bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)
 Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence is too good.
 
Two Readercons ago I got a lovely signed first edition of the fourth book in the series, Last First Snow, after hearing Max talk about getting chased by bees in China (I don't remember what the panel was about, but I went to a panel about bees the following Readercon just to hear him tell it again). I read it in the cabin on the lake in Maine, which is the best place to read anything, and so I always prioritize bringing the books I'm most excited about there.
 
Last First Snow takes place in Dresediel Lex, the creepy mashup of Tenochtitlan and Las Vegas, several years before the events of Two Serpents Rise. The protagonist is the priest Temoc, who as a viewpoint character comes off a little bit more like a functional human and less like Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy than he does in 2SR.
 
The plot of this book hinges on fire insurance, which I suppose is what I get for trying to write a fantasy book where the plot hinges on fire insurance and never finishing it, and now if I do finish it it will be both derivative and nowhere near as good at this one. This book is about gentrification and protest and conspiracy and all that other horrendous neoliberal capitalist crap, and as someone who lives in a rapidly gentrifying city (VERY RAPIDLY) (coincidentally, Max Gladstone lives here too!), I can see echoes of local housing battles and Occupy encampments in the movement to save the Skittersill from developers.
 
Because this is the Craft Sequence, the Skittersill, a slum district in Dresediel Lex, isn't a slum district for any of the normal reasons, like having been cut off by deliberately shitty bridges. Instead, it's under some sort of magical ward that designated the area as a "divine protectorate," which basically seems to be a sort of giant community land trust that keeps it safe and affordable but doesn't provide anyone the resources or authority to stop it from falling apart--land can't be bought or sold, and the gods that protect it are dead. The wards are also decaying, also because the gods are dead, and developers smell an opportunity. One developer, a Skittersill native who made good, got out, and has turned into a real estate bro, hires Elayne Kevarian of the necromantic law firm Kelethres, Albrech, and Ao (Tara Abernathy's future boss, and also just an all-around boss) to help him figure out a land deal that will be acceptable to the city's judges. But the city's judges won't accept any land deal that's not acceptable to the giant protest movement that's sprung up in Chakal Square.
 
This book also features everyone's favorite emotionally immature coffee-drinking skeleton, the King in Red, who despite being a terrifyingly powerful magical skeleton is also every douchebag executive who can't be reasoned with and goes nuclear whenever anyone challenges his authori-tah, making him easily manipulable. There's also several appearances by baby Caleb, who I honestly like better as a small child than I ever did as an adult. You can see why he turned into the sort of adult he did, though.
 
The first half of the book is about negotiations and stuff within a tense but peaceful protest movement, and it all seems to be going relatively well! There are a few insurrectionary-minded assholes on both sides that seem to really want things to get violent, most notably some arsehole known only as The Major on the side of the protestors, but they get talked down every time they go about vomiting their revolutionary vanguardism all over people whose goal is to not have their houses destroyed. A sabotage-via-food-poisoning plot is foiled. But eventually, all this success makes for anticlimactic fiction, so eventually one of the sabotage conspiracies works. An act of violence destroys the entire equilibrium and instantly turns the protest movement into urban warfare. Elayne and Temoc are now in the unenviable position of having to win the battle, protect the citizens of the Skittersill, talk down a bloodthirsty King in Red, and uncover the conspiracy to figure out who Bloody Sundayed the negotiations and why.
 
Final takeaways: Real estate developers are slimeballs, community solidarity is powerful, maintaining nonviolent discipline in a mass movement is harder than besuited TV pundits think it is, and late-stage capitalism is an unnecessarily complicated trashfire of a system so you should be thankful it doesn't literally involve magic. Also, support your local fantasy authors.
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
 For my politics books club we decided on some light summer reading for June: Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, which explores the creation and expansion of different fascist movements for the purpose of arriving at a working sense of what fascism is based on how it has historically worked, rather than what its adherents said about it. 
 
As someone who got probably a pretty decent overview of both World Wars in high school by contemporary standards but has supplemented it with additional self-teaching in an extremely haphazard and piecemeal fashion (I like to read about very specific historical events like a single intelligence mission at a time), I felt like I had enough base-level knowledge to follow this without having to Google too many things, but it was also enormously helpful to have the subject set out in such an orderly manner. Paxton looks at different “stages” of fascism, of which only Mussolini’s and Hitler’s reigns both qualify as unambiguously fascist (rather than regular ol’ authoritarian) and went through all the stages he lists. 
 
I was expecting it to be a bit denser because some of the reviews I’d checked out said it was a bit dry, but while it doesn’t read in the novelesque way that some history books of more limited scope of subject manage to pull off these days, I really didn’t find it too dense or academic at all. It commits the occasional bit of academese, like “fascisms,” but it’s always quite clear what he’s getting at and overall I found it to be quite clear and straightforward. If you’re interested in the subject—which you should be, because otherwise why are you reading this book?—it should pull you along quite well; the prose style and the overall organization of the book just set everything out in a very plain and straightforward way. The content is terrifying without being either coy or gratuitously graphic. 
 
The book was written in 2004, and… well, I’d be quite interested in hearing Paxton’s take on current events. (ETA: I am a dumbass; he wrote an article about in in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine that I have just not gotten around to reading yet because I am a twit.) A lot of what he talks about regarding the early stages of fascism—it’s ideological incoherence, its poaching of grievances from the left, its roots in socialism and syndicalism even as it immediately became viciously anti-socialist, its alliances with conservative elites who thought they could use its energy for their own ends—sounds uneasily familiar to anyone following modern politics. But there are a lot of movements and regimes that are often called fascist and that may be sort of fascist in some ways but not in others. Paxton gives us a good rundown of unsuccessful fascist movements and of not-properly-fascist authoritarian regimes (I was perhaps inappropriately delighted at the section dedicated to the Perón regime in Argentina and the conclusion that it was not fascist, despite Perón’s ties to Mussolini. Musical theater is a helluva drug, apparently). 
 
This book doesn’t talk a huge amount about propaganda per se, which is something I would usually be disappointed with since propaganda is my favorite, but it does talk a lot about the appropriation of symbols, emotional manipulation, the slippery relationship between fascism and making any sort of coherent sense, and its anti-intellectualism, all of which is much fun, although it’s a bit terrifying to look at the legacy this kind of intellectual nihilism has left on mass politics in more recent years. It’s also terrifying when Paxton talks not about the internal properties of fascism itself but also about the political space that allows it to develop.
 
Though the book is short and is about 25% footnotes, I think we could end up having a very long book group discussion on this, especially if I come up with enough really good questions. It’s not for three weeks though so I’ll have to review it again when we get closer—and I’m really looking forward to doing so. 
 
Oh, and the book also contains a “bibliographic essay,” which basically is just a lifetime’s worth of book recommendations. Damn you, Paxton. Now I’ve got a TBR list I couldn’t hope to get through even if I turned into one of those doofy Stephanie Meyers vampires that never needs to sleep.
 
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
The tenth and final volume of Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan graphic novel series is Transmetropolitan, Vol. 10: One More Time, which is a terrible title because every time I look at the cover of this volume I get Daft Punk’s song of the same name stuck in my head. Which, I suppose, is appropriate, because Spider Jerusalem is pretty punk and definitely daft. 
 
