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Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Monday, May 10, 2010

Books I've recommended while holding my nose

[Update 3/1/12: favorite blogger Jabberwock has just published a review written in the same spirit as what I'm talking about here and I must share it. I suffered with him - and appreciate the job he did here: http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2012/03/on-bollywoods-top-20-collection-of.html ]

Occasionally I reviewed books for the SLJ column that I didn't much like, but for one reason or another the book needed to be covered and I was asked (or I volunteered) to do it. The short format didn't allow much room for depth, detail, or documentation, but I got a lick in wherever I could. Here are some of those reviews (somewhat expanded and sometimes annotated), just for fun. They might be the only ones I had doubts like this about, and I just remember them better, like problem children. Don't get me wrong - these books were worth recommending on various merits, as I saw it; they just weren't to my taste. But to be a fair reviewer or critic, you can't simply indulge your own preferences.

The Ethics of Star Trek by Judy Barad and Ed Robertson (2001)

For 35 years, Star Trek has been a popular vehicle for exploring social issues. Its humanistic values and optimistic view of the future have inspired many young people in their career choices, and the ethical dilemmas that drive much of its drama have provoked debate among generations of fans.

Other authors have explored the physics, metaphysics, and "meaning" of the series; here, a philosophy professor, with a co-writer, uses the ethical content of its story lines to present a survey of Western philosophy. This method of conveying information might be rather convoluted, but anyone reasonably familiar with the series should be able to follow the authors' arguments.

It is a little harder to accept the authors' assertion of what they term a "unified theory" of Star Trek philosophy - a format in which each of the four Star Trek series embodies the ethical values of a particular philosophical system (Aristotelian virtue, Kant's duty theory, existentialism, and Platonic virtue).

Spock fans might be disappointed by the authors' sketchy treatment (and sometimes faulty use) of logic, while others could be irritated by the occasional intrusion of the authors' personal beliefs, their sometimes condescending tone, uneven literary style, rambling digressions, or failure to cite sources.

Still, autonomous young people voyaging boldly into an ever-changing future, and seeking an ethical system to steer by, could do far worse than to follow the Star Trek model as Barad and Robertson interpret it. And even if they aren't looking for a course in philosophy, serious aficionados of the series will find plenty of material here to sink their humanoid teeth into.

[I'm a longtime Star Trek fan - added the illos here; they're not from the book. Isn't Guinan a wonderful character? Who needs a philosophy course when she keeps popping up, anyway? BTW, when I referred to the authors' personal beliefs in the review, I was talking about a blatant right-wing "Christian" agenda.]

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The success of the movie Precious reminded me of this novel I reviewed in 1999. The book was getting a lot of coverage and attention in the high school age group. It was well done, and would appeal to teens, but personally, it really appalled me at the same time. And so it was one of those books that I recommended while at leastly partly holding my nose. A difficult review to write! But the book did end up on Notable Book lists, so what are you gonna do... Anyway, I haven't seen Precious (nor do I want to) but if you did, and liked it, you might be interested in this book...

Imani All Mine by Connie Porter (1999) 

Imani is a baby whose name means "faith." Her mother, Tasha, is a 15-year-old African-American high school honors student. Tasha's mother is emotionally distant and the teen resolutely turns away from the attempts of other well-meaning adults to help her. Gradually, it emerges that Imani was conceived as the result of a rape, but Tasha cannot see anything of the hated father in the baby.

Daily occurrences in Tasha's life include gunfire, encounters with crack dealers, cleaning up after her mother's alcoholic friend, and her first willing sexual encounters (with a boy as confused as she is). Porter tells this story entirely in dialect, and although the lack of quotation marks sometimes creates confusion, for the most part the narrative draws readers into this teenager's life.

The author is particularly successful at portraying the adults in Tasha's life: teachers, relatives, and neighbors are believably and often amusingly complex even while Tasha's view of them remains that of a child.

(SPOILER ALERTS:) In an emotionally wrenching ending, Imani is killed, the victim of gang violence, whereupon Tasha finds faith of a different sort through her community, in a church. But in a final twist that makes sense allegorically even while it is perhaps the most inexplicable development of all, Tasha chooses to become pregnant again. [WTF?]

Whether seen as a tale of hopelessness or "faith," this tale is sure to find a passionate readership among many teens who will hear a kindred spirit in Tasha's vivid, unforgettable voice.

[sigh]

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Almost forgot about this next one, and I take full responsibility for picking it to review and deciding to recommend it. It may have been a mistake - or maybe not. I think at the time I thought it was an important series and had a wide readership... and the book did have content to recommend it (I remember being impressed by the description of an environmentally destroyed Earth, the unambiguous portrayal of unbridled capitalistic greed, and the story arc about the unionization of the asteroid prospectors). Bova's Grand Tour series is truly something to be reckoned with, in its totality, even if it isn't perfect. I'm just now getting caught up on some of the more recent volumes (I liked Titan rather a lot) - but as you can see from this, there are things I don't like about Bova as well and this one had some over the top and, I thought, quite unnecessary brutality that made it iffy as a recommendation. Anyway, here's this one...

The Rock Rats (Book 2, The Asteroid Wars) by Ben Bova (2002)

Book Two in a series that chronicles the struggle for control over the rich resources of the Asteroid Belt. In this not-too-distant future, the quality of life on Earth has taken a serious turn for the worse, but new frontiers are opening up on the Moon and beyond.

Unfortunately, only the richest and most powerful individuals have been reaping the benefits so far, but perhaps those who take the most risks will win the upper hand in the Asteroid Belt - if these fierce individualists can ever agree on anything. Hard-bitten prospectors brave the dangers of space to find that lucky strike, the mineral-rich "rock" that can make them wealthy, returning for supplies and to hang out at the saloon on Ceres, the largest asteroid in the Belt. The last thing they're interested in is politics.

Meanwhile, a ruthless industrialist schemes from his base on the Moon, stopping at nothing - including the murder of several sympathetic characters [a major no-no IMO] - to own it all. Prospector Lars Fuchs and his wife Amanda fight to survive, encouraging the denizens of Ceres to form some sort of society to protect their common interests.

Readers who enjoy plenty of action, do not require much in the way of characterization, and have a high tolerance for a rather vicious sort of violence should enjoy this book. It's not Bova's best, but his many fans should be entertained and intrigued.

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