Saturday, September 26, 2020

57. The Duplicate by William Sleator

Meezly lent this to me, a beautiful hardback version that she found at Dark Carnival.  She had bought it as a gift for my nephew but decided she wanted to read it first.  I had never read it, but I really feel like I must have read some of his books before.  They really look like the kinds of books I would have taken out of the library when I was in my early adolescence.  The story here is about a teenage boy who stumbles upon a strange device on the beach near his house.  He is in a bit of a dilemma because he has finally gotten a date with the cute girl in his class that he has a crush on (to help her with her math homework) but he forgot that he is supposed to go to his grandmother's birthday at the same time that evening.

He sees a seagull poke at the device and suddenly a second seagull appears.  Not sure what he saw, he takes the device home and starts testing it out and ends up with a copy of himself.  At first it seems like the solution to his double-booking but very quickly the logistical problems make having a second version of himself more trouble than benefit.  What clothes will they wear?  Who is going to eat dinner?  Who goes to school and where does the other one go.  Even more difficult, who gets to go on the date and who has to go to grandma's birthday party.

It's a quick read and aimed at adolescents, but it really does explore the issue to its peak and things get pretty dark.  I am sure there are equivalent books for young adult readers today, but I feel like a lot of them are quite safe.  Hunger Games, Harry Potter, they are all in a fantasy world.  Books like The Duplicate force you to ask yourself what you would do if you suspected your duplicate was actually plotting to kill you.  It's good.  I also like that the girl in the end is quite level-headed and cool.  A nice little interim read.  Now we will send it on to the nephew.  

Yes, reading his obituary, I do think I had read some of his earlier books. They sound really intriguing.

Friday, September 25, 2020

56. The Jook by Gary Phillips

I picked this up on a whim at S.W. Welch.  It looked pulpy, the protagonist was African-American and an a pro football player.  I am still buying too many books and my on-deck shelf literally floweth over (or stacketh upwards).

The protagonist is Zalmont Raines, an once star wide reciever in the NFL who had caught a superbowl-winning touchdown pass and had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  At the start of the book, he is arriving at LAX, coming back from Europe where had just been cut from the Barcelon Dragons because of his gimpy hip.  We learn soon that he partied way too hard and much of his big salaries was gone.  He was also being chased by a baby momma (I don't think this term was around when this book was written in 1999) and a potential lawsuit for statuatory rape after getting a blowjob from a 16-year old girl in a wheelchair.  His goal is to get a spot on the LA Barons, the new expansion team in his hometown.

Zalmont is a selfish, cold person.  The book walks a thin line, you do sympathize with him but you also are constantly reminded what an asshole he is.  It's never an excuse, but the cuthroat nature of professional football and his own upbringing, are definitely present as factors in his behaviour.  The language is rich and there are lots of nerdy references.  Furthermore, the story keeps moving forward.  Nevertheless deep down, it is a pretty bleak book.  Call it black noir.  This is grown-up stuff.  Lots of sex and violence.  The final climax, a heist of a garbage truck would make a great action movie.

Some of the writing was a bit clunky, with abrupt transitions and the wrong balance of exposition.  Also, some of the dialogue sounded too similar among different characters.  There would be a tendency to speak in the vernacular and then in more nerdy, explanatory english.  However, as I said before, the story really keeps moving forward, there was a lot of action and you kind of dig the arrogant, son-of-a-bitch elite wide receiver. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

55. A New Kind of War by Anthony Price

Anthony Price has been on my radar for a long, long time, dating back to when Louis XIV did an excellent series of interviews with him.  I have held off for all these years because I suspected his books might be not right for me.  I didn't know how but I have enough to read that it did hold me back until I saw one of his book last month at S.W. Welch.  The opening paragraph really worked for me and I was in need of something to kickstart my reading again.

Wow, was this a slow burn.  I mean perhaps the slowest burn of any espionage book I have ever read.  I couldn't even figure out what the plot was until page 300 of 362!   The basic set up is that Fred Fattorini, Captain in the British Army encounters a strange unit in Greece at the end of the Second World War.  He is then sent to join that unit in Germany where they are ostensibly there to study Roman ruins uncovered by recent bombing.  Even figuring out what I just typed there takes pages and pages of dialogue all done in this halting, interrupting style where Fattorini is constantly guessing as to what is actually going on and nobody will tell him anything but the slightest fragments of information.  It is actually quite frustrating and made it hard for me to get through this book, especially at a time when I needed some easy comfort reading to get my stamina back up.

