Monthly Archives: June 2010

Stitches by David Small

I must be somehow fascinated by people who have become ill.  I’ve read quite a few books dealing with sickness in some fashion.  I’ve even read another graphic novel about a case of cancer, Mom’s Cancer.  But Stitches is more than just being about David Small’s childhood disease.  In fact, I would argue that his cancer is one of many events he uses to highlight a seriously dysfunctional family and its impact on him.  This makes Stitches compelling in a way that a straight story about his health never could have been.

Small’s drawings make up no small part of setting the mood and tone of the book, which is why I love that he chose to draw his memoir.  The people are almost uniformly drawn tight, with knit brows, frowns, and generally hostile body language.  No one is portrayed as friendly toward Small until we meet his psychologist toward the end, and he’s drawn as a rabbit — I believe he was the March Hare, mainly because Small had a fascination with Alice in Wonderland as a child.

Small also has an incredible sense of when pictures can convey more than words ever could.  The horror of the research floor of the hospital, for example, is much more effective because Small shows us the jars of fetuses, then his face, in alternate cells.  It makes way more of an impact than writing something on how he saw the jars and imagined that one got out and started chasing him.

Now, down to the actual memoir.  Small’s family is dysfunctional in the extreme.  His father is mostly absent, home only occasionally from his job as a radiologist at a Detroit hospital.  When he is home, he alternates between lecturing his son and giving him x-rays to look at his sinuses, which most likely caused his subsequent cancer.  His maternal grandmother is a nutcase, treating Small in a horrible fashion when they visit her in southern Indiana.

But it is his mother who is truly the worst person in Small’s life.  She is cold, almost always angry.  She blames Small when he develops the lump on his neck that requires surgery, telling him “doctors cost money and money is something that is in short supply in this house!”  After an original misdiagnosis of the lump as a cebaceous cyst, they wait three and a half years before allowing a surgeon operate on his neck.  During the gap, his parents bought a new car and new furniture.  After the removal of his lump, along with one of his vocal cords, his mother didn’t tell him the lump was cancer.  She showed no sympathy for her son, who suffered from recurring nightmares and would frequently turn on all the lights in the house.  Her concern was with the electric bill.

Her miserable and, at times, tyrannical, behavior could possibly be explained by her sexual orientation and the influence of her mother.  She may have felt trapped in her marriage by society and her children.  It is almost inconceivable, though, that someone would have the capacity to so hate their own child, a being dependent upon her to do what is best for him.  Being frustrated with how her life turned out cannot excuse her callousness for a boy who was sick and needed her help.

The only good thing they appear to have done for him is put him in therapy.  His therapist was able to clarify many things for him, and I believe that therapist made it possible for Small to have a relatively normal post-childhood life.  Really, the therapist showed him how a caring relationship should work, and quite probably saved Small from following in his mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps.

This book is phenomenal in its exploration of what it’s like growing up in a hostile environment.  As someone who has two caring and supportive parents, Small provided me with insight into how one’s environment can shape you.  One can end up like his mother — twisted, bitter, and cruel — or you can end up like him, a survivor who came through his ordeals, both regarding his health and his home, and became a successful man who becomes the maverick of his family by being normal.  Stitches is a superior memoir that packs a lot of emotional punch.

Rating: 5/5

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A Different Flesh by Harry Turtledove

I like hominids.  When I was in college, I took a physical anthropology course to fulfill some of my natural science credit, and really enjoyed it.  I even remember most of what I learned, which is a feat in and of itself.  So I looked forward to reading A Different Flesh, which puts forth the question — what if American Indians never settled the Americas, and instead Homo erectus (here called sims) was present when Columbus sailed?

To tell the truth, I had no idea where Turtledove was going to go with this.  Having only read his Worldwar series, I was guessing that there would be a lot of warfare.  I was fairly wrong.  Turtledove, rather than following one particular person, spends each chapter in a section of time and explores human-sim interactions.  This felt to me to be a fantastic way of exploring the idea, and one that most authors don’t employ; movement along time to uncover the differences and similarities between his imaginary world and ours helps expose the gulf between the two.

In the beginning, there is violence, and the sims give as good as they get.  Soon, however, it’s clear that the sims are not capable of adaptation, and thus start losing ground — quite literally.  Their land is slowly taken from them, and they become more marginalized.  They are also “domesticated” and used for menial labor.  Sims’ existence also provides a backdrop for the earlier formation of the theory of evolution, which sparks earlier scientific achievements of other types.

Against this backdrop, Turtledove shows us a world in which the Americas outlaw slavery for humans at a far earlier date than our own country decided to — against creatures such as the sims, humans of any type are obviously much the same and are worthy of the full rights deemed appropriate for one’s fellow man.

