bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
2017-07-25 03:04 pm

In which the Athena Club has daddy issues

There come times in the life of every reader where a book contains enough Things Relevant To One’s Interests that it makes them go “Oh, it’s like this author has written this book just for me!” When you have as many things Relevant To One’s Interests as I do, this happens with some regularity, I will admit.

But it is decidedly rarer for an author to tell me “I’m writing this book for you!” two years before the book is actually published.

But that is indeed what happened at Readercon a few years ago; I believe it was the year that Mary Shelley was the Memorial Guest of Honor. There were three of us; I think it was me and Gillian and Emily, and I’d gone to get my copy of In the Forest of Forgetting signed, and Theodora Goss was telling us about the novel she was working on. It was based on all my favorite old Gothic tales, about the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the girl monster creations of a bunch of other mad scientists, who form a club and fight crime. She was writing this book, she said, for us; we were precisely the sort of audience she had in mind.

This stuck in my mind and it has been with possessive glee that I have followed every update on the novel, and when The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter finally hit shelves this summer, I thought, My book is here! The book written for me! because I am self-centered like that. I told Dora Goss this when I attended a reading she did with Cat Valente at Brookline Booksmith this week.



I was reluctant to read it unless I could do it all in one sitting, so I spent the week enjoying the anticipation, and then this morning I made myself a cup of coffee and plonked myself down in the living room with the intention of doing nothing else all day until I finished it.

I was not disappointed.

The story is largely from the point of view of Mary Jekyll, 21-year-old daughter of the long-dead Dr. Jekyll, although the book is being written by puma-turned-human-woman Catherine Moreau, with added commentary from the other characters. (It is a new way of writing a novel, because they are modern girls and it is the ‘90s. The 1890s, obviously.)

The story begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies of complications from madness, and Mary finds herself nearly destitute, with no employable skills, very little in savings, no income from either of her parents, and a large house in London that, in the current economic climate, cannot be sold. In going through her mother’s papers, she discovers that her mother has for years been donating a pound a year to a charitable society for the care and keeping of “Hyde.” The only Hyde that Mary knows about is her father’s former assistant who disappeared after being accused of murder, and for whom there is—or at one point, was—a reward of one hundred pounds for information leading to his capture. Mary takes the papers to her local celebrity detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and from thereon out, things get weird. In short order, Mary finds herself saddled with an incorrigible younger sister named Diana; Beatrice Rappaccini, a lovely young Italian woman who breathes poison; Catherine Moreau, a young lady who used to be a puma; and Justine Frankenstein, who used to be Justine Moritz and who had erroneously been reported as disassembled in Mrs. Shelley’s book from a century earlier.

The girls are all daughters or creations of men with ties to a mysterious group called the Société des Alchimistes, which appears to have something to do with a series of gruesome murders of ladies of negotiable affection in Whitechapel, which Holmes and Watson are also consulting upon. The murdered women have all had body parts removed, and the only available description of who they’d been seen with sounds very like the supposedly late Edward Hyde.

If you’re a big old Gothics nerd like me, one of the most fun aspects of the story is the sheer number of old classics that Goss manages to squish into this novel. In addition to the five young women and the aforementioned Holmes and Watson, the madman Renfield from Dracula pops up as a fairly important secondary character, as does Dr. John Seward from the insane asylum and Dr. Van Helsing, although the latter only in the form of letters. I kept half-expecting Mrs. Poole, Mary’s housekeeper, to turn out to be Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, although if she is it’s not addressed in this book. I was also pleased to find a reference to The Castle of Otranto.

With this many other works crammed into it, it is good that the book doesn’t take itself overly seriously. The girls’ commentary occasionally dips into a distinctly modern register, and, of course, the book’s not nearly as dense as any genuine Victorian writing at all. Most of the plot is a sort of comic caper type of action-mystery, with a lot of gallivanting around London and bits of the English countryside infiltrating circuses and chasing Beast Men and doing amateur detectiving and trying to do it all while managing the deliberately constricting reality of 19th century English women’s clothes, although that last bit is not as modern an invention as you might think, featuring prominently in Wilkie Collins’ classic The Woman in White (although apparently in real 19th century novels, women who spy on other people while wearing insufficient clothes have to fall deliriously ill for weeks immediately afterwards, them’s the rules). It’s also a joyous, empowering, delightful portrayal of friendship and solidarity between women, even women who are very different and who don’t always actually get along that well (especially when Diana’s involved).

I don’t want to give the ending away but suffice to say that while the girls and Holmes and Watson do technically solve the Whitechapel murders, the Société des Alchimistes is not an easy foe to vanquish, leaving us with an excellent setup for a sequel as well as a convincing cover for the Whitechapel murders never being officially solved, like with anyone getting arrested for them.

The book is quite light on romantic subplots, which I appreciate. Beatrice has a tragic romantic backstory, although by the time the book is being written by Catherine, Beatrice is more concerned with the suffragist and Rational Dress movements. There are hints of romantic interest between Mary and Holmes, which is cute because Goss doesn’t bring up Holmes’ canonical drug habit at any point. The other girls have decidedly un-romantic backstories re: men’s attention.

