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)
In Transmetropolitan, Vol. 4: The New Scum, Spider and his two “filthy assistants” are still covering the shitshow of an election, doing interviews with Tammany Hall boss-esque incumbent The Beast and empty suit upstart Senator Gary Callahan, aka The Smiler.

Spider also interviews a bunch of other people, including a lady who used to be cryogenically frozen, because the 23rd century is weird like that. But mostly, this volume is entirely about the election.

Everything we’ve heard about the Beast in the past three volumes is awful. The more we learn of the Smiler, though, we start to see that he’s awful too, and of course, as soon as it becomes clear enough that he’s actually going to be more awful than the Beast, he wins the election. Spider and his filthy assistants throw hand grenades off the balcony when they learn this.

The title refers to the most throwaway stratum of city life, those disenfranchised by the Beast as punishment for never voting for him, although the term “new scum” was given to them by their new supposed hero Senator Callahan. The old scum is presumably the Beast’s voting base.

The relentless misery of electoral politics is occasionally broken up by subplots from weird religious sects, a cute section where Spider is actually nice to somebody (in this case, a young girl whose favorite toy had to be pawned), and by the blossoming pain-in-the-ass friendship between Channon and Yelena, Spider’s assistants (technically, his current assistant and his former-assistant-now-bodyguard).

The Hotel Fat also sounds like the futuristic version of Trump Tower, I’m just sayin’.

It’s hard to truly describe just how incisively weird Transmet is without just pointing out the stuff in panels—the cultural detritus (and I use that word for a reason) cluttering up every available surface in each panel is solid gold to read through, from food stands selling reindeerburgers and French people to a stenciled message on a public bench that reads “Warning: This bench becomes red-hot between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. No sleeping.” I know there’s some cities in the U.S. that would do that if they could figure out how to do so cheaply enough.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Hold onto your butts, because Transmetropolitan, Vol. 3: Year of the Bastard is where the real main plotline in Transmet—and the one that’s got nerds running in droves to reread the series—shows up: the election.

With Channon having ragequit Spider’s employment and fucked off to a nunnery, Spider starts off this volume avoiding covering the electoral shitshow that is consuming the city. His editor lands him with a new assistant and orders to start doing his damn job, so Spider decides to cover the opposition party’s convention.

The incumbent president is a corrupt, marginally competent lowlife that Spider has stuck with the nickname The Beast, and who seems to be the one primarily responsible for doing to the America in Transmet what Steve Bannon wants to do to the America in our reality, in this the worst of all timelines.

The opposition party’s two main candidates are a racist fascist named Joe Heller and a clean-cut senator with a creepy wide grin, Gary Callahan, nicknamed The Smiler. Spider’s main puzzle in this book is to ferret out and report on the shady dealings that allow Callahan to steal the Florida primary from Heller, who practically owns the state, and therefore nab the opposition party nomination. The shady dealings include a vice-presidential candidate who was literally grown in a vat. Personally, I think it’s unlikely that Florida will still exist by the time we’re growing full humans in vats, but perhaps it went and annexed part of another state or something.

Callahan’s campaign manager, Vita Severn, is basically the only halfway decent-seeming person involved in the whole affair, so of course she gets assassinated. This upsets Spider and gives Callahan a giant boost in the polls. What a coincidence, eh?

The political parallels to today’s electoral fuckery aren’t perfect—the Beast, Heller, and the Smiler all have attributes that are familiar enough among today’s politicians, but the characters themselves are quite their own. But there’s a lot of very resonant stuff about corruption and fakery and the government being run by people whose views on what the government actually ought to do are certainly not along the lines of “promote the general welfare.”  And, of course, there’s the role of the media, although none of the investigative journalists actually covering our campaign ended up getting quite the amount of celebrity Jerusalem supposedly enjoys (or hates, rather), plus Spider doesn’t have to compete with professional troll farms.

Still. Elections is ugly, and Ellis does ugly very well.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 2: Lust for Life is longer than the first installment of the series, and contains a number of loosely connected story arcs that mostly serve to do further worldbuilding and to further develop Spider Jerusalem’s highly dysfunctional character. In this volume, he takes on an assistant, buys a pair of Jesus-themed sneakers and gets all messianic, traumatizes a police dog, and has a pack of cultists set on him by the cryogenically frozen head of his ex-wife, who is also willfully dysfunctional.

