Thursday, January 30, 2014

What I've read in the last, oh, four months?

Let's catch up.

The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Mark Bissell. I am a huge fan of The Room, Tommy Wiseau's accidental masterpiece. Accidental is perhaps too weak of a word. Providential? The Room is one of those movies that ends up on lists of the Worst Movies of All Time, but such things really undersell the movie. It's not that the movie is bad. It's that it's so bad, in every way possible, that every moment of the film is a perfect crystal of badness. It's perfectly bad, and the product of one man: Tommy Wiseau. Tommy directed, produced, executive produced, wrote, and starred in the film. He's also famously enigmatic--no one knows much about him--which has built the legend of the film. Who is Tommy? Where did he come from? How did he make this

Greg Sestero played the role of Mark in The Room, and The Disaster Artist is a joint autobiography/biography of Tommy Wiseau/tell-all story of The Room's production. Some of the early sections of the book, about Greg's life as a struggling actor, are tedious, but his interactions and observations about Tommy are always fascinating. Tommy is a paranoid, a recluse, and desperate for attention. He's terrified that anyone will learn about his past, but desperate for friends. Greg, who believes he's Tommy's closest friend for several years, never learns even the basics of Tommy's personal history. Greg has no idea where Tommy was born (not anywhere in the US--Greg surmises his Tommy's birthplace as somewhere in Soviet-bloc Eastern Europe), and doesn't even know how old Tommy is.

The Room is very easy to ridicule, and it's even easier to ridicule Tommy, the film's strange auteur. It might be reasonable to expect Greg's book to feature a series of anecdotes in which Tommy is the butt of a joke. That The Disaster Artist avoids this is its greatest strength. Greg is frequently amused by Tommy, but that amusement is always tempered with more complicated feelings: sympathy, confusion, terror, or empathy. More than anything else, Tommy comes off as a tragic hero--someone who came from nothing to create something meaningful and achieve a dream, but is too haunted by his past to ever truly share the meaning of his accomplishment with anyone else. Highly, highly recommended for anyone who's seen The Room, or is interested in the movie's odd notoriety.


CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. Short stories. Saunders is awesome. He's a science fiction writer who has managed to transcend whatever that label signifies--the Kirkus review for this collection notes that "no science-fictional bombast weighs down these skilled narratives." Whatever. He's writing science fiction here. Near-future America, mostly, in which the souls (and minds, and bodies) of the vast unprivileged masses are ground into dust. I liked Tenth of December better, because of the characters. The characters were vivid, and complicated. The stories were crazily empathetic. Not to say that the characters in CWL aren't interesting. But, if you were to read only one Saunders collection, I'd recommend Tenth of December over CWL.






A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan by Michael Kazin. An excellent biography. Kazin makes a compelling case for WJB's historical importance as one of the fathers of the Democratic party's progressivism, the first practitioner of the modern Presidential campaign, and one of the most important figures of the American progressive movement. WJB is often remembered by contemporary liberalism as the idiot who prosecuted Scopes and defended creationism at the Scopes monkey trial. Like all good works of history, A Godly Hero complicates the oversimple narratives of poplar memory by deepening the traditional Scopes trial narrative. Kazin argues that WJB opposed Darwinism not, primarily, because he disagreed with Darwin's theory of evolution, but because he feared how Social Darwinism (popular and considered scientifically valid at the time) could be used to create public policy harmful to the poor and vulnerable. In the Scopes trial, this was not an academic concern; the textbook Scopes was brought to trial for teaching contained "a vigorous endorsement of eugenics."

Kazin has mixed thoughts about Bryan as a public figure. He regards WJB's brief time in public office as a failure, but Kazin labors to give some sense of what made Bryan who he was: his voice. Few recordings of Bryan exist (you can hear him in this studio recording of the famous "Cross of Gold" speech, which won him the Democratic nomination for President in 1896), but by all accounts his speech-making ability was unmatched. Kazin quotes several contemporaries who regard WJB with awe, including a few cynical journalists sent to profile him who express bewilderment at the hypnotic power of his oratory.

I decided to read this book originally because I was interested in reading about a progressive populist, when our contemporary populists are mostly conservative. There's not much interesting to say about how WJB is/isn't similar to your average tea party politician, but, as (I think?) with the tea party, religion was central to WJB's rhetoric and appeal to his supporters. The difference is in their interpretations of the Bible. WJB was all about the Social Gospel--interpreting the Bible as a call to action to help the poor, vulnerable, and unfortunate. Obviously, the evangelical Christians who make up the core of the Republican base (and the tea party base?) have different ideas about the meaning of the New Testament.

