bloodygranuaile: (gashlycrumb clara)
 BSpec's next book club book is Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, the first book in what is somewhat erroneously referred to as the Hainish Cycle. I've read two other works in this "cycle," The Left Hand of Darkness and The Telling, both in college. I remember liking The Left Hand of Darkness better, but it's been so long I'd have to reread them both to tell you why.
The Dispossessed is about a physicist named Shevek who lives on the moon. The moon, called Anarres, is a supposedly independent non-state nation of sorts, a planetwide anarchist civilization that pretends that it isn't really a mining colony for the planet it circles, Urras, and allowed to exist only on Urras' sufferance as long as it quietly trades ores for other needed supplies. Anarres was settled 150 years or so prior to when this story takes place, basically buying off an entire anarchist movement based around the theories of a revolutionary named Odo.
Anarres is small and Shevek is a really brilliant physicist, so he is in contact with other physicists back on Urras, mostly in the big capitalist country that the initial Odonian settlers had come from. Shevek gets the idea into his head that Anarres and Urras have been enemies for long enough, and that he should go to Urras to work with the physicists there, and to learn about Urras as it is now and hopefully to unite the two planets in brotherhood and all that. This doesn't go over too well with the people in Anarres, but they eventually can't really stop him, so off to Urras he goes. On Urras, Shevek is, quite predictably, in completely over his head as far as figuring out what the State really wants from him, why they are allowing him to come and stay at the University, what of life in that country they're hiding from him and why, etc. etc. It all turns out to be worse than Shevek could possibly imagine but in ways that will ring very familiar to any politically active reader.
In true Le Guin style this book is very philosophical; the characters spend a lot of time arguing about morality and society and Odonian ideology, which is frankly really interesting and I wish I knew more about what anarchist thinkers Le Guin is drawing from when she develops Odo's quotes and theories. The driving question behind a lot of Shevek and his buddies' actions seems to be whether or not custom and public opinion on Anarres has gotten out of balance enough with individual initiative that it constitutes having accidentally created a state or bureaucracy--i.e., whether the "permanent revolution" that Anarrian society was supposed to be founded upon has ended, and the people have become conservative. Of course, Anarrian conservativism still looks pretty good compared to some of the stuff we find out on Urras; Shevek's complaints about the academics who keep blocking his research into his arcane branch of theoretical physics ends up coming off as very much "first world problems" even though Anarres is generally considered the less developed world. (The Odonians weren't anprims ideologically, but the Moon is a harsh planet to live on and they had to do some lifestyle simplification in order to survive on it.)
There's a lot to unpack here about soft power, the role of the individual in society, the weight and inertia of social stagnation and the difficulties of permanent revolution, the way that class difference and inequality are hidden and thus more easily perpetuated in a capitalist society, the colonialism inherent in the Cold War, gender, nationalism, academia, and many other things. There's also fun stuff, like that the worst insults on Anarres are "propertarian" and "profiteer," and a few things that kept getting thrown in for what seemed like just vague sci-fi-ish-ness that I kept forgetting about, like that Anarrans and Urrasans are furry? It's not very central to the story the way that the sex malleability stuff is in LHoD; it's just there.
There's also a lot of philosophizing about family and parenthood and adult relationships that I admit I'm less interested in than I probably should be, since that's all very important to the human condition, but I'm childfree so it's less interesting to me than the issues around academic gatekeeping and where are the lines between quality control and just trying to control other people's academic inquiry.
There's also a lot of fun linguistic stuff, in a very particular tradition of SF/F worldbuilding. In this case, the Anarrans speak a "rational" language that was basically made up via computer during the settlement, which is... a thing. One function of this language is that Anarrans don't use possessive pronouns for basically anything, including family relationships.
One thing I liked about this book more than was probably warranted is that I got the ridiculous 1974 edition from the library, with its sort of trippy stained-glass-looking cover. It's very '70s, especially the typeface for the title, but it's also sort of medieval-looking, especially considering the academic dress of the figure (probably Shevek) on the cover. The copy is so old that the inside front cover has a list price of $7.95, even though it's a hardback. This comes out to just under $40 in 2017 dollars, so I guess it's an expensive book! The Anarrans would disapprove.
Looking forward to chewing this one over with some nerds, although book club isn't until December. I honestly didn't intend to read this so fast, but I had three hours at the car service center on Saturday, which is where I got through most of it.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
I decided to do a health and fitness question today when I did my Tarot spread, partly because I feel like I might be coming down with something a little (my throat's all scratchy; I otherwise feel fine but it's worse now than it was earlier in the day), and because I've been extra bummed out lately by being able to get back to what I'd begun to consider my "standard" or ideal weight. I had to let my favorite corset out a few inches to wear it to the party last night, which highlighted that extra weight for me, although I've generally been thinking about it with some frequency lately, probably because I'm turning 30 soon and I'm afraid my metabolism might be slowing down. 

