Monday, June 11, 2018

Where I Realize I Have a Favorite Linguist. Huh.

The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any LanguageThe Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a useful, informative book that is a pleasure to read. It does exactly what it says it will do: show how the differences in languages make no appreciable difference in how people think. But in addition to that, it is clearly written, entertaining, and full of surprises.

A key to McWhorter's take on language is his scientific stance. He doesn't overlook what the research does say, but neither does he exaggerate it or read too much into it. He is careful to always describe exactly how far his claims or anyone else's can be taken, based on the evidence. He gives credit where it is due, explains the significance of various studies, and gives support for his claims. This means that he will sometimes knock down extravagant claims and pull the rug out from under exciting but flawed ideas about language, and that's a bummer, but it's also good science.

McWhorter popularizes the information for interested amateurs, but he doesn't sensationalize it. He shows how the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis--the notion that the form of a language affects its speakers' world view--can be demonstrated in a reduced way, at an academic level, but how it does not hold true in any significant way, how it does not, in fact, make any appreciable difference in the way groups of people think.

He makes a case for Whorfianism to represent only tiny differences which ultimately don't make a difference.

Even though he is debunking an idea that until now made for entertaining conversation, he isn't killing the fun; he still manages to provide his own entertaining revelations, which is one of the joys of reading his books. The tidbits about languages, the strange rules in this language and odd vocabulary in that one, are the details that I find most intriguing, and they're abundant here. Some are famous examples, some seem vaguely familiar, but many are new, and amaze me as they always do with the strangeness and variety of language and human experience.

Another thing I appreciate about his writing is his empathy. He knocks down patronizingly glowing attitudes toward certain languages, especially those of the Amazon or New Guinea or other native groups, while recognizing how those attitudes emerged from a genuine attempt at progressive thought and respect for others eighty or ninety or one hundred years ago, back when most academics were hopelessly dismissive of such "savage" or "unsophisticated" cultures. He accomplishes a similar feat with his discussion (here and elsewhere) of Black English, where he neither minimizes its complexity nor treads unnecessarily carefully around it, even though the subject has long been fraught with controversy. It helps, frankly, that he is an African American linguist, and so able to approach the subject in a respectful and sensitive way while maintaining rigor and academic distance.

He analyzes a single overheard sentence here in such a brilliant way that the reader almost wonders how we ever put a sentence together. He is able to show how clear meaning emerges from usage that appears inaccurate to some (looking at you, prescriptivists...), demonstrating that Black English can communicate precise ideas as flexibly as standard English. At the the same time, he shows that the differences in form do not correspond to a difference in thought.

Or maybe those are the same thing, said two different ways...

This is not a long book, but it's full and complete and entertaining. For people interested in language, it is highly recommended.

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Monday, June 4, 2018

Big Ol' Book of Woes--but Good!

La reina descalzaLa reina descalza by Ildefonso Falcones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book, like all of the author's books, is large in scope, covering many years and encompassing the fortunes of many people. He chooses to tell the history of his native Spain, but not in a general way. Falcones focuses on marginalized groups, revealing something of their experience in a Spain that never wanted them. Other books deal with Spain's treatment of its Jewish population (La Catedral del Mar) and its Moors (La Mano de Fatima), especially the injustice and unfairness and cruelty shown to these groups. This book does the same for Spain's gitanos, (gypsies, though better rendered Romani) and it's just as brutal and hard to take.

This is a well-written novel, and it's entertaining as well as instructive, but it's not often fun. (That's his style, actually.) The author makes you care about Milagros, a beautiful young gitana, as well as Caridad, a recently freed slave, and people connected to them, and then puts them through all the horrors that their population endured in this time so that the reader can, I suppose, feel their pain. I did, anyway. Characters are separated from one another, jailed for no reason, prevented from earning a living, coerced into accepting Christianity, beaten, killed, raped, punished, and humiliated in every possible way, with only a few moments here and there of kindness and acceptance and peace. It's a taxing story, though one is forced to recall that the events are essentially true, emerging from the history of intolerance in Spain. If they had to survive it, a reader should be able to at least read about it, right?

