Popovic was one of the founding members of Otpor!, the Serbian student resistance movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in the late ‘90s, and since then has helped run CANVAS, the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies, which trains pro-democracy activists across the world. So it’s clear that he’s got a track record of success in the subject.
The book is short and clearly written to be as accessible and entertaining as possible, each chapter dedicated to a specific principle or strategy—stuff like “make oppression backfire” and “have a vision of tomorrow”—and illustrating it with a lot of anecdotes from either Otpor! or other resistance movements that Popovic has worked with. Case studies range from the Israeli cottage cheese boycott of 2011 to the overthrow of the dictator Gayoom in the Maldives in 2008. A number of these stories are surprisingly delightful—the Israeli cottage cheese boycott was just the most bonkers thing; I actually laughed out loud reading about it—and in several cases this is by design. Popovic is a great proponent of what he calls “laughtivism,” or what I would more likely call “TROLLING FOR REVOLUTION” or possibly “meme warfare.”
(Aside: I spent much of this book wondering what Popovic thinks of the current Nazi-punching meme; obviously literally punching Nazis is an act of violence, but setting the gif of Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched to music and spreading it around the Internet seems otherwise the exact sort of goofy, low-barrier-to-entry rejection of a self-serious bigot that he’s advocating. Anyone can make and post Nazi-punching memes. And Popovic explicitly says that his commitment to nonviolence is more about tactical efficacy than about morals, and he gives Nazis as the quintessential example of “Obviously these guys had to be fought.” But there’s also long histories of both violent and non-violent resistance to Nazis and fascists that I think really need to be gone over in actual detail by anyone seriously thinking about how to best fight Nazis, and this book isn’t really about Nazis.)
At times, Popovic’s “I was just a regular college asshole” everyman schtick gets a little annoying, probably because I had bad experiences with Regular College Assholes, but I tried to sit with and examine that feeling until I got used to it, because inevitably any sort of mass movement is going to consist largely of people who are at least sort of assholes because people are like that. Avoiding everyone who’s even a little bit of a dick is a great way to end up hiding in a hole on some obscure corner of the Internet shitposting about those splitters at the People’s Front of Judea instead of getting anything done. Getting people to not be assholes to the rest of the movement in the course of doing the work is important so resentments don’t build, but that’s a more specific issue.
Probably the biggest blind spot in the book, though, is the conflation of specific political goals with fundamental cultural change. The second is a lot harder and Popovic doesn’t really talk about it, but sometimes it leads him into stepping into bits of American history that he doesn’t seem to know more than a surface-level amount about. The worst offenses are when he’s talking about the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, which he paints as being a huge success. It was successful if you consider it in terms of being a movement about legislative goals—ending the Jim Crow laws, passing the Voting Rights Act—and in that light, it was indeed a major victory. But the civil rights movement didn’t challenge a single unpopular figure with outsize power, like a dictator; ultimately, it was challenging a deeply rooted foundation of American culture, one with largely unexamined majority support. Any by that light, it only made very incremental progress. Popovic also ignores the role of Malcolm X and the more militant black power movement in framing Martin Luther King as a palatable, respectable alternative; nor does he discuss how the movement eventually devolved into riots in the early ‘70s. The message that can be fairly easily gleaned from what is and is not covered in this book is that cultural sea change is extremely hard; smaller, concrete policy goals are important to make sure you can claim yourself any wins at all. Most people don’t super enjoy living under murderous dictators in quite the same way that racists love living in a racist society, so the challenges are different.
The occasional foray into respectability politics aside, Popovic actually does do a pretty good job of presenting the case that the way a movement is presented and how it “sells” itself are pretty important. Symbols and storytelling are powerful tools; while some people certainly overestimate the importance of appearances over actually doing stuff, it’s also very true that people are emotional creatures, and they’ll respond to stuff better if it offers community, if it’s fun and exciting, if it feels cool and rebellious rather than strict and ideological, if it has a symbol and a narrative and all that good stuff. Otpor! also employed elements of what we’d now call gamification, such as giving out t-shirts for getting arrested, color-coded so that everyone could see what level of getting-arrested experience you’d earned.
The catalog of failed or partially failed resistance movements—Occupy Wall Street is a frequent case study—coalesces around one thesis: Learning from past movements doesn’t mean just looking at what they did and doing the same thing. It also means interrogating your own current situation and getting creative in figuring out the best way how to apply the principles of nonviolent resistance and when and in what way it will be effective to employ any given individual tactic. Occupying a space, Popovic stresses, is a tactic; it’s not a strategy or an identity. Activists need to be creative, perceptive, and flexible; striving to simply copy past successful movements makes you too predictable.
Overall, I think it’s a charming, accessible little book that explains its basic principles well and would be an especially good thing to give to the sorts of people who ask dumb shit like “Why don’t they just protest peacefully?” as if a) graffiti is violent or something or b) there’s anything “just” about organizing large masses of people, because it will explain bog-standard concepts like “Maintaining peaceful control over a large crowd of upset people is in fact something you have to actively do, and it requires discipline and organizing, and it’s possible to fail at it” in much nicer and more persuasive ways than, say, shouting at them that they’re stupid and liberals are fucking useless, which is what I want to do every time I hear stuff like that. (If you don’t want to buy them a whole book, I also recommend this excellent Foreign Policy piece about political violence.)
I’ve probably got more to say, but book club is tomorrow and I should probably save at least some of it for that? And write up questions, because that’s my responsibility which I forgot about until right this second.
Anyway. Dictators hate it when you make fun of them, so go forth and troll for democracy.