I used my vampire deck, and the cards ran out as follows:  Ten of Cups, The Lovers, The Moon, Seven of Swords, Six of Pentacles.

Five-card spread on black cloth

The Ten of Cups, here representing the past, is Joy. This card refers specifically to harmony in personal relationships and to having all the external elements of your life fulfilled and in balance. I don't know if in this case it is supposed to represent good health in and of itself, if it's supposed to mean that I got into the situation I'm in for good reasons (for having lots of awesome friends and family to eat and drink and stay up late with?) or if it goes back further than that, to when I used to have people to work out with and coincidentally was in better shape. It could also be reminding me that while I might be internally cranky about my weight, I have in actual fact been perfectly healthy for quite a while.

The present card, representing my current thoughts, feelings, and actions on the matter, is Major Arcana VI, The Lovers, representing Choice. The choice I have been mulling over in my head lately is basically "Should I make significant lifestyle changes to my diet, exercise plan, drinking habits, etc. and if so what should they be?" On a shorter timeline, I will have to make a choice about whether or not to skip work tomorrow if I don't feel any better after a good night's sleep. Which choice the spread is talking about is unclear to me at this point. The card usually refers to major decisions, though, and taking a sick day tomorrow would probably only have major ramifications for how my Monday goes. Sometimes the card actually does refer to romance or new relationships of some sort, and the Louis book suggests "You may find yourself buying new clothes or otherwise improving your personal appearance to attract new love into your life." I'm not sure that's really why I want to get back into the sort of shape I was in when I was 22, although it probably couldn't hurt to sit back and closely examine all my motivations. 

The hidden influences card here is Major Arcana XVIII, The Moon, which basically itself represents hidden influences, so nice going there, Tarot. I kid, sort of. The Moon represents deep instinctual forces, past conditioning affecting present behavior, dreams and intuitions, deceit, lies, confusion, all that kind of stuff. It suggests I am "entering a period of fluctuating moods and uncertainty during which you must confront unconscious forces in order to proceed." If the choice in the previous card is indeed about making lifestyle changes to be healthier, this I guess would indicate that I need to figure out what's holding me back from doing the healthy thing already and that it's likely some sort of emotional dysfunction or deeply ingrained bad habits. I guess it is time to try to pay more attention to the signals my body is giving me naturally rather than trying to have the super willpower to enact major changes just because they sound good? Or something?

The advice card is the Seven of Swords, which, despite being a sword card, is not terrible: It's the Stealth card, representing doing the unexpected. I am now fairly at a loss for what is supposed to be going on in this health and fitness reading. Maybe I should shake up my workout routine? The card advises "Do not become your own worst enemy. You will need to be diplomatic, crafty, or evasive to deal with the opposition and reach your goal." Does anyone know how to be "diplomatic and crafty" in a way that can outwit 15 pounds? Between this and the Moon card, I think we're looking at trying to figure out a way to somehow train or trick myself into developing better habits, rather than my usual setting of clear goals until I get tired of them. I don't know what this would look like. A lot of these cards are not really coming off as being very physically grounded. Maybe I should be focusing more on mental health than explicitly targeting physical health; that stuff can certainly have an effect on the immune system and appetite and things of that nature. Maybe I need to be on the lookout for someone who is affecting my mental health negatively by screwing me over, thus making it harder for me to be physically healthy? 

The final outcome card is the Six of Pentacles, the Generosity card, representing "getting what you deserve." It often refers to material gain, helping others, financial assistance, etc. Work paying off, that sort of thing. What I'm getting from this is either that if I can be crafty and diplomatic enough I'll finally get that raise, which would certainly be good for my stress levels, or more generally, if I can work out the mental health stuff that the earlier cards seem to be pointing to, my physical health will sort itself out. Which would be good. 

Overall it's looking to me like the big choice to make is what avenue focus on in terms of fixing my health and fitness, and that it's probably a better idea right now to be working on mental health and psychological issues rather than trying to force myself to make deliberate changes to my diet and exercise. If I feel better in my brain, hopefully it'll be easier to do things like do proper workouts rather than wussing out on them first thing in the morning because I haven't slept well, or whatever. 

So. How do I go about taking better care of my mental health? Should I scale back on some of the stuff I'm over-committed to? Meditate more? Journal more? I've been doing a bit more self-care-y types of things lately, but it's clearly not enough. I don't think I can really afford to go back to therapy. I've been doing on-and-off better than I was early in the year, but I still spend way too much time stressing myself out about politics and stuff. I definitely have been having problems with focus and motivation for the entire year. I don't want to be thirty.

