Mar 21 2017

The Immortal Iron Fist, Volume 1: The Last Iron Fist Story by Ed Brubaker (Writer), Matt Fraction, David Aja et. al.

I got this for free a while back (thank you, Amazon!) and decided to read it before hunkering down to watch the problematic Iron Fist Netflix series.

So. Let’s talk about the good stuff first! Fraction/Aja are terrific, and Danny and the Heroes For Hire (and the way they fit within the Civil War framework) were really cool and fun. I very much like the super hippie, loose Danny Rand of the books, partly because you know if someone pointed out that the entire premise of his fictional life is racist, he wouldn’t get all defensive about it but would be all “dudebro, shit, yeah, we should work to make everything cool.”

But Jesus Christ, Orson Rand.

I’m assuming that his character and his really shitty, occasionally racist history are redeemed — or at least overtly condemned — in future volumes, but he was given way too much rein in this one. I’ve really enjoyed Brubaker’s work on DC’s Gotham properties, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on not making it hella obvious that Orson’s behavior is unacceptable, but it was really uncomfortable to read, so much so that I likely won’t bother with more. Tbh, I doubt I’m missing out. Plus, there is the entirely awful (4 episodes in so far, and the writers are completely oblivious to how they are playing themselves with each storyline) Netflix series to contend with, and there is only so much self-torture I can endure.

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Mar 20 2017

Soviet Bus Stops by Christopher Herwig

There are not a lot of words in this book of photography, and the subject is laid out right there in the title. Soviet Bus Stops sounds like it could be terribly dry, almost a parody of narrow history, but no, it’s a glimpse into an interesting and vanishing world.

Photographer Christopher Herwig bicycled from London to St Petersburg in 2002 “with the challenge of taking one good photo every hour.” (p. 9) He noticed details. Beginning in 2003, he lived for three years in the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia. He found what was expected, but also “eccentricities that defied Soviet conventions.” (p. 9) He noticed bus stops in particular:

In Canada, where I come from, bus stops are all the same. But in the former Soviet republics, many were unique, imaginative, and sometimes a bit mad. … Behind the Iron Curtain were millions of individuals who liked to daydream, wanted to push the limits of creativity and needed a way to share it. (p. 9)

As part of the introductory material, Vera Kavalkova-Halvarsson explains part of how these oddities came about. One architect from Belarus who designed nearly 100 “bus pavilions,” as they were known, says that tight regulation, limited technology and competition for major projects meant that there was very little room for creativity. Artists seized whatever opportunities were available, even a humble bus pavilion. “Designing a bus stop was often one of the first independent projects assigned to students of architecture departments. Students were encouraged to produce designs never seen before.” (p. 11) Limited budgets, often about one-third the cost of a car (p. 14), meant that designers and artisans had to be creative to do anything different, but the small scale also meant that bureaucrats with stifling rules did not pay attention to such minor matters.

In very small villages or remote locations, though, they were not minor matters at all. Bus links were crucial connections to the larger world. “The bus stop was a public space and could be used to bring art to the people and to brighten up the surroundings. (p. 12)

After a dozen pages or so of introduction, the rest of the book is given over to photographs of these unusual artifacts. Some are whimsical, like the stop in Kyrgyzstan that’s shaped like a local traditional hat. Some may have double meanings, like the mural of agricultural combines whose silhouettes could be mistaken for rows of tanks. Some are poignant in new ways, like the one shaped like a light house, in a desert near where the Aral Sea used to be. There are giant waves or clam shells from the Black Sea coast, there are abstract crowns in Armenia or yurts in Kazakhstan. There are unexpectedly colorful mosaics from Ukraine. The pavilions from the Baltic republics look like EU money has recently been invested in their upkeep. The poverty of other republics can be seen in the stops’ state. Russia is conspicuously absent from this survey (Azerbaijan does not appear either), and the author does not mention any reason for this choice. On the whole, though, it’s a very interesting glimpse of how much an unregarded object can reveal.

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Mar 18 2017

Red Rising (Red Rising #1) by Pierce Brown

I don’t know why I expected something lesser than what I read. I think I’d heard too many murmurs of “derivative” and “boy Katniss” but this really isn’t any of that at all. Sure, Red Rising and The Hunger Games both have dystopian settings featuring underdogs who rise to the top via brutal competitions, and both are excellently written, but that’s like saying all sci-fi is the same, which is stupid and reductive.

