bloodygranuaile: (nosferatu)
2017-09-19 09:55 pm

Alerta, alerta!

It was not my intention, when I started the politics book club, to read trendy, recently published books that might not be as widely accessible as ones that had been out for a while. But it would appear that we just can't get enough Nazi-punching for as long as we've still got Nazis, and I for one have a sort of activist-crush on our friendly local antifa org (they wear all black and punch Nazis, what more could a socialist goth girl want), so we decided to give our monies to Mark Bray and check out Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, newly out from Melville House. Some of these monies also go to the International Anti-Fascist Defence Fund, which helps pay legal and medical expenses for folks who are injured or arrested in the course of fighting fascism, so we are actually helping fight fascism by sitting on our duffs reading about other people fighting fascism. Best sort of slacktivism ever!
The book is part history and part polemic, tracing the development of militant anti-fascism -- its successes and failures -- from the interwar period and the Spanish Civil War up through this May or so. He traces the development of various regions' antifa cultures out of the other political and cultural groups that they arose from: the Autonomen in Germany, the Greek anarchist movement, various strains of punk in the U.S. and the U.K., and there's even an interesting bit on the prevalence of fascism and anti-fascism within football hooliganism. I'll tell you one thing: It's deeply, deeply weird to see Gamergate mentioned in a book that start with the Spanish Civil War.
It's especially interesting for me to read about the development of neo- and anti-fascism as they move from street fighting in places like squats and punk shows and other places that are definitely too cool and radical for me (in addition to largely before my time) to the "alt-right," aka Extremely Online Nazis, because my experience with learning about the alt-right was that I was Extremely Online for years and then eventually Nazis started showing up. I first learned about the alt-right through their MRA wing when they would pop up in the comments of Amanda Marcotte's blog and talk about how the 19th Amendment was a mistake and rape should be legal. It actually took a while for me to realize they were also Nazis, although the stuff about how white women not having enough white babies makes us all race traitors was a pretty big tip-off. This was in, like, 2009, by the way. I was also pleased to see that Bray's coverage of the shutdowns of Milo Yabbadabbadoo's campus events included important but frequently forgotten information, like that he was planning to out undocumented students at Berkeley, that he had outed trans students at other events, that he had an online history of leading mob harassment campaigns (seriously, the number of pundits who thought he was just famous for having shitty opinions, like it's nearly as possible to get famous solely for shitty opinions online as it is on TV, was amazing), and that one of his violent Nazi fanboys shot an IWW street medic at an event three weeks prior to the Berkeley one. Yay for actual reporting! But, y'know, I already knew that stuff, and while it was good to see that it was being covered correctly, the more interesting content was the things I didn't already know.
The later parts of the book discuss things like the abysmal coverage of antifa by the mainstream punditry once it burst into the headlines this year; rebuttals to common liberal anti-antifa talking points; lessons and takeaways from history that anti-fascists have developed; a lengthy discussion of whether or not antifa is anti-free speech; discussions of the challenges of melding mass and militant anti-fascist mobilization; problems of machismo within militant anti-fascism and how to fight it; and a bunch of other thoughts and advice on common organizing problems. There are times when it gets a bit bloggy, which is not necessarily a bad thing, it just amused me highly to be reading it in a published book instead of somewhere on the internet, and a smol voice in the back of my head kept going "LOL, this dude is a Dartmouth lecturer," but probably only because I am jealous of Dartmouth students if the lectures sound anything like this. Cranky lefty writing is a genre of rantiness near and dear to my heart, provided it does not sacrifice intellectual honesty for cheap shots at political opponents, at which point I start quoting George Orwell and consider taking up smoking just so I can look world-wearier. I am pleased to report a complete lack of George Orwell quoting over the course of reading this book, which is good, especially because George Orwell was himself OG antifa and fought fascists in Spain.
I think this book lays out its cases pretty clearly, but I'm not sure how convincing it'll be to readers who are skeptical of antifa; I'd still recommend reading it just so you know what you're talking about though. I enjoyed it pretty uncomplicatedly because I am already pretty pro-antifa; I am useless in a fight and I feel better knowing that there's people who aren't who are ready to put their bodies on the line for the times when peaceful mass mobilization and "everyday anti-fascism" fail.
Oh, man, I knew I forgot something important. Bray talks a bit about what non-militant people can do to practice "everyday anti-fascism" so that we are not all doomed to being clueless useless liberals if we are not personally up for socking a Nazi in the face, which is good, because I wish to stand against fascism but am very bad at socking anyone in the face. Everyday anti-fascism consists of a bunch of things, from organizer broader left movements to address the alienation in modern life that fascism exploits, to raising the social cost of acting racist by not putting up with that shit in any of your social spaces. This is good book-writing praxis: ending with a call to action accessible to lay readers.
Anyway, support your local antifa, and don't be scared of the weirdos in black masks at protests--stay away from the Nazis and they'll leave you alone.
bloodygranuaile: (we named the monkey jack)
2017-09-15 01:28 pm

London is saved, as are London and London

It's been almost two weeks since I read A Conjuring of Light and I kind of forgot what I was initially going to say about this? I've got a really bad habit of starting series and then being so excited for the remaining books in the series that I sort of put them off forever 'cause I want to save them or something, so I'm honestly not sure what to make of the fact that I immediately put in for the next one at the BPL each time I finished one of these. Clearly I was having a lot of fun but not getting too hung up on ~appreciating~ it as ~literature~. It had an extremely high body count, which was fun, and a lot of angst, which was kind of fun too. We get a lot of interesting backstory on Holland, who somehow winds up being the most fascinating and least hateable character. Osaron, the bit of magic inexplicably imbued with consciousness that now thinks its a god, is a great villain, not because he is genius-ly villainous but because he is deeply infuriating to witness, the sort of puffed-up dipshit wrecking ball of a creature that thinks being able to destroy things real good is a sign of strength and not just an acceleration of the natural direction of the universe toward entropy, and who is too undisciplined to notice that maybe the reason his worlds all keep getting wrecked is him. I think he's a metaphor for industrial capitalism or toxic masculinity or something. At any rate, the dynamic is familiar.
This book is a bit longer than the others, and it could easily have been trimmed down, but it wasn't, and I'm OK with that? It slows down the pacing a little but I liked a lot of the random side characters who got little bits of perspective. The King and Queen, who were pretty tertiary figures in the earlier books, get a lot of interesting backstory just in time to make it interesting when they die heroically. There are all sorts of fun adventures like a secret black market of incredibly magical objects that is also a ship. Combined goblin market and pirate ship tropes is very up my alley.
Rhy also comes into his own with being kingly and useful, especially when he literally rides out to collect his people that have survived the shadowy brainwashing fever thing Osaron is doing. If you survive the shadowy magic brainwashing fever, you are then immune and your veins turn silver, which is another one of those things that would work great on TV if done properly. And might also be a metaphor. Magic stuff is always a political metaphor to me because magic is power and politics is also power. (Some authors write explicitly political fantasy and I think I find those fun to read because it's like, it's already there so I don't have to work too hard on reading it into it.)
Anyway, I think I might have messed up on book club tomorrow by reading the whole series, so now I've got to remember what was in which book, wish me luck. Also it's going to be 80 degrees so I can't even wear a fabulous coat to book club. ::sadface::
bloodygranuaile: (good morning)
2017-09-11 02:45 pm