To that end was recommended to me In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson, who is best known for Devil in the White City, which I admit I have not read but which people seem to like. Garden of Beasts follows U.S. ambassador Charles Dodd and his daughter Martha as they establish themselves in Berlin in 1933, shortly after Hitler becomes Chancellor. Dodd is not a usual ambassador type, being that he's not a rich socialite; he is a history professor who just wants to work on his book about the Old South and finish it sometime before he dies. Martha is a 24-year-old boho type who falls in love with basically everybody, which is ordinarily something I would not necessarily judge her for, except that this doesn't stop when she goes to live among a bunch of Nazis, and I'm gonna judge anyone who dates multiple Nazis, I don't care that it was 1933 and you didn't realize. Dodd's wife and son are in Berlin too, but the book doesn't follow them as closely.
On the one hand, the book is a fascinating look into a historical time and place that I don't know all that much about, which is what I wanted, and it's exciting in that dreadful way that so much of the Weird History I like to read is. The surface pleasantries of 1933 Berlin, and discovering all the awful stuff going on just under its surface--police surveillance and basement prisons; the first concentration camps being built out in the countryside--is written in a brilliantly creepy way, peeling back layers of superficial urbanity with the mounting tension of a horror movie. The climax of the book, plotwise, is the Night of the Long Knives, an event I'd never heard of (I told you my early WWII political knowledge was lacking), although the Dodds stayed in Berlin for another three years before coming home and going on the lecture circuit, raising the alarm against the Nazis.
On the other hand, though, so much of this book was distressingly familiar. The various manifestations of liberal denialism--the it-can't-be-that-bad-ism, the it-can't-happen-here/now kind of thinking, the insistence that individual shocking events were isolated cases no matter how many of them cropped up, the assumption of rationality and earnestness where there was none just because people were in positions of power that are supposed to be occupied by respectable people, and above all, the constant refusal to believe the people who were pointing out what was going on, insisting that they must be overreacting--it's all so dreadfully, stupidly familiar, and it worries me, and it makes me think I should be doing more, now, before things get worse, although I still don't know quite what to be doing. Much like in Germany in 1933, the U.S. already has some of its infrastructure of horror built--our massive system of prisons, the ICE detention facilities where migrants wait for deportation for months, our terrifying surveillance and data-scraping capabilities, invasive security theater at airports--and many of our institutions are shockingly weak, but utterly resistant to doing the self-scrutiny that would allow them to strengthen themselves. At this time, the Holocaust hadn't started--Action T4 hadn't even been officially established--but Jews were losing their jobs, the concentration camp at Dachau had been built and was being used to warehouse political dissidents, and there were several secret torture basements around the city in use by the Gestapo. On the surface, people went to work and shopped and hung out in fancy restaurants in Berlin, all modern and normal.
So, basically, I did a lot of stopping to panic while reading this book. It hit home in a suffocating sort of way, giving me the sort of tilting feeling I sometimes get when I'm walking down the street in Allston and it's all perfectly normal and then I remember that there are other streets in the U.S. right now where unarmed people have been shot to death and left to die, or even when I go to a protest and it's the middle of the afternoon and the cops are quietly monitoring it all bored-looking and I remember that this is not what all protests are like and I've just been very lucky so far, or maybe lazy, that I've only attended preplanned marches, mostly in the daytime, that never got out of hand.
But I also learned a lot. I learned about all sorts of interesting characters with shocking life stories, Nazi and non-Nazi alike. I learned about the rivalries between the different arms of the Nazi brutality machine--the SA and the SS and the Gestapo and the regular army--and the intrigues that had Rudolf Diels fleeing the country on the regs and that eventually did in Ernst Rohm. I think the book did a good job of hitting that difficult balance of humanizing the Nazis, as in showing that they are, indeed, humans, but not soft-pedaling or excusing or minimizing any of the horrible stuff they did, the usual byproduct of "humanization," of the liberal instinct to study and explain butting up against the liberal belief that people are fundamentally good. The Nazis were fundamentally real humans, but they weren't fundamentally good. They were fucking Nazis. And apparently, living in Berlin by 1934 was like living with a bunch of pod people, as the surveillance increase and the state program of Gleichschaltung (coordination, i.e., normalization) sank deeper into the bones of the country.
Dodd and Martha seem idiotically naive at the beginning of the book, but Dodd quickly grew on me, being a very principled dude who never really buys into the whole Nazi thing, even though it takes him a distressingly long time to fully admit to himself just how bad it is. Martha is more actively irritating at the beginning since she's very taken in by all the uniforms and fit young dudes marching and stuff, but eventually grows disillusioned and, due to her love affair with a Russian diplomat named Boris, who is actually an intelligence operative, is eventually sort of half-assedly recruited as a Soviet asset. George Messersmith haunts the first half of the book like a longwinded Cassandra, warning a denialist State Department of just how "psychopathic" the Nazi leadership was. He and Dodd do not get along, and not long after Messersmith is transferred out of Germany, Dodd finds himself taking up mantle of giving long-winded warnings that go largely ignored by the U.S.
While the whole story has so much plot it's hard to believe it all really happened like this, the most important stuff in the book is its portrayal of how a bunch of utterly hateful, thuggish manbabies manage to take control of a country of nice, friendly people--the way they capitalize on the earnestness and disbelief of other people, their willingness to lie and dissemble, the feints toward moderation, the secrecy of the true extent of their plans and the visibility of the dysfunction that made their smarter, more rational opposition underestimate their danger. This is hardly unique to Garden of Beasts, though; the most important takeaway of any material about the Nazi's rise to power is always understanding of the tricks they use, and especially the pitfalls that educated, rational, nice, liberal, or otherwise "normal" folks fell into to allow it to happen. But Garden of Beasts illustrates some of them excellently, in a viscerally familiar way that feels like watching a car crash with that slow-motion affect that happens by itself when it's too late for you to do anything.
TL;DR This was an upsettingly excellent book and I recommend it highly.
I'm very much looking forward to discussing this one, as infuriating as it is, especially at the end.