Anyway, Red Rising? Is an amazing novel. Pierce Brown isn’t afraid to take the rawest emotions and situations and put them on full display. I did have reservations about the whole Eo situation (it was clear that she was going to get fridged, but I was won around to what actually happened because she was the agent of it all) and the whole adoption of martyrdom as a winning tactic made the pragmatist in me recoil, but I was swept up in the drama of it all, that never, thankfully, teetered over into the maudlin. By the end of it, I wanted to go out and binge read the rest, which is pretty much the highest recommendation I can give of a book in a series. Alas, I have too many other books in the way, but soon!

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Mar 14 2017

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

Apparently quite a number of people thought that Terry Pratchett was jolly. Perhaps that was because he wrote books that are laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally overflowing with terrible puns, full of affection for most of their characters, and bursting with absurdities, most particularly the absurdity of living people rubbing up against each other. Perhaps people thought he was jolly because he was, by all reports, affable and unassuming in person. Perhaps it was the hat, or the beard, or both together.

I don’t see how anyone reads a book like Jingo and comes out of it thinking that Terry Pratchett is jolly.

The trappings of the story concern how two great powers go to war, how small incidents get magnified, how a dispute between neighbors escalates to the point where killing vast numbers of them seems a perfectly reasonable solution. There is a disputed territory; there are diplomatic incidents; there is an upsurge in patriotism, a rush to take the king’s shilling, even if there is no king, and to flock to the ancient regimental colors, even if they were chosen just yesterday. Because Jingo is a Discworld book, there’s a degree of slapstick in the precipitating incident: fishermen from different countries, who are usually content with stealing each other’s catch, find themselves squabbling over an island that has suddenly appeared. Meanwhile their sons would just as soon go home, or at least trade provisions so that nobody has to do without warmth or food.

With war brewing between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, Pratchett shows the heightened atmosphere it brings, the desire to serve a higher purpose that draws Sir Samuel Vimes’ butler to enlist and do his bit, along with the uglier side of mobs gathering to attack the businesses of Klatchians in the city. Some of the Klatchians, including those born and raised in Ankh-Morpork, begin to organize for self-defense, which the mob sees as proof that it was right all along. Other people of Klatchian background rush to the armed forces to prove their loyalty. Even rumor of war closes up the civil space where people had just gotten on with their ordinary lives.

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Mar 12 2017

The Hanging Tree (Peter Grant/Rivers Of London #6) by Ben Aaronovitch

This series just gets better with each book! The depth and complexity of Ben Aaronovitch’s mystical London really comes into its own here, as we delve deeper into the overarching plot with the reveal of The Faceless Man’s true identity (whom I figured out perhaps half a beat before Mr Aaronovitch intended for the reader to: and kudos again to him for writing such a fine mystery and unmasking.) I admit to having forgotten details of the first five novels — and in my defense, I’d completely forgotten that I’d even requested that the DCPL order this book. I can’t have been the only one, tho, as at checkout, I saw that the line for this book was 7 deep for 2 copies — but a quick glance at my Goodreads reviews refreshed me to the necessities. This, I suppose, is where I lament my lack of time to re-read the novels, but that’s such a First World Problem, I can’t even.

Anyway, Peter Grant owes one to Lady Ty, the genius loci (a.k.a goddess) of the River Tyburn, for her help in a previous novel. She calls her marker in one day, needing him to make sure that her teenage daughter, Olivia, is kept out of an investigation into a drug overdose in a fancy apartment building. Of course, Olivia is uncooperative with either Peter or her mother’s plans, and as Peter investigates further, he finds his path crossing once more with The Faceless Man’s, and so with his former partner’s, Leslie’s. We’re also introduced to Lady Helena, self-proclaimed witch, via her practitioner daughter, who has plenty of secrets of her own. And Special Agent Kimberly Russell of the FBI also has pertinent information for Peter from across the pond.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and most of it won’t make sense if you haven’t read the rest of the series, which I highly recommend you do! Tho, since it’s so good for binge-reading, and gets more complex as it goes, I’m almost reluctant to recommend that you start reading it now instead of in one fell swoop when it finally wraps up. I’m already rather glumly expecting to have forgotten far too much before Book 7 comes out, so am hoping it hurries up and appears!