Personally, my favorite part of this volume is the introduction of Channon Yarrow, a grad student paying her way through J-school with a series of increasingly less respectable gigs, of which becoming Spider’s assistant may be the least respectable. Channon has a useless boyfriend who eventually leaves her to become a foglet, essentially a cloud of living nanoparticles. Channon is very upset about this even though she’s better off without him.

If there is a weakness to this volume it is that it doesn’t have a storyline to tie it together, although the individual episodes are very interesting. The results are a bit disjointed. Fortunately, this won’t be the case for long. Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 2: Lust for Life is longer than the first installment of the series, and contains a number of loosely connected story arcs that mostly serve to do further worldbuilding and to further develop Spider Jerusalem’s highly dysfunctional character. In this volume, he takes on an assistant, buys a pair of Jesus-themed sneakers and gets all messianic, traumatizes a police dog, and has a pack of cultists set on him by the cryogenically frozen head of his ex-wife, who is also willfully dysfunctional.

Personally, my favorite part of this volume is the introduction of Channon Yarrow, a grad student paying her way through J-school with a series of increasingly less respectable gigs, of which becoming Spider’s assistant may be the least respectable. Channon has a useless boyfriend who eventually leaves her to become a foglet, essentially a cloud of living nanoparticles. Channon is very upset about this even though she’s better off without him.

If there is a weakness to this volume it is that it doesn’t have a storyline to tie it together, although the individual episodes are very interesting. The results are a bit disjointed. Fortunately, this won’t be the case for long. 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
God, I hadn't realized how much I missed Spider Jerusalem.

I first read Transmetropolitan in college, almost ten years ago now, during a blessed period of time where Donald Trump was just some buffoon on reality TV and was totally off the radar screen of people who don't watch reality TV, which just so happened to include me and literally everybody else I knew. That might have been the only plus of that time period, honestly—any hopey-changey goodfeels brought on by the impending end of the historically awful Bush administration were offset by it being precisely the time when the economy imploded. (More specifically, I think I read Transmet during the fall semester at the end of 2007, after the subprime loans had started crashing but before TARP was passed.)

Following the surprise election of the nuke-happy, gropey old toddler to the highest office in the land—helped along by Kremlin trollbots, a corrupt FBI (itself helped by the execrable Jason Chaffetz), thirty years of hysterical anti-Hillary Big Lie propaganda from the GOP because she dared support universal health insurance before it was cool, a comfortably useless Democratic establishment without a competent marketer in sight, and a useless clickbait-driven media ecosystem that on the whole displays editorial judgement so poor it would get kicked off the middle school yearbook staff—it seemed like time to revisit everyone's favorite foul-mouthed, drug-addled gonzo journalist and see how prescient the series really was.

The result, so far, is that it's depressingly prescient. There are a handful of things in it that come off as now being weirdly old-fashioned—cash tollbooths with humans working in them, which are rapidly on their way out in the real world, or the fact that Jerusalem can live off of only writing one column a week, even if he is a celebrity—but overall, we do really seem to be just further along the trajectories Ellis identified in 1998 when it was first published: Increased corruption, sham democracy, advertisements and screens everywhere, cities overcrowded to the point where they can't ever stop being filthy no matter how fancy and overdeveloped they get; high-tech luxuries existing alongside widespread poverty; an exhausted, frenzied populace overstimulated into gullibility and complacency; and, of course, power-hungry scam artists taking advantage of all the generalized confusion and disorder at every turn. It's actually quite shocking to realize it was written almost twenty years ago—if it had been published last week, I'm pretty sure the only thing that would need to change would be the tollbooth worker.

In the middle of it all is social justice rogue Spider Jerusalem, returned to the city after hiding in the mountains for five years because his creditors finally found him, a heavily tattooed agent of chaos in colorfully mismatched camera-spectacles (the machine that made them is also on drugs).  Spider bullies his way back into a writing gig with his old editor, a weekly column called I Hate It Here, where he dedicates himself afflicting the comfortable but doesn't really have the time or sensitivity to comfort the afflicted. He does, however, tell their stories, raging on behalf of the dispossessed in time-honored angry lefty fashion, calling out the dirty secrets of the powerful and generally using his boundless capacity for assholery to troll for good.

Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the Street covers Spider's return from the mountain and his break back into the spotlight as he covers a riot and uncovers the deliberate setup behind the violence. It bears an unsettling resemblance to some of the accounts of outbreaks of police violence at protests we've been hearing about over the past few years—peaceful protests where some small event (or unproven reports of one) are used as a pretext for attack by an overmilitarized police force, although these haven't ended in actual mass slaughter in the U.S. (so far, at least). The group targeted in this riot is a bunch of people spliced with alien DNA, known as transients, who are basically kind of a cult led by a Charles Manson-esque figure called Fred Christ. Christ leads the group to "secede," declaring the destitute handful of city blocks they've been sidelined into to be its own country, building half-assed barricades around the transient's ghetto and cutting off the utilities that their altered bodies don't need in order to drive out any remaining full humans. They're portrayed as a bunch of gullible but harmless weirdos (except for Fred Christ, who is a creeper), so of course the state brings down the hammer on them for this hopelessly ineffectual act of treason.

With a busy, expressive drawing style and lots of creative swearing, this high-octane nightmare-fueled story nonetheless displays a greatly hopeful reminder of what journalism could and should be. Today's Beltway media would do well to take note: With the incoming administration, all journalists are going to have to become muckraking investigative pains in the ass, or they can go find another profession. Put on your stompy boots and remember: You don't have to put up with this shabby crap! You're a journalist!

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
After the election, I decided to start a book club.

The first meeting is in January, well before inauguration. For our first book, we picked Sarah Jaffe's Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.

Necessary Trouble covers a bunch of the different protest/activist movements that have arisen in the U.S. since the financial crisis hit in 2008: Starting with the Tea Party, it moves on chapter by chapter to cover Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Our Homes, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, Moral Mondays, and a number of climate actions. The section on climate actions, mostly the anti-fracking movement, are kept for the end of the book so that it ends on a maximally apocalyptic note: These are the people fighting government's attempts to literally burn the earth and poison people to make a buck.

Jaffe contextualizes each movement in terms of the events and policies that led up to it being born, often giving recap that go far back into the history of capitalism and of the United States. She ties that in with the stories of activists within each movement, providing in-depth interviews about how and why they got involved and what the movement means to them.

A couple key themes continually emerge. One is that many of these crises have been a long time coming and will not be easily solved. Another is a theme among the activists that so many of them found themselves ashamed of being in the sorts of situations that instigated these movements--of losing their jobs or retirement savings in the financial crash, of being foreclosed on, of holding student debt. Americans really, really want to be hard-working and self-sufficient, and this is part of what's allowed things to get as bad as they have: People will tell themselves that they should individually work harder to overcome whatever's being thrown at them instead of insisting upon being treated fairly, which we tend to believe sounds like petulant whining--that if someone's treating you unfairly, you should be awesome enough to make them treat you fairly, instead of complaining that they're not. The result of this is that the powers that be have been able to tilt the playing field ENORMOUSLY in their own favor before folks who see themselves as average hardworking Americans are willing to admit that they haven't been able to overcome the enormous structural disadvantages they've been put at and maybe you fuckers should just stop stacking the deck. Americans are highly prone to believing that there is still shame in losing even if the other guy was cheating, because you should have been awesome enough to stop the other guy from cheating you.

The book is very hopeful--hopeful that Americans are willing to learn and to organize and to come together in solidarity to get into "good trouble" and demand change. But it also warns of the temptations of the dark side of populism, the scapegoating, tribalist kind illustrated by Trump, who had not yet been, to our eternal shame and possibly to the end of our democracy, barely elected on a technicality with some help via cheating. (And yeah, in true American fashion, I'm pretty ashamed that the Clinton campaign couldn't still beat him even with the cheating, because he's the worst con man ever.) The hopefulness is alternately infectious--Americans have been organizing and fighting; we'll be able to do it more--and depressing. Frankly, the emotional whiplash is a little hard to take.