The book begins with the Selma march where John Lewis got his head beat in, and vividly illustrates all the drama surrounding the passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act. Sometimes it's hard to realize that it wasn't all that long ago--there's such a Wild West-y amount of shooting, firebombing, and random street beatings going on. Then I remember that it was only 50 years ago, and also I'm lucky to live in relatively safe areas that are not "gun country," so probably even some of these places aren't as different now as I'd have assumed.
Despite all the shooting and firebombing and stuff, the earlier part of the book is still the cheerful one, because Act One ends with the Voting Rights Act being passed and implemented. Act Two is basically Adventures in Vote Dilution, and Act Three, most depressingly, is the legal counterrevolution that led to the Act being gutted, starting with the sick fucks in the Reagan administration.
The most depressing part of whole thing, oddly, was the "unholy alliance" between the Congressional Black Caucus and the GOP to draw majority-minority heavily gerrymandered districts in order to ensure any kind of minority representation in Congress, even though it made districts less competitive and increased the number of GOP-stronghold districts in the South by basically getting rid of all the moderate white Democrats. This turns out to have been a bad move given the degree to which partisanship has increased as a force in American politics relative to literally anything else. Also, gerrymandering is bad; the more competitive districts are, the better for democracy. So that was a bummer; it read like the fatal flaw that leads to the hero's downfall in a Greek tragedy. Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that, but it seems like a thread the consequences of pulling on were farther-reaching than anticipated.
The real problem, of course, is the cadre of "neoconservative" lawyers brought into the White House during the Reagan and both Bush administrations, "neoconservative" being the bullshit euphemism for "authoritarian, burn-it-down-if-we-can't-control-it reactionaries" that we had before we came up with "alt-right" to push the backwardness into straight-up Nazism. Among other things, they utterly weaponized the Supreme Court, turning it into the anti-human clusterfuck it is today and that the Republicans are hellbent on keeping it. There are many new names on my list of People Who Haven't Been Punched Enough after reading this book, although I probably won't remember the names.
The book ends with a discussion of the Moral Monday marches and of North Carolina's descent from reasonable moderation into an unsterile petri dish of retrograde GOP democracy-fucking experiments. It's simultaneously heartening and depressing.
Voting rights are the single most important issue in our democracy right now outside of not actually killing off the entire human race via nuclear incompetence or the drastic acceleration of global warming. Voting rights are the only hope we have of taking ourselves off the road to fascism, and the power-hungry sociopaths of the GOP know that and are going to do their best to destroy it.
Let's not make it easy.
Quite frankly, I was unsure if I was going to like it for some of the same reasons I was curious about it. I was also a teenager during the Bush years, so I'm largely of an age with the people followed. I was unhip and culturally oblivious enough to have no idea that the poker boom was happening, but I do have some memories of that time period: Namely, that it was an awful cultural wasteland full of cargo shorts and McMansions, and that teenage nerds were terrible and teenage boys were especially terrible, also LiveJournal was still a thing. I didn't really want to revisit that time. (Full disclosure: My memories of that period may be influenced by the fact that I was at the time a bored angry Goth with clinical depression.) But I was quite curious about what these other teenage nerds were doing while I was learning to read Tarot cards, a hobby I have never even tried to monetize (although perhaps I should).
I had also heard one anecdote from this book referenced a few times, I think once on the Thinking Poker podcast. It was the one where Tom Dwan dares some one to jump into a pool full of sharks for five thousand dollars. At first a teenage girl whose mother had inexplicably left her with them volunteered; then she chickened out, so one of the other dudes did it. I thought this anecdote was amusing, so I figured there might be other like it. I also did the usual "What would I have done in that situation?" line of thinking one has sometimes, where I had to come to the reluctant conclusion that, as a 16-year-old, it is likely the lizardbrain sense of self-preservation would have won and I would have also chickened out, but now that I am 28 and more mature and know the value of a dollar, I would totally jump into a pool of sharks for $5k.
Anyway. The book is not about me.
The book starts just before the poker boom really blows up and starts following a few guys who are a little bit older, by online poker standards--guys who had already completed college and were starting their professional lives, guys in their late twenties or early thirties. These guys are not really the focus of most of the book but they provide an entertaining viewpoint to get comfortable with before their scene is roundly crashed by a bunch of high school and early college kids. It's an excellent hook, presenting the dropouts who would become the Ship It Holla Ballas from an older, outside perspective before getting deeper into their backstories and viewpoints.
Most of the book does a pretty seamless job of putting the Ballas' stories in context of the perfect storm of very particular factors going on at the time, both in online poker and, on the rare occasions merited, in the rest of the world. As someone who is very interested in the sociology of nerd groups, I was especially fascinated by the roles of the 2+2 forums and the eventual formation of the "crew" in shaping not only these kids' social lives, but their sense of normality and their poker games. I actually would have liked to hear a little bit more about how the way this community pooled knowledge and built off each others' ideas advanced the strategies and understanding of how poker works and the way it's played, but probably throwing in more stuff about math and spreadsheets would have slowed the book down a bit.
While there are certainly a lot of anecdotes about crazy expensive shenanigans that are entertaining, unsurprising, and possibly thrown in to let the reader live vicariously a little and wonder if we'd be that bananas if we were that rich at that age (since face it, most of us weren't but would like to be), there are also a lot of things that were toothache-inducingly familiar to me as someone who spent a lot of time around young nerd dudes, including living with them. Like, these kids went and bought a mansion in Vegas and they... did not know how to house. At all. I have lived with people who didn't know how to house. It is viscerally awful. Also these kids once got all their shit stolen because they didn't know where the circuit breaker was or, apparently, what a circuit breaker was. (Apparently I was the only person who came of age in the 2000s whose parents made sure she knew what a circuit breaker was before leaving home.) The descriptions of the Balla mansion were like all my worst bad roommate memories on steroids. All the stupid shit about The Game and pickup artistry was also unfortunately familiar. I don't know exactly how much The Game was responsible for nearly every dude I talked to between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five being completely intolerable, but Jesus, it did not help. There is one line regarding one of the kids profiled that says "Talking to women feels like a video game whose rules he can't figure out," which is probably intended to be sympathetic and which the authors probably felt was an at least middlingly original line. That shit gave me traumatic flashbacks. Dudes who think women are video games are legion, they are almost never subtle about it, and I spent ten years being mistaken for a video game before I managed to structure my life to avoid these people; what am I doing to myself going and reading about them? It took chapters before I could give a fuck about this character again at all, and then he goes and fucks it up again at the end of the book by noting in a tone of surprise that some of the techniques he has since learned for talking to women also help him talk to people in general. Hm... I wonder what talking to women and talking to people have in common? What's the connection between "women" and "people"? Everyone knows women are the opposite of people. 'Tis truly baffling.