And so you know, this installment of the series was not only as clever and charming as its predecessors, but was also as refreshingly diverse, if not more so. As a brown Muslim person who’s traveled extensively, it was really, really nice to see accurate representations of real, every day people alongside all the magic and explosions. In fact, the only quibble I have with the authenticity of the book’s characters was in Kim’s dialog, which was waaaaaay too British. Otherwise, another stellar representation of diversity, especially in the way it noted the race of people Peter was meeting for the first time. The default setting in too much Western literature has always been “white,” so to have it noted each time was a refreshing reminder that that’s not how modern-day London is, or most metropoles any more.

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Mar 12 2017

Istanbul by Thomas F. Madden

Of all the places that I have visited, Istanbul almost certainly heads the list of those I would like to return to. Arriving in April of 1993, at the beginning of what I thought was six months of travel before going broke in Ireland, I was struck by how European the city was. This despite what sticks in my mind as the most terrifying taxi ride I have ever had, not excepting the one in Rome that followed the question, “What do you mean your train leaves from the other train station?” Perhaps because of that shaky start, I was enthralled and a bit overwhelmed by Istanbul. No pedestrian street crossing has intimidated me since I made my way across a couple of the city’s larger boulevards. No place was as organizedly chaotic as the city’s main bus departure area, just outside the protective walls built by Emperor Theodosius in the early fifth century.

Which is to say, I am squarely in the target market for Istanbul, a one-volume history of the “City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World,” as Madden’s subtitle has it. I have even read and reviewed both books mentioned in the blurbs on the back of Istanbul. Madden knows his potential audience, but he also knows what he is up against in trying to tell the history of Istanbul in about 350 pages.

The purpose of this book is to bring together the history of this urban marvel into one enjoyable and clear narrative. It is, from the outset, an impossible task. The history of Istanbul is so complex, stretching across so many cultures, events, and lives, that a library of books would not suffice to capture it. Yet if the entire story cannot be told, at least the most important episodes and broadest vistas can be sketched. The overarching goal here is to open up the rich history of Istanbul to any interested reader, while offering guideposts along the way for further exploration. … It is impossible to study antiquity, the Middle Ages, Christianity, or Islam without sailing past Istanbul’s shores, visiting its academies, poking one’s head into its churches and mosques. Then as now, it remains “the City.” (p. xvii)

Madden fist saw the city in person seven years before I did, and he fell in love with it. One of the ways that love shows in the book is how he occasionally notes the contemporary fate of an area or landmark; he also notes how modern changes and construction have often led to archeological discoveries that have deepened present-day knowledge of the city’s history. For Istanbul has had periods of destruction and loss every bit as profound as its periods of glory, and much of what once was has now been lost. He makes another structural point in his introduction: “Modern histories often privilege the modern. I have worked hard not to do that here.” (p. xviii) Thus the time in which the city has been officially known as Istanbul receives one chapter at the end of the book, which covers less than a century. Each of the preceding three parts of the book covers roughly a thousand years, though they do not each have an equal share of the book. Part II, on Byzantine Constantinople (330–1453) is the longest, nearly half of the book.

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Mar 10 2017

The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

Twenty-two novels into Discworld, Terry Pratchett delivered a surprise I didn’t think he could manage: a funny and engaging Rincewind novel. A wizard who can’t actually do any magic and always runs away was somewhat amusing as the protagonist in a one-off send-up of fantasy novels called The Colour of Magic. Then it turned out that Pratchett could do a lot more with the seemingly absurd setting he had conjured up in that book, and he kept going, discovering more and writing some great novels along the way. But he couldn’t do much more with his first protagonist, who was essentially a cipher, a character to whom things happened but who never did much himself or developed in any way.

So why, against all expectations, does The Last Continent work so well? First, the Luggage isn’t around to save Rincewind from every possible danger, at the cost of narrative suspense. Things really could go drastically wrong for Rincewind, and that makes for a better story. Pratchett isn’t exactly George R.R. Martin, but by this point he does have a large stable of characters who can star in a book, and one fewer wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

Second, Rincewind actually does some things along the way. He starts out digging for grubs and water, so that by the time a talking kangaroo arrives the reader can well imagine that it’s a hallucination just as the hapless (and thirsty) wizard believes. Later on, he encounters various denizens of the outback, as well as what passes for civilization in those parts, and his actions amount to more than just running away. This is a big step up for Rincewind.

