that I started at the end, and don't know how Fitz got his scars, or became friends with Fool among other things. Unlike most fantasy stories, characters were able to keep really valuable information from each other, and I spent part of the book holding my breath, waiting for someone to slip up. Otherwise, the characters carried an acceptable but hardly original story.