May 31 2017

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

I totally judged this book by its cover.

First of all, the book is by Catherine Merridale. About a decade ago, I picked up a copy of Ivan’s War and was rewarded with one of the most amazing works of history that I have ever read. It’s a chronicle of the Great Patriotic War as seen by the ordinary soldiers who served in it. There’s a certain amount of documentary work behind the book, but mostly it is based on interviews conducted by Merridale and a small team of historians who worked with her. Ivan’s War would have been flat-out impossible before the fall of the Soviet Union, of course, and maybe impossible again now for both demographic and political reasons. Yet Merridale and her colleagues got these men to open up about their service, their lives before and after, what they experienced, what they expected of their society afterward, and how that went. It is a brutal, brutal book because of its subject matter (the Red Army inflicted three-quarters of the casualties suffered by the Nazi war machine), best summed up by one veteran’s three-sentence description of the war. “They called us. They trained us. They killed us.” At the same time, though, it’s full of life — survivor bias at play — as these men recalled a time that was central in their individual lives and to the collective life of their now-former nation. I remember that the Ivans loved their Lend-Lease Studebakers, and many of them held on to a positive view of America despite the Cold War. Ivan’s War was so good that I will buy a new book by Merridale as soon as I see it.

Second of all, the cover of Lenin on the Train — and here I am talking about the UK hardback — is awesome. Oh, for a world where book ads are hung in multi-story size on downtown buildings! Because this design deserves to be gigantic. It leaps straight out of the early 20th century Russian avant garde and sets both book and reader in motion. The title and author’s name form a rectangle within the borders of the form of the book, but their justification and positioning mean that they don’t sit still there on the front of the book. Like their subject matter, they are moving steadily and constantly. Behind the words, abstract strokes of red on black that, at first glance, could be the lightning of the revolution that Lenin intends to bring to Russia. Electric power was an important element of early Communist propaganda, and making that manifest on the dust jacket would tie form and content together, along with echoing the styles of art that surrounded revolutionary ferment in Russia. On closer inspection, though, the lightning strokes are parts of the wheel set of a steam locomotive. Here is one of Lenin’s trains, in red (for socialism, for the blood of war, for the power that moves both) across a background of black, steaming through Germany and around the Baltic Sea, delivering Russia’s most uncompromising revolutionary. The cover perfectly unites subject and style.

The book, happily, lives up to the cover’s promise.

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May 28 2017

Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

As far as fantasy novels go, this has a great setting and characters (with one exception that I’ll get to in a minute) and above all atmosphere. Essentially an alternate world take on Weimar Berlin before the fascists’ rise to power, it depicts life lived on a razor’s age, hedonism in the maw of societal destruction. As a fantastical version of Cabaret, as a paean to love beyond the typical heterosexual pairing, it’s a terrific novel.

But Jesus Christ, as a spy novel, it is godawful. I spent the last two-thirds of the novel utterly mystified by Cyril because nothing he did made a goddamn lick of sense. So basically a few years before the events of Amberlough begin, he got pulled out of the field after nearly losing his life in a Russia-like neighbor. He gets taken off of desk work, however, to try to infiltrate the fascists in the fictional stand-in for The Netherlands. It’s not really a spoiler to say that his cover is blown, but then instead of going home and licking his wounds like any other competent spy would, he turns. For no good reason, and he hates himself the entire time, and he makes a lot of shitty and incompetent choices. Not even a previous near-death experience could make such an inconsistent bungler out of the master spy we’re told he is. This is the worst spy novel I’ve ever read, and an insult to John LeCarre to have this book compared with his work.

That said, it’s a pretty good sociopolitical novel, and Ari and Cordelia are both fantastic characters. It’s a wildly original setting for a fantasy novel and I do want to know more about the people and the world. But God, not as a spy novel please.

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May 26 2017

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

Somewhere I had read that Maskerade was the last Discworld book featuring the Lancre witches. Worse, I believed it, so I was both a little surprised and a lot pleased to pick up Carpe Jugulum and find that they were back. Pratchett dispensed with the traditional opening — “When shall we three meet again?” — because numbers are still something of a sore point for his witches. Magrat is still a Queen, as she has been since the end of Lords and Ladies, and Agnes, a.k.a. Perdita, is of two minds about the whole witchy business.