While declaring all people of equal worth, there is also the prominent struggle of putting sims in the proper context.  Are they human, or merely animals?  What rights do they have?  Turtledove brings this topic up again and again, sometimes in disturbing ways.  Sims are used for medical experiments, much as animals are.  The arguments about using them in such a way are similar to those used to justify the use of other animals for medical research.  How strange it feels to use creatures who have the ability to understand language (plus create spontaneous sentences of their own), create tools, live in camps, cook their food, and plan ahead for our own benefit and not necessarily theirs.

I enjoyed this book greatly.  I have often wondered about what life would be like with another hominid still alive and kicking on Earth.  Turtledove did a remarkable job of providing a possible answer.  His prose is clear, and his conclusions follow in logical fashion.  It is a thought-provoking book, raising questions about how we treat one another and our fellow species on this planet.

Rating: 5/5

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Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

Three Hears and Three Lions surprised me when it came in to my local library through MeLCat.  Huh, I thought.  This is short. Despite being under two hundred pages, however, Poul Anderson’s first book about Holger Carlsen packs in a good story about both universe travel and traditional medieval European lore.

Our hero, Holger Carlsen, an engineer in World War II-era America and, later, Europe, finds himself back in his homeland of Denmark, assisting the resistance force there.  While trying to get an important scientist to Sweden, Holger finds himself in a shootout with Nazis and passes out.  He awakes to find he’s naked in a forest.  Nearby is a horse, clothing, and gear that suits him perfectly.  How he got there, he has no idea, but it soon is obvious that he’s not in Denmark anymore.

In trying to find out where and when he is, Holger gathers to him a dwarf, a woman who can transform herself into a swan, and a mysterious Saracen who has been seeking him out.  Together, they venture to fight the forces of Chaos and further the goals of Law.

I found this book fairly entertaining.  First of all, Holger’s body knows his life and his training; it’s his mind that gets in the way of him doing things with graceful skill.  The message that you can think yourself out of the knowledge you already possess is a good one, and I think it’s pretty true.  A lot of times, when I’m answering questions at work, it’s not until after the exchange has ended that the best answer comes to me — and then I have to chase the other person down and give them that information.  Learning to trust oneself to do the right thing, if you know you have a firm grip on reality and usually do the right thing, is a great lesson.

Secondly, there were a couple of subplots and small events that were also entertaining.  At one point, one town was suffering from a werewolf attack, which our heroes helped out with.  Not only did it add a little action, but it also filled in some knowledge about magic in this new world that would have otherwise gone unknown.  It helped explain some future events, and why they happened the way they did.

The third thing I thought was nice about this book was how it was solely from Holger’s point of view.  There are several reasons why this is great.  The first is that, sometimes, jumping between characters is annoying.  The second is that it allows us to only see what Holger sees.  While one can sometimes see the action he should take, there are some situations where what he should do — or even what is going on — is obscured.  For example, his swan-maiden friend, Alianora, who is also his love interest, shows some response when Carahue, the Saracen, flirts with her.  Holger, seeing only that a woman he loves might be falling for another man, is distraught.  Only in the end is he clued in to why Alianora acted the way she did.

Also awesome was the flip from a world where science is dominant to one where magic is dominant.  Holger’s knowledge of basic scientific principles save the adventurers several times.  Moreover, the actions he takes that have a scientific basis are seen as miraculous by the people of this other world.  I thought it was a tastefully-done exploration on how two cultures can see both see one another as wondrous.

The only thing that I have a quarrel with is the speech of Hugi, the dwarf, and Alianora, as well as some supporting characters.  It is colloquial.  While I understood most of it, I wasn’t quite sure what type of accent they were meant to have, and so some word spellings were lost on me, and I couldn’t figure them out.  I might spend a bit of time on piecing together something if I have a linguistic interest in it, I don’t want to have to do it in a piece of fiction I read for enjoyment.  I want the characters to be understandable.

Despite the occasional linguistic confusion, I enjoyed Three Hearts and Three Lions.  It’s cute, it’s action-packed, and it’d be a good read for anyone who likes The Chronicles of Prydain.  Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Presidential Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in the Oval Office by John Boertlein

I like history.  I enjoy reading about it, I like doing informal research about it, and I’m marrying a man who has a degree in public history, and thus also likes to talk about the past.  I also think that history need not be dumbed-down in order for most people to find it interesting.  So I was a little hesitant to request Presidential Confidential as an advance reader’s copy.  I was afraid it would be flippant.  I had no reason to worry.