Despite the title it is a fantastic book and a fantastic end to the series. Spider defeats Callahan with THE POWER OF JOURNALISM, which is pretty much what we were expecting, but as always, whether it’s boring or not is in the execution, and the execution is pretty satisfying. It does make one wish that taking down a corrupt criminal president with THE POWER OF JOURNALISM happened a little faster in the real world rather than the slow-ass pace of Watergate or whatever the fucksticks is going on now (hoping and praying that whatever’s going on now actually does result in taking the president down eventually), but hey, the point of science fiction is to inspire us to envision a better future than our current tawdry realities. (Not that there are many ways in which Spider’s futureshock dystopia is better than our current tawdry realities; it’s more of a warning than an inspiration, I guess.) 
 
This volume is about twice as long as most of the others, but only half or maybe two-thirds of it is actually the story proper. Afterward there’s a series of little vignettes, mostly based on excerpts from I Hate It Here, Spider’s crankypants column for The Word, drawn by a variety of other comics writers. It’s fun seeing Spider and his filthy assistants rendered in all sorts of other folks’ styles, even as someone who’s not very familiar with other graphic novels and has no idea who these people are. I’m sure it’s even more fun if you recognize the other artists. 
 
Anyway, WHAT A DEPRESSINGLY TIMELY SERIES. It certainly makes me wish our current media institutions had more violently psychotic journalists, though, considering they’re up against increasingly violently psychotic politicians apparently. We should arm them all with bowel disruptors, just in case.
 
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
 In Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 9: The Cure,  Spider goes around re-gathering evidence for his project to take down President Callahan in between bouts of forgetting words while his brain falls out his nose. (Don’t do drugs, kids.) This outlaw journalism-ing involves such fun tasks as beating Fred Christ’s head in with the Chair Leg of Truth, but it is ultimately Spider’s crotchety former editor who does some massive day-saving with backup copies of Spider’s evidence. Spider then goes out and interviews more people, most of whom are not Fred Christ and who he therefore does not bash in the head with the Chair Leg of Truth. 
 
Spider gets some journalistic help from a scarfaced TV anchor named Robert McX, who does some epic signal boosting of Spider’s work by throwing it in Callahan’s face. But that’s about where the book ends, so the real fallout with obviously be the Big Showdown with Callahan in Volume 10 that we’ve all known is coming eventually.
 
This volume contains the immortal line “I hate Nazi sex midgets,” but other than that is one of the less weird installments in this series.
 
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol 8: Dirge continues the story of Spider’s attempt to take down the Smiler, and the Smiler’s attempt to thwart Spider at every turn and probably kill him. 
 
Because this book was written 16 years ago but is still depressingly relevant to everything about modern life, the big incident chronicled in this volume is something called a ruinstorm, a gigantic, destructive bomb of wind and water that apparently used to be much more common before they figured out how to stabilize the climate and weather a little. The Smiler uses this ruinstorm as cover to basically get all the press and cops off the streets so he can hack into newspaper archives and delete a bunch of stuff. Spider, of course, is having none of this and is more determined than ever, but he is suddenly on a deadline—he gets diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease and has one year, maybe two, until he loses all his cognitive faculties. 
 
Most of this book serves largely to set the scene for the big showdown against the Smiler that’s coming later, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of this volume. 
 
bloodygranuaile: (good morning)
I finally got around to picking up the third book in Max Gladstone’s excellent Craft Sequence, Full Fathom Five. I decided to prioritize this over the other giant pile of stuff I have to read because I am mentally exhausted reading about capitalism and politics and so wanted some nice escapist fantasy. And also because I am apparently stupid and self-sabotaging, since the Craft Sequence is basically all about technocorporate capitalism, just with souls as currency and gods taking the place of… fossil fuels? Basically energy utilities.
 
My favorite thing about Full Fathom Five right off the bat was that one of its viewpoint characters is very poor, which the previous ones have generally not been, so we get some scenes in which poverty is literally soul-sucking. Izza is a street thief, and it is through her that we see the effects of running low on soul—blurred vision, faintness, dizziness, basically what it sounds like it would be—when she has to buy incense when her goddess dies.
 
Full Fathom Five takes place on the small touristy island of Kavekana, the main industry of which, besides tourism, is the creation of idols—rudimentary godlike constructs that can be built upon request and worshiped by Kavekana’s priests, as a stable, safe investment with less sacrifice required than traditional actual deities. There are parallels here to any number of complicated financial hedging products that exist all up on Wall Street and elsewhere, and some other distinct parallels to the economies of assorted lovely small islands in places with nice weather that are referred to by residents of larger jurisdictions as “offshore.” The core of the plot is the core of so many stories of modern finance: a bunch of smart finance bros build products that they think have permanently beaten or ended some element of risk in the market, but the thing they thought they’d eliminated the risk of happens anyway. No one can get one over on capitalism indefinitely. 
 
Our other main viewpoint character is Kai, an idolmaker/priestess who ill-advisedly attempts to save a dying idol, nearly dies herself, is hospitalized and demoted, and winds up uncovering a giant conspiracy involving idols, an insufferable poet, and Cat the drug addict policewoman from Three Parts Dead. By the end it also involves Dickensian street urchin Izza and features a cameo by Teo from Two Serpents Rise, forming a wacky girl gang of priestessy types with terrifying powers. It’s FANTASTIC.
 
After the initial exciting bit with the idol dying and Izza’s goddess dying and Kai almost dying, the plot takes a somewhat leisurely but not too slow pace to really put together a full idea of what’s going on and how urgent it is to fix it, but that’s fine because the backstory and worldbuilding and meandering around Kavekana getting drunk and looking for poets is quite a lot of fun. It’s clear from pretty much the beginning that Izza’s Blue Lady is the idol Kai tried to save even though that’s supposed to be impossible, but this is OK because the real mystery is how the hell that happened, and it’s fun to see when and how the two main characters will finally cross paths (it’s a small island so they run into each other a bunch of times before interacting properly, which is probably a little gimmicky but I liked it?). I figured out who the bad guy was probably a chapter or two ahead of the protagonists; I think it’s pretty heavily telegraphed but only for a little bit, so the period of time you spend basically going “Don’t go into the basement with just a thimble!” is limited. 
 
Kavekana also features a terrifying rock-based police force, although one quite different from the gargoyle-derivative black ops-y Justice agents in Three Parts Dead. These are called Penitents and they are basically big magic geodes/iron maiden type things that criminals are trapped in until their wills are brought in line with the programming of the Penitents. The Penitents basically wander the streets scaring petty thieves, while the rich powerful folks are able to use the Penitents on their enemies to help them cover up crimes. This has no analogies to our current society’s issues of police militarization and their being used by large corporations (like, say the DAPL builders) against regular citizens whatsoever, I am sure.
 
I’m planning on getting to the last two books in this series later in June when I get up to Maine. I’m really, really glad I finally got around to reading this series; it’s just so great to have well-done fantasy that also indulges my love of reading about financial crime. 
 