I’m already eagerly awaiting the sequel, because reasons, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who likes funny stuff about mad scientists and girl monsters, even if you’re not a huge Gothic lit dork. I would also highly recommend it to anyone else who is a Gothic lit dork who doesn’t take it too seriously, which I would hope would be most of them, since Gothic lit is a bit goofy to start with.

bloodygranuaile: (we named the monkey jack)
2017-07-25 10:12 am
Entry tags:

Inside you is a skeleton just waiting to get out

 A few weeks ago my mom and I did a Weekend of Art out in the Berkshires, where we went to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Clark Art Institute, and Mass MoCA. I tried not to go too bananas at any of the museum gift shops (I have a severe weakness for museum gift shops, so this was hard for me), but I simply couldn't resist when I found Skull Sourcebook: Over 500 Skulls in Art & Culture at Mass MoCA.

Skull Sourcebook is literally just a big ol' coffee table book full of art with skulls in, which basically makes it the best art book ever, as far as I'm concerned. It is organized into sections like "Skulls in Music" and "Skull Tattoos," and there's also a "Skulls in Art" section for skull art that doesn't fit into any of the more specific categories. The "Skulls in Music" section kicks off with a multi-page Grateful Dead spread, which I appreciated. There's a bit of introductory text at the beginning of each section, about a page or two of it, and this is where my only real issue with the book comes in: This book badly needed an additional round of proofreading. I am incapable of not noticing these things.
 
All the same, it was excellent bedtime reading—pretty, mildly informative, lacking any sort of plot or story to get all caught up in until next thing you know it's 2 a.m. and you have to get up in four hours, far less upsetting than politics. I'm glad I bought it, and I'm looking forward to keeping it around the house for years so I can periodically look at random skull art.
bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
2017-07-17 09:26 pm

In which a cranky wizard lives in my dream house

 This past weekend was Readercon, where, for the first time, I only went for one day, a decision I regret and will not be repeating. (I have been unusually bad at scheduling and time management in 2017, for some reason, so I keep missing stuff I actually want to do.) Anyway, one of the guests of honor was Naomi Novik, the author of Uprooted, which I've been meaning to read for at least a year. After having some logistical difficulties trying to form or execute a workable plan for myself to buy a copy of the book and get it signed, I wound up borrowing Gillian's freshly signed copy off her, and promising I'd actually read it and give it back in a reasonable amount of time (unlike the copy of Kelly Link's Get In Trouble that's been sitting on the TBR Shelf of Doom for ::mumblemumblecough::).

I accomplished the reading bit in record time for a borrowed book, starting it first thing Sunday morning and finishing it just before dinner, because Sundays in the summer are for lounging around reading entire books in one sitting. 

Uprooted follows in two of my favorite longtime fantasy traditions, which are "books based on fairy/folk tales" and "books about teenage girls with magic powers." Mostly it draws on Polish fairy tale traditions that I'm not super familiar with (for example, I did not catch that the witch Jaga was Baba Yaga until she was actually referred to as "Baba Jaga"—but I do know who Baba Yaga is). The premise of the book refers clearly to the well-known fairy tale trope of dragons capturing or demanding princesses and/or village maidens—a trope I've enjoying seeing upended since Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and that I think more authors should do stuff with—although it becomes pretty clear the second it is explained that the Dragon here is actually a wizard that we're looking at more of a Beauty and the Beast type of situation. 

Beauty and the Beast, obviously, is a not entirely unproblematic sort of situation to be in, and Uprooted features a bunch of tropes that are sort of problematic if you think about them seriously, or that some readers might be tired of, but they were also the sorts of things that I was expecting and I think they were handled about as well as they could be without turning it into too serious of a novel. There is the usual Mr. Darcy problem that someone who is a gigantic asshole but really is nicer or better in some way underneath, or otherwise is an asshole for a reason, is still an asshole, because being terrible to people is bad. Agniezka, our heroine, does at points confront the Dragon about the ethics of terrorizing the village by taking one of its girls every ten years, even if he doesn't do anything bad to them; there is, of course, no way to actually make it not terrible that he's been scaring the shit out of his entire constituency for a century. He's also an awful, awful teacher at the beginning, well into being abusively so, especially when there's no communication about what it is that he's actually teaching. While we're at it, feudal monarchy is a terrible form of government.

Also, this is one of those books where the main character is special, and while she's not good at everything, the one thing she is really good at she is the best at. You are either in the mood for this sort of story or you should go read something else. I like this sort of story when it's executed well; this one, because of the nature of Agniezka's magic, has some parallels to Tamora Pierce's Immortals series, which was one of my favorites when I was wee.

The initially really harsh mentor is a fairly common fantasy trope that probably is bad praxis for anyone trying to become a teacher, and the "has important knowledge but is hilariously bad at actually teaching" trope is a less common one but a situation that I always find sort of hilarious (although the prize for this goes to Alabaster from N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth series, if only for the bit where Essun has to teach the basics of teaching to him before he can teach her the magic stuff). The inevitable romance between the Dragon and Agniezka actually only ends up happening once they figure out how to work their two very different types of magic together, and as a result, even though the Dragon spends most of the book being almost Edward Cullen-level intolerable as a person, the resulting romance, born as it is out of highly charged drift-compatible magic workings, ended up being more compelling to me than most other Obligatory Romantic Subplots. (Magic is sexy, OK?)