I learned a lot, though, even as someone who tried to follow these movements relatively closely on social media when they first happened. (For example, I didn't know that Lehman Brothers had gotten its start selling security bonds on slaves--honestly, and this is probably stupid of me, I hadn't realized you could create any sort of financial instruments with slaves as collateral, even though now that I think about it that's precisely what the "chattel" designation means. And I hadn't realized how much of what some of these banks got up to in the mortgage crisis was actually fraud--as in, already illegal--rather than just goddamn stupid.) And the book is so well-written that even though its subject matter is so heavy, it'll make you want to get out into the streets and crash your Congresscritter's next town hall. (My Congressman doesn't have a Town Hall scheduled so I called his office and asked him to have one. Le sigh.)

Highly recommended reading for the resistance. I can't wait to discuss it at book club.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I started reading Elizabeth Bear's One-Eyed Jack: A Novel of the Promethean Age a little over a year ago, in the bathtub at Mohegan Sun.

It has taken me so long to finish the book not because it wasn't good, but because I have only read it in the bath — sometimes at casinos but also sometimes not, otherwise it would have taken me even longer, especially considering the last casino I stayed at only had a shower. My copy is now very water damaged.

Anyway. I had picked One-Eyed Jack for my casino bath reading because it's about the spirit of Las Vegas fighting to keep his city from being annexed by the spirit of Los Angeles, so it seemed topical.

There are actually two spirits (or genii) of Las Vegas: the One-Eyed Jack, who has one normal eye and one magical eye he keeps hidden under an eyepatch; and the Suicide King, otherwise known as Stewart, who seems to have a magical ability to kill himself and then resurrect again. Jackie and Stewart are boyfriends in addition to sharing the job of genius of Las Vegas. This seems like it would break a lot of workplace regulations but it looks like being a magical symbol isn’t a very well-regulated field considering all the other stuff that goes down in this book.

Jackie and Stewart eventually form a coalition with several interesting characters, including two ghosts of different John Henrys, some "media ghosts" of unnamed TV spies, and vampire Elvis (though this vampire Elvis is very different from the vampire Elvis of the Sookie Stackhouse books). The antagonists include Angel (the genius of Los Angeles, in the form of a young ingénue), a character known only as “the assassin,” a Promethean Mage, and the ghost of Bugsy Siegel.

I was a bit confused about who precisely all these people were, since I am not much up on my ‘60s TV spies — nor on my Las Vegas history, really, although I do at least know who Bugsy Siegel is. But once I got used to identifying the spies by their descriptors instead of names, it was all easy enough to follow.

The book takes place mostly in 2002, and as is usually the case, I still find it a bit jarring to realize how long ago the mid-2000s were and how much it really was a different era — it makes me feel old — but it’s impossible to miss because stuff in Vegas changes so fast that, even without ever having been there, I know a bunch of the properties mentioned in the book have since shut down and new ones opened; also, Jackie wears black leather cargo pants because he is terribly cool, and it’s become hard to remember that there was a time when cargo pants really were cool and not just a shorthand for sartorial laziness. Other bits of the book take place in 1964, because that’s when all the media ghosts come from. The time travel isn’t flashy; it just sort of happens—there’s enough ghosts in the story already that visiting the ghost of 1964 isn’t that big a deal.

Since this is a spy story I don’t want to talk too much about the plot but suffice to say that, in keeping with the general theme, it, like a game of poker, features long stretches of quietly waiting and thinking about things (I don’t believe poker is ever boring) interspersed with moments of high drama that vastly change the dynamics at the table. (Poor Angel spends the first three-quarters of the book chipping up relentlessly only to spew off her entire stack in one dumb play. Been there done that; it’s awful.) All the disparate threads and meticulously solved riddles finally come together near the end to put a fast-paced and deceptively simple end to the conspiracy.

One of the unifying principles of how magic works in this book is that it relies very heavily on symbolism and stories and beliefs, reminding me a lot of Discworld if the Discworld books were about twelve thousand percent more serious. Genre savviness is important for our heroes to figure out what is going on. Gaming-related symbolism abounds, which is fitting, because gaming-related symbolism abounds in English writing anyway, only this time it’s all looked at a lot more closely than usual.

Like the other Elizabeth Bear books I’ve read, this was pretty weird and I think I’d have to read it again to figure out some of the weird stuff I didn’t get the first time around, but I’m probably not going to because I have at least three unread Elizabeth Bear books on my shelf at the moment. I always like her stuff but it tends to end up taking me a lot longer to get through than I think it’s going to.