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
 For this month's political book club selection, we picked (at Andrea's suggestion -- thanks, Andrea!) Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Pomerantsev is a documentary filmmaker who worked in Russia for ten years in the aughts, where he worked for Russian TV outlets bringing the "reality TV" concept to Russia. 
 
While Pomerantsev's writing style can be a bit pat and the printing of the book I had was somewhat poorly proofread, this was made up for, for me, by the fact that the subject matter is absolute catnip to me. Media studies, and especially media studies in broad political contexts, is very much my bag, baby, and Pomerantsev's book is basically an extended exploration of how the Russian government uses propaganda -- both on TV and outside of it, but mostly on TV -- to consolidate and maintain control over the populace, carefully managing what sort of dissent is allowed and how much, flooding people with ever-shifting narratives of total nonsense that sedate or disorient the populace. 
 
This particular case study in propaganda includes many of my favorite reading topics: The economic fuckeries of high finance capitalism, mafias, goofy mafia movies, murder mysteries, heartwarming tales of social activism, architectural hymns to great world capital cities. All it needs is a couple of poker games and it'd be a book version of that bit in The BFG where he makes personalized dreams for people by throwing a bunch of 'em in a jar and shaking it around. And this is all even written before the Russians got into screwing around with other people's elections!
 
The most disturbing aspect of this book is how much all the surreal reality-manipulating stuff Pomerantsev talks about really doesn't feel all that foreign or unfamiliar -- a lot of it's the same old hypercapitalist, sensationalist, reality-TV fuckery we've got going on in the U.S., just turned up to 11. It's even worse if you're relatively well versed in the hypocrisies and not-so-much-hidden-as-ignored brutalities within the U.S., like that we send people to jails for stupid shit, too, and in many of them, the conditions are unconscionable and people die mysteriously. The richest and most prestigious Russians, the oligarchs and models, jet around the world to London and New York and Switzerland, where the wealthy are above the law and the models are exploited terribly, because that's how it works throughout the whole developed world. 
 
The book is structured episodically, roughly giving project-by-project accounts of the lives of Pomerantsev's documentary subjects, but also discussing what had to get cut from the "documentaries" and why. One section covers a mafioso who has since become a filmmaker and writer, making films about his own life as a mafioso in a remote town in Siberia that mostly exists to import cars from Japan. Another deeply creepy section investigates the suicide of model Ruslana Korshunova and her involvement in a creepy corporate training/life coaching organization called Rose of the World which is apparently a cult. It reads like something a disaffected corporate underling like myself would write as a satire of the absurdities of the self-care/self-empowerment trend (deconstructed wonderfully by Laurie Penny at The Baffler), except apparently it's real and it's driven multiple people to suicide. It's also, unsurprisingly, based on a U.S. self-improvement module that's also had its share of lawsuits alleging that it's a cult, including wrongful death suits. A slightly less depressing section of Nothing Is True follows the story of a businesswoman whose entirely legal and fully permitted business selling some industrial chemical becomes illegal overnight, which she learns about when she is unceremoniously arrested. She is able to win her case and set up a nonprofit helping other wrongfully arrested upstanding citizens, but there is reason to suspect that she's largely being allowed to do this -- and to have a carefully framed film made of her experience -- mostly to give people a feel-good and laughably false story that corruption in Russia is mostly low-level petty stuff that's being successfully rooted out. 
 
The overall result of all of this is mind-bending, which I think is the point, and is of course a feeling that Americans have become increasingly familiar with since... um... frankly, it's been a boiling frog situation since at least the Bush/Gore election, as far as I'm concerned, but it's definitely gotten worse in the past year. Everything's just a chaotic funhouse mirror of total nonsense run by dumb schmucks who nevertheless can mess with you because they have enough money to buy whatever reality they want for you, in addition to for themselves.
 
I think we're going to have a lot to talk about at book club, especially since so many of the people in the book club are writers who I don't think are likely to have the same general doubts about the power of propaganda that a lot of folks seem to have (it's disheartening how many Americans seem to think that we're accusing Putin of having diabolical brilliance and superpowers when people report that disinformation "hacked" the election. I think just there's a fundamental reluctance to admit that you don't actually need superpowers to brainwash millions of people, just a lot of resources -- namely, enough to hire people who have studied comm and PR -- and some basic competence at opportunism, unencumbered by scruple). We already did a book about how fucked our voting system is, so I don't think we're blinded by any false faith in the strength of American institutions as a group. Therefore... I think it'll be fun. I'll try to come up with some really good questions. 
 
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
I had the privilege of hearing N. K. Jemisin read from a draft of The Fifth Season, the first book in her Broken Earth trilogy, at Arisia way back in 2015.  It was beautiful and terrifying, and yet I still didn't immediately read the book when it was published, nor even when it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel last year, because I am always and eternally months behind on what I intend to be reading. But it was high up on The List, and when it was suggested for this month's BSpec book club -- which is still three weeks away -- I was thrilled to be coerced into finally getting around to it.

The story takes place on a viciously volatile planet, prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and other seismic cataclysms to a point that surviving through them defines all human culture. The big continent all the humans live on is sarcastically named the Stillness; no one lives on islands, because if it's small enough to be considered an island it's also small enough to disappear tomorrow under a tsunami. Every couple hundred years the planet undergoes a Fifth Season, defined as any sort of environmental catastrophe resulting in six months or more of winter. Usually these see civilization go to pieces to some degree or another. There are people with magical abilities to work with seismic energies; they are called orogenes, and they are feared and loathed, carefully trained to guard civilization from the Earth's ravages, but distrusted and tightly controlled.

There are three storylines in this book, which take place in three different times, and the most recent one -- which is related in the second person -- happens at the beginning of one of these cataclysms. The protagonists are a young female "grit" (an orogene still in training) called Damaya; a twentysomething trained orogene named Syenite; and a middle-aged orogene named Essun, who is the protagonist of the second-person sections where the Season has started. I was able to guess how these characters were related just enough before it was revealed to feel smart, but not far enough in advance to feel like Jemisin was treating the reader like they're dumb. 

This might be as close a thing to the perfect book as I've read in quite a while, from a whole bunch of different angles. The worldbuilding is fantastic -- utterly unlike anything I've ever read, but based in enough real stuff to make it easy to vividly imagine. The societies in it are old-fashioned -- rustic, even -- and modern at the same time, with distinctive language that sounds naturally evolved and is easy to pick up on quickly. The three-threaded way the story is structured is brilliant, especially once you do find out how they all come together. The language is rich and alive and beautiful and makes me want to roll around in it except that it also has sudden stabby bits and you should never roll around in anything that comes out of N. K. Jemisin's imagination, figuratively or otherwise, because it will probably eat your face off. It's scary, but also makes me remember how much I enjoyed collecting shiny rocks as a kid and that Earth science is really interesting. The characters are mostly POC, at least half of them women, and a range of sexualities are represented, including a trans character. The ending, which is obviously a setup into the next book, is one of the most brutal verbal cliffhangers in the history of brutal cliffhangers -- like, ending a 450-page novel with a question could be cheap, but in this case it's really, really not. 

