Archive for the ‘What’s New’ Category

Review: Manuscript Found

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Literary sources abound in the modern world. This book came to me as a Patreon perk from Nathaniel Lloyd’s Historical Blindness podcast. His podcast is worth its own review, but not here.

Manuscript Found is a historical novel told with a metafictive bent. Lloyd is writing a novel about Joseph Smith and the founding documents of Mormonism. He’s also commenting on both the contents of the historical record and how an author – or historian – injects their views into their writings. It’s a nice mix, though it can be a little dry and subtle.

Lloyd braids this with a thread about authors of documents exposing the workings of Masonry. I find that choice to be illuminating. Revealing the workings of a secret society and presenting the foundations of a religion that is particularly shrouded in silence raise questions about how each arise and address the release of them. Alongside that he presents other protagonists’ involvement with the Underground Railroad. The Railroad is another secretive historical society whose motivations for secrecy are driven primarily by practicality.

His use of a fictional historian relating the workings and motivations of those groups fleshes the ideas even a bit more. He challenges many preconceptions about history and people through the historian’s voice.

I found it very intellectually challenging and thought provoking, though less emotionally engaging than some. I’m reminded of Jimmy Carter’s fiction. I admire the thinking and structure behind it, but wold love some more dynamism.

Review: The History Of White People

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

As titles go, The History Of White People, is pretty confrontational. Nell Irvin Painter is definitely issuing a challenge with it, though one can choose to fight her, wrestle with the works she does, or with your own preconceptions. I advocate a bit of all three.

The history one hears is shaped by the perspectives and assumptions of the tellers. For many, this makes history – told with any passion or even sense of narrative at all – more engaging and illuminating than even the intricate nuts and bolts description of the technical systems that power the world. (The styles and content of technical and historical works do overlap and the best and worst of the two broad areas cross over.) Because histories can engage intellect and passion together, they can motivate readers to learn more and take action like few other writings. Readers need to remember that first sentence – all humans who write history bring their perspective to it. I can easily forget that, so I remind myself whenever I can.

I mention all that to underscore my admiration for Painter’s title. When a Black historian who is proudly African American releases a work with that title, she puts her ambitions and perspective squarely on the table. Painter is famous enough that she doesn’t need to be so brash just to sell books or gain attention. I take it to be a declaration of boldness framed with historical responsibility.

Painter certainly writes from her advertised position, recognizing that having come to fight she needs to support her positions carefully and with direct and clear connections to the original sources. She does so with aplomb and accuracy; her scholarship seems compelling.

I find her arguments to be generally sound and interesting. Her detailed and compelling deconstruction of the stunningly broad range of eugenic race theory is rich in detail and merciless in prosecution. Given how subjective and malicious this body of work is, this is shooting fish in a barrel. She expands her assessment into the literary and historical – giving Emerson a few sharp kicks in the shins that challenges the reader to reassess his writing and biases. She convinced me that there’s a fair amount more bathwater around Emerson’s babies than I remember. If and when I wade back into those tubs, I’ll be looking with a more jaundiced eye.

Her writing style is well suited to this kind of exploration and challenge. She writes clearly and precisely, connecting solidly to primary sources and also providing the occasional cutting comments that remind readers how biased and self-serving the overall picture is. I imagine that some will find her style dry, but I respect the tightrope she walks. For my money, the writing matches perfectly.

Recommended.

Review: The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet

Saturday, July 6th, 2019

I picked this up as a result of an offhand recommendation on the History Is Sexy podcast, and I’m pretty happy I did. It’s somewhat off my usual path, even in the scope of SF. It’s space opera writ small in that we see operatic machinations from a ground-level view. Becky Chambers handles it all deftly.

World building gets great respect from some SF fans, me often included. These days I tend to value world building that forms a milieu that frames the societal or technical aspects of the world that are the target of the author’s themes. Chambers brings just the right amount of detail to her world to make it believable and habitable without making it so complex that it is distracting. Her universe abstracts ours to make her characters and their trials and tribulations shine.

Her focus is on the people who are making a living by trading in an opening galaxy, the bonds they form as they ply their trade, and the ways that big events toss them about. It’s quite a refreshing approach. She makes our society alien enough to see in new ways and familiar enough to be relatable. It’s quite a joy to bond with the family taking shape even as it continues to evolve.

Recommended.

Review: Operation Mincemeat

Friday, June 21st, 2019

I am a pretty big fan of history, but I find myself gravitating to the histories that cover longer timeframes or individual lifetimes. A friend recommended Ben MacIntyre’s history of a classic act of disinformation, Operation Mincemeat which is neither. I went in with a bit of trepidation.