Lip, dip, paint

Does anyone else get, like, sympathetic pain/other weird physical sensations when reading about medical stuff? I do, and reading Blitzed the other week basically made all the veins in my arms and legs feel fragile and empty, because I can only read about so many injections. It's an unpleasant feeling, so of course I decided to double down on it and be like "Next I'm going to read a book about RADIUM POISONING!"
I found Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women basically by accident; I had gone to Porter Square Books on a Friday night to pick up two books I'd ordered (Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia and Tariq Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution. I had decided to go on a Russia kick), and there was a joint author event with Kate Moore and Nathalia Holt, discussing this book and Holt's Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. It was a great discussion; nothing makes me so glad to live in a city like Boston than being able to randomly wander into a surprise women's labor history night.
The Radium Girls is the history of the women who worked painting glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch faces with radium paint during the World War I and interwar era. There were major radium paint factories—or "studios," as they were called—in Orange, New Jersey; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Ottawa, Illinois. The dial-painters were mostly working-class girls in their late teens or early twenties, although some were older, or even as young as fourteen. The technique used to keep the brush tips nice and fine while painting the numbers was to moisten and point them with one's lips—a technique that meant the young women were constantly ingesting radium paint.
Radium, if you didn't know, is fantastically toxic, especially internally.
People back then didn't know, mostly. They knew that radium could treat cancer by burning out the cancer, and from this they largely concluded that it was therefore very healthy. There was a great craze for putting radium in everything, such as cosmetics and tonic water. Fortunately, radium was extremely expensive, so most products marketed with radium didn't actually have any radium in it. There were some exceptions, like one rich guy who drank radium tonic every day for years, and then eventually his jaw fell off.
The girls who worked at the dial-painting studios had landed one of the most prestigious, best-paid gigs available to working-class women at the time. It was a glamorous job, partly because of radium's mystique, and partly because the job got the girls covered in radium powder all the time, which then made them glow in the dark when they went out at night. The first big radium company whose workers we meet is the United States Radium Corporation in Orange, New Jersey—incidentally, about twenty minutes from where I grew up, midway along the commuter rail between my town and New York City, on the Morristown line—whose founder, Dr. von Sochocky,  had invented the radioluminescent paint they marketed as Undark. The men who worked in the labs used gloves and masks and aprons and all that normal (for the time) protective gear, since they handled radium in the sort of quantities that would burn skin--but they all thought that was basically just an annoyance. The dial-painters had no protection, since it was assumed that the radium in the pain was of such small quantity that there was no danger.
It was a few years before the first girls started to develop tooth problems, and if the teeth were pulled, the wounds refused to heal. The frustrated dentists thought that perhaps the girls had been exposed to phosphorus, since they were showing symptoms of what was ghoulishly known as "phossy jaw," or phosphorus poisoning. It took years before the various doctors, dentists, scientists, and other professionals, pushed along by lawyers, the New Jersey chapter of the National Consumer's League, and the girls themselves figured out that "phossy jaw" is just very similar to "radium jaw," or the hitherto unknown condition of radium necrosis. While doctors and lawyers fought with the company's doctors and lawyers to try to test the paint, to conduct medical tests on the remaining workers, to reexamine the scientific literature on radium and conduct further experiments on it, more and more girls were getting sick and dying. A constellation of symptoms appeared, many of which nobody initially suspected were related: while some girls had tooth issues, others developed arthritis-like conditions, with their legs shortening and joints stiffening. After a few more years, after the first lawsuits had been filed and the legal and scientific fighting was in full swing, the doctors started to see a new symptom—giant, fast-growing, lethal sarcomas, a type of bone cancer, that appeared on jaws or knees or elbows or wherever it wanted to show up. This is because radium is chemically similar to calcium, and when ingested, it does the same thing calcium does and settles into the bones.
The Radium Girls, and the tight social networks they had developed while working at the studio, weren't just victims here, although obviously holy God were they victims here; the book has pictures and they're pretty disturbing. But they also were extremely persistent about seeking and demanding help in order to cover their medical bills and let the world know what was happening. The girls and their lawyer worked the media wonderfully, giving lengthy interviews about all the ways the company had evaded responsibility and blamed the girls for their own health problems (the first girl to die of radium necrosis was posthumously said to have died of syphilis; part of the case involved exhuming her and testing her remains for both syphilis and radioactivity); they also gave the press periodic tearjerker updates about how they were doing and what they wanted from the case and for their own lives. When they gave testimony in court, the reporters covering the hearings reported that the girls were brave and stoic, but the reporters themselves cried. Ultimately, the New Jersey case was settled in 1928 for what at the time was many buckets of money, which helped the five women in the lawsuit--or their families, in the cases of the ones who had died over the course of the legal proceedings—pay their medical bills and provided them pensions since they could no longer work. In one of the most infuriating legal decisions I have ever read, the company managed to get it into the settlement terms of their payout to Mae Canfield that the Radium Girls' lawyer, Raymond Berry, could no longer take any action against the U.S. Radium Corporation.
This case, understandably, scared the crap out of the dial-painters in Ottawa when it got big enough to start making national newspaper headlines. The studio in Ottawa, run by the Radium Dial Company, assured the girls that they were fine, since the paint used in NJ had mesothelium in it and theirs didn't. Nevertheless, RDC started regularly giving medical tests to all its workers, although it never told them the results. When the girls began to fall sick, they demanded money from the company to cover their medical bills; the company refused to pay and fired several sick workers. The company had basically gone under by the time the workers were able to retain a lawyer who would take their case with the Illinois Industrial Commission; the judges repeatedly found for the women through a humiliating series of appeals, which seemed designed to run out the clock on the women in the hopes that they would die before the company had to pay out any money from the small pot of assets it had left (about $10,000). This case got even more dramatic than the New Jersey one, with one very sick Radium Girl, Katherine--now in her thirties, married with two children, and wasting away before everyone's eyes—giving testimony from the couch in her living room because she was too fragile to be brought into court.
The Radium Girls has everything as a drama—legal intrigue, unscrupulous businessmen, plucky underdog heroines, scientific hubris, body horror—it works perfectly as a cautionary fable against scientific hubris and the inhumane incentives of business. But it's all true. I cried on numerous occasions reading it, because I am a sappy old lady now; because I grew up so close to Orange and Newark; because I too almost died once in Waterbury, Connecticut; because my people were also working-class Irish and Italian immigrants crammed into the greater New York metro area around the time of the world wars; because I've had a lot of teeth pulled and had a lot of dreams about them falling out and my whole face splintering apart. Basically, it hit home in a lot of half-assed-but-unexpectedly-powerful-when-all-happening-at-the-same-time ways, and reading it made all the bones in my hands and feet and face hurt.
bloodygranuaile: (we named the monkey jack)
2017-08-30 03:27 pm

The Federation of Belligerent Mages

I enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic because it was fun tropey nonsense, so I picked up the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows, which is even more fun tropey nonsense.
The central bit of tropey nonsense in here is that it is a Tournament Book, which is always a fun time. It deviates from the usual expectations a bit in that not one, but two characters enter illegally, and a bit more in that (spoilers) neither of them win. Also, the tournament is structured a little weird. But it is still a magic tournament, and people still wear a lot of fabulous coats.
Granted, not all the tropes are fun. Lila has been Spunky Fighter Girl Who Hates Dresses! for a while, which has been done but is fine, but at some point early in the book she literally pulls out a "I'm not like other girls," which is why I was so pleased that she also turned out to be Not Like Other Protagonists and didn't win the tournament. (I am knocking an entire star off my Goodreads rating for this book just for those five words in a 500-page book. I am not fucking around; there is no excuse for anyone to write or type that in earnest ever again. This is basic shit by now.) It was telegraphed pretty heavily in the last book that Lila's an Antari but that doesn't save her ass because it turns out she can't just attitude her way through all the laws of magic, and while a bit of "the rules don't apply to me" can be part of the power fantasy in fantasy books (wouldn't it be nice to have the rules not apply to you?), it's even more satisfying to see someone get a bit of comeuppance when they're all like "I don't have any fucking idea what the rules are; I'm just sure they don't apply to me!"
The book also doubles the number of Handsome Rich Flirty Bros by introducing Alucard (yes, ALUCARD) Emery, the captain of the privateer ship Lila steals away on to learn pirating because she's never been on a boat before which is a liability if your dream is to be a pirate, so we have to put up with his overbearingly charming ass in addition to Rhy, the crown prince, who is actually starting to grow up a little and is even more insufferable because of it. This double whammy of Handsome Rich Flirty Bros ought to be a thousand percent insufferable but is somewhat mitigated by the fact that they are gay for each other, which ends up making Kell mad even though they are clearly perfect for each other since they are basically the same person.
Kell spends most of this book going through angst like he's trying to win a tournament of angsting (which Rhy would probably win actually). Neither he nor Rhy are dealing well with having to share a life-force; it's apparently very invasive, and they can feel each other's physical pain, which means they each spend way too much time and brainspace fretting over how much they'll hurt the other one if they stub their toe. It's all very heartwarming.
Anyway, while everyone is busy being permanently unhappy about everything over in the Red London universe, the White London universe is slowly coming back to life, thanks to its new king: Holland, the Antari who was killed and stuffed into Black London at the end of last book. Yay for White London! Except that while this seems good it is actually Bad, because the Thing that ate Black London is insatiable and is quite hellbent on overdoing things in every London. Holland has also picked up a slightly culty knife-dancing follower with red hair that he's been able to impart magic to and he sends her on some sort of mission to Red London to kidnap Kell. There's a lot of fighting and running through secret corridors and stuff.
The Obligatory Romantic Subplot between Kell and Lila that's been telegraphed since the very first second they met finally blooms into existence sometime near the end of this book, so that's out of the way finally. I was not especially rooting for or against this; every human in this book is so massively emotionally damaged that I can't imagine their romantic relationships being in any way healing or functional, but I'm also not sure they can screw them up any more than they already are.
In short: Magic tournament, angst, fighting, running through secret corridors, more fabulous coats, disguises, hijinks, capers, rich assholes, boats, moar angst, evil hungry magic threatening to corrupt/take over the world. In other words: tropey but fun.
bloodygranuaile: (carmilla)
2017-08-29 03:18 pm
Entry tags:

Chemical warfare

After last weekend's adventure in shutting down fascism I was reminded that I have a big old stack of World War II-related books on the TBR Shelf o' Doom, and after a bit of waffling about which one to pick up first, I decided on Norman Ohler's Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, which was translated into English earlier this year.
I knew sort of vaguely that modern militaries (and not-so-modern militaries) have a long and not-frequently-talked about history of experimenting with performance-enhancing substances for maximum soldiering, and that much of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries were awash in un- or under-regulated drugs that we now consider to be OMG VERY HARD DRUGS. The most recent episode of Sawbones, which discusses the opioid epidemic, talks about the development of various opiates and opioids, a shocking number of which were developed for the purpose of being less addictive ways to wean people off of the earlier drugs. It's fairly well known at this point that Freud was on ALL THE COCAINE and if you kick around in Weird History enough you've probably heard that Bayer got its start making aspirin, which you can still buy over-the-counter in any pharmacy, and heroin, which, not so much anymore.
Weimar Germany was known to be full of drugs of the recreational variety, because of the economy imploding and fun stuff like that, and Berlin in particular was known as a center of culture and decadently out-of-control nightlife. In response to all this decadence and what they saw as cultural decay and all that stuff, the Nazi regime set itself up as being very anti-drug. Hitler moralized at people about how he was a vegetarian and didn't smoke or drink coffee or alcohol. Basically, they were big on the idea of bodily purity, which should probably make people stop and think twice about any modern "health" fads that appear to be going on a bit too hard about bodily purity, even though the "Hitler was a vegetarian" thing is pretty much the go-to example for Godwin's Law.
But the Nazis weren't big on bodily purity so that everyone could sleep soundly eight hours a day and enjoy a leisurely and wholesome work-life balance. They wanted people to be able to PERFORM and to SHOW THE WORLD the UNPARALLELED VIGOR AND VITALITY OF THE ARYAN RACE and some other stuff that I can't help but imagine being only in all-caps from both its zealousness and from being in German. Also they were trying to take over half the world which is not a restful endeavor. To that end, while drugs were bad, medicine was clearly very important, as were vitamins and supplements and other things that basically mean "drugs, but healthy." Stop me if this sounds familiar at all.
Anyway, Five-Hour Energy hadn't been invented yet, but what had been invented was SEVENTEEN-HOUR ENERGY, otherwise known as Pervitin, otherwise known as methamphetamine. Pervitin was first synthesized in 1938 by the Temmler pharmaceutical company, which still exists (side note: It's really appalling how many brands you run across reading about Nazi Germany that still exist. Especially all the drug companies). After a few really half-assed medical experiments that showed that Pervitin use made medical students REALLY AWAKE for a long period of time but not any focused or smarter (and actually less focused), the doctor working on it had the bright idea that it'd be really good for soldiers, who have to keep going for a long time but don't need to be geniuses, I guess. Thus was Pervitin dispensed in massive quantities to the Wehrmacht, where it was apparently instrumental in keeping them up long enough to drive tanks through the supposedly impassable mountains in the Ardennes and invade France, and was supposedly also instrumental in helping them Blitz through France all the way to Dunkirk, whereupon they inexplicably stopped. As the war dragged on, the drugs got harder and the side effects got worse — Pervitin is apparently a bad thing to be on when you're trying to invade Russia in the snow (even considering that you're clearly not using your good-judgment faculties in the first place if you're even trying to do such a thing); by the very end of the war, the Nazis were doing things like drugging up 15-year-old Hitlerjugend fanatics on cocaine chewing gum, stuffing them in tiny submarines, and pointing them vaguely in the direction of the Thames. This did not work out well, and Ohler's descriptions of the fates awaiting these untrained submarine recruits constitutes the only time I've ever reacted to a report of violence against Nazis with anything other than uncomplicated glee. Stuffing drugged-up children into shoddily made submarines that they've got no idea how to navigate is some fucked-up Nazi bullshit even if the children in question are also Nazis.
Guess what else is fucked up? When the Navy was moving on from Pervitin and trying to develop even harder drugs — terrifying combinations of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and oxycodone — to find out what were the most effective combinations, they tested them out on concentration camp inmates on the shoe-walking track at Sachsenhausen.
A good third of Blitzed is given over to discussion of Hitler's personal drug regimen, developed and overseen by his sycophantic, greedy, and not especially medically ethical personal physician, Herr Doktor Theodor Morell. Morell was basically an opportunist quack who sold whatever was fashionable to fashionable people in Berlin, and wound up treating Hitler for some sort of stomach problem, and got him hooked on a whole experimental regimen of quack nonsense that ranged from benign stuff like chamomile, through a whole range of dodgy animal extracts and hormones and stuff, all the way through to methamphetamine injections. Toward the end, Morell got Hitler hooked on Eukodal, a type of oxycodone. Unsurprisingly, becoming a giant junkie did not do anything to make Hitler and less of a craptastic tactician, and the descriptions of him shooting up in a bunker while all his grand military plans go to shit around him and fighting with anyone who knows what they're talking about are kind of satisfying.
Overall, while the subject matter is fascinating, the book is organized a little weird — it feels more like several long articles smooshed together than one cohesive work — and it's certainly not a masterpiece of prose styling. I don't know how much of that has to do with the translation and what's because the author isn't a historian and sometimes creative writers trying to write history works really well (see: China Mieville's October) but sometimes it just means they try to get fancy when it doesn't need to be fancy. There are a lot of really bad drug puns that I want to like better than I do; perhaps they work better in German.
Like a lot of nonfiction books that take a specific angle or look at events through the lens of a highly specific topic, Blitzed runs the risk of overstating its case by virtue of it being the only case it's dedicated to stating. Ohler takes pains to point out that being a raging junkie does nothing to absolve Hitler of culpability for his actions, his horrific prejudices, and his inability to see other people as important or real. But it definitely gets a bit "THE THIRD REICH RAN ENTIRELY ON DRUGS" a bit at times and it was probably not as all-encompassing as it sounds. But it's definitely an interesting subject, and I'm sure it'll be an interesting load of information to have floating around in my brain when I read other stuff on Nazi Germany from now on. (I'm also really tempted to rewatch Downfall...)
In conclusion, drugs are bad and always punch Nazis, 'K?
bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
2017-08-28 02:08 pm

Eminence grise

 Still catching up on my Mark Reads Discworld stuff; for some reason I'm burned out on poker Twitch streams and so this is now my work listening. After The Truth I went backwards and listened to the book before it, The Fifth Elephant, which I keep accidentally typing as The Fifth Element even though that's the joke.
This is a Watch book, in which Vimes, along with Sybil and Carrot and Cheery and Detritus, are sent to Uberwald on a mission of Diplomacy, which Sam has approximately zero training in. The event that requires diplomacy is the crowning of the new Low King of the Dwarves, which is currently a bit contentious due to factionalism within the dwarf community over the status of the dwarven emigrant population in places like Ankh-Morpork and the weird city habits they adopt when they leave their traditional enclaves. To make things worse, the replica of the Scone of Stone--the sacred dwarf bread that the king sits on at his coronation, much like how in our world the monarchs of Scotland sit on on the Stone of Scone, what a coincidence--has gone missing from the Dwarf Museum in Ankh-Morpork, which is just weird, and may or may not be connected somehow to a Dastardly Plot involving the real Scone of Stone back in Uberwald, because this stuff gets real complicated real fast, especially considering it's harder for me to follow things when I'm listening rather than reading.
Despite my occasionally losing some of the details in the plot, I still found this very enjoyable. One plotline involves Angua running away to Uberwald to confront her terrible, terrible werewolf supremacist family, and Captain Carrot and Gaspode the Wonder Dog go on a hilarious buddy road trip thing to follow her. With all these Watch folks in Uberwald, Fred Colon becomes acting Watch Commander, which goes so incredibly terribly wrong that it culminates in Nobby trying to unionize the police force (I don't know if British police unions have any of the same Problems as American police unions, so this was still funny). Lady Sibyl saves the day on multiple occasions by doing stuff like measuring the embassy house for carpets and knowing a lot about dwarf opera, because Lady Sibyl is the best. Cheery Littlebottom's new mode of expressing her gender causes some waves in traditionalist Uberwald, as does her collegiality with Detritus. Lord Vetinari sends an assassin to accompany Vimes & co. to Uberwald in the guise of a clerk. Between the lot of them, they manage to figure out bits and pieces of the bizarre plot to undermine the new Low King. There are many bizarre hijinks that are nevertheless imbued with great sociopolitical analysis and good life lessons, or occasionally just with hilarious references to other things, like when Vimes gets caught nearly naked in the countryside outside of Bonk and winds up on the estate of three melancholic young maidens lifted straight out of Russian literature, who lend him the gloomy and purposeless trousers of Uncle Vanya in exchange for getting them out of their cherry orchard and a trip to Ankh-Morpork.
The title has to do with an old legend about an elephant crashing into the Disc and eventually becoming where the fat mines in Uberwald come from (Uberwald has fat mines, by the way, but Roundworld used to have whaling so I guess how weird is it really). It is made to tie in more or less with the themes of the book, which are predominantly about how identity is constructed and expressed--what does it mean to be part of a race or nation or ethnicity; what does it mean to express your gender in various cultural contexts; as always, there's a side order of the meaning and responsibilities of having and wielding authority. In short, it's classic Discworld--it's deep and there are puns, and sometimes even the puns are deep.
I'm probably going to get hopelessly mixed up on the order of things as I continue to reread (re-listen to?) this series, but oh well. Good thing I've read them all before!
bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)
2017-08-25 12:14 pm
Entry tags:

