Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Bookseller of Kabul


The Bookseller of Kabul
by Asne Seierstad
Published in 2003
Published by Back Bay Books

In November 2001, journalist Asne Seierstad arrived in Kabul, and soon made the acquaintance of a bookseller she called Sultan Khan. Over the next few months, she lived with Khan's family and got to know them closely. Upon her return to her native Norway, she wrote The Bookseller of Kabul, a look at the lives of middle-class Afghanis in the months after the collapse of Taliban rule.

The picture she paints is of a socially conservative land, one where the family, not the individual, is the basic unit, and young people's decisions are made for them by the family. Any notion among Westerners that the fall of the Taliban resulted in the liberation of Afghan women is erroneous. In the society Seierstad describes, young women's lives are not their own; they are not free to make their own choices, and who they are going to marry and whether they are allowed to work outside the home are dictated by their elders.

The main difference that came with the fall of the Taliban is that now women can play music as they do their sixteen hours of daily chores without the fear they will be taken to jail. That's assuming their family says it's OK, of course.

In her book, Seierstad delves into the heads of several members of Khan's family. Two of the most prominent are Khan's son Mansur and his much younger sister, Leila.

Mansur is torn between hating his father and wanting to earn his approval. Mansur is inefficient and lackadaisical at running the family bookstore in his father's absence, but he forces himself to become utterly cold-hearted when a former employee pilfers postcards to sell and Sultan Khan insists he be punished severely. Despite the fact that the employee's family is clearly in extremely dire financial straits, and literally on their knees begging for leniency, Mansur acts as his father's representative and brings the full weight of the law to bear on the thief, who ultimately ends up spending several years living under terrible conditions in prison.

Leila, is a very different character. As the youngest of I-don't-even-remember-how-many children, Leila is the perpetual workhorse of the family, but she would dearly love to achieve a bit of independence. She wants to work as an English teacher, but there's an enormous amount of bureaucracy that she has to navigate before she can get herself hired. This is nearly impossible, with her family obligations.

Now, this book is a work of narrative nonfiction. I approach this kind of writing by treating it as realistic fiction. When I read narrative nonfiction, at the outset I assume at the very least that the author has performed acts of artistry such as rearranging events for dramatic effect, or consolidating two or more people into one for clarity. If I think of these characters as people who could very easily have been real, but who aren't necessarily based on any specific people, then I can keep myself from feeling cheated when it turns out the author took liberties with reality.

That is all very well and good, but when characters in a work of narrative nonfiction can be associated with specific people in real life, you get problems. 'Sultan Khan' is an invented name, but the character was drawn in enough detail that the specific real person he was based on could easily be identified, and boy oh boy was he unhappy. He took the author to court to sue her for defamation and an assault on his character. I have some sympathy. All my high-minded talk about how narrative nonfiction should be read doesn't mean much when there's this guy in a book that everyone knows is based on you.

The real person behind Sultan Khan drew up a list of specific complaints. The first was, 'Depicting me as a fundamentalist, when I have been against fundamentalism all of my life and have suffered personally from it.' I'm sorry, I don't see that. The Sultan Khan of the book is not a fundamentalist, unless the meaning of 'fundamentalist' is so loose that the word means nothing.

He is on much firmer ground when he says, 'Is it nothing to depict me as a domestic tyrant when I have preserved my family through a quarter century of war only through sacrifice, sweat, and tears?' He's right. Seierstad really does depict him as a domestic tyrant, and a really nasty one at that. The question is whether that depiction is accurate. I have no way of knowing.

That's why this is best read as a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Man from Primrose Lane

The Man from Primrose Lane
by David Renner
Published in 2012
Published by Sarah Crichton Books

The Man from Primrose Lane, an eccentric mitten-wearing man who lived a solitary existence in suburban Ohio, has been murdered! Not only was his death bloody (I'm talking fingers-in-a-blender bloody) and the list of suspects nonexistent, but investigation shows his identity was faked. No one knows who he really was. The years pass and the case grows cold.

