Aug 19 2016

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

So much of this book is an exercise in narrative tension: you know something terrible is coming, and you know the general shape of it, but you’re waiting for the details to… I don’t know, ram it home? At one point — in what was, to me, one of the more compelling passages in the book — Lionel Shriver derides our culture of voyeurism in what was perhaps meant to be a disturbing cri de coeur from the young killer at the heart of this book. And yet I believe that because such terrible things keep happening, and not despite them, it’s incumbent upon the rest of us to care about the details, to deconstruct the easy myths built by society (and its mouthpiece the media, if you must) to make it so we don’t have to think about such things, to label these things as unknowable and senseless and, therefore, beyond our ability to understand. We need to try, because the people locked forever in the headlines of these awful murders are human, too.

Which isn’t to say that I believe that there are easy remedies. A lot of people, faced with tragedy like this, don’t want to look inward, don’t want to examine. It’s too hard, and it hurts too much. And that’s okay. That’s what we have good, thoughtful fiction for, to tease out the universal, painful truths and present them to us safely, so that we aren’t blinded too much by the personal in being able to acknowledge, and perhaps grasp, perhaps engage, that universal pain.

Anyway, Ms Shriver has written a terrific book that does an important job of trying to tease out the reasons behind the schoolhouse massacres endemic to recent American history. It’s not a perfect novel. Once Celia was introduced, there’s so much tension that I became almost numb to it, and the story felt like it dragged somewhat. And, frankly, I suspected the truth about Franklin about a third of the way into the book because that was the only possible explanation for Eva’s whiplash of emotions when it came to him. Let me tell you, I was getting really tired of her putting up with his years and years of bullshit: my ass would have bailed and let him deal with Kevin on his own years before, as she wryly brought up at one point. Did I think that Kevin’s weapon of choice was rather far-fetched? Yes and no, and who am I to complain about far-fetched when the very thought of young adolescents committing the reprehensible crimes that lard the book liberally in their dreary factualism is so far out of the realm of possibility for me?

And yet, as the mother of three little boys who will likely grow up to be relatively affluent half-white suburban schoolchildren, the prime pool from which these murderers statistically emerge, I worry. I know I shouldn’t use this novel as a handbook for signs to look out for, but how can I help from looking at my children askance sometimes, when some of their behavior seems less positive than I’m comfortable with? Heaven forfend I should adopt Franklin’s hearty refusal to face the truth, gaslighting his wife as his coping mechanism (and oh how I HATED him for that.)

Not that Eva is the perfect mother, but who, at any point in human history, is? Please don’t point to your own mother: just ask her yourself and she’ll laugh and laugh at you. I found Eva’s odd superiority as unearned as Kevin did, and it rankled how she just let Franklin treat her like that for so long (in a rather stunning commentary on how women of a certain class and age bend their own persons to please an undeserving spouse.) And the book doesn’t have easy answers, though there are plenty of what-not-to-dos. But it’s all that fallibility, all that human weakness, all that understanding that we as individuals are at the mercy of societal forces and mores that can be overwhelming to navigate, much less fight, that make this such an amazing, empathic book. It has quite worn me out, emotionally and intellectually, leaving me weak but satisfied, the best kind of book indeed.

And I’m secretly glad that my children aren’t like Kevin, even as I fear that that is not enough to keep them safe.

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Aug 12 2016

Moscow in Movement by Samuel A. Greene

Moscow in Movement examines how citizens and state power interact in post-Soviet Russia. Samuel A. Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, looks at the lived experiences of Russians and considers several case studies carefully to show how individual Russians, elements of Russian society, and representatives of the Russian state form their relationships. In the end, Greene is asking similar questions to those posed by Authoritarian Russia: How does Russia work, why is it that way, and what does that mean in a larger sense? Where Gel’man took basically a top-down approach, Greene takes mostly a bottom-up approach, looking at elements of Russian civil society as well as individual interactions with the state.

