I will confess that I put off reading Cory Doctorow’s Homeland for months simply because the story opens at Burning Man. Back when it came out I bought it, put it on my ereader and read the first few pages and went Ugh. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s just the kind of book that needs to be read in summer. In any case this time I was ready for it and really liked the book.
Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, but in this one Marcus has graduated from high school and dropped out of university and is trying to get by in our modern economy, which gets him involved in politics. There are plot points about leaking politically sensitive materials and surveillance and hacking party politics to reflect what real people (or at least tech-savvy San Franciscans) care about. It’s pretty great, and sadly topical.
The topicality is a big part of what I like about this book. Aaron Swartz wrote the afterword and it’s great. The book did have a bunch of Doctorow’s essayistic explanatory tics (you read a lot about cold-brewed coffee in this book) but it feels more like a novel with excited explanations than a polemic with a plot. But there’s enough information in it to be inspiring.
It’s the kind of book I’d like lots of people to read, not just high school students. It was enough of a kick in the ass for me to finally root my old phone and install Tor on it, so if you measure a book by how it changes behaviour this was a good one.
Trickster Makes This World is a book about how trickster myths work in different cultures and the impact they have on the cultures they’re found in. It was a very interesting examination of creativity and art and the importance of transgression to humans.
Before picking up the book I was expecting to be reading about Coyote, Raven and Anansi, but Lewis Hyde was interested in a wider interpretation of Trickster that included Hermes (never having read much Greek mythology I wouldn’t have assumed the messenger was a trickster, but now I do) and Loki and applied how trickster-like transgression is used within history by political agents like Frederick Douglass.
It’s written in a pop-science kind of style so it’s not a difficult time. Because of that the insights feel a little easy, maybe a little glib. There’s definitely room to argue with Hyde because of the simplification he does in looking at all these myths with his specific focus. I enjoyed the book but it’s about analyzing stories in a certain way, which might not be the kind of thing everyone would be interested in.
Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was is not as phantasmagorical as its title might imply, but if you add in the subtitle – A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents – you get a bit closer to the matter. It’s a history of anarchists and revolutionists in 19th century Russia and France primarily. I don’t read a lot of history so I don’t know if it was tremendously accurate. It gave me a bit better an idea of some of the political challenges going on at the time and how the secret police used agents provacateur to try and manoeuvre naive folks to serve other political ends. I liked it because it was about the people who were leftist but not Marxist, which is something especially historically I am very capable of forgetting.
I can’t imagine working for an organization that would put out a code of conduct that prohibits its employees from engaging in teaching, conference attendance or other “personal engagements” on their own time. I mean, I can imagine it; I just imagine it would suck. And for the librarians at Library and Archives Canada who are in charge of keeping the country’s information organized and accessible for all Canadians to be muzzled in such a way is complete bullshit.
An employee may accept such invitations as personal activities if all of the following conditions are met:
- The subject matter of the activity is not related to the mandate or activities of LAC;
- The employee is not presented as speaking for or being an expert of LAC or the Government of Canada;
- The third party is not a potential or current supplier to/collaborator with LAC;
- The third party does not lobby or advocate with LAC;
- The third party does not receive grants, contributions or other types of funding or payments from LAC;
- The employee has discussed it with his or her manager, who has documented confirmation that the activity does not conflict with the employee’s duties at LAC or present other risks to LAC.
Personally, the idea of having to have off-work-time speech needing to be okayed by a manager gets up my nose in terms of chilling effects. Who’s going to ask interesting questions if they must check with risk-averse superiors first? Other people who are more in tune with how organizations work than me point out that the other clauses mean LAC employees couldn’t feel at ease going to talk at their kids’ school about being an archivist, let alone work with academics who might get some funding from LAC. One would think you’d want interesting thinkers at a country’s flagship library instead of mere functionaries. I would think so, anyway.
Because I was interested I looked at the social media segments of this code of conduct. They say that if an employee said something within a limited group of people that was shared to a wider audience, the employee could be subject to disciplinary measures, because of her “duty of loyalty.” Now my reading of that section seems to indicate that as long as the individual employee isn’t representing LAC’s position, but her own, things would be fine. Of course, I don’t take anything said by a person to be representative of their employer’s views, because that is crazy. Oh wait. If someone could find out where you worked and that you had an opinion then it would count as you trying to represent LAC’s opinion and smack goes the hammer.
