Friday, March 29, 2013

THE SUBTLE KNIFE


Review of THE SUBTLE KNIFE by PHILIP PULLMAN
(second in HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy)

The second book in Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy might be a little disorientating at first. New protagonist. Wait. New world? Both. After the climatic ending of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, we don't return to Lyra and her magical, daemon-filled existence, but to a boy named Will, who appears to live in a world closer to our own. Once the reader adjusts to this sudden shift, the implications rain down. As THE GOLDEN COMPASS revealed, there are multiple worlds, but THE SUBTLE KNIFE's opening establishes that this is no longer the story about one of those worlds; it's a story about the universe that contains all of them. 

THE SUBTLE KNIFE does put me in mind of middle book syndrome, but I hesitate to say that, because Pullman's slower-paced, simpler-plotted book still far exceeds most books you could pluck from the shelves at random. Measured alone, THE SUBTLE KNIFE is an intricate, adventure-packed story. It's only competing against THE GOLDEN COMPASS, Pullman against Pullman, that THE SUBTLE KNIFE feels slower. The reason I mention middle book syndrome at all is that occasionally the story felt fixated more on driving towards book number three than living in its own plot threads. 

In terms of other differences, Lyra loses some of her spunk when she slips into a different world. It's disappointing and a little sad, but also arguably inevitable. She wore arrogance as a shield and being tossed into a new world forces her to acknowledge how much she doesn't know. I also confess that I felt this book less than the first. In both books there's an abundance of death. THE GOLDEN COMPASS often had me gasping aloud at such losses (or repressing a dramatic gasp if I'm in public), but with THE SUBTLE KNIFE I didn't feel much difference between setting description and a death scene. I struggle to pinpoint why, but the tone did strike me as more detached and perhaps that's part of it. I mean this more as an observation than a criticism. Sometimes apathy towards death reinforces the concept of people as pawns in causes greater than any individual. Or draws attention to the unsettling power of war and violence to desensitize and numb. Regardless, HIS DARK MATERIALS is fertile ground for debate and discussion.

Monday, March 25, 2013

THE BLACK SHEEP


Review of THE BLACK SHEEP by YVONNE COLLINS and SANDY RIDEOUT

LOVE INC still holds the record for my favorite Collins/Rideout book, but I've enjoyed everything else I've read by them. THE BLACK SHEEP is a lighthearted, fun story with plenty of genuinely heart-tugging moments, especially in regards to not fitting in and feeling completely alone.

Kendra has problems with her parents. Who doesn't, right? Except Kendra's parents actually have a book of rules, a tome really. They live by order, so Kendra must as well. They're both workaholic bankers, to boot, and hardly ever have or make time for their daughter. Which Kendra accepted when she had her nanny, Rosa, someone who actually cared about her happiness as much as her well-being. Then Kendra breaks one of her parents' precious rules and when they discover Rosa allowed it, they fire her. Enraged, Kendra writes away to a forthcoming reality television show, the Black Sheep, in which two teenagers unhappy with their families will switch and experience a different kind of lifestyle. Certainly a timely hook with reality television's presence and popularity at the moment. Anyway, that's where the book starts, with Kendra's shocked realization that the show actually did choose her. She wrote the application letter in anger and never really believed anything would come of it, so when a camera crew shows up on her doorstep, she tries backing out, to no avail. You definitely have to put your skepticism on pause regarding the legality of some of the show's inner workings and manipulations of an underage girl, but once you do it's a fun ride.

As I mentioned, this is a light, fluffy read with a chick lit taste. Kendra's a fairly shallow protagonist, though still likable and certainly believable. Her superficiality doesn't magically erase by the end of the book, but she gains significant insight from her experiences and grows enough to satisfy. She often frustrated me, but I don't mean that as a negative commentary on how much I enjoyed the book. I mentioned themes about not fitting in, and that can be broken down further into two separate topics: not fitting in anywhere and not fitting in within your own family. Kendra suffers both. The family end, though, delivers the most sincere, impacting dilemmas. Kendra loves her parents, but that doesn't make her relationship with them perfect; in fact, loving them might only make it hurt more when their parenting proves flawed or lacking. Her tastes differ from theirs and she doesn't know if she wants the future they've mapped out for her. However, characterization emerges yet again as one of Collins and Rideout's greatest strengths. Even if she doesn't see it, Kendra's personality reflects how she's been raised and proves she's not so different from her parents as she might imagine.