Moscow in Movement

Greene’s book, published by Stanford University Press, is an academic treatise, with its attendant strengths and weaknesses from the non-academic reader’s point of view. This is not to say that it is dry or overly long; far from it, the main text is less than 250 pages, and the narratives that support the analysis are vivid and true to life. The strengths of the book as an element in academic discourse include a strong theoretical basis for the groups Greene chooses to analyze, a clear argument about the meaning of the events he relates, and careful documentation of his work, so that interested readers can check or learn more. The weaknesses, from my point of view, include an overly long chapter on theories of civil society, a long time lag between the events described and the book’s publication, and a nagging suspicion that the chapters were written for other uses and then stitched together to make a book. (This last is a structural issue by no means limited to Greene’s work. Fritz Stern’s justly famous and groundbreaking Gold and Iron, for example, has a long chapter on Balkan railroad financing that was plainly written to stand alone.) As a counterpoint to claims that Russians are innately passive in the face of state corruption, the book is invaluable, and as an description of social change at the personal level, it is incisive.

Greene’s core argument is that power in Russia is a “club good,” available to members of the club for their own use and guarded from non-members.

In Putin’s Russia, political competition exists, but it is closed, not so much in the sense of barriers to entry (though these obtain) as in the sense that the state organizes politics in such a way as to prevent competitors from creating a power base that draws support from outside the limited sphere of “administrative resources.” …
A fundamental result of this arrangement is that the contemporary Russian state does not engage society at large. Indeed, it actively works to exclude the public from the processes of government, not so much to control the public as to prevent uncontrollable elements—such as a mass-based movement—from entering the political arena. (p. 7)

How do people react to such a setup? “Faced with a disengaged elite, civic disengagement is a rational response. But we should understand that disengagement to be circumstantial and contingent, rather than cultural and absolute.” (p. 10) The way that Russians react to their circumstances, Greene argues, are neither mysterious nor immutable. An understanding of Russian culture and history is certainly helpful, especially as a means of seeing how institutional choices have shaped the civic space in which citizens life, but that same history also shows how ordinary Russians have acted to press their claims on the state. Greene examines cases where interaction with the state was inevitable—for people beaten by police, for example—or where citizens worked together to stop state action or retain benefits.

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Aug 10 2016

Tooth And Claw by Jo Walton

Deeply satisfying. Those were literally the two words that came to me as I turned off my Kindle, sighing with happiness at the end of the book before snuggling down to sleep. Which is, of course, the feeling I always have at the end of any well-resolved marriage plot, even if things do end a little more tidily than credulity might countenance (granted, a hallmark of the genre.) Doubly so in this case, because that deep satisfaction is also what I feel at the end of any exquisitely realized examination of an alien culture. I’m used to encountering that in good science-fiction, so imagine my delight to discover it in this charming fantasy pastiche of dragons, with a cheeky allusion to magic thrown in, too. I can’t rave enough about how brilliant this concept is, of an alternate Earth where dragons are the dominant species living in a time and culture very akin to Victorian Britain. The legal system and unwritten mores, the religion and politics, the fashions in clothing and entertainments — Jo Walton covers everything you’d expect in a society novel of manners and then some. I suppose that, given how readily I accepted the idea of sentient Victorian dragons, some of the other plot twists shouldn’t strike me as too fantastic (and if we’re talking about real authenticity, then buried treasure and prodigal heirs were absolutely an accepted part of fiction of the period.) I just think Ms Walton could have applied her rigorous attention to detail to improving on some of those plot contrivances. Picky picky, I know, especially since I’m dying to read more of this setting. It doesn’t necessarily have to follow the continuing fortunes of the Agornin family, charming and charmed as they are, but I do want to see how dragon society continues to develop with religion and emancipation and their relationship with the Yarge. Please, please write a sequel, Ms Walton. This is a genre mash-up I didn’t even know I needed till Tooth And Claw made the literary landscape an even more interesting place.

Read Doug’s review, and the conversation that led to me picking up this book despite my lukewarm feelings till now re: Ms Walton here.

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Aug 08 2016

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe by Alexander McCall Smith

Two plots carry the action forward in The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café, the fifteenth in Alexander McCall Smith’s series about Botswana’s first detective agency run by women. In slight contrast to its immediate predecessor, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, the two plots are not both cases taken on by the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, its owner Precious Ramotswe, and her newly promoted partner in the agency, Grace Makutsi. One is, of course; McCall Smith has played around with the conventions of the genre, but not enough to do away with detecting entirely. A prosperous Indian family engages the agency to find out the story behind a woman who came to their household a couple of weeks previously. She appears to have no memory of events prior to turning up at their gate with nothing more than the clothes on her back, and if her background cannot be filled in, the Botswana authorities may deport her.

Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe

The other plotline draws on Mma Makutsi’s rise in the world. Coming from a poor background in one of the poorest parts of Botswana, Mma Makutsi did well in her education, and had a lucky break when Mma Ramotswe hired her at the detective agency. Since then, she has married a man of means and become a mother. Now she wishes to do something with her entrepreneurial energies. She decides to start a café.

Not all businesses prosper. Increasing amounts of electronics in cars, and changing tastes in cars more generally, mean less work for Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, the garage owned by Mma Ramotswe’s husband, Mr J.L.B. Matekoni. Faced with a threat by the bank to freeze his account if he continues to be overdrawn, he decides he must let go one of his helpers, Charlie, the long-time apprentice for whom the word “incorrigible” seems to have been coined. Charlie takes it hard, and Mma Ramotswe decides to stretch her resources — effectively taking out a loan against some cattle she owns — to offer him a chance as an apprentice detective in her agency.

That choice opens up other conflicts. Mma Makutsi, who is now a partner in the agency, has a famously argumentative relationship with Charlie, and now Mma Ramotswe has hired him without consulting her. Charlie has proven himself irresponsible on numerous previous occasions. Her husband is dubious. Even Mma Potokwane, matron of a nearby orphanage and steady counsel for Mma Ramotswe is uncertain, particularly on the point of taking out a loan against cattle, the traditional measure of wealth in old Botswana.

The intersection of these three stories provide the thematic material for The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café. One is a meditation on obligation. Mr J.L.B. Matekoni feels an obligation to Charlie, but not to the extent of sacrificing his whole business to keep one apprentice on. Mma Makutsi decides to take on Charlie, but what of her obligation to Mma Ramotswe, her partner in the agency business? Will Charlie live up to his new responsibilities. The case of the woman with no memory bring in other instances of obligation. The Indian community in Gaborone feels an obligation to look after its members; that is the motivation that Mr Sengupta gives for taking in an unknown woman. Events surrounding the opening of the café also give Mma Makutsi reason to consider her obligations, and even to take on new ones.

The other major topic of consideration is truth. It’s a slippery one in the detective business. Clients often aren’t telling the truth, or at least all of it. Detectives inevitably come across wrongdoers, who obviously have a different relationship with the truth. But Mma Ramotswe also has a bit of a slippery relationship with truth; she is perfectly willing to let people believe things that are not entirely true if it helps her to pursue her investigations. For example, she asks people at a house if they have seen a cat, letting them think that she is asking about her cat, when it’s merely a conversational opening for her. She does not lie, exactly, but only in a narrowly defined sense. She also calls on one of Botswana’s deepest social obligations, giving water to thirsty people, as a means to enter a house and begin a conversation that could help her uncover the mystery of the woman without a memory. Questions about Charlie’s willingness to tell the truth about some events show another side of the matter, and the resolution of one of the major plotlines turns on decisions about how much truth to tell.

In the end, questions of character and life are more what the book is about than any detective case. Spending time with these good people of Gabarone is never less than a delight, and a spur to think about how life is lived, both there and elsewhere. The fifteenth book may not be the ideal place to start reading a series, but there’s nothing in this book that depends on previous events. It’s self-contained, though greater knowledge of the characters does lead to deeper appreciation of what’s happening to them.

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Aug 06 2016

Maskerade by Terry Pratchett


Now this is how a Discworld story should be. After the uninteresting Interesting Times, Terry Pratchett came right back with the much stronger Maskerade. The Lancre witches take center stage, and stage is just right because most of the novel takes place in and around Ankh-Morpork’s opera house. Well, two of the witches do, which is precisely the problem because their third turned into a Queen at the end of Lords and Ladies. The canonical beginning gets off to a rough start.