John Boertlein’s publisher most likely thought that Presidential Confidential would sell better with the tabloid-like appearance on the outside, the sidebars on the inside, and relatively brief chapters.  This may or may not be true.  I find that I’m typically pretty indifferent to a cover, unless its design is particularly egregious, so they weren’t pulling me in there.  In fact, I was a little nervous about the quality of the work found within something that looks like the National Enquirer.  It either can be like one of the mental_floss books, or it can be full of junk.  It’s risky, and I’m not sure it was the right choice for this book.

Chapter length, in this case, doesn’t bother me.  Each historical story has its own length; some can be covered in one page, while others need twenty.  I thought this was fine.  The other feature this book uses inside is the sidebar.

I hate sidebars.  As someone with OCD, and not ADHD, I don’t like having to disrupt the flow of the narrative to read about something tangentially related to the main topic.  It feels disjointed, and makes me a grumpy reader at points.  That’s not to say I didn’t like the contents of the sidebars — I enjoyed them.  I just dislike pulling my attention away from the story the author wants to tell to read a little list of factoids, or, worse, another, smaller story.  My preference would be for these things to run either at the end of chapters or in between them.  I suspect that I’m in a minority here, and will thus summarily be ignored or ridiculed.  I don’t care.  They’re distracting and encourage multitasking within a book, which is a little ridiculous.

Anyway, Boertlein writes about the histories of the presidents with talent and style.  I felt that he provided a level-headed, fair representation of goings-on in the White House all the way through the Clinton presidency.  He didn’t turn the book into a tawdry piece of shoddy history, but rather gives the reader a decent account of what most likely happened.  Even stories I had heard before were written in a way that clarified my understanding or provided me with new insight into the situation.  Boertlein did his research, and it shows — the background of the times is always explained to the reader, and the events that unfold are given fair treatment without being too kind.

Until we get to the last chapter, on George W. Bush.  Now, I’m not a Dubya fan; I’m fairly far from that crowd.  But the treatment Boertlein gives his administration in this chapter is brutal.  He seems to take delight in making out Bush’s term in office to be corrupt, stupid, or both.  No matter how true this may seem to be to many of us, it still feels wrong to gloat over an administration that has caused irreparable damage to our soldiers, our economy, our environment, our international reputation, our educational system, our social safety net systems — you name it, they did horrible things to it.  It’s not something to be taken lightly or treated in a snarky manner.

Overall, Presidential Confidential is a popular history book in almost-perfect form.  Without the sidebars and obviously partisan last chapter, it’s darn near perfect.

Rating: 4/5

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Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling

Island in the Sea of Time sounded good to me.  I love alternate history and speculative fiction.  What could be better than a book that blended both in an innovative way, incorporating some science fiction into the mix?  Unfortunately, despite some good aspects, Island in the Sea of Time fell flat for me.

Let’s start off with the good.  I liked the idea of an entire island of people from our own time being suddenly tossed into the far past.  What challenges they would face?  How would they meet the obstacles facing them?  A fantastic plot, in my opinion.

I also delighted in the anthropological aspects Stirling put in.  Linguistics is an interest of mine, so I found some of the exposition language structure and evolution absolutely fascinating.  His conjectures on how various cultures functioned and how they would react to visitors from today’s world were obviously well-researched, at least on the European side.

The cultural part that I disliked, however, was the heavy focus on building or maintaining technological conveniences, creating weapons, military training, and warfare.  I just wanted to skip over the pages that dealt with this stuff, and that’s bad, since it makes up about half the book.  Many (and I mean many) of the characters have military training, which I found too convenient to be believable.  This leads me to my next issue with the book.

The residents of Nantucket are far too accepting of their situation.  There are a couple of freak-outs in the book, as well as allusions to points of crises within individuals.  I, however, find it difficult to believe that there wasn’t a wholesale rejection of the time shift.  There are off-hand comments about suicide, but they felt like they were obligatory mentions so that Stirling could get on with the story.  We follow no character who has such inclinations; this probably would have made Island in the Sea of Time more compelling, more human on an emotional level.

Character abilities and skills also felt too well-distributed to reflect reality.  A Coast Guard ship just happens to get trapped in the time shift, so we have a military force with at least one fighting ship, plenty of trained soldiers, and modern weapons.  There’s the woman who runs the greenhouse, so we have someone who knows how to grow crops and can teach others how to do so.  We have a librarian who is apparently so freaking talented that she can keep everyone apprised of the information they need to perform their jobs.  We have a historian with interests in the time period the island has been thrust into, as well as a working knowledge of linguistics.  We have an astronomer, who has the ability to communicate with the English tribes because she also can speak a Baltic language that is similar to proto-Indo-European. We have a captain who is, apparently, God’s gift to both military strategy and tactics.  And we have a native woman who is gifted in so many ways that it makes suspension of disbelief very difficult.  On top of that, we lose exactly one of the main cast of characters.  He doesn’t happen to be a central character, either; we probably follow him about a half-dozen times, whereas most of the other characters get approximately thirty to forty sections scattered throughout the book.  That smacks of the unreal to me.

