1.28.2010

Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey
Shades of Grey
The first book in the planned Shades of Grey trilogy, The Road to High Saffron, reveals that Jasper Fforde is capable of more profound writing than I previously thought. I've read almost every other book Fforde has written, mostly comical books in which the characters waltz in and out of other books. The Thursday Next series is one of my favorite series written in recent years. It's funny and intelligent, but it's not what I would call deep. Shades of Grey shares some of the same zaniness and wit, but the ending is one of the most moving things I've read recently.

The Shades of Grey series takes place in what Fforde described as a time long enough after an apocalyptic event that people don't really know what happened, but it's talked about. Consequently, the event is only ever referred to as Something that Happened. It's up to the reader to try and piece together what happened. In the world the STH created, people can only see certain colors. As I read, I tried to imagine what it would be like to see only shades of red or blue or yellow and failed. The characters in this book can only see certain colors and what they can see determines their jobs and their place in society. The people at the bottom of the totem pole are Greys, who don't see color at all. On top of all this, the society is ruled by a Byzantine collection of rules, purported to be the rules created by the original founder, that lock everyone into a rigidly polite Collective. Those who disobey or question or even try to innovate, are punished. This world is not as grim as the last few sentences might make it sound. This dystopic science fiction, but there's enough humor and absurdity to leaven it.

The book is narrated by Eddie Russett, a young man who is on the cusp of joining the adult world. Once he takes his color test, which determines how much color he can see, he'll take his place in society. His life takes a detour when the prefect, like a mayor and sheriff combined, sends him to the edges of the Collective's world to learn humility by conducting a chair census. Once he arrives in East Carmine, Eddie tries to fit in, but things start to go bad for him once he stumbles on to a mystery. First, he encounters a dead man with a false identity, then a conspiracy involving stolen medicine, and then Eddie starts to question why things are the way they are. A series of oddities and a string of bad luck leads Eddie to volunteer to go into the wilds of High Saffron where the last pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

The first two thirds of the book are interesting, but most of this part is full of explanations of the color code and the rules and incidents that illustrate how different this world is from ours. It's very interesting, and I was hooked, but the best part of this book is the ending, when everything comes to a head. I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that there really is a vast conspiracy. The heartbreaking part comes when Eddie takes his test and realizes that he's not allowed to marry the girl he loves. I realized it at the same time Eddie did, and I felt terrible for him. It's a testament to Fforde's ability as a writer that I felt such a connection to his goofy but honorable narrator.

I am really looking forward to the next books in this series. I'm so glad that Fforde is being published. There are only a handful of writers that I've encountered that have such a wildly creative streak. I am often astounded at what Fforde comes up with, as well as delighted.

1.18.2010

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris

Then We Came to the End
Then We Came to the End
I'm still in the "I ought to read something challenging" phase after all the genre novels I read over the winter holidays. The most recent challenge was Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. As I read it, I was constantly reminded that what is funny to a critic might be irritating or just plain boring to a reader like me. This is not to say that Then We Came to the End is a bad book. It's just not really my kind of book. I am definitely not a fan of literary fiction.

Then We Came to the End is an odd book, told in the first person plural (which I've never seen before), about the employees of a dying advertising agency in 2001. There's no straightforward plot. Hell, there isn't even a straightforward chronology. Rather, We (the collective narrator) will start thinking about an incident or an idea and start telling stories that focus on one or two or more of the employees. There is a certain amount of wacky humor to this book, and I did enjoy parts of it. But the longer I read, the more I got irritated at some of the character or at the stories because they were all blow out of proportion to their real-world importance (which was mostly nil if you weren't one of the characters). Now, I realize that this is kind of the point of this book, but that doesn't mean I have to enjoy it.

My interpretation of this book is that it was written to illustrate what cubicle life with the constant threat of layoffs can do to a person. There are an awful lot of warped people in this book. One, probably my favorite character, Tom Mota, decides to let everything he thinks come out in bizarre emails and pranks. He quotes a lot of Emerson and other notable quotables about how Man wasn't supposed to live like this. This book has quite a lot in common with the movie Office Space on this subject and I do like how Ferris lets this idea come through.

It's been an interesting experience reading this on top of watching Lost from the first season online. On the one hand, I have a group of people that are so removed from the day-to-day world that they've turned into neurotic poodles and cubicle mice (Max Brook's term for this kind of white collar worker, which I love). And then, in Lost, there's a group of people who've been knocked all the way down to the bottle of Maslow's hierarchy of needs*. Weirdly, the group on the desert island seems more well adjusted than Ferris' characters. It makes me wonder if a certain amount of life and death struggle is good for the psyche.