An eldritch voice shrieked: “When shall we … two … meet again?”
Thunder rolled.
A rather more ordinary voice said: “What’d you go and shout that for? You made me drop my toast in the fire.”
Nanny Ogg sat down again.
“Sorry, Esme. I was just doing it for … you know … old time’s sake … Doesn’t roll off the tongue, though.”
“I’d just got it nice and brown, too.”
“Anyway, you didn’t have to shout.”
“I mean, I ain’t deaf. You could’ve just asked me in a normal voice. And I’d have said, ‘Next Wednesday.'”
“Sorry, Esme.” (p. 9)

For all that Granny Esme Weatherwax prides herself on her abilities with headology (knowing what’s going on inside of one and acting accordingly), Nanny Ogg is also a shrewd practitioner of the art. She’s worried about Granny Weatherwax. Granny’s power has grown steadily, and witches whose abilities run unchecked tend to come to bad ends.

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Aug 06 2016

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton is … strange. It’s a sentimental Victorian novel: the main plot turns on a lawsuit brought to settle the estate of a country squire. Subplots mostly involve finding suitable marriage partners for the younger generation, or that generation making efforts to hide their pre-marital arrangements from the older generation. There are parsons, an established Church, old family retainers, farming families in distress, a restless working class in the faraway capital, fashionable hats, unfashionable architecture, and slightly disreputable railroads. So far, so mannerly.

Tooth and Claw

But in Tooth and Claw, all of the characters are dragons. Cannibalistic dragons. As the dying patriarch Bon Agornin says, “It is the way of the dragon to eat each other.” Dragon flesh helps them to grow, helped old Bon reach seventy feet in length, helps the survivors of childhood to grow wings and some fortunate members of the nobility to breathe fire. The lawsuit, in fact, is about the division of an irreplaceable part of Bon’s wealth: his very body. Bon’s son Avan claims that his sister’s husband Daverak ate more than the rightful share of Bon’s body.

Daverak is a local notable, of a rank comparable to the late Bon. He is the villain of the piece, partly as a ruthless and self-centered character, partly as an unthinking embodiment of the system that puts a noble-born and wealthy male at the top of the literal heap. He cannot conceive of things being other than as they are; that makes him understandable, if not less villainous. He is also the prime actor in a scene that left me saying, “Now we see the violence inherent in the system.” For there is considerable violence in the system, sanctioned by the state, and sanctified by the Church. Walton does not hide it, nor does she stray from her course of telling a sentimental story. The social novel has not yet arrived in this particular world. One character dies in the dragon equivalent of childbirth, another reminder of the threat of premature death in a Victorian world, and of that threat’s unequal distribution.

Bonn’s five children are divided by the lawsuit: daughter Berend is married to Daverak, the defendant; son Penn is a parson and attended his father’s deathbed – he has key evidence, but it is under seal of clergy; unmarried daughter Hamer is now a ward of Daverak, and under pressure; the other unmarried daughter Selendra is now attached to Penn’s household and a reluctant plaintiff; Avan does not understand why his siblings are not willing to fight for their rights.

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Aug 02 2016

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

What’s good about Interesting Times, given that I don’t like its protagonist, Rincewind the hapless wizard?

Interesting Times

Cohen the Barbarian is back, ancient and sprightly and deadly as ever. Several other aged barbarian heroes join him for one last great caper. With this Silver Horde (of seven) is the Teacher, who has given up on the barbarities of school and thrown in his lot with real barbarianing, although he does try to show the Horde a thing or two about civilization, or about the virtues of not attacking armies of a hundred thousand when your marauding host is all of seven people. There’s a lovely pun about samizdat on page 183. The Emperor’s name is also a good riff on British tabloids. There are some good bits of Pratchett farce along the way; the book was fun to read and kept me going on a couple of days when I was not feeling well at all. But it’s a bit thin otherwise, especially compared to immediately previous Discworld books (and, I suspect, compared to the next one, Maskerade, which I have already started), and that’s without going into the problematic aspects of the faux-China/Japan where the novel is set. I think if I weren’t being a Discworld completist (at least for the novels, I have no idea if I will read the ancillary books), I would have skipped this one.

