Saturday, June 1, 2013

Friday Reads by Christine Locke

It's a day late, but here are thoughts on recent readings.  I have so much to say about Madeleine L'Engle that I'm leaving her for next week.  Meanwhile, here's some more summer reading, an indie series that may soon be a movie (squeal!!), and a non-fic pic as well, for you might like it better than I did...

Inferno by Dan Brown

Ok, a lot of people are giving this novel pretty tough reviews: it drags on, the facts aren't straight, it's too long, the characters chase about and don't really move the plot by doing so, etc.  And all these criticisms possess an element of truth.  This novel did not grab me like Brown's others.  BUT--and this is a big BUT--you need to hang in there.  Although the story does drag a bit, Brown performs a surprise in both character and plot development about 3/4 through.  It is worth the wait, and you have to read everything that comes before in order to appreciate what he does.  Brown got me.  I've never seen anything quite like it.  And it was an interesting subversion that intrigues me as a writer, too.

I do wish Brown's fact checkers would do a better job, though.  Other reviews have commented on this at length.  The one tidbit I can contribute is that the Nazis are not the ones who coined the term "eugenics."  That term was already in use by the late years of the nineteenth century and was being used in discussions of birth control and population manipulation even then.  I mean, come on, Google much??

So, even though it's not my favorite book by Brown and even though I think some of the criticisms are spot on, Inferno might be the only Dan Brown novel I'll read more than once.

Punished by Kira Saito

Ahhh...I love this series.  It has everything I want in a story: a lovely heroine starting out in life battling tough odds, the setting a grand old house both beautiful and secretive, hints of a love tiangle, a goofy but lovable best friend for comic relief, and at least one wise older woman to advise our heroine and guide her.  But Saito does more than just give us a lovely example of classic gothic literature set in the American South.  She also knows a lot about voodoo, for her heroine is a voodoo queen.  You learn a lot about this practice by reading the books.  I have to say, Saito's breadth of knowledge on the subject and ability to relate it to the reader is impressive.

Punished is Book Two in this series.  In it, you get to watch the characters introduced in the first novel become more fully developed, and Aurelia, our heroine, learns more about who she was born to be.  I like the unique way that travel in time/space gets handled in this book, and it's worth noting that these kinds of travel are increasingly being portrayed in stories that are otherwise Southern gothic in genre (I'm also thinking of Amber House and its upcoming sequel, Neverwas,by Kelly Moore and Tucker and Larkin Reed, and my own series including Open Door and In Time).  It fascinates me that several contemporary writers are including a particular fantasy element in the gothic genre, and I love the way Saito does it in Punished.

At the end of the novel, I was eager to read the next to find out how Aurelia gets herself out of this mess--or deeper into it.  I'm so happy this series is NOT a trilogy: there's more fun to be had in book four, too.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Oh, dear.  I hate to say it, but this book was a stinker.  There's some interesting information about what it takes to achieve proficiency in a particular endeavor and what it takes to achieve excellence in your field (not necessarily what you'd think), but the generalizations here, especially the ones relating to race and region, are uncomforable at best and offensive at worst.  Knowledgeable reviewers on amazon have already responded to the cultural assumptions regarding rice growing societies and the descriptions of airline safety.  But the chapter that appalled me with its assumptions was the one on the "culture of honor" in the American south.  Gladwell cites a study done at the University of Michigan as evidence that this attitude still prevails in young men from our southern states (never mind that the study is from the 1990's and not exactly up to date).  The study involves insults dealt to young men from northern states and to young men from southern states and supposedly shows the southern young men were more offended by the insults.  Therefore, Gladwell claims, they have been inculcated by the "culture of honor."  Ok, well, this whole "study" sounds asinine to me.  Yet, if we're really going to call something like this a "study" of human behavior, shouldn't it be noted that the "northern" young men were in their home state or at least their home region (hello?  Michigan?) and the "southern" young men were not?  Something tells me that being far from home and being singled out for unprovoked insults might be more stressful and therefore draw a stronger reaction from a subject than receiving an unprovoked insult in one's home environment where one is more attuned to cultural cues.  I'm certainly open to the possibility that Gladwell did not represent the study faithfully.  Perhaps the University of Michigan professors were far more careful than the book makes them sound; perhaps they made allowances for this.  But, if they did, Gladwell does not say so.

Yet, having said all that, I have to say the book ends very well.  Some reviewers have assumed that the outlier featured in the final chapter is Gladwell himself.  I think the chapter is about Gladwell's mother.  It is a heartbreaking story about slavery's legacy and racism, and Gladwell is breathtakingly honest about the painful realities involved.  This chapter will break your heart; but, his mother's honesty and grace, fueled by her faith, allow her to perceive her own racism even when she is herself a victim of racism.  Her son learns from her ability to forgive herself and others who sought to persecute her, and that is a story from which we can all learn.  I didn't like the book, but I loved the last chapter.

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