February 17th, 2017
|08:55 pm - A ballot's a ballot, no matter how small... or is it?|
One of the many, many drivers of the outcome in the past clusterfuck of an election was the under-reported but extremely serious wave of voter suppression that GOP legislators have been enacting since the VRA was gutted in 2013. Ari Berman had been valiantly reporting on this issue at The Nation for most of the circus, so I knew that his book on the subject, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America was going to be near the top of the list of books to read in the book club. (Side note: Anyone want to join my politics book club?)
I'm very much looking forward to discussing this one, as infuriating as it is, especially at the end.
The book begins with the Selma march where John Lewis got his head beat in, and vividly illustrates all the drama surrounding the passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act. Sometimes it's hard to realize that it wasn't all that long ago--there's such a Wild West-y amount of shooting, firebombing, and random street beatings going on. Then I remember that it was only 50 years ago, and also I'm lucky to live in relatively safe areas that are not "gun country," so probably even some of these places aren't as different now as I'd have assumed.
Despite all the shooting and firebombing and stuff, the earlier part of the book is still the cheerful one, because Act One ends with the Voting Rights Act being passed and implemented. Act Two is basically Adventures in Vote Dilution, and Act Three, most depressingly, is the legal counterrevolution that led to the Act being gutted, starting with the sick fucks in the Reagan administration.
The most depressing part of whole thing, oddly, was the "unholy alliance" between the Congressional Black Caucus and the GOP to draw majority-minority heavily gerrymandered districts in order to ensure any kind of minority representation in Congress, even though it made districts less competitive and increased the number of GOP-stronghold districts in the South by basically getting rid of all the moderate white Democrats. This turns out to have been a bad move given the degree to which partisanship has increased as a force in American politics relative to literally anything else. Also, gerrymandering is bad; the more competitive districts are, the better for democracy. So that was a bummer; it read like the fatal flaw that leads to the hero's downfall in a Greek tragedy. Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that, but it seems like a thread the consequences of pulling on were farther-reaching than anticipated.
The real problem, of course, is the cadre of "neoconservative" lawyers brought into the White House during the Reagan and both Bush administrations, "neoconservative" being the bullshit euphemism for "authoritarian, burn-it-down-if-we-can't-control-it reactionaries" that we had before we came up with "alt-right" to push the backwardness into straight-up Nazism. Among other things, they utterly weaponized the Supreme Court, turning it into the anti-human clusterfuck it is today and that the Republicans are hellbent on keeping it. There are many new names on my list of People Who Haven't Been Punched Enough after reading this book, although I probably won't remember the names.
The book ends with a discussion of the Moral Monday marches and of North Carolina's descent from reasonable moderation into an unsterile petri dish of retrograde GOP democracy-fucking experiments. It's simultaneously heartening and depressing.
Voting rights are the single most important issue in our democracy right now outside of not actually killing off the entire human race via nuclear incompetence or the drastic acceleration of global warming. Voting rights are the only hope we have of taking ourselves off the road to fascism, and the power-hungry sociopaths of the GOP know that and are going to do their best to destroy it.
Let's not make it easy.
February 7th, 2017
|09:19 pm - In which I cannot even focus on reading fiction anyway|
WELL THAT ONLY TOOK ME THE ENTIRE MONTH OF JANUARY.
But I did pull it off just in time for book club, by which I mean I was reading the last twenty pages or so at book club.
This is the BSpec book club, and we read Ken Liu's Grace of Kings, which had been on The List for a while. It's a political/military epic fantasy, drawing on pseudo-medieval Chinese myth and history rather than pseudo-medieval European myth and history. I do kind of wish I'd read it closer to when it first came out, though, if only because it's really hard right now to get invested in the collapse of fictional empires when the real-world empire I live in is actually for reals collapsing right around me. Also the real world one has more spies. Like, there are some spies in Grace of Kings, but the news is like ALL SPIES lately.
Anyway. The short version of the plot is that a bunch of squabbling kingdoms have been forcibly united under an oppressive Emperor for about a generation. When the Emperor dies, his young son becomes Emperor, but the kid is deliberately spoiled and kept away from governing so his aides can jockey for power. Against this backdrop, a popular uprising against the Empire starts, which eventually becomes a whole bunch of different factions reclaiming their own lands (sound familiar?). The two biggest players in this struggle who emerge are Kuni Garu, a jovial trickster type, and Mata Zyndu, a preternaturally tall and strong scion of a deposed royal family who is fearsomely unbeatable in battle and super uptight. He's basically a Terminator. Despite being polar opposites, they team up to become the rebellion's power couple for a while, but eventually fall out over something stupid that Mata is too rigid-minded to ever patch up properly. In the background of all this, a pantheon of gods all designate certain characters their pawns and try to influence the situation so "their" favorite mortals can "win."
We discussed our nitpicks at book club--such as that the female characters were memorable but there were a limited number of them; meanwhile, the overwhelming number of male characters with often-similar names meant I got a lot of them except the two leads mixed up--but overall this was a pretty solid example of the type of book it is, with a lot of factionalism and strategy and death and fighting. Some elements of the worldbuilding were a little inconsistent or episodic--like, at one point there were mechanical giant whale submarines, but then they were done being used so there just... weren't any more whale submarines. You can't just do this to a girl--if your book is gonna have giant whale submarines at all, it's gotta give us a LOT of giant whale submarines. They are too awesome to be a minor throwaway plot point.
That said, the intrigue is really good, and it's got some interesting meditations on power, morality, the limitations of militarism, and all that sort of stuff that's necessary to make the gods' chess game have more meaning than just a chess game. I'm not as enthused about the sequel as I'd hoped I'd be, though, but that might be partly because I've decided to dedicate the next two years to reading about Nazis. It's really not Ken Liu's fault--anyone writing political fantasy has just had their job made infinitely harder by the vagaries of reality.
January 23rd, 2017
January 18th, 2017
|04:29 pm - And the world is beautiful, just look at all your friends|
Aaaaaaaahhhhh it's the last Harry Potter book!
I'd only read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows once, since it came out, and since then I've seen bits of the movies, but I basically remembered next to nothing of the plot other than a) Horcruxes and b) the epilogue was boring, because those are the two things that have the most filtered into our cultural consciousness in the decade (!!!) since it was published. So most of this book was very much like reading something brand new.