Friday, March 22, 2013

TWILIGHT'S DAWN


Review of TWILIGHT'S DAWN by ANNE BISHOP
(ninth in THE BLACK JEWELS series)

I enjoyed this collection of four stories, but it's the only BLACK JEWELS installment that didn't win my drooling adoration. Perhaps this volume had a rushed deadline, but regardless of the reason the stories stray from what I loved about the series and actually caused quite an outrage among many of Bishop's fans, particularly regarding the last story, "The High Lord's Daughter." I did like TWILIGHT'S DAWN, but many loyal fans of the series might be happier avoiding this collection or at least the fourth story, "The High Lord's Daughter." Reader discretion!

The first story, "Winsol," consists of light, fluffy fun. It held my attention throughout, but left me bemused when I reached the end. There's not much of a "story" here; it's simply a peak at the SaDiablo family celebrating a holiday and, thus, would only appeal to those already in love with these characters. However, the plot thread about Jaenelle and Saetan adds more depth and leaves a warm feeling about father/daughter love.

The second story, "The Prince of Ebon Rhi," showcases standard BLACK JEWELS stuff and, of the four stories here, will most likely still appeal to series followers. Falonar, Surreal's ex-lover, plots a rebellion against Lucivar - "the halfbreed bastard." Typical BLACK JEWELS "don't cross the main characters; it never ends well for those who do" formula that still satisfies. Only Falonar threw me a little. His character has evolved, for the worse, quite a bit over time. In QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS, it's established that he bears a grudge against Lucivar and he's certainly not without some serious flaws. However, for all appearances, he puts pettiness aside in favor of what really matters and his relationship with Surreal seems genuine. Of course, our glimpses of him in that book are so minor that they leave plenty of wiggle room for interpretation. Then in TANGLED WEBS, we learn it didn't work out between Falonar and Surreal. Through Surreal's musings, it's revealed that Falonar resented being with a former whore and struggled even more being involved with a woman stronger than himself. While not endearing failures, one can still interpret Falonar as a nice person with fairly common prejudices. However, in "The Prince of Ebon Rhi" any trace of redeeming virtue disappears. In Falonar's perspective, we learn that he never cared about Surreal; he only slept with her because he figured a former whore would make a good ride and only stayed with her when he realized how many powerful and dangerous men might come after him if he hurt her. His prejudices shine stronger here, too: women should serve men, his race is superior to all others, wealthier people earn the right to control poorer people, etc. He's abusive even to those he claims he loves and his pride without honor attitude proves dangerous. Lucivar still trains everyone in fighting, more for fitness in these peaceful days than because they're preparing for battle, but in this story Falonar repeatedly turns innocent sparring matches into potentially fatal duels. The Falonar in this story is completely plausible, since we didn't see that much of him in QUEEN OF THE DARKNESS and only heard Surrel's view of him in TANGLED WEBS, but this side of him still might throw readers who painted a more forgiving and empathetic image of Falonar in their own minds.

The third story, "Family," dives in headfirst with the violent death of a beloved secondary character. The story can be dissected into a sentimental plot thread (what happens after this character dies - as we know by now, dead doesn't mean entirely gone in this universe) and a thriller/horror plot thread (the actual murder and the follow-up hunting down the culprit). The sentimental element shines, both heartwarming and tragic at once, but at the expense of the thriller plot thread, which tappers off after the death scene with a rushed resolution and an underdeveloped villain.

The last story, "The High Lord's Daughter" remains the most divisive by far and, whether you love or hate it, it's easy to understand why it enraged some readers. I wasn't quite sure how to approach this one without too many spoilers, so I'm breaking my review of this story into three paragraphs. This first paragraph will be generalized, spoiler-free. The next has minor spoilers - events and twists that take place early on in the story. The last paragraph won't be spoiler-censored at all, allowing me to speak freely. So, my spoiler-free analysis: many readers protested plot twists on principle. (Ex: "I can't believe that character did that!") I actually don't have a problem with any of the plot points Bishop employed. However, I do think these elements could have been better handled. A story of this magnitude (spanning decades and packed with shocking, emotional twists) probably needed to be a full-length novel in order to allow for any real depth and to give the readers a chance at understanding and following the characters' emotions and motivations.

Now, some minor spoilers. "The High Lord's Daughter" takes place after Jaenelle's death. That alone set off many fans who simply didn't want to imagine a Jaenelle-less world. She lived a full life and died of old age, though, so I have no complaints. The real tragedy here is something Bishop has only hinted at before: Jaenelle came from a short-lived race and only lived to ninety years, while Daemon's from a long-lived race and will live thousands. This story follows his efforts to move on. (Failing efforts, which depressed me far more than Jaenelle's death.) Brace yourself for some more spoilers (still early in the story, though). After about twenty years, Saetan, too, dies (well, permanently, since he was demon dead before). Consumed by grief, Daemon and Surreal end up in bed together and Surreal winds up pregnant. They marry and the story spans years of their efforts to find contentment in their new life. From that alone, it's easy to sympathize with displeased readers - that's a bucketload of drama. As I already said, I don't have a problem with any single twist, but this short format doesn't allow the reader time to adjust to each development before they're slapped in the face with another, leading to a cheap sensational feel. As a full-length novel, the story might have stood a greater chance of exploring how the characters reach each point.