Anyway, food for thought, but step 1 in self-care is going to be taking NyQuil and going straight to bed. 
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
I only bought one book in Nova Scotia, which is pretty disciplined for me. The book in question was Witchcraft: Tales, Beliefs, and Superstitions from the Maritimes by Clary Croft, which I bought at a museum gift shop in a historic house in Dartmouth, because that's how I do things (it was not, as far as we were told, a witch's house).
This book is not by Helen Creighton, who is apparently the No. 1 Canadian folklorist and the person whose books I should be buying, but Mr. Croft is her student and Witchcraft quotes her stuff extensively, so now I've got more reading material should I decided I need to learn all the Canadian folklore, which I will get right on after learning all the folklore from a bunch of other countries too.
The book is short and contains a lot of short tales about random supposed witchings in and around Nova Scotia, PEI, and New Brunswick. Most of the stories are from the 19th century or the earlier 20th century, but some legends go back much longer. People familiar with witch beliefs from any of the six main cultures that settled in the Maritimes or with Native American shamanistic beliefs will see some familiar stuff in the tales collected. A lot of reported instances of witchcraft have to do with people being suspected of hexing their neighbor's cows and other livestock, though mostly cows. Other stories are about people getting mysteriously sick, for a value of "mysteriously" that probably means "We hadn't invented good medical practices yet." Many of the ways of breaking spells fall into a couple of themes, some of which were pretty familiar to me—Bible-related stuff such as quotes or using the physical book as a protective talisman; blocking windows or doors with brooms or iron bars, burning stuff—but other types of cursebreaking that popped up over and over again I hadn't heard of before. Putting needles and pins into things was a big one; Maritime anti-witchcraft lore also seems to have a bit of a thing about using bottles of urine (sometimes from the bewitched human and sometimes from bewitched cows/horses/etc.; on some occasions, from the suspected witch). A widely held belief seems to be that when someone does a counter-spell to break a spell or out a witch, the witch will try to borrow or beg something from the person casting the counter-spell; if the witch is given what they ask for, the charm will be broken.
A good number of the stories involve witches who are men; this is not enormously unusual, but it seemed to me like this collection had a higher proportion of male witches than one usually hears about.
Overall the book was an interesting look into a bunch of folklore I didn't know anything about, which is just what I wanted from it; it also seems like the kind of thing that will be fun to mine for writing ideas, which is a nice bonus.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
I had a lot of good intentions about reading nonfiction on the plane but then there I was sitting in the airport and was like "but I am le tired" so I picked something out of my library that I knew was YA fiction, although I couldn't remember anything else about it, like what it was about or why I had bought it, so I figured I would find out. That book was Kate Elliott's Court of Fives, which turned out to be just the sort of YA girl's adventure fantasy comfort read I was in the mood for.
The main character, Jes, is one of four daughters in a stifling upper-class family, which in her case is especially stifling because of the particular ethnic/class system in place in this society: Her father is a Patron, which is basically the favored imperial ethnic class, but he's not a wealthy one, being a baker's son and an immigrant from the part of the empire where that ethnic group originates, and he's only climbed socially due to being an extremely good commander in the army. His social mobility is limited by his building a household with Jes' mother, who is Common--i.e., of the region's native ethnic class--and so he's not allowed to marry her. Their household is also burdened with four daughters and no sons, plus one of Jes' sisters has a clubfoot, which is the sort of thing that Patron families will often let babies die over, in addition to when there's too many girls. The Patron class is modeled after ancient Greek societies and the indigenous Common class is modeled after Egyptian ones, with the particular time and place of Court of Fives drawing heavily on the Ptolemaic period in Egypt, which is pretty cool.
In what is at this point a somewhat formulaic setup for YA girl's adventure novels (this is not a complaint necessarily since it is MY FAVORITE FORMULA), Jes feels all stifled and oppressed by the rigid social expectations placed on her as a sort-of upper-class young lady, and she wishes to have freedom and do fun active things, which in her case is compete in the Fives, the main sport in this society (I enjoy fictional societies that have a sport or tournament or other sort of competition that is the only one and is so popular that literally everyone is invested in it, even though I don't really find it realistic anymore, considering how many Olympicses I have managed to pay no attention to). The Fives is basically a five-part obstacle course; it's clearly very dangerous and sounds pretty rad. Like, it seems like it'd be kind of stupid as a real-world competition, but it works narratively and would probably look cool and martial-arts-movie-y onscreen.