The villain in the book is the Wood, which is, as one would guess from the name, an evil forest that periodically sends out all sorts of horrors to carry people off and infect cows with some sort of grotesque hell-demon disease and make people go mad. The term used throughout the book for the malevolent essence of the Wood that gets into stuff is referred to just as "corruption," which I like, because it avoids having to use the word "darkness" for what is basically the age-old fantasy convention of having to defeat Darkness as a sort of literal force, like we see in The Dark is Rising and A Wrinkle in Time and that one Dead Alewives sketch where a dude casts Magic Missile at it. So it's the same idea, but corruption has a sort of dirty rotting biological feel to it rather than grand moral absolutism; a little more like Hexxus in Ferngully except it doesn't sing and is not played by Tim Curry. Eventually Agniezka does figure out what the Wood is and starts to fix it, but not before a series of events with a numbingly high body count, especially considering that the rest of the book is generally not that dark. In fact, I found the final battle to be perhaps the weakest part of the book, but I admit that writing climactic battles is very tricky to pull off.

The real key relationship in the book, though, isn't between Nieshka and the Dragon, or between the Wood and all the people around it, or between all the various intolerable political factions. It's the relationship between Nieshka and her childhood best friend Kasia, played in my brain by the late Russian model Ruslana Korshunova. Kasia was the one everyone assumed the Dragon would pick, because she was beautiful and clever and brave and kind and basically perfect, whereas Nieshka was basically a slatternly mess who was really good at gleaning mushrooms and berries and stuff in the woods, but nobody noticed because Kasia was around.

Ruslana Korshunova
Ruslana Korshunova, the "Russian Rapunzel." RIP.

Kasia and Nieshka's friendship apparently cannot be ended by anything, whether it is the lifelong knowledge that Kasia will be taken away, or any of the strange things that happen to her after Nieshka is taken instead. Their friendship endures a lot of separation and some embarrassingly soul-baring magic as they both slowly transform into increasingly bizarre and powerful creatures, Nieshka essentially being the second coming of Baba Jaga, and Kasia turning into some sort of preternaturally strong tree warrior. I want a sequel of Kasia's adventures kicking ass and taking names and being a warrior-dryad. The I want an animated movie of it.

Overall, this is a very delightful book that was exactly the sort of thing I find restorative and comforting to read, provided you don't overthink it, and it makes me wish I knew more Polish fairy tales.

 

bloodygranuaile: (carmilla)
2017-07-14 06:24 pm
Entry tags:

We like the moon, 'cause it is close to us

 I borrowed N. K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate from Andrea after we read The Fifth Season, and vowed I'd finish it before The Stone Sky comes out this summer. And for once in my life, lo and behold, I did.
 
The Obelisk Gate continues the story of the orogene Essun, formerly Syenite, formerly Damaya, as a devastating Season wreaks havoc on the Stillness's civilizations. Essun is temporarily staying in a community house in a giant underground geode, where she has temporarily had to suspend her search for her daughter Nassun, who is traveling southward with her orogene-phobic father, in order to continue being trained by her former mentor Alabaster, the guy who started this apocalypse. Alabaster is slowly turning into stone and being eaten by his companion, a Stone Eater named Antimony. Before he's entirely gone, he needs to teach Essun to control the giant obelisks that float around in the sky, so that she can open the Obelisk Gate and catch the moon. According to the myth told at the end of the last book, returning the Moon to its proper orbit will stop the tectonic shenanigans that characterize life on the Stillness.
 
Most of the story is still in the second person, narrated by the "young" Stone Eater Hoa and addressed to Essun. Interspersed are chapters in the third person about Nassun's journey south with her father Jija, who had killed her little brother upon finding out he was an orogene. Nassun learns to manipulate her father into mostly only psychologically rather than physically abusing her, as he brings her to a sort of training camp for young orogenes run by rogue Guardians, near the continent's antarctic. The lead Guardian that takes Nassun under his wing is Schaffa, who was also Essun's Guardian. Jija thinks it's a camp where young orogenes go to be "cured," because sending your children to camps because you're a bigot is a sadly not unheard-of occurrence with humans.
 
In this book we learn more about the world and its history and how orogeny works (which turns out to be not quite how the Fulcrum thinks it does), including the great mystery of what's on the other side of the planet from the Stillness. We also explore a lot about power and danger and fear and morality and responsibility, and about if it is ever OK to hurt people, especially when there's no way to avoid hurting people, and about bigotry and family and love. So it's deep. But it's also exciting and weird and terrifying and sometimes hilarious. Even the terrible characters are sympathetic but not in a saccharine way, and the good characters are abrasive and dangerous and kind of creepy.
 
I hope in the next one, Essun and Nassun catch the fucking moon and live happily ever after, but I'm sure Jemisin's got something unpredictable in store for us.
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
2017-07-06 09:00 pm
Entry tags:

I guess she already wrote a book called "Dreams of Gods and Monsters"

 I've been a big Laini Taylor fan since Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer first came out, so I was pretty stoked when BSpec picked her latest novel, Strange the Dreamer, as the next book for our book club.
 