Casual misogyny masquerading as social awkwardness aside (not that I'm the type to put that aside, obviously), the book does an excellent job of humanizing these weirdos, and illustrating the effects of their alienation from their non-stupid-rich peers, of being very successful very young at something that doesn't necessarily have a lot of meaning or social utility, of forming a crazy tight group of friends in your teens and slowly having it dissipate as you all go your separate ways as adults, of pursuing a goal and feeling empty once you achieve it because what are you going to do with yourself now? It grounds the book a lot more than you'd think it could be grounded considering the sheer volume of vapidly humorous anecdotes about obnoxious behavior and spending money on stupid things that fill the book.
The stuff about the transition from online to live poker and the generational warfare between the storied old guard and the "these Internet kids!" was, personally, my favorite material covered in the book; generational warfare always makes for lots of drama, also, Phil Hellmuth is annoying as hell and good on Tom Dwan for calling him out. Tom Dwan may have been my favorite person in the book, probably because he came off the least bro-y and the most like a space alien.
One thing about this book that is kind of weird is that all the online players are referred to by their screennames instead of their real names, throughout the entire thing. Some of these screennames I could match with players already and some I could not; it was also fun playing Spot the Screenname I Actually Recognize when other members of the online poker community were mentioned. Another upside of this dedication to screen names is that "durrrr" is consistently spelled right throughout the entire book, which is apparently not standard among poker publications.
There are some slightly disjointed-feeling bits near the end as important things happen in and around the world of poker that our now well-established main characters aren't necessarily in the middle of, such as the sneak passage of the UIGEA, and a deep dive into the gossip and scandal of the rest of the 2+2 forum subculture. This is all very important material to understanding the rise and fall of online poker in the U.S., it's just presented in a way that includes some very sudden jumps from the World Series to Washington.
But that's my only criticism of the book; all my other criticisms are strictly about the subject matter. Ship It Holla Ballas was a fun, fast, insightful, surprisingly grounded read about a bunch of idiot boy geniuses in a very unique, bizarre time and place.
I read James McManus' Positively Fifth Street a while ago and I liked it, so I picked up his more recent nonfiction book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. This one is basically just what it says on the tin, a nonfiction history of poker, with no memoir/personal essay bits. It was published in 2009, two years before Black Friday although after the passage of the UIGEA. This was also the year before I graduated college, and, though I managed to completely miss the poker boom while it was going on, it also really brought me back to that era, and not in a good way.
It's a very good book about the history of poker. But it has several flaws that all boil down to basically one major flaw that I have a lot of FEELINGS about, and that is: It hits every single shitty ubiquitous journalistic trope of that era, especially all the ones that drove me away from ever taking a single journalism course.
My specialization within my English major was something called "discourse studies," which consisted of additional genre studies (beyond the regular English requirement), some linguistics, some communications theory, some general media studies/media literacy stuff, and a bunch of creative writing courses. I took four creative writing courses because you needed to take four creative-writing-or-journalism courses, and my goal was to learn to write. Journalism, I figured, was clearly where you went to learn how to not write, at least if literally anything I was seeing in published newspapers or magazines was any indication.
In fact, the Death of Journalism was something I was (and am) enormously and morbidly fascinated by, the abysmal state of science journalism doubly so. The issues with the economics of news media and the collapse of advertising revenue were certainly fascinating, because I'm always interested in follow-the-money type stuff, but I'm also interested in the specific questionable themes and storylines we see over and over again in supposedly nonfiction works. The more I dug around finding criticisms of the bite-size, easily palatable oversimplifications and shallow framing I was seeing so frequently, the more I thought that the mainstream media functioned at least as much as a form of cultural mythmaking as it did a source of information -- it did the same work as fairy tales and Bible stories do for children and religious people, but for the adult, secular chattering classes. (I still think this, only more so.)
While some of this is slowly getting better and much of it is not, my college years were the absolute height of the neuro-nonsense/neuro-babble craze, which finally started seeing some well-deserved backlash around 2013 or so, although Slate puts the seeds of the backlash as far back as 2008. Suspiciously neat'n'tidy evolutionary narratives are, unfortunately, still going strong, although they're less omnipresent than they used to be (I have not had a dude try to hit on me using one in several years, at least, thank Jesus), and some of the recurring myths are starting to see some more pushback when they do crop up than they used to (exhibit A being the "women talk 3x as much as men" stat, thoroughly debunked several years ago at LanguageLog). I think this has less to do with the lazy allure of "we're just like that, nothing to be done lalala" wearing off or people becoming more informed than it does with the implications of the world economy imploding and society fraying at the seams -- much of the mainstream media's sciencey pep rallying has gone the full self-help route, promising that your brain and body has infinite power to change and adapt to anything at all so there can never be any sorts of real problems on the outside, like in society or with the economy or anything, it's ALL YOU, you have the POWER to CHANGE and just WILL yourself out of any sort of human limits or reactions to things by DOING YOGA AND EATING MORE KALE, etc. etc. The endless adaptability narrative (individual adaptability, of course) is what better enables cultural inertia right now, and so is getting more page space.