Pratchett combines three main elements to set the machinery of Carpe Jugulum in motion. First, he has the structural problem that Granny Weatherwax has grown considerably in power since she was first introduced to readers back in Equal Rites. As Nanny Ogg noted in Maskerade, witches whose power grew unchecked tended to come to bad ends, or to just go away somewhere far from mortal ken. Granny is still very much in the danger zone in this regard. Second, the King and Queen are about to have their first child, so naturally there will be a naming ceremony. The witches are invited, but it wouldn’t be a proper story if all the invitations arrived and all the witches attended and none of them got offended and nothing went wrong, would it? Third, as the title implies, vampires show up. This particular vampiric family is looking to expand their demesne and has chosen Lancre as a tasty addition.

By way of setting up all three, Pratchett writes a scene that’s as deft and devastating as anything I can think of in Discworld to this point. Granny Weatherwax has been called to help with a birth. The midwife sent someone a-running because things were all going wrong.

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May 25 2017

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

“As if Cordwainer Smith had written a Warhammer novel.” That blurb sold me on Ninefox Gambit. Even so, I almost bounced off of it in the first chapter. In terms of the blurb, too much Warhammer; in terms of my taste in reading, it felt too much like simple-minded war-glorifying fiction. Boom, boom! Pew! Pew! Pew! What’s this doing as a Hugo finalist?

And then it wasn’t.

She had eaten with him at high table for years, listened to his anecdotes of service in the Drowned March and at the Featered Bridge between the two great continents of the world Makhtu. She knew that he liked to drink two sips from his own cup after the communal cup went around, and then to arrange his pickles or sesame spinach on top of his rice. She knew that he cared about putting things in their proper place. It was an understandable impulse. It was also going to get him killed.
Already she was rewriting the equations because she knew what his answer would be.
The sergeant reiterated his protest, stopping short of accusing her of heresy herself. Formation instinct should have forced him to obey her, but the fact that he considered her actions deeply un-Kel was enabling him to resist.
Cheris cut contact and sent another override. Lieutenant Verab’s acknowledgment sounded grim. Cheris marked Squadron Four outcasts, Kel no longer. (pp. 12–13)

Ninefox Gambit is set in a far future amidst a great deal of sufficiently advanced technology. Not just faster-than-light travel, sensors and communications of the sort necessary to make a fast-paced space opera work, but also weapons and effects that the characters call “exotics.” Formations that multiply the force exerted by a soldier’s weapon, other formations that provide enhanced resistance, weapons such as amputation guns or a horrible death multiplier called a threshold winnower. The exotics depend on advanced mathematics, shared indoctrination among soldiers and, crucially, control of an overarching calendar. Mastery of time, in this sense, provides mastery of matter on levels that current science would call impossible.

The price of mastery, though, is ruthlessly enforced orthodoxy. The calendar and the technologies it supports are the basis of the main polity in Ninefox Gambit, the hexarchate. Heresy is a constant threat to the integrity of the calendar, and the hexarchate ruthlessly stamps it out with their military caste, the Kel, supported by the secret service Shuos, and eventually by other castes that bring deviant thinking back into alignment.

Whether or not it’s plausible under our known laws of physics, it’s a system that is internally consistent through the book and a fine framework for telling a story. Lee chooses to tell the Captain Kel Cheris, the officer forced in the opening chapter to use unconventional, perhaps even heretical, methods to take an objective assigned to her by Kel Command. Her approach is noticed, for better and for worse, by high levels of the Command. They invite her to be one of seven officers to propose a means for retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, an important calendrical nexus that has fallen to heretics and threatens to infect a large swathe of the hexarchate.

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May 24 2017

Traveler of Worlds by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

The important information on this book’s cover is the subtitle, Conversations with Robert Silverberg. Traveler of Worlds is entirely a set of interviews with Silverberg, who recently passed 80 years of age. He’s one of the grand old men of science fiction; he has attended every Hugo award ceremony; he was incredibly prolific back in the day; and he is now very firmly retired.

Over the course of a little more than 300 pages, Silverberg and Zinos-Amaro range across a wide variety of subjects, but concentrate on reading, writing, science fiction, and art. In science fiction fandom Silverberg is famed as a toastmaster, held to be an exceptional raconteur, and noted for welcoming even rank newcomers to the field. In his introduction to these conversations, Gardner Dozois (another grandee of the field) says, “Silverberg has always struck me as the most urbane of all the field’s practitioners” and praises his “his effortless urbanity, sophistication, and charm.” I found him congenial, but I was not blown away; perhaps I have been fortunate in my conversational partners.

The conventional narrative of Silverberg’s career is that he started selling stories from an early age, was an enormously prolific hack through the middle or late 1960s, and then had an incredibly fertile period where his art reached an entirely new level. He retired for a time in the mid-1970s, then returned with a late period of strong work that gradually tapered off. It is safe to say that he has finished writing now; he refers to himself several times in the book as a former writer.

