Reading List 2011 (9/246)

Relatively recent reading! What a delight!

  • Darwin’s Radio, Greg Bear
  • Devices and Desires, K. J. Parker
  • Evil for Evil, K. J. Parker
  • The Escapement, K. J. Parker
  • House Lust, Daniel McGinn
  • For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage, Tara Parker-Pope
  • 11/22/63, Stephen King
  • Hothouse Kids: How the Pressure to Succeed Threatens Childhood, Alissa Quart
  • Evelina, Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, Fanny Burney

tl;dr – Parker does no-magic, very smart fantasy; King and time travel are a great fit; Hothouse Kids delivers good insights; the title character of Evelina may strike you as sickly-sweet, but the story stands the test of time.

I learned an important lesson from this batch of books: turns out you can get pretty good book recommendations if you complain. I was griping to a friend that I can’t read most fantasy anymore; it’s just too dull, the characters are always morons, and most worlds are just another boring medieval-Europe retread. Plus, my tolerance for fantasy tropes as an excuse for rampant racism and sexism has gone way down over the past few years. Fortunately for me, he pointed me at Parker’s Engineer trilogy. It’s not perfect (women exist mostly as plot devices, for one thing), but I was willing to overlook its flaws for the great characterization, sneaky-bastard plotting, and unusual world-building. The series is more a tragedy than a traditional fantasy, but screw categorization – just read it.

My favorite bit was the world – an early-industrial one, in which a single society has developed factories, manufactured goods, etcetera. They’ve pushed out local manufacturers in every society they have contact with, because they have better technology and can produce goods more cheaply. They use their immense profits to hire a mercenary army and maintain their power. However, all this relies on their ability to maintain a monopoly on their technological secrets – especially their weapons. When an engineer flees a sentence of death, and sets up shop in another country, they must respond with force. And so a tragedy is set in motion, one that is driven by the flaws and desires of the people Parker follows as much as it is driven by the inevitable instability of the situation. There’s no happy ending here, but there’s a measure of peace for many of the characters, and a glimpse at a new world coming to life.

King’s book is also a tragedy. Jake Epping is sent back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination – and as you might guess, it doesn’t go smoothly. Not much time is spent on the mechanics of time travel, which is nice. Jake simply accepts the limits of what’s possible and acts within them. That means spending several years living in the past, building a life in small-town Texas while monitoring Oswald and trying to figure out how to stop the assassination without committing murder. King does a lovely job of integrating the historical elements into Jake’s emotional and moral journey. Does it matter what Oswald was up to in, say, 1961? To Jake, and therefore to us, it does – and it shapes the choices he has to make. The book hinges on three such choices, all truly difficult moral decisions. By the time Jake has to make them, you’re sufficiently invested in him that they’re genuinely painful for you as a reader. King can get sentimental, particularly about small-town life, but overall this was a great read, even if you don’t love time travel the way that I do.

Evelina is sentimental in an entirely different way. It’s an early epistolary novel, part of whose social function was to teach women how to behave. The title character is impossibly sweet, dutiful, and well-behaved. Even when she gets herself into trouble (and she does!) it’s through an excess of accommodation and delicacy of manners. I’m not saying it’s bad – just that you should be prepared for it, so you can enjoy what it does well. I appreciated it as a glimpse into the ideals and values, not to mention the social dangers, of another world. Plus it’s got a surprising number of soap-operatic elements – disowned children! mistaken identities! crimes of passion! As long as you don’t expect to identify much with Evelina, I think you’ll enjoy this the way I did.

I thought Hothouse Kids was a good deal better than Quart’s first book (Branded, on kids and marketing). Quart looks at the social construction of “giftedness” – both in individual families and in larger social institutions. She gets some pieces very, very right, such as the pressure on gifted children to produce and perform. I also really enjoyed getting a glimpse into the child-preacher and Scrabble-circuit subcultures. Understand, though, that the book is a bit of a polemic. While it draws on great research and interesting anecdotes, it’s all pulled into an argument about the damage the “gifted complex” does to our children, our schools, and our society. I found it interesting and useful, but read it with a grain of salt.

For Better was a perfectly adequate review of relationship research I’ve read elsewhere, but for people less immersed in the field than I am, it’s a pretty good read. I’d especially recommend it if you’ve been in a relationship for less than two years, or if you’re thinking about getting married. Every chapter’s got actionable insights; speaking as someone who practices many of them, they work!

Darwin’s Radio uses miscarriage and pregnancy as a major plot device, which only confirms my suspicion that Bear should not write about women. I didn’t buy the social changes he depicts, and the “holy mommy brings forth a new race” ending left me cold. If you’re looking for a good sci-fi thriller by Bear, try the far more original Blood Music.

Finally, House Lust could be read as a series of loosely related house-themed essays. McGinn covers building, fixing, financing, and selling houses, with additional essays on big houses, second homes, and house-themed media. Individual pieces of this book are extremely interesting, like the history of House Hunters and how floor plans have changed over time. It didn’t quite add up to the trenchant cultural analysis I was hoping for, though. Then again, I’m a big house luster myself, so maybe I just didn’t want to see myself in it!

Happy reading, everyone!

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