Jemisin is clever with little details, too. An example: The very hateful, very obscene slur for orogenes is rogga. You can see the -rog- taken from orogene as its root, but the dropped vowel makes it start off sounding like rock, which is both plebian and on-topic. The double g in the middle parallels that in one of the most hateful, most obscene slurs in American English, subtly -- possibly subconsciously -- driving home just how unacceptable the word is: It sounds, instantly, blunt and harsh and taboo, even though it's a completely made-up word that I've never heard before in my life. When reading the book, I occasionally read sentences out loud to myself, because sometimes I do that in books with really good sentences, but whenever I reached that word, I couldn't say it out loud; I'd absorbed the taboo already.

In short, we are not worthy of N. K. Jemisin.

I'm kind of annoyed I can't just dive right into the sequel since I have other book clubs to read stuff for, but maybe I'll blow them off.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
 In Transmetropolitan, Vol. 7: Spider’s Thrash, newly unemployed gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem and his filthy assistants are on the lam.

Fortunately, Spider has money, so he can afford to write for free for a bit for the rogue newsfeed The Hole. If he can convince them that doing so won’t get them all killed, which might be tough, since the Smiler’s administration is hellbent on killing Spider and anyone he associates with. But that’s OK for Spider, since he’s equally hellbent on taking down the Smiler.

In the meantime, however, he spends a lot of time interviewing people on the street, first interviewing a bunch of child prostitutes and the foster homes that they sort-of live in, then interviewing all the mentally ill people that the system has slowly been kicking out of actual psychiatric institutions. It’s sad and disturbing to read, especially when you remember the defunding of mental health institutions that took place under Reagan out here in the real world. In-universe, it becomes extra disturbing when you figure out that the mad people filling up the streets were the only witnesses to some of the Callahan administration’s crimes.

This volume’s not nearly as funny as some of the others, but it’s just as exciting.

bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
 In the sixth volume of Transmet, Transmetropolitan, Vol. 6: Gouge Away, Spider has become a media celebrity.

The first part of the book opens with excerpts from a number of different Spider-themed TV shows, including a cartoon called Magical Truthsaying Bastard Spidey and a terrible porno. Spider sinks into a self-hating depression, and the filthy assistants go shopping for clothes and guns with his credit card for a while, which is a less pointless plotline than you’d think. Eventually, Spider gets real pissed off and decides to do a journalism, beating up and interviewing a bunch of folks with dirty secrets on Callahan’s administration, including one of the guys that beat the genetically modified kid to death in the last volume. The results are explosive, although Spider and his filthy assistants are prepared and manage to stay one step ahead of his firing/eviction/freezing of assets. And that’s the plot, but as usual, the fun bits are in the details.

Callahan’s administration makes the current administration not seem so bad, if only because the current administration did not have its campaign manager murdered for public sympathy (nor has it grown its vice president in a vat, although I would actually believe that of Mike Pence if it were currently scientifically feasible). For this volume, at least, we’ve got a good old murder mystery kind of thing going on for most of it, with fewer Distressingly Relevant parallels than most of the other volumes. Which is a nice break. 

bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
 Ah, it feels good to get back to Transmet.

After reading the first four volumes in December, I borrowed the next batch but hadn’t gotten the time to actually read them, which is pretty much the story of my life now. Which means Transmetropolitan, Vol. 5: Lonely City is the first volume I’ve read since the current Administration actually began. This is also the first volume in the series after Callahan’s administration begins in the City.

The beginning of this volume is a series of random vignettes about the City and about Spider and his life at the moment and his various psychological issues. He tells short little stories about people from his past and profiles some of the unfortunates living in the City. There is a short storyline where they make a local senator’s life hell. Then eventually the plot starts, and it’s a sadly relevant one, futuristic gene-reading technology aside.

In the middle of the night, a kid with a recessive gene from some kind of genetically modified church that had been freaking people out a few generations ago was kicked to death by four assailants. The police at first do not release the tapes of the attack or arrest anybody, which Spider finds suspicious, because he knows there must be tapes due to the overly surveilled nature of public space in the City. Spider uses his platform to shame the police into making arrests, and protests gather outside the police building as the dead guy’s community realizes the police had tried to bury a hate crime. But it gets worse, and by the end of the book, there’s a pile of dead bodies and Spider’s the only person who knows what happened to them—but when he tries to publish, his column is censored by Callahan’s government for security reasons. In short: Police brutality, corruption, and coverups. Sound relevant?

This being Transmet instead of the real world, however, this version of police brutality and impunity comes colored with lots of darkly hilarious absurdity, over-the-top vulgarity, and creative future-shock tech. Spider grandstands about journalism and shoots people with his bowel disruptor, as is typical for him, and his two filthy assistants do their best to keep up and keep him out of trouble. The cat still has two faces. The illustrations of the City are full of cleverly awful jokes and bizarre foodstuffs, including Irish children, because of course.

I could probably have read this more slowly and spent more time looking at the art, because the art is very, very busy and detailed. But that’s quite hard for me to do, for some reason. The art is about as fast-paced as the story, so I end up ripping through each volume quite quickly.

On to the next one, to see what perfidy the Smiler has in store for our antiheroes. 

bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
 The folks in my book group wanted something a little more action-oriented than Necessary Trouble, so for this month we read Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.

Popovic was one of the founding members of Otpor!, the Serbian student resistance movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in the late ‘90s, and since then has helped run CANVAS, the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies, which trains pro-democracy activists across the world. So it’s clear that he’s got a track record of success in the subject.

The book is short and clearly written to be as accessible and entertaining as possible, each chapter dedicated to a specific principle or strategy—stuff like “make oppression backfire” and “have a vision of tomorrow”—and illustrating it with a lot of anecdotes from either Otpor! or other resistance movements that Popovic has worked with. Case studies range from the Israeli cottage cheese boycott of 2011 to the overthrow of the dictator Gayoom in the Maldives in 2008. A number of these stories are surprisingly delightful—the Israeli cottage cheese boycott was just the most bonkers thing; I actually laughed out loud reading about it—and in several cases this is by design. Popovic is a great proponent of what he calls “laughtivism,” or what I would more likely call “TROLLING FOR REVOLUTION” or possibly “meme warfare.”

(Aside: I spent much of this book wondering what Popovic thinks of the current Nazi-punching meme; obviously literally punching Nazis is an act of violence, but setting the gif of Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched to music and spreading it around the Internet seems otherwise the exact sort of goofy, low-barrier-to-entry rejection of a self-serious bigot that he’s advocating. Anyone can make and post Nazi-punching memes. And Popovic explicitly says that his commitment to nonviolence is more about tactical efficacy than about morals, and he gives Nazis as the quintessential example of “Obviously these guys had to be fought.” But there’s also long histories of both violent and non-violent resistance to Nazis and fascists that I think really need to be gone over in actual detail by anyone seriously thinking about how to best fight Nazis, and this book isn’t really about Nazis.)

