Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

02 Mar 2003, 10:22 a.m.

I have finished several books recently, such as Mostly Harmless…

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2003 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I have finished several books recently, such as Mostly Harmless (which I understand much better than I did ten years ago, and which touches me) and Jacques Pepin's memoirs and Ved Mehta's essay collection. I hope to tell you about the Mehta and Pepin books soon. Right now I'm reading Crescent, a delicious to-be-published novel by Diana Abu-Jaber. But for now: the Sally Lockhart series by good old Phil Pullman.

Half a year ago, as Leonard celebrated his birthday in Bakersfield with bouts of nausea, I devoured The Ruby in the Smoke, staying up late to eat one fudge-dipped strawberry page after another. The next day I had to drive up to SF, tired and silent (Leonard couldn't talk much), and I waited six months more to move on to The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well, and the guest-starring-Sally-Lockhart The Tin Princess. I read all those in about a week. They entranced me even as each successive book got on my nerves more and more.

Pullman uses his share of Connie Willis-like plot contrivances that only frustrate the protagonists and reader. Adelaide in particular fulfills Ebert's Law of Economy of Character Development. But even that I can forgive when he pulls (ha) it off, which he often does. (Warning: The Tin Princess especially suffers from Willis Disease, being Pullman's non-supernatural novel of international intrigue and warfare. Anticlimactic ending, too.)

The thing that really made me gape was a subplot in The Tiger in the Well, where Pullman enlists turn-of-the-century socialism and his plot in each other's service. It's Bizarro Ayn Rand. In a climactic showdown with the villain, Sally tells him (paraphrase): "You're not evil. I've seen evil. Evil isn't exotic. Evil doesn't have an accent. Evil is five children living in one room, families who don't have enough to eat..." It's didactic and disorienting, but doesn't quite overpower the plot.

Leonard envisions a scenario where someone confronts Dr. Evil (of the Austin Powers movies) with this speech, and Dr. Evil realizes that his pro forma evil was not really evil, and in fact is cancelled out by his philanthropic works.