Also unfortunate, in my opinion, Stirling focused on the prehistoric British inhabitants, which was baffling to me, seeing as the island tossed back in time was Nantucket.  We are given very little information about the Native Americans of the area; he allows us to read about their first encounter, and then leaves them almost completely.  This struck me as strange; why toss away a fascinating people who could help the Nantucketers with farming, gathering and the like — as well as trading — in favor of the long sea voyage and constant skirmishes in England?

The other aspect of this is, when we are allowed to view one extended encounter with Central American natives, they are portrayed in a horribly brutal light.  While this might be accurate, some of the actions taken by the Olmecs were horribly graphic — graphic enough to cause me to have a nightmare about one particular scene.  It freaked me out to no end, and also felt unfair to the indigenous Americans.  Why do they get to experience such a characterization, while the European peoples encountered are as nuanced as the Nantucket residents?

Based on the comments by Harry Turtledove and Robert J. Sawyer, I thought I was in for a spectacular read.  I’m saddened to find that wasn’t so.  A more Nantucket-based, psychologically sensitive book would have been fascinating.  Since this is one in a series of books, many of the battles could have waited.  As it is, Island in the Sea of Time leaves the reader with a dry book about martial history, martial tactics, and flat characters.

Rating: 1.5/5

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The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

What if Israel, as a modern state, failed in its attempt to form in the 1940s?  What would happen to the Jews who had hoped to repatriate there?  Michael Chabon, the acclaimed author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, asks this question in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.  Intertwined here with the story of the Jewish people who survived World War II is murder mystery, a government conspiracy, and personal tales of loss, despair, and, possibly, hope.

Our hero, Meyer Landsman, at first has the appearance of being just another doesn’t-play-by-the-rules detective.  He’s got a failed marriage and a over-fondness for alcohol.  He has a failed marriage in his past.  What does it matter that he’s Jewish and living in Sitka?

It matters quite a lot, actually.  Sitka is where the majority of the Jews who attempted settlement in the Middle East got relocated after the failure of the state of Israel.  The agreement was that they got the land for sixty years, after which they would have to apply for citizenship, find relatives who would take them in, or otherwise leave Sitka, and the United States.  They are living on borrowed time, which is due to be up in a couple of months for Landsman and the rest of the Jewish community.

It’s easy to imagine that the native Inuits weren’t happy with the situation.  They weren’t, in fact, and the two populations came to blows soon after the agreement was reached.  Relations still aren’t great, and those who are part-native and part-Jewish find themselves scorned by both sides.  Landsman’s cousin and partner, Berko, struggles with finding his place in this community as a resident and as a detective.  His reactions and behaviors were intensely interesting to me; those themes of being both, and so being considered neither, are universal.  The way one deals with them are not.

The friction between the two groups is also interesting in another couple of ways.  The first way is that it echos the European takeover of Alaska.  Russians, Canadians and Americans have all claimed part or all of Alaska at different times, and I thought it clever of Chabon to give us a glimpse of what a modern-day colonization action in the Americas would look like.

The second way this is interesting is perhaps a bit more subtle.  Chabon takes the theme of Jews moving to a new location that is already occupied and being forced to fight for their new home after being chased out of the old and puts it in a framework that is out of the ordinary for the modern reader.  Take away the religious and cultural clashes between the Arab world and the Israelis, and a lot of the bare issues are easier to tackle.

The plot of the book also is remarkable.  Sure, it’s a murder mystery, but it has a politico-religious theme.  Chabon’s Alaskan Jews want a Messiah, and they want to live in Israel.  The people, as a whole, have a longing to belong, and their religion dictates to them the when and the where, how that is possible.  Their leaders take it to the extreme, with the help of the American government, who wants to see them repatriated without having to officially sanction a holy war against the Palestinians.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is simply brilliant.  Chabon is a talented writer.  I especially enjoyed some of his understated puns; at one point near the end, he describes Landsman’s reaction to a couple of policemen as being “baffled by the fairings of their southern and gentile glamour.”  Now, does he mean “gentile” as in polite, or “gentile” as in, well, “Gentile”?  I loved it.  It’s the little touches such as this that makes this a new favorite for me.

Rating: 5/5

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