Third, the other wizards come along to the last continent. Someone from the Unseen University has opened a window from his office to a beach with great surf, which just happens to be on a small island off the coast of the otherwise inaccessible continent. Several wizards — Archchancellor Ridcully, the Dean, the Bursar, Ponder Stibbons, the Librarian, the Senior Wrangler, and the Lecturer in Recent Runes — clamber through. They are still investigating the beach when the head housekeeper comes through as well and helpfully removes the stick that had kept the window propped open. Now, of course, they are stranded with no way back to the University, except by delving into the continent’s mysteries.

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Feb 25 2017

Wallenstein II by Friedrich Schiller

“Schiller’s Wallenstein is so great that there is nothing else like it.” — Goethe

How’s that for a blurb? Goethe didn’t just offer praise, he directed the premiere of all three parts of Schiller’s Wallenstein trilogy. The third, Wallenstein’s Death (published as Wallenstein II, as the two previous plays comprise the first volume), comes from an era that didn’t believe in spoiler warnings; besides, the general’s death today in 1634 was a well-known historic fact. The art, of course, is what Schiller does with the situation.

Wallenstein’s Death is a classic five-act verse drama that combines history and tragedy, leavened with a very few scenes of comedy. It is set in the Bohemian cities of Pilsen and Eger (now generally known in English as Cheb) amidst the Thirty Years War. Wallenstein has been a great general for the Imperial party in the war, but he no longer believes that the Emperor desires peace, nor does he think that the Swedes can be completely defeated. As the play opens, he is considering taking Europe’s fate into his own hands by bringing the army he commands over to the Swedish side and compelling the Emperor in Vienna to sue for peace. Vienna suspects such a maneuver — or perhaps the Emperor is simply jealous of Wallenstein’s victories — and has sent orders that the general is to be brought to heel, to give over his command in favor of the Emperor’s son. Those still-secret orders are in the hands of one of Wallenstein’s most trusted lieutenants, Octavio Piccolomini (one of the titular characters of the trilogy’s second part). Octavio’s only son, Max, is a young officer in Wallenstein’s household and cannot believe that his idolized general would see himself as anything other than the Emperor’s truest servant. Further, Max has fallen in love with Wallenstein’s only daughter Thekla, who loves him in return. With those main characters and a sufficient supporting cast, Schiller addresses some of the great questions of history and politics, and of the human heart.

The play zips along. Each act has no fewer than seven scenes, and the third act counts 23. In part, that is because Schiller breaks scenes more frequently than an English verse dramatist would (almost every entry or exit gets counted as a new scene) but partly because he writes briskly and keeps his characters in motion right up until they meet their appointed fates. Part of the business of the play is also keeping track of who is betraying whom, and who is trying not to have to take a side until they see which way the wind is blowing.

Wallenstein begins by contemplating taking his army over to the Swedes, convincing himself that the Emperor is already intriguing against him, so that he has nothing to lose and that Europe has much to gain. Some of Wallenstein’s lieutenants, having made preparations in the previous play, push him in this direction as well. But when the Swedish representative arrives, Wallenstein is less than fully committed. When is quick action required, when should something be carefully considered? Who is really free to choose their course of action, especially if they are responsible for others’ lives, for an army, for an empire? What does that freedom mean, and how can the right course of action be discerned? Are fates written in the stars? Or, for more modern audiences, are they determined by structural conditions?

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Feb 23 2017

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Going back to books that I read and enjoyed ages ago can be a hazardous thing. What if the Suck Fairy has paid a visit in the meantime? Should I just let those happy memories lie undisturbed?

I, Robot certainly offered the opportunity. The book that collects nine Asimov stories was first published in 1950. The stories themselves appeared in science fiction magazines as early as 1940. Three quarters of a century have passed; the present day is as far from when Asimov wrote these stories as he was from the end of the American Civil War. The robot stories shaped the field of science fiction, but it has also moved on considerably since then. I don’t know precisely when I first read this book, though it is likely to have been around seventh grade, maybe earlier. I was tearing through everything that the school library and the Baton Rouge public library had to offer in the way of science fiction and fantasy. I remembered the three laws of robotics, but not much else.