It's an extremely Laini Taylor sort of book, lush and sprawling and whimsical and sweet and violent all at the same time, a bit overwritten in the very best way. The title character is Lazlo Strange, an orphan who is raised in misery and deprivation by monks until he is drafted by a library, where he lives a less miserable but still pretty ascetic (except for the books) life as an apprentice and then a junior librarian.
 
Lazlo is obsessed with legends of the lost city of Weep, which is not actually named Weep, but its name vanished from memory when Lazlo was young and he wants to find out what happened to it. Being a junior librarian is a great way for him to become basically the world's foremost unofficial expert on Weep, but it doesn't give him any sort of plan for figuring out what happened to it. But one day an envoy from Weep just shows up out of nowhere like WE NEED FOREIGN EXPERTS TO HELP US SOLVE A PROBLEM, and Lazlo talks his way into joining the party because he speaks their language. A douchebag alchemist who is about Lazlo's age also joins the party; his name is Thyon Nero and he is very rich and talented and pretty and thoroughly awful, although that is not entirely his fault.
 
I'm extremely hesitant to talk about the plot here, especially since I need to do some more deep thinking about trauma and responsibility and the children who live up in the Citadel, but suffice it to say that I'm looking forward to the discussion. The book deals with some very heavy stuff, genocide and generational trauma and tribalism, and power, and loyalty, and vengeance, and dehumanization. Minya is a heartbreakingly awful character.
 
I love Taylor's obsessions with inordinately powerful beings full of extremely human feelings -- there are definitely things in this book that make you say "Yes, this is definitely the same author as Daughter of Smoke and Bone," but it's not too derivative -- much more like if you liked DoSaB, you'll probably also like this. The power of books and myths and storytelling generally are also much in evidence -- indeed, the whole thing is a paean to the importance of love and imagination as necessary correctives to all the horror in the world.
 
It's also a pure wish-fulfillment power fantasy for introverted nerds who love books. Like, a lot. The power fantasiest power fantasy in the history of power fantasies. I want to save the world and be a hero with my giant collection of useless trivia gleaned from years of reading fairy tales! It is ALL I HAVE EVER WANTED. The real world is not fair.
bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
2017-07-03 11:44 am

The profit motive vs. love

 WE'RE BACK IN ALT COULOUMB WE'RE BACK WITH TARA ABERNATHY I ALMOST SCREAMED
 
Ahem. Sorry about that.
 
Max Gladstone's Four Roads Cross is all the way at the other end of the Craft Sequence from Three Parts Dead, but because of how the numbers go it actually takes place just a year or so later, and in the same place, and with many of the same great characters--recent grad Craftswoman Tara Abernathy, jumpy little technician-priest Abelard, junkie policewoman Cat, and even dashing vampire pirate Raz, who is not a viewpoint character but who I'm putting in this sentence because he's a vampire pirate.
 
In this book, the Church of Kos Everburning are looking to fend of getting their asses sued off them by some of their clients, who think that Kos' attachment to his girlfriend, the long-thought-dead moon goddess Seril represents undisclosed liabilities and is therefore a form of financial fraud. They sort of have a point, since Kos giving massive infusions of soulstuff (i.e., cash) to Seril in the past is part of what made him go broke and killed him back in Three Parts Dead, but also because the entire series is a metaphor for the inhumanity of late capitalism, it's also like "BEING IN LOVE IS A FINANCIAL LIABILITY AND ALSO FRAUD" so clearly we as readers who are presumably not in the Mercer family are on Team Having A Girlfriend Is Not Financial Fraud, You Greedy Assbags, Leave Kos Alone.
 
Despite the main plotline being roughly about how love is more important than business transactions, this book has none of the cloying sappiness of... you know *gestures toward popular fiction generally* There is a romantic subplot between Cat and Raz, but both Tara and Abelard are blissfully allowed to remain preoccupied with other things, like Tara's crushing student loan debt and the complications of Abelard's ill-defined position of moral leadership without official leadership within the Church. They're also trying to basically run PR interference for the burgeoning cult of Seril, in which her gargoyles have been secretly cultivating a worshipper base among the working people of the city by answering prayers and dishing out vigilante justice like big stone Batmans (Batmen?). Part of this PR interference-running gig involves Tara trying to play nice with a journalist named Gavriel Jones, which is kind of hilarious because playing nice with people is not one of Tara's strong points, and Gabby is very much a cranky investigative journalist in the mold of every good journalist in stories about investigative journalism. In the farmer's market, a community finally, quietly intervenes to help keep a trio of girls safe from their abusive father, but it is the girls who are more powerful than any of them realized.
 
In short, there's a lot going on, and it tends to go on in a very fast-paced way. My least favorite part of the book was the bit where it's the last in the series. I pretty much devoured each installment, and I think I'd like to go back and read them again to see what I missed tearing through them the first time.
bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)
2017-06-30 09:44 am

Occupy Chakal Square

 Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence is too good.
 
Two Readercons ago I got a lovely signed first edition of the fourth book in the series, Last First Snow, after hearing Max talk about getting chased by bees in China (I don't remember what the panel was about, but I went to a panel about bees the following Readercon just to hear him tell it again). I read it in the cabin on the lake in Maine, which is the best place to read anything, and so I always prioritize bringing the books I'm most excited about there.
 