Anyway, competing in the Fives is Jes' driving passion, because YA protagonists are unique among teenagers in always knowing exactly what they want to be when they grow up, but that's OK, it's how books work. Jes wants to be in the Fives so much that she regularly sneaks out to train, which she gets away with because her father is always away in the wars, and because literally everyone else in the household covers for her. (She thinks she is also sneaking from her mother but she's wrong, because that would be dumb.) This is obviously a terrible idea that will have terrible consequences, especially when Jes' father comes home early and promises to take them to go see the Fives on the day that Jes is secretly registered to compete. The sensible thing to do would be to eat the cover charge and not risk literally fucking up absolutely everything possible for her entire family, but Jes is a teenager and has an all-consuming passion, so of course she competes. She is careful to lose, and so does not get found out immediately, but does put into action a chain of events that results in her father dumping her mother and getting married to a princess and shipped out East for military service, the entire household sold off to a grasping local lord to cover the debts of the family's patron who had mysteriously died, Jes being forcibly separated from her family to train at the grasping lord's "stable" with his nephew, the Obligatory Love Interest, and Jes' pregnant mother and sisters getting walled up inside the dead lord's tomb with an oracle to die. Very worth the chance to compete in an event that she had to lose on purpose, I'm sure.
Anyway, most of the plot then becomes a questy sort of adventure where Jes has to team up with various people and use her wits and resourcefulness and athletic ability to rescue her family from being buried alive; in the course of doing so, she learns (which means we learn) a lot of cool stuff about the current empire and the lies it's built on. Very much my jam. The obligatory romantic subplot really didn't click for me even by obligatory romantic subplot terms; I'm not really sure why though. I liked the bit at the end where it all went horribly wrong, though, which means I will probably want to read the sequel eventually.
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
I read another short story anthology! That's like, two in a year, which is pretty good for me. It does however leave me in the awkward position of having to write a review for a short story anthology, a type of review-writing that I detest and am bad at, even by the rambling standards of my book-reviewing habits.
The collection I read was Holly Black's The Poison Eaters and Other Stories, which I selected because it's a collection of Holly Black stories, duh. The stories within it are very much everything I like about Holly Black, mostly full of teenagers getting into various kinds of supernatural trouble, often via first getting into regular mundane trouble like running away from home or getting drunk and trying to break into abandoned school buildings.
There is a short story called The Coldest Girl in Coldtown which obviously takes place in the same world as the book of the same title but has different characters and a different plot although with a similar ending; it's clearly an early draft of the idea that would become the full novel. Going Ironside is a short story that takes place in the Tithe universe, featuring Rath Roiben Rye and Cornelius, mostly. A lot of the stories are the sort of modern urban fantasy that Black is known for, but there are a couple of more fairy-tale-type secondary world fables in here as well, such as The Dog King, about werewolves, and The Poison Eaters, a fairy tale about a trio of Rappaccini's Daughter-esque poisonous sisters. Some of the stories are funny; most of them are creepy and/or haunting; the best ones are both.
While this collection was published several years ago and I think Holly Black has grown as a writer since her first books (which is what one would hope, I suppose), I think this collection still really showcases why she's become such a popular and important voice in teen fantasy. The stories are creepy, funny, heartwarming, relatable, and lushly written, often cute without being twee, and channeling the feeling that there's more weird shit in the world than we know.
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
I remember little about the last Prydain book, The High King, only liking it very much. Rereading it, I can see how little me must have thought it the most wondrous and exciting thing, although I'm sure that a lot of it went right over my little head, especially all the stuff at the end, which is a bit heavier than I remembered, although it all turns out well enough.