The political is personal

 After the relentless epic that was Dark Money we decided we'd like to read something shorter and lighter for the next book club; however, because we are bad at not being morbid, we instead decided to read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which is shorter but really not any lighter, since it is about police brutality and America's multi-century history of vicious, violent racism.
Although this book was short—about 150 pages—it took me three days to read because I tried to read it slowly and carefully. It's not something to just zip through.
Between the World and Me reminded me of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, and a quick look through the press the book has gotten makes it clear that this was likely intentional; the parallels are pretty clear. Coates' book takes the form of a series of letters to his teenage son, Samori, just as Baldwin's book was in the form of a letter to his nephew. Both are works of memoir, discussing their visceral, lived experiences of American racism and tying their life stories in closely with the philosophical, historical, and political dimensions of American racism. The parallels are even stronger in part because there are some broad-brush similarities in their life trajectories. Both grew up in poor, often violent urban areas--Baldwin in Depression-era Harlem; Coates in Baltimore in the '80s (i.e., during the crack epidemic)--and spent a lot of time in libraries; both are atheists; obviously, they both became highly influential writers--more specifically, they both became authoritative voices on racism in America and developed platforms within what is still a very white liberal literary establishment. But beyond that, the similarities between the two books come mostly from the depressing fact that racism in America hasn't actually changed nearly as much between 1962 and 2015 as we'd like to believe it has.
One of the motifs Coates uses a lot is the invocation of the body, often using terms like "my body" where most people would probably just say "me" or "black bodies" where most writers would use "black people," etc. Coates is pretty clear that he's an atheist and believes that our bodies are all we're made of and that consciousness is an emergent property of the body and all that materialist stuff, so his focus on the body is the opposite of how a lot of other writers, especially religiously inclined ones, use it, where the body is just a shell and what happens to it is not of ultimate importance; instead, Coates uses the unambiguous physical existence of bodies to break past the abstract tendencies of so much of Western discourse, to bring the realities of racism home from the vague philosophical plane that people take refuge in when talking about terrible things. (I'm perhaps being condescending here but it never ceases to amaze me what a widespread habit of thought this is and how hard it can be to break through it, on any subject, from parents telling kids to "just ignore" bullying because they assume all bullying is verbal and it doesn't occur to them that it's hard to ignore being shoved into a locker, to all the various people I've witnessed who know that Nazis are bad but who still had to be walked through the idea that Nazis do bad things--and were surprised.) Coates' continual invocation of the body makes it clear that "rights" are not abstract and "racism" being systemic is not the same thing as it being philosophical; that what's at stake here is not just intangible ideals about dignity or belonging, but actual fear of physical violence. He talks about the psychic toll of constant hyperawareness; the fear behind the harsh discipline that parents inflicted on their children in the neighborhood he grew up in; the threats from other boys in the neighborhood compensating for their lack of bodily security by engaging in their own violence and territorialism.
The other big motif in the book is the Dream, which is only superficially a lovely dream, but Coates uses it to mean comforting myths or self-delusions that people use to avoid learning about or facing up to the violence in American life and American history. the Dream, which is a false, stands in contrast to the body, which is real, and again is a noticeable departure from how these concepts are traditionally invoked in high-minded Western writing. You can see parallels between the Dream as it is dreamed by "people who believe they are white" and Baldwin's argument about "the innocence which constitutes the crime." Coates is pretty blunt about the level of longstanding delusion it requires to maintain the Dream, the "practiced habit of jabbing out one's eyes and forgetting the work of one's hands."
One of the early arguments Coates makes in the book is that racism isn't the result of race; race was basically invented to provide a justification for racism. Racism, of course, was invented for reasons of wealth and power; while I don't think Coates is an anti-capitalist writer, he's very well informed about the ways American wealth was built on the stolen labor, stolen wealth, and stolen bodies of black people--including that enslaved people were considered not a consumer good but a commodity, meaning that not only could they be bought, sold, and traded, but they could be underwritten, securitized, insured, and turned into all sorts of fancy Wall Street financial products. He discusses how difficult it is for black families to build wealth; in his famous The Case for Reparations piece in The Atlantic, he goes into more detail about redlining and other racist housing policies. But he also talks about the ways in which ascending into the middle class can afford some kinds of privilege and escape compared to how he grew up, but also the ways in which, in essence, middle-class blacks still can't buy their way out of being black, with all the danger that comes along with it in America. The last part of Between the World and Me relates the story of Coates' former classmate at Howard, Prince Jones, who was shot by the Prince George's County police in front of his fiancee's house. Jones was raised in a securely well-off household and was about as respectable as it's possible to get, and it didn't save him, which seems to have made a pretty big impression on Coates. At the end of the book he recounts a lengthy, powerful interview with Jones' mother.
Between the World and Me, while obviously heavy, is not completely bleak all the way through. Coates talks a lot about his time at Howard University, and its impact on his thinking about black history and identity. (This section left me with a long list of things to read, starting with The Autobiography of Malcolm X.) The love with which he writes about his school, which he refers to as The Mecca, and all the people he met there and all the things he learned from them, as well as his adventures in learning how learning about history works (i.e., it's messy and contradictory), is heartwarming.
One thing this book isn't, obviously, is an objective in-depth study of any of the topics it touches on. But that's OK, because it isn't intended to be, and there are many other good, heavily researched books you can read about police brutality, or black poverty, or the history of racial constructions in America, or race and capitalism, that you can pick up at the library if you want to learn more about these subjects, which we all should. But the book has a lot of moral and philosophical force, and it challenges those of us who are not Coates' kid to whom the book is explicitly addressed, but who are reading it anyway because it was published for mass access, to both think and feel deeply about the material and physical consequences of what it means to be black or to believe you are white in America.
bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)
2017-08-22 01:46 pm
Entry tags:

One London, two London, red London, blue London

 After finishing Dark Money and being filled with rage that could only partially be expiated by yelling at a pathetically small number of Nazis to GTFO my city, I was fortunate to find the perfectly fluffy fantasy-adventure antidote in V. E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic, which Emily had selected for our next BSpec book club.
This book has a lot of things that are generally up the alley of vaguely Gothy fantasy fans like myself. The plot is even color-coded Gothically fabulously, with the main worldbuilding conceit being that there are four different universes with Londons in them: Black London, White London, Red London, and Grey London. Four Londons! And that color scheme! Very much comfort reading. The main character has special world-jumping magic, a mysterious past, a fabulous coat that changes into different fabulous coats (and some less-fabulous coats when necessary), and a bad inter-London smuggling habit, which is forbidden. The second-main character is a spunky pickpocket named Delilah Bard who harbors dreams of becoming a pirate. Overall the characters are a bit archetypal but they're fun and entertaining, and it's easy to root for Kell even when he's a bit dumb and for Lila even when she's trying too hard.
Lila is from Grey London, which is basically our universe's London and is the boring one with no magic. Kell, the world-jumping dude (or Antari, as it's called), is from Red London, which is sadly not a London run by communists, but is the London full of flourishing, healthy magic, and its river casts a red light because magic is based in blood so it's red when it's functioning properly. White London is dying, its magic is all out of balance and drains the life and color out of stuff. This is in part because White London is in the universe next door to Black London, which has been sealed off after the magic got corrupted and ate everything? It's not entirely clear because Black London has been blocked off from the others for centuries and nobody has gone there, even Antari. All of Black London's artifacts that were in the other kingdoms were destroyed.
While he is visiting White London, somebody manages to take advantage of Kell's smuggling habit and sticks him with half a black rock that turns out to be from Black London and is full of the corrupted magic of that London. People in the other Londons can use the rock to do magic, but it has consequences, sort of like how in the real world non-magic people can do all sorts of incredible things if we get hopped up on painkillers, but there are consequences. The black magic starts to spread through healthy Red London like an STD--quite literally; there's a scene where one dude who's been possessed by the black magic goes to a brothel and passes it to a lady of negotiable affection, who then is also possessed, and she passes it on to another customer... you get the idea. So basically it functions like an opioid, is passed along bodily vectors like syphilis, and is described as looking and thinking sort of like Hexxus the oil monster from FernGully. I'm now imagining possessed half-burned-up zombie guards wandering around Red London singing "Toxic Love" in Tim Curry's voice. I may be still very tired and dehydrated from yelling at Nazis; forgive me.
Anyway. It's a pretty fast read; it's 400 pages and while I don't know if it's technically YA, it's paced like YA, and easy enough to fly through in just a few hours. I may be able to read the whole trilogy before book club, if that wouldn't inevitably result in me mixing up all three books (might do it anyway). It seems like it would make a lovely fun movie trilogy (possibly animated), especially with the color conceit.
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
2017-08-21 03:04 pm

