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Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw

Some books that I read draw me in so thoroughly that the struggles, hopes, fears, and tragedies of the characters become my own. I feel linked to those characters, emotionally invested in them, and I continue to read in the hopes that they will resolve their problems in the end. Then, there are other books that, during the process of reading them, make me want to reach into the pages and shake some sense into the characters. I become impatient with the blindness of those characters, irritated with their inability to see what is right before them. The Swimming Pool belongs to that latter group.

The writing of The Swimming Pool was very deep, and I often felt that the author was really walking a fine line, but I also felt that, ultimately, she crossed it. I could certainly identify with why the characters felt as they did, but their emotions sometimes just struck me as over the top. To be fair, as a reader, we are very much inside the heads of these characters, and it's fair to say that if we could actually be inside the head of another human being--say, our neighbor--we might find that what's in there is shockingly more dramatic than what is on the outside. Still, while I think the psychology described was conceivable, I couldn't suspend my disbelief, particularly when it came to the character of Callie. It is so obvious that she is just not right, and yet her brother and husband don't do anything about it. While I can understand wanting to bury your head in the sand when faced with something unpleasant, I found myself becoming really angry with Jed and with Billy for their inertia.

Which leads me to the real problem I had with this book: I just didn't connect with any of the characters. There was no point where I felt like I was really seeing things through their eyes. Instead, I felt like an observer. I couldn't really sympathize with any of the characters, and so their behavior was just frustrating. I'm not sure any of the characters were meant to be entirely sympathetic, but they pretty much all felt just very self-indulgent to me. This was so true that when a big secret is revealed, I was utterly unsurprised by it. And, yet, I didn't actively dislike the characters either, really. This is where the book really failed for me. By leaving me unable to engage with the characters, either by liking them or disliking them, I was ultimately indifferent to the novel as a whole.

The plot was also, to me, quite contrived. It felt like each event that happened was created specifically to enhance the drama even more. I would have found it a lot more interesting had more of the events struck me as coincidental. Instead, it felt to me as if the novel was written in such a way that its outcome was preordained and everything that happened before it was a building block in that construction. While I certainly think that most authors have a conclusion in mind when they write, it is necessary for me, as a reader, to feel like the plot grows organically and for it to take me in unexpected directions. That didn't happen for me with this book because everything felt rather formulaic. LeCraw does write well, but her writing is overshadowed by the shortcomings of this novel.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas

"Englightened Sexism" is an excoriating repudiation of the view that feminism's work is done and that women have now achieved gender equity with men, so there is no further need for women to continue to fight for things like equal pay for equal work. By dissecting pop culture, Douglas makes a very convincing argument that sexism is, indeed, alive and well, though it has taken on something of a new facade: the titular "enlightened" sexism. Douglas argues that women have been fed the line that they now have equality and that this new era of "girl power" is proof. Pop culture would have us believe that women can dress however they want, be successful, and enjoy a life free of obstacles, but Douglas shows how this portrayal of women actually reveals the sexist mechanisms embedded within that are meant to keep women in their place.

What I found particularly convincing about Douglas's argument was the idea that there is a divide and conquer strategy at work that helps distract women from real issues. By focusing on girl-on-girl bullying instead of addressing the issue of the sexual harassment of girls in school, everyone (male and female alike) is being distracted from the bigger problem. Douglas is not trying to argue that these scenarios of female aggression do not exist but, as she points out, they serve as a very good way of creating the myth that women are incapable of getting along with one another and, therefore, cannot handle equality. As Douglas argues, enlightened sexism tells us that women have been given the keys to the kingdom, but are too busy having cat fights over who gets to be the queen to unlock the realm.

Douglas also makes a strong argument when she picks apart the claim that women are empowered because they can now dress however they like: read, the more provocatively, the better. As Douglas argues, this is not really any indication that women are empowered. To say that a woman has equality because she can dress however she wants and then to encourage women to dress like sex objects is sinister. We now live in a society that offers low-rise jeans for kindergarteners and thongs for sixth-graders. Ever walked through a department store's girls' clothing section and read some of the slogans on the T-shirts? Try it sometime. It's pretty much a guarantee that you'll walk away feeling the need to bleach your eyes.

Douglas's analysis of the 2008 presidential campaign is also very provocative. Douglas discusses the way Hillary Clinton was treated, and also has a great deal to say about Sarah Palin. What I found really interesting, though, was her commentary about Michelle Obama. How many of us have looked at a newspaper, read a blog, or opened a magazine and wondered why every story is about what she is wearing rather than what she is capable of doing? As Douglas points out, it really says something when one of the most educated, most powerful First Ladies in history is usually discussed in the news media in the context of her fashion sense.