In this book, the magical sword Dyrnwyn has been stolen from Prince Gwydion by Arawn Death-Lord, who probably can't weild its power anyway, but now nobody else can either. This obviously necessitates the entire cast of characters from the first four books all getting together to defeat Arawn once and for all and stealing the sword back. Taran has to rally all his friends, including the folk of the Free Commots who only ever go and fight if they feel like it since they have no lords, and then has to balance being a rookie battle commander responsible for the lives of hundreds of other people with his own longstanding desires to be a Big Damn Hero, plus his intention to ask Eilonwy to marry him, which he basically never has a good moment to get around to doing until all the way at the end even though it's been his intention since the beginning of Book Four. There are a lot of plot elements here that are STRONGLY reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, even more than usual, like when they try to go through a difficult mountain pass in a bitter snowstorm, right down to being led by a dwarf to take an underground path instead that all then goes horrendously wrong (there are no Balrogs in this book, though). All the threads of various characters' stories are tied up very neatly, which is very satisfying in a children's book, and Hen Wen makes a prophecy in the beginning, which is finally all sorted out right at the end. Arawn's death seems a bit fast, but that's how things happen at this reading level, I suppose, and anyway we've never spent as much time in this series face-to-face with Arawn himself as we have with other lesser villains and henchmen and regular terrible people. If you're older than about twelve, you get no points for guessing who the High King in the title winds up being. 
All in all, the whole series is just the quintessential kind of really charming, whimsical, mythologically-based adventure fantasy that makes you want to wear a bedsheet as a cloak and go chase your siblings with sticks until you're old enough to start going to Renaissance Faires and that kind of goofy stuff. I am partly blaming rereading these for my purchase of a pewter cloakpin at a touristy little gift shop on the Halifax waterfront, but it's possible the blame should be more properly placed on having read them the first time, which is the sort of thing that helped me grow up into the type of person that thinks Celtic knotwork-patterned pewter cloakpins are a reasonable and useful purchase that I will obviously get lots of wear out of in everyday life (which I will, because it is small and therefore perfect for scarves; I am wearing it *right now*). Anyway, highly recommended if you have a little geek in your life; these are classics for a reason. 
bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
 In the fourth book of the Chronicles of Prydain, Taran Wanderer, the Assistant Pig-Keeper sets off on a quest to find his parentage, because he wants to ask Princess Eilonwy to marry him, which is something we could see coming from a lot earlier in the series. This is by design the kind of quest that sets a hero off on a series of tasks exploring all the surrounding lands to see where he fits in, which is always a fun sort of quest to read along with. Taran's first few stops have him revisiting folks he's met in prior books, such as the boisterous King Smoit, in whose cantrev Taran smooths out a fight between two warring lords who keep stealing each other's cows. Then Taran winds up back in the Marshes of Morva, where he had gone in The Black Cauldron, to seek out the three hilarious witches who keep wanting to turn him into a toad, to see if they can help. They suggest he go find a magic mirror up in the mountains somewhere, which will show him the truth of himself. Taran for a while abandons this quest and just sort of wanders around instead, where he spends some time thinking he's the son of a herdsman on a very bleak moor (there is much character growth occurring during this arc, since thinking he's the son of a herdsman puts a dent in his hope that he was really a nobleman and would be a socially appropriate match for Eilonwy), then goes and spends some time living off the land with a very lucky and resourceful scavenger guy and his family; then he goes and spends some time among the craftsmen of the Free Commots, which is basically a set of democratically-run towns famous for having really skilled craftspeople. In true fairy tale fashion, in Taran's time in the Free Commots he learns three trades--smithing, weaving, and pottery--and while none of them turn out to be his calling, he crafts three items for himself in his time there (a sword, a cloak, and a  bowl) that turn out to be very useful and important later on. 
Since Arawn is very much a background menace in this book and Achren has been reduced to living harmlessly with Dallben, our main external antagonists in this book are a mercenary, who steals Taran's sword and gets away to continue to be an ass in the next book, and an evil wizard who actually *does* turn Taran's companions into animals (temporarily; obviously Taran defeats the wizard at the very last possible second). In his journey, though, Taran hears a lot about how the life of the common people of Prydain is partly as hard as it is because Arawn has stolen many of their long-kept, hard-earned secrets about crafting and farming and all that stuff, and his general evil deathiness has made the land less fruitful. So it's fairly clear where we're leading up to in the final book. 
I'm not going to spoil what we do or don't learn about Taran's parentage in the end, but there's a very clear moral message about it. Out of all the Prydain books, this is structured the most like an archetypal fairy tale, with lots of episodic adventures in which people learn very important things about the world and themselves and how to treat other people and what's really important in life. 
Pretty much the only bad thing in this book is that Eilonwy's off princessing for the whole thing, a state of affairs that I dislike almost as much as Taran and Eilonwy do. 
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