Eventually journalist David Neff is persuaded to begin his own investigation. Neff has grown rich and famous from the success of his true-crime book The Serial Killer's Protege, which led to the institutionalization of one of Ohio's most notorious murderers. But he and his young son have lived a life of seclusion since the mysterious death of his wife. Researching the case of the Man from Primrose Lane promises to bring David out of his shell. Incidentally, David's wife died in a suicidal car crash the same day the Man from Primrose Lane was murdered, but any rational person would agree that there couldn't possibly be any connection between the two deaths. Right?

David Neff is clearly based, at least in part, on James Renner himself. Renner is an Ohio-based crime journalist who once published a book called The Serial Killer's Apprentice, though this was a compilation of Renner's previously published stories and not as explosively original as Neff's similarly-titled book. This strikes me as an in-joke rather than a case of Mary Sue.

Renner's real-life experiences help build the apparent verisimilitude of the novel's version of Ohio.  For roughly the first third of the novel, the story appears to stay within the boundaries of the crime fiction genre, despite the accumulating bits and pieces of oddness that promise that something very, very strange is going on.

And then things get explicitly science-fictional, and I almost feel bad for any SF-hating reader who was duped into reading the book by the fact it does not go out of its way to advertise its sciencefictionality.

I say, bring it on. I love banging genres together. I love the sound it makes. And don't worry, hardcore science fiction fans: Renner knows what he's doing when he plays with the tropes. I won't say too much about what's really going on, but I will say that Renner thought through the implications of how this universe works as well as any established SF author, and as far as I can tell the narrative never contradicts its own internal logic.

For all that's good about the novel, I do have to agree with Kirkus Reviews that it's slightly discomfiting that (a) a certain Cindy, who is the only female character who doesn't need to be saved by a big, strong David Neff, is 'made to look like an incompetent, vindictive bitch', and (b) said Cindy appears to be remarkably superfluous to the story, considering the amount of time spent on her. (Not that this is in any way provable, but I got the feeling that she was a real person, or composite of real people, that the author knew and disliked.) Point (a) above is surely unintentional and could have been avoided by fleshing her out more; fix that and point (b) probably would have gone unnoticed.

That aside, this novel does a tremendous job meshing the genres together. Whether you are likely to enjoy this depends on the degree to which you like the two constituent genres (bear in mind the writing style is primarily that of hardboiled crime fiction) and the degree to which you enjoy dumping them both in a bowl and mixing them together.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Game of Thrones: Season 3

THE GOOD:

Sooooo, did anyone else catch the episode where Edmure Tully married Roslin Frey?

Well, it generated the most online buzz that the show's had since the first season, and it took the phrase 'Red Wedding', which previously had meaning only to a niche of book readers, and planted it firmly within pop culture. The most infamously violent scene in a book series known for its violence is now part of our shared mass culture. Hooray!




See, there's nothing violent in this scene. Oh, you say the violence happens later on? Never mind.

The actual violence -- which was, if anything, more horrifying than in the books, and killed one additional major character whose book counterpart survived unscathed -- was shocking without being gratuitous. (But your mileage may vary, especially with the 'stab the pregnant lady in the belly' bit.)

Overall this season has been much stronger than season 2, which looks weaker the more I think about it in retrospect. I'm not so sure that it's as strong as season 1, but then the first season had the advantage of having stories that were relatively less geographically dispersed. I think the increasing dispersal of the characters has the potential to harm this series in the long run. It is only going to get worse, and could make it much more difficult to keep dramatic momentum going.

THE BAD:

I've already said that the show's missteps dealing with race bug me more than how it depicts gender. Something is very 'off' in the fact that it's the 3rd season before we see our first nonwhite characters who aren't obviously untrustworthy folks.

That brings me to the third season finale. The end of that episode, when thousands of brown-skinned former slaves hail Blonde Savior Lady as their liberator and new mother, was bad enough that it became downright embarrassing.

Now, don't misunderstand me here. The cringeworthy optics of it almost certainly wasn't a result of a conscious decision by the writers. It was just obliviousness. And, in this specific case especially, it was totally avoidable.