I’m sorry, LAC employees. I think we, as librarians and as humans, should be asking interesting questions. The photographer Clayton Cubitt recently wrote a blogpost about labelling which of the pictures he posts on Tumblr are NSFW (not safe for work) after an explanation of how to get a feed of just his SFW pictures he went on to talk a little bit about alignment of your philosophy with your workplace. And there he says: “So the only real solution is in your hands: don’t work at a job that doesn’t share your personal philosophy.”
I think that’s good advice. And actually I think it’s good in its way that LAC sets out its philosophy so starkly so its employees can see how it diverges from their philosophies. They are clearly saying to their librarians “We don’t trust you. You are our enemy.” Having such a clear enemy makes some things easier. You know who you should pull your support from. The problem however is that LAC isn’t just some company making widgets or apps. It’s supposed to be preserving and organizing the citizenry’s information for use, and it’s not like the librarians who have been made enemy of their institution can just start up another one.
Let’s just get this out there: I would hate to work at LAC. But we need a National Library. If this strangulation of its workers means that librarians dedicated to freedom of information and access for the citizens leave or get chilled out of proposing any ideas to talk about that is a huge fucking loss. The librarians shouldn’t have to leave because the government doesn’t understand what the job of a librarian is.
We need people to change this. Part of the job of being a librarian is to stand up for freedom of thought and expression. That has to apply within the National Library as well as in society in general. We have to make the rules at our National Library fit the job and its values. This should be a no-brainer for librarians. We should all be do our best to help people with their information needs, which might involve asking interesting difficult awkward questions. We aren’t supposed to be scared of ideas. That is part of my personal philosophy and something I believe makes me a good librarian.
This is not a very focused blogpost. Organizations I belong to are writing much more eloquent letters outlining the issues for a general public and other librarians. I don’t know what you should do. They probably will. I will link to them as they come up.
This is just a response. My response. (Not that of any employer of mine, past, present or future.)
When my mother recently went to India she asked what I wanted as a souvenir. I requested “books by South Indian writers” and if they were ones I’d have trouble finding in Canada all the better. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won the Booker in 2008, so it’s not like it’d be especially difficult for me to find here, but I hadn’t read it before this week. Well done, Mom.
The White Tiger is about a country boy named Balram from The Darkness, interior India’s villages. He’s pulled out of school as a child and eventually becomes the driver for a landlord’s son. That job takes him to Delhi where he formulates his ideas of servanthood and the terrible nature of it. Balram is telling this story in the form of reminiscent letters to Wen Jiabao (now former-) leader of China. Now that Balram is a successful entrepreneur he is teaching the communist leader how India really works.
There is a lot of cheating and other dishonesty throughout. It’s a very entertaining read and its struggle against the chicken coop of a democracy that lets votes be bought and sold is effective and maddening. There are two scenes that particularly stand out to me. In both of them Balram is a bystander as someone “goes mad” and tries to behave as if you could take what people say at face value. In one instance a man tries to enter a shopping mall. In another a man tries to vote on election day. Both are futile exercises for the poor man.
I’m going to hit the reset button on my book reviews because I let them go for too long and the thought of writing 22 posts fills me with a kind of dread. But here are some highlights.
I’ve read a few books by writers who’re coming to our local writing festival next month. Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt was my favourite of those.
The only comic I read and loved recently was Chris Ware’s Building Stories. I loved it so much I feel like I need to write a huge essay about it, and probably will eventually.
I even read some nonfiction! (To me books about writing and literature don’t feel like nonfiction, which is why I separate these out from the two in the previous paragraph.) Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English was a great layperson’s guide to some linguistic issues with the language I know best, and David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology was a good articulation of some issues I think I need to be writing more about.
There were some other things too, including finally getting to Pirate Cinema, which was yes, a novel, but a preachy one in a really good way. That will probably get a real review here as it falls squarely in my professional interests.
So yeah. Books. Reading. I’ve also been doing three storytimes a week since February started and our library’s Teen Advisory Group finally had its inaugural meeting yesterday. It’s been kind of busy.