This is dumb, but: I can't remember if I ever read The Castle of Llyr when I was wee! I distinctly remember reading The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, and The High King, but the two other books in the series I have no memory of even their titles. They may not have been in stock at my library? Or I may have just forgotten because it was a really, really long time ago. 
Anyway, The Castle of Llyr was extra delightful because it was practically all about Princess Eilonwy and her magical heritage. She gets sent off to learn how to be a proper court lady in a cute little island kingdom called Mona, which features a good-natured but chronically hapless Crown Prince whom Eilonwy is obviously intended to be married off to, an arrangement that Eilonwy has Opinions about and Taran has Feelings about. But there turns out to be more important things to worry about than whether or not Eilonwy has washed her hair, because Queen Achren, the evil enchantress that had held Eilonwy hostage way back in the first book, is skulking around looking to re-kidnap Eilonwy (with the help of an evil Royal Steward, because apparently Royal Stewards are always evil) and use Eilonwy's heritage as a daughter of the House of Llyr--a lineage of extremely powerful enchantresses--to expand her own powers. Taran, the hapless Crown Prince of Mona, the bard Fflewddur Fflam, a disguised Prince Gwydion, and the chimplike creature Gurgi (who is basically like a cross between Gollum and a teddy bear? Gurgi's like, hairy non-evil Gollum) have to get into scrapes and have other adventuresome hijinks to save Eilonwy, who is doing a fairly good job of saving herself at the other end of things, but doesn't know very much about her magical heritage. These hijinks bring the adventurers into contact with such creatures as a mountain cat larger than a horse, a giant who used to be a small whiny dude who made himself a potion that turned him into a large whiny dude, and the Crown Prince of Mona, since he keeps getting lost and then they have to find him again. Then we learn a whole bunch of stuff about the House of Llyr, all of which is really cool, and then of course it all gets destroyed, which is a huge bummer. But at least Achren loses all her powers forever and has to go be a scullery maid at Caer Dallben, where she can learn to do some honest work like a real human. This book series has a pretty strong pro-labor ethos, and especially stresses the value of "humble," peaceful work like farming over combat. But of course the combat is sometimes necessary and usually the better story.
TL;DR More Eilonwy all the time please!  
bloodygranuaile: (we named the monkey jack)
 Okay, so, sometime a year or two ago maybe, I reread Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three for a book club that I then ended up not attending. But to do so I had bought the entire box set of the Chronicles of Prydain on Kindle, so then I had them on Kindle to read on vacation. 
First thing: These books are squarely for small children and I am too old for them. They were charming and delightful but also I kept being surprised at how fast stuff happened, like, oh, they completed the quest and we're at the end of the book already? It's possible I also read too much grimdark stuff and these are not grimdark at all; they are fun and adventurous and whimsical and heroic and all that stuff.
So The Black Cauldron involves a quest to go destroy a magical cauldron that Arawn, the Dark Lord chappy in the series, keeps using to make zombie soldiers. So our hero, Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper to the enchanter Dallben (and his oracular pig), teams up with a whole bunch of other people, some of whom are known from the last book and some of whom are new, to go steal the cauldron. But when they get there, it is ALREADY STOLEN, and the group has been split up into at least three different groups, and Taran and his buddies (and a jerky dude who's with them) have to decide what to do next. What they decide is basically to go into the swamp and find three goofy-ass witches who are rumored to know somethin about the whereabouts of the cauldron, which of course they do because it's theirs and they're the ones who stole it. There's riddles and bargaining and feats of strategy and all that good fantasy-adventure stuff that has to happen for Taran and company to acquire and destroy the cauldron instead of being turned into toads. All in all, it's a good time. Taran is young and annoying but the annoying bit is OK because he's quite young indeed. Princess Eilionwy is the best because she always calls the dudes out on their shit (and they give her a lot of shit because she's the only girl in like the entire series) and is secretly a very powerful enchantress. Most of the adults are all tall and noble and generally Aragorn-like, which is fine but probably would be more interesting on-screen. Unfortunately there's never been movie adaptations of the whole thing (there was one bad one in 1985 I guess?), although Disney apparently has plans to take a stab at it and so we'll see if it turns out to do the series justice or not. 
The best bit of this book by miles is the three absurd witches who live in the swamp and want to turn everyone into toads; they're very obviously based on the Three Fates/the Norns/etc. but they remind me the most of the witches from Hocus Pocus. 
bloodygranuaile: (wilde)
Considering how much I loved, loved, loved Libba Bray's The Diviners, I'm kind of appalled with myself that I apparently missed the publication of the sequel, Lair of Dreams. But something brought it to my attention again recently, so I made sure I'd snagged a copy as an ebook to read on the plane up to Nova Scotia last weekend. (BTW, I went to Nova Scotia last week!)