I should not have worried. MacIntyre’s writing is extremely engaging and lively. He coveys the idea that a team of eccentric, mostly patriotic, enthusiastic British intelligence officers came up with an idea just crazy enough to work that would enable one of the key landings in WWII. He balances the giddy rush of lets-put-on-a-show with the tension of a tight Mission Impossible episode. Also Weekend At Bernie’s.

MacIntyre has been writing about British Intelligence long enough to have found some of the most colorful members of it. There’s something inherently charming about a team that includes Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and Graham Greene – skilled intelligence experts who are also talented writers. None of those folks are center stage of Mincemeat, but the folks who are involved have their own quirk and wit. And conflicted motivations. MacIntyre tells their story whimsically and with scholarly backing.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Apocalypse Codex

Saturday, June 15th, 2019

Back to The Laundry.

My admiration for Charles Stross’s work in general and the Laundry books specifically is sizable and enduring. I love the mix of spy thriller, horror, and organization management review. All the computer science, networking, IT, and aviation references help a lot, of course. Great fun for me.

The Apocalypse Codex shows off Stross’s world-building and attention to the clockwork of plot. I didn’t come away with the same feeling of gleeful pastiche that I have in other Laundries, but I came away with a deeper understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes in the world.

One way that manifests itself is in Stross’s understanding and explication of the world of megachurches, both functionally and philosophically. The view is – perhaps surprisingly – sympathetic. The details of the way the church administration blends faith and business practices are clear and believable. It extends to the implicit comparison with the application of similar constraints and techniques inside the Laundry. Some of these practices and motivations are inherently exploitative. Stross lets neither organization off the hook for that. The social criticism of both Megachurches and National Intelligence Services is subtle, but pointed.

Meanwhile, Bob Howard is becoming a more mature and responsible manager of people and himself. Stross blends the natural ripening of a human with the guidance and discipline of the (faith-influenced?) organizational management styles in believable ways that are enjoyable, subtle, and worth reflection.

Finally, there are some plot twists for the series that make one gasp in the how-did-I-miss-that way that great spy writers can pull off.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Always Running

Monday, April 15th, 2019

Crux was a memoir that derived its impact from the literary framing that Guerrero put on her family’s story. In Always Running, Luis Rodriguez comes at his memoir from another direction. He tells his story plainly – starkly in places. That clean, simple approach lets his times and his perspective imbue his experience with heft and meaning.

Rodriguez writes crisply and evocatively without poetical flourishes that might distract from his narrative. Much of his point is that so many shared his circumstances and faced their own difficulties, victories, and tragedies all around him. Directly relating his life and the others it touches magnifies it.

That said, the differences that inspire him to challenge his readers and his society are all the more powerful because they seem so small at first. A few little choices mean the difference between a life of petty violence and a life of social reform. His life and his friends’ lives are continually balanced on a razor’s edge.

Recommended.

Review: Crux

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

Crux is the well-told story of Jean Guerrero’s unique life and relationship with her father tinted with the political and cultural world of Southern California and Northern Mexico. In that way, it is almost the definition of a memoir.

Memoirs are more than a recitation of a life, of course. Guerrero transcends simple history by casting her father’s life and her journey in discovery of it as a mythic hero’s journey. That journey takes her through an underworld spiced with the imagery and metaphor of the Southwest. She is quite effective.

I found her telling powerful, but not universal. She ties her narrative to the personalities in her family which makes it fascinating and unique. As a tale this is powerful, but specific.

Recommended.

Review: The Golden Empire

Sunday, March 24th, 2019

The Golden Empire is the second volume in Hugh Thomas’s history of the Spanish Empire in America following on Rivers of Gold. The style, balance and sourcing remain strong.

Thomas continues to place the colorful Europeans in the context of the expanding Spanish Empire begun in Rivers. These are large-as-life folks who come to the new world for as many motivations as they are people modulo a selection bias for enough courage to challenge a comparative wilderness.

He pays less attention to specific Mayans and Mexica, though my impression is that this is more due to fewer sources of information than excessive Euro-centricism. When he has sources, he brings the indigenous folks to life as well. Of course, I’m new to the history of the region and I’m not a member of the indigenous. Take me with a kilo of salt on this.

Thomas places considerable emphasis on the Empire’s internal grappling with their duties toward the people they are taking the land from. Conquistadors are killing the people en masse, destroying their governance and culture, and taking their resources. Even with trans-Atlantic supply lines, these raids’ outcomes were never really in doubt. While I agree that decisions about how to treat the survivors is splitting a hair, understanding why slavery in South and Central America is materially different than in North America was compelling.

