Read the rest of this review at Casino City:
Ed Thorp's autobiography proves he's 'A Man for All Markets'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.