Anyway. The book is a really interesting read. Recommended.


A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin. I just love this crap. After finishing the book I read several reviews, most of which made reference to how long the novel is and how little happens. I found myself agreeing, but I still totally loved the book. I can't help myself. I love the lore. The only thing I didn't like about the novel was where it ended, at the beginning of a few major events that that novel had spent the majority of its length setting up. Though the epilogue was great, and made me think about how smart A Song and Ice and Fire is about its system of power. People (and families) who overreach their power expose themselves, and die. It happened to the Starks in A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords, and its happened to the Lannisters in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons. 

Danaerys' chapters, largely about the difficulties of reconstructing Meereen after emancipation, were of particular interest. Danaerys manages the exchange of power, after emancipating Meereen's slaves, conservatively. She lets the erstwhile leaders of Meereen keep their wealth and their lives, and even includes some of them in the management of the city. Perhaps inevitably, the freedmen of the city suffer murderous nightly reprisals by a secretive insurgency, presumably financed by the Meereenese old guard. Why does she tolerate it? In war, Danaerys has shown that she's capable of quick, smart decisions, but in peace, she seems lost. The only time she seems herself is when she's in immediate danger. This doesn't bode well for her prospects of ruling Westeros, if she still aspires to that.


Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. The first published Culture novel. There was a lot of interesting stuff here--I thought the Culture (a post-scarcity interplanetary society) was a cool idea, and the universe of the novel had a lot of compelling depth--but I wasn't all that into the story itself. For all the depth of the lore, the hero of the story, Horza, isn't all that interesting, and the book, when focused on him, wasn't much more than a sequence of linked action scenes. Most of the novel is written from his perspective, but the end, in which the point of view jumps around to various other characters, made me wish that the rest of the story had been told that way. With all that said: I enjoyed the book. I like a good action-adventure story. But I thought that Consider Phlebas could've been more.

Most of what makes Horza uninteresting is his refusal to interrogate his own opinions; he never changes over the course of the novel. He adapts to certain exigencies of his environment, of course, but those adaptations are just changes in tactics. His worldview never changes: he begins the story as an anti-Culture partisan fighter, and ends the story as an anti-Culture partisan fighter, with little introspection in between.


Gardens Of The Moon by Steven Erikson. I read this book. I read the whole thing. I read the whole book even though it took about 400 pages for me to get an idea of what was happening. Not why things were happening. That, I still don't know. But, around page 400 of a 500 page book, I understood most of the things that had happened in the parts of the book I had read. After a day of reading, when I was thoroughly confused by the plot and characters of this novel, I read some amazon reviews which claimed that confusion was normal. I just needed to stick with it--Gardens Of The Moon is the first of a ten novel series called The Malazan Book of the Fallen--and I would be rewarded with immersion in a world of incomparable depth. I just needed to get through book 2. Maybe book 3. Oh, ok. Great.

The descriptions of the world are generally good, but I found Erikson's dialogue terrible. Like, really, really bad. Characters frequently talk to themselves. Characters frequently talk like they are reading an essay out loud. Only a very few characters ever make jokes. None of the characters are funny. One of the strengths of George R. R. Martin's writing is the way he builds real characters and real camaraderie through humor. His characters make jokes, and Martin has a good enough mind for wit and humor that the jokes usually work. But Erikson...yikes. There's no humor here. The book is a real slog to work through, in no small part because no characters ever seem to have an honest laugh.

As far as I could tell, the plot makes no sense. The action that precipitates much of the novel--an act of intentional friendly fire during an epic battle--belies a lack of subtlety on the behalf of the perpetrators (the leaders of a intercontinential empire) which calls the intelligence of the book into question. Furthermore: the prologue, in which hundreds of Imperial Soldiers are slaughtered by Dogs Which Are Gods, or DWAGs (they are not called this in the book, unfortunately), and a young woman from a fishing village is possessed by an Assassin-God, never amounts to anything. Why did it happen? Apparently for no reason. Maybe the DWAGs were bored?


Old Man's War by John Scalzi. Another action-adventure sci-fi story, with a universe that seems significantly less original than Banks', but with a smart, compelling protagonist named John Perry. Perry thinks. The premise is this: humanity has expanded, colonizing new planets, and consequently fighting over these planets with many other intelligent alien species. In order to fight its wars, the human colonial authority recruits aged residents of Earth, who assume that by enlisting they will somehow be made young again. This is true, in a way: their consciousnesses are transferred into younger, stronger bodies. These colonial wars are dangerous--most recruits die before their enlistment terms end.