This last paragraph makes no effort to avoid spoilers - consider yourself warned. As I've touched on, the characters fall a little flat in this drama-driven story. Surreal didn't feel like herself, but a vapid, passive version and many of her decisions didn't click with my interpretation of the character. Unlike many readers, the story didn't depress me because Jaenelle died, or even because Daemon married someone else. What depressed me is that Daemon isn't happy with someone else. He gives Surreal full warning that he will never love anyone the way he loved Jaenelle. Not a positive start to a marriage. Since Surreal might be the only character who suffers so many romantic missteps, I had far greater hopes for her than the second wife trapped in the first wife's shadow, quietly swallowing her own pain. On paper, Daemon and Surreal work great. They both had traumatic childhoods and worked as sex slaves, so they can understand each others' emotional scars. They have a history that pre-dates Jaenelle and have always had a close bond throughout the books. Unfortunately, that bond struck me as sibling-like, so I balked when they wound up in bed, having almost forgotten entirely that they aren't really related, and the sex scenes just felt incestuous to me. That's an area where a novel might have worked better, because the greater length could give the reader a longer look at how their relationship altered from platonic to sensual. Also, while they don't sleep together until about two decades after Jaenelle dies, it doesn't read that way. To the reader, it's only a few chapters, a few pages. Readers, too, mourn the death of a character and are likely to need some time to accept that loss before they can move on with other grieving characters to another stage of life. My last big problem with this story is that Daemon and Surreal's daughter doesn't feel like her own person, but instead a vicarious means both of keeping Jaenelle alive and of giving her a chance at a happier childhood. The daughter becomes a substitute for Jaenelle (they even name her Jaenelle) and that made me physically ill, imaging that kind of pressure on a child. Also, I've always loved Jaenelle as a character, but this story represents the first time that I resented her. We learn later in the story that she used her magical talents to manipulate Surreal and Daemon together after her death and gift them with a child and that she has been visiting their daughter in her dreams and somewhat “molding” her. While some might find this a sweet way of keeping someone's memory alive, to me it felt intrusive that even after her death Jaenelle still holds the reigns to Daemon's life. Even his failed attempts at moving on are crafted by Jaenelle.

Now that I've written about all I can on the subject, what do you other BLACK JEWELS fans have to say?

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Art of Reading: Multiple Books vs. One at a Time


The Art of Reading: Multiple Books vs. One at a Time

All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post's theme: multiple books versus one a time. How many books do you read at once? Only one from start to finish before you pick up another? Or do you juggle two or three depending on your mood? More than that?

My perspective on this has changed over the years. In the past, I only ever read one book at a time. When I met people who mentioned they had three books sitting on their bedside table, I couldn't quite wrap my head around this. At the time, it seemed to me that surely their focus suffers for juggling so many different stories at once. However, after a few years of encountering numerous people who read multiple books at once, I gave it a try. I'm a convert! In fact, I unleashed something and now I can have upwards of ten books at once that I'm actively reading. (My boyfriend complains that having a beside clock is pointless if the clock is blocked by a tower of books.)

The only disadvantage I see to reading more than one book is the split focus. Of course, after actually trying it, I find that's not nearly as much of a problem as I anticipated. Certainly, if one book finds itself overlooked for weeks while I'm switching off between four others, then I do struggle a bit to recall where I am and what has happened so far. However, as long as I make sure to read at least, say, one chapter every week or two in each individual book, that seems to be enough to keep me plugged into the story.

The advantages? Numerous. The first thing I noticed when I switched from reading one book at a time to reading multiple is how many books I read as much as tripled. Before, if a book wasn't holding my attention, I would crawl on through for up to 1-3 months. Now if a book isn't holding my attention, I set that one aside for now and pick up something I don't want to put down. This way how much I read is limited more by how much free time I have rather than whether or not my current book is a winner.

I also really enjoy the flexibility. In particular, I read a lot of very dark fantasy. I love how brilliant authors can teach me something by how they handle sensitive subject matter, but sometimes I just need a break from violence, betrayal, tragedy, etc. For example, I tore through Kate Carlisle's BIBLIOPHILE MYSTERIES series at a point when I needed something light to milk away the darkness. (They did the trick very well, by the way.) By reading multiple books at a time, I can look at what I'm reading and select whichever best fits my mood at the moment.