Ferris is also entirely accurate about the tiny irritations in our coworkers that, when experienced for forty hours in a workweek, can absolutely drive you nuts. It's the reason the term co-irkers was invented. But no one else understand when you trying to explain the irritation, because it always sounds petty when you try and explain why So-and-so is so aggravating. Of course, when you partly read for escape, reading this book is ironic. So yeah, work kind of followed me home this weekend. Then We Came to the End makes me very glad that I don't really have any co-irkers right now.

Even though this is an oddly constructed book, I think it works, that it accomplishes what Ferris set out to. Because it's narrated by a floating collective consciousness, it really captures the curios day to day life of an office. Ferris is spot on when he shows how rumors get started and grow and turn into what everyone knows and what everyone says. The only parts that rang false for me were a few sentences that didn't sound American to me. Even though Ferris is American, there were quite a few things that sounded more like Britain than American to me. But that's a minor quibble.

It's hard to recommend this book because why would anyone want to experience more of the nine to five world than they absolutely have to? About the only people I would recommend it to are English professors who are looking for something that captures the modern zeitgeist and need some more required reading for their students. Unlike most books I read, which are really meant to entertain, this book was meant to be studied.

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* I suppose it is possible to say that Ferris' characters haven't really reached the top of the scale or that the scale isn't a linear progression but really a sliding scale. Just bear in mind that I only took Psych 101 as a general education requirement and that a lot of my interpretation of the human psyche is based on having read a lot of books and participating in a lot of literary analysis.

1.12.2010

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, by John McWhorter

Last week, I came to terms with the fact that I am a language nerd. I'm not fluent in any other language than English, but I've picked up phrases in a whole bunch of different languages. I took as many linguistics classes as an undergraduate as I could without changing my major to anthropology. I love words. I'll admit it. Of all the languages I know parts of, I love English the most. You can say anything in it, in just about anyway you can think up. And there's the fact that English has more words than any other language. I really love that.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue
Our Magnificent
Bastard Tongue
One of my favorite classes as an undergrad was a history of the English language class. I learned the grand story of English from the Angles and the Jutes to the Anglo-Saxons to Chaucer to Shakespeare to the language we speak today. If you want to see how the language has changed, take a look at this:
Old English: Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, si þin nama gehalgod Middle English: Oure Fadir that art in hevenes, halewid be thi name Modern English: Our father who is in heaven, hallowed by your name
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter retells the story, with some differences that explain some of the odder features of our language. And, for the most part, I think his arguments make sense.

English is a Germanic language that doesn't look very much like its cousins. McWhorter spends a lot of time ennumerating the differences, with mostly have to do with word order, verbs, and vocabulary. McWhorter posits that the chief reason English is this way is because of Celtic languages like Cornish and Welsh, languages that were spoken by the people in the lands that the Angles, Jutes, and assorted Germanic peoples invaded. English does two things that the Germanic languages don't and the Celtic languages do. It's a little complicated, but McWhorter goes on at great length about the "meaningless do" that we add to questions and sentences like crazy and the "-ing" we use for the present tense all the time. Fortunately, McWhorter doesn't use a lot of linguistic and grammatical terminology, which is good because I didn't know what a case or infinitive was until I took German in high school. It makes it pretty easy to get a grip on what McWhorter is talking about.

McWhorter argues that these changes came about because of Celtic-speaking adults trying to learn the language of the conquerors imperfectly. They used the sentence forms that they already knew, but adopted the new words. This explains, according to the author, why there are so few words in English that are Celtic in origin. My theory is that it's because Celtic and Gaelic words are so damned hard to pronounce. I've seen words in Welsh that don't appear to have any vowels at all. At any rate, linguists have noted that most languages don't alter their basic grammar as radically as English has. We've shed case endings, grammatical gender, inflected nouns in about 1500 years. German, Danish, Icelandic, and most of the other Germanic languages still have all those things. McWhorter says that if you want to know what English would have looked like without the Celtic influence, take a look at Frisian, which is spoken on a few islands and the coast of the northern Netherlands. Another reason our grammar is much simpler than the other Germanic languages is because of the Vikings, for much the same reason: adult speakers learning a new language but not being fussed about all the different endings.