What is especially important about this eye-opening book is that it encourages women the ignore the deceptive signals they're being sent and to focus on the issues that are important for people of any gender: pay equity, better and more affordable child care, workplaces that offer more flexibility for parents, and access to health insurance for everyone, no matter their income bracket. These are issues that no one can afford to ignore, whatever their gender.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell

The Man from Beijing is something of a novel within a novel. It starts out as a murder mystery set in Sweden in 2006 and then delves into historical fiction, with vivid tales of China and the United States in 1863, when American railroads were built on the backs of immigrant laborers. Its style reminded me quite a lot of the works of Stieg Larsson. Its pace is somewhat sedate at times and, as with Larsson's works, is loaded with political information regarding modern day Sweden. Some readers might find that this drags, but I like this level of detail as it gives me a glimpse into a country about which I frankly know very little.

The book centers around a mass murder that occurs in a small, fictional Swedish hamlet and then spirals out from there, the story picking up multiple threads at once. It is told from the perspective of multiple characters, some of them Swedish and some of them Chinese, but the most central character is that of Birgitta Roslin, a respected judge who discovers that she is connected to some of the murder victims. I like Birgitta as a character. She's a woman who's reached a certain point of her life, has had some marital troubles, and is reflective about her past and her future. I found her narrative interesting and her frustrations by the setbacks of the murder investigation were my own.

I think what the novel does best is to draw some comparisons between industrialized nations and those that haven't yet been developed. The books uses the historical narratives to show how countries like the United States reached the level of industry and technology they did, and how those nations on the brink of industrialization may be on the same path. I thought the author did a very good job of poking holes in some of the notions those of us in industrialized nations hold dear, and this book does a nice job of showing how the attitudes of Western nations tend to be rather hypocritical when it comes to developing nations like China. I found this to be extremely good food for thought.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book for me, though, was the connection to China. I found the Chinese characters in the book to be very interesting, and I thought Mankell did an excellent job of illustrating some of the tensions that exist in modern China. I also thought the theme of hypocrisy really hit home in this section, as the actions of some of the characters are motivated by the same greed and cruelty that haunt the characters' current existence.

The Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

I am a huge fan of Butcher's "The Dresden Files". He has created a fantastic character in Harry and it's the charm of Harry that helps smooth out some of the rough edges with the rest of the series.

The same is true of the first of the Codex Alera books. I found Tavi to be a winning, endearing character and, from very early in the book, I really cared about him and wanted him to succeed. I liked that he was emotional and sensitive and I especially liked that he was resourceful. The idea of a character without furies who lives in a world defined by furycrafting is a concept I found very appealing. This makes Tavi something of an unconventional character in the realm of fantasy. Sure, he is at the center of events that threaten the future safety of his world, but this does not mean that he comes into awesome powers that make him nigh impossible to kill. Instead, he has to rely on his wits rather than brute strength or awesome furycrafting powers.

I'm not always fond of Butcher's female characters, but, for the most part, I liked the women in this novel. I initially wrote Odiana off as a sort of typical villain, but I was pleased to find that Butcher gave her facets I hadn't anticipated. Isana was also nicely drawn. Amara, though, is certainly the most well-rounded female character in the book. She is very believable as a capable, strong, and brave women who still sometimes finds herself frightened by the events unfolding before her. The biggest problem with Butcher's female characters, though, is the sort of misguided chivalry he shows them. The men in general tend to be pretty sexist, and whenever a capable female is in their presence, they are compelled to sneer and say, "But she's just a girl!" Maybe this is a device on Butcher's part, intended to show that his female characters overcome the obstacles before them. Still, it struck me as annoying that the male character automatically assume that the female characters are inferior, especially when there are so many examples of powerful women in the novel.

All in all, Butcher has created an interesting world that is people with various creatures and cultures, most of which I found to be well-realized. I found the concept of furies and furycrafting to be an interesting change for the sword and sorcery-type fantasy, and I also liked the pseudo-Roman world in which the novel takes place.

What I did not like were the villains. I didn't think that Fidelias and his cohorts were interesting enough to have chapters devoted to them and, moreover, I thought it would likely be more interesting if the reader didn't know exactly what they were planning. I found Aldrick particularly unappealing as he came across as little more than a stock character. The reader learns hardly anything about him, and what is learned about him is very insignificant and doesn't serve to give the reader a real sense of the character and his motivations.

My other real problem with the novel came about during the prolonged ending battle scene. In the interest of not giving any spoilers, I'll simply say that I found it very hard to suspend my disbelief when I found out who had survived and who had not. I think it would have been a lot more interesting if Butcher had made some different choices in that regard.

While I did like the book, if I were to recommend a Butcher book to a friend, it would definitely be a Dresden novel over this one.