Think about it. We know the slavers are a cosmopolitan bunch of people. The geographical term 'Slaver's Bay' implies there's a lot of long-distance trading that goes on. And it is never hinted, either in the books or in the TV show, that slavers in this universe use a race-based ideology to justify what they do.

So there is no reason why the slaves couldn't have represented the full range of human racial variation. Fair-skinned slaves, swarthy slaves, dark-skinned slaves. Let's have some slaves mixed in who look like Daenerys. No need to change the script. Just make this one visual change and the scene would have been far more palatable.

But no. Instead, we got White Lady Saves the Day. I hope Meereen, where the show will presumably spend lots of time beginning next season, will be depicted with more thought.

People who wish to remain utterly unspoiled for future developments should stop reading here.

Other random thoughts:


  • Yes, I'm sure the real reason why the slaves of Yunkai were all vaguely brown-skinned people was that the Yunkai scenes were filmed in Morocco and just casting locals as extras was the cheapest choice. Doesn't change the bad optics of the scene.
  • My prediction for the pacing of Season 4: Joffrey and Margery get married in Episode 4 (possibly 3). Episode 9 will feature either the battle at the Wall (the action set-piece of the season) or Tyrion's departure from King's Landing (the dramatic highlight of the season). If they combine both into one episode, I'd be interested to see how that episode is structured. One more wedding in episode 7 or  8. The Moon Door at the Eyrie gets used again in episode 10.
  • I think it would be a good idea for the show to include more 'Blackwater'-style episodes that focus on a single location. The upcoming wedding in King's Landing would be perfect, as there will be lots of opportunities to show us different characters interacting and conversing about all sorts of different things, and that's before all of the drama that goes down at the reception.
  • Speaking of that wedding, I'm very curious to see what Sansa's actions are, since I doubt we'll see Ser Dontos again. And speaking of changes made for the TV adaptation, I must admit I'm curious to see exactly what's going to happen to Tyrion and Shae's relationship. Shae's a much stronger personality on TV than she was in the books, and it's hard to imagine her book storyline playing out on TV in exactly the same way.
  • Upcoming Challenge: When we first see Lady Stoneheart's face, the reaction of most of the TV audience will either be: a) Whoa. This show is awesome, man! or b) Pfft. Game of Thrones just jumped the shark. I think that for the show to hit a) but not b), laying the groundwork first will be just as important as the big shocking scene itself. Lady Stoneheart has the potential to make the show look really stupid if her reveal is handled poorly.
  • Upcoming Challenge #2: Eventually we're going to expect to see people riding dragons. I must admit that I don't see how the show, with its current standard of special effects, can show us a human riding a dragon without looking really fake or stupid. If I were in charge of special effects on this show, this would keep me up at nights, since its budget is not going to expand to rival that of Avatar anytime soon.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Pretty Monsters

Pretty Monsters
by Kelly Link

This collection of Kelly Link short stories entertained me marvelously. Link's an SF (speculative fiction, the big-tent genre) writer, mostly fantasy with forays into science-fictional and horror territory, and usually with a good amount of sardonic humor.

These stories are of diverse settings and moods, and I assume are a good representative sample of Link's oeuvre.  (Aside from these, my Kelly Link exposure has been a couple of stories I heard in audio form on Podcastle: Some Zombie Contingency Plans and The Hortlak.)

All of these stories center around young people, and I suppose that one who wished to classify everything could call these stories 'Young Adult'. Bear in mind that these aren't kid's stories, in case you have pejorative associations for that term.

So what do we have in this volume?

The Wrong Grave is about a teenage boy, Miles, whose girlfriend Bethany was killed in an accident. An aspiring poet (but not a very good one), Miles stuck the only copy of some of his poetry into her coffin in a romantic gesture, but a year later he regrets what he's done and he digs up her grave to get the poems back. Miles apparently manages to exhume the wrong teenage girl, who gets rather annoyed at Miles.