And what is it about Rincewind anyway? At the end of The Light Fantastic, I thought that Pratchett had freed him up for development by getting the Great Spell out of him and by separating him from Twoflower, the amiable tourist for whom everything goes right at considerable cost to everyone else nearby. It turns out that development was not what Pratchett had in mind. In three more books (Sourcery, Eric, and now Interesting Times) Rincewind is a nominal wizard unable to do magic. He runs away from everything. Events move around him, and it looks to other characters like he is having great effects, while he tells himself that he was just trying to get away from things. This kind of plotting, especially the fifth book featuring it, suspends my suspension of disbelief; the authorial hand is just too obvious. I’m rather at a loss to think of why Pratchett has him in another starring role.

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Jul 31 2016

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Every time I read a good science fiction novel, a novel of actual ideas, I experience a shudder of pure, intellectual joy. But those are so few and far between that I instinctively shy away from many, even those critically acclaimed, because there’s no greater reading disappointment for me than a bad sci-fi novel (or even a mediocre one.) This may be Neal Stephenson’s fault: he writes some amazing stuff and then some really dreary prolonged bullshit. Margaret Atwood has the same problem, if one counts the brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale as (dystopian) sci-fi. The Blind Assassin was not great, and the MaddAddam trilogy utterly unreadable. So The Three-Body Problem has long been on my radar but never anything I sought out… till’s terrific idea of giving away a free e-book each month as part of their book club strategy, beginning with this one.

I have a hard time turning down free books, so when I investigated the deal further and read the blurb, holy shit, I had to alert my Ingress book club! Were the blurb to be believed, T3-BP might actually be the Ingress storyline were it well-written. Ingress Book Club loved the idea of it (plus free!) so as soon as I had a break from work reviews, I started reading it. And holy crap, was this exactly what I’d been looking for, both in Ingress and in my general sci-fi reading.

First, the Ingress-related spoiler: Liu Cixin is clearly on the side of the Resistance, which makes me want to high five him. That aside, this is one of the few books I’ve read in recent years that took high-minded scientific concepts and not only explained them in simple terms, but also made them come alive for the reader by making them integral parts of the storyline. That’s fucking genius, you guys. He talks about astrophysics and quantum mechanics like it ain’t no thing, and I only had to track back once (on the unfolding of protons into different dimensions) to fully understand what he was trying to tell me.

And while it was thrilling to read sci-fi so firmly rooted in Scientific Ideas, it was achingly beautiful to have it also come from a very real, very intelligent understanding of history (that was also explained to us readers in a very accessible way: crucial when Chinese history is not something I, at least, am familiar with.) Even more amazing was the psychological aspect. I was completely blown away by his imagining of the alien civilization, especially of the Listener who first intercepted the call. This is one of the few works of sci-fi where I felt that the aliens were depicted less as an exotic “other” culture — essentially a variation on humanity — or as “completely unknowable” than as a genuine extraterrestrial species struggling to survive. The only other examples I can think of have also been depicted as generally helpful to (usually a far-future) humanity. The fact that Mr Liu can evoke such sympathy for an alien race that threatens the annihilation of modern humanity is a breath-taking narrative feat.

I’m kinda hesitant to gush about how refreshing it is to read fiction this good that is set so firmly in a non-Western context. Literature across all genres has become increasingly representative of diverse cultural viewpoints worldwide, but something this intelligent, that could only have been written in this way from this cultural milieu that is so familiar to me (not of Chinese history and culture specifically, but of a general East Asian way of thinking,) makes my heart swell with a pride that I don’t feel when reading other smart, entertaining fiction. It’s almost like a weird form of patriotism. The bff and I are currently having a discussion regarding the dark and humble (as he deems it) tone of the book, which I believe might be rooted in an Asian culture that shuns the exceptionalism of the West. I don’t know how well qualified I am to really get into the nuances, tho, especially since it is the end of a long day and I really want to finish writing this review before bed.

Anyway, really great sci-fi novel of ideas, and I’m super looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

For Laura’s review, click here.

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Jul 27 2016

Authoritarian Russia by Vladimir Gel’man

Authoritarian Russia

In Authoritarian Russia Vladimir Gel’man answers a question that is extremely important for contemporary international relations: Why is post-Soviet Russia the way that it is? Or, framed slightly differently, how did post-Soviet Russia get to be the way that it is? Gel’man, who is a friend of a friend, presents his answers in 150 carefully argued and thoroughly sourced pages, with another 50 pages of endnotes for anyone who wants to double-check his work. He makes the heart of his case right up front, and from personal experience with people who would be crucial to Russia’s path after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It’s worth quoting extensively.