The book did not disappoint. Clocking it at around 600 pages, it's a big fat Gothic doorstopper of a YA fantasy, full of 1920s New York goodness, and also a fair amount of 1920s New York badness. The cast of characters is pretty big, with all our old favorites still around--Evie, Theta, Mabel, Henry, Memphis, Jericho, Sam Lloyd--and a couple of interesting new folks who pop up, the most prominent of which is Ling Chan, a mixed-race teen girl from Chinatown, who can walk in dreams. Ling Chan is cranky and brusque and loves science and can summon and talk to the dead in her dreams, and she has infantile paralysis in her legs, which she suspects might be some kind of divine punishment for her pride in her dreamwalking ability. She becomes friends with Henry, who it turns out is also a dreamwalker, and they meet and become friends in dreams before meeting in real life when things start to get weird.
The main plotline in the book involves a sleeping sickness that is spreading mysteriously across the city, first striking a bunch of subway laborers who had discovered and opened an abandoned subway station with a single train car in it, which nobody had known was there. If you guessed that this train car was haunted and the laborers let the ghost out by disturbing it, you are also familiar with the basics of how Gothics work, congrats! But that doesn't make it any less exciting, because all kinds of terrifying stuff has to happen for all the disparate characters to come together to figure out who the ghost is and how they are spreading the sleeping sickness and how to stop it, and meanwhile people are also disappearing and turning into ghastly toothy monsters in the subway (don't read this book if you're going to have to take a subway at night in the next year or two), and the authorities and a whole bunch of the populace are blaming the sleeping sickness on the Chinese immigrant community. Unsurprisingly, things get pretty racist, up to and including a Klan march, because the 1920s were terrible and oh god it's the 1920s all over again, isn't it.
So the fun mostly comic relief-y plotline going on through all of this is that Evie is now famous on the radio for doing object reading, and so she now lives in fancy hotels and throws parties until she gets kicked out and has to move into the next fancy hotel, and at some point during all this she ends up fake engaged to Sam for PR purposes, on condition that she help him learn more about the old government project that his mother used to be involved in--the one Evie's uncle Will, who runs the museum, was also part of. The bits with Sam and Evie and their ludicrous fake romance are freaking hilarious, involving creating loud diversions in post offices and all sorts of other nonsense. The stuff they find out about the government project is pretty dark, possibly even darker than the dream-eating ghosts in the subways, because it gets all mixed up with the eugenics movement. 
One of the things I like best about the book is the amount of American history that Libba Bray works into it--and she doesn't try to make it flattering. Between the two books, the series so far discusses eugenics, the Klan, the Sacco and Venzetti trial, spiritualism, the Second Great Awakening, polio, Chinese exclusion, sex trafficking, segregation, domestic abuse, and the Civil War. There's also a stealth mention of radium tonic, my new favorite terrifying historical detail, and a brief but highly plot-relevant cameo by Dr. Carl Jung. And there's Jake Marlowe, Charming Scientist Businessman Inventor Dude, a vehicle by which Libba Bray provides Pointed Commentary on the links between American exceptionalism, capitalism, the modernist approach to science, and the aforementioned eugenics movement. 
One minor disappointment I had was that I wanted to see more of Mabel's new anarchist buddy that she met at the end of the first book, but he is gone for most of this one, but then he shows up right at the end, and at the end there's also a mention of Sacco and Venzetti's impending execution that has me hopeful that the third book will involve many more anarchists. Also solve the mystery of whatever creepy swelling of magic is being brought forth by the man in the stovepipe hat, who I haven't mentioned yet in this review but he keeps popping up in the background, in paintings and in people's memories and dreams and things. Another mysterious motif that keeps popping up throughout the book is a logo of an eye with a lighting bolt under it. And a third ongoing motif is a bunch of dudes named after Founding Fathers who are apparently just driving around the country murdering young Diviners or people suspected of being Diviners. Look, it's really hard to fit all the cool stuff into a review because it's a really long book and it is just jam-packed with STUFF. Like, it could probably have been cut down at least 100 pages if you wanted to ruin Bray's descriptive style, but then it wouldn't be very Gothic, and it'd still be 500 pages long, and that's a lot of subplots and historical tidbits.
Anyway, it is almost October, and this is a good October book, so if you liked the first one I recommend the sequel highly, and if you haven't read the first one, that is a good October book too!
bloodygranuaile: (nosferatu)
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)
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)
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.

