Aug 26, 2016

The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson

It's pretty fascinating to read Stephenson as he writes now and as he wrote twenty years ago. This is the second early book of his that I've read, and having read SEVENEVES, his latest, just recently, the evolution of his writing is obvious. While The Diamond Age and Snow Crash center around futurism and technology, Stephenson clearly delved much deeper into hard sci fi as time went on. His later novels contain a hefty dose of detailed mathematical and scientific descriptions, while his earlier work has little of that. Science fiction fans who aren't as interested in hard science will prefer this novel and other early works.

The conceit of this novel, as evidenced by the title, is that after internecine warfare and dwindling resources, human society reorganized into self-determined tribes, or phyles, all sustained by the Feed - nanotechnology-driven matter compilers - with three major tribes dominating: one of these is the Neo-Victorians, adopting Victorian morality and ethics, as well as social structures, clothing, beauty ideals, etc. Chapters begin with veiled descriptions of what we're about to read, and the narration adopts a wry, British-like humor.

As for the plot, I'll paint only very broad strokes, as Stephenson's books are complex and evolving. John Hackworth, a Victorian, is tasked by a wealthy, powerful man with creating an interactive book to teach said man's granddaughter to think for herself. Hackworth does his duty, but creates a copy for his own daughter, which then falls into the hands of Nell, a poor, abused little girl without a tribe. With three Primers instead of one, the future suddenly becomes much less assured.

Like all Stephenson's books, I loved it. I didn't get sucked into it like with some of his others, but his masterfully built plot, wonderful characters, and always wry narration are still a true delight.

Aug 22, 2016

The Arab of the Future 2, by Riad Sattouf

The New York Times calls this graphic memoir "a disquieting yet essential read," and I must agree. Sattouf grew up in Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s; his father was Syrian and his mother French. Blond and sensitive, little Riad has trouble adjusting to life in a small Syrian village after his father moved the family there, though not nearly as much trouble as his mother, faced with intermittent electricity, cooking over a camp stove, and no Arabic language skills. Riad loves his family and his two closest friends from school, but school itself is a source of confusion and fear. The teacher is prone to hitting the students' knuckles with a ruler, and the lessons are learned by rote without any comprehension encouraged. Riad's father loves Syria and seeks to further his social standing by hobnobbing with generals and other elites, but it's clear that the assistant professor is out of place, and the children of these society men are often cruel to Riad.

When a shocking event occurs, the Western reader, persistently a bit uncomfortable with this strange Syrian life, is jerked out of place and made to look straight at the cultural gap between them and us. Riad's summer vacations in France put this prominently on display: in France, he goes to vast shopping malls and grocery stores and his grandparents are not concerned with what he will be, while in Syria there is only Syrian food and a father who insists his son will be a doctor. We feel for Riad, with his blond curls, caught between two worlds, and wonder what will become of him in a land so different from our own. Part 3 is eagerly awaited.

Aug 5, 2016

Lesser Beasts, by Mark Essig

Ah, the pig...reviled, beloved, abstained from, engorged on...the pig is many things to many people, a complicated animal with a complex history. Essig's well-researched history of hogs delves into the biology and evolution of swine, their domestication and the development of how humans live with and raise them, and of course their varied cultural associations. Moving essentially chronologically, Essig explains how pigs most likely domesticated themselves several different times in several different places, and how the consumption of their meat has fluctuated wildly, though usually for the same reasons. Feeding on anything in their path, including human corpses and excrement, pigs developed a reputation for being filthy, unclean animals, suitable only for poor people who had no other meat available (the notable exception to this rule being Rome, whose ruling class had a serious love affair with pork). This association fed on itself (pun intended), to the point where some societies outlawed eating pork as a means of social control over the lower classes. We find the vestiges of this in the kosher and halal laws of Judaism and Islam, respectively. Even taking religion out of the picture, the association remains very strong, and wasn't helped by the unveiling of horrific meat processing conditions in the early 1900s, nor by the revelations of modern agro-business's indoor meat-raising plants.

For the most part, this is a relatively unbiased look at the animals some love excessively and some despise passionately. Essig's eventual conclusion is the simple exhortation to make an effort to know where your pork is coming from and to support farmers who choose to forgo huge industrial operations in favor of treating their pigs well, in comfortable, natural environments, the side benefit being that the well-treated pig almost always makes better tasting pork. The book is easy to read and engaging, though it does occasionally get bogged down in numbers. I certainly feel more educated about the biology and history of the pig, though I wish at times I hadn't been eating as I read it. Despite the occasional gross out moment, this is a noble work on a "lesser beast."