It was a very lovely and sunny day in the summer of 1990 when I sat at the reception hall in the Mariinsky Palace in (then) Leningrad. I was a twenty-four-year-old activist for the anti-Communist prodemocratic movement, which had gained a majority of seats during the recent city council elections. After this victory, I had received two rather different job offers from two groups of my acquaintances. […] I had to choose between a junior research fellowship at the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences, and a somewhat mid-range position in the newly formed apparatus of the city council. The latter option initially sounded tempting, and I came for a job interview with the chair of the city council, Anatoly Sobchak. A professor of law who had been elected to the Soviet parliament during the first semicompetitive elections in 1989, he had gained great popularity as a vocal and outspoken critic of the Soviet system; the following year, Leningrad deputies invited Sobchak to serve as chair of the city council upon winning a seat in the by-elections. As usual, he took a long time to arrive, and while waiting for him, I chatted with a receptionist named Dima, a smiling, talkative guy the same age as myself.
Finally, Sobchak arrived, and we went to his extraordinarily large office, with its excellent view of St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Without asking me anything or even taking my presence into account, my potential boss began a long and passionate speech, as if he were giving a talk before hundreds of people, even though nobody else was in the room (I think he used this opportunity as a testing ground for one of his public appearances, which were bringing him countrywide fame at that time). Sobchak’s speech was full of bright rhetoric but rather vague in substance […] After a seemingly endless speech, he paused, and I was able to ask a question I considered essential for my future job. “Anatoly Aleksandrovich, how do you perceive the system of city government that you plan to build?”
Sobchak turned toward me at last, shifted his attention down to earth, and changed his tone to a more sincere and frank register. “Well … there are the city council deputies, who are numerous, noisy, and disorganized; they have to respond to the complaints of ordinary citizens and mostly work in their local constituencies instead of having long discussions. Then there is the city executive committee; it should deal with matters of everyday routine, such as bumpy roads and leaking pipes, but not go beyond such duties. And I myself […] with the aid of my apparatus […] will conduct politics in the city.” I was shocked to hear these rather cynical words from a person who had a public image as a democratic icon. “But this sounds almost the same as what we had before, under the Communists … and what about democracy?” Sobchak was probably surprised that someone who was supposed to become a member of his emerging team had posed such a naive question. He responded firmly, as certain university professors often do when they pretend to tell the truth to freshmen: “You know, we are in power now—that is democracy.” […] I was unable to turn myself into a minor cog in the newly emerging political machine. I turned my back on Sobchak and left his office, not even saying goodbye. Then I walked directly to the Institute of Sociology, and joined the world of scholarship, not the world of politics.
[…] And the lessons I learned from Sobchak in his office many years ago were worth dozens of textbooks on normative political theory to me. I realized that the ultimate goal of politicians is the maximization of power […].
In fact, Sobchak also failed to achieve this goal and did not maximize his power in Leningrad and (after 1991) St. Petersburg. Six years later, in 1996, as a city mayor, he faced tough electoral competition from his deputy, Vladimir Yakovlev, and lost by a tiny margin. His other deputy, namely Vladimir Putin, learned certain lessons from Sobchak in his career as a politician—but these lessons were very different from those I’d learned, because of the difference between politics and political science. Putin, at least for the time being, was able to maximize his power as president and prime minister of Russia, although more recently [Authoritarian Russia was published in 2015] he has been facing increasing challenges. And Dima, whom I had met on that memorable day, also learned some lessons: Dmitry Medvedev, too, has served as president and prime minster of Russia. He is still a very nice, frequently smiling, and talkative guy—but in a sense, he is still a receptionist. (pp. XI-XIII)

In post-Soviet Russia, Gel’man argues, political conflicts were resolved as zero-sum games, and the consequences of losing were high. In the 1990s, state and economic weakness contributed to a certain degree of political pluralism if one looked at the country as a whole, although there was often little competition within a given region. In the 2000s, “thanks to economic growth and the revival of state capcity, [Putin] was able to successfully pursue the reshuffling of winning coalitions, and to impose conscious and consistent institutional changes. The Russian political system seemingly achieved a stage of authoritarian consolidation on the basis of an inefficient low-level equilibrium, which could not be easily broken without significant losses for the country’s elite and some segments of society.” (p. XIV)