Along the same lines, some books are more portable than others. Gorgeous collectible editions and personally inscribed books are examples of ones that I don't like to move away from their safe perch by my bed. Yet I like to read when I'm on the elliptical or when I'm out and about on a rainy day. With multiple books on my bedside table, I can leave the ones I want in prime condition behind and take smaller or less coveted books with me when I leave the house.

Last it's nice for people with short attention spans. Some are surprised to learn this about me, since I do read a fair amount, but I hardly ever read very long in one sitting. I rarely read longer than an hour at a time and I'm even content to steal snippets of ten to fifteen minutes here and there rather than settle down all day with a book. In fact, I’m quite baffled by people who can sit down and read one book straight through. However, I have found something odd I enjoy doing: settling down all day with multiple books. I circle through them, reading one chapter at a time from each. Somehow switching between different stories holds my attention better than fixating on just one!

What about you? Do you read only one book at a time or do you like to juggle multiple? How many books can you have going at once? What do you like or dislike about reading multiple books at a time?

Friday, March 15, 2013

SHALADOR'S LADY


Review of SHALADOR'S LADY by ANNE BISHOP
(eighth in THE BLACK JEWELS series) 

This book tugged at my heart in a major way. It concludes the story about Cassidy started in THE SHADOW QUEEN. Those who read that book already know what went wrong with Cassidy's first court: they turned against her in favor of a younger, prettier, wealthier queen. Well, that queen, Kermilla, has already spent everything her territory can offer and more, so she hunts down Cassidy, convinced the previous queen owes the new queen a monetary "gift." Of course, Cassidy refuses this outrageous demand and orders Kermilla out of her territory. The problem? Theran falls hard for Kermilla on first sight. She's exactly what he wanted as a queen, someone who can take a man's breath away. Unlike Cassidy. 

Needless to say, Cassidy's catapulted back to the painful memories of when her first court left her for Kermilla and fearful that she might soon relive that excruciating experience. The reader sees early on that this court (excepting Theran) not only remains loyal to Cassidy but detests Kermilla. Cassidy, though, buries her mind in the past, so it takes her longer than the reader to recognize that this is a different court and a different circumstance. 

It still only takes one person to break a court. Bishop really created a brilliant setup with this one. Theran's an antagonist without a doubt and his disloyalty could be the single factor that destroys Cassidy's court. However, he's not evil; he's blindsided by Kermilla, but at the root he wants what's best for his land and it's people. Even when he sees glimpses of Kermilla's recklessness, selfishness, and downright cruelty, he rationalizes and denies. Throughout the story, I wished and yearned for him to reconsider his allegiances and make amends with his friends and family. He's not a bad person (deep down at least; on the surface, yeah, he's a jerk), so it's sad and painful watching him make bad decisions and suffer the consequences. As Talon warns him, I would rather Theran break his own heart than his honor.

Talon makes another point with which I agreed. When the court considers putting some distance between Theran and everyone else, especially Cassidy, Talon realizes that Cassidy has done some amazing things for this land but with every decision she comes up against the wall of Theran. By stepping away from him, maybe they can see what Cassidy can do without someone challenging her at every turn. The answer: a lot.

Monday, March 11, 2013

ELLIS JONES

 
Interview with ELLIS JONES

Since receiving his doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Ellis Jones has focused all of his energies on bridging the gap between academics, activists, and the average citizen. A scholar of social responsibility, global citizenshi,p and everyday activism, Dr. Jones continues to teach and give presentations across the country on how to turn lofty ideals into practical actions.

How was THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE born?

Originally, in graduate school, I got together with a couple of my colleagues and, instead of working on our dissertations, we started working on a better world handbook. We wanted this to be a comprehensive resource about “What can I do to make a difference in the world?” for individuals to act on a wide range of issues and use in their every day lives. Two of the pages in that four hundred page book were dedicated to rating corporations when you go shopping. “Which ice cream do you buy when you want to shop more ethically?” etc. Those two pages got more feedback from readers than any of the others, so I decided this mini handbook might be worth pursuing. When the first edition came out I started creating a larger database to get at this question of who are the good guys and the bad guys and how can we make the world a better place. I took publically available data and pulled it together and tried to translate it into A to F grades.

Why did you decide to use a grade system for evaluating products and companies? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the grade system?