I recommend it to anyone who likes metafictional genre-savvy stuff. Pairs well with a Lush bath bomb, a nice hotel room, and an adult beverage.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So Andrea decided to reread The Haunting of Hill House for Halloween and suggested on Twitter that this was a cool thing that all the cool kids were doing, rereading The Haunting of Hill House, because clearly it's a fun book that you want to read more than once, so I figured I should be cool too and read it for the first time, especially since I read We Have Always Lived In the Castle for the first time a few years ago and I liked that one.

The Haunting of Hill House is by Shirley Jackson (Ms. Jackson if you're nasty), author of the very famous short story The Lottery and the person the Shirley Jackson Award is given in honor of at Readercon every year. Both The Lottery and We Have Always Lived In the Castle were deeply creepy, but they still did not prepare me for the creepiness of The Haunting of Hill House, which, as you can probably guess from the title, is a haunted house story, and I am highly susceptible to haunted house stories anyway for basically the same reasons that I love wacky old houses, which is that I am an overly sensitive dork.

Even by haunted house story standards, this one is creepy because, while there is definitely something otherworldly living in Hill House, this seems to be the result of the core problem that the house itself is simply fundamentally, unreservedly evil, and has been from the moment it was built, even before it was finished being built. Its very architecture is apparently designed to psychologically torment anyone who looks at it, let alone anyone who spends time in there. It is weirdly imbued with all the psychological unhealthiness of the morbid weirdo who commissioned the thing, and it is dark and all the angles are wrong and it is buried deep in the feet of the hills and none of the doors ever stay open.

Our main characters are four people who go to stay in the house for a three-month study of paranormal phenomena; two of them are women who have experienced paranormal phenomena in the past. Our narrator is a timid, dreamy, somewhat internally spiteful oddity named Eleanor, who is thirty-two years old and reads like she’s eighteen, and I say this as someone who is both younger than thirty-two and continually feels like she’s still a teenager. Eleanor’s sense of stunted, prolonged adultulescence isn’t formed by widespread economic collapse like mine and my peers’ is; it’s instead due largely to having spent most of her adult life shut away caring for her sick and not-just-internally spiteful mother, plus an overbearing sister who treats her like a child. Eleanor basically has to steal the car and run away to get to Hill House, which is totally how functional adult families work.

When Eleanor finally arrives at Hill House, and meets Theodora and Luke and Dr. Montague, and the creepy-ass housekeeper and his creepy-ass wife, things go one of three ways in a series of exquisitely paced and plotted scenes: Sometimes, Hill House is just disorienting and unpleasant, with little supernatural activity and a lot of tilting minor annoyances, like things maybe moving just outside your peripheral vision, or just being oppressively dank and Victorian. Other times, the company and good food and occasional bout of nice weather mean that they actually are having quite a nice time, exploring the brook in the backyard or drinking brandy and playing parlor games, all shut up together in the parlor where they can safely keep an eye on each other. And sometimes, there are the manifestations, which are when shit gets really creepy: writing on the walls that calls out Eleanor by name, blood all over Theo’s room, banging noises and creepy laughter in the hallway. It’s all done in a way that is fantastically, exquisitely chilling, and even now thinking about it I have had to pull my legs to the side where I can see them because they felt unsafe all the way under the desk in the dark, and the heat vent is gently blowing on a wall hanging and the noise is making me jump out of my skin with every taptaptap of the wooden dowel on the wall, a noise that usually becomes quite invisible to me by the end of the first day of having the heat on.

But Hill House has plans for Eleanor, and they are not to scare her into leaving; they are much more sinister than that. And seeing Eleanor’s thought process change and morph as she goes totally Yellow Wallpaper on us is even more terrifying than any of the manifestations Hill House throws at her, except perhaps the one where she’s holding Theo’s hand in the dark while there’s a voice manifesting in the next room and then when the lights go on Theo’s too far away for it to have been her hand. Why that one scared the shit out of me the most I’m not sure; probably because it’s more deceptive than the more cinematic hauntings like the white, white trees against the black, black sky. In unrelated news, I’m going to bug the fuck out next time I try to wear my black shirt with the white tree on it, aren’t I.