But around 2009? Dubious evo-psych wasn't just being used for its always-in-demand purpose of excusing men's shitty behavior. It was being used for literally fucking everything about every goddamn topic imaginable. There was shitty evo-psych about why people voted Republican or Democrat. There was shitty evo-psych about shopping malls. There was shitty evo-psych about intelligence and binge drinking. There was even some shitty evo-psych about introversion and extroversion, as played out by some highly specific type of goldfish or something, in Susan Caine's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.
And, apparently, unbeknownst to me at the time, there was shitty evo-psych about poker. And about some other things that McManus somehow managed to co-opt into being about poker.
Unfortunately, the worst stuff is front-loaded right at the beginning, which is why it took me so long to get into this damn book. He's determined to tell the whole story, not only all the way through chronologically right from the beginning, but all the way through chronologically from several millennia before the beginning. Playing cards don't get invented until Chapter 3.
Chapter 1 is mostly American mythmaking, with some anecdotes about various Presidents mashed up with some very sciencey-sounding stuff about the traits of immigrants being passed along in Americans' DNA, as if it were an either scientific or historical fact that Americans are all descended from voluntary immigrants and that's why we're so ~special~. While the erasure of the Native American population is pretty par for the course in most treatments of American history, it's slightly more surprising in publications about American gambling; in addition, the country's substantial black population came here almost entirely unvoluntarily; in further addition, quite a lot of the white people who came over when we were still colonies were shipped over as prisoners. McManus cites a figure of 2% (doesn't cite it from any study that I can find) for emigrating populations; this surprised me, since McManus is Irish and the Irish have, rather famously, been forced to emigrate in numbers up to ten times that -- and even in those cases, emigration was often "assisted." This whole section seems to come from a single book that's supposedly largely a cultural analysis, but which I will apparently now have to go read and dig into the sources used in order to figure out if it manages to square any of these circles.
A good fisking of Chapter 2 could provide the basis for a semester-long course on everything wrong with modern journalism. In my review of Positively Fifth Street, I said parenthetically that "Regrettably, this leads him down the tiresome evo psych path more than once, but as far as evo psych explanations for stuff go it could be a lot worse." Well, this book is the lot worse that it could be. I will spare you the full deconstruction, especially since I'd want to irrefutably source everything, and I didn't hold on to as many of the social science textbooks I worked on at Pearson as I should have. But suffice to say that this chapter contains a lot of stuff about the behaviors of prehistoric man (just man) that bears very little resemblance to anything I read in any of the anthropology, archaeology, psychology, history, biology, communications, or child development textbooks I edited at Pearson, or any of the scientific journal articles and studies I had to pore through when research-assistanting a university-level psych class on "Evolution, Culture, and the Mind." Behaviors of prehistoric women in this chapter were limited to a claim suggesting that women wore makeup and jewelry while men didn't -- findings straight out of the Flintstones Academy of Prehistoric Anthropology. I laughed so hard I dropped the book, and I didn't pick it up again for two weeks. I also recommend skipping this chapter if you're not in the mood to hear about how the entirety of human existence depends solely on unchecked male aggression, rather than it being a major threat to everyone's existence when not carefully controlled and mitigated by actual fucking prosocial behavior. (I think I got to this part on the same day that story broke about a dude stabbing a lady on the train in Chicago for turning him down, so I had approximately negative patience for "men are aggressive to attract the ladies" type bullshit. Maybe it's badass that you can kick the shit out of a woolly mammoth or whatever, but only if I'm ENTIRELY CERTAIN THAT YOU WILL ONLY EVER KICK THE SHIT OUT OF THE MAMMOTH AND NOT ME.) Like... for fuck's sake, dude. Poker requires aggression in betting, sure, but behaviorally it requires sitting at a table with a bunch of fellow humans for several hours. And the sooner poker players realize this and make acting like it as much of a requirement for being considered "good at" poker as knowing how to size their raises properly, the sooner they can stop whining about how hard it is to attract new players to sit at tables with them for several hours.
The book starts to get better once we move into actual history and there's actual on-topic material to address, such as the invention of playing cards and the development of early gambling games. This stuff is much more interesting, although the previous two chapters have certainly done quite a bit to damage McManus' credibility for anything where he doesn't show all his work. Many of the times and places discussed are areas of history where I have much less of grounding in than I do in problems with mainstream science journalism and the methodological weaknesses of self-serving evolutionary narratives, so I'm not armed with much in the way of how to determine if it's right or wrong.
The actual poker stuff -- which, to be fair, is like 80% of the book, and certainly the most important 80% -- I tended to find credible. McManus's approach to poker history/mythology is basically the opposite of his approach to all the tangential subjects he tries to tie it to: When it comes to old poker anecdotes, biographical information of legendary gamblers, famous poker hands of history, etc., he goes out of his way to demythologize it, often interviewing multiple subjects or visiting multiple primary sources, carefully examining the trustworthiness of each of them and putting them in context of the journalistic standards and reliability at the tame, making sure the audience knows when and where something could have been exaggerated for effect and what factors make it how likely that a given account is total bollocks or not -- you know, proper history study stuff. It's exhaustively researched and sourced. Names, dates, prizes, buy-in amounts -- all the poker data is there and accounted for. He clearly loves the subject of poker and wants to do as right by it as humanly possible, even if it means up giving up believing in some really fun tall tales. We're given some very detailed looks into the minutiae of what seems like every bracelet event ever played at the World Series. Careful attention is given to not forgetting the respected, talented players who came in second, third, and otherwise not-first in major events, who tend to be forgotten about in the usual poker lore of big winners. The demythologizing of actual, nuts-and-bolts poker history is so thorough and careful that it occasionally borders on dry.