I decided to use a grade system because I’m a professor and I’ve been an educator for so long that I think of everything in terms of grades. It’s a nice intuitive system that everyone knows: a C is mediocre and a F is terrible I was tired of seeing these complicated systems out there that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. When somebody hears B or D they have a sense of what that means. I needed something that could give consumers a very quick idea of what they’re looking for. I also envisioned it as a color scale, which only worked out the website. Now the disadvantages are that there are only 13 slots when you go from A+ to F and some companies literally would get a J, but nobody knows what that means. The grade system does limit it somewhat, but I think it’s worth that limitation because consumers need something quick and thoughtful and practical.

What does the website offer that the book doesn’t?

The website offers connections to my other work. It also offers the ability to access five or six industries to see the raw data, like chocolate. Readers can click and look at the actual data points that made a B company a B company or D company a D company. They also get the visual, the color.

Part of why I created the shopping app was so that the website can always be in your pocket, right there all the time. I can’t keep all this information in my head. I made the book pocket size on purpose so people are more likely to carry it around. Even then I find myself without the guide often enough that it’s nice to have the app.

Do you suggest readers do their own research into companies in addition to using THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE?

I want them to double-check my work for sure. I want to encourage people to go out and dig in on their own, but (and this is a big but) I’ve always been frustrated when I hear other people suggest it’s important to be an ethical shopper like “Oh, just go do your homework.” I have a PhD and this is my area of research and this is difficult, time consuming work. I can’t imagine trying to navigate this as the average consumer. The idea of “Oh, just go do your homework.” makes me wonder “Why is this all on the shoulders of consumers?” This information should all be provided. There’s no way that consumers can do enough research or enough homework to wrap their heads around this particular challenge. This is massive. This is not some kind of clean slate that we’re working off where we don’t know anything, we come in and do homework, and get some information. Some big companies have huge budgets to create images that are a combination of fact and fiction to persuade consumers that they’re more ethical than they are. Consumers are bombarded with information that points them in a thousand different directions. When people make it sound like “Oh, just go do your homework” like this is doing a crossword puzzle and you’re done, that’s wrong. I want to say, “Yes, always do your homework, always follow up with your own research.” In the book I provide a list of 50 websites for researching, but the idea that a consumer could - even with something as simple as Coke versus Pepsi - that they could go home and Google that on their own and then have a firm understanding after a few hours is ludicrous. It’s very daunting. I feel a lot of sympathy for the average person and that’s part of why I’m as dedicated to this work as I am. I think we should have this homework done for us and we should go into shopping already wielding these tools.

In the BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE, there’s a list of the top 10 things for shoppers to change to have the most positive impact. Bank is number 1. Why is which bank we choose so important?

If you go back to the original edition, that list hasn’t really changed. Bank as always been number 1. When I did my original investigation into this research, the financial institution is the one I found most obscure, most cloaked in secrecy. Most major banks are graded between C and F. They’re institutions that aren’t very accountable or transparent and often can’t answer fairly simple questions about where the money is invested. When you don’t have accountability it creates a space for very irresponsible behavior. There’s this incredible correlation between the most socially and environmentally irresponsible banks and those that receive the most bailout money. This is the ultimate illustration about why we need to be responsible as consumers, because if we don’t hold these institutions accountable they will come back and bite us.

Recently, I heard that since the bailouts have happened the system has not changed significantly and that if this crisis were to happen again we would do the exact same thing. The banks know we will bail them out, because we don’t have a lot of choices. When you have a bank, that bank basically has access to your dollars and they may look like they’re sitting in your account, but they’re actually being invested all around the world; while you’re eating and sleeping, that money is going out to change the world. If the money is being used for some problematic activity, that’s your money that’s causing havoc in the world. If you invest in a responsible bank, that money’s being used to make the world a better place. It doesn’t get more black and white than that. We’re constantly earning money and spending it and the bank is just the place we hold it. It is a pain to change your bank, but if you do it once you more or less don’t have to think about it afterwards and now that money’s being used for better. Those ripple effects will take place for the rest of your life.

It’s not like readers can research their shopping habits once and understand their buying choices for life. Ethical companies can slip and unethical ones sometimes change their ways. How do you suggest shoppers keep up with a constantly shifting market?

In this latest edition I have put a couple of charts up: the biggest disappointments and the biggest success stories, so people get a sense that change is taking place. Those are all the most extreme examples, though. For the most part, companies are very slow to move from one grade to another, particularly with the large companies. These are enormous global operations. If you hear of a company that you thought was not that good and suddenly there are new stories that say it’s doing very well (or vice versa), you should be skeptical. It’s not that the news stories aren’t true, but they are also very susceptible to a combination of things, particularly the need to sell papers. It sets up a system in which stories that are surprising and unexpected are much more likely to show up in the news, which in turn creates an environment in which consumers are confused.