The fun of reading books about language is all the examples from other languages. My favorite is this one from page 90, which follows a discussion of the relative difficulties of learning other languages:
English really is easy(-ish) at first and hard later, while other languages like Russian are hard at first and then just as hard later! Show me one person who has said that learning Russian was no problem after they mastered the basics--after the basics, you just keep wondering how anybody could speak the language without blacking out.
The rest of the book is dotted with weird linguistic features and vocabulary from all over the world. One of the best parts of this book is when McWhorter explodes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states--in its strict interpretation--language affects how we see the world. If nothing else in this book, McWhorter shows us that if a language doesn't have a way to express a concept or an event, the speakers either steal a word from another language (like we did with Schadenfreude) or they figure one out. McWhorter goes farther and states:
The idea that the world's six thousand languages condition six thousand different pairs of cultural glasses simply does not hold water. The truly enlightened position is that, by and large, all humans...experience life via the mental equipment shared by all members of our species. (169)
The only problem I had with this book was that it was rather on the repetitive side. I know more than I ever want to about the "meaningless do" than I ever really wanted to. McWhorter keeps returning to the same points he made at the beginning of the book. It makes this book feel more like an overgrown essay than a book-length argument. He does make a very convincing case, and I think the Celtic and Viking explanation makes a lot more sense than English speakers just decided the drop a whole bunch of grammar over the course of a dozen generations. The reason we don't have any documentary evidence of this is because at the time, writing was in the hands of the elite, and they didn't waste valuable parchment, paper, ink, and effort on writing how the commoners spoke. To this day, we still don't write bills or legal documents the way that everyone talks.

All in all, a very interesting and enlightening read. I recommend it to all the other word nerds out there.

1.03.2010

Divine Misdemeanors, by Laurell K. Hamilton

Since it's the holidays and I read two rather depressing books at the beginning of December, I figured I'd take a break and read a bunch of genre novels. At any rate, back to the review posts.

Divine Misdeamenors
Divine Misdemeanors
I can't say that I've been looking forward to Divine Misdemeanors, by Laurell K. Hamilton, the latest Meredith Gentry novel. I'm not sure why I keep reading them. I think it's the soap opera factor. Both of her series are a bit like the TV series Heroes. All three are in a bit of a slump, but they have the potential to be great again. But there's enough plot still going on that I need to keep up, if only so that I don't have to read (or watch) these awful things in the middle. I've been complaining about certain quirks of Hamilton's writing for a while, but it seems like all of those irritations ended up in this book.

Divine Misdemeanors meets up with Merry and her gang shortly after the events of the last book (as per usual). This time, though, she is trying to help solve a series of murder on top of all the politics she has to deal with. The novel lurches back and forth between the mystery and the politics. As soon as I started to get into the one, we'd head back over to the other. And the paparazzi follow the main characters around in their best Princess Di fashion to add extra irritation.

So, what bothered me about this book? What didn't? First off, we have the increasingly repetitious descriptions of characters we've already me. Every time one of the main cast comes on stage, we're treated to a listing of what their hair, eyes, skin, and clothes are like. Sometimes the order varies, but the plot or the dialogue always slam to a screeching halt as when this happens. Every scene of dialogue turns into a confrontation--and not a witty banter type of argument. Just about every bit of conversation turns into a grandstanding contest of wills. There have been several books now in both of Hamilton's series where I've come to dread every time the characters open their mouths. Hamilton's added a new irritation to her dialogue. There were several times when I actually saw the characters using the active listening technique of restating what another character had said; there was a question, an answer, and a restatement of the answer. While it works in real life, when you see it in fiction, it just looks like filler.

Not only that, but I noticed repetitious text in the prose, too. I probably only noticed it because I read the book in one go, but there were at least three times while I read that I thought, "Haven't I seen this before?" It makes me wonder if Hamilton is working with an outside editor. I really hope that she's not pulling an Anne Rice who, before she went religious, famously did not work with an editor. I once tried to read The Witching Hour, but I got so bored by the extraneous exposition that I got rid of the book and haven't been back to a Rice novel since. There were many times I wanted to take a red pen to Divine Misdemeanors. As I read, I was reminded of some of the author advice I read during NaNoWriMo, about proofreading. It's not enough to make sure that everything's spelled right and that the words are in their proper places. It's also about making sure that the book works. Divine Misdemeanors has some serious structural problems.

I wonder if this filler problem is a sign that Hamilton is pushing herself too hard. She has two major series running right now and producing at least one book for each year, sometimes more. She's getting into Nora Roberts productivity levels. And I wonder if her creative batteries need to be recharged. I can remember, at the beginning of the series, books that were packed with action and interesting new things to learn about. But now, there's so much posturing by the characters, superfluous sex scenes, and politics, that the books are now more of a chore than a pleasure.

I still have hopes for Hamilton. The last Anita Blake novel, Skin Trade, was a fantastic return to form. I hope she can keep it up, and do the same for the Merry Gentry series. I know that I carp about how long it takes for an author to write the next book in a great series, but to be honest, I really just want a quality book not matter how long it takes, whether it be one year or four. I'll whine, sure, but Authors, take your time. I can wait.