In some ways, this novel reminded me of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, in which society forces children to undergo plastic surgery at age 16. But while Westerfeld dumbs down his characters, making it impossible for them to understand the costs associated with their "improvements," Scalzi leaves his characters intelligent and active, free to explore the pros and cons of their new bodies and lives.

Solid military sci-fi.


Wool by Hugh Howey. A nice set of related stories set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic America that could have benefited--a lot--from some editing before being collected as a novel. There are several POV characters, all of whom live in a subterranean silo just outside the ruins of Atlanta, and who have no contact with the world beyond the silo. In fact, it is forbidden to think or speak of the world outside the silo. To voice a desire to see what's outside it to be sentenced to go outside--and to die in the toxic air. There is, nominally, a government, led by an elected mayor and elected sheriff, but the real power in the silo is wielded by the IT people, who control the electronic communication in the silo and are responsible for constructing the hazard suits that those condemned to die are sent off in. Why are they given suits if they're condemned to die? Because there are cameras on top of the silo, pointed at Atlanta, and those cameras require cleaning. Those condemned are given wool pads, cleaning solutions, and given the chance to claim some honor by fulfilling their "duty" to scrub the lenses.

This is where editing would have helped. The first story, originally published on its own, introduces the silo and one of its persistent mysteries--why do the condemned always clean? And they always do. None have failed to clean. This mystery is solved at the end of the story, when our POV character, the erstwhile sheriff of the silo recently condemned to die, leaves the silo. He cleans. Later stories, which again take place in the silo, are largely told from the perspective of characters who have no idea why cleaners clean, and who actively wonder about it. Much of the tension and mystery in these stories is undercut by what we already know. It's tedious to read about characters searching for answers we, as readers, already have.

The characters are really strong. The story's villain, Bernard (the head of IT), borders on cartoonish, but his motivations are suitably complex to make up for a lot of his evil mustache twirling (note: he does not actually have an evil mustache). I believed all the other characters and their motivations. There are two more books in this series, which I think are structured the same way as Wool. I liked Wool, but I'm not sure I'll read the next book. Maybe when the movie comes out. Given how many reviews Wool has on Amazon, it probably won't be long.


I Had Rather Die by Kim Murphy. Historical monograph on rape in the American Civil War. The book speaks briefly to the limited historiography of rape in the CW--unsurprisingly, historians have traditionally dismissed the CW as a "low-rape" war because of the low number of soldiers convicted for rape during the war. Murphy does an excellent job proving those "low-rape" claims flippant and baseless. Her work suggests that those would regard the CW as somehow exceptional from other wars, in which rape is rampant and frequently unpunished, are complicit in the silencing of rape victims during wartime.

As you might imagine, this is a difficult book to read. The middle chapters of the book recount case after case of rape, replete will the victim-blaming and disrespect endemic to rape trials (especially those in the 19th century). Still, for as many cases as she's found, these were likely only the smallest fraction of the actual rapes committed during the war--only those cases with the bravest victims in the exceptional circumstances needed for a rape accusation to be heard and taken seriously. In the 19th century, victims needed to report to someone immediately after they were raped--preferably a white man--who could make an examination to ascertain the extent of their injuries. Obviously, the victim would need to be brave to report such a crime in a world in which a women's virtue was paramount, and the very act of reporting a rape called a victim's virtue into question--wouldn't a virtuous woman keep silent to hide her shame? Furthermore, whoever she reported to would need to take her seriously, regard rape as a serious crime, and be more interested in bringing her rapist to justice than protecting her virtuous image. Then, whoever in the military received the accusation would need to care, and whoever was in charge of military justice would have to care, and the victim would need to identify the rapist. This assumes, of course, that the army hadn't marched on in the time between the rape and its report.

Though I think I Had Rather Die is an important work of CW history, it doesn't produce much of a coherent thesis. Its value is in its existence as a repository of court-martial transcripts, newspaper accounts, and diary entries related to rape in the CW. Apart from the brief introductory chapter and even briefer concluding one, there is basically no synthesis here. Murphy, as far as I can tell, has no training as an historian. Perhaps she wasn't able to turn her research into a coherent whole. But the sense of dislocation produced by all the chapters of unrelated rape cases, summarized one after another in sequence, makes it seem like, maybe, synthesis wasn't the goal--maybe Murphy's goal was to emphasize that so much information has been lost through the silence of victims, or their silencing by others, that synthesis is impossible.

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