The most important book you'll gouge your eyes out reading

 I'd been wanting to have the politics book group read Jane Mayer's Dark Money since I first started the group, and we finally had a big enough gap between meetings that it made sense to read it, since it's almost 500 pages long. A lot of folks opted out of reading it. Some of the people that are reading it have been unable to finish it due to the sheer unrelenting awfulness of its subject matter. In short, the reaction to this book works pretty well as a microcosm for how we ended up in the sort of shit we're in, because it turns out that most normal human brains are actually incapable of dealing with how bad things can be, leaving not enough people to deal with them.
This is a constant theme within the book as well, but we'll get to that in a bit.
Anyway. The book's full title is Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, and it is mostly about the Koch Brothers, but it is also about all their cartoon villain billionaire friends and the pieceashit grifter minions they dole out wingnut welfare to.
The first thing we learn about the Kochs is that they are deeply screwed-up people. Their nanny was a Nazi and their father was a John Birch Society conspiracy theorist who got rich building oil refineries for Stalin and Hitler. It is a mark of how much I already hate the Kochs even by page 34 that this information managed to lower my opinion of Stalin. In addition to being the second-most-genocidal leader of the 20th century, he gave Fred fuckin' Koch his first half-million dollars in the middle of the Great Depression. I hope Trotsky is torturing you with an ice pick forevermore in the afterlife, asshole. Fred Koch then built an oil refinery in Hamburg that the Nazis used to fuel their war machine, and he built some oil refineries in the U.S. that the government used to fuel the U.S. Air Force planes to bomb the Hamburg refinery, because being a war profiteering fossil fuel baron that sells to both sides is just the sort of person you need to be to wind up with kids like Charles and David Koch.
The Koch family's history of political organizing is an enlightening tour through the history of mid-twentieth-century racism,  conspiracy theories, and culty ancap scams. The Kochs thought Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist. (Is this because he built the interstate system? Which was actually the least Communist thing ever, because cars are consumerist and individualistic and lefties love mass transit, and also because it was for the purpose of easier movement of military trucks and tanks?) (Wait, some Communists love tanks. Thanks for the highways, Comrade Ike!) Charles Koch eventually decided the John Birch Society's conspiracy theories were a bit gauche and instead started taking "classes" at anarchocapitalist theorist Robert LeFevre's "Freedom School." He started recruiting all his friends whether they liked it or not, and successfully indoctrinated his younger brother David. David was actually only one of three other brothers; the other two Koch brothers are not quite as terrible, although still terrible. One of them seems almost not-terrible, like, useless but also mostly harmless, being mostly into restoring historic houses and art collecting and that sort of thing, so obviously the other brothers basically disowned him, accusing him of being gay (this is an accusation when you're a right-wing "libertarian") and cutting him out of the family business.
This is because the family business is being awful. Like, officially it's a fossil fuel refining business, which is pretty awful to start with, but they really do seem to be on an ongoing quest to top their humble beginnings of refining oil for genocidal dictators. The company repeatedly fell afoul of labor, workplace safety, and environmental regulations, fueling the brothers' belief that they are being unfairly persecuted by a socialist nanny state infringing upon their rights as superior humans to hemorrhage poisons into the air and blow up teenagers like Danielle Smalley and Jason Stone with leaking, corroded gas pipelines. They've also bought up a bunch of other companies that make ubiquitous cheap crap so that it's almost possible for an American citizen to not patronize them, and eventually they got into our lovely bloated financial services industry, probably since that's where all the money in the entire economy that they weren't personally sitting on already went.
After introducing us to the Kochs and their terrifying family history, Mayer dedicates a bunch of chapters to other important right-wing libertarian assbags who have used they money to buy politicians, fellowships, fake "grassroots" groups that put out agitprop, private detectives to harass their political opponents, and other shady shit. These cretins include Richard Mellon Scaife, the dude behind the Arkansas Project and the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that everyone laughed at Hillary Clinton for saying exists (Hillary Clinton's right-wing-conspiracy-identifying skills are pretty much inversely proportional to how helpful identifying them is, which is frustrating); John M. Olin, who spearheaded funding conservative research at otherwise respectable institutions to try to stop them from doing scary liberal things like care about black students and whose shady-ass foundation did shady-ass things like function as a bank for the CIA for almost a decade; and Lynde and Harry Bradley, whose Bradley Foundation continued to fund "research" by pseudointellectual cronies like Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, a noxious bit of warmed-over eugenics theory, who is most recently back in the headlines for getting overenthusiastically protested by a bunch of students who are tired of rich assholes deliberately funding racists showing up at their homes to tell them they're genetically inferior (the headlines mostly focus on how illiberal and Bad For Academic Freedom it is for the students to object, not for outside rich assholes to be able to seed colleges with intellectually bankrupt pseudoscience). Later in the book we also meet such delightful humans as Art Pope, they guy who spearheaded North Carolina's transformation into a gerrymandered-to-death clusterfuck (we'd already read a bit about North Carolina's issues with being a gerrymandered clusterfuck in Give Us the Ballot and in the Moral Mondays chapter of Necessary Trouble), and Betsy DeVos, now lamentably our Secretary of Education because we're living in the worst timeline.
It's difficult to get across without reading the book just to what extent all of the billionaires who fund the Kochtopus come off as not only dreadful political actors, but also as grossly nasty and un-self-aware people. While they are mostly driven by pure greed and clearly view all non-billionaires as lesser lifeforms akin to some type of moderately useful bugs, it turns out that many of these libertarian Ubermenschen are also pretty racist. They also are very invested in the idea that they are Private Citizens and therefore there is nothing shady about them secretly spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fake a political movement and completely thwart American democracy (the one thing the Kochs have failed to do thus far is make anyone actually like their political agenda). They get extremely butthurt whenever journalists dare do things like follow the No. 1 rule of journalism and start to follow the money. Then the Kochs hire private detectives to dig through their trash, a thing they also do to lawyers when, say, their employees' families sue them for wrongful deaths and stuff.
Where are the Democrats in all of this? Well, the Kochs may have dedicated themselves to only taking over the Republican party and thought that Obama was a radical Kenyan Muslim socialist (I wish) (#Ellison2020), but the rules the business class have gotten rewritten for their own benefit over the decades have certainly put the loyal opposition in a position of being dependent upon the goodwill of their perennially butthurt donor class, who just don't understand why the little people are mad at them just because the gambled the world economy away? It wasn't our fault, man, and we won't do it again, we don't need any adult supervision, stop being mean. An ongoing theme over the course of several decades is that the Democrats are never quite prepared for what's coming next and every new batch of fresh-faced young Democrats who come in thinking they're going to fix things ends up being shocked and just how much opposition they run into. Which, like, I can see how it's frustrating, but it's not surprising; this is why "Is our Democrats learning?" has been a joke on the netroots for like fifteen years now. But more than the candidates themselves, the good info here is about the donors and the strategists, so that the reader knows that, for example, while Neera Tanden is currently on some of the crankier economically progressive folks' shit list, she was in support of more progressive policies than smug garbage fire advisors like David Plouffe, who was more concerned with appearing centrist than with actual good policy and referred to more liberal people in the party as "bedwetters" whenever they had the goddamn sense to be worried that not enacting desperately needed Keynesian policies might negatively affect the party's electoral fortunes (turns out the bedwetters were right and the Democrats continue to be the Mozarts of losing). But as gratifying as it may be to read that, for example, Hillary Clinton was so upset by the "sequester" budget that she had to leave the room when it was unveiled, the fact remains that the Democrats on the whole have gotten caught napping way too many times in a row and have been woefully ineffective as a loyal opposition. We read about this in more depth in Give Us the Ballot; it pops up again here because initiatives like Citizens United, REDMAP, and the suit where the Supreme Court vacated the Voting Rights Act were all funded by various tentacles of the Kochtopus.
Perhaps the Democratic Party candidates and behind-the-scenes folks had the same problem that my reading group did: In addition to just only being able to take so much, they tend toward a liberal worldview that's rooted in the idea that people are fundamentally good and capable of rational thought. As a result, the horrors of actual reality don't integrate easily into their minds. Perhaps it's time for the Dems to invest in some crankier people, not even necessarily as a move further left policy-wise, but just so they can stop hope-and-faith-in-the-American-people-ing their way out of being able to even see what they're up against. Maybe the election of Trump, which took pieces of human garbage like Betsy Devos out of the shadows and into the spotlight, will finally help it sink in that the Republican party has, in fact, been fully taken over by a cancerous tentacly parasite that cannot be reasoned with, has no sense of the greater good, and will not stop until it has destroyed all of society so Charles Koch (or possibly his ghost, propped up by money) can sit upon the ashes and proclaim himself God-emperor of Kochland, at least until climate change kills us all.
...Oh, man, I didn't even get to talk about the climate change stuff. You all know that rich fossil fuel barons have Astroturfed the entire climate change denial movement, right? This is a thing that everyone knows is a fact and is not really up for interpretation or debate, it's just what happened? Good. Because that's what happened. And so far we've let it.
God help us all.
bloodygranuaile: (sociability)
2017-08-13 02:28 pm
Entry tags:

Not your father's Snow White story

 It's been a little while since The Darkest Part of the Forest came out. I bought it when Holly Black did an event at Brookline Booksmith with Sarah Rees Brennan (to whom the book is dedicated), but I only got around to actually reading it when I was in Maine last week. This is what happens when I decide to be a responsible adult and read more nonfiction instead of YA fantasy all the time. But I've recently realized that I really can't be giving up my YA fantasy too much, because being alone in my head with only my head and things that have happened in reality is bad for my mental health.
Anyway. The Darkest Part of the Forest takes place in a town called Fairfold, where everyone knows that fairies are real, because there's a boy with horns asleep in a glass coffin in the woods next to the town. He's been there for generations and the glass never breaks, although if you try too hard to break it terrible things might happen to you. The townsfolk know how dangerous the fairies are but pretend that it's all OK because if anything bad happens to someone they were acting like a stupid tourist, and no one thinks too closely about the morality of sacrificing tourists to the whims of the fairies, especially when most of the town's economy depends on them.
Our protagonist is a teenage girl named Hazel, who used to hunt bad fairies with her musically gifted brother, Ben, back when they were kids. When I use the term "musically gifted" here, it's not a figure of speech; it was a gift from a fairy given to Ben when he was a baby. But then something happened, and Hazel and Ben have not gone bad-fairy-hunting in a long time. Instead, Ben goes on bad internet dates with inappropriate dudes, and Hazel makes out with boys at parties and tries not to have any residual feelings from her childhood crush on her classmate Jack, who is actually a changeling. Jack's mom managed to get her real child back but hung onto Jack to raise as well out of sheer outrage that the fairies had pulled this BS on a town resident.
The main plot kicks off when the horned boy in the glass coffin wakes up one day, and Hazel wakes up in the morning covered in mud with glass splinters in her fingers. Hazel, Ben, and Jack wind up on a multi-pronged quest to find the horned boy, figure out what's happened to Hazel's nights, defeat the Alderking and his increasingly misbehaving subjects, suss out some sort of working relationship between Jack and both his moms, and unravel the mystery of the monster Sorrow that's haunting the town. It's a lot to get done in 300 pages, but that's OK.
Although I liked the Curse Workers series and The Coldest Girl in Coldtown better than the Tithe series, it's really, really great to see Holly Black take on fairies again. It's not at all repetitive or derivative of the Tithe books; it's possible that they could take place in the same universe, but it's a fresh, new story about love and power and ambition and the compromises communities make with the dark things within themselves for the sake of cohesion. (It does have a couple recurring Holly Black tropes, like parents who love their children in their own way but are also conveniently The Worst at parenting, and lots of teen drinking.) It's also just a fast, whimsical, romantic read, perfect for summer lakeside reading, with enough action and darkness and stuff to feel like it's engaging with the human condition in some way, but mostly is just about a girl running around the woods with an awesome sword trying to solve magical dangers. So really exactly the sort of thing I wanted.
bloodygranuaile: (bitch please caligari)
2017-08-11 02:19 pm

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of girl power?

 As a longtime pirate aficionado and an even more longtime women's history aficionado, I was pretty stoked to find a copy of Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers who Ruled the Seven Seas at Porter Square Books this summer. I'd missed the author event, which I was bummed to find out about after the fact, but the book was signed, so I happily shelled out for the slim little purple hardcover.
I had great hopes for learning a few new things when I brought this book to Maine last weekend, or at least to have some fun revisiting the things I already know. Fifteen years of on-and-off piratical reading means I'm already fairly familiar with the stories of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, of Grace O'Malley, and of Cheng Yisao, who are basically the Big Four of female pirates who occasionally get talked about.
In respect to the number of lady pirates whose stories are addressed, the book does not disappoint. The author, Laura Sook Duncombe, doesn't want to leave anybody out, and seems of the mind that more pirates are better than fewer, even if some are apocryphal, or outright fictional, or if they stretch the definition of "piracy" a little — for example, most of her ancient world examples are queens for whom raiding was considered a more or less legitimate form of warfare. This is fine and I think it was a good choice, since I also think more lady pirates is better reading than fewer lady pirates. As a result, I learned about a whole bunch of interesting women whose stories I hadn't previously heard of — Mary Wolverston, Lady Killigrew in Cornwall, whose entire family was engaged in piracy and fencing (not the swords kind) in the Elizabethan era; the New York river pirate called Sadie the Goat (a nickname that has only improved with age, as Sadie is indeed the #GOAT); Sayyida al-Hurra, a Barbary Coast pirate queen of the early 16th century; and many others.
What is disappointing about this book, though, is that there is still not enough lady pirate history, in that the amount of page space dedicated to actually telling the reader about lady pirate history is heavily diluted with a lot of editorializing, moralizing, and trying to guess at/manage the reader's impressions. This is bad enough when Duncombe's reactions to things align with my own, since there is far too much of it; when we disagree on stuff, it becomes wildly distracting. I found much of Duncombe's editorializing to be frankly quite condescending (albeit condescending in a different way than you'll be condescended to if you're reading books on maritime history by old white dude naval historians who address these figures).
The first example that really, really annoyed me was during the recounting of the "War of the Three Jeannes," a conflict in medieval Brittany that I'd inexcusably never heard of but is exactly the sort of vicious war of succession that is exactly what people read about medieval European history for. After her husband is killed, one of the Jeannes, Jeanne de Clisson, brings her sons to Nantes to show them that their father's head had been mounted on a pike for public display. To this, Duncombe says "To a modern reader it seems a bit puzzling, to say the least, that Jeanne would choose to expose her young sons to such violence."
Like... actually, lady, as a modern reader, I already got past the sentences where King Philip put the dude's head on a pike for public display, which would expose everyone in Nantes to it, and while I am not a medievalist, I have also not lived under a rock for my whole life and I am familiar with the general concept of the Middle Ages. So no, it's not puzzling to me at all that the nobility of 14th-century Brittany would raise their children under different standards than those used by middle-class 21st-century Americans who have access to knowledge from the field of child development psychology, a field that was established in the 1920s.
This is what I mean by condescending. I don't have a problem with Duncombe relating her own opinions — I'd never chastise a woman for expressing her opinion in a book about female pirates — but you come at me trying to feed me my own opinions, you'd better not miss and you'd REALLY better not miss THIS HARD. And frankly, you probably just shouldn't ever try to tell me my own opinions on stuff anyway even if you're correct, because I hate it.
But even more awkward than the assumption that the reader has never heard of the Middle Ages are Duncombe's attempts to spin the history of women engaging in piracy as something that is uncomplicatedly FEMINIST AND EMPOWERING AND YAY. There are certainly shades of this in why people are interested in stories about pirates and other outlaws and about why women would be interested in stories of women pirates particularly. But Duncombe has fallen victim to the romance of it too hard to write about historical piracy with any sort of credibility, because when you start writing about piracy as a real thing that has happened, you quickly run up against the complication that, while feminism is good, piracy is actually bad. Duncombe writes things like "The heart of piracy is freedom" and it's like, that word "heart" is doing a lot of work there, because the core concept of piracy is "using boats to steal stuff." Freedom and following your dreams and escaping the confines of society are associations we have with piracy that are a part of why regular people who would probably not enjoy being the victims of crimes are often nonetheless fascinated with stories about criminals, whether it's pirates, gangsters, Western outlaws (not the same thing as cowboys; cowboy is an entirely legal profession that involves herding cattle), bank robbers, or what have you.
The constant attempts to get inside historical figures' heads by randomly speculating and imputing high-minded values to them, such as "valuing freedom above all else" and the desire to do your own thing and what have you, are at best heavy-handed and annoying, like, it's OK to admit that they're criminals and that's what we find interesting about them; no need to try to pretend Anne Bonny is Mother Jones. It all comes off a bit "In 18th-century England, women weren't allowed to wear pants or to murder people and steal their stuff, maaan, think about it ::bong rip::". Duncombe seems to want to revel in stories of women transgressing the social boundaries of hundreds of years ago without having to deal with the bit where these women's careers are still transgressive of norms we have today, like that stealing people's boats isn't nice and neither is shooting them, with the result that it sort of ruins the actual transgressive thrill of reading about crime that is why I picked up a book about pirates in the first place and not one about, say, suffragettes or labor activists.
The worst offense here comes when Duncombe gets to the end of relating to us the deliciously macabre story of the apocryphal streetwalker-turned-pirate Maria Cobham, a tour de force of over-the-top Gothic brutality in which the young Maria discovers that she LOVES MURDER and is just SO GOOD AT MURDER and gets more and more into committing INCREASINGLY GRUESOME MURDERS, all while her pirate husband who got her into this life is starting to go off the whole murder thing. They eventually get away with all of it and pull off ONE LAST MAJOR HEIST and use the proceeds to settle down in the French countryside and thumb their nose at the entire world by integrating seamlessly into respectable society and never having to account for their deeds. IT IS A GREAT STORY, and if you like reading about wacky morbid criminal shenanigans, you will enjoy it thoroughly. Duncombe promptly laments that Cobham "hits a discordant note in the ballad of pirate women" because she is "hard to root for," what with having been "a vicious, ruthless woman who was not drawn to the freedom or adventure of piracy so much as the murder."
Girl. I say this with love, because you are clearly deeply committed to feminism and apparently friends with Jia Tolentino: YOU ARE WRITING THE WRONG BOOK HERE. You are raining on my Reading About Criminals parade with your moralizing, and if you want to put a spin of deep ideological commitment to freedom and liberty on stories of women doing crimes, I would suggest you find a way to get interested in any of the many female political activists and revolutionaries who engaged in violence and terrorism whose stories are also not told nearly enough, instead of dancing awkwardly around the entire idea of what piracy is. I'm sure there's a market for books about female political assassins just as much as there is for female pirates! 'Cause right now, you sound like this:
Cartoon children in pirate costumes hold a sign saying "A good pirate never takes another person's property!"
Probably the best thing about the whole book is that Duncombe does religiously cite her sources, so it's easy to find further reading on all the many and varied stories that are touched on so shallowly in the book itself. I now know of a lot more interesting female pirate(ish) characters who may or may not have existed, and I have an extensive Further Reading list for all of them, all in one handy bundle with a very attractive purple cover. So that's good to have on hand even if I know I will never read the actual body text of this again.
And I agree with the author and with probably every other lover of pirate stories that it's a shame none of these histories have been turned into decent movies. I think I'd love a souped-up costume drama TV series on the Killigrews of Cornwall, especially. Organized crime families make for some of the best TV series out there already; surely someone could pull it off without screwing it up.
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
2017-08-10 08:29 pm
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"We will spank you! And if necessary, we will shoot you too."