This book deviates from the previously established structure of uncovering a plot over the course of a year at school, and instead borrows that timeless (or, in some hands, timeworn) fantasy classic structure: a Quest, or more specifically, a Long Ride. After aging out of the blood protection he got from the Dursleys and escaping with the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and Ron and Hermione wander around England for several months, searching for Horcruxes. Over the course of this quest, Harry is systematically stripped of most of his support system and prized possessions — starting, heartbreakingly, with Hedwig, who could easily be included in both categories — in a process that is clearly a metaphor for something. We've had this sort of thing in miniature before, right from the very first book, when Harry goes into the obstacle course defending the Stone with Ron and Hermione but ultimately must face Voldemort alone.
In Deathly Hallows, though, you know stuff has gotten real destablizing, because people are losing their wands. Ron memorably had his wand broken in Chamber of Secrets, but it was a secondhand wand (which means it probably didn't work all that well anyway), and its being broken caused problems for an entire year. But here, people are losing wands and having them broken and confiscated and stealing them from one another all over the place. It kind of makes you wonder why this sort of thing didn't happen more often earlier in the series, but maybe it's also just one of those things that happens more when society has largely collapsed. And make no mistake — wizarding society here has indeed collapsed.
In among the examination of authoritarian takeover and its attendant ills — mass surveillance, militarized public life, blackmail, betrayals, schools being turned into police states, propaganda about "undesirables," registering people based on their "blood status," does any of this sound familiar yet — is a Redwall-esque riddle quest (ha, do u see what I did there) through the history of the wizarding world and its great families to find and destroy the Horcruxes. The heart of the mystery is at Godric's Hollow, ancestral home of Godric Gryffindor, of the Peverell family, and of Harry's father. The crux of the action, however, occurs on the hallowed ground at Hogwarts, as it assuredly must. Harry has to figure out when to rely on his friends and when to stand alone; when to hide and when to draw attention to himself; when to fight and when to face death unarmed and accepting.
The body count is high, and whether the victims are characters introduced in the first book or in this one, they're all pretty devastating. Having grown up with these characters and this series, having so many of them die right when this book came out, as I was at the end of my teens, felt like my childhood was being killed off in a way that's more viscerally upsetting than I wanted to admit. It was no less traumatic the second time around, ten years later, even though in the intervening time I've read dozens or probably hundreds of books with vastly more death and violence.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows marks the end of an era, the end of the formative years for a generation that became better people because of this series, according to science. And now, it's time for us to take what we've learned and to go out and fight fascism in the Muggle world — without wands, but with love and courage and inquisitiveness and a sense of justice and a commitment to equality and all of our wonderful friends.
Current Mood: emotional
Current Music: "These Days are Dark," Harry and the Potters
January 17th, 2017
|10:52 am - Felix Felices makes me feel invincible|
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published in 2005, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, when I was 17. By this point, I had largely stopped rereading books on any sort of regular basis, which is why I've only read this one three times: Once when it came out, once when I reread the series before Deathly Hallows came out, and this winter. My strongest memory of the summer it came out was that viral video of some guy yelling spoilers out of a car and making people cry. That never struck me as a thing very much in keeping with the spirit of the series, frankly.
Anyway. Considering I was not inspired to reread it very often, it turns out that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is just as devastatingly good as all the other books. Clearly it's me that has changed, not the quality of the story.
It is worth it to say that the lighthearted, whimsical children's book world of Sorcerer's Stone is by now nearly gone, in the same way that the safe, economically stable, end-of-history world of Bill Clinton's '90s as viewed through the lens of a small nerd girl is now gone, and we are now maybe a vassal state of Russia and China is going to declare war on us by Sunday. Half-Blood Prince is DARK. The war is on, everyone knows Voldemort is back, people's family members are starting to go missing, and somebody is half-assedly trying to commit unnecessarily elaborate murders at Hogwarts. We do meet our first halfway decent Slytherin, a schmoozy type named Horace Slughorn who, while frequently annoying, is more of a regular kind of status-conscious rather than being murderously evil.
In this year at Hogwarts, Harry mysteriously becomes good at Potions due to help from a heavily annotated used textbook; Snape finally becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher; Ron is still having self-esteem issues about being Keeper; and Harry starts taking private lessons with Dumbledore.
The private lessons in question are basically all trips into the Pensieve, a sort of magical receptacle for memories. It turns out that Dumbledore has been painstakingly piecing together the backstory of Tom Riddle and his eventual transformation into Voldemort. It's a fascinating, Dickensian story of pride, resentment, alienation, greed, revenge, fear, and ambition. It also illustrates well the self-defeating cycle of poverty and bigotry that occurs when people hold onto the idea that they are "better" than others when they don't have anything else to hold onto, but the resulting entitlement makes them such lazy assholes that they refuse to do anything to better their circumstances or develop any kind of community that could help them. (There's even an excellent dig at Merope Gaunt's father and his refusal to do housework.)
There's still some funny bits, though, and the best ones relate to the magical luck potion called Felix Felices. This includes one of the funniest drunk scenes I have ever seen — at Aragog's funeral — and an interesting study on the placebo effect on Quidditch performance. But overall, the experience of reading this book in one day was emotionally exhausting in ways I haven't been emotionally exhausted in years. I cried a bunch of times (ESPECIALLY AT THE END), because I am officially a sappy old lady now. I felt like all my feelings had been beaten up. It was great. This book is a freaking masterpiece.
Current Mood: tired
Current Music: "Felix Felices," Harry and the Potters
January 10th, 2017
|10:22 pm - These days are dark but we won't fall|
Sometime around the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my constant rereading habits started to drop off. I’ve probably only read this one five times or so? Maybe ten at the outside. At any rate, it’s not one of the ones where I’ve got all the words engraved deep in my memories. But I did remember the most important bits.
This is another one that’s often derided as being a little bit not as masterful as the others, mainly because Harry is annoying as crap throughout it. Everyone in this book is fifteen and has a bad attitude, and the publishers apparently made Rowling squish a bunch of romance into it that you can tell she doesn’t care that much about.