At times, Popovic’s “I was just a regular college asshole” everyman schtick gets a little annoying, probably because I had bad experiences with Regular College Assholes, but I tried to sit with and examine that feeling until I got used to it, because inevitably any sort of mass movement is going to consist largely of people who are at least sort of assholes because people are like that. Avoiding everyone who’s even a little bit of a dick is a great way to end up hiding in a hole on some obscure corner of the Internet shitposting about those splitters at the People’s Front of Judea instead of getting anything done. Getting people to not be assholes to the rest of the movement in the course of doing the work is important so resentments don’t build, but that’s a more specific issue.

Probably the biggest blind spot in the book, though, is the conflation of specific political goals with fundamental cultural change. The second is a lot harder and Popovic doesn’t really talk about it, but sometimes it leads him into stepping into bits of American history that he doesn’t seem to know more than a surface-level amount about. The worst offenses are when he’s talking about the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, which he paints as being a huge success. It was successful if you consider it in terms of being a movement about legislative goals—ending the Jim Crow laws, passing the Voting Rights Act—and in that light, it was indeed a major victory. But the civil rights movement didn’t challenge a single unpopular figure with outsize power, like a dictator; ultimately, it was challenging a deeply rooted foundation of American culture, one with largely unexamined majority support. Any by that light, it only made very incremental progress. Popovic also ignores the role of Malcolm X and the more militant black power movement in framing Martin Luther King as a palatable, respectable alternative; nor does he discuss how the movement eventually devolved into riots in the early ‘70s. The message that can be fairly easily gleaned from what is and is not covered in this book is that cultural sea change is extremely hard; smaller, concrete policy goals are important to make sure you can claim yourself any wins at all. Most people don’t super enjoy living under murderous dictators in quite the same way that racists love living in a racist society, so the challenges are different.

The occasional foray into respectability politics aside, Popovic actually does do a pretty good job of presenting the case that the way a movement is presented and how it “sells” itself are pretty important. Symbols and storytelling are powerful tools; while some people certainly overestimate the importance of appearances over actually doing stuff, it’s also very true that people are emotional creatures, and they’ll respond to stuff better if it offers community, if it’s fun and exciting, if it feels cool and rebellious rather than strict and ideological, if it has a symbol and a narrative and all that good stuff. Otpor! also employed elements of what we’d now call gamification, such as giving out t-shirts for getting arrested, color-coded so that everyone could see what level of getting-arrested experience you’d earned.

The catalog of failed or partially failed resistance movements—Occupy Wall Street is a frequent case study—coalesces around one thesis: Learning from past movements doesn’t mean just looking at what they did and doing the same thing. It also means interrogating your own current situation and getting creative in figuring out the best way how to apply the principles of nonviolent resistance and when and in what way it will be effective to employ any given individual tactic. Occupying a space, Popovic stresses, is a tactic; it’s not a strategy or an identity. Activists need to be creative, perceptive, and flexible; striving to simply copy past successful movements makes you too predictable.  

Overall, I think it’s a charming, accessible little book that explains its basic principles well and would be an especially good thing to give to the sorts of people who ask dumb shit like “Why don’t they just protest peacefully?” as if a) graffiti is violent or something or b) there’s anything “just” about organizing large masses of people, because it will explain bog-standard concepts like “Maintaining peaceful control over a large crowd of upset people is in fact something you have to actively do, and it requires discipline and organizing, and it’s possible to fail at it” in much nicer and more persuasive ways than, say, shouting at them that they’re stupid and liberals are fucking useless, which is what I want to do every time I hear stuff like that. (If you don’t want to buy them a whole book, I also recommend this excellent Foreign Policy piece about political violence.)

I’ve probably got more to say, but book club is tomorrow and I should probably save at least some of it for that? And write up questions, because that’s my responsibility which I forgot about until right this second.

Anyway. Dictators hate it when you make fun of them, so go forth and troll for democracy.

 

Adventures of George Washington meme
bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
A few weeks ago, at the ACES conference in St. Petersburg, I had the privilege of being in the audience at the very first reading for Kory Stamper's new book, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. I'd followed Kory Stamper on Twitter for a while, even before Merriam-Webster became the unlikely voice of The Resistance. Reading her blog, Harmless Drudgery, had definitely turned me into one of those people for whom being a lexicographer sounds like the best job ever, although now that I've read the book, I must concede that it's entirely possible I wouldn't be very good at it if by some miracle I did land a lexicographer job, since I'm prone to burnout about stuff generally, and because apparently it's not really possible to tell if your sprachgefuhl is quite strong enough until you've put it to the test.

Anyway. The book.

I loved it.

Inasmuch as it has a narrative thread, it is Kory Stamper's memoirs, starting with her job interview and walking us through her training and the major lexicographical challenges and triumphs of her career, for the purpose of illustrating what making dictionaries requires and what kind of weirdos make them. Within this basic framework we take many detours -- into Kory's pre-lexicographical life, into the history of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and of dictionaries in general, into the histories and uses of a lot of weird words, and many other odd and interesting places.

This book contains many footnotes, many of which are in the form of definitions, which is quite cute, but they also have jokes and funny asides in them, like Terry Pratchett footnotes. (My favorite bit was the one I found an error in and then I felt smart.)

Stamper's general style is one I tentatively dub Internet Witty, a form of speech that is marked not necessarily by fancily formal sentences, but by a wide range of registers, references, tidbits, factoids, wordplay, and other things that word nerds have fun with. It shows off a wide-ranging rather than a narrowly specialized education and worldview on the part of the writer. It's the playfully nerdy style that was elevated to an art form on The Toast, basically, highbrow and lowbrow and middlebrow at the same time. It gives us phrases like memento moron: "remember you, too, will fuck up." It marks Stamper as one of the tribe of people who know a lot of obscure liberal arts things but who do so because obscure liberal arts things are hilarious -- i.e., my people. In short, it is very, very far from the dry, objective, personality-less style mandated by the dictionary itself. Squeezing all the color out of a dictionary definition is quite a process, and one which Stamper walks us through with self-deprecating and sometimes juvenile good humor.

If you love words, you'll love this book. If you're a bit of a snob about words, it will challenge a lot of your assumptions -- one of my favorite bits of the book is Kory's journey to becoming an "irregardless" apologist -- but if you like rolling around in them and banging them together and pulling them apart to see what's inside, then boy is this book for you.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I loved Three Parts Dead so much that I immediately ran, did not walk, to borrow the sequel Two Serpents Rise from my roommate, and then I ate it (by which I mean I read it really fast; eating other people's books is rude).

The book started off inauspiciously with me catching two minor terminology errors in the first chapter, which depicts what is clearly a game of no-limit Hold'em, one in which our main character makes a very bad fold. But at least the book knows it's a bad fold, so it's got that going for it. Fortunately, things get better after that, as we learn more about the city of Dresediel Lex and the complex system of creepy magic that keeps it supplied with water.

Dresediel Lex, part Las Vegas and part Tenochtitlan, is a desert city that is trying to be very modern and run on Craft and ignore its prior history of human sacrifice, a history that only ended a few decades earlier. Our main character, Caleb, is the Dresediel Lex equivalent of an annoying finance bro, doing risk management and analysis for Red King Consolidated--the magical Concern that runs the city's water supply--and playing a lot of poker. He has daddy issues -- quite understandably, since his dad is one of the last priests of the old religion (the one that feeds its gods hearts) from before the God Wars, and he keeps running around trying to overthrow the Craftsmen and return to the old ways, and basically being a creepy terrorist zealot.