For the most part, companies shift very slowly. That’s why I put out this guide every couple of years. I could put it out every year, but I don’t think it’s that necessary. Companies don’t change that quickly. They promise to change quickly, but they don’t. It’s important to keep up on these things, but they aren’t things that change day to day. The only thing that does change quickly is ownership. One day a company will be it’s own company and the next day it merges with another and we have to ask, “What does that mean?” Even with mergers, though, company behavior doesn’t flip overnight. It still takes a while for mergers to affect company behavior.

I read an article once that suggested people don’t change their habits even when they learn indisputable proof about a company’s human rights or environmental transgressions, because to make a positive change shoppers first must accept the guilt that they’ve been, by extension, supporting such practices by shopping there. The article went on to advise: Don’t feel guilty for, in the past, supporting a business with unethical practices of which you were unaware, but do feel guilty if you continue shopping there even after learning this new information. What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t agree with the advice, but I agree with the study. Everything I see shows that if people find out about a company, they won’t necessarily switch to a better company or boycott the bad company. It’s not that people are lazy, but that people are complicated. Consumers never buy based on a single factor. They’re always trying to balance a number of factors. They’re trying to consider price and quality and a wide range of other things such as taste and their needs. Socially responsible shopping or ethical consumption is just one other factor strung into the equation. In some ways these studies are far too primitive. It’s too simplistic. People might not buy from a good company, because the products are too expensive or they’re still not convinced a company is really as bad as they hear or they don’t know how it relates to companies in the same category.

To be honest, I don’t thin people should feel guilty. It brings up cognitive dissonance. If we realize we haven’t been the best father or daughter or partner or shopper, suddenly we have to struggle with that and we don’t like to do that. I don’t think it’s about guilt or that it’s black and white. Here’s what I do and recommend: I recommend people think about improving their overall ethical profile. I like to call it your shopping GPA. If you take all the items you bought in a particular year and average the grades, what would your grade be? You’re not going to go from a C student for the last x number of years to an A student tomorrow. It doesn’t work that way. You work your way up. If you’re a C student, you challenge yourself to be a B student. My goal is to be a B+ shopper and I don’t think I make that goal all the time. I don’t think we should be unrealistic here. No one is an A shopper. So it’s not about being perfect; it’s about being better. For me that’s not as much about grappling with guilt as thinking about trying to do more good in the world. Sometimes the option is between a C and an F company and you buy a C. Or sometimes you’re in a Walmart with your family, because your family loves Walmart and even within Walmart there’s a spectrum of better or worse products. It’s still not optimal, but we try to make the best choice available. We take in account our budget, tastes and needs, and our ethical stance. It’s about putting those things together and coming up with the best choices available.

Another common excuse I hear for lack of effort is the “I’m only one person. My choices don’t affect the big picture.” argument. What’s your response to individuals who believe their positive or negative choices are too small to make any difference either way?

This is a really important question. My undergraduate degree is in International Relations, which is a trumped-up political science degree and I bring that to the table when I think about ethical consumption. In the political sphere, we have something called democracy that we’re very proud of. When the rubber meets the road, you have to answer a particular contradiction: every two or four years you go to the ballot box and realize that one person’s vote is probably note going to swing the election. Statistically speaking, any one individual’s vote does not count. So as individual, rationally, you shouldn’t vote, and yet every vote is essential. When you have 50 % turnout instead of 80 (which is what you typically have in a presidential election - 50%), we are a weaker country for it. An 80% vote represents more of the population. The same goes for shopping. When you buy a Snickers bar or a Coca Cola one day, it doesn’t seem to make much difference, but you’re multiplying your choices across your life and spreading them to more people. This is the largest economy in the world and two thirds of it is run by whether you buy the orange t-shirt or the blue t-shirt.

Of course, one person won’t make the difference. That’s the whole point. We live in a political democracy in which every vote counts and that’s the same with our economic system. Every single dollar is another vote. If you drop out and say it doesn’t mater that’s like randomly voting on your ballot. Your choices are multiplied and mimicked by millions of other people and that changes the whole system. Every dollar pulled away from a company doing the irresponsible thing and pushed towards a company doing the responsible thing empowers change in that system. This isn’t a fringe ten people doing this. Millions of people are doing this and corporations are responding to it.

One concern with this book is that it’s so chock full of condensed information (which, granted, is also a tremendous strength) that shoppers might feel discouraged. What would you say to someone who sees how many D or F products they regularly purchase or how many changes they want to make and feels overwhelmed?

I would say use that top ten things to change list. Go down one by one. Start changing one thing at a time. Then move up with your grades. Start by trying to see if you can avoid the Fs. Move up the D products and then to C products. See if you can find B or A products that fit your budget.