That's how I see it, anyway.

So... not too fun, but still entertaining, which is a different thing. It's also more of a struggle for me since Spanish is my second language, and that affects how I perceive the joys of reading it. Nevertheless, I feel like it's worth the effort. The text is harder, and my progress slower, than if I read it in English, and I must confess that I spread the reading out over too much time (months, actually), but I'd rather read it haltingly in the original than fluently in translation. Better readers will be able to avoid this difficulty. :) And they may report having more fun than I did.

In terms of craft, I feel like the author wanders too much, tries to include too much, to the point that every character seems to have lived two or three lives. But that seems to be an expectation of the genre. Many readers, I think, want to have that kind of meandering middle with lots of pages to get lost in. I found it less charming, but his other novels do the same thing, with endless ups and downs (and downs) for his characters, so I was not surprised by it. Still, that rather gratuitous punishing of all the main characters through the middle section is why I rank it (just for me) as good at 4 stars, not 5-star-amazing.

Perhaps the best part of the novel is el Galeote, Milagros's grandfather. He's a hard man, uncompromising and foolhardy, but loyal and dogged in his efforts to protect his family. In some ways, he's the real hero of the novel. Other characters get to be the hero here and there, but he carries it the most. And his relationship with Caridad, the freed slave, is both realistic and touching.

I recommend this novel for those are interested in Spanish history and can bear the cruelty heaped on its main characters. You should find a lot to entertain and instruct. You may even find some rays of hope for humanity in places.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Brief semi-positive review

In The Shadow of LightIn The Shadow of Light by Tracy Causley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are a few well done things in this novel that some readers will enjoy. I liked parts of it--moments of good action, some interesting characters, a setting I'm intrigued by. Overall, though, it's uneven, with long stretches of unconvincing, exposition-laden dialogue, and main characters who have almost nothing to do--a bit of travel, from Florence to the countryside and back, about covers it. The antagonists, who bring about a plague and have plans to destroy their enemies, have much more compelling arcs.

I don't want to build too strong an argument against the novel. I did enjoy some of it, and though it doesn't really work for me, others might find more to like. I hope that's the case.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Con-men and Pirates

Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentleman Bastard, #2)Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an inventive, clever novel. The plot has more moving parts than any single book should attempt, but the author makes it work. The dialogue is witty and fun. And the world-building is excellent, following up on the first novel in the series.

When I had less time to devote to reading, I got stuck a bit. When I had more time, I read it avidly with a lot of enjoyment. I guess that means I should read more.

Its greatest weakness (I would argue) is evident when you pick it up--it's a big book. Bigger than it needs to be, maybe. Lots of twists and turns and scams and cons and double-crosses and extortions and escapes. Though all fun, they blur a bit. One review I saw suggested that the pirate section in the middle could be removed without harm. I was thinking just the opposite, that the the pirate section made the best part of the book and could have been the whole novel. So there you go--that's what you get when readers give advice! Incoherence.

Even though I thought it was longer than necessary for perfect reading pleasure, I still gave it all five stars because there's so much to enjoy here (especially the aforementioned pirate section). The action is driven by well-drawn characters, eccentric but comprehensible, that I could root for even though they have a very different sort of ethics. Above all, the wry tone with above-average banter carries you through a lot of action and plot twists. If you're a laugh-out-loud type of reader, maybe a John Scalzi fan, this should be your next fantasy series. Lots of good lines.

That is not to say that there is no emotional weight to the novel, because there are many human, affecting moments throughout. Some minor characters make a lasting impression, especially a couple of pirate women, but most of the emotion derives from the protagonists' friendship. The connection between Locke and Jean is genuine and warm, and the arc of their friendship carries us from literally the first page to the last.

Also, there is a delightful kitten.

Finally, and this is not a minor point, I like the author, as a human viewed from the middle distance of conventions and twitter, and judge him to be a good person, so the book is ethically sourced. (If he is not that, it's an excellent scam, and therefore I approve even more.)