Last First Snow takes place in Dresediel Lex, the creepy mashup of Tenochtitlan and Las Vegas, several years before the events of Two Serpents Rise. The protagonist is the priest Temoc, who as a viewpoint character comes off a little bit more like a functional human and less like Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy than he does in 2SR.
 
The plot of this book hinges on fire insurance, which I suppose is what I get for trying to write a fantasy book where the plot hinges on fire insurance and never finishing it, and now if I do finish it it will be both derivative and nowhere near as good at this one. This book is about gentrification and protest and conspiracy and all that other horrendous neoliberal capitalist crap, and as someone who lives in a rapidly gentrifying city (VERY RAPIDLY) (coincidentally, Max Gladstone lives here too!), I can see echoes of local housing battles and Occupy encampments in the movement to save the Skittersill from developers.
 
Because this is the Craft Sequence, the Skittersill, a slum district in Dresediel Lex, isn't a slum district for any of the normal reasons, like having been cut off by deliberately shitty bridges. Instead, it's under some sort of magical ward that designated the area as a "divine protectorate," which basically seems to be a sort of giant community land trust that keeps it safe and affordable but doesn't provide anyone the resources or authority to stop it from falling apart--land can't be bought or sold, and the gods that protect it are dead. The wards are also decaying, also because the gods are dead, and developers smell an opportunity. One developer, a Skittersill native who made good, got out, and has turned into a real estate bro, hires Elayne Kevarian of the necromantic law firm Kelethres, Albrech, and Ao (Tara Abernathy's future boss, and also just an all-around boss) to help him figure out a land deal that will be acceptable to the city's judges. But the city's judges won't accept any land deal that's not acceptable to the giant protest movement that's sprung up in Chakal Square.
 
This book also features everyone's favorite emotionally immature coffee-drinking skeleton, the King in Red, who despite being a terrifyingly powerful magical skeleton is also every douchebag executive who can't be reasoned with and goes nuclear whenever anyone challenges his authori-tah, making him easily manipulable. There's also several appearances by baby Caleb, who I honestly like better as a small child than I ever did as an adult. You can see why he turned into the sort of adult he did, though.
 
The first half of the book is about negotiations and stuff within a tense but peaceful protest movement, and it all seems to be going relatively well! There are a few insurrectionary-minded assholes on both sides that seem to really want things to get violent, most notably some arsehole known only as The Major on the side of the protestors, but they get talked down every time they go about vomiting their revolutionary vanguardism all over people whose goal is to not have their houses destroyed. A sabotage-via-food-poisoning plot is foiled. But eventually, all this success makes for anticlimactic fiction, so eventually one of the sabotage conspiracies works. An act of violence destroys the entire equilibrium and instantly turns the protest movement into urban warfare. Elayne and Temoc are now in the unenviable position of having to win the battle, protect the citizens of the Skittersill, talk down a bloodthirsty King in Red, and uncover the conspiracy to figure out who Bloody Sundayed the negotiations and why.
 
Final takeaways: Real estate developers are slimeballs, community solidarity is powerful, maintaining nonviolent discipline in a mass movement is harder than besuited TV pundits think it is, and late-stage capitalism is an unnecessarily complicated trashfire of a system so you should be thankful it doesn't literally involve magic. Also, support your local fantasy authors.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
2017-06-15 03:01 pm
Entry tags:
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
2017-06-03 09:42 pm

"Alternate modernity run amok": A very slippery ism

 For my politics books club we decided on some light summer reading for June: Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, which explores the creation and expansion of different fascist movements for the purpose of arriving at a working sense of what fascism is based on how it has historically worked, rather than what its adherents said about it. 
 
As someone who got probably a pretty decent overview of both World Wars in high school by contemporary standards but has supplemented it with additional self-teaching in an extremely haphazard and piecemeal fashion (I like to read about very specific historical events like a single intelligence mission at a time), I felt like I had enough base-level knowledge to follow this without having to Google too many things, but it was also enormously helpful to have the subject set out in such an orderly manner. Paxton looks at different “stages” of fascism, of which only Mussolini’s and Hitler’s reigns both qualify as unambiguously fascist (rather than regular ol’ authoritarian) and went through all the stages he lists. 
 
I was expecting it to be a bit denser because some of the reviews I’d checked out said it was a bit dry, but while it doesn’t read in the novelesque way that some history books of more limited scope of subject manage to pull off these days, I really didn’t find it too dense or academic at all. It commits the occasional bit of academese, like “fascisms,” but it’s always quite clear what he’s getting at and overall I found it to be quite clear and straightforward. If you’re interested in the subject—which you should be, because otherwise why are you reading this book?—it should pull you along quite well; the prose style and the overall organization of the book just set everything out in a very plain and straightforward way. The content is terrifying without being either coy or gratuitously graphic. 
 