In classic annoying white bro protagonist fashion, Caleb picks up an Obligatory Love Interest by seeing a woman out and about and immediately becoming completely obsessed forever. In this case, the woman is a cliff runner named Mal, who turns out to be a Craftswoman for the firm that Red King is currently in the middle of a rather complicated merger with.

Meanwhile, back at Caleb's job, one of the reservoirs is suddenly full of creepy demons, and while that initial attack is sorted out easily enough, it really wasn't supposed to happen and it turns out to just be the first in a long line of complicated god- and demon-related acts of sabotage that somebody somewhere is committing against Red King Consolidated and Dresediel Lex's water supplies. The resulting complex web of law, religion, magic, explosions, and creepy lobstery water demons is fantasically difficult to sum up but it all makes sense in the book, I promise.

Despite my general underwhelmedness with both Caleb and Mal as people -- seriously, they're perfect for each other, because they're both irritating and I would not like to hang out with either one of them in real life -- I thoroughly enjoyed the book. They were still entertaining enough characters, and they certainly went through enough interesting shit. Plus a lot of the secondary characters were great, especially the Red King, a coffee-drinking skeleton who usually appears in a red bathrobe, because he lives in the creepy pyramid that is the Concern's headquarters. Caleb's dad is also actually quite hilarious, despite being a giant scary religious zealot.

Anyway, it's a book about unsustainable resource extraction, but it's also about giant fiery serpents and water gods and human sacrifice and all that good stuff, so it's quite a head trip in a good way.
bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)
For BSpec's book club I finally got around to reading the first book in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence, which I have been meaning to do for at least two years now. I have the last two books in the sequence signed, but the first one only in paperback, and am missing the second and third. To make it even more complicated, the books take place in a different order than they are published -- they are ordered by the number referenced in the title.

The first book, therefore, is Three Parts Dead, which follows the adventures of young Craftswoman Tara Abernathy as she is hired on probation at the necromantic law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao under the mentorship of terrifyingly efficient senior Craftwoman Elayne Kevarian. Tara graduated from Craft school under dubious circumstances that involved her trying to kill one of her professors and getting thrown out of the school, literally, which is pretty dangerous because the school floats up in the sky, as all the best magic schools do.

Tara's first assignment is in the city of Alt Coulomb, which runs off the power of its god, Kos Everburning. Unfortunately, Kos has died under mysterious circumstances. Tara, with the help of a hilarious sheltered young priest (or Novice Technician, as he is called) named Abelard and his junkie policewoman friend Cat, has to help Elayne figure out who killed Kos and why and how and who benefits and all that stuff and generally unravel the massive conspiracy hidden in the heart of the Church.

While the story is plenty funny, it's not as much of a comedy as one might think from some of its elements -- demon lawyers! a vampire pirate captain! divine contract law! -- and the world of magical techno-corporatocracy that Gladstone builds is convincing, at once both weird and distressingly familiar.

Tara is a great protagonist, driven and talented and badass and definitely in a bit over her head, and Abelard is a great dual lead, being an earnest bumbling weirdo in an arcane religious order who chain-smokes to show religious devotion and doesn't know what a newspaper is. They're a fantastic, fantastic team, especially since the book very sensibly eschews the unnecessary romantic subplot that I think a lot of authors would have found obligatory.  Instead of romance we get, like, shape-shifting gargoyles and blood magic libraries and a nine-story demonic BDSM nightclub and stuff like that.

The philosophical underpinnings of the main conflict ends up having a lot to do with free will and consent and the dangers of clever, talented technolibertarian douchebags being allowed to exploit other people without adult supervision, so suffice it to say that the book is not all fluff and explosions, although like any good urban fantasy it certainly has quite a lot in the way of fluff and explosions, and even an instance of leather pants.

I think we're going to get a really good discussion out of it. I've already started reading the next book in the Sequence, so we'll see how many we get through by the time book club rolls around.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Due to time constraints we picked a short book for our next book club, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and although I read it all in one evening I've been mulling over it for several days after before attempting to write a review, and will likely try to reread it before we meet. There's a lot packed into the 106 pages here. The pair of essays -- one short, at just a few pages, the other more than ninety pages long -- combines Baldwin's personal and family history, American history, sociological and cultural commentary, an unnerving dinner with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammed, and a call for all of us to truly reckon with America's history and legacy of racism.

The first essay, addressed to Baldwin's nephew (also named James), is personal enough that some of it almost feels a little voyeuristic to read, but its main point -- that at the time it was written, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, celebration was premature, and black Americans had not really been emancipated yet -- is of interest to any reader who is at all invested in America. This letter also introduces a theme Baldwin expounds upon later as well, which that white people, while not "devils" as some movements at the time concluded, were nevertheless not very smart, and that they were in charge of everything was no reason to accept their infantile framing that it was black people who needed to be accepted/assimilated into white society and to become more like white people, because the existing white power structure was dreadful and, within it, people became weird and stupid and dysfunctional (Baldwin writes this in more elegant terms than that, of course) -- in short, he tries to each his nephew to resist internalizing what we now call the white gaze.

The second essay is a mostly autobiographical set of musings about growing up and learning to face the world and all its absurdities and atrocities, and the many temptations and pitfalls and escapes that Baldwin either avoided or did not. He speaks of his terror of falling into a life of crime as he became closer in age to the criminals that haunted the streets of Harlem where he grew up, and of the somewhat self-aggrandizing refuge he found in the Church as a youth pastor -- and then, eventually, how he grew to find it hypocritical and leave it behind him. He writes about the Nation of Islam movement and about why it appealed to people, and he explains both why he thinks it's wrong and that he understands what it's an entirely understandable response to. There is a tendency in much of American liberalism, at least right now, to expend much more fury and moralizing denunciation upon the people supposedly on one's same "side" who are doing it wrong than against the actual forces of oppression, in order to show off that you are one of the reasonable ones and to try and keep your "side" in line. The results are usually a bad look. Baldwin here manages to avoid any sort of ostentatious pearl-clutching or unsightly scrambling to distance himself from the Nation of Islam movement; it is in part a testament to his great empathy and in part a testament to his skill as a writer that he instead portrays the movement and the dinner with a profound sadness and with a tension and feeling of uneasiness that makes this section of the essay especially unputdownable. He writes about the people who join the Nation of Islam in largely sociological terms, describing them as sort of getting entangled in hatred and its weird mythology the way other excellent writers have written about family members sinking into addiction or crime. Though he's understanding of the course of despair and frustration that leads to people joining what is essentially a cult, he doesn't gloss over the fact that it is a supremacist hate group, and that no amount of explanation actually makes that anything other than ugly.

