Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Glum Thanks

It's time-honored tradition for me to read Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates every year at Thanksgiving. Very eagle-eyed readers might have noticed something last year: I didn't write any post about it. Well, there's a good reason for that: I forgot to read it! I didn't even realize it until about a week into December, at which point I was too embarrassed to say anything and too into the Christmas bustle to go back and read it. Besides, the "season" had passed. But this year marks its triumphant return (even if it's still a little late)!

I must admit, coming on the heels of Ferguson, it wasn't the positive aspects of the Puritans that really rang this reread. In particular, their sense of "exceptionalism," of being a "city on a hill," the sense that they were chosen, and as such, it was their duty to "help" the rest of the world, is what seemed most relevant.

The very seal of Massachusetts Bay had an Indian literally saying "Come over and help us!" Boy did they, and we their inheritors do that, by providing Christianity and "civilization" and driving Native Americans to near-extinction and all. There's nothing more American than "We're great, and we're gonna share it, if we have to kill you all to do it!" We have to help the poor, benighted rest of the world! We're here to help, whether anyone wants that help or not! Why would they not want it, anyway? Once we "civilize" them, they'll understand. Iraq, Central America, Vietnam, Syria, the list goes on, are the result of that attitude, an attitude that no matter how time and time again we see how disastrous for all parties our "help" is, we just can't seem to shake.

It's a domestic attitude, too. Because when I keep saying "American," I really mean "white Americans," and white Americans use the same sort of bullshit "If only they'd be more like us" attitude towards non-white Americans. You see it in Ferguson, you see it on immigration. "Why can't [blacks, Hispanics, etc.] learn from our sterling example? Why can't they just do what we say? We just want to help them!"

Thanks, Puritans. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bourgeois Book Club

A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson W. Baker

Something about the month between Halloween and Thanksgiving always puts me in the mood to read about colonial American history. I attribute it to the habits of childhood, as this was always the time of year in school we covered the subject on our way to playing Pilgrims and Indians at Thanksgiving. But the time between spooky Halloween and American mythographical Thanksgiving is particularly perfect for reading a book about the Salem Witch Trials like A Storm of Witchcraft.

A Storm of Witchcraft is interested not only in what happened and why there was this sudden outpouring of "witchcraft," but why the Salem witch-trials were so unusual, why they settled into the collective consciousness where other comparable incidents never did, and why the trials have such cultural resonance over three hundred years later. Starting with a straightforward narrative of the incident, Baker then goes on to look at the larger issues that caused the crisis and fueled its fire, with particular looks at the accusers, the accused, and the judges, all ensnared in tangled webs of alliance, enmity, and relation.

SPOILER ALERT: there were a lot of very complicated and interlocking reasons the trials took off like they did and unfolded as they did, including but not limited to war panic, economic distress, small-town pettiness, family ties, constitutional crises, religious disagreements, and a pervasive sense of moral decline (THE QUAKERS!). This is a pre-Enlightenment world, to be sure, but these were educated people using what was at the time generally considered best-practices. But even at the time the whole affair was mired in controversy; a lot of people thought it was all horseshit then, and said so. The trials cannot be dismissed with a simple "Oh, those stuffy Puritans sure believed a lot of silly nonsense." People died and many lives were ruined, and we should understand why.

The final portion of the book goes beyond the standard "...and then they ended, and Arthur Miller wrote a play" ending to the story to look at the legacy of the witchcraft trials, how and why it remained in the American consciousness, and how the people and places connected to it continued to be effected by it even centuries later. Long before The Crucible, Salem was a watchword for intolerance, oppression, and mass hysteria, partly due to the Massachusetts government's efforts to cover the whole thing up in the aftermath. It more or less ended Puritanism as a political force in New England. And even hundreds of years later, feelings about the trials was strong and politically trenchant in Salem, with huge controversies about monuments and memorials into the twentieth century. While Danvers, the modern name of Salem Village, where most of the witches and accusers lived, has mostly avoided connection with its past, Salem Town, where the trials took place, has made a whole industry out of being "Witch City," complete with statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens. Salem had profound reverberations in future America, and it's refreshing to see that aspect acknowledged.

Two stylistic features make A Storm of Witchcraft particularly noteworthy: it is short (less than 300 pages, excluding appendices and notes) and readable, which is far from the last book about the Salem trials I read several years ago. Fascinating and engaging, I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in digging deeper into this flashpoint in American history.

The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich

In an alternate early twentieth century where Ireland (or "Eire") is a world power plagued by unrest in its English (or "Anglican") colonies, a young queen, a secret agent, a brother and sister mathematician team, and a genius inventor are all touched by the invention of time travel and must fight to keep the world from a dark future.

A series of interconnected stories rather than a straightforward novel, The Time Roads is an able addition to the alternate universe subgenre, with a slight hint of steampunk (goddamn balloons!). But I came away from reading it disappointed. "What if Ireland and England's roles were reversed?" is an interesting divergence point for an alternate history, but it did not feel supported. It's a perfectly valid choice from Bernobich not to infodump the full history of her world to show the ramifications of the differences, but it left me feeling the worldbuilding a bit thin. It does not help that I think the extrapolations she posits are not particularly plausible; there should be more radical changes than she entertains. But, then again, alternate history is hardly a "science," so her world is no more invalid than any other setting.

Beyond questions of setting, however, another disappointment is that, besides the queen, I did not find the characters engaging or even interesting. We never get into the head of the time machine inventor at all, even though his is probably the most interesting tale, as we see near the end of the book. The brother and sister mathematicians are dull, and whether intentional or not give off far too much of a Flowers in the Attic vibe. Even the spy is not really all that exciting.

One nerdy nitpick about the math in the book. Now, I'm far from a math genius, but for a story that heavily relies on math and mathematicians, the math seems rather... dubious. Prime numbers are the keys to time travel! Errrr....

The Time Roads is not at all a bad book. It just could have been so much more, and that is a terrible shame.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sympathy For The Devil

As loathe as I am to discuss that recent "gate" controversy or its affiliate "scandals," tantrums, and firestorms, and as much as I'm disgusted by its perpetrators, my own goddamn commie pinko bleeding heart cannot help but have some sympathy for the latter. There's just a lot there I identify with more than I'm comfortable with, and also a lot of "there but for the grace of God..." to it. I have a lot more sympathy for their victims, though.

Winner!

The book I was rooting for won! Hooray!

Sunday, November 09, 2014