Spain was an aggressively Catholic Empire at the time, as the Inquisition and pogroms in the continental Spanish Empire demonstrate. The distinction in the Empire is between full people – Christians – and less-than-people is entirely based on embracing the religion. It is worth listening to the voices who argued that the indigenous people were humans who deserved to be saved. The arguments have practical aspects and repercussions. Slave trading is fantastically lucrative; many conquistadors are in it for the money. That Spain is willing to constrain enslaving natives and enforce it is remarkable. So is the fact that enforcement is spotty.

Thomas also points out that environmental and economic realities affected the nature of slavery and exploitation of South America. Unlike the North where (two centuries later) tobacco and cotton were both lucrative and labor intensive, the Spanish Empire focused on mining – gold, silver, copper – that is less labor intensive. The Spanish conquerors are less incentivized to enslave the locals or to import Africans.

They did do both, of course, but some amount of traditional serfdom also seems to prevail. I found it telling to see that evolution.

Recommended.

Review: Dear Los Angeles

Sunday, March 24th, 2019

Because I look at everything through the lens of 1980’s comic books, I see David Kipen’s Dear Los Angeles as Ozymandias‘s video wall turned on Los Angeles’s history.

Kipen accomplishes this by collecting and sequencing snippets of first-person letters and diary entries written in LA that span 1542 to 2018. Having sifted unguarded glimpses of the place from those sources he curates the collection by arranging them by on day of the year on which they were written. The resulting temporally unanchored panopticon synthesizes a unique view of the place.

There are myriad ways for this to fail, but I really enjoyed this literary kaleidoscope.

Recommended.

Review: The Half Has Never Been Told

Monday, February 18th, 2019

Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told effectively ties the personal accounts of American Slavery to the power of the institution as an economic engine. Though I’ve read many accounts of the period, I’ve never felt the impact of the events on individuals at the same time feeling the incentives that drove Americans to enslave people and torture them. It’s powerful writing.

I have heard many of the individual accounts before – and they’re appalling – but when he connects the inhuman treatment of people to the insane economic growth that it fuels, it becomes more believable that people continued expanding the geographical scope of slavery and the inhumanity of the physical torture.

People who are getting rich exploiting others can insulate themselves from the horrors they are inflicting on others. They can convince themselves that their hands are clean. It is easy to see people perpetuating similar cycles of exploitation and denial today.

Baptist makes an impersonal and compelling case that these forces held sway in antebellum America. Their echos certainly continue to ring in modern America as well. To me, the power of the argument is that one can accept and promote terrible justifications for atrocities without malice in one’s heart. Individual prosperity combined with rising national prestige is a powerful brew.

Baptist also traces fairly subtle changes in attitudes toward slavery. As the nation’s productivity fuels national prestige, people tied to the economic methods naturally tribalize. The people directly benefiting from slavery have a direct connection to perpetuating the atrocity. Baptist connects the communities that indirectly benefit to that tribe as well. Merchants who transport cotton or operate textile mills also support it. The more direct supporters propagate plausible (or only vaguely plausible) justifications that are easier for more distant supporters to accept because of the community sense and income.

Troublingly, the argument works for abolitionists and Northerners as well. If one believes Baptist, part of the nation’s failure to make good on promises of freedom in Reconstruction stems from the idea that Northern sentiment was more about taking power from the South by destroying slavery than by ending and atoning for the horror. If the moralizing of the North (even though factual) was mostly justification for the War, that is consistent with people losing ardor when the short term goal – destroy the institution – is complete.

I don’t think people fundamentally change a lot. To the extent that Baptist is right about these tendencies toward self-delusion and herd mentality, we need to look at how we are exploiting others in pursuit of prosperity.

Though I believe a lot of Baptist’s arguments, he is gathering and interpreting facts and analyses from many disciplines. One could summarize one of his positions as asserting that the toxic masculinity that a torture-based economy imbued Andrew Jackson with spurred him to both sweep Native Americans from their tribal lands to fuel substantive expansion of slave-driven cotton production at the same time he destroyed the banking system that accelerated that growth. That’s a bold statement.

Baptist does not shy away from showing his work. Half is well sourced and pours supporting facts out in torrents. I find he strikes a good balance between support and narrative, but it is a fine line. I suspect there are some who nit-pick some of the economic arguments as well. My preference is Baptist’s abundance and transparency.

Strongly Recommended.