The thing is, it's not bad.  It's actually really quite good.  It feels realistic, with complex and nuanced portraits of how the old boy network and class structure informed the makeup of the British army.  The descriptions of the surroundings are subtle and really give you flashes of a scene in your head (thus the seduction of the first paragraph).  Likewise the portrayal of the allies splitting up and fighting amongst themselves for the intel spoils of war as well as the various ethical and moral compromises that go with that are really well done. This is grown-up espionage, possibly too grown up for me.  You need to know your history and you need to be paying attention. 

By the end, it does all tie together in a pretty cool way.  It's one of those books where the ending is really cool because it sets the groundwork for more adventure in the future, but it doesn't feel like it has to actually tell those stories. Just the potential of it based on what came before makes it cool to read.  

Spoiler here (for my own memory when I go back to read this):  This is in some ways not a real spoiler because you could figure out a lot of it on your own and it is not a mystery per se, it's just that Price puts you in Fattorini's mind and part of the pleasure of the book is learning what the hell is going on through him.  The unit he is joined up with is tasked with finding and convincing German scientists to come to Britain to work with them.  They are rivals with the US and enemies with the Soviets in this task, and it comes out (and this is a real spoiler) that there is a traitor amongst them  The reason they are all so close-lipped and weird is because of this suspicion. Fattorini is brought in from the outside to suss the traitor out but they can't even tell him that directly until they know he is solid.  Ultimately, this book sets the stage for the cold war espionage that will dominate the decades after the war, thus the title.  Oh I see, it really is an origin story as characters from this book (which was written near the end of his career) are the younger versions of themselves in many of his earlier books.  Cool.

Friday, September 18, 2020

54. me and white supremacy by Layla F. Saad

A bit of a step outside my usual reading habits, this book is a work assignment!  We are decolonizing (can't decide if  I should put that in quotes or not) at the organization I work for and one of the tasks we've been asked to do is to read this book and have discussions about it.  I am very much in favour of rooting out racism and discrimination and I as a reader was kind of excited to actually have a book club at work.  We are pretty much full on "radical lefty" anyways, so it's not a big stretch for anybody, though I did hear some grumblings about being assigned homework.  Some may see it as preaching to the converted but there is a real and deep structural problem in the non-profit world where it is pretty much educated, economically comfortable white people in a majority of the roles, especially in management.  On the positive side, there are a majority of women in those roles and I have seen that change over time.

The argument is, and I hope everybody is now aware of this is nothing new, but that we have to look at racism as a structural problem that goes far beyond just individuals being racist.  Even if we can make people not be racist, the way we educate and hire, the way the markets work, all these institutions join together in a social structure that makes it almost impossible to create a racially just society.  The racism gets reinforced sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly at every step in someone's life journey.  The black kid who is bored in school gets labelled a troublemaker and her parents who work in a low-income job don't have the time or resources to fight back and when they do they are labelled also as difficult. And thus the black kid doesn't get the same education (and are already disadvantaged because they live in neighbourhoods where their schools are less funded).

The target of me and white supremacy is more specifically at how we have internalized racist thinking (white supremacy as she labels it) because of all these structures and cultures around us.  The book is more like a self-help guide where you read a chapter, learn a new thing about white supremacy and then you are supposed to "journal" (that I will definitely put in quotes) and more importantly think and discuss deeply how you are racist and then work to root that out.  Chapters are on subjects like white fragility (how white people freak out when they get called on their racism and make it more about their pain), white silence (being against racism but not standing up when you see it in front of you), the way children are raised, the idea of being "colourblind" and so on.

As you can tell I am very much in favour of the goal of this book and so I don't want to think that the overall mission is not valid.  I also agree that the issues she brings up are real white people need to deal with them.  However, I do have several serious critiques of it. Primarily, it is very simplistic.  Both in the portrayal of the concepts and in the audience.  It really is a self-help book and so I understand why you are will only spend a few pages on what are incredibly rich and complex topics (again, when I say "complex" I don't mean some both sides argument bullshit, but that the history behind them and the mechanics of how they work are multi-faceted and vary depending on context; here is a one-size fits all that starts to undermine the validity of the overall argument).  She also has a very monolithic understanding of the white people she is talking to.  It feels like the only white people she knows are Nancy's she argues with on the internet.  Many of the questions you are asked are of the "have you stopped beating your wife" construction (for instance, "what have you learned about the dehumanizing ways you think about and treat BIPOC and why?").

After a while, it starts to feel like one of those terrible situations in college where you are surrounded by white upper middle-class east coast kids who are denouncing themselves and their bourgeois values, each competing to be more extreme and radical in unpacking their own class and race biases. And then in ten years they will all go on to be currency traders and homemakers in Greenwich, CT (this actually happened).  It all feels very culty.