Turns out it holds up pretty well for what is now essentially a period piece, a foundational (pardon the word) work. Asimov handwaves artificial intelligence into existence for the purposes of his stories, tames his robots with three laws that are hardwired into their positronic brains, and explores the interesting corner cases. The stories are mostly puzzles. Something has happened with the robots, and they are doing things their manufacturers did not intend. Engineers are called in to figure out why, usually with some kind of deadline looming. In one story, the engineers are marooned on Mercury (interplanetary travel is common in Asimov’s early 21st century) and will die if they cannot get the robot to do something that it ordinarily should not.

The first story, “Robbie,” held the most emotional punch, because it showed a robot through the eyes of a young child, someone not yet able to make the basic distinction that animates most of the rest of the stories, that between robot and human. Later in the sequence, Asimov turns to a fundamental question that would become a staple for other writers, notably Philip K. Dick: What happens when people can no longer distinguish between humans and robots? He doesn’t address the question in depth, but then depth is not the book’s strong suit. It’s nine mid-century short stories, held together by a framework device. The characters are mostly stand-ins for the readers, who get to see how the various puzzles are solved. What you see is very much what you get.

On the other hand, what you see is one of the first concentrated attempts at working through artificial intelligence, and robots in general — what they would be like on an individual level, how society would likely react to them, what some of the second-order effect might be. The field is no longer directly in dialogue with I, Robot, but that’s mainly because it set so much of the framework for how science fiction considers robots and artificial intelligences. This is one of the places science fiction began.

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Feb 22 2017

An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle

An Acceptable Time strikes me as unusually autumnal for a young adult novel. Meg, the heroine of A Wrinkle in Time has moved off-stage in this, the fifth novel of the Time quintet. Her daughter Polly shares the spotlight with her parents (Polly’s grandparents), the Alex and Kate Murray, doctors of physics and chemistry, respectively. The story begins in a New England autumn, and Polly is the only young person around. When Zachary, another character her age shows up, he turns out to be gravely ill, possibly closer to the end of his life than any of the elderly characters with whom he shares the page.

Polly, like Meg, enjoys the outdoors, and spends a great deal of her time — she has left high school for further, pre-university, instruction from her scientific grandparents — exploring the woods surrounding the family home. L’Engle sketches the environs vividly, and the return to a setting from the quintet’s beginning adds to the autumnal feel of the tale. Everything is old, nearing its end. Or perhaps, from a different point of view, about to enter a quiet period of renewal.

This wouldn’t be a L’Engle Time book if tempus weren’t some sort of a fugitive in its pages, and so it is that Polly first sees some unknown people near the house and soon after slips several thousand years into the area’s distant past. Most of the rest of the story turns on her figuring out what is going on in that time, what the connections might be between then and Polly’s present (the book was published in 1989) and whether there is a purpose to Polly’s ability to navigate among two circles of time.

Because of course the region is inhabited in the time that Polly slips into: two tribes are close to war over food and water. One occupies fertile lands, watered from snow runoff arising from the Ice Age’s retreating glaciers, and usually blessed with regular rainfall. The other tribe lives across the lake in land that is less fertile. Rain for both has been scarce lately, and the people across the lake have stepped up their raids for food. Some in both tribes say that a sacrifice will appease the divine forces that send or withhold rain. In that volatile atmosphere, Polly appears, joined a short time later by Zachary.

The circles of time move closer together, and more people make their way across the millennia; are divine forces at work in shifting time as well? One of Polly’s grandparents’ friends is a retired Episcopalian bishop; he, too, has occasionally moved into the time of the lake peoples. As the story plays out, L’Engle raises questions of sacrifice and belief, of science and religion, and of history and legend.

It’s very interesting, this book for young adults that was written by a woman in her seventieth year of life. There’s a certain amount of teen angst, and of romance. L’Engle was too keen an observer of the human condition for too long to have left out such salient characteristics of teenagers. But she places her young people amidst older folks who are not just relics, but lively people in their own right, by no means finished with growing and learning. Polly is the central character, but the world would go on without her. The drama of teenagerdom feels reduced, autumnal. It’s a good story, well told, that runs against its genre’s tendency to heighten events; an acceptable contrast.

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