Okay, to sum up, an (apparently) good guy wrote another good book, and I liked it. I hope you do too.

I mean, come on! Pirates!

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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Alexia Tarabotti doesn't care what you think. A review of "Soulless"

Soulless (Parasol Protectorate, #1)Soulless by Gail Carriger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am totally over vampire stories and werewolf stories--but the premise of this book intrigued me, so I got it. I'm glad I took a look, because it's a fresh approach to the genre (even bearing in mind that I'm reading it 9 years after its first publication). It took me halfway through to get a fix on the author's tone, but once I did I enjoyed it very much.

Speaking of tone, here's my take on that: this is a (mostly) light-hearted, witty book, almost as much a romance as it is an action novel, and it is as charming and as comedic as it can be with genuine bloody monsters about. And dirigibles.

Alexia is a fun heroine, a rule-breaker with a great deal of confidence and unrelenting stubbornness, which is what is needed for a female MC in an alternate-Victorian setting. I like that this is an action story, and she is not simply watching the action (as is found in some novels of this type). She is engaged, and her action is integral to the plot. She has a mystery to solve that she investigates on her own rather than waiting for others to act, and she makes progress using her intelligence and nerve. She prefers comfort and propriety, to a degree, but doesn't back down when things become uncomfortable or unpleasant. Even when the action becomes more than a lady of the period can deal with--even a plucky woman with a strong will--and other characters come to the fore, she still engages and makes a significant contribution. She's not window-dressing; she's driving the action.

Plus, it's a witty book. I seldom laugh out loud when I read, but I actually did several times. Like at this point:

"Mrs. Loontwill fainted.

"Alexia thought it the best, most sensible thing her mama had done in a very long while."

The naughty bits were also written with a good amount of humor. I thought it a good balance for the romance.

Partway through, before I had gotten properly dialed in, I had thought I would finish the book but not get the sequels. I've changed my mind, obviously--now I'm eager to find the rest. It looks like Alexia has a lot of interesting, exciting stories to live, and I'm looking forward to reading them.

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

I'd kinda rather lie and say I loved it

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not trying to be difficult. Or contrary. I just didn't really like this book. I almost gave it 4 stars, because assigning 3 stars to a Hugo Award winner looks like you want a fight. I don't.

To be clear, right up front, this is a well written book, and I like the author. I'd like to meet her, and shake her hand, and ask for her to sign a copy of something. That would be an honor. But I didn't enjoy reading this particular book. The novel might be up your alley. If so, it may well be a 5-star favorite of yours. I hope it is. In fact, I hope other people like it much more than I did.

For me, this was just a downer, and I usually don't finish books that I feel that way about. Being entertained and feeling a bit of joy are, for me, more motivating purposes for reading than FOMO or "seeing what happens" or being surprised or any other more esoteric purposes others have. The novel is more dystopian than I thought it would be, and the tone is unrelentingly grim, pessimistic, misanthropic, and disheartening. So, not too fun, at least not for me. Nothing good happens anywhere in this land of despots. [Spoiler, sort of. Maybe skip a line or two.] Well, there is a moment of freedom and domestic bliss, but the foreshadowing doesn't let you enjoy it. You know, by then, what will happen/has happened. Almost everyone in the story is untrustworthy, unkind, and unhappy, taught from infancy to be practical to the point of ruthlessness. There are no heroes to root for; even the main character is only occasionally sympathetic. I cared what happened to her, enough to keep on, but I didn't ever want to meet her. I didn't like her, even though I wanted to.

