Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bourgeois Book Club

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones

From the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid to the Empty Quarter of Arabia, Desert of Souls is a rousing
Arabian Nights adventure filled with stalwart warriors, clever scholars, beautiful women, dastardly magicians, capricious djinn, and fearsome monsters.

Like the Arabian Nights tales themselves, it's fully and satisfyingly-concluded but with an open end that leaves room for further adventures, which I very much look forward to reading. It's even got a nice bit of metafiction in it, in that it's a story being retold in the "future," with stories built into it, and a lot of discussion of the art of storytelling. Really stellar debut and highly recommended.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

The latest quirky trip through American history by Sarah Vowell, this time exploring the story of the annexation of Hawaii.

In some ways, this book is a continuation of
her last book, The Wordy Shipmates. The general story is the same: Puritan New Englanders go to a new land to settle and "civilize" and "help" the natives. It's just two hundred years later and in a tropical climate. The "help," of course, was cultural and political annihilation, as well as lethal, though on all scores the native Hawaiians fared better than the Native Americans. (That's a rather low bar to jump over, of course.) Yet, even as she skewers the fantastically condescending and drearily prim missionaries, she never demonizes them. These people were fanatical, hypocritical, and tedious, but they were moved to do what they thought was saving people, literally, from eternal torment. They left their homes and endured great hardship and danger in order to do it, too. Hawaii may be one of the top tourist spots in the world these days, but it sure wasn't back then, and just getting there was an ordeal. These were tough New Englanders, and if nothing else they do inspire a grudging respect.

And as Vowell discovers, the native Hawaiian power elite were not passive victims but gung-ho enthusiasts for Americanization and the missionaries. In just a few decades, Hawaii become one of the most literate nations in the world, the Hawaiian language got a written form, and books, newspapers, and pamphlets in Hawaiian came flying out of the presses. The first newspaper west of the Rockies was printed in Hawaii.
It just doesn't boil all down to "white man bad, native good." White man is, indeed, bad, much of the time, but Kamehameha only became King of Hawaii after a brutal war in which he chased men over cliffs and dammed rivers with corpses, and he sat atop a rigidly hierarchical society that threw people off cliffs for eating the wrong snacks.

Eventually, the missionaries' descendants became sugar planters and big businessman who preferred, for both economic and cultural-imperialism reasons, American annexation to even a constitutional monarchy headed by native Hawaiians. So they couped and proceeded to depose the queen and disenfranchise most of the natives (they took post-Reconstruction Mississippi's constitution as a model for that of their own "Republic"). The U.S., on its part, was caught up in imperialist fever and the need for Pacific coaling stations. But a formal treaty of annexation, strongly opposed by the former Hawaiian Queen and her countrymen, didn't get enough votes in Congress. It was only through a series of shady legal maneuvers during the Spanish-American War that U.S. annexation came about. Far from our greatest hour.

I enjoy Vowell because of her sardonic tone, but also because I feel we share a similar attitude towards America and Americanness, at once fiercely proud, almost naive in our belief in its ideals, while also soberly aware of its dark sides. She feels that, to quote Diderot, "All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone's feelings." I also love how she loves history, in all its circuitous, absurd, astonishing, tangential glory. She's not afraid of digression.

A funny, breezy, but informative book about a little corner of American history we should know more about.

Embedded by Dan Abnett

On a faraway world known only as Eighty-Six, journalist Dan Falk gets psychically linked to a US solider in a Cold War that is about to get very, very hot. What pushed hundreds of years of wary peace into all-out combat? More importantly, how is Falk going to survive in the body of a mostly-dead solider without getting himself killed?

Abnett creates a momentum to the story that is just compellingly page-turning, with genuinely exciting action. To me, much military science fiction is nothing more than lists of weapons specs, dull descriptions of tactics, and rightwing politics (I'm looking at you, Baen), but, while there are certainly bits of future mil-porn sprinkled in, Embedded is about character and mystery and survival and seeing how a civilian sees and deals with violence. Also, not to spoil anything, but you don't realize until fairly late in the book that this is not only military-inflected science fiction, but actually alternate history, too.
That revelations puts an interesting color on other aspects of the book.

I applaud Abnett's attention to linguistics, and the fact that hundreds of years in the future people will undoubtedly speak differently, but the use of made-up future slang is more interesting in theory than in practice. Most of it is annoying and clunky. But it is more or less ignorable, and you get used to some of it. One or two neologisms are even oddly plausible.

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Regular readers of Bourgeois Book Club may have noticed that I have a bit of a fondness for books about the chemical elements, such as Oliver Sacks' Uncle Tungsten and Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon. There is something to me, even as someone who did not enjoy chemistry class and has forgotten most of what I learned there, nevertheless fascinating about the elements which constitute our world.

Periodic Tales is different from the aforementioned books in that it's less interested in chemistry, either in service to a personal memoir such as in Uncle Tungsten (though there are personal anecdotes) or in describing the fascinating adventure of elemental discovery as in The Disappearing Spoon (though several of those stories are related) than in what the elements mean, their cultural, economic, and social values. He goes beyond chemistry to plumb history, art, architecture, design, medicine, alchemy, poetry, literature, linguistics, economics, pop culture, and even politics and cosmetics for broader elemental insight. The elements aren't just arcane symbols on a weird graphic; they're literally all around us, both physically and metaphorically.

