Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bourgeois Book Club

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones

From the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid to the Empty Quarter of Arabia, Desert of Souls is a rousing
Arabian Nights adventure filled with stalwart warriors, clever scholars, beautiful women, dastardly magicians, capricious djinn, and fearsome monsters.

Like the Arabian Nights tales themselves, it's fully and satisfyingly-concluded but with an open end that leaves room for further adventures, which I very much look forward to reading. It's even got a nice bit of metafiction in it, in that it's a story being retold in the "future," with stories built into it, and a lot of discussion of the art of storytelling. Really stellar debut and highly recommended.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

The latest quirky trip through American history by Sarah Vowell, this time exploring the story of the annexation of Hawaii.

In some ways, this book is a continuation of
her last book, The Wordy Shipmates. The general story is the same: Puritan New Englanders go to a new land to settle and "civilize" and "help" the natives. It's just two hundred years later and in a tropical climate. The "help," of course, was cultural and political annihilation, as well as lethal, though on all scores the native Hawaiians fared better than the Native Americans. (That's a rather low bar to jump over, of course.) Yet, even as she skewers the fantastically condescending and drearily prim missionaries, she never demonizes them. These people were fanatical, hypocritical, and tedious, but they were moved to do what they thought was saving people, literally, from eternal torment. They left their homes and endured great hardship and danger in order to do it, too. Hawaii may be one of the top tourist spots in the world these days, but it sure wasn't back then, and just getting there was an ordeal. These were tough New Englanders, and if nothing else they do inspire a grudging respect.

And as Vowell discovers, the native Hawaiian power elite were not passive victims but gung-ho enthusiasts for Americanization and the missionaries. In just a few decades, Hawaii become one of the most literate nations in the world, the Hawaiian language got a written form, and books, newspapers, and pamphlets in Hawaiian came flying out of the presses. The first newspaper west of the Rockies was printed in Hawaii.
It just doesn't boil all down to "white man bad, native good." White man is, indeed, bad, much of the time, but Kamehameha only became King of Hawaii after a brutal war in which he chased men over cliffs and dammed rivers with corpses, and he sat atop a rigidly hierarchical society that threw people off cliffs for eating the wrong snacks.

Eventually, the missionaries' descendants became sugar planters and big businessman who preferred, for both economic and cultural-imperialism reasons, American annexation to even a constitutional monarchy headed by native Hawaiians. So they couped and proceeded to depose the queen and disenfranchise most of the natives (they took post-Reconstruction Mississippi's constitution as a model for that of their own "Republic"). The U.S., on its part, was caught up in imperialist fever and the need for Pacific coaling stations. But a formal treaty of annexation, strongly opposed by the former Hawaiian Queen and her countrymen, didn't get enough votes in Congress. It was only through a series of shady legal maneuvers during the Spanish-American War that U.S. annexation came about. Far from our greatest hour.

I enjoy Vowell because of her sardonic tone, but also because I feel we share a similar attitude towards America and Americanness, at once fiercely proud, almost naive in our belief in its ideals, while also soberly aware of its dark sides. She feels that, to quote Diderot, "All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone's feelings." I also love how she loves history, in all its circuitous, absurd, astonishing, tangential glory. She's not afraid of digression.

A funny, breezy, but informative book about a little corner of American history we should know more about.

Embedded by Dan Abnett

On a faraway world known only as Eighty-Six, journalist Dan Falk gets psychically linked to a US solider in a Cold War that is about to get very, very hot. What pushed hundreds of years of wary peace into all-out combat? More importantly, how is Falk going to survive in the body of a mostly-dead solider without getting himself killed?

Abnett creates a momentum to the story that is just compellingly page-turning, with genuinely exciting action. To me, much military science fiction is nothing more than lists of weapons specs, dull descriptions of tactics, and rightwing politics (I'm looking at you, Baen), but, while there are certainly bits of future mil-porn sprinkled in, Embedded is about character and mystery and survival and seeing how a civilian sees and deals with violence. Also, not to spoil anything, but you don't realize until fairly late in the book that this is not only military-inflected science fiction, but actually alternate history, too.
That revelations puts an interesting color on other aspects of the book.

I applaud Abnett's attention to linguistics, and the fact that hundreds of years in the future people will undoubtedly speak differently, but the use of made-up future slang is more interesting in theory than in practice. Most of it is annoying and clunky. But it is more or less ignorable, and you get used to some of it. One or two neologisms are even oddly plausible.

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Regular readers of Bourgeois Book Club may have noticed that I have a bit of a fondness for books about the chemical elements, such as Oliver Sacks' Uncle Tungsten and Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon. There is something to me, even as someone who did not enjoy chemistry class and has forgotten most of what I learned there, nevertheless fascinating about the elements which constitute our world.

Periodic Tales is different from the aforementioned books in that it's less interested in chemistry, either in service to a personal memoir such as in Uncle Tungsten (though there are personal anecdotes) or in describing the fascinating adventure of elemental discovery as in The Disappearing Spoon (though several of those stories are related) than in what the elements mean, their cultural, economic, and social values. He goes beyond chemistry to plumb history, art, architecture, design, medicine, alchemy, poetry, literature, linguistics, economics, pop culture, and even politics and cosmetics for broader elemental insight. The elements aren't just arcane symbols on a weird graphic; they're literally all around us, both physically and metaphorically.

Aldersey-Williams lacks the charming eccentricity of Sacks or the infectious enthusiasm of Kean, but he's a perfectly serviceable writer with the easy erudition of a Renaissance man and an admirably gung-ho attitude to getting his hands dirty. Indeed, the book's genesis comes from his attempt as a boy to collect all the elements (a logical, and apparently reasonably common, pasttime, that it seems there's even a small industry for), some of which he obtained by smashing and smelting household items. Over the course of the book, he distills his own urine to recreate the discovery of phosphorus, tromps around English forests with charcoal burners, burns kelp for iodine, explores the ailing British fireworks industry, stomps around Cornwall looking for the Cassiterides, tells his fortune using molten lead, and treks through Sweden to figure out how its chemists came to discover and name nearly a fifth of all the naturally occurring elements.

My one gripe about the book is in the pictures. Instead of captions, there is a "List of illustrations" at the front of the book. Perhaps organized this way in an effort to save space, it's rather annoying and takes away from the illustrative power of the pictures, since you don't know what you're looking at, necessarily, without having to stop, flip back to the front, and find the right page.

That nitpick aside, however, it is a wonderful book that gives a wholly different perspective on the very stuff of creation.


slyder said...

I looked at Desert of Souls at the library, but didn't check it out. Your recommendation makes me want to go back and get get it, which I will do on Monday. It is sweet to work in a library!

Frank said...

OMG, now I feel all this pressure! What if you don't like it?! *LOL*

It must be heaven to work surrounded by books.

slyder said...

To make us even, one of the best novels I have read in years is Isabel Allende's Island Beneath the Sea. Begins in Haiti in the 1770s and ends in New Orleans about 1810. I loved every minute of it! You might love it or hate it. One likes to read what one likes to read. I merely suggest based on my likes and dislikes.

Frank said...

Thanks for the suggestion.