On the other hand, though, Order of the Phoenix does a bang-up job exploring issues of how fascism establishes itself in public institutions. We see the use of denial, of a compromised press, of scapegoating, of the use of crisis as a pretext for tightening government control, of the wrecking of checks and balances of power, and of the difficulties of dealing with people who are mendaciously, stone-cold indifferent to truth.
Although Voldemort returned at the end of Goblet of Fire, he’s really not the main antagonist throughout most of this book. Instead, our main villain is petty, power-mad bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge. This is because the wizarding world has split into three factions: pro-Voldemort, anti-Voldemort, and then the Minstry’s official position, which is that it definitely would be anti-Voldemort if Voldemort were around, but it simply cannot accept that it is so, and its ire is focused predominantly on those who insist upon being all disruptive by saying he is. It is traditional in children’s literature to throw in a character or two to add a minor note of Moral Complexity to the good and evil binary by having someone who is more cowardly or maladaptive than malicious, such as Gollum from Lord of the Rings. In this book, it is that cowardly, head-in-the-sand faction that bears the full brunt of the author’s ire. The cowardly faction actually has two factions within it: the people who will turn out to be anti-Voldemort once they can’t avoid accepting that he’s back, and the people who will happily collaborate knowingly with the Death Eater’s regime once it moves into the open. But for the purpose of this book, they are one faction, and it is as yet unknown who will go which way when the truth comes out.
Dolores Umbridge, as everyone knows, is THE WOOORST. Voldemort may be magic Hitler but Umbridge is the sort of grasping petty abusive condescending bigot that we all personally recognize from somewhere because our society is set up to reward sociopathic assholes. Every time someone does the tiniest thing she dislikes she comes up with sweeping decrees banning it—up to and including banning teachers from speaking to their students about anything not “strictly related” to their subject—and generally makes the North Carolina legislature look like stalwart defenders of decentralized democracy. Fortunately for our heroes, she manages a couple of spectacular own goals that allow both students and faculty to resist her—mostly in quiet and troll-y ways, like Professor Flitwick deliberately refusing to take care of pranks his students pulled because “he didn’t know if he was authorized” and letting Fred and George’s swamp sit around for ages.
But of course, there’s also Dumbledore’s Army.
Though it’s only in play for a chunk of the book in the middle, Dumbledore’s Army is the beating heart of the story. It’s where Harry becomes not just a lone hero, but a leader—and, in keeping with the themes of the book, a teacher. It’s a group of young people coming together in an act of organized resistance, something that is very pertinent to young Americans at this particular point in time AHEM. It shows that loyalty isn’t about waiting for dear leader to save you—sometimes it means you have to fight to save the leaders you’re loyal to. Above all, it shows that fascists can be beaten—not just with magic, which is not at most of the readers’ disposal, but with tenacity, solidarity, noncooperation, telling your stories, and an unwavering commitment to the truth. These are all lessons that may be more pertinent in times of crisis than in times of peace, but they are never unimportant.
Current Mood: tired
Current Music: Obama's farewell speech
January 9th, 2017
|08:04 pm - Nazi wizards fuck off|
I remember when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire first came out. I remember the hype, the breathless reports that in this one, someone was going to die. I remember everyone trying to guess who it was. (We were all wrong, obviously, since it was a newly introduced character.) I remember how it was a huge deal that it was 734 pages long, because that was utterly unheard-of for a children's book at the time. (Sixteen-and-a-half years and one English degree later, I laugh at the idea that any book under 800 pages could be considered "long.") (I also look at the book and go "How is this less than 1,000 pages; how freaking thick are these pages" but that's another ramble.)
I remember trying to keep track of how many times I read this book and losing track at thirteen. I'm going to guess the current number is somewhere between twenty and thirty. It had been ten years since my last reread.
In those ten years, a lot of things have happened. One is that I grew up enough to look back critically at my memories of the series and note that Voldemort and his followers were basically just magic Nazis, and that, while effectively villainous for a children's series, I guess that ultimately it was a bit simplistic and not that original. It followed a grand tradition of British and American writing about fighting Nazis or Nazi-esque villains, because that's about as satisfyingly simple and uncontroversial a bad guy as you can get, and it is, after all, quite important to teach small children not to tolerate Nazis, but not that sophisticated.
Another thing that happened, but mostly only over the past year rather than over the course of the whole ten, is that -- suddenly, or seemingly suddenly -- Nazis have been making a bit of a comeback. As a result, "Nazis are bad; fight them" suddenly has a lot more emotional resonance and immediacy than it did not too long ago, and also I've been reading a lot of very informative articles about Nazis.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is when the series starts to be ABOUT NAZIS.
As mentioned in previous reviews, the earlier books did make it clear that Voldemort was basically a magic Nazi, although to me the earlier books' portrayals of his followers and his movement always made me think more of the Klan. And there's some of that here too, especially with the Muggles being hung high in the air with magic for fun (and at a family-friendly sporting event, too). But this is the book where we learn that they’re called Death Eaters and they have a special symbol that’s utterly taboo and something has gone very wrong if you see it, something the sight of which viscerally shocks normal wizards the same way that seeing the big red swastika banners as tall as houses hang down viscerally shocked me the first time I went to see The Sound of Music on Broadway. It is the book where we learn how many of them went back to regular society and got jobs and had families and basically pretended to be normal people (apparently none of them moved to Argentina though). As the Death Eaters all gather around their newly re-embodied leader at the finale, we get to see not just Voldemort as a lone villain, but the leader of a movement—and we start to see how that movement functioned.
But, not is all Nazis and death in this book. There is the usual whimsical nonsense in the beginning, where the Weasleys engage in an entertaining comedy of errors at the expense of the Dursleys’ living room to come and get Harry so they can attend the Quidditch World Cup match between Ireland and Bulgaria. Fred and George turn out to be clever at sports betting, and Mrs. Weasley is shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on here, although she shouldn’t be when jolly meathead Ludo Bagman is involved. Everyone makes fun of Percy for being pompous about his consumer protection work on cauldron bottoms, although I personally was totally on Percy’s side for this. There are leprechauns and veelas and a Bulgarian Minister of Magic who pretends not to speak English so Cornelius Fudge makes a fool of himself miming things all day.