A dark tone is, for me, more tolerable in those books where the main characters are fighting to change what's wrong in their world, or when I have the feeling, as the reader, that something can improve. There is perhaps a hint of that, at best, but that's not really what the story is about. The characters, instead, are moving about, or being carried about, or being pushed about, doing whatever is in front of them to do without much choice or self-direction. [Spoiler! Stop!] Until maybe the last page, there's no drive for anyone to create a better life, or solve a problem, or intentionally attack a main conflict, and all that does is point to book 2. [Still spoilering] The nearest to a recognizable goal is Essun chasing after her daughter, but that feels like a waste of emotional energy when you get to the end of the novel without any sign of the girl. Really, the book has a lot of movement, but without goals proper to the characters we're following. It is action without clear purpose. (In that way, this novel is more like literary fiction, where the plot is more about the sum total of the characters' life situation than linear action toward a goal.) That kind of vagueness about the plot or main conflict can work, of course, but it's just not for me. The why? in my head never quite gets answered, and I want it to be.

The literary consensus is that this is an awesome book. Smart people who like novels really liked this one. I'm not in the mainstream here. Make of that what you will.

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Monday, April 9, 2018

A fresh look at history

The Silk Roads: A New History of the WorldThe Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very useful history, looking at world events through a lens I had never considered: Central Asia's wealth and the West's efforts to possess it. The author traces the development of trade, empire, war, and colonization in the region that stretches from the Mediterranean to Western China, which was, of course, the location of the original "Silk Road." I found it very eye-opening, and most of it entertaining. (Where I wasn't entertained, I was still informed, which is a different reward.) :)

I especially enjoyed the ancient history part, which is why I started the book, but the modern history was equally informative. It showed how many forces have remained constant for millennia. The main idea is that Central Asia has been a source of great wealth throughout history, and the efforts to obtain that wealth (and guarantee its flow) has been a preoccupation of Western powers for thousands of years. Whether it's silk, silver, horses, spices, opium, rare earths, or petroleum that is capturing the attention of traders and speculators and governments, the effect has been to cause competition and war to obtain it.

One of the ways information is framed in this book is to show how much history is driven by trade and profit. Everything is about the money first, and the politics follow. That seems obvious, and has been pointed out endlessly everywhere, but it really informs every moment of history as it is described in this book, and explains better than anything I've read before the movements of people and growth of cities and spread of ideas, including religions. What struck me was the constant revelation of the great wealth of this city or that one, of this empire or that one, in places that are mostly blank in my understanding or only roughly penciled in. In regions that seem, in my mind, to be a deserted wasteland (metaphorically, since I know so little about them), huge numbers of people have lived and civilizations have thrived, with wealthy populations and advanced societies that included many educated, cosmopolitan people enjoying high levels of sophistication. Think Merv, and Balkh, and Samarkand, and Mosul, and Edessa, and dozens more that may seem familiar or may not.

The middlemen all along the route took their cut, and that explains the dramatic push of poor Westerners to find a way around them. The desire for Central Asia's wealth explains the Age of Exploration. It explains the "Great Game" in Afghanistan and India, and it explains British Petroleum, and the toppling of governments. It explains (sort of) how the United States could first arm Saddam and then attack him, or revile Iran and then arm them. Specific examples of European and American colonization or exploitation explain anti-Western sentiment there far better than explanations I've heard since the 80s or 90s in media or elsewhere.

What the author does so well in this book is put this region of the world in the very center of history. Right or wrong, it changes how you look at events, and how you see life on the periphery. It's a "walk a mile in his shoes" exercise that has given me a great deal of insight into how people in the Middle East might see their history, their place in the world, and the relative trustworthiness of our government and institutions, or our corporations. When Westerners--British East India Company, or Exxon, or Soviet Russia, or Hitler's Germany--want to extract a nation's wealth, and then use that wealth to oppress the people in their own land, and treat those people and their needs as less significant, calling them "backward," or "tribal," and brutally suppress their very natural objection to that treatment... well, it's easy to see why they would consider that unjust. You can see why they would expel the colonizers. Why they would nationalize oilfields and railroads. Why they might still be angry.

There are other ways to look at all of these events, of course, but I found this perspective very useful. While it was sometimes uncomfortable, it was enlightening, and well worth spending the time investigating. In addition, the scholarship was excellent (beyond my ability to judge, that is) and painstaking, with extensive notes for the skeptical. So both for its excellent information and its unique perspective, I must highly recommend the book.

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