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December 29, 2009

Reading Update

Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic quartet:

Sandry's Book

Tris' Book

Daja's Book

Briar's Book

This is the one Tamora Pierce series I could never really get into, probably because it's staunchly middle grade instead of YA. The characters start out around 10 years old and don't really get older; the books are in chronological order, but take place over the course of only one year. I read it this time because my cousins kids are finally reaching tweenage, and I thought this might be a good Christmas gift. It's fun, and right in the Pierce vein, if younger than her other, more YA books, in which kids start out at 11 or so and grow up in the course of the books.

Tamora Pierce's The Circle Opens quartet

Magic Steps

Street Magic

Cold Fire

Shatterglass

So then I had to go on and read this one. These books again take place all in the same year, and don't connect to each other. In this one, each of the four kids is separated from the others and they have simultaneous adventures abroad. They're all fourteen here, so it's more along the YA continuum. I liked this one much better than the Circle of Magic series, possibly because it's less domestic, but also because it has more moral ambiguity in it -- that is, whatever moral ambiguity a Tamora Pierce series can have.

Tamora Pierce The Will of the Empress

Apparently a stand alone, featuring the four characters from the previous two series at age 18. It's fun, as all Pierce's books are, but not strong. Part of the problem is an analogy for rape that forms one of the major plot points and points of moral ambiguity in the book. This is the practice of kidnapping women and holding them until they sign a marriage contract: forced marriage. It's presented as horrible when we first encounter it in a runaway abused wife. But thereafter, it's presented as an opportunity for the character Sandry -- a young noble with enormous wealth, and therefore a very attractive potential bride -- to kick ass. It's a fun plot point for a romantic-ish novel. The moment you start to enjoy a rape scene, even if it's because the proposed victim is kicking ass, you've lost your moral footing.

Paul Beatty Slumberland

An African American DJ, who has created the perfect beat, goes off to Berlin to find a free jazz genius who disappeared into Eastern Europe during the cold war. DJ Darky ends up staying in Berlin through the fall of the wall and much of the nineties (which is when I was there.) Loaned to me by Sunyoung, who thought that the Slumberland bar depicted in the book was fictional. It's not. In fact, most of the hard stuff in this book is nonfiction: the bars and clubs, the Afrodeutsch Bundestreffen, the institutions in general; they all exist/ed. It's just that the book is a satire, so everything is portrayed with an edge of surreality, as so many satires seem to find necessary.

This surreal edge -- which I've found in everything I've read by T. C. Boyle and is why I loathe his writing -- prevents the narrative from putting emotional emphasis into anything. It prevents the characters from growing or changing ... or even from feeling real. It gives a sense of unreality even to factual things, like the Slumberland bar, which has a beach theme and a floor covered in about a foot of white sand. Yes, really; I've been there. In real life it's a delightful piece of whimsy, but in the book, it's a throwaway bit of melting clock, not to be believed anymore than the love interest's much-detailed farting sounds when she's asleep.  I hate this kind of satire; it's smug and superior and just makes fun of everything with an evenness that denies both passion and depression.

And all of the characterization in this book tends to come through characterizing statements rather than through scene, description, and dialogue, or even outright exposition. By characterizing statements, I mean past habitual action: "She would go to the store every day, playing Ozzie Osbourne on the car stereo. I hated it and would always tell her so, and she'd ignore me." This is not characterization. This kind of description of past habitual action implies that a character simply stayed the same throughout. The only reason to use it is to round up a character's base personality so that you can then show how the character changes throughout the action of the book. Because a character -- and a person -- responds differently to similar situations over time. Using past habitual action in place of a hard study of character and its changes is a cop-out.

However, the book is so well-written that I have to forgive it somewhat. Although the language is unrelenting and that's ultimately boring, Beatty is so good at it, and it's so fresh and funny in itself, that I kept coming back to it and enjoying it all over again. No, I'm not going to try to describe it or define it. It's Paul Beatty language from the first person pov of a character named DJ Darky. Figure it out yourself.

Ultimately, I think no novel, whether satirical or dramatic, is served by an unvarying, unswerving tone or language. It's variation that gives texture, and increase or decrease in depth and velocity that creates tension and meaning -- in both life and literature. I was disappointed in this book, but can't quite say that it isn't worth a read.

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