Then we are back at Hogwarts, where there is, as usual, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. This one is a grizzled old ex-Auror with a giant magical eyeball and a penchant for shouting “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!” at the students. In short, Mad-Eye Moody is great. Or at least we think he’s great.
The big story at Hogwarts is the Triwizard Tournament, where a champion from each of Europe’s three prestigious magic schools competes against the other school’s champions in tasks of magical daring and cleverness and stuff. After all three school’s champions are chosen, Harry is also somehow chosen as champion number four, which isn’t supposed to happen, but apparently does because he’s Harry Potter. Harry is tormented by a nosy journalist and goes through a lot of school drama as he prepares for his tasks. Several beloved bit characters show up to help him prepare in various levels of cheating, including Dobby and Moaning Myrtle (PS I want a bathtub like the one in the prefects’ bathroom), and then Hermione as usual is the one who trains him on regular-ass spells he needs, like Summoning Charms. There are many French characters, whose dialogue is written in thick French accents, and after all these years it is still inordinately fun to read those bits out loud.
In the hands of a lesser writer there could be severe mood whiplash in this mix of delightful and dangerous, or the goofy names for things could undercut the severity and suspense of the more dramatic bits. But J.K. Rowling did not become the richest woman in Britain for no reason, and the reason is that she can make a story told by a drunk elf that refers to herself in the third person into an emotionally exhausting, poignant, critical piece of the puzzle.
I think this was the first time reading this book where I’ve cried, because apparently I am going sappy in my old age.
Current Mood: tired
Current Music: "Save Ginny Weasley," Harry and the Potters
January 7th, 2017
|09:44 pm - In which reading is Sirius business|
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is not really when the series starts to get dark, but it feels like it is.
It's not hugely long, being only a little bit over 400 pages. And there's no real character deaths, although obviously it deals with the fallouts from several past murders, as do all the books.
But it is the book where we meet the dementors, and so begins to really look at fear and despair and power in a more complex way than it had previously. And it is the book where we meet Sirius Black, which means it is also the book that starts complicating the long, deep web of trusts and betrayals that so inform the rest of the series. This isn't just unknown quantity Quirrell hiding his allegiances for a year; this is the decades of secret drama Voldemort sowed among families and close friends. We've spent the first two books learning history, both common knowledge and hidden, and now we start to learn about the ways that our understanding of history can be wrong. But to do that, we have to first learn about fear.
In this book, we learn that Harry's biggest fear is fear itself, which Franklin D. Roosevelt would be very impressed with if he were around, but since he isn't, kindly secret werewolf professor Remus Lupin does it instead. (Side note: While it is eventually revealed that Lupin was bitten as a child, it is never explained how his parents knew to name him something so wolf-y as Remus Lupin.)
In and around all the scary stuff about Harry being supposedly hunted by an escaped mass murderer and the deep stuff about fear and cowardice, there are plentiful infusions of the series' signature hopefulness and good humor. Harry starts the book off by making the dreadful Aunt Marge swell up like a balloon, and spends a whimsical three weeks ogling broomsticks and eating ice cream in Diagon Alley after a short adventure pretending to be Neville Longbottom. At school, he discovers the Marauder's Map and sneaks into Hogsmeade. Harry and Ron start taking two new classes; Hermione takes ALL the new classes. Gryffindor finally win the Quidditch House Cup. And the cure for exposure to dementors -- the embodiments of depression -- turns out to be, of course, chocolate.
Somewhere along the line of five bajillion new characters are introduced, both inside and outside the school, every single one of whom will show up at least once more in the series, with the possible exception of the clerk in the pet store who sells Ron rat tonic. It's impossible to thoroughly list all the delights in this book and the little bits and pieces of the puzzle that are so carefully set up. Rowling knows how to set up a Chekhov's gun (or wand, as the case may be).
This book is still in the "I have read it upwards of fifty times" part of the series to me, and now that none of it is surprising, I feel I can fully appreciate just how masterful and delightful every bit of it is. Every word is precisely where it should be. I refuse to even try to nitpick the time travel stuff. My brother has our old broken-in copy so I have a distressingly shiny new one. Its crisp, creamy pages and straight binding seem to rebuke me for not showing them any love over the years since I have acquired this copy. I can't let this happen again. This book is one of my best friends.
Current Mood: geeky
January 4th, 2017
|04:26 pm - Make way for the Heir of Slytherin|
It was a bit of common wisdom among my Harry Potter community many years ago that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was one of the less good ones — better than non-Harry Potter books, of course, but inferior to the other books in the series.
For the life of me, I cannot remember why.
I spent a chunk of last Wednesday devouring the thing from cover to cover and I was at every moment riveted, although every word and em-dash (J.K. Rowling loves em-dashes) was as familiar to me as the sight of my own hands. Though this installment of the series is not yet really dark, it's still got high stakes and a lot of tension, since most of the plot is just trying to figure out who the antagonist even is and then both the memory of Tom Riddle and the basilisk need to actually be defeated. Rowling's touch for mystery writing is really on display, as is her flair for writing secondary characters who are cartoonishly unhelpful but in, I have sadly learned in my wise old age, a realistically frustrating way. Dobby, Gilderoy Lockhart, the painfully earnest Colin Creevey, self-indulgent toilet ghost Moaning Myrtle — all of them are irritating as hell in the most amusing possible ways. Other hilarious things include Ron's broken wand, the flying Ford Anglia (which later goes feral), Fred and George (of course), the Headless Hunt's general douchiness, the drugging of Crabbe and Goyle, and the cranky singing Valentines.
As usual in the Harry Potter books (as in life), friendship and kindness are of paramount important; many rules are meant to be broken but it's still useful to do your homework (or at least to have someone in the group have done their homework); and racism is bad. And, of course, we are taught that "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (We are also taught not to trust anything that can think for itself if we can't see where it keeps its brain, which is increasingly difficult out here in technologically advanced Muggle-land.)
Though this is a short book, it does a lot to build up the backstory to the larger Voldemort story that will be the main conflict in the rest of the series. We learn about Parseltongue, and why Hagrid was expelled, and that Dumbledore used to be younger and has not been an old man and head of Hogwarts since time immemorial, even though it seems like he should be. (In this part of the series, Dumbledore is still the greatest. If he were any greater, we wouldn't need Harry.) We also get to meet MORE WEASLEYS which is great because the Weasleys are the best. We also get more Malfoys, who are basically foils for the Weasleys, in that they are the worst.