This is a universe where a just-exhumed dead person can walk and move and talk, and everyone treats it as normal. I like this. This is something you probably couldn't pull off in a novel. If reanimated dead people are not an amazing sight in this universe, it stands to reason that they are not uncommon, and that demands acknowledgement that this is a different society than the one you and I live in, and then you have to pull out the worldbuilding kit. Make no mistake, that could make for a really fun novel, but it would be different from what Link is doing here.

It's a feature of the short-story form that the notion of a world with unusually verbose dead people can be pulled off successfully with no explanation necessary.

The Wizards of Perfil is set in a fantasy world with a roughly 19th-century level of technology. A family fleeing war sells off daughter Halsa, who had incessantly bullied her siblings and her orphaned cousin Onion, to an agent of the legendary Wizards of Perfil, so as to have more money and fewer mouths to feed. Halsa possesses telepathic powers; so does Onion, and this allows them to maintain a channel of communication as the geographical separation between them grows.

This story's a charmer. Don't have much to say about it other than that I like the worldbuilding and the more-hinted-at-than-actually-delineated magic system.

Magic for Beginners is... well, drat. Look, in 1939 a guy named Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby that didn't use the letter 'e', just to show he could. I'm going to have to do something similar if I want to describe this story without using the word 'quirky'. I feel obliged to do this because many people have a severe allergic reaction to the Q-word, and it would be a shame if they miss out on Link's story just because I describe it as q***** twice in the same sentence, which could happen if I don't pay attention.

This story is about a teen named Jeremy, and his family (including a best-selling horror father who specializes in books about giant spiders), and his friends in Vermont. And it's also about the wonderfully creative little TV show called The Library that they all watch.

The Library is a likably eccentric show, put out on an irregular schedule, which has built a loyal cult following. There are many details about it that attract me, but best is the conceit that they have a troupe of actors and rotate many of the leading roles among them. The most popular character is a woman named Fox who has never been played by the same actor twice. I don't know why, but I love this idea.

The plot deals with Jeremy's family, and the odd inheritance (a public phone booth outside of Las Vegas) that he receives, and his friends' love for and fervent analysis of The Library. This story won a well-deserved Nebula Award.

The Faery Handbag is about a young lady's relationship with her eccentric grandmother Zofia, an immigrant from Badeziwurlekistan who brought a very special handbag over from the old country.

I love how this story takes a plot with a bare-bones structure that, let's face it, is reminiscent of tales that have been told at bedsides and around campfires for generations, and very successfully marries it with modern idiom and worldview, giving it a firm grounding in the (to us) mundane. This story won not only a Nebula but also a Hugo.

The Specialist's Hat is a ghost story that centers on the two girls who live in a creepy old house with their father, who is writing a book about the creepy old poet who lived in the same house around the turn of the century. This story successfully convinces the reader that the word 'specialist', when spoken in the right way, is a very creepy word.

Monster is about a group of boys at camp. The boys of Bungalow 6 head into the woods for a night of camping. They're nervous after hearing stories of a boy-eating monster from their peers in Bungalow 4, but they don't let that stop them; they can't let themselves wimp out now, can they?

The viewpoint shifts to a nerdy boy named James Lorbick, who puts on a dress and pretends to be a zombie because he is willing to play the role of group weirdo if it means the other boys will accept him in it. The monster appears. He and James have a conversation. People are eaten.

The Surfer centers on a young soccer phenom who is kidnapped by his father and flown to Costa Rica where his father has connections to a UFO cult. Just then, a deadly flu strain breaks out, and father and son and various other people are quarantined together in Costa Rica, forced to interact, learn, and mature.

The UFO cult in this story was born several years ago when aliens arrived, picked up an airheaded surfer, and dropped him back to Earth minutes later. The aliens then left the planet behind, apparently for good. Ever since then the surfer's been preaching an utterly generic gospel of love and peace. Nobody in this world really doubts the existence of the aliens; rather, the skeptics tend to think it was the bad luck of humanity that the person the aliens randomly chose was this brainless dolt.  No wonder they packed up and left so quickly.