The book was written in 2004, and… well, I’d be quite interested in hearing Paxton’s take on current events. (ETA: I am a dumbass; he wrote an article about in in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine that I have just not gotten around to reading yet because I am a twit.) A lot of what he talks about regarding the early stages of fascism—it’s ideological incoherence, its poaching of grievances from the left, its roots in socialism and syndicalism even as it immediately became viciously anti-socialist, its alliances with conservative elites who thought they could use its energy for their own ends—sounds uneasily familiar to anyone following modern politics. But there are a lot of movements and regimes that are often called fascist and that may be sort of fascist in some ways but not in others. Paxton gives us a good rundown of unsuccessful fascist movements and of not-properly-fascist authoritarian regimes (I was perhaps inappropriately delighted at the section dedicated to the Perón regime in Argentina and the conclusion that it was not fascist, despite Perón’s ties to Mussolini. Musical theater is a helluva drug, apparently). 
 
This book doesn’t talk a huge amount about propaganda per se, which is something I would usually be disappointed with since propaganda is my favorite, but it does talk a lot about the appropriation of symbols, emotional manipulation, the slippery relationship between fascism and making any sort of coherent sense, and its anti-intellectualism, all of which is much fun, although it’s a bit terrifying to look at the legacy this kind of intellectual nihilism has left on mass politics in more recent years. It’s also terrifying when Paxton talks not about the internal properties of fascism itself but also about the political space that allows it to develop.
 
Though the book is short and is about 25% footnotes, I think we could end up having a very long book group discussion on this, especially if I come up with enough really good questions. It’s not for three weeks though so I’ll have to review it again when we get closer—and I’m really looking forward to doing so. 
 
Oh, and the book also contains a “bibliographic essay,” which basically is just a lifetime’s worth of book recommendations. Damn you, Paxton. Now I’ve got a TBR list I couldn’t hope to get through even if I turned into one of those doofy Stephanie Meyers vampires that never needs to sleep.
 
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
2017-05-27 09:35 am

To catch a president

The tenth and final volume of Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan graphic novel series is Transmetropolitan, Vol. 10: One More Time, which is a terrible title because every time I look at the cover of this volume I get Daft Punk’s song of the same name stuck in my head. Which, I suppose, is appropriate, because Spider Jerusalem is pretty punk and definitely daft. 
 
Despite the title it is a fantastic book and a fantastic end to the series. Spider defeats Callahan with THE POWER OF JOURNALISM, which is pretty much what we were expecting, but as always, whether it’s boring or not is in the execution, and the execution is pretty satisfying. It does make one wish that taking down a corrupt criminal president with THE POWER OF JOURNALISM happened a little faster in the real world rather than the slow-ass pace of Watergate or whatever the fucksticks is going on now (hoping and praying that whatever’s going on now actually does result in taking the president down eventually), but hey, the point of science fiction is to inspire us to envision a better future than our current tawdry realities. (Not that there are many ways in which Spider’s futureshock dystopia is better than our current tawdry realities; it’s more of a warning than an inspiration, I guess.) 
 
This volume is about twice as long as most of the others, but only half or maybe two-thirds of it is actually the story proper. Afterward there’s a series of little vignettes, mostly based on excerpts from I Hate It Here, Spider’s crankypants column for The Word, drawn by a variety of other comics writers. It’s fun seeing Spider and his filthy assistants rendered in all sorts of other folks’ styles, even as someone who’s not very familiar with other graphic novels and has no idea who these people are. I’m sure it’s even more fun if you recognize the other artists. 
 
Anyway, WHAT A DEPRESSINGLY TIMELY SERIES. It certainly makes me wish our current media institutions had more violently psychotic journalists, though, considering they’re up against increasingly violently psychotic politicians apparently. We should arm them all with bowel disruptors, just in case.
 
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
2017-05-26 04:01 pm

The press sticks together

 In Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 9: The Cure,  Spider goes around re-gathering evidence for his project to take down President Callahan in between bouts of forgetting words while his brain falls out his nose. (Don’t do drugs, kids.) This outlaw journalism-ing involves such fun tasks as beating Fred Christ’s head in with the Chair Leg of Truth, but it is ultimately Spider’s crotchety former editor who does some massive day-saving with backup copies of Spider’s evidence. Spider then goes out and interviews more people, most of whom are not Fred Christ and who he therefore does not bash in the head with the Chair Leg of Truth. 
 
Spider gets some journalistic help from a scarfaced TV anchor named Robert McX, who does some epic signal boosting of Spider’s work by throwing it in Callahan’s face. But that’s about where the book ends, so the real fallout with obviously be the Big Showdown with Callahan in Volume 10 that we’ve all known is coming eventually.
 
This volume contains the immortal line “I hate Nazi sex midgets,” but other than that is one of the less weird installments in this series.
 
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
2017-05-25 06:05 pm

Of blue flu and brain disease

Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol 8: Dirge continues the story of Spider’s attempt to take down the Smiler, and the Smiler’s attempt to thwart Spider at every turn and probably kill him. 
 
Because this book was written 16 years ago but is still depressingly relevant to everything about modern life, the big incident chronicled in this volume is something called a ruinstorm, a gigantic, destructive bomb of wind and water that apparently used to be much more common before they figured out how to stabilize the climate and weather a little. The Smiler uses this ruinstorm as cover to basically get all the press and cops off the streets so he can hack into newspaper archives and delete a bunch of stuff. Spider, of course, is having none of this and is more determined than ever, but he is suddenly on a deadline—he gets diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease and has one year, maybe two, until he loses all his cognitive faculties. 
 