Baldwin reserves some of his profound sadness for his insights into the psychology of white Americans, some of which still rings 100% true and some of which rings slightly less true until you remember he was writing in 1962 and you figure that if it's not completely true now it squares 100% with everything we know about the '50s. Sometimes I forget how weird the '50s must have been until I see, like, advertisements or TV footage or something like that from then, and it's just modern enough that the ways in which it is alien make me feel like I'm on bad drugs, with people smoking on airplanes and all the movies in eye-watering Technicolor. Baldwin describes us as "slightly mad victims of our own brainwashing," which is certainly true, and as being terrified of sensuality, which is something we have made some progress on in some spaces and pretended to make progress on in others, and made no progress on whatsoever in large swaths of American life. Some of the things Baldwin says about stress and psychotherapy, about the aridity of life under the sway of capitalism and its fantasies, have only become more true since the postwar boom ended and the economic deprivation that used to characterize Harlem has hollowed out the entire middle class (even as Harlem becomes gentrified out of existence, from what I hear).

For me personally, it was Baldwin's criticisms of Christianity that interested me the most. He talks about Christianity's history as an imperial power, allied with imperialist nations and foisted upon unwilling populations to "save" them, though the only thing they really needed saving from was the Christians. And he talks about the role of the black Church in ways that echo with criticisms I've read about the Irish Catholic Church, especially in pre-revolutionary Ireland, but the Church he is describing is also in other ways clearly very different, and not only because Catholic Mass tends to be a very stiff and formal affair. But I'm always very interested in people's stories of apostasy, especially people who were once very serious and therefore whose apostasy had to be very serious as well. Baldwin discusses the purposes that his Church serves, both in the community and in his life, purposes both good and bad, and how he came around to where the good parts had outlived their usefulness and stopped outweighing the various hypocrisies that tend to accumulate in religions once they've been around a while.

It is distressing how much of this essay is still relevant, even as the Nation of Islam has been largely reduced to a set of footnotes on the SPLC's hatewatch map. But America as a whole has still not really gotten around to doing much of the real reckoning with race that Baldwin requested of us, though more liberal sectors have started to do more in just the past couple years, as the elections of Barack Obama and the ensuing "whitelash" have brought racial issues front and center in a way we haven't seen in quite a while. We also put an idiot racist kleptocrat and a bunch of Nazis in the White House, though, which unfortunately is going to have a bigger immediate impact on a lot of people's lives than all the interesting new documentaries that are out recently, and I say that as someone who think these sorts of documentaries are really important. (Everyone should go see I Am Not Your Negro.) I'm looking forward to discussing this book with the book group and probably to reading a lot more Baldwin in the future.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For reasons that definitely have nothing whatsoever to do with modern politics, I have lately become very interested in dictatorial regimes again, and especially World War II. I read a lot of Holocaust memoirs and stuff when I was younger, but not a lot of stuff on the military and political history end of things. I also remember reading a bit about Nazi propaganda as part of general study of propaganda both in history classes and in media classes, but not really in great depth. So I figured it was time to look more at the political situation around the rise and establishment of the Third Reich than I got in ninth grade history.

To that end was recommended to me In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson, who is best known for Devil in the White City, which I admit I have not read but which people seem to like. Garden of Beasts follows U.S. ambassador Charles Dodd and his daughter Martha as they establish themselves in Berlin in 1933, shortly after Hitler becomes Chancellor. Dodd is not a usual ambassador type, being that he's not a rich socialite; he is a history professor who just wants to work on his book about the Old South and finish it sometime before he dies. Martha is a 24-year-old boho type who falls in love with basically everybody, which is ordinarily something I would not necessarily judge her for, except that this doesn't stop when she goes to live among a bunch of Nazis, and I'm gonna judge anyone who dates multiple Nazis, I don't care that it was 1933 and you didn't realize. Dodd's wife and son are in Berlin too, but the book doesn't follow them as closely.

On the one hand, the book is a fascinating look into a historical time and place that I don't know all that much about, which is what I wanted, and it's exciting in that dreadful way that so much of the Weird History I like to read is. The surface pleasantries of 1933 Berlin, and discovering all the awful stuff going on just under its surface--police surveillance and basement prisons; the first concentration camps being built out in the countryside--is written in a brilliantly creepy way, peeling back layers of superficial urbanity with the mounting tension of a horror movie. The climax of the book, plotwise, is the Night of the Long Knives, an event I'd never heard of (I told you my early WWII political knowledge was lacking), although the Dodds stayed in Berlin for another three years before coming home and going on the lecture circuit, raising the alarm against the Nazis.

On the other hand, though, so much of this book was distressingly familiar. The various manifestations of liberal denialism--the it-can't-be-that-bad-ism, the it-can't-happen-here/now kind of thinking, the insistence that individual shocking events were isolated cases no matter how many of them cropped up, the assumption of rationality and earnestness where there was none just because people were in positions of power that are supposed to be occupied by respectable people, and above all, the constant refusal to believe the people who were pointing out what was going on, insisting that they must be overreacting--it's all so dreadfully, stupidly familiar, and it worries me, and it makes me think I should be doing more, now, before things get worse, although I still don't know quite what to be doing. Much like in Germany in 1933, the U.S. already has some of its infrastructure of horror built--our massive system of prisons, the ICE detention facilities where migrants wait for deportation for months, our terrifying surveillance and data-scraping capabilities, invasive security theater at airports--and many of our institutions are shockingly weak, but utterly resistant to doing the self-scrutiny that would allow them to strengthen themselves. At this time, the Holocaust hadn't started--Action T4 hadn't even been officially established--but Jews were losing their jobs, the concentration camp at Dachau had been built and was being used to warehouse political dissidents, and there were several secret torture basements around the city in use by the Gestapo. On the surface, people went to work and shopped and hung out in fancy restaurants in Berlin, all modern and normal.

So, basically, I did a lot of stopping to panic while reading this book. It hit home in a suffocating sort of way, giving me the sort of tilting feeling I sometimes get when I'm walking down the street in Allston and it's all perfectly normal and then I remember that there are other streets in the U.S. right now where unarmed people have been shot to death and left to die, or even when I go to a protest and it's the middle of the afternoon and the cops are quietly monitoring it all bored-looking and I remember that this is not what all protests are like and I've just been very lucky so far, or maybe lazy, that I've only attended preplanned marches, mostly in the daytime, that never got out of hand.

But I also learned a lot. I learned about all sorts of interesting characters with shocking life stories, Nazi and non-Nazi alike. I learned about the rivalries between the different arms of the Nazi brutality machine--the SA and the SS and the Gestapo and the regular army--and the intrigues that had Rudolf Diels fleeing the country on the regs and that eventually did in Ernst Rohm. I think the book did a good job of hitting that difficult balance of humanizing the Nazis, as in showing that they are, indeed, humans, but not soft-pedaling or excusing or minimizing any of the horrible stuff they did, the usual byproduct of "humanization," of the liberal instinct to study and explain butting up against the liberal belief that people are fundamentally good. The Nazis were fundamentally real humans, but they weren't fundamentally good. They were fucking Nazis. And apparently, living in Berlin by 1934 was like living with a bunch of pod people, as the surveillance increase and the state program of Gleichschaltung (coordination, i.e., normalization) sank deeper into the bones of the country.