 This year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution — both of them; the one in February and the one in October. While I still have a hefty reading list backed up from last year's binge on Easter Rising-related stuff, I really can't let a good revolutionary centenary go to waste. So I was pretty stoked when Boston DSA — along with probably half the DSA chapters in the country — organized a reading group for China Miéville's October, his new nonfiction book from Verso Books that details months from the February to the October revolutions.
Miéville is better known as  "weird fiction" spec fic writer; the only other book of his I've read is The City and the City, a noir murder mystery detective kind of thing that is not at all about Northern Ireland, but looking through the rest of his oeuvre I think this is something I should fix, and possibly even prioritize fixing.
October is broken down month by month, with a prologue and a "before February 1917" chapter that do an impressive job of covering an enormous amount of ground in a short space while remaining quite accessible, and an "epilogue" that basically poses the question, "And then it all went to shit, but did it have to go to shit?" which is really the only question available to ask when you look at the mismatch between the empowering ideals of the revolutionaries and the brutally repressive police state that was actually built.
Miéville doesn't make anything up; all the dialogue in the book is things that have actually been recorded, with the result that there's not a whole lot of dialogue. What dialogue there is is exceptionally well chosen, however; even with the little bit of stiltedness that comes from being translated out of hundred-year-old Russian, the quotes that pop up manage to get bring people's personalities across the years and right up into your face. Some of them are also hilarious.
Because there's so much to cover and so many people involved, many of whom have multiple names, it's easy to get a bit lost in the enormous cast. To remedy this, there's an appendix of important figures in the back, which is exactly the kind of useful feature that I hate using. Even more complex is the rapidly shifting political alliances and the periodic realignments of what's considered left and what's considered right, so you wind up with factions being referred to as things like "left-left" and "right-left" and then I give up. I can't even follow all this splintery nonsense among leftist groups now. The upside of this is that it's hilariously familiar to anyone even a little involved in leftist organizing or who has been peripheral to and thus witnessed leftist organizing. Oh, leftists. Haven't changed in a hundred years. Even some of the fashions are coming 'round again.
What really does come through wonderfully, largely due to Miéville's novelistic touch and his willingness to ditch pretensions of academic objectivity and judge his characters ("Vladimor Nikolaivich Lvov — not to be confused with the ex-premier — was a dunderheaded Muscovite busybody, an ingenuous ruling-class Pooter" [p. 214]), is what an absurdly human endeavor the revolution was. We tend to think of revolutions as very serious things, which they are, and as either noble or terrifying or both (depending on how much we sympathize with the revolutionaries), which they are as well. But revolutions are committed by humans and humans are messy absurd creatures, prone to missteps and miscommunications and general egotism, and coming up with a new government from scratch is the sort of project management challenge from hell that seems to bring to the forefront every type of possible human dysfunction. A modern aspirational-class reader, raised under the cult of productivity that evaluates all leisure time by how it adds efficiency to non-leisure time and who judges other people primarily by how in one's way they are, just might spend most of the book getting exasperated with various historical figures for failing to get over themselves and do something useful. Yes, in a book with two revolutions. It's because the revolutions come about when the people in charge pass up every discernible chance to fix things and avoid them.
Patient Zero and the Platonic ideal of willfully denialist inefficiency is of course His Majesty Tsar Nicholas Romanov, a nice enough dude as long as you literally never need anything in the country to get done at all, which is, unfortunately, not really how countries work. He spends the first few chapters steadfastly refusing to acknowledge or try to solve any problems, even in the face of the aristocrats and bourgeois liberals in the Duma begging him to let them make real reforms, because things were bad enough that basically everyone except the tsar knew it. He is still in denial as the worker's soviets are taking over the government buildings in St. Petersburg; he is off on a train somewhere else, and reacts to the telegram he receives about the revolution by saying "That fat Rodzianko has written me some nonsense," and refusing to reply to it. Truly a brilliant move.
Once the tsar is dispatched, what follows is eight months of factions playing hot potato with power. Most of the socialist groups are religiously committed to a "stageist" version of Marxist theory where there has to be a bourgeois/capitalist/liberal democratic revolution before capitalism collapses and there's a socialist one; as such, the Council of Soviets spends a lot of time trying to push the Provisional Government, basically made up of what had been the Duma, to take power, as long as they don't use that power to do anything the soviets don't like; the Duma really doesn't want be responsible for whatever's going on and they certainly don't want to pretend to be responsible but have everything they decide vetoed by the Council of Soviets. Nobody's supposed to be in both bodies but an exception is made for a popular lawyer named Alexander Kerensky, who is basically a rock star, up until he isn't. Various compromises are almost reached, with wrenches being thrown into them at the last minute — first by Lenin swanning in on his train at the end of March/beginning of April and immediately haranguing all his comrades that they're doing it wrong and what's this crap they're publishing in Pravda and how dare they collaborate with parties that weren't getting them out of the war; later, in May, on the day the Second Provisional government was born, Trotsky shows up from his exile in Siberia and immediately excoriates its existence and calls for the transfer of all power to the Soviets; eventually, Lenin's party members get so sick of him sending in criticisms of everything they're doing from where he's hiding out in Finland that they start sitting on his writings for weeks until they're outdated before they publish them (I laughed and laughed, I admit). There's at least one street revolt that happens completely off-schedule, which is unsurprising since there's an ongoing comedy of errors in the middle of the book of the Bolshevik party trying to pretend it's keeping ahead of developments when really it's not. Lenin erroneously dismisses the existence of a right-wing conspiracy that fortunately failed because the right wing just failed at organizing, which seems ironic in hindsight because pretty much every revolutionary leader since has seen counterrevolution around every corner, and here there really was one and Lenin was playing the I'm Too Reasonable To Fall For That Conspiracy Crap game. The various weak provisional governments all fail to pull out of the war, which is going increasingly badly, allowing the Bolsheviks —  a pretty minor party when this all started —  to become the largest socialist party and eventually to just sort of walk in and take over the government, arresting what by that point was basically a handful of ministers huddled around the one working phone left in the palace and the guy they had elected Dictator Of This Room for a few hours.
The real stars of the show here, though, are Russian workers, whether they're doing awesome things like participating in nationwide sympathy strikes with a print shop in Moscow that wanted to be paid for punctuation and not just per letter (as an editor, I took outsize joy in this tidbit, because punctuation is important, and if Russian punctuation is anything like English punctuation, it's also a bitch to get right) or slightly less awesome things like engaging in random acts of street violence. All the endless meetings and writing of pamphlets are important, but the people are not always manipulated as easily and in as orderly a fashion as the various factions of organizers would have liked. The thing that really helped recruit for the Bolsheviks, in addition to their antiwar message, was that they advocated skipping over all this stageist crap and giving power directly to the workers who had just had a freakin' revolution to take it. This was both more straightforward and more satisfying to normal people who had jobs and a limited amount of time and energy to spend educating themselves on Marxist theory all day and just wanted to be in control of their own lives. There's some important lessons on political messaging in there, perhaps.
Reading this in discussion group with a bunch of socialists, many of whom are much better versed in Russian history than I am, was definitely a rewarding way to go about it, even though I wussed out of the May-June-July meeting due to feeling under the weather (which was, in addition, crappy that day). It's a pretty accessible book for newbies, but it was also fun to have all the random additional stuff filled in and more book recommendations given. I regret missing the session that I did miss, especially because so much fun stuff went down in July. But overall I recommend the book highly to folks that are interested in history but not necessarily interested in arguments over obscure points of Marxist theory that ineffectual Communist groupuscules with seventeen members are still mad about but nobody else is. The important thing is that someone should make a biopic of Maria Spiridonova, I mean, honestly, how is this not a thing already? (Don't answer that; I know full well it's because Hollywood hates awesome women.)
I definitely feel on more solid ground with this very short but important period in history now, so I will hopefully be less lost when (and if) I get around to reading all the other Russian Revolution-related things being published all year. That said, I could just as equally stand to read the thing a second time, since I'm pretty sure I've got a lot of things mixed up in my head due to my refusal to use the character directory or look at timelines. 
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
2017-08-01 03:20 pm

The Truth Shall Make Ye Fret

The Truth was my very first Discworld novel, and it's been a long, long time since I've read it.
I remember being a bit lost the first time I read it, since it's the 25th Discworld book, but I enjoyed it enough to go back to the beginning of the series and start it properly. I read it again a few years later once I'd worked my way through the series in order, and I recall it being just as much fun, and that I was definitely better situated in the story. This time, I reread it because it's the most recent completed book that Mark Oshiro is reading over at Mark Does Stuff, which I've sorely neglected ever since he finished reading the Tortall books. But I've been listening to the videos at work a bit as a way of avoiding checking the news when editing dull things (success has been mixed thus far).
The Truth is the one where they invent the newspaper, and it's full of hilarious observations from Terry Pratchett's time as journalist that are all even funnier to me now that I work in a newsroom. Our protagonist is William de Worde, the son of a rich family full of dreadful people, who has basically run away from his heritage and makes a living writing letters for hire (often for members of Ankh-Morpork's robust community of Dwarven immigrants), including a monthly gossip newsletter that he sends to a number of notable nobles for a subscription.
When a bunch of dwarves moves into Ankh-Morpork with an eldritch* new machine — a movable type printing press — one thing leads to another, William's monthly gossip letter rapidly blossoms into The Ankh-Morpork Times, the city's first daily newspaper, and William finds himself rather suddenly in the role of Ankh-Morpork's first investigative journalist.
While much of the news is really "olds" — human-interest stories about civic clubs and accounts of locally grown humorously shaped vegetables — there is one headline-grabbing case going about: Lord Vetinari appears to have tried to stab his clerk Drumknott to death (he succeeded in the stabbing but failed in the killing him bit, which doesn't sound like Lord Vetinari at all), and then attempted to flee the city on a horse laden down with a ton of money. (Not quite a ton, perhaps, but a lot, anyway. A heavy lot.) The Watch is suspicious that something's not quite right here, but are having a bit of a tough time figuring out what it is, considering they've got Vetinari and Drumknott both safely and uselessly unconscious in custody. This is where William comes in, using his family connections, lack of being bound by Watch procedure, newly discovered right of freedom of the press, and entitled jerk attitude from having grown up rich to nose about the city bossing people into giving him interviews. He also develops an anonymous source called Deep Bone, who is definitely Gaspode, and through him conducts one of the best interviews in the history of fictional journalism.
William's right-hand woman at the Times is one Sacharissa Crispslock, a highly respectable and pragmatic working-class young lady who serves as the Times' human-interest correspondent and copy editor (editorial roles at the Times are a bit flexible, though). Sacharissa is a bit judgmental, possibly a bit sheltered, very detail-oriented and with a much better head for financial stuff than William, probably because she ain't rich. She's definitely relatable and I was so proud for her when she finally got to threaten someone with a gun and swear at them.
Other excellent secondary characters include the vampire iconographer Otto von Chriek, who periodically collapses into a pile of dust when his camera's flash goes off; Goodmountain, the long-sufferingly sensible dwarf who brought the printing press to Ankh-Morpork; Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip, a duo of stock bad guys, one of whom is trying really hard but failing to develop a drug habit; and Commander Vimes, who is always a treat to see from someone else's point of view. He's much less likable as a secondary character than as a protagonist, but since most readers have also seen him as a protagonist in other books, it's extra fun watching him and William needle each other.
In this era of fake news, anonymous leaks, and people named after Italian commedia dell'arte characters being White House Comms Director but only for a week, The Truth is an especially timely reread. The tech has changed since the printing press was invented, but humans and their unfortunately malleable relationship to information haven't. Pratchett gives us a witty, compassionate, absurd, and insightful accounting of the sausage-making process behind what "they" let into the paper and the valiant struggles of the truth to get its boots on by the deadline.
*"Eldritch" means "oblong," right?
bloodygranuaile: (gashlycrumb clara)
2017-07-31 03:54 pm

The misadventures of Tribulation Periwinkle

Another museum weekend; another batch of books procured from museum gift shops. I have a problem, maybe.
After visiting several historical sights in Lexington this Saturday, Mom and I popped over to Concord to check out Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott and her family lived for twenty years. In addition to being shamed from beyond the grave for my own lack of creative output, the time at Orchard House reminded me that, while I've read most of Alcott's books for children, the only bit of her adult writing that I've read is A Long Fatal Love Chase, about a woman who marries the devil. (It's an excellent book.) So I picked up a copy of Hospital Sketches, which she'd written during her short and ill-fated time serving as a nurse in the Civil War, and I read it that afternoon. (It's very short.)
The first thing I really liked about my copy of Hospital Sketches is that it seems to be a facsimile edition of a very early printing, with the blocky old-fashioned text of a printing press and some slightly batty spacing and punctuation. These things amuse me much more than they probably ought.
The second thing I really liked about the book is that, thought it is mostly autobiographical and written in the first person, Alcott gives the viewpoint character's name as "Tribulation Periwinkle," which about the most perfect parody old-school New England name you can come up with. She is variously referred to by other characters as "Old Trib," "Nurse Trib," "Nurse P.," and other charming variants on the charming pseudonym.
Alcott's skill with observational humor, and especially her comic accounts of the absurdities and small frustrations of getting anything done properly in this mad old world, means that Hospital Sketches is a very comic little book in tone, although the subject matter is mostly about young people dying of horrible wounds as Nurse Trib overworks herself right into a bout of typhoid pneumonia. The first sketch details her travels down to DC from Massachusetts, and it contains all the things you want in a comic travelogue, such as amusingly mean descriptions of her fellow-travelers, some morbid fantasizing about all the ways traveling on public transit can go horribly wrong, and at least one adventure in getting embarrassingly lost. This last article takes place when she's trying to figure out how to get her free ticket to get from Boston to DC and involves her running around all over downtown Boston, which I personally enjoyed reading about as a resident of that badly planned and opaquely regulated little city.
The rest of the sketches are about her time at a facility she calls Hurly-burly House or the Hurly-burly Hotel, a chaotic, badly managed place where it seems like a miracle anyone actually got better at, especially with medicine being what it was in the 1860s. There's a lot of religious and patriotic beatification of various soldiers who die dreadfully, which could easily have been corny, especially considering the tone of arch social satire in so much of the rest of the book, but which do come off as quite touching, probably because Alcott's very earnest about what a tragic waste of human life it is to send a bunch of young people off to get blown up, no matter how glorious or necessary the cause.
The cause for the Union army in the case of the Civil War was certainly about as necessary as it gets, being rivaled in moral high ground only by the fight against the Nazis in World War II; however, the 1860s were still the 1860s, and it shows. The Alcott family were diehard abolitionists, and not in the "people ought to be as nice to their slaves as they are to their pets" way (honestly, some anti-slavery literature is mindboggling regressive). But all the terms for people of color that were the polite terms back in 1860 are not the polite terms anymore (the impolite terms are still impolite, only even more so), and the bits where Trib Models Interacting With Black People Nicely For The Benefit Of Readers are well-intentioned but really quite cringey from the vantage point of 150 years later. Fortunately, these bits are short, since the book is short and so all the bits are short.
The last sketch (except for a postscript) is an account of Nurse Periwinkle coming down with typhoid pneumonia; this bit is really the opposite of dated, and will ring true to the experience of anyone who has fallen deliriously sick, especially anyone who has fallen deliriously sick in the middle of a work shift. This last sketch also provides a more detailed account of the nurses' quarters, which makes living in a freshman dorm sound clean and orderly.
All in all, it's as delightful a look into the hell of Civil War-era medical care as you're going to find, and it's about as readable as contemporary accounts of the subject are going to be, so I definitely recommend it to anyone else who's interested in Alcott, even if you're mostly familiar with her as a children's writer.
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
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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
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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

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.