It’s difficult to grasp just how prolific Silverberg was for a while. He mentions having a year when he sold two million words of writing. He was routinely writing, and selling, upwards of three thousand words per day. No complete bibliography of his work exists. It is possible that one could be constructed, but he wrote not only science fiction, but quite a bit of non-fiction, and nearly anything that someone asked him to write and would pay for. He wrote under a large number of pseudonyms. He wrote erotica at a time when that could earn a visit from the FBI for indecent use of the mail; he very carefully did not lie to the G-men when they dropped by, in part because they were inept with their questions.

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May 22 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The two main characters of A Closed and Common Orbit are learning what it is to be human. That’s not quire correct in one case; maybe it would be more correct to say that each is learning what it is like to be a person, with a fairly wide definition of what “person” means. They come at it from different ends, different directions and eventually meet on common, well, maybe not common ground but perhaps the common orbit of the title.

The book is a sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which I have not read. A paragraph prefacing Orbit says that the current timeline in the story begins during the final events of Planet. It is possible that this discussion will contain spoilers for that book. I was not lost reading Orbit, so it’s not necessary to have read the previous book to enjoy the current one.

Lovelace — called Sidra in most of the book — is a ship’s AI downloaded into a highly illegal body kit for reasons not explained in the current story. She doesn’t like it. “Twenty-nine minutes before, she’d been housed in a ship, as she was designed to be. She’d had cameras in every corner, voxes in every room. She’d exsited in a web, with eyes both within in outside. A solid sphere of unblinking perception.” She doesn’t like it in the least. “Her vision was a cone, a narrow cone fixed straight ahead, with nothing — actual nothing — beyond its edges. Gravity was no longer something that happened within her … nor did it exist in the space around her, a gentle ambient folding around the ship’s outer hull. Now it was myopic glue, something that stuck feet to the floor and legs to the seat above it.” (p. 5)

Faced with such disconcerting input, such disappointing constricting input, Lovelace comes to the logical conclusion that the kit must be malfunctioning. No, Pepper assures her, that’s what being singular in a body is like. A body kit that, if discovered, would lead to many years of imprisonment for the people who have helped her into it, and erasure for the AI housed therein.

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May 21 2017

The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn

How does a Mormon missionary wind up facing charges of terrorism and conspiracy? In Canada, of all places?

William Shunn’s memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, starts with him at nineteen answering questions for a detective. It’s hard to tell if he’s more disconcerted by the charges he faces or the woman facing him in a short, short skirt. “I haven’t been alone so close to a woman in five months. With no table between us, our knees nearly touch. This is against mission rules in so many ways, I can’t even count.”

Even then, with the full force of the law about to descend on him, he is still worried about the missionary rules under which he was sent from Utah to Canada in 1986 to try to win converts. It’s a familiar feeling, that the rules of a foreign culture aren’t as real as one’s own. The all-encompassing nature of the Mormon culture from which Shunn came, its many rules, and its many means for enforcing them that have nothing to do with the larger cultures outside of Mormonism no doubt contributed to Shunn’s feelings. Nevertheless, Canada’s law enforcement has arrested this upstanding young man. “Elder Shunn, tell me,” says the detective. “Tell me how you ended up here.”

Shunn tells readers the story of how he wound up on the wrong side of the Mounties, weaving his own history together with the history of Mormonism, particularly its founder Joseph Smith. The history illuminates the current setup of Mormonism, how and why they send missionaries, how the culture of the church works and works on its members, and the personal relationships members build with the church’s founders. These relationships with the church’s founding stories in turn play roles in how members relate to authority, and how people with authority in the church use it on their charges.

The book is fast and fun to read. Shunn is a breezy raconteur, recounting his story and the Mormon story with equal deftness. Dipping back into the book to write this, it’s easy to get drawn back in, flipping through the pages and following young Shunn’s efforts to win souls, hang onto his girlfriend back home, and navigate the small-bore perils of missionary life. There’s plenty that’s funny, from the terminology — assistant to the president (a local Mormon functionary) are known to the missionaries as APs, or apes — to the pranks the missionaries play on each other, to just tales of people being people in all their random, weird glory.

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May 20 2017

“The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon

The Tomato Thief” by Urusla Vernon will have my first-place vote for this year’s Hugo award in the category of best novelette. It is a sideways return to the world of “Jackalope Wives,” which won the Nebula in 2014 for best short story, and is the only other story of hers that I have read.

