In my general “trying to read more nonfiction” project of this year, I got kind of a freebie: October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville. A freebie, because I’m going to read a new China Miéville book pretty much regardless of what it’s about. That it’s about a moment in history I didn’t know in any great detail, and it’s now a time in my life when I’m trying to understand a bit more about politics and history is a good coincidence.
Miéville is a writer whose sentences I enjoy and this book benefits from him being good with narrative. Each chapter covers a month between February and October 1917 (with a pre- and post- chapter bookending them) and follows the activists and reactionaries who are doing things. There were a lot of things going on in Petrograd at that time. I’d had no idea how much stuff happened between the abdication of the tsar and the Bolsheviks finally assuming power. Yup. A lot of stuff happened.
Probably not as scholarly a treatment as the sources in its works cited, but I know a bit more about history now, without feeling like I was slogging through a dry text. It also didn’t overdramatize things and felt well-researched (though he does say in the afterword that he was relying on works in English, not primary sources). I do prefer Miéville novels though, since I really enjoy his shaping of the reality in the pages rather than simply (though evocatively) reporting on things.
A useful tool for my ongoing attempts to get to know the province I’m living in is the Read Alberta eBooks project. Through my library I can download stuff by Alberta writers and not just lament that the government presiding over me funds horse racing more than the arts. Where did I get that nugget? From Will the Real Alberta Please Stand Up? by Geo Takach, which is an Alberta ebook. That I read. Following the project’s orders.
The book was not great. Part of it comes from being written 10 years ago, so “the present” was very Ralph Klein focused (but Stephen Harper was only mentioned twice). Part of it comes from the writer being a journalist who wasn’t really interested in any kind of rigour. He just talked to a lot of Albertans and non-Albertans about what they thought of Alberta, then