Apologies to our beautiful shy cat Amaranth who tried to come in and meow at me in a rare display of friendliness while I was writing this review; I didn’t mean to jump out of my skin and shriek at you, it was just very bad timing. She’s probably going to hide from me for like a month now.

Anyway, I feel like this book certainly has earned its reputation as the scariest ghost story ever told, and I will not be reading it again anytime soon, although Andrea has threatened me with the movie. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Catherynne M. Valente was the Guest of Honor at this year's Readercon, so, although I was trying to be frugal, I just had to get one of her books -- signed, preferably. I've only read two of her other novels and a few short stories, but that's enough to know that she's an absolutely genius storyteller. Her work varies pretty widely in tone and theme, but it's always dense with allusions and myth and the prose is so gorgeous and vivid it makes you want to read it out loud to somebody.

Speak Easy jumped out at me because of its gorgeous cover, which I know you shouldn't judge a book by, but sometimes I do a bit anyway, because that's how book marketing is supposed to work. The Roaring Twenties party vibe is pretty evident right from the get-go, with the font and the art style depicting a short-haired lady smoking a cigarette in front of a pelican what looks like a busy scene of other partying folk, all framed inside a fancy keyhole like the reader is spying on them. It's a pretty perfect representation of the story inside, which is a lushly written novella about the folks living in the magical Hotel Artemesia, loosely adapted from the fairy tale about the twelve dancing princesses (and also referencing it several times), providing a fictional backstory to the tragic marriage of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Our main character is the mysterious Zelda Fair, who came to New York to find out what she is good at, and while everyone else thinks she's perfectly excellent at being Zelda, she's not contented with that. Nearly everyone else at the Hotel Artemesia has a role, sometimes many of them, and Zelda's so far seems to be to turn heads and show up at parties and try a different job every week until she finds the right one. She lives in an apartment in the hotel with three other girls: a dancer, a theater critic, and a costume seamstress. Several of the men in the hotel fancy they're going to marry her, and they're all wrong, at least right up until the end.

Much of this book is an ode to partying -- to dancing and drinking and dressing up and doing outrageous things and meeting outrageous people, and generally to the power of letting loose and having a good time. But it's not shallow at all, and it's not so much that beneath all the dancing on tables and wearing shiny dresses there runs a desire to be seen and to be loved and to create and to be good at things, but that it's all intimately bound up with it. Zelda has some pretty important things to say about the joys of talking when she's sitting around in a silver dress in a bathtub full of gin, eavesdropping on the other partygoers. And Frankie Key ruins the last party in "Canada" (spoiler: it's not Canada) the same way he ruins Zelda's life: by being grasping and entitled and ruining what he loves by holding onto it so hard it breaks, because he's controlling like that even though he seemed so nice at the beginning, just wanting to be good at something just like everyone else did, but he couldn't leave well enough alone when he finally descended into the wintery underground forever-party that belonged to the master of the Hotel Artemesia, a cheerfully awful godlike type of being called, among other things, Al.

The plot seems to get off to a slow and vague start, with a fairly large cast of characters for such a tiny book, but by the time the whole web of drives and desires and attempts at escapism all come together at the end of the story in a deadly, supernatural poker game, it turns out it was all being set up right at the beginning.

I did not know when I picked up this book that the climactic event of the story was going to be a poker game, since I actually read this to take a break from just reading poker books all year, but I was pretty delighted. The game is called Cretaceous Hold'em, which is pretty hilarious to me, and from what I can tell of the gameplay it does seem to be probably a version of five-card draw rather than a hold'em-style game, but that's Al for you. They don't play with chips, instead betting trinkets and personal items that represent bits of their lives. Frankie essentially wins Zelda in the poker game when he wins all her stuff, including her creativity, because in real life F. Scott Fitzgerald basically stole a bunch of Zelda's writing to use in his own novels and then locked her up in a sanatorium.

I do think the absolute best thing about this book is the language, by turns sumptuous and hilarious, and often both. My favorite line in the whole thing is when Frankie is described as not having "the smooth God gave a porcupine," which is something that I will probably find myself using to insult actual people sooner or later. Basically the whole book is like that. If you don't like paying a lot of attention to the actual words on the page you'll probably despise the book, but if you like to roll around in ridiculous '20s slang and steal new ways to insult people from writers smarter and more creative than yourself, like I do, then it's just about the best thing you could read.

