Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a story about two Victorian white men who helped create the Oxford English Dictionary. One of them went mad after the American Civil War and killed a man in England, where he was sent to an asylum. The other was a philologist who had trouble getting meaningful work in his field. Together they (did not) fight crime!
Winchester tells this story very well, with many digressions into the interesting-if-you-don’t-have-to-do-it drudgework of creating a complete record of the English language. Throughout the story he mentions that there are issues to be taken with the OED, the kinds of issues of imperialism and entrenchment of power, but it’s primarily an easily readable celebration of the work these two people (among many) put into this enormous piece of literature.
One thing I didn’t appreciate was how the prologue uses a dramatic version of the first in-person meeting between the two men, but then later in the book it explains how that was americanized bullshit written to sell newspapers in a “too good to check” kind of era. I just felt it was disingenuous to use the story as a hook in exactly the same way. But whatever. It gave me something easy to hang the story on, and got me into it in the first place. Maybe it doesn’t matter that it’s a lie.
This story wouldn’t be remarkable at all if it was being told about Wikipedia. I tend to think of its whole community of volunteers working together on a collection of human knowledge as something new and technological in an internet-only kind of way, but that is also how the OED was built. Contributors included some experts and some random citizens (who happened to be guilty of crimes). Wikipedia just flips the expected ratios of those expected categories.
Last week I found three volumes (Dead Mothers, The Gravel in your Guts, & High Lonesome) of Jason Aaron’s Scalped on the library shelf and delved into them for a few hours. They’re the middle of the story so you’d want to start with Indian Country to make any sense of what’s going on.
The rest of this is less about these books and about how conflicted I am in liking them. So Scalped is a contemporary crime story set on a South Dakota First Nations Reserve. It’s brutal and violent and I’m a little wary of really loving it because there’s a lot of potential for it being totally racist. Or if not racist, at least unhelpful.
A few months ago at a local writers festival we had a first nations poet talk about her work and one of the things she talked about was that first nations people should tell first nations stories. That’s not something for white people to do. In the larger cultural milieu, Spike Lee took Quentin Tarantino to task for Django Unchained, because slavery wasn’t Tarantino’s history to talk about (Jesse Williams has a great essay about the problems with Django, which you should totally read).
At our writers festival people in the audience were disgruntled that this woman would be telling us that there are some stories we cannot tell. I completely get that disgruntlement. I have long held the idea that freedom of expression means that I can write about whatever the hell I want and deal with the consequences, and fuck anyone who tells me what is and isn’t appropriate for me to do. But I’ve been coming around to see how privileged a point of view that is, and how voices from the dominant culture telling those stories crowds out the voices telling it from the inside. You really don’t want people to be learning their American history from Django Unchained.
The thing is that I really like Scalped. I love the small-scale politics and the way people with scraps of power interact with the immovable force of the US government, and how Dashiell Bad Horse is tearing himself apart to do this job between two worlds. It’s a great story. Just one that makes me feel guilty for liking it, because I haven’t sought out neo-noir stories written by first nations people themselves. Scalped is easy because it’s published by DC Comics, and I haven’t gone beyond that easy corporate mass-media approach.
Anyway, if you like crime stories, and all of my hand-wringing hasn’t put you off, Scalped is definitely worth your time.
In my days shelving books as a page I knew Simenon’s Maigret books by their profusion of little spines. This is the first time I’ve ever read one. It was an old-style mystery wherein Maigret smokes a pipe and figures out what’s happened in a small French town in the 1940s. Maigret seems to have few jurisdictional problems despite being a Parisian police officer. There wasn’t much to it do delight me, but it didn’t make me angry either. It felt very much like the kind of thing Jessica Fletcher would have written.
The weirder part of this book is how I came to read it. I was at a local farmer’s market and one of the owners of the used book stall asked what I was reading. Always curious about other people’s reader’s advisory techniques I said I was between books and looking for something new. She asked if I was “a sophisticated reader” which struck me as odd. Maybe “sophisticated” doesn’t actually have a value judgment inherent in the word, but it still seems a loaded thing to ask a reader to identify as. And then, even using my humble disavowal of any pretensions towards especial sophistication, this was the book she recommended.
I can’t see anything terribly special about this book that would require someone to self identify as sophisticated in order to read it. It didn’t require any special knowledge or the ability to deal with complicated narrative forms or anything. I mean, if something requires a “sophisticated” reader I’d expect it to be something more complicated and have a bit more oomph to it than a knotty whodunnit.
Larry Brown’s Father and Son is a novel about a small town in the american south in the ’60s. A man comes back from serving three years for running over a little boy while drunk driving. His mother died while he was in prison. He gets stopped by the sheriff coming into town and warned to be good. He kills some people and rapes some more.
Also in the story is the sheriff, who is the killer rapist’s half brother. He wants to make a life with this woman who works at the diner, but who said she’d wait for the killer rapist to get out of jail to be with his kid.
