Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Good and the Bad (No Ugly)

For the past week, I've been subjecting myself to what is possibly the worst book I've ever read.

Back in fall, when I visited the Minneapolis Book Fair to hear Steven Pinker speak, I stopped off at the table of local young-adult publisher Flux. I hadn't heard of them, but I've since realized they're an imprint of paranormal publisher Llewellyn International.

The woman at the table pointed out a science fiction title called Skyship Academy: The Pearl Wars. It had a blurb on the front by someone described as a New York Times bestselling author and a fairly attractive cover, so I, being a reader of both YA and science fiction who was feeling expansive toward local efforts, bought a copy.

Here are a few thoughts that come to mind, now that I've forced myself to make it all the way through.
  • The writer, Nick James, is incompetent (see John Scalzi's recent explanation of what it takes to be a competent writer, as well as the difference between being competent and good). James's premise is absurd, even within the latitude allowed in science fiction, and the plot execution becomes incoherent. 
  • The forced switching between present tense/first person for one character and past tense/third person for another could have made sense, but didn't. It just calls attention to itself and the writer, saying "Look at me!"
  • The editing is abysmal. Examples of clichés and groaners kept my pencil busy. Page two finds one male character describing another as having a "lean, muscular body" -- riiiiiight. Chapter three opens by using the verb "strode" with a straight face and this bit of odd construction: "Slung over his shoulder rested the brown pouch..." And how about this painful image: "Cassius's eyes parted to see..." Adverbs rule, as in this sentence: "He approached the driver-side window carefully but quickly." Characters speak all the lines we've read a hundred times, such as "Don't move or it will be the last thing you do" and "Fine. We'll do it your way."
  • I know it's a fine point, but even the typesetting of the book is subpar. There are dozens of examples where the number of lines per page is different on the left and right pages, and it's always the right page that runs short because the jump to the next page would otherwise leave just a one-line "orphan." (That really is what typesetters call it.) So to solve the problem, they just pushed an extra line of that paragraph over, leaving the previous page short. I've never seen this done so much or so obviously before.
I'm amazed at the positive quotes that turned up when I Googled this book. It's “a fast-paced adventure that delivers solid action sequences throughout,” according to Publishers Weekly. Booklist said: “This first novel is a refreshing departure from the strict dystopian trend. There are plenty of plot surprises and action sequences to keep the pages turning, and the treatment of terrorist attacks and environmental concerns will prompt readers to make connections with their own lives.” Not sure if they were reading the same book I was. Those quotes make me doubt any endorsements from those two publications.

Now for the good.

Photo of Bill Moyers and scrawled Moyers & Company logo
Bill Moyers is back on PBS. I was putting off watching last week's episode of Moyers & Company, the way many of us tend to do when we think something is going to be good for us. But I reminded myself how much I loved his shows back in the mid-2000s (that's where I discovered Elizabeth Warren) and so I turned it on.

There went the evening. I watched that show (featuring interviews with David Stockman and Gretchen Morgenson), then went to my computer and watched the previous week's show.

Stockman is almost glowing with rage. We all know him as director of Reagan's Office of Management and Budget, and the guy who made supply-side economics a household word in the 1980s. I remember I didn't care for him at the time. Since then, he's been working on (you guessed it) Wall Street as an investment banker, and now has a book out called Crony Capitalism. He is very clear that the banks should have been left to fail, and traced the rise of bailouts starting in the early 1990s.

His basic message: The system made no meaningful changes after the 2008 financial meltdown and it will happen again. Democracy is threatened.

His solutions were right out of the Occupy Wall Street wish lists: Break up the big banks, no more bailouts, reinstate Glass-Steagall, and pass a Constitutional Amendment banning corporate personhood. Even more overtly, he called for a $100 limit on all campaign contributions, whether to candidates or PACs of any kind.

(I did wonder what Stockman was doing about any of this while he was working on Wall Street, and how much money he made personally while there. Maybe it's in the book.)

Moyers then interviewed Morgenson, a business reporter from the New York Times who has a book out called Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon. She recalled the terror she felt in 2008 while covering the meltdown and how she thought, "Surely we will fix this so it doesn't happen again." But, like Stockman, she says we haven't and reinforced his prediction that it's only a matter of time.

The previous episode of Moyers & Company focused on an interview with Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson and their book Winner-Take-All Politics. They're cogent and devastating in their critiques of income inequality and what's wrong in Washington. A short piece on Occupy Wall Street and Bill Moyers' thoughts on the movement rounded out the hour.

The third episode airs tonight locally, but if you've already missed it or you're just impatient, the complete episode is on the Bill Moyers website. It includes an interview with the former head of Citigroup, talking about actions he took to get rid of Glass-Steagall, and former North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan who predicted what would happen if Glass-Steagall was repealed.

I'll be watching.

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