Aldersey-Williams lacks the charming eccentricity of Sacks or the infectious enthusiasm of Kean, but he's a perfectly serviceable writer with the easy erudition of a Renaissance man and an admirably gung-ho attitude to getting his hands dirty. Indeed, the book's genesis comes from his attempt as a boy to collect all the elements (a logical, and apparently reasonably common, pasttime, that it seems there's even a small industry for), some of which he obtained by smashing and smelting household items. Over the course of the book, he distills his own urine to recreate the discovery of phosphorus, tromps around English forests with charcoal burners, burns kelp for iodine, explores the ailing British fireworks industry, stomps around Cornwall looking for the Cassiterides, tells his fortune using molten lead, and treks through Sweden to figure out how its chemists came to discover and name nearly a fifth of all the naturally occurring elements.

My one gripe about the book is in the pictures. Instead of captions, there is a "List of illustrations" at the front of the book. Perhaps organized this way in an effort to save space, it's rather annoying and takes away from the illustrative power of the pictures, since you don't know what you're looking at, necessarily, without having to stop, flip back to the front, and find the right page.

That nitpick aside, however, it is a wonderful book that gives a wholly different perspective on the very stuff of creation.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Yes, Fezes Are Cool, Now Shut Up About Them

You know, I'm a nerd, and damn proud of it. I certainly talk about it enough, as you well know. But I can't say I disagree with this guy, even if I don't frequent a lot of the geekiest places on the Internet that go in for Nerd Nationalism. There comes a point on the nerd continuum where "passionate fan" becomes "asshole obsessive." It all boils down to an essential truism life lesson: don't be an asshole. People don't like assholes. It's not unique to nerds or sports fans or anyone else, but it's true for all of them.

So shut up about Batman once in a while, and stop it with the zombies.
Please, stop it with the zombies.

(Via Postmodernbarney)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


If you're afraid of spiders, be thankful you didn't live in Mongolia 165 million years ago!

Happy Little Facts

Things You Didn't Know About Bob Ross. That thing about him hating the fro BLOWS MY MIND!

Brian Frons Is The Devil

So, as you may have heard, All My Children and One Life to Live have been canceled. Yes, the continuing sagas of Pine Valley and Llanview, PA will be no more in just a few months. No more Erica Kane and her many husbands, no more Victoria Lord and her many personalities, no more Dorian Lord and her many diamonds. It's the end of an era and yet another body blow to an American institution already teetering on the brink of extinction.

I've spent the past couple of days writing angry and sad screeds on various soap news websites. Like many, I grew up at my grandmother's knee watching the "stories," in our family meaning the ABC line-up. In recent years, I've been a huge fan of One Life to Live, which has retained at least vestiges of what enthralled me as a child (unlike General Hospital, which has become a vile pustule that in way deserves to be the last one standing).

There are a lot of fingers to point at in the continued and accelerating death of the American Soap Opera. Fewer people at home during the day, the way ratings are compiled, the rise of cheap-to-produce reality shows, and the general decline of broadcast TV and the rise of digital media are all major factors. In my view, however, incompetent and apathetic "leadership" from executives like Brian Frons of ABC Daytime who couldn't care less about the genre is what has really brought us to this point. Creatively, soaps have been at a standstill for some time, mostly, I think, due to an incestuous pool of writing and producing talent that has become a merry-go-round of incompetent hacks merrily skipping from one soap to another, leaving horror and destruction in their wake. Tired cliches, ridiculous stunts, and a seeming inability to accurately reflect a changing, increasingly diverse world bordering on the cowardly replaced the dynamic, challenging, socially conscious drama of other eras.

But no matter what anyone says, the death of the soap opera is and was not inevitable.
New blood and fresh ideas, new distribution channels, new revenue streams, all could have been explored. All it would take is a little smarts and creativity. But the idiots in charge have neither, and what is more, don't care. Soaps are uncool, expensive to produce, and not the easy money pits they once were. So a decades-old art form and cultural touchstone has been allowed to die on the vine, so that newer, cheaper content like a cooking show called The Chew (seriously, that's what's taking All My Children's time slot) can go on. Maddening, and even more saddening. Who is going to have fond memories of summers watching The Chew? Will The Chew last forty years with millions of multigenerational fans?

But don't take my word for it. Just go here or here or here or long-time friend-of-the-blog Chad here.

Serial drama will never die. It may no longer take its traditional form, but someone, somewhere will figure out a way to make money and generate buzz with it in today's world. It's just a shame it obviously won't be ABC.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

In The Year of the Ninja and Jackie Robinson

Year of the Rabbit? Pfft! It's the Year of the Superhero, baby!

(Via Pharyngula)

The North's Secret Civil War Weapon: Plate Tectonics

The geology of the Civil War is an actual thing.

The Secret Behind My Amazing Lovelife...


Cable Programming Ponderings

Is there any way Logo can show the movie Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat (classy title!) more? I swear it's on EVERY NIGHT! Come on, Logo, there are lots and lots of bad gay comedies you can get on the cheap.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Who Knew My Piles of Books Were Really Just Me Decorating Early?

Happy Library Week, y'all! In these times (really, for public libraries, decades) of budget cuts and digitization, it behooves us all to remember what a valuable, nay vital, resource libraries are. They are treasures.

(Via Crasstalk)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Monday, April 04, 2011

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Real Dialects of New Jersey

New Jersey's dialects really are more complicated than "North: sounds like New York; South: sounds like Philly." Down here in South Jersey, for instance there is a definite Southern twanginess to be found; I have a bit of it myself. Surprised they didn't bust out the old "wuder" (water) test, though. My sister says "wuder," but I say "wawter."

(Via languagehat)