Dodd and Martha seem idiotically naive at the beginning of the book, but Dodd quickly grew on me, being a very principled dude who never really buys into the whole Nazi thing, even though it takes him a distressingly long time to fully admit to himself just how bad it is. Martha is more actively irritating at the beginning since she's very taken in by all the uniforms and fit young dudes marching and stuff, but eventually grows disillusioned and, due to her love affair with a Russian diplomat named Boris, who is actually an intelligence operative, is eventually sort of half-assedly recruited as a Soviet asset. George Messersmith haunts the first half of the book like a longwinded Cassandra, warning a denialist State Department of just how "psychopathic" the Nazi leadership was. He and Dodd do not get along, and not long after Messersmith is transferred out of Germany, Dodd finds himself taking up mantle of giving long-winded warnings that go largely ignored by the U.S.

While the whole story has so much plot it's hard to believe it all really happened like this, the most important stuff in the book is its portrayal of how a bunch of utterly hateful, thuggish manbabies manage to take control of a country of nice, friendly people--the way they capitalize on the earnestness and disbelief of other people, their willingness to lie and dissemble, the feints toward moderation, the secrecy of the true extent of their plans and the visibility of the dysfunction that made their smarter, more rational opposition underestimate their danger. This is hardly unique to Garden of Beasts, though; the most important takeaway of any material about the Nazi's rise to power is always understanding of the tricks they use, and especially the pitfalls that educated, rational, nice, liberal, or otherwise "normal" folks fell into to allow it to happen. But Garden of Beasts illustrates some of them excellently, in a viscerally familiar way that feels like watching a car crash with that slow-motion affect that happens by itself when it's too late for you to do anything.

TL;DR This was an upsettingly excellent book and I recommend it highly.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the many, many drivers of the outcome in the past clusterfuck of an election was the under-reported but extremely serious wave of voter suppression that GOP legislators have been enacting since the VRA was gutted in 2013. Ari Berman had been valiantly reporting on this issue at The Nation for most of the circus, so I knew that his book on the subject, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America was going to be near the top of the list of books to read in the book club. (Side note: Anyone want to join my politics book club?)

I'm very much looking forward to discussing this one, as infuriating as it is, especially at the end.

The book begins with the Selma march where John Lewis got his head beat in, and vividly illustrates all the drama surrounding the passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act. Sometimes it's hard to realize that it wasn't all that long ago--there's such a Wild West-y amount of shooting, firebombing, and random street beatings going on. Then I remember that it was only 50 years ago, and also I'm lucky to live in relatively safe areas that are not "gun country," so probably even some of these places aren't as different now as I'd have assumed.

Despite all the shooting and firebombing and stuff, the earlier part of the book is still the cheerful one, because Act One ends with the Voting Rights Act being passed and implemented. Act Two is basically Adventures in Vote Dilution, and Act Three, most depressingly, is the legal counterrevolution that led to the Act being gutted, starting with the sick fucks in the Reagan administration.

The most depressing part of whole thing, oddly, was the "unholy alliance" between the Congressional Black Caucus and the GOP to draw majority-minority heavily gerrymandered districts in order to ensure any kind of minority representation in Congress, even though it made districts less competitive and increased the number of GOP-stronghold districts in the South by basically getting rid of all the moderate white Democrats. This turns out to have been a bad move given the degree to which partisanship has increased as a force in American politics relative to literally anything else. Also, gerrymandering is bad; the more competitive districts are, the better for democracy. So that was a bummer; it read like the fatal flaw that leads to the hero's downfall in a Greek tragedy. Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that, but it seems like a thread the consequences of pulling on were farther-reaching than anticipated.

The real problem, of course, is the cadre of "neoconservative" lawyers brought into the White House during the Reagan and both Bush administrations, "neoconservative" being the bullshit euphemism for "authoritarian, burn-it-down-if-we-can't-control-it reactionaries" that we had before we came up with "alt-right" to push the backwardness into straight-up Nazism. Among other things, they utterly weaponized the Supreme Court, turning it into the anti-human clusterfuck it is today and that the Republicans are hellbent on keeping it. There are many new names on my list of People Who Haven't Been Punched Enough after reading this book, although I probably won't remember the names.

The book ends with a discussion of the Moral Monday marches and of North Carolina's descent from reasonable moderation into an unsterile petri dish of retrograde GOP democracy-fucking experiments. It's simultaneously heartening and depressing.

Voting rights are the single most important issue in our democracy right now outside of not actually killing off the entire human race via nuclear incompetence or the drastic acceleration of global warming. Voting rights are the only hope we have of taking ourselves off the road to fascism, and the power-hungry sociopaths of the GOP know that and are going to do their best to destroy it.

Let's not make it easy.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
WELL THAT ONLY TOOK ME THE ENTIRE MONTH OF JANUARY.

But I did pull it off just in time for book club, by which I mean I was reading the last twenty pages or so at book club.

This is the BSpec book club, and we read Ken Liu's Grace of Kings, which had been on The List for a while. It's a political/military epic fantasy, drawing on pseudo-medieval Chinese myth and history rather than pseudo-medieval European myth and history. I do kind of wish I'd read it closer to when it first came out, though, if only because it's really hard right now to get invested in the collapse of fictional empires when the real-world empire I live in is actually for reals collapsing right around me. Also the real world one has more spies. Like, there are some spies in Grace of Kings, but the news is like ALL SPIES lately.

Anyway. The short version of the plot is that a bunch of squabbling kingdoms have been forcibly united under an oppressive Emperor for about a generation. When the Emperor dies, his young son becomes Emperor, but the kid is deliberately spoiled and kept away from governing so his aides can jockey for power. Against this backdrop, a popular uprising against the Empire starts, which eventually becomes a whole bunch of different factions reclaiming their own lands (sound familiar?). The two biggest players in this struggle who emerge are Kuni Garu, a jovial trickster type, and Mata Zyndu, a preternaturally tall and strong scion of a deposed royal family who is fearsomely unbeatable in battle and super uptight. He's basically a Terminator. Despite being polar opposites, they team up to become the rebellion's power couple for a while, but eventually fall out over something stupid that Mata is too rigid-minded to ever patch up properly. In the background of all this, a pantheon of gods all designate certain characters their pawns and try to influence the situation so "their" favorite mortals can "win."

We discussed our nitpicks at book club--such as that the female characters were memorable but there were a limited number of them; meanwhile, the overwhelming number of male characters with often-similar names meant I got a lot of them except the two leads mixed up--but overall this was a pretty solid example of the type of book it is, with a lot of factionalism and strategy and death and fighting. Some elements of the worldbuilding were a little inconsistent or episodic--like, at one point there were mechanical giant whale submarines, but then they were done being used so there just... weren't any more whale submarines. You can't just do this to a girl--if your book is gonna have giant whale submarines at all, it's gotta give us a LOT of giant whale submarines. They are too awesome to be a minor throwaway plot point.

That said, the intrigue is really good, and it's got some interesting meditations on power, morality, the limitations of militarism, and all that sort of stuff that's necessary to make the gods' chess game have more meaning than just a chess game. I'm not as enthused about the sequel as I'd hoped I'd be, though, but that might be partly because I've decided to dedicate the next two years to reading about Nazis. It's really not Ken Liu's fault--anyone writing political fantasy has just had their job made infinitely harder by the vagaries of reality.

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bloodygranuaile

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