Most of this book serves largely to set the scene for the big showdown against the Smiler that’s coming later, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of this volume. 
 
bloodygranuaile: (good morning)
2017-05-24 09:36 pm

The false gods of offshore banking

I finally got around to picking up the third book in Max Gladstone’s excellent Craft Sequence, Full Fathom Five. I decided to prioritize this over the other giant pile of stuff I have to read because I am mentally exhausted reading about capitalism and politics and so wanted some nice escapist fantasy. And also because I am apparently stupid and self-sabotaging, since the Craft Sequence is basically all about technocorporate capitalism, just with souls as currency and gods taking the place of… fossil fuels? Basically energy utilities.
 
My favorite thing about Full Fathom Five right off the bat was that one of its viewpoint characters is very poor, which the previous ones have generally not been, so we get some scenes in which poverty is literally soul-sucking. Izza is a street thief, and it is through her that we see the effects of running low on soul—blurred vision, faintness, dizziness, basically what it sounds like it would be—when she has to buy incense when her goddess dies.
 
Full Fathom Five takes place on the small touristy island of Kavekana, the main industry of which, besides tourism, is the creation of idols—rudimentary godlike constructs that can be built upon request and worshiped by Kavekana’s priests, as a stable, safe investment with less sacrifice required than traditional actual deities. There are parallels here to any number of complicated financial hedging products that exist all up on Wall Street and elsewhere, and some other distinct parallels to the economies of assorted lovely small islands in places with nice weather that are referred to by residents of larger jurisdictions as “offshore.” The core of the plot is the core of so many stories of modern finance: a bunch of smart finance bros build products that they think have permanently beaten or ended some element of risk in the market, but the thing they thought they’d eliminated the risk of happens anyway. No one can get one over on capitalism indefinitely. 
 
Our other main viewpoint character is Kai, an idolmaker/priestess who ill-advisedly attempts to save a dying idol, nearly dies herself, is hospitalized and demoted, and winds up uncovering a giant conspiracy involving idols, an insufferable poet, and Cat the drug addict policewoman from Three Parts Dead. By the end it also involves Dickensian street urchin Izza and features a cameo by Teo from Two Serpents Rise, forming a wacky girl gang of priestessy types with terrifying powers. It’s FANTASTIC.
 
After the initial exciting bit with the idol dying and Izza’s goddess dying and Kai almost dying, the plot takes a somewhat leisurely but not too slow pace to really put together a full idea of what’s going on and how urgent it is to fix it, but that’s fine because the backstory and worldbuilding and meandering around Kavekana getting drunk and looking for poets is quite a lot of fun. It’s clear from pretty much the beginning that Izza’s Blue Lady is the idol Kai tried to save even though that’s supposed to be impossible, but this is OK because the real mystery is how the hell that happened, and it’s fun to see when and how the two main characters will finally cross paths (it’s a small island so they run into each other a bunch of times before interacting properly, which is probably a little gimmicky but I liked it?). I figured out who the bad guy was probably a chapter or two ahead of the protagonists; I think it’s pretty heavily telegraphed but only for a little bit, so the period of time you spend basically going “Don’t go into the basement with just a thimble!” is limited. 
 
Kavekana also features a terrifying rock-based police force, although one quite different from the gargoyle-derivative black ops-y Justice agents in Three Parts Dead. These are called Penitents and they are basically big magic geodes/iron maiden type things that criminals are trapped in until their wills are brought in line with the programming of the Penitents. The Penitents basically wander the streets scaring petty thieves, while the rich powerful folks are able to use the Penitents on their enemies to help them cover up crimes. This has no analogies to our current society’s issues of police militarization and their being used by large corporations (like, say the DAPL builders) against regular citizens whatsoever, I am sure.
 
I’m planning on getting to the last two books in this series later in June when I get up to Maine. I’m really, really glad I finally got around to reading this series; it’s just so great to have well-done fantasy that also indulges my love of reading about financial crime. 
 
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
2017-05-16 08:02 pm
Entry tags:

"Tackiness and menace": Adventures in the Russian propaganda factory

 For this month's political book club selection, we picked (at Andrea's suggestion -- thanks, Andrea!) Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Pomerantsev is a documentary filmmaker who worked in Russia for ten years in the aughts, where he worked for Russian TV outlets bringing the "reality TV" concept to Russia. 
 
While Pomerantsev's writing style can be a bit pat and the printing of the book I had was somewhat poorly proofread, this was made up for, for me, by the fact that the subject matter is absolute catnip to me. Media studies, and especially media studies in broad political contexts, is very much my bag, baby, and Pomerantsev's book is basically an extended exploration of how the Russian government uses propaganda -- both on TV and outside of it, but mostly on TV -- to consolidate and maintain control over the populace, carefully managing what sort of dissent is allowed and how much, flooding people with ever-shifting narratives of total nonsense that sedate or disorient the populace. 
 
This particular case study in propaganda includes many of my favorite reading topics: The economic fuckeries of high finance capitalism, mafias, goofy mafia movies, murder mysteries, heartwarming tales of social activism, architectural hymns to great world capital cities. All it needs is a couple of poker games and it'd be a book version of that bit in The BFG where he makes personalized dreams for people by throwing a bunch of 'em in a jar and shaking it around. And this is all even written before the Russians got into screwing around with other people's elections!
 