The book cost me $40 because it's a signed special edition, number 890 of a run of 1250, with a special flyleaf framing Valente's signature in a purple keyhole so that it doesn't have to go on the title page like when a regular book is signed. It was well worth the $40, as short as it is, because the physical book is a work of art just as much as the words inside.

My only criticism is that it feels vaguely wrong to read it without an adult beverage in hand, and I really just couldn't stand to do that for several days after Readercon, because in real life partying all night leads to hangovers that make you cranky and tired and not want to touch booze again for days, or at least they're starting to with how old I'm getting. But one of these days I'll probably read it again and I'll make sure I have champagne this time, and maybe somebody to read it aloud to.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for President's Day at work about Presidential betting (you can read it here) and I referenced Stephen Longstreet's Win or Lose: A Social History of Gambling in America, which had been quoted in another source. This, however, is not the best research practice ever, and also the tidbit quoted was interesting (it was about T.Jeff), so I checked out Win or Lose from the Boston Public Library.
This book, I found out, was published in 1977, which is almost forty years ago now. So it covers a period of time from the mid-1500s up through "the present," except "the present" is the late '70s, and things in the late '70s were very different from how they are now, and it's kind of hilarious to read, at least if you are as easily entertained by historical change as I am. I think I now need a book more thoroughly covering the time from the 1970s to the present, but Win or Lose does a reasonably thorough job of getting the lay reader up to speed with the first 400 years after Columbus' men rolled up on shore after pitching their cards overboard in a fit of piety.
The book can be a bit disjointed, progressing in more or less chronological order except when it is progressing by subject, where the subject can be either a type of gambling or a specific location or something else. The bulk of each chapter is mostly stories about individual gamblers who were very important or interesting within the given context; they're usually pretty entertaining stories even if they do seem to jump around with little in the way of transitions. But there's also time devoted to explaining how different gambling scenes worked overall, and the rises and falls of various big gambling resorts (there's an especially big section dedicated to Saratoga, New York).
The funniest bit for me was the chapter on how horse racing is far and away the most popular type of gambling in the U.S., because it really, really isn't anymore. When this book was being written, states were just starting to implement lotteries and Atlantic City was just beginning to be revived as a gambling destination. How things have changed!
Anyway, the books is nearly as good a primary historical resource about gambling as it is a secondary one, but I'm OK with that. I'm not sure I'd really recommend it to someone who only wants to read one book about gambling in the U.S. though; there's got to be something more current out there.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The most recent Harvard Bookstore Warehouse sale had a good selection of books for those such as myself who have, since Lin-Manuel Miranda's play took Broadway by storm this fall, devolved into complete Hamiltrash. When I saw the title of Paul Collins' Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take On America's First Sensational Murder Mystery, I knew I had to buy it. Well, first I thought it must be fiction that had been misshelved, but then I reread the subtitle and picked it up and read the flap copy just to be sure, and when I got back home I immediately went online to see if I was remembering the lyrics properly:

Gentlemen of the jury, I’m curious, bear with me
Are you aware that we’re making hist’ry?
This is the first murder trial of our brand-new nation
The liberty behind


I intend to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt
With my assistant counsel—

Hamilton, sit down
Our client Levi Weeks is innocent. Call your first witness
That’s all you had to say!


Confirmed: This book is about the Levi Weeks case, a real case in which Burr and Hamilton really did serve as co-counsel for the defense.

The musical fudges the facts a bit for dramatic license. First of all, it barely touches on the case at all, subsuming it under the larger narrative of Hamilton's nonstoppitude, whereas this case was actually a really, really big deal. Second of all, it wasn't a big deal because it was the first murder trial since independence, since it really wasn't: It was the first murder trial that became a big public sensation along the lines of the popular murders that characterized the Victorian era across the pond (see; Judith Flanders' The Invention of Murder), which had sort of just barely started--because, thirdly, the Levi Weeks trial took place in 1800, when both Hamilton and Burr were well-established lawyers in Manhattan, and in their mid-forties.

