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The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

Lady in the Lake is another Philip Marlowe mystery written by Chandler. This time, the private detective is retained by a rich executive whose wife has disappeared. Marlowe goes to investigate, finds the body of another man in a lake, and ends up involved in a mess much more complicated than just a missing woman.

The novel is written with Chandler’s typical sparse prose, written from Marlowe’s perspective. Marlowe is observant and quiet, and sees everything. He is constantly in danger, whether it is from crooked cops, tough guys, or dangerous women. It’s a little hard to talk about Chandler without lapsing into what sounds like a parody of 1940’s detective stories.

The only complaint I can make about The Lady in the Lake is that it ends with a long speech summing up the solution to the mystery. We are given the pieces, and then Marlowe sets it up so all the key parties are present, and then he gives a speech that details what happened and when, and it’s different from what the solution seemed to be 20 pages before. However, a novel with pacing, atmosphere, and characters this good is more than worthwhile even with that flaw.

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma is a light, funny look at high-class society in England. Emma Wodehouse is a young woman of significant means and breeding, who feels that she knows what is best for everyone. She goes about attempting to set up various relationships between friends and acquaintances, taking a young woman named Harriet under her wing and trying to find her a suitable partner.

Things go awry, and one after the other of Emma’s attempted matches fail to work out. She herself, who did not think she would want to ever be married, ends up marrying the only man who dared to criticize her.

Emma is easy, enjoyable reading, but the dirty secret is that Emma, the character, while she is supposed to be satirical, is just thoroughly unlikeable to most modern readers. She is obsessed with class, finds offense in small things, and criticizes others behind their backs – mostly those who, while annoying, are well-intentioned and kind.

Also, Clueless is better.

He She and It by Marge Piercy

At what point robot/cyborg life forms become indistinguishable from humans and deserve the same protections and rights is a question that has been explored in pop culture a few times; the most well-known explorations are Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner and the tv seriesBattlestar Galactica”. The fact that technology is nowhere near the point where robots can begin to be anything like humans does not matter; I would argue that these works, while distanced in sci-fi surroundings that make the specifics unrelatable, are about what makes human beings human.

He, She and It is another entry on this topic, which contrasts two stories. The first is a sci-fi story about Shira, a young divorced woman whose son has been taken away by one of the large multi-national enterprise that run society. She returns to her hometown, a lower-tech, independent enclave, and falls in love with Yod, a very human-like robot, who is intensely devoted to her.  The second story, as told by Shira’s grandmother, is that of Joseph, a Jewish Golem in the 1600’s.

Both Yod and Joseph were created to protect groups who are marginalized and under threat; in both cases, they are much more human than anticipated, forming their own desires and goals.

While part of the story is what makes these not-quite-human life forms human, it is also about the ways that technology created to have its own intelligence cannot be fully controlled.  However, it is not just an exercise in philosophical questions; it is an involving story, even if the technological sci-fi stuff is never very interesting, outside of Yod’s programming. It is a story of Shira changing her own beliefs (Yod is not a person) and falling in love with someone; a story of a mother ferociously fighting for her son; and a story of independent, poorer states fighting multi-nationals for their own independence. It may go on a little too long, but it wraps up in an almost perfect way.

Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present is a compelling and horrifying journey through the racial disparities in medical treatment from the days of slavery to now.

Of course, the Tuskegee experiments, where black men with tuberculosis were told they were receiving treatment, but were actually enrolled in a study to chart the course of TB, are well-known, but the history goes back farther, and also extends farther into the present. The invention of the speculum was part of a doctor’s experimentation on unanesthetized female slaves, performing vaginal surgery while they writhed in pain. Once these procedures were perfected, he performed them on white women who had been given ether.

In the modern day, black americans are more likely to be enrolled in studies where they have given less than informed consent, including studies where children are enrolled, and the ability of foster parents to unenroll them if they feel they are not getting better is taken away by the state; and coercive tactics used to get prisoners to enroll in medical studies.

Washington meticulously and unflinchingly documents these abuses, giving countless case studies and examples, until the evidence is overwhelming that our medical system is built on racism and apartheid.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Since we all know that Jurassic Park is one of the best movies ever, sometimes it’s good to take a step back and re-appraise the source material. I will try to stick to the book, not just make a laundry list of comparisons between the two.