Anyway, it was a beautiful three hours or so, rereading this book, rivaled only by the rest of the day when I reread Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (review forthcoming).
December 30th, 2016
|04:55 pm - The Boy Who Lived and The Girl Who Read|
2016 having been an epically exhausting year on a number of fronts—including the reading one, where I skimped on fiction and instead subjected myself to many math-heavy poker books—I decided to end it with a nice reread of the Harry Potter series during my week off. I got started pretty much the second the Christmas festivities were over, spending most of the 26th curled up either on the couch or in the tub with my first American edition of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
While I remember the basic storyline and many of the most pop-cultural moments very, very well indeed, what with having read this book at least a hundred times before (I was an early adopter), I still found myself surprised at just how familiar some of it was: I could remember the exact flow of entire sentences and paragraphs as I'd read them previously, years and years ago; I could remember pronunciations I'd gotten wrong in my head back when I read it last. I don't think I've read these books since the seventh volume came out about five years ago.
Somehow, probably because the books eventually get so serious and because they had such a profound effect on myself and on our culture, the one thing I had managed to sort of forget was just how freaking funny they are. Things aren't super heavy in this book yet, although we are introduced to the basics of Voldemort's story, and the finale is pretty damn creepy. Mostly things here are still a little bit cartoonish, with a similar vibe to other snarky British children's fantasy like Roald Dahl, featuring amusingly gross wizarding world hazards like troll boogers. The images in my head of this one are still heavily shaped by Mary Grand-Pre's drawings and a lifetime of watching Muppets more than they are the actual Harry Potter movies (Hagrid is the Ghost of Christmas Present, pass it on), since the movies didn't start getting made until nearly half the series was published.
The book itself is still a delight to hold and to read, with nice creamy parchment-y paper and that jauntified Copperplate lettering at the top of every page. I admit I did a lot of uncontrollable nostalgic giggling and a good deal of reading sentences aloud to myself just to delight in them. Rereading this one was a beautiful and pure experience that put me back in touch with my inner child and was overall GOOD FOR MY SOUL, a well-deserved and much needed joy, from "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much" to the typographic note at the end.
December 27th, 2016
|06:22 pm - More brilliant and unsubtle social commentary|
In Transmetropolitan, Vol. 4: The New Scum, Spider and his two “filthy assistants” are still covering the shitshow of an election, doing interviews with Tammany Hall boss-esque incumbent The Beast and empty suit upstart Senator Gary Callahan, aka The Smiler.
Spider also interviews a bunch of other people, including a lady who used to be cryogenically frozen, because the 23rd century is weird like that. But mostly, this volume is entirely about the election.
Everything we’ve heard about the Beast in the past three volumes is awful. The more we learn of the Smiler, though, we start to see that he’s awful too, and of course, as soon as it becomes clear enough that he’s actually going to be more awful than the Beast, he wins the election. Spider and his filthy assistants throw hand grenades off the balcony when they learn this.
The title refers to the most throwaway stratum of city life, those disenfranchised by the Beast as punishment for never voting for him, although the term “new scum” was given to them by their new supposed hero Senator Callahan. The old scum is presumably the Beast’s voting base.
The relentless misery of electoral politics is occasionally broken up by subplots from weird religious sects, a cute section where Spider is actually nice to somebody (in this case, a young girl whose favorite toy had to be pawned), and by the blossoming pain-in-the-ass friendship between Channon and Yelena, Spider’s assistants (technically, his current assistant and his former-assistant-now-bodyguard).
The Hotel Fat also sounds like the futuristic version of Trump Tower, I’m just sayin’.
It’s hard to truly describe just how incisively weird Transmet is without just pointing out the stuff in panels—the cultural detritus (and I use that word for a reason) cluttering up every available surface in each panel is solid gold to read through, from food stands selling reindeerburgers and French people to a stenciled message on a public bench that reads “Warning: This bench becomes red-hot between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. No sleeping.” I know there’s some cities in the U.S. that would do that if they could figure out how to do so cheaply enough.
|05:59 pm - Election time|
Hold onto your butts, because Transmetropolitan, Vol. 3: Year of the Bastard is where the real main plotline in Transmet—and the one that’s got nerds running in droves to reread the series—shows up: the election.
With Channon having ragequit Spider’s employment and fucked off to a nunnery, Spider starts off this volume avoiding covering the electoral shitshow that is consuming the city. His editor lands him with a new assistant and orders to start doing his damn job, so Spider decides to cover the opposition party’s convention.
The incumbent president is a corrupt, marginally competent lowlife that Spider has stuck with the nickname The Beast, and who seems to be the one primarily responsible for doing to the America in Transmet what Steve Bannon wants to do to the America in our reality, in this the worst of all timelines.
The opposition party’s two main candidates are a racist fascist named Joe Heller and a clean-cut senator with a creepy wide grin, Gary Callahan, nicknamed The Smiler. Spider’s main puzzle in this book is to ferret out and report on the shady dealings that allow Callahan to steal the Florida primary from Heller, who practically owns the state, and therefore nab the opposition party nomination. The shady dealings include a vice-presidential candidate who was literally grown in a vat. Personally, I think it’s unlikely that Florida will still exist by the time we’re growing full humans in vats, but perhaps it went and annexed part of another state or something.
Callahan’s campaign manager, Vita Severn, is basically the only halfway decent-seeming person involved in the whole affair, so of course she gets assassinated. This upsets Spider and gives Callahan a giant boost in the polls. What a coincidence, eh?
The political parallels to today’s electoral fuckery aren’t perfect—the Beast, Heller, and the Smiler all have attributes that are familiar enough among today’s politicians, but the characters themselves are quite their own. But there’s a lot of very resonant stuff about corruption and fakery and the government being run by people whose views on what the government actually ought to do are certainly not along the lines of “promote the general welfare.” And, of course, there’s the role of the media, although none of the investigative journalists actually covering our campaign ended up getting quite the amount of celebrity Jerusalem supposedly enjoys (or hates, rather), plus Spider doesn’t have to compete with professional troll farms.