The most disturbing aspect of this book is how much all the surreal reality-manipulating stuff Pomerantsev talks about really doesn't feel all that foreign or unfamiliar -- a lot of it's the same old hypercapitalist, sensationalist, reality-TV fuckery we've got going on in the U.S., just turned up to 11. It's even worse if you're relatively well versed in the hypocrisies and not-so-much-hidden-as-ignored brutalities within the U.S., like that we send people to jails for stupid shit, too, and in many of them, the conditions are unconscionable and people die mysteriously. The richest and most prestigious Russians, the oligarchs and models, jet around the world to London and New York and Switzerland, where the wealthy are above the law and the models are exploited terribly, because that's how it works throughout the whole developed world. 
 
The book is structured episodically, roughly giving project-by-project accounts of the lives of Pomerantsev's documentary subjects, but also discussing what had to get cut from the "documentaries" and why. One section covers a mafioso who has since become a filmmaker and writer, making films about his own life as a mafioso in a remote town in Siberia that mostly exists to import cars from Japan. Another deeply creepy section investigates the suicide of model Ruslana Korshunova and her involvement in a creepy corporate training/life coaching organization called Rose of the World which is apparently a cult. It reads like something a disaffected corporate underling like myself would write as a satire of the absurdities of the self-care/self-empowerment trend (deconstructed wonderfully by Laurie Penny at The Baffler), except apparently it's real and it's driven multiple people to suicide. It's also, unsurprisingly, based on a U.S. self-improvement module that's also had its share of lawsuits alleging that it's a cult, including wrongful death suits. A slightly less depressing section of Nothing Is True follows the story of a businesswoman whose entirely legal and fully permitted business selling some industrial chemical becomes illegal overnight, which she learns about when she is unceremoniously arrested. She is able to win her case and set up a nonprofit helping other wrongfully arrested upstanding citizens, but there is reason to suspect that she's largely being allowed to do this -- and to have a carefully framed film made of her experience -- mostly to give people a feel-good and laughably false story that corruption in Russia is mostly low-level petty stuff that's being successfully rooted out. 
 
The overall result of all of this is mind-bending, which I think is the point, and is of course a feeling that Americans have become increasingly familiar with since... um... frankly, it's been a boiling frog situation since at least the Bush/Gore election, as far as I'm concerned, but it's definitely gotten worse in the past year. Everything's just a chaotic funhouse mirror of total nonsense run by dumb schmucks who nevertheless can mess with you because they have enough money to buy whatever reality they want for you, in addition to for themselves.
 
I think we're going to have a lot to talk about at book club, especially since so many of the people in the book club are writers who I don't think are likely to have the same general doubts about the power of propaganda that a lot of folks seem to have (it's disheartening how many Americans seem to think that we're accusing Putin of having diabolical brilliance and superpowers when people report that disinformation "hacked" the election. I think just there's a fundamental reluctance to admit that you don't actually need superpowers to brainwash millions of people, just a lot of resources -- namely, enough to hire people who have studied comm and PR -- and some basic competence at opportunism, unencumbered by scruple). We already did a book about how fucked our voting system is, so I don't think we're blinded by any false faith in the strength of American institutions as a group. Therefore... I think it'll be fun. I'll try to come up with some really good questions. 
 
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
2017-05-06 03:01 pm

When the Earth is evil, no one looks at the stars

I had the privilege of hearing N. K. Jemisin read from a draft of The Fifth Season, the first book in her Broken Earth trilogy, at Arisia way back in 2015.  It was beautiful and terrifying, and yet I still didn't immediately read the book when it was published, nor even when it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel last year, because I am always and eternally months behind on what I intend to be reading. But it was high up on The List, and when it was suggested for this month's BSpec book club -- which is still three weeks away -- I was thrilled to be coerced into finally getting around to it.

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

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

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

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

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

I'm kind of annoyed I can't just dive right into the sequel since I have other book clubs to read stuff for, but maybe I'll blow them off.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
2017-04-22 07:38 pm

Once more into the streets

 In Transmetropolitan, Vol. 7: Spider’s Thrash, newly unemployed gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem and his filthy assistants are on the lam.

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

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

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

bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
2017-04-22 07:16 pm

Magical Truthsaying Bastard Spidey and friends

 In the sixth volume of Transmet, Transmetropolitan, Vol. 6: Gouge Away, Spider has become a media celebrity.

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

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

bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
2017-04-22 04:05 pm

Journalism on steroids, or maybe psychedelics, or both

 Ah, it feels good to get back to Transmet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
2017-04-22 12:14 pm

Even the regularest asshole can change the course of the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Adventures of George Washington meme
bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
2017-04-17 09:26 pm

Words, words, words

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

Anyway. The book.

I loved it.

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

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

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

If you love words, you'll love this book. If you're a bit of a snob about words, it will challenge a lot of your assumptions -- one of my favorite bits of the book is Kory's journey to becoming an "irregardless" apologist -- but if you like rolling around in them and banging them together and pulling them apart to see what's inside, then boy is this book for you.