Jurassic Park is about – and really, shame on you if you don’t know this, go watch the movie right now – an entrepreneur, John Hammond, who finds a way to clone dinosaur DNA, which involves some really ridiculous sounding science about bugs that just sucked on dinos being trapped in amber, and their blood being harvested to clone dinosaurs. Hammond runs away with this idea, growing docile herbivores but also T-rexes and raptors without really considering the ways it could spin out of control; he’s just so excited to bring dinosaurs back to life.

Most of the story takes place on the island, as a mathematician (Ian Malcolm), a paleontologist (Alan Grant), a paleobotanist (Elli Satler), and Hammond’s grandchildren get a chance to evaluate the island before it opens. Naturally, chaos ensues, lots of secondary characters get chomped, slashed, and blinded with poisonous goo, and Hammond watches his dream die before his eyes – oh, and the dinosaurs are breeding and totally not contained on the island.

The bare bones of the story is really strong – you say ‘dinosaurs’, and I’m already running to see it – and the book has a high number of action scenes (so much so that the 2nd and 3rd movies would borrow setpieces from the book that didn’t make it in), most of which are fairly successful. However, there are a lot of deus ex machina escapes. First, Grant and the kids make it by a sleeping T-rex in a tense scene involving getting a raft onto a river, only to have it wake up at the last second, chase them, be about to chow down, and then another dinosaur comes by to save our heroes. Then, one of the kids is almost eaten by the T-rex before he succumbs to a tranquilizer shot by the gameskeeper (who thought he had missed).  Malcolm is chomped on by a T-rex, but she is then distracted so he can live on to fill the pages with Chaos theory.

Oh, the chaos theory. This pops up in the movie, but just enough to make a little sense and give Malcolm something fairly intelligent sounding to say before we see more dinosaurs. But in the back, it goes on for pages, then comes back in the next section for a few pages, and while it’s not so much that it ends up taking away from the overall plot, it is enough that 1. the utter pop psychology bullshit of it all becomes apparent, and 2. it appears that Crichton is actually trying to make this the point of his novel, rather than dinosaurs chasing people and being awesome. I’ll take my ridiculous premises without the moralizing crap, please.

Still, a solid novel, and we are all forever indebted to it for the movie that it spawned.

Fables vol. 7-8 by Bill Willingham et al.

I have written about the Fables series before (I started it earlier in the Cannonball), and while I think it continues with the same strengths as a series – interesting characters that take off from the fable/fairytale characters in sometimes surprising ways, good balance of the larger story with that of relationships between the fables – there is something that happens in volume 7, Arabian Days (and Nights).

That something is that it is pretty damn racist. It brings in the fables from the middle east, including a genie, and while bringing in these characters isn’t racist, they are basically deployed as complete caricatures of every stereotype you can think of – they oppress women, own slaves, and are physically presented in the most simplistic, unimaginative stereotypical way you could possibly think of.

Luckily, Wolves does a lot better, as Mowgli searches for Bigby, finds him for a secret mission or something, and then resolves his relationship with Snow in a wholly satisfying way. Hopefully the series can revisit the non-Western characters in a way that is not broad and offensive.

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce is a straightforward, somewhat pulpy novel about a young divorced woman in the 30’s who manages to start a thriving restaurant business during a depression – but the real story is about her relationship to her eldest daughter, Veda (described on the book jacket as ‘monstrous’), a snobby asshole who Mildred sees as refined, containing some indefinable quality that Mildred believes will lead Veda to success – and Mildred is determined to give her the things that she wants.

Cain tells the story in simple language, always explaining Mildred’s inner thoughts clearly and precisely. He spells things out explicitly, but it never seems like a flaw; it gets the story moving forward and paints a clear picture of Mildred as a character. She is determined, smart, and unsentimental; she could be an absolute success in her chosen business were it not for Veda, and for her lover Monty Beragon.

The interesting thing about the novel is that Mildred’s drive to impress Veda, her overwhelming desire not to embarrass her awful daughter by making the money that buys her food as a waitress, is what makes her actually try to do something more; but it also leads to some very poor decisions, made with Monty in mind, but still with Veda as the ultimate goal. Seriously, this mother-daughter relationship is pretty fucked up, and even when Mildred kicks her out, she can’t help but go looking for her. It takes Mildred from a tough-as-nails mother to a tragic figure, and that is what makes the novel truly memorable.

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