Neither A. Ham nor A. Burr pop up too much in the earlier parts of the book, except in distant, tantalizing bits and pieces, like marching in Washington's funeral procession, and some little-regarded letters to the editors of various newspapers. Instead, the earlier sections of the book are dedicated to setting the scenes of life in three-turns-of-the-century-ago New York City in general, and in Elias Ring's boardinghouse in particular, where the major players in the crime all lived.

The short version: Elias Ring and his wife ran a nice, respectable Quaker boardinghouse, which at the time had four boarders: Mrs. Ring's sister Hope Sands; Hope's cousin Elma Sands; a cloth merchant named Richard Croucher; and a young carpenter named Levi Weeks. One day shortly before Christmas, Elma Sands got dressed up to go out, borrowed a muff from a neighbor, left the boardinghouse and didn't return. Around New Year's, her body was found in the Manhattan Well at Lispenard's Meadow, a well that had been recently built as part of Senator Aaron Burr's plan to improve the municipal water supply, but which had been abandoned because it kept filling up with quicksand.

Suspicion immediately fell upon Levi Weeks, who was rumored to have been engaged to Elma, and he was promptly arrested. His brother, Ezra Weeks, called upon some top-notch lawyers who owed him money to serve as Levi's defense team in exchange for canceling their debts. The lawyers in question were Senator Burr, Major General Alexander Hamilton, and future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Henry Brockholst Livingston.

The trial ran for two full days, which was super long by the standards of the time, and had only one recess for a few hours overnight, during which the jurors had to sleep on the floor in a portrait gallery because it hadn't really been planned that the trial would run on for that long. Part of the length of the trial was due to Hamilton, Burr, and Livingston's brilliantly tricksy cross-examinations--mostly Hamilton was in charge of the cross-examining; he seemed to be having fun with it--and part of it was due to the approach of Assistant Attorney General Cadwallader Colden, which was to bring in basically everybody in Manhattan as a witness. Unfortunately for Colden, his prosecution was a complete mess. In addition to such blunders as citing cases that actually argued the opposite of what he claimed they argued, Hamilton and friends kept tripping up his witnesses with questions like "What day was that?" when they claimed they saw or heard suspicious things. (Things you learn from reading history: Old-timey people are not NEARLY as smart as people assume they were when complaining about Kids These Days. Like, sure, General Hamilton was certainly much smarter than your average asshole is today, but your average asshole in 1799 had alcohol for breakfast and didn't know how old his own children were.)

A nice gift for the nerds of the future was that this trial, all nearly forty-eight hours of it, was taken down in shorthand by the clerk of the court and later published in full as a book for mass purchase. As a result, we know every one of Colden's blunders, the defense team's snarky questions, and the witnesses' testimonies. The middle third of Duel with the Devil therefore gives us a very lively and detailed account of exactly who said what and how it was received. It makes a delightful courtroom drama.

The final third of the book discusses how the various publications about the trial were produced and received, as well as what happened to all the major players--including a pretty convincing theory on who it was that actually murdered Elma Sands. My favorite bits were learning more about the sad and wacky trajectory of Aaron Burr's life after he shot Hamilton, of which I had known nearly nothing: It turns out that he was indicted for murder in both New Jersey and New York, although the charges were eventually dropped; he fled out West where he was then charged with treason for fomenting a rebellion in Mexico; eventually he ended up wandering about completely penniless in Europe for several years before he dared return to New York and become a specialist in family law, which happened pretty much just because the only people desperate enough to be willing to use his services as a lawyer were women seeking divorce cases. (Burr represented Maria Reynolds, of the Reynolds Affair/Pamphlet notoriety, in her divorce. Isn't history fun?)

Overall, the book is a really fascinating look into a very particular slice of history, and is nearly a novel in its readability: It's got a fantastic cast, vivid worldbuilding, a thrilling mystery, and even some dryly funny dialogue:

"There were many discolorations on the teguments of the skin," Dr. Snedeker announced to the prosecutor. "There was a dislocation of the clavicle from the sternum."
There was a confused silence.
"Be so good, sir, as to speak in less technical language, so that the jury may understand you."
"The left collar bone was broke," the doctor sighed.

Well, I laughed.

Anyway. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FOR: American history nerds, true crime nerds, my fellow Hamiltrash, combinations of the above.


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