I remember when I was a poor college student I couldn’t afford these more ethical products that were more expensive. I started with fair trade bananas. That’s where it started. Now that I have more resources and shop for a whole family, I can do more. The other thing to keep in mind is that you aren’t taking a monastic vow. One of my favorite products, Pringles, are made by Procter & Gamble. Once a year I would go out and get a can of Pringles, because I enjoyed them. I put it in a reasonable context.

Have you already started working on another BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE?

I never stop working on these better world shopping guides. I’m constantly integrating new data and updating old data and creating new categories and responding to readers and doing presentations. One of the things that I have been toying with - and I’m not sure how long this will take me to get out there and it may take a number of years so I don’t want to jump the gun - but I’ve been thinking about this question of giving consumers more access to direct data. They could look up a company like Coca Cola and just see what Coca Cola has been doing. They could look up a company and just see for themselves, like a dictionary of companies.

I want to keep the book concise and small, but this might be nice for people who have more questions about some of the top companies out there: what they’re doing right and what they’re not. So consumers can see the raw data and get a sense themselves for what’s happening behind the scenes. So that might be coming out in the next 2-5 years.

Any parting advice you want to give anyone trying their best to shop ethically and consciously?

Find a place to start and make sure that you start in a place that works for you. Location wise, for example, not everyone has access to a Whole Foods or Farmer’s Market. Perhaps you only live near big chain stories. You should always understand that your contributions will be a unique combination of your budget, your location, your options, and your needs. A parent has different needs than a teenager has different needs than someone retired. Think about crafting your contribution in your own way and don’t worry when you can’t afford something or find something or that your options are limited in one way. Focus on something you can do and something sustainable. Don’t overstretch yourself. It’s not about being a perfect consumer. It’s about challenging yourself to do better. For me, I probably should carry my book round or have this information in my head, but I have my phone app and use that all the time and that works best for me. Each person will find whatever works best for them and that will be their unique combination, just like everyone fills out a unique combination of votes when they fill out a ballot. We need to do this on a daily basis and a weekly basis and push ourselves to move a little bit further forward.

Friday, March 8, 2013

ODDFELLOW'S ORPHANAGE


Review of ODDFELLOW'S ORPHANAGE by EMILY WINFIELD MARTIN
(based on a review copy)

In a word: quirky. ODDFELLOW'S ORPHANAGE drapes itself in mystery and whimsy and lets the words build onto the lovely illustrations. The novel opens on the arrival of the mute Delia, leads the reader through loosely connected excerpts from her new life at the orphanage (Each chapter stands on its own as a story about a particular character, adventure, or conflict.), and ends on a touching assessment.

While short and succinct, this book certainly has that ideal feel of continuing off the page. I came across a review that called these characters "one-dimensional," an assessment at which I bristled. Yes, we don't see much of them and some barely scamper across the short novel's stage, but Martin presents so much more for those who read closely and don't mind letting their imagination run off with the rest of the story. Like the professor who insists he has no interest in taking after his gardener father...but trims the hedges into the shapes of fantastical beasts. Or the angry little boy whose anger thinly veils sadness. Or the headmaster himself who clearly has an intriguing backstory with his brother. It wouldn't surprise me if Martin published future books in this world. She certainly created plenty of material open for further exploration!

Monday, March 4, 2013

THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE


Review of THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE by ELLIS JONES
(review based on fourth edition)

I always strive to be an ethical shopper, but sometimes, well, it's hard. My most common dilemma is simply lack of knowledge. I have no idea whether a certain company is particular ethical or unethical or how they compare to other companies selling similar products. When I do learn about practices with which I disagree I stop buying products from that company, but I'm under no delusions here; I probably continue supporting some unethical companies whose practices simply haven't come to my attention. I know my shopper habits are far from perfect, but I'm trying and constantly, consistently striving to improve. THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE has just made those goals a thousand times easier.

The title really does summarize the mission behind this little book. “Money is power…wherever large amounts of money collect, so also new centers of power form…As these power centers shift, we must shift our own voices if we wish to be heard…As consumers we vote every single day” (p. 4-5). With this book, you can look up any type of product (from seafood to hair care to baby products) and find companies listed on a spectrum of extremely responsible to extremely irresponsible. The book considers five factors: human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement, and social justice. (There’s a paragraph description of each factor both in the book and on the website.) Based on these five considerations, each business is assigned a grade from A to F. Think of C as the middle range, companies that have a mixed record, inadequate information, or fall between the concepts of “making it better” and “making it worse.” B companies make more effort or strive to improve their ways while A companies would be the heroes leading the field in ethical shopping. On the other end, D companies participate in practices that negatively affect the world while F companies, well, I want to avoid the word villain but these are the ones doing the most harm. Needless to say, these letter grades make it easier to gain a quick, basic understanding of a particular company and to see how companies compare. After all, the primary goal of this book is to make ethical shopping a little easier for the average consumer.