The Constable of Abal is the second of the stories in this book to be set in a 'high fantasy' setting (although it appears to be a different universe from 'The Wizards of Perfil'). Ozma's a girl who works as her mother Zilla's assistant, as Zilla uses the family ability to see and interact with ghosts to blackmail and bamboozle families in the city of Abal. One day things go wrong and Zilla is forced to murder a constable; they flee the city. Ozma hides the constable's ghost in her pocket, and the two grow quite fond of one another. They settle in another city, where Zilla insists they take up the lives of utterly respectable people. There are strange things happening and people who clearly know more than they are letting on. Like 'The Wizards of Perfil', this story is quite good at the worldbuilding.

And finally, Pretty Monsters. On one plane of existence, a girl named Clementine develops a hopeless crush on an older boy named Cabell when he saves her life after she sleepwalks into the sea. As the years pass, Clementine can not let go of her crush, even as Cabell gets married and moves to Romania...

But that's all fiction, a bad paranormal romance novel that Lee, a private school girl, is reading. Lee and her friends are getting ready to deliver their classmate's Ordeal (read: hazing ritual), and Lee retreats back into the book every time things go off-plan (which is often). The target of the hazing is Czigany, an Eastern European diplomat's kid. Czigany insists she has to be back home at five so she can take her never-precisely-explained 'medicine'. Her friends make promises, that they have no intention of keeping, that of course she'll be back in time. You can guess where this is going. Part of it, anyway.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

I have every right to do this!

Say you see a guy named Bob. Bob is doing something that is really harmful and unfair to other people. Or maybe he's just making an ass of himself in public and doesn't seem to realize it.

You call him out. You tell him what a jerk he's being. Bob's response is that he has a right to do what he's doing, and he's not doing anything illegal. (Even though you never said he was doing anything illegal.)

When this happens, you are almost certainly right and Bob is indeed almost certainly being an ass.

This little rule of thumb can most often be applied to Internet conversations:

butthead69: LOL i heard he's dating a girl from bazorkistan, bazorkistanians are all terrierists and smell like farts, why can't he get an american gf
cosmo_nerd: My mother is a Bazorkistani immigrant. Racist lowlifes like you disgust me.
butthead69: hey dumbass ever heard of free speech? you can't take away my first amendment rites you nazi scumbagg

But really, you can apply it to almost any situation. What really crystallized it for me was a moment in a recent Planet Money podcast titled When Patents Hit the Podcast. There's this guy (not named Bob) who claims he invented podcasting back in the 1990s and now he wants all podcasters, including the little independent ones with no money, to pay him a licensing fee. (He did patent many of the basic principles behind podcasting back then; these patents subsequently sat forgotten and did nothing and inspired no one until he had a recent 'Oh, yeah!' moment.)

When the NPR reporter asked him what he would say to people who accused him of being a patent troll, charging people to use a bridge someone else had built, he explained that he was doing nothing illegal. Everything he did was allowed under the laws of the U.S. patent system. This would be an appropriate response if the NPR reporter had said people were accusing him of breaking the law. But she hadn't.

I don't claim to be knowledgeable about patents, and it's possible that this guy is making the world a better place (in a way that's unclear to me) by demanding that podcasters pay him. But he didn't say that, unless NPR maliciously edited the piece. Or he could say it was the principle of the thing. But he didn't.

And that's the point. It's not just that when my hypothetical generic jerk Bob says 'Nuh-uh, I have a RIGHT to do this!' he's answering an objection that no one raised. It's that he's doing this instead of explaining why he's right, or why he's not actually hurting anyone. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies
by Amitav Ghosh
Published in 2008
Published by John Murray

Here we have a full-fledged action-adventure novel, full of fighting and danger and valiant last-minute escapes and bad guys coming to satisfyingly violent ends and other bad guys living to fight another day. Sea of Poppies is the first novel in a trilogy, you see, and Amitav Ghosh has officially hooked me.

Every character with a narrative POV eventually ends up on the Ibis, a ship on the Indian Ocean, where each individual person aboard is probably harboring some sort of deep dark secret. If there seem to be people who aren't, that's just because the narrative hasn't seen fit to tell us about them yet.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's the 1830s and Britain rules the seas.