There is a problem in general with this approach to white supremacy.  It assumes that all of us are already indoctrinated in it and we can't not be.  According to this book, we have all this hard work to do.  But at what point are we doing enough work to be free of white supremacy and who decides?  There is no option here for someone to say that they are doing the work and do not have white supremacist thinking.  So you either wait eternally for an external arbiter and meanwhile you live in constant guilt or you reject the premise altogether.  The first way leads to cult leaders and totalitarian thinking and the the other option makes you at best opt out or at worst be a total racist.  And even saying that would have people on the internet saying "see you are a racist!"

Maybe white supremacy is so deep that this is the only solution, but I can't help feeling there is a better way.  Again, all the concepts here are real and need to be fought against, but I think there needs to be a more nuanced approach and a recognition that there are many white people who are committed to anti-racism and really not approach the world with even the subtlest white supremacy thinking.

I think part of the problem with this book is that it has this unspoken foundation of 60s self-development ideas.  Those are great for some people, but not so great for others. It really wants us all to be in constant self-critiquing and development and to have all these emotional upheavals that help give us new clarity.  My mother is a therapist and her advice and perspective has been very good for me. I believe in personal development, but this method leaves me wanting, to say the least. There are a few sections of actual concrete work you can do to be anti-racist (supporting movements with money and time in the background, creating roles and opportunities in your job or organization, giving voices to BIPOC in situations where you have that power, etc.) and I would have found a book that emphasized those things to be much more helpful for me personally.  Maybe it is smart the way she did this book because she does seem to be going after white liberal women especially in the wellness field (which she mentions specifically several times) and they love that shit.

If you are someone who thinks racism is bad and that you are not a racist but maybe have some tiny doubts or have been confronted with accusations on the internet that angered you but you didn't really have a defense, I would recommend this book for you. Just be ready to not get defensive.  She really lays it out clearly what the issues are in a digestible way and it may open your eyes.

If you are fully on board with Black Lives Matter and all in in understanding structuralist racism and looking to deepen your knowledge and tactics, I would suggest you look elsewhere.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

53. Hitler by Shigeru Mizuki

I am fairly well versed in the Second World War and in particular the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the wars leading up to it.  I studied it in college and then much of my fictional reading and some non-fiction has been in this area.  Not to say I am some expert, but that the reality of Hitler and the Nazis versus the mythology does not come as something new to me.  That is a bit how this book is marketed and I hope that for some readers it would be elucidating in that fashion.

It really is a straight-up history, mostly a biography of Hitler himself.  It's very well done, going into a surprising amount of detail in such a rushed history.  Because it is a manga and there is very little exposition, a lot goes on in a few pages.  I suspect that for people totally new to the history, a lot of it might go past them and many of the character fade in and out. There are two nice little indices, one a roster of characters with illustration and the other a list of endnotes that go into more detail. Somehow, the combination of dark, sketchy, impressionistic but realistic backgrounds with the manga-ish cartoony expressions of the characters (toned down but nonetheless manga style) imparts a strong reality to the story.  The characters seem human.  This is what makes this book so effective.  It "humanizes" what happened, not in the sense that we realize these are complex people with feelings that we should feel sympathy for (there is little of that).  Rather that the rise of Nazi power and fascism in Germany was not some well thought out master plan but a series of complex interactions between the historical context and the individuals involved.  Grounding the narrative makes you realize that it really could happen anywhere, that there is no tradition or political structure so solid that it cannot be undermined or rot from within.

Of course in these times where an authoritarian takeover is happening in the United States right now leads to a comparison of the two situations.  There are so many differences that one feels it may be erroneously simplistic to compare them.  The situation in Germany (coming off of WWI, the crushed economy, the social and class structure not to mention technology) was wildly different than that of the US today.  It's probably more helpful to do broader comparisons of the rise of authoritarian regimes in general. The one big similarity, though, that stands out for me and is highlighted nicely in this book, is the complicity of the elites and business.  Hitler, as extreme and uncompromising as he portrayed himself, often backed down in the early days when faced with the threat of losing support from the big industrialists.  This kept them appeased (at best) and usually brought them onside when they saw how they could increase their monopolies.  Likewise, the upper classes, who detested Hitler's upbringing, consistently acquiesced to his power as they did not see him as a threat to them.  This is exactly what is happening with Trump now.  The editorial positions of the New York Times, normalizing his destruction of structures of American democracy with neutral headlines and constant "both sides" arguments will be seen in the future as one of the tools of propaganda that allowed him and his cronies to go as far as he did.

One thing that I did learn and am somewhat shamed of my ignorance is Shigeru Mizuki himself. He is, at least according to the biography, one of the most important figures in Japanese Manga.  He also did several history books on Japan's rise to the war and one about his own life as a soldier in WWII, where he lost an arm.  I would love to read those as well.