For those looking for more explanation behind which grade a company earns, this information continues off the page and onto their website. The guide has been designed to be user friendly: it's small (4 inches by 6 inches) and less than 200 pages long with all their research condensed into categories and letter grades. There's not a lot of explanation in the book about why companies earn certain grades, because the actual guide is intended to be small, concise, user-friendly, and inexpensive. Of course, the downside is that to keep this a small enough book to fit in a back pocket, it only lists grades and omits how companies earn those grades. However, their research is pretty transparent and you can check out the website for more detail (and follow through with your own research) if you want to know more about why a company received the grade it did.

As if the grades aren't immensely helpful enough, the book opens with some summary lists that can quickly and concisely give you an overview. There are the 20 best and 20 worst lists, 10 most improved and 10 farthest fallen, and a list of the top 10 things to change yourself if you want to make the most of where your dollars go.

Ethical shopping is hard. That's why, I believe, so many people don't bother at all. Hard isn't impossible, though, and hard isn't an excuse not to try. First, we need to free ourselves of perfectionist ideals. I think that’s a big reason why some people give up and stop trying. They overreact at every perceived failure: they can’t afford the A or B products or they only live close to D or F stores. As examples, I’ll share two of my biggest personal frustrations with conscientious shopping: 1. I support a company I believe is ethical only to discover that is how they market, but it’s not an accurate reflection of their actions. Some companies simply try to sell themselves as “ethical” without actually taking any positive steps. 2. I switch from a company with practices I don’t support and months or years later discover what I switched to may be worst than what I switched from. My point here is that I didn’t give up after any of those experiences. I learn from each mistake and I hesitate to even call them mistakes. Jones suggests running with the grade system metaphor - rather than obsessing over each little product, think of your overall shopping as your GPA. Certainly try to avoid F products at all costs, D if you can, but aim for a GPA that’s reasonable for you. Jones tries to earn a B+ shopping GPA, but if that’s too high find something right for you. The goal here isn’t perfection. Rather, whenever you’re presented with a choice within your means, strive to choose the more responsible company or product.

THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE has already inspired me to make changes. Another reason I fear some people don't make much effort is the sheer magnitude of information overwhelming us in this arena. First, this guide can help boil that information down to a much more manageable level. Second, instead of stressing over how many changes you need to make to meet your ideal shopping goals, focus on one at a time. Obviously, the big ten would be a good place to start, but you can also consider products you buy frequently. Conscientious shopping is a lifetime pursuit, but it's one well worth the effort.

Friday, March 1, 2013

What Is Speculative Fiction?


Discussion Topic: What Is Speculative Fiction?

For those of you already familiar with the term "speculative fiction," you should know this post won't be breaking any new ground. Rather I'm going to define "spec fic" for anyone who doesn't know what it means. I think of "speculative fiction" as part of our society's vocabulary now, but frequent conversations remind me that isn't the case. So for anyone befuddled whenever they hear this term or - gasp! - thinking as they read this post, "I've never heard that term before," here's a definition:

Speculative Fiction: an umbrella term for the more fantastical fiction genres. This, of course, includes both science fiction and fantasy, but speculative fiction also encompasses everything that slips through the cracks.

Consider THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN by Garth Stein. The story's told through a dog's perspective. Not fantasy. Not science fiction. However, Stein does explore past human experience and tiptoe away from reality with his anthropomorphized dog. Thus, speculative fiction. The term also works well for THE CITY AND THE CITY by China Mieville. There's no doubt that's an unusually constructed world, but Mieville leaves the exact workings open to reader interpretation and I came up with many possible theories, some which might put the book in fantasy and others in science fiction. Therefore, speculative fiction might be a better word, because it implies the fantastical without specifying magic or technology roots. Along these lines, Justine Larbalestier's book LIAR might be fantasy, but also remains open to interpretation. The protagonist's a self-declared compulsive liar, so the fantasy twist could be nothing more than another lie. Calling the book fantasy might be misleading to anyone who doesn't buy her fantastical claim, but speculative fiction addresses the possibility of a supernatural element.

It's also nice for everyone who lumps science fiction and fantasy together in conversations. Those two genres are very, very different, opposite ends of a spectrum really, but if you're making a point about SF&F as a whole, consider inserting "speculative fiction!"

Feel free to add onto my definition! Or list other examples of books that are neither science fiction nor fantasy, but could be considered speculative fiction.