Still. Elections is ugly, and Ellis does ugly very well.
|03:51 pm - In which Spider has adventures|
Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 2: Lust for Life is longer than the first installment of the series, and contains a number of loosely connected story arcs that mostly serve to do further worldbuilding and to further develop Spider Jerusalem’s highly dysfunctional character. In this volume, he takes on an assistant, buys a pair of Jesus-themed sneakers and gets all messianic, traumatizes a police dog, and has a pack of cultists set on him by the cryogenically frozen head of his ex-wife, who is also willfully dysfunctional.
Personally, my favorite part of this volume is the introduction of Channon Yarrow, a grad student paying her way through J-school with a series of increasingly less respectable gigs, of which becoming Spider’s assistant may be the least respectable. Channon has a useless boyfriend who eventually leaves her to become a foglet, essentially a cloud of living nanoparticles. Channon is very upset about this even though she’s better off without him.
If there is a weakness to this volume it is that it doesn’t have a storyline to tie it together, although the individual episodes are very interesting. The results are a bit disjointed. Fortunately, this won’t be the case for long. Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 2: Lust for Life is longer than the first installment of the series, and contains a number of loosely connected story arcs that mostly serve to do further worldbuilding and to further develop Spider Jerusalem’s highly dysfunctional character. In this volume, he takes on an assistant, buys a pair of Jesus-themed sneakers and gets all messianic, traumatizes a police dog, and has a pack of cultists set on him by the cryogenically frozen head of his ex-wife, who is also willfully dysfunctional.
Personally, my favorite part of this volume is the introduction of Channon Yarrow, a grad student paying her way through J-school with a series of increasingly less respectable gigs, of which becoming Spider’s assistant may be the least respectable. Channon has a useless boyfriend who eventually leaves her to become a foglet, essentially a cloud of living nanoparticles. Channon is very upset about this even though she’s better off without him.
If there is a weakness to this volume it is that it doesn’t have a storyline to tie it together, although the individual episodes are very interesting. The results are a bit disjointed. Fortunately, this won’t be the case for long.
Current Mood: tired
December 23rd, 2016
|12:46 pm - Journalism, the election and other shabby crap|
God, I hadn't realized how much I missed Spider Jerusalem.
I first read Transmetropolitan in college, almost ten years ago now, during a blessed period of time where Donald Trump was just some buffoon on reality TV and was totally off the radar screen of people who don't watch reality TV, which just so happened to include me and literally everybody else I knew. That might have been the only plus of that time period, honestly—any hopey-changey goodfeels brought on by the impending end of the historically awful Bush administration were offset by it being precisely the time when the economy imploded. (More specifically, I think I read Transmet during the fall semester at the end of 2007, after the subprime loans had started crashing but before TARP was passed.)
Following the surprise election of the nuke-happy, gropey old toddler to the highest office in the land—helped along by Kremlin trollbots, a corrupt FBI (itself helped by the execrable Jason Chaffetz), thirty years of hysterical anti-Hillary Big Lie propaganda from the GOP because she dared support universal health insurance before it was cool, a comfortably useless Democratic establishment without a competent marketer in sight, and a useless clickbait-driven media ecosystem that on the whole displays editorial judgement so poor it would get kicked off the middle school yearbook staff—it seemed like time to revisit everyone's favorite foul-mouthed, drug-addled gonzo journalist and see how prescient the series really was.
The result, so far, is that it's depressingly prescient. There are a handful of things in it that come off as now being weirdly old-fashioned—cash tollbooths with humans working in them, which are rapidly on their way out in the real world, or the fact that Jerusalem can live off of only writing one column a week, even if he is a celebrity—but overall, we do really seem to be just further along the trajectories Ellis identified in 1998 when it was first published: Increased corruption, sham democracy, advertisements and screens everywhere, cities overcrowded to the point where they can't ever stop being filthy no matter how fancy and overdeveloped they get; high-tech luxuries existing alongside widespread poverty; an exhausted, frenzied populace overstimulated into gullibility and complacency; and, of course, power-hungry scam artists taking advantage of all the generalized confusion and disorder at every turn. It's actually quite shocking to realize it was written almost twenty years ago—if it had been published last week, I'm pretty sure the only thing that would need to change would be the tollbooth worker.
In the middle of it all is social justice rogue Spider Jerusalem, returned to the city after hiding in the mountains for five years because his creditors finally found him, a heavily tattooed agent of chaos in colorfully mismatched camera-spectacles (the machine that made them is also on drugs). Spider bullies his way back into a writing gig with his old editor, a weekly column called I Hate It Here, where he dedicates himself afflicting the comfortable but doesn't really have the time or sensitivity to comfort the afflicted. He does, however, tell their stories, raging on behalf of the dispossessed in time-honored angry lefty fashion, calling out the dirty secrets of the powerful and generally using his boundless capacity for assholery to troll for good.
Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the Street covers Spider's return from the mountain and his break back into the spotlight as he covers a riot and uncovers the deliberate setup behind the violence. It bears an unsettling resemblance to some of the accounts of outbreaks of police violence at protests we've been hearing about over the past few years—peaceful protests where some small event (or unproven reports of one) are used as a pretext for attack by an overmilitarized police force, although these haven't ended in actual mass slaughter in the U.S. (so far, at least). The group targeted in this riot is a bunch of people spliced with alien DNA, known as transients, who are basically kind of a cult led by a Charles Manson-esque figure called Fred Christ. Christ leads the group to "secede," declaring the destitute handful of city blocks they've been sidelined into to be its own country, building half-assed barricades around the transient's ghetto and cutting off the utilities that their altered bodies don't need in order to drive out any remaining full humans. They're portrayed as a bunch of gullible but harmless weirdos (except for Fred Christ, who is a creeper), so of course the state brings down the hammer on them for this hopelessly ineffectual act of treason.
With a busy, expressive drawing style and lots of creative swearing, this high-octane nightmare-fueled story nonetheless displays a greatly hopeful reminder of what journalism could and should be. Today's Beltway media would do well to take note: With the incoming administration, all journalists are going to have to become muckraking investigative pains in the ass, or they can go find another profession. Put on your stompy boots and remember: You don't have to put up with this shabby crap! You're a journalist!