Britain also makes a great deal of money off of its overseas trade; it controls the production of opium in India and makes huge profits by selling the opium to millions of addicts in China. This is pure and simple exploitation on both counts; agents of the British Empire use a combination of economic pressure and hooliganism to force the Indian peasantry to grow poppies as a cash crop rather than allowing them to be self-sufficient, and when the economic overseers of China want to limit the amount of opium the country can import, Britain prepares for war.

Do we detect a whiff of politics in this story? Yes, we do, and if the preceding paragraph makes you roll your eyes at Ghosh's politics, then you'd better get ready to roll your eyes a lot. For the rest of us, Ghosh does quite a bit of riffing on his Western characters' tendency to call slavery 'freedom' and economic bullying 'free trade'.

He makes the West appear vaguely ridiculous in payback for its world-dominating ways back in the 1800s, but he includes sympathetic Westerners and bad, thuggish Easterners in his cast of characters. Of course he does. If he just wrote of evil Westerners and virtuous Asians, he's be little more than an unimaginative hack.

(That said, I did notice that of the two sympathetic Western POV characters, one is culturally more Bengali than French or English, and the other is a fair-skinned man of partially African ancestry who must hide his true heritage. One could derive the unfortunate implication that if you're both a Westerner and a sympathetic character in Ghosh's fiction, there must be a way to see you as not really Western, at least not according to 19th Century standards.)

As the title implies, everything in this book ultimately comes down to the opium trade. We begin in rural northern India, along the banks of the Ganges in 1838, where peasant woman Deeti supervises her poppy fields as her opium addict husband works at the opium factory in Ghazipur. Her husband's habit has taken its toll on his constitution, and when he becomes too weak to continue to work and support Deeti's daughter, she is thrust into a terrible family-based dilemma. (Every Ghosh novel I've read has featured a woman who is mistreated by a family she was not born into, and generally it's an older woman who orchestrates the mistreatment.) She eventually ends up in Calcutta and her fate converges with that of the remaining characters, who come from a variety of backgrounds in Indian society and from abroad.

As I said, I am hooked. Some very minor qualms:


  • I was confused by a bit of muddled motivation that makes it unclear what drives a certain person to do a certain thing. There's this young woman who's being raised by an English family, and it turns out a respected elderly judge who she finds repulsive but is chummy with her foster father is smitten with her and wants to marry her, and her foster family thinks this is just the greatest development ever. Shortly after, she runs away, never to return. She explains that the reason she ran away was that her foster father was a disgusting pervert who got off on having her beat him for ostensibly religious reasons. At first I figured she lying to make others more sympathetic. After all, she had plenty of motivation for running away already. Her foster family couldn't have forced her to marry this man, but her refusal would have made things very awkward and uncomfortable for everybody, and she wasn't in a terribly comfortable position to begin with. But I got less sure as time went on, and now I have no idea if I was meant to take her story at face value or not. I have no problem with ambiguity if it's intentional, but I don't think Ghosh meant for me to be wondering this.
  • There's this old seaman on the Ibis, and he claims to be a veteran of this epic battle, years and years ago, that involved hundreds of ships, but no one else believes him because he says the battle has the silly name of 'Three fruit house', or tri phal ghar. Okay, I get it, Ghosh is poking fun at British arrogance by puncturing Anglo-Saxon pride in one of the most storied battles in their history. But this old sailor's telling his tales to an audience of lascars from all over the Eastern Hemisphere, probably a very multilingual bunch of people, who even if they aren't up to speed on the glorious history of the British Navy are unlikely to get hung up on how a phrase sounds in one particular language. I know it's meant to be a joke, but it's unrealistic, and it took me out of the story.
  • There are lots and lots of Indian characters. Good people, bad people, fat people, thin people, serious characters, comic characters, the full range of human variation. There is one character of Chinese heritage, and once he beats his opium habit it turns out he's got wicked martial arts skills. It's not a big deal, particularly since I suspect many more Chinese people will show up later in the trilogy, but I just wanted to point that out.