John Tallow is a New York City cop who accidentally finds an apartment full of guns. Not just a few shelves of them, but guns arrayed on the walls and floor like a shrine. Once they start getting analyzed it becomes clear that this isn’t just a gun nut’s shack; each weapon has been used in an unsolved NYC murder. Investigation ensues.
There’s a lot to love about this book. Tallow is a detective who is very believable in his “just going through the motions” before he starts working the case. Ellis writes likable foul-mouthed weirdos as Tallow’s sort-of assigned partners. The story (and the case) moves quickly, but it works. I bought that this didn’t need to be five seasons of a TV series (though The Wire made me right at home with the police politics on display in the story). There are a few coincidences at work that might make your eyebrow raise but Ellis is playing fair with you. It all works.
My least favourite part is the Native American history that gets bandied about, and that was mostly because I know Warren Ellis is an Englishman and this stuff is easy to get wrong. But anything here is way less problematic from my point of view than Johnny Depp as Tonto.
Though Pappa Warren writes great violence — “From his vantage, three steps back and to the right, Tallow could see Rosato’s eye a good five inches outside Rosato’s head and still attached to his eye socket by a mess of red worms.” — I think my favourite bit of pure wordsmithery was a cooking scene late in the book. There are all these details that work into Tallow’s mental state and the realization he has works so well with them, I wanted to applaud.
It’s a pretty quick read so if you’re not a huge Warren Ellis fan, you might want to go for an ebook edition, but the jacket design is great. There’s also a website with some interesting supplemental materials.
Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World is kind of a gonzo post-apocalyptic novel. One of the main characters is, in fact named Gonzo. But it’s also the story of how the world came to be this way, through the use of Go Away bombs that destroyed the world with no pesky fallout. Except for making the planet a place where nightmares become real.
The story starts with the narrator and Gonzo’s company of truckers and general bad-asses being called in to do a job, put out a fire, save the world. There’s a cataloguing of the various kinds of pencil-necks one finds in the world, ranked according to their dangerousness, and the idea that resonates through the book is introduced: being a professional means giving up your personhood to be part of a machine.
Can you see why I liked this one?
But then the first chapter is over and the trucks are rolling towards doom and glory and we drop back to childhood. We learn about being trained to fight ninjas by a daft elderly man, and having lots of sex as a political student, and absurd stupid wars featuring absurd terrible soldiers (and fearsomely brilliant ones) and terror and friendship. It’s awesome. And funny. And there are mimes.
I liked this better than Angelmaker, but that might be because I wasn’t trying to figure out how seriously to take it the whole time. It was the kind of crazy awesome book the world needs more of.
Green Mars is the sequel to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. They’re books about Mars! Green Mars was good in its discussion of how a new world trying to become free might act. The politics between the various factions in play on the planet feel much more realistic than something in which people rise up in a monolithic block. So for its depictions of politics, I like the book.
What I don’t like is how distant I felt from everything. Part of that comes from the varying POV characters, but a huge part of it is the timescale the book covers. See, in the first book they also invented a life-extension treatment for humans that basically means they won’t die from natural causes. It means that the characters in this book are mostly members of the first 100 on Mars and by the end they’re well into their second centuries of life. Even the kids we meet at the beginning of this book are 70 by the end. I found connecting with these characters hard when we’d gloss over so much of their lives with “and then she spent a decade working on aquifers.”
I get that terraforming is a long process and as a writer you want to keep your characters in the mix, but I’m more interested in what someone who only had twenty years might have to contribute. The longevity thing is the disruptive technology in this book much more than the terraforming is. It makes it more alien and science fictional which is good, but I think I’d settle for a smaller scale story that made more of a connection with the characters.
Desolation Road remains my gold standard for Mars novels even though it has a bit more “indistinguishable from magic” style technology.
The Ghosts of Belfast is the kind of book that would be a fine movie. It’s about an old former terrorist killing the people who made him kill people when he was an active terrorist. It’s told pretty straightforwardly and is a quick read. It’s more of a gangster story than a mystery as we follow Fegan trying to put his ghosts to rest. There’s a love interest and an undercover cop trying to keep a lid on the politics of these killings. In general that’s the main thrust of the story, doing things right when politics make it much easier to do something else.
It’s short and has a good hook and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a movie version of it someday. It didn’t blow me away with any cool twists or anything. I’m trying to find something really good in that vein that I can recommend to people who love the supermarket authors. This is kind of close.