Current Mood: not putting up with this shabby crap
December 20th, 2016
|09:28 pm - A brief history of Occupying things|
After the election, I decided to start a book club.
The first meeting is in January, well before inauguration. For our first book, we picked Sarah Jaffe's Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt.
Necessary Trouble covers a bunch of the different protest/activist movements that have arisen in the U.S. since the financial crisis hit in 2008: Starting with the Tea Party, it moves on chapter by chapter to cover Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Our Homes, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, Moral Mondays, and a number of climate actions. The section on climate actions, mostly the anti-fracking movement, are kept for the end of the book so that it ends on a maximally apocalyptic note: These are the people fighting government's attempts to literally burn the earth and poison people to make a buck.
Jaffe contextualizes each movement in terms of the events and policies that led up to it being born, often giving recap that go far back into the history of capitalism and of the United States. She ties that in with the stories of activists within each movement, providing in-depth interviews about how and why they got involved and what the movement means to them.
A couple key themes continually emerge. One is that many of these crises have been a long time coming and will not be easily solved. Another is a theme among the activists that so many of them found themselves ashamed of being in the sorts of situations that instigated these movements--of losing their jobs or retirement savings in the financial crash, of being foreclosed on, of holding student debt. Americans really, really want to be hard-working and self-sufficient, and this is part of what's allowed things to get as bad as they have: People will tell themselves that they should individually work harder to overcome whatever's being thrown at them instead of insisting upon being treated fairly, which we tend to believe sounds like petulant whining--that if someone's treating you unfairly, you should be awesome enough to make them treat you fairly, instead of complaining that they're not. The result of this is that the powers that be have been able to tilt the playing field ENORMOUSLY in their own favor before folks who see themselves as average hardworking Americans are willing to admit that they haven't been able to overcome the enormous structural disadvantages they've been put at and maybe you fuckers should just stop stacking the deck. Americans are highly prone to believing that there is still shame in losing even if the other guy was cheating, because you should have been awesome enough to stop the other guy from cheating you.
The book is very hopeful--hopeful that Americans are willing to learn and to organize and to come together in solidarity to get into "good trouble" and demand change. But it also warns of the temptations of the dark side of populism, the scapegoating, tribalist kind illustrated by Trump, who had not yet been, to our eternal shame and possibly to the end of our democracy, barely elected on a technicality with some help via cheating. (And yeah, in true American fashion, I'm pretty ashamed that the Clinton campaign couldn't still beat him even with the cheating, because he's the worst con man ever.) The hopefulness is alternately infectious--Americans have been organizing and fighting; we'll be able to do it more--and depressing. Frankly, the emotional whiplash is a little hard to take.
I learned a lot, though, even as someone who tried to follow these movements relatively closely on social media when they first happened. (For example, I didn't know that Lehman Brothers had gotten its start selling security bonds on slaves--honestly, and this is probably stupid of me, I hadn't realized you could create any sort of financial instruments with slaves as collateral, even though now that I think about it that's precisely what the "chattel" designation means. And I hadn't realized how much of what some of these banks got up to in the mortgage crisis was actually fraud--as in, already illegal--rather than just goddamn stupid.) And the book is so well-written that even though its subject matter is so heavy, it'll make you want to get out into the streets and crash your Congresscritter's next town hall. (My Congressman doesn't have a Town Hall scheduled so I called his office and asked him to have one. Le sigh.)
Highly recommended reading for the resistance. I can't wait to discuss it at book club.
December 19th, 2016
December 1st, 2016
|03:38 pm - Learning poker from a fellow child of Gerald|
I read and reviewed Alexander "Assassinato" Fitzgerald's new book The Myth of Poker Talent: Why Anyone Can Be a Great Poker Player over at the day job.
|02:44 pm - A nice little story about journalism and murder|
So not a lot of great stuff has been happening since the election, but a brief moment of relief arrived yesterday in the form of a brand-new shiny Shadowshaper novella from Daniel José Older, which only cost $0.99 on Kindle. I promptly cancelled my evening plans to bug out about stuff on Twitter and bought Ghost Girl in the Corner. I then had a lovely evening with Tee and Iz and three glasses of boxed wine and it was the best I’ve felt in three weeks.
Anyway, as for the novella itself: Most of the most-beloved characters from Shadowshaper are here, but the main action surrounds Tee and Izzy, with a big helping of Uncle Neville. The mischief all starts when Tee sees the ghost of a teenage girl in the basement where she’s taken over Manny’s local newspaper after he died in the last book. Tee has acquired some sort of community journalism grant and has a small crew of intrepid teenage reporters, including a white girl from Staten Island whose grandma is the creepy old lady with the creepy dolls from one of the short stories in Salsa Nocturna. There is also a dude who writes about sports, but when he’s first introduced he says “I write about esports” and I thought he meant eSports like competitive video gaming and then got all confused when he was covering local baseball games and not, like, CS:GO tournaments, but no, it’s just that Older writes out people’s accents and I am a huge fucking nerd.
Anyway, the local baseball games are important because, while Tee is trying to figure out who the ghost in the corner is and simultaneously screwing up her relationship with Izzy, one of the local teams’ star players mysteriously disappears. The cops are, predictably, zero help. The ghost girl in the corner, on the other hand, is, as are the giant printing press and Uncle Neville. How do all these things fit together? You can find out for $0.99.
While the plot is very heavy, the characters are delightful. The dialogue is witty and vivid, which will be surprising to no one who has read anything else by Older or heard him speak at a convention or reading. The social commentary is sharp and incisive—mean, yes, but insightful and hilarious with an eye for detail, like Jane Austen except about modern urban Latinx communities instead of 18th century English countryside gentry nonsense. (If you’re thinking “So not like Jane Austen at all, then,” let me know and I will gladly subject you to three hours of rambling about social satire and economics.) It's also full of fun little references to things, from Older's other work (I mentioned the creepy dolls lady above) to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There is also a brief but very timely and satisfying instance of straight-up Nazi fighting.
Overall, it is a wonderful and much-needed morsel of awesomeness to tide people over until Shadowhouse Fall comes out.