Word count

Sep. 2nd, 2017 08:24 pm
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
Alright, we're gonna set a goal of 5,000 words for September, which is what the monthly goals were last time I had goals. Let's see if I can remember how to words.

bloodygranuaile: (carmilla)
 A tarot spread with seven cards on a black cloth

Finally, after many many weeks, I got around to doing a reading using the "What are the next steps on my path?" reading that I grabbed from DIY WITCHERY on Tumblr. I used Maggie Stiefvater's Raven's Prophecy deck, meaning I used her Illuminating the Prophecy book as well as the Anthony Louis book I usually use. I had to fill out a lot of these new in my notebook, which means a lot of these haven't popped up in readings I've done for myself since I started taking notes.

The first card is the Last Step card, showing the step on the path I just came from. This card is the Nine of Swords, the Nightmare card, which represents paralysis and depression, indicating that whatever this reading is about (I didn't have a specific thing in mind, just life in general, maybe writing, maybe job stuff, I dunno) and I admit that this is pretty accurate for a lot of how I've felt for most of this year. I've done no fiction writing and made little attempt at career advancement, and wasted untold hours being generally tired and fretty and Extremely Online. I guess the positive thing here is that this is the last step and not the current one, meaning I'm moving on from the paralysis. I'm not quite sure what the lesson from the previous step is, except possibly that I should take better care of myself.

The second card, which is the center card in the second column, is the Current Step card. It is important to know the lessons from the current step because they provide tools that may be useful in later steps. The card here is the Ten of Cups, the Joy card. This card basically means that things are going well--not just that you're happy internally, which is the Nine of Cups, but that things are in harmony and balance externally: your relationships are all going splendidly, etc. The lesson for this card, according to Stiefvater, is to not squander it. Coming out of the last step of depression and paralysis, this indicates to me that I'm basically in a safe space now and have room to become productive and do stuff again, which I shouldn't waste. But what should I do? I've been pretty good at generally keeping myself busy with regular ongoing nonsense and not necessarily accomplishing anything--haven't finished my novel, haven't been studying poker or Gaelic, haven't actually done much concretely in terms of organizing within DSA. But now is a good time to do whatever it is I want to do with a good time, apparently.

This seems to be borne out by the next card, the Next Step card, which indicates where my path with lead me next. This third card is the middle card of the third column, and it's Major Arcana I: The Magician, who represents "Mastery of special knowledge, focused energy" in Louis and "Ability, versatility, control, connections" in Stiefvater. The Magician indicates that you've been acquiring knowledge or engaging in some form of disciplined training or otherwise preparing to do stuff, and it's time to take that specialized knowledge or experience and go forth and use it to do some stuff. It's an auspicious card for initiating projects. I think the progression among the first three cards is clear, at any rate; the big question left is, what project do I focus on?

The fourth card, which is the bottom card of the second column, is the Advice card. Here it is the Ten of Wands, "The Weight of Ambition," which is basically a card that says you're trying to do too much stuff and you need to figure out how to share some of the workload so you don't burn out. This is probably good advice for me in that it is something I have been bad at my entire life; I try to do too many things and I don't like to ask for help. This ties in with some readings I've had done in the recent-ish past that basically indicate I need to cut the pointless stuff out of my life and prioritize better if I want to get anything done. I am not good at this and have done a lot of waffling over what it is I ought to prioritize, although since the last reading that said that (Gillian did the reading for me several weeks ago) I have done better at wasting less time on social media and reading the news.

The fifth card, the bottom card of the third column, is the Obstacles card. This seemed a little odd to me in that the Ace of Wands is a very go-ahead-y sort of card and not obstacle-y at all; it represents the root of the element of fire; Louis titles it "Rearing to go" and Stiefvater gives it the keywords "Creativity, energy, passion, enthusiasm." I think what it's representing is that I'm basically sitting around waiting to ~feel inspired~ and that's why I keep filling up my time with reasonably important but mundane stuff (I cleaned my room today) or easy, passive things (reading a lot) rather than engaging in the difficult work of actually doing any of the constructive projects I say I want to do (like... write). Stiefvater's guide says "The Ace of Wands means that sometimes you're never going to feel ready. Act now. Just jump! If you're a perfectionist, it can be hard to accept that a new idea doesn't develop fully formed." Well, I've cleaned my room, made banana bread, and done a tarot reading, so maybe I should try to write or something tonight instead of reading and repainting my nails, which is basically what I was intending to do in order to put off anything else until tomorrow. 

The sixth and seventh cards, which are the top card in the second and third columns, oddly enough, are supposed to be input from whatever spirits or deities or other entities you want to hear from. I'm secular so I have no idea who or what I want to hear from, but I want to hear it, so I guess these two cards are words from An Uncaring Universe or the Law of Narrative Irony or something. Which is odd, because having included them in the spread I can only include that they sound like they're from my parents. The Ten of Coins is the Material Abundance card, which basically indicates material security and family support, and provides a reminder to pay it forward and think about other people in the future. The Emperor indicates rules and authority, but he is a dude who has rules for reasons, and according to Stiefvater provides a reminder that, if you're going "to slough off the authority of an Emperor, you must find the Emperor within yourself." In other words, discipline.

So, in short: I've been not doing much lately, but I'm in a good place now and it's time to do stuff, regardless of if I feel inspired, and to do stuff in a disciplined and forward-thinking manner. The cards, needless to say, do not tell me what kind of project I should be focusing on.

Ah, well. 
bloodygranuaile: (we named the monkey jack)
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)
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)
 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)
 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)
 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: (Default)

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