The sheriff and killer rapist’s father lives in a shack and takes his illegitimate grandson fishing some times. He can’t walk so well and life is hard.
All of that makes up the novel, but the art to the thing is in the sentence by sentence construction. Brown is good at describing this terrible claustrophobic ominous little place I would never ever want to live anywhere near as a place where someone could try and be happy. It definitely reminded me of No Country for Old Men, but even more strongly of the X-Files episode Home.
Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere is about a little town in New Mexico called Wink. Wink is full of white picket fences and lots of rules, one of the most important of which is “stay inside at night.” Mona Bright has just inherited a house in Wink and the day she arrives is the day of the funeral of one of the town’s oldest residents. Oh, and thrity years ago there was some sort of accident at the lab up on the mesa. And Wink isn’t on any maps (because of that lab and its sensitive government work from decades past).
This all sounds like a pretty standard Stephen King-ish horror novel, and in a lot of ways it is. There’s nothing frighteningly innovative going on with the text. Challenges mount, characters rise to meet them in the face of sanity blasting beings we would go mad to perceive. Occasionally as a reader, you’re a few steps ahead of Mona, which can be annoying as you wait for her to catch up. But Bennett is very good at telling the story. The “seeing something impossible and it wrecks your brain” is described in a way that makes it sound scary rather than just a magic eye or what have you. It’s good neo-Lovecraft.
The viewpoint shifts between a number of characters and even the drug dealers are basically root-for-ably written (apart from one character who is quite vile, but he’s mostly there so Mona can get a high-powered rifle in the final third of the book). If you like Stephen King novels, this is less dark than those (though there’s a lot of death around the climax), but similar. It’s less about mythic resonance than a Tim Powers book, but there’s a lot of shared DNA between them. What I liked best about it was that it was a fairly serious examination of how we (people and pandimensional beings) try to be happy. That probably excludes it from a real Lovecraftian vibe, since by the end the monstrosities are somewhat knowable.
I received my copy of American Elsewhere as an Advance Reading Copy through LibraryThing.com‘s Early Reviewers program.
The Raven Boys is the first book I’ve read by Maggie Stiefvater, which probably makes me a bad teenbrarian. I’m sorry. If I knew she was this good I’d have started earlier.
Blue is a girl who’s grown up in a house full of women. Who are psychics. As a result she’s grown up with the very specific prophecy that if she kisses her true love, he will die. Oh, and Blue isn’t a psychic herself.
The Raven Boys are all students at a posh private school. Gansey is born to be a politician, but is fixated on discovering a dead Welsh king buried on a ley line in Virginia. He’s assembled a posse of friends to help him. Once Blue is added to the mix the quest kind of takes off.
So yeah, there’s loads of good pop-occult history going on, but what made this book work so well for me is all the class division going on and how fucking important it is to these characters. Gansey and Ronan (his scary friend who spends most of the book reckless, fighting or nursing a baby raven) have more money than god. Blue and Adam (who lives in a trailer with his abusive father and works a million jobs to pay for his schooling) are not rich. And these divisions are hugely meaningful to these people. Gansey is utterly condescending to his friends and offends people because he has no real concept of the value of money. Adam won’t leave his abusive situation and let his friend take care of him because he does not want to be bought. Gansey doesn’t want to buy his friend; he wants to help with the means he has.
All of the tension and argument that happens in this book is along those kinds of lines. There is no one person who is being an ass and could make it all better by just doing one little thing differently. It’s these worlds of money and gender and privilege all colliding in great ways with an epic quest. That the flaws of characters are built into the structure (or energy if you want to use the lines of power that the book takes seriously) of the world they find themselves makes it fucking great. (Also, I’ve cussed more in this review than there are swears in the book, but Stiefvater does the whole “he let out a stream of inventive invective” type thing really well.)
Excellent book. Cannot wait for the next one in the series.
When my mother recently went to India she asked what I wanted as a souvenir. I requested “books by South Indian writers” and if they were ones I’d have trouble finding in Canada all the better. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won the Booker in 2008, so it’s not like it’d be especially difficult for me to find here, but I hadn’t read it before this week. Well done, Mom.
The White Tiger is about a country boy named Balram from The Darkness, interior India’s villages. He’s pulled out of school as a child and eventually becomes the driver for a landlord’s son. That job takes him to Delhi where he formulates his ideas of servanthood and the terrible nature of it. Balram is telling this story in the form of reminiscent letters to Wen Jiabao (now former-) leader of China. Now that Balram is a successful entrepreneur he is teaching the communist leader how India really works.
There is a lot of cheating and other dishonesty throughout. It’s a very entertaining read and its struggle against the chicken coop of a democracy that lets votes be bought and sold is effective and maddening. There are two scenes that particularly stand out to me. In both of them Balram is a bystander as someone “goes mad” and tries to behave as if you could take what people say at face value. In one instance a man tries to enter a shopping mall. In another a man tries to vote on election day. Both are futile exercises for the poor man.