November 26th, 2016
|02:11 pm - Wisdom of the olds|
Somewhere in between my project to read poker strategy books in order to be better at poker and my project to read books on the history of poker and gaming so that I understand my current field better, there sat the decision to read David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker.
The Theory of Poker is older than me, although it has since been updated a few times. I have read about it in a number of the other, more recent poker-related books I’ve gone through this year. I know it was still being used widely as a resource when the poker boom kicked off fifteen years ago or so; Kenny Hallaert mentioned it when I interviewed him earlier this fall, saying it might still be useful for beginner players.
One thing that’s instantly noticeable about this book is that it was clearly written before no-limit hold’em became the game of choice for everyone and everything. While this can get a bit confusing for a reader who really only knows NLHE at all (i.e. me), it does allow Sklansky to illustrate concepts in multiple different ways in different games. Since this book is light on math (by poker book standards, at least—obviously it’s got a bunch of stuff about pot odds and basics like that) and more about how to reason through various poker plays, such a setup is fairly useful for showing how the concepts work. There’s a lot that’s explained that I would now consider to be very basic information, but I’ve also been reading beginner-level poker books pretty much all year so I suppose it’s good that some of it’s starting to sink in.
It’s not the most enjoyably written poker book I’ve read, featuring neither the goofy jokes of Phil Gordon’s little books nor the sarcastic cracks of Alexander Fitzgerald’s Myth of Poker Talent, but it’s pretty straightforward and accessible, usually erring on the side of over-explaining rather than conciseness. It’s basically a textbook.
This is also the book that introduced the awkwardly lengthy but still very important Fundamental Theorem of Poker, which I already knew about because it’s been cited in at least five other books that I’ve read this year. The Theory of Poker explains many, if not most, of the hands illustrated within it by relating it back to this fundamental theorem, ensuring that you’ll never forget it no matter how un-pithily it’s worded.
Even though so much of what’s covered in here is also covered in subsequently written poker texts, I’m still glad to have taken the time to read this book itself. How much it will help me out remains to be seen; unfortunately, this is a library copy so I probably won’t be going over it multiple times with a pencil and highlighter like I’ve been doing with some of the other poker strategy books I’ve found. (Somebody who got this book from the library before me did go over it with a pencil, but some people have, like, no manners.) But I definitely have a better sense of what everyone else is talking about when they’re talking about this book, and that’s pretty important for getting the most out of everything I read.
|09:40 am - Four spies and some poker terms walk into a bar|
I started reading Elizabeth Bear's One-Eyed Jack: A Novel of the Promethean Age a little over a year ago, in the bathtub at Mohegan Sun.
It has taken me so long to finish the book not because it wasn't good, but because I have only read it in the bath — sometimes at casinos but also sometimes not, otherwise it would have taken me even longer, especially considering the last casino I stayed at only had a shower. My copy is now very water damaged.
Anyway. I had picked One-Eyed Jack for my casino bath reading because it's about the spirit of Las Vegas fighting to keep his city from being annexed by the spirit of Los Angeles, so it seemed topical.
There are actually two spirits (or genii) of Las Vegas: the One-Eyed Jack, who has one normal eye and one magical eye he keeps hidden under an eyepatch; and the Suicide King, otherwise known as Stewart, who seems to have a magical ability to kill himself and then resurrect again. Jackie and Stewart are boyfriends in addition to sharing the job of genius of Las Vegas. This seems like it would break a lot of workplace regulations but it looks like being a magical symbol isn’t a very well-regulated field considering all the other stuff that goes down in this book.
Jackie and Stewart eventually form a coalition with several interesting characters, including two ghosts of different John Henrys, some "media ghosts" of unnamed TV spies, and vampire Elvis (though this vampire Elvis is very different from the vampire Elvis of the Sookie Stackhouse books). The antagonists include Angel (the genius of Los Angeles, in the form of a young ingénue), a character known only as “the assassin,” a Promethean Mage, and the ghost of Bugsy Siegel.
I was a bit confused about who precisely all these people were, since I am not much up on my ‘60s TV spies — nor on my Las Vegas history, really, although I do at least know who Bugsy Siegel is. But once I got used to identifying the spies by their descriptors instead of names, it was all easy enough to follow.
The book takes place mostly in 2002, and as is usually the case, I still find it a bit jarring to realize how long ago the mid-2000s were and how much it really was a different era — it makes me feel old — but it’s impossible to miss because stuff in Vegas changes so fast that, even without ever having been there, I know a bunch of the properties mentioned in the book have since shut down and new ones opened; also, Jackie wears black leather cargo pants because he is terribly cool, and it’s become hard to remember that there was a time when cargo pants really were cool and not just a shorthand for sartorial laziness. Other bits of the book take place in 1964, because that’s when all the media ghosts come from. The time travel isn’t flashy; it just sort of happens—there’s enough ghosts in the story already that visiting the ghost of 1964 isn’t that big a deal.
Since this is a spy story I don’t want to talk too much about the plot but suffice to say that, in keeping with the general theme, it, like a game of poker, features long stretches of quietly waiting and thinking about things (I don’t believe poker is ever boring) interspersed with moments of high drama that vastly change the dynamics at the table. (Poor Angel spends the first three-quarters of the book chipping up relentlessly only to spew off her entire stack in one dumb play. Been there done that; it’s awful.) All the disparate threads and meticulously solved riddles finally come together near the end to put a fast-paced and deceptively simple end to the conspiracy.
One of the unifying principles of how magic works in this book is that it relies very heavily on symbolism and stories and beliefs, reminding me a lot of Discworld if the Discworld books were about twelve thousand percent more serious. Genre savviness is important for our heroes to figure out what is going on. Gaming-related symbolism abounds, which is fitting, because gaming-related symbolism abounds in English writing anyway, only this time it’s all looked at a lot more closely than usual.
Like the other Elizabeth Bear books I’ve read, this was pretty weird and I think I’d have to read it again to figure out some of the weird stuff I didn’t get the first time around, but I’m probably not going to because I have at least three unread Elizabeth Bear books on my shelf at the moment. I always like her stuff but it tends to end up taking me a lot longer to get through than I think it’s going to.
I recommend it to anyone who likes metafictional genre-savvy stuff. Pairs well with a Lush bath bomb, a nice hotel room, and an adult beverage.