I'll still take it over the re-mythologizing of everything else in order to create neat and simple buttresses for the central thesis of the book, which is that poker explains basically everything about American and world history and humanity and life itself. (There's even an additional cringeworthy chapter specifically about poker and sex, buried deep in the final third of the book, just when I'd managed to forget about all the shitty evo psych from earlier.) Poker is indeed incredibly multifaceted, so it's really weirdly easy to tie it to quite a large number of things, and as I've started studying it more I've also found myself conceptualizing of more and more regular, everyday stuff in poker terms. (I'll be interested to see if any of the things I learn from playing poker will noticeably affect my behavior or thinking in other areas of life -- if it'll improve my short-term memory, my long-atrophied mental math skills, my comfort with making decisions quickly, my assertiveness, all that stuff the strategy books say are transferable skills.) But because poker genuinely is so tie-in-with-able for so many things, it's somehow just extra annoying when someone seems to be overdoing it. And while it's a hallmark of nearly every nonfiction book published in the 21st century to dedicate at least the concluding chapter to expanding the reach of the subject until it encompasses the entirety of the human experiment (I'm looking at you, The Ghost Map), this book actually lacks a Theory of Everything last chapter, because the Theory of Everything bit is visited and revisited so many times throughout the text. In a unique twist, the book actually ends on a fairly limited, concrete call to action to do something about the UIGEA because it's terrible, and the observation that poker is very popular and will probably keep existing.
Anyway, 80% of this review has been about the 20% of the book I had a problem with, so here are some really fun things from the 80% of the book I liked:
All in all, this is a truly wonderful 300-page book, plus some crap that inflates it to a 425-page book. I would have gotten through the 300-page book in less than a week if that was all that was there to read. It's still a very valuable resource in my poker education, though, and it was indeed high time I read it.
When my old editor-in-chief left, he found an ARC while cleaning out his desk that someone had given us as a review copy back when it was first published. The book was Hit Me!: Fighting the Las Vegas Mob by the Numbers by Danielle Gomes and Jay Benincasa. The ARC is dated May 2013, making this review three years late, so I don't know if I'm supposed to still send the publisher two copies like they asked for. What's the usual practice for this sort of thing? Anyway, publishers, if you wanna send review copies of gambling-related books to Casino City, we'll be more timely in the future, because I'm here now.
Hit Me! follows the story of Dennis Gomes, a young accountant with an unshakable sense of justice who is tasked with heading up and reforming the Nevada Gaming Control Board's Audit Division in 1970's Las Vegas. Most of the casinos in Vegas at this time were owned by Mafia groups--usually multiple outfits, as joint ventures--who massively underreported revenues and used the skimmed funds to finance all sorts of other mob operations back in their home territories. A pretty huge proportion of Nevada's political and law enforcement apparatus was also involved, either actively in the mobs' pockets or just unwilling to cross them. This lack of institutional support--plus the occasional active betrayal from inside the house--makes Gomes's job very, very difficult at times.
While the word "audit" may conjure up for some readers a rather unsexy image of some desk workers poring over spreadsheets, rest assured that this is a full-on gangster story, with all the clandestine meetings, undercover surveillance and raiding rooms full of money at gunpoint that that implies. The cast of characters is also pretty loud, on the cop side as well as the mobster side. Fans of the movie Casino will be able to spot some familiar material in the second half of the book as Gomes starts going after the Stardust's Frank Rosenthal and Tony "the Ant" Spilotro. (The first half of the book I'm not sure about 'cause I didn't see Casino until this Friday, because I am the worst gangster movie fan ever.)
The biggest strength of this book is that it is very, very detailed--not in a lengthy way, but entire conversations are reconstructed verbatim, accompanied by vivid sights and sounds and smells until you feel you might as well be reading a trashy noir novel. Some of this is because the Audit Division kept extraordinarily detailed notes, and some is apparently because Gomes had an excellent memory, but I'm sure a bunch of it is just because some of this shit is so crazy you could never forget it. Gomes makes a relatable enough viewpoint character most of the time; mostly he comes off as very committed to driving the mob out of Vegas and very frustrated when he can't, which is pretty hard to take issue with. You get a glimpse of a little more of a weird dude right at the beginning and right at the end, but for the bulk of the book he's all Secret Agent Man all the time.
I don't know if this is something they may have included in the final printing, but my biggest complaint about this ARC was its lack of photographs. I want some pictures! Mugshots, crime scenes, awful '70s fashion, pics of the tacky old casinos that were there before the tacky current ones. I mean, this should be obvious. The ARC doesn't even identify whose photos are being used on the cover.
Overall, though, this is a high-adrenaline true crime tale, and I especially recommend reading it while drinking wine in the bathtub.
Gentlemen of the jury, I’m curious, bear with me
Are you aware that we’re making hist’ry?
This is the first murder trial of our brand-new nation
The liberty behind
I intend to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt
With my assistant counsel—
Hamilton, sit down
Our client Levi Weeks is innocent. Call your first witness
That’s all you had to say!
Confirmed: This book is about the Levi Weeks case, a real case in which Burr and Hamilton really did serve as co-counsel for the defense.
The musical fudges the facts a bit for dramatic license. First of all, it barely touches on the case at all, subsuming it under the larger narrative of Hamilton's nonstoppitude, whereas this case was actually a really, really big deal. Second of all, it wasn't a big deal because it was the first murder trial since independence, since it really wasn't: It was the first murder trial that became a big public sensation along the lines of the popular murders that characterized the Victorian era across the pond (see; Judith Flanders' The Invention of Murder), which had sort of just barely started--because, thirdly, the Levi Weeks trial took place in 1800, when both Hamilton and Burr were well-established lawyers in Manhattan, and in their mid-forties.
Neither A. Ham nor A. Burr pop up too much in the earlier parts of the book, except in distant, tantalizing bits and pieces, like marching in Washington's funeral procession, and some little-regarded letters to the editors of various newspapers. Instead, the earlier sections of the book are dedicated to setting the scenes of life in three-turns-of-the-century-ago New York City in general, and in Elias Ring's boardinghouse in particular, where the major players in the crime all lived.