Both are set in what feels like a mythologized version of the American Southwest. The timing is vague; this story features trains, and they have been around for a while. But people also mostly get around by foot or by animal transport. If this is the modern world, it is very distant for one reason or another.

It’s very tightly focused, mostly on Grandma Harken.

Grandma Harken lived on the edge of town, in a house with its back to the desert.

Some people said that she lived out there because she liked her privacy, and some said that it was because she did black magic in secret. Some said that she just didn’t care for other people, and they were probably the closest to the truth.

And of course on tomatoes.

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May 17 2017

Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall

By the time Blair Tindall gets to the skills analysis that tells her she’s terrible at logic and analysis, I was so frustrated with this book that I said aloud, “You got that right.”

Other things she gets right in the book: the fly-on-the wall look at the life of a professional classical musician of the time, as well as her reporting on the history and business of classical music in America. But there are two huge flaws that make this book an incredibly annoying read. The first is her crappy attitude. Idk what combination of poor self-esteem and shallowness is at work here but I had a hard time empathizing with what should be a highly sympathetic portrait. I totally understand falling into a profession by accident, then finding oneself woefully unprepared for a life outside of it, and I very much admire her gumption in seeking balance and health so she could regain her enjoyment of playing the oboe. But she spends very little time talking about her gift in comparison with the vast amounts of time she spends bitching about the people around her and her own poor life choices. Her circumstances and experiences explain some of why she feels trapped, but I just spent so much time being baffled because she was admittedly not poor and had a loving family that she just never chose to rely on, aside from a Carnegie Hall debut recital that they happily finance. I was really glad when she started making good choices, but everything between the ages of 24 and 39 just felt like years and years of shooting herself in the foot, then looking at her reading audience with a bewildered “woe is me!” expression. Her explanations swing between a classic Idiot Story and “none of this is my fault!” Fucking boring.

Which leads to the other problem with the book: the muddled, and I hesitate to even use this word, “conclusions” she comes to at the end of it. There are things I can wholeheartedly support, like the value of a well-rounded education instead of the specialized, glorified trade school lessons that are the lot of most conservatory students. I absolutely agree that parents should have more of a supervisory role in their childrens’ educations, especially when private lessons can be open to abuse. And it is absurd for bureaucrats to pay themselves extravagant salaries while musicians earn a mere fraction of their incomes. But is Ms Tindall saying that musicians should be paid more, or not at all? Is she saying that the American music scene is not European enough, or too ready to ape Europe? Her arguments are so vague in every direction that I finished the book completely mystified as to what she was trying to get at. It was a lot like having a Facebook conversation with someone who’s bad at arguing but insists on doing it anyway.

Mozart In The Jungle was great for a gossipy look at the life of classical musicians in late 20th-century America (and it certainly made me listen to a bit more classical music, and raised my interest in watching the Amazon show, and reminded me how much I miss playing the cello) but as factual analysis and policy argument, it was bafflingly bad. I’m frankly surprised she has a writing career beyond sense impressions, where she excels, under the guidance of an editor who can give her direction in choosing subject matter.

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May 15 2017

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Reader, I devoured this book on my road trip to visit my in-laws over Mother’s Day weekend. It is, as the author admits, something of a ridiculous novel: a contemporary of Jane Eyre’s contemplates the similarities between their lives even as she herself, the titular Jane Steele, solves problems by means of murder, and finds herself involved in conspiracies involving the East India Company and expatriate Sikhs in England. But it is this sense of absurdity that carries the goings-on agilely forward, making for a deeply satisfying, entertaining novel.

Essentially: Jane Steele is a friendless orphan who is sent away to a dreadful boarding school from which she escapes with her best friend to brave the seamy underbelly of London. Upon separation from her dear friend, she ekes out a living till a notice of position for governess in her childhood home crosses her path. Compelled by curiosity and a sense of proprietorship, she applies, and finds herself welcomed and absorbed into a (curious for its era) household that is far more Punjabi than English. Oh, and she kills a bunch of people along the way.

But Jane isn’t a sociopath. In many respects — and I hope this isn’t too, too much of a spoiler — murder is the only option she has as a young woman in a society that grants little social and legal power, much less redress, to those of her sex. This novel is, essentially, a feminist, globalist, revisionist fantasy loosely based on Jane Eyre. There’s also a very solid murder mystery in it, and while I did have reservations as to the presentation of the identity of the killer I do think that, overall, Lyndsay Faye was respectful of the culture, history and religion of Sikhism. I certainly learned much more of it, and I already have Sikh friends.

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