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Jul 26 2016

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente

Boy Who Lost Fairyland

By the penultimate book in the Fairyland series, my reading of them has fallen into a certain pattern: I struggle a bit in the first parts, while the author rattles off so many new characters, items and places so quickly that I get sort of a literary sensory overload. Not only that, they arrive so randomly that I begin to wonder whether the writer has missed the key trick of the fantastical and whimsical, making it seem that there is a hidden logic, a connection that the reader will see in due course. At the beginning of each book, Fairyland feels like it is going out of its way to skip that connection, to announce with its sheer randomness that things are Very Different there. That almost kept me from finishing the first, the wonderfully titled The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Who could resist a book with “Circumnavigated” in the title? Not me.

I’m glad that I persevered. Once the world settles down a bit, there’s a wonderful story with a solid emotional core to it. I had similar experiences reading the second, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, and the third, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. And so I was not surprised that the beginning of The Boy Who Lost Fairyland started out in much the same register, despite the change in protagonist and partial shortening of the title. The Red Wind arrives with the Panther of Rough Storms and carries off Hawthorn, a troll. The moment of his departure gives a sense of the furious pace of the first few chapters:

The Panther of Rough Storms picked up Hawthorn in his soft mouth just as any cat might do to a naughty kitten. The great black cat lifted the troll out of his whale-skull cradle, out of his lovely familiar nursery with its wallpaper of garnets and big, blue, long-lashed eyes, out of his underground house, leaving a parlorful of untidy green and violet queens’ crowns with enchantments still clining to their prongs by the skin of their teeth.
One enchantment had been cast by Hawthorn’s father, who, at that moment, lay sleeping in a long mulled-wine-colored magician’s cloak, snoring smoke-rings in his bed of green butterflies with a want clutched in his arms like a teddy bear and gleaming things on his sleeping cap. It was meant to keep his son from marauding pirates, of whom he had an irrational fear.
One had been cast by Hawthorn’s mother, who, at that moment, was bending over an overturned church bell full of leprechaun teeth in a distant midnight meadow, her arm muscles bulging. It was meant to keep her son safe from marauding disappointments, of which she had too much experience for any one troll.
One had been cast by a cabbage-gnome a hundred years ago. It was meant to wilt the leaves of anyone who forgot the gnome’s birthday. Of these enchantments, one missed its mark, one bided its time, and one had no effect whatsoever, as trolls have very few leaves. (p. 3)

This is Chekhov’s cabinet of curiosities.

Eventually — quickly, in fact, the book is less than 250 generously spaced pages — the tale settles down enough to focus on what happens to Hawthorn after the Red Wind whisks him out of Fairyland and delivers him, a Changeling, into our world. It’s a tale of someone trying to fit in, and then discovering that he can do much better than merely fit in once he decides to be himself. “Much better” in this case meaning to the dismay of his teachers and the delight of his fellow schoolchildren, whom he convinces of many improbable things.

But Hawthorn doesn’t just feel out of place, he really is out of place and so, as he eventually discovers during a memorable baseball game, is his friend, a girl named Tamburlaine. The Fairyland books are growing up, and boys and girls discovering each other, sharing secrets, making magic together and exploring new worlds is part of that. Except of course it’s also very literally the stuff of the story. Tamburlaine helps Hawthorn remember he’s a changeling, at the same time as she shows him her true nature. The magic they make together includes animating many of the objects in Tamburlaine’s house. And the world they explore is of course Fairyland. Crossing that border is the high point of the book, although it occurs about two-thirds of the way through, as it resolves the main conflict of the story. The rest of the book is just as delightful, but it also sets up the final volume in the series, The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home. Hawthorn and Tamburlaine find that they are not the only Changelings, not the only people to have crossed into Fairyland. They meet September, protagonist of the first three books; there are intimations that all is not well in the balance between our world and Fairyland; and Something Must Be Done.

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland is splendid fun with a big heart, but as the fourth in the series and clear lead-in to the fifth and final book, it’s definitely not the place to start. The old advice of the King of Wonderland applies to Valente’s set.

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