The short version: Elias Ring and his wife ran a nice, respectable Quaker boardinghouse, which at the time had four boarders: Mrs. Ring's sister Hope Sands; Hope's cousin Elma Sands; a cloth merchant named Richard Croucher; and a young carpenter named Levi Weeks. One day shortly before Christmas, Elma Sands got dressed up to go out, borrowed a muff from a neighbor, left the boardinghouse and didn't return. Around New Year's, her body was found in the Manhattan Well at Lispenard's Meadow, a well that had been recently built as part of Senator Aaron Burr's plan to improve the municipal water supply, but which had been abandoned because it kept filling up with quicksand.
Suspicion immediately fell upon Levi Weeks, who was rumored to have been engaged to Elma, and he was promptly arrested. His brother, Ezra Weeks, called upon some top-notch lawyers who owed him money to serve as Levi's defense team in exchange for canceling their debts. The lawyers in question were Senator Burr, Major General Alexander Hamilton, and future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Henry Brockholst Livingston.
The trial ran for two full days, which was super long by the standards of the time, and had only one recess for a few hours overnight, during which the jurors had to sleep on the floor in a portrait gallery because it hadn't really been planned that the trial would run on for that long. Part of the length of the trial was due to Hamilton, Burr, and Livingston's brilliantly tricksy cross-examinations--mostly Hamilton was in charge of the cross-examining; he seemed to be having fun with it--and part of it was due to the approach of Assistant Attorney General Cadwallader Colden, which was to bring in basically everybody in Manhattan as a witness. Unfortunately for Colden, his prosecution was a complete mess. In addition to such blunders as citing cases that actually argued the opposite of what he claimed they argued, Hamilton and friends kept tripping up his witnesses with questions like "What day was that?" when they claimed they saw or heard suspicious things. (Things you learn from reading history: Old-timey people are not NEARLY as smart as people assume they were when complaining about Kids These Days. Like, sure, General Hamilton was certainly much smarter than your average asshole is today, but your average asshole in 1799 had alcohol for breakfast and didn't know how old his own children were.)
A nice gift for the nerds of the future was that this trial, all nearly forty-eight hours of it, was taken down in shorthand by the clerk of the court and later published in full as a book for mass purchase. As a result, we know every one of Colden's blunders, the defense team's snarky questions, and the witnesses' testimonies. The middle third of Duel with the Devil therefore gives us a very lively and detailed account of exactly who said what and how it was received. It makes a delightful courtroom drama.
The final third of the book discusses how the various publications about the trial were produced and received, as well as what happened to all the major players--including a pretty convincing theory on who it was that actually murdered Elma Sands. My favorite bits were learning more about the sad and wacky trajectory of Aaron Burr's life after he shot Hamilton, of which I had known nearly nothing: It turns out that he was indicted for murder in both New Jersey and New York, although the charges were eventually dropped; he fled out West where he was then charged with treason for fomenting a rebellion in Mexico; eventually he ended up wandering about completely penniless in Europe for several years before he dared return to New York and become a specialist in family law, which happened pretty much just because the only people desperate enough to be willing to use his services as a lawyer were women seeking divorce cases. (Burr represented Maria Reynolds, of the Reynolds Affair/Pamphlet notoriety, in her divorce. Isn't history fun?)
Overall, the book is a really fascinating look into a very particular slice of history, and is nearly a novel in its readability: It's got a fantastic cast, vivid worldbuilding, a thrilling mystery, and even some dryly funny dialogue:
"There were many discolorations on the teguments of the skin," Dr. Snedeker announced to the prosecutor. "There was a dislocation of the clavicle from the sternum."
There was a confused silence.
"Be so good, sir, as to speak in less technical language, so that the jury may understand you."
"The left collar bone was broke," the doctor sighed.
Well, I laughed.
Anyway. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FOR: American history nerds, true crime nerds, my fellow Hamiltrash, combinations of the above.
This book has all the best thing one looks for in a book about Victorians (at least if one is me)—petty political dramas, bizarre personalities, lots of excerpts from primary sources with all the weird spelling and punctuation intact, some people dying horribly, overblown moralizing, old cartoons, racist garbage about the Irish that I can get insulted at, and old photographs of people with majestic moustaches. We get to meet such quintessentially Victorian personalities as Edwin Chadwick, who, in addition to being a prominent sanitarian and mid-level politician, had a name like “Edwin Chadwick.” I mean, seriously, Victorians.
The book is quite sensibly organized into categories of filth rather than straight chronological order, making it essentially a series of smaller, more tightly-focused history explorations, rather than one big sprawling narrative on London filth. Chapter subjects include garbage collection, human sewage, soot, slum housing, street mud, public toilets, and—my favorite, unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me and my tastes in weird history reading—cemeteries and corpse disposal. Some personalities show up in multiple subjects, and later chapters are well fitted into the pictures painted by the previous ones, so it’s fairly easy to follow how it all comes together, even if you’re me and your ability to remember the different decades is more or less limited to “1840s—Irish Famine. 1860s—Sensation novels. 1890s—Oscar Wilde.”
Jackson is also a very entertaining narrator, in an understated, unobtrusively funny way that consists partly of his own commentary but in greater part of being able to find and juxtapose just the right examples of Victorian absurdity, hypocrisy, silliness, and just plain WTF-ery.
This book is also just super British, especially because Yale University Press doesn’t seem to have done an American copyedit and just printed the exact same book they have for sale in the U.K., logical punctuation and single quotation marks and British spellings and all. This is a choice I approve of one hundred thousand percent; I honestly think something would be lost if the style were Americanized at all. I do think that the most adorably British moment is right at the end of the “public convenience” chapter where Jackson gives a brief update on the modern state of the public toilet and warns that it is “under threat” and “falling prey to twenty-first century ‘austerity’.” This is because, as a youngish American, the closest thing to a “public” toilet I am familiar with is the one at the nearest Starbucks. British people and their quaint notions of public infrastructure! They’ll be talking about “public health insurance” next oh wait.
Honestly, this book was right up my alley—I’d recommend it to anyone not too easily grossed out as a really interesting history book, but for me, this was straight-up comfort reading: it was exactly what I expected it to be, it hit every “genre trope” I like of books in this “genre” (if “Victorian weird nonfiction” is a genre), I learned a lot of the sort of stuff I like learning. Does this make me a huge nerd? Probably. I’m probably also a big nerd who will be checking out Jackson’s other work pretty soon.
A thing I did not realize at first is that this book is a reprint of a work that was originally published shortly after the turn of last century, when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom. Once you start reading it, it's wildly obvious, because it's written in such an earnestly Edwardian manner. The book is a collection of short anecdotes, organized into categories, interspersed with a lot of arguments about why they are credible and that the fashionable skepticism about their validity is arrogance, arrogance I tell you. The two men who compiled this were obviously smart and well-educated men, who are actually quite vocal in their defense of the Irish populace from charges of "superstition" (a popular anti-Catholic stereotype), but who are entirely convinced that it makes prudent scientific sense to believe in "psychical phenomena" and stuff. It's really kind of adorable. The stories themselves are sometimes sort of short and weird--like "there was a Mrs. S and she lived in this house and saw a figure, and then her sister came to visit and she saw it too" and nothing else really happens--but some of them are quite imaginative and interesting, particularly the ones that are less generically haunted-housey and get into banshees and the like. The banshee stories are particularly awesome. Most of these stories aren't that scary, although there are one or two that feature images that managed to get weirdly under my skin anyway, but that may be because I am a highly suggestible wimp (a bad trait for a Goth, but oh well).
I'd really only recommend this to people who are particularly interested in weird folklore; the lack of a narrative thread and the pseudo-scientific tangents would probably make it a bit of a dry read for people who prefer reading regularly-structured books.
And then occasionally, someone gives me a book and it looks so awesome and timely and Relevant To My Interests that I actually drop everything and read it next. This is what happened when a friend gave me a paperback copy of Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham, a historical fiction police procedural murder mystery set in 1845 New York. Two very important things happened in New York in 1845: one, the NYPD was formed, and two, the Irish potato famine started, sending waves of destitute Irish flooding into the city, bringing all the misery and social upheaval of rural Ireland with them, and also typhus.
Our protagonist is a young guy named Timothy Wilde, who at the beginning of the story is doing well enough for himself as a bartender, saving up nearly enough money to ask Mercy Underhill to marry him and trying to not get too tangled up with his morphine-addicted firefighter brother Val, who is heavily involved in the Democratic Party machine. Tim and Val are orphans, as their parents had died in a house fire when they were kids, leaving both kids with all sorts of issues and the need to become independent very quickly. Unfortunately for Timothy, another fire incinerates his bar, his house, and all his money, which is how he ends up assigned to Ward Six—the slummiest ward, obviously—as one of the first “copper stars” of the NYPD.
Timothy spends some time breaking up fights and generally feeling miserable until he meets Bird Daly, a ten-year-old “kinchin-mab” (you’ll have to read to find out what that is) who leads him to a horrifying series of crimes involving dismembered children. Timothy, who cares about children more than a lot of people in the mid-nineteenth century, insists upon investigating, and follows a dangerous and convoluted path to the truth, uncovering a lot of sordid secrets about a lot of people along the way—including himself, his brother, and his beloved Mercy Underhill.
The aforementioned sordid secrets are all pulled off really well, both believable and shocking (and not repetitive), in part because the characterization in this book is brilliant. Timothy Wilde is very smart but he is often clueless about certain things that turn out to be rather important, and he’s often—but understandably—misled by his own misunderstandings of people. Valentine is a larger-than-life figure in every way, as you’d hope a guy with a name like “Valentine Wilde” would be, but is surprisingly complex. The secondary characters are hugely colorful, from the sickly children’s doctor Palsgrave to the brash, grown-up-too-fast newsboys. There is literally nobody in this book who is boring, not even Mercy Underhill.
To be frank, I expected Mercy to be boring, because she is the Designated Female Love Interest and they usually are. More so when they are dedicated charitable types—they always come off as squishy, bland, selfless constructs of idealized feminine nurturing whatever. Mercy is none of this. Mercy is a more fully realized character than our narrator has any idea of until about three-quarters of the way through the book. I would love to read a book that was entirely about Mercy Underhill.
One cool thing this book does is that each chapter starts off with a quotation—a standard enough practice these days, and one that I usually enjoy—but instead of being quotes from works of great literature or whatever, they’re all excerpts from letters and news reports and other “nonfiction” pieces of the time. A lot of them are really nasty anti-Catholic propaganda, which I think does a good job of underscoring the degree to which Catholics were considered Definitely Not Christians and to which the Irish were considered Definitely Not White People, which are both things that I think are hard for modern audiences to really grasp—I remember learning in school that yes, every new wave of European immigrants was met with fear and suspicion, but I always kind of assumed that it was only middling-level xenophobia, because the Irish and Italians and other “white ethnic” groups have since become so well-established. But no, the stuff people in the 1840s were saying about Catholics and about the Irish in particular reads today like complete batshit-crazy tin-hattery. Some of the other quotes are about things like the sanitary conditions of New York at the time and newspaper reports on the potato famine. Overall, they’re very well-chosen and really do manage to provide some background, and don’t seem tacked-on at all.
Since this is a big scary sprawling Gothic that took place at an extremely volatile time in New York’s history, I would issue a content/trigger warning for probably every single thing that could warrant a content warning, including graphic murder, child abuse, infanticide, child prostitution, attempted lynching, racism, use of the n-word, fire, gross medical stuff, and probably other things. It’s all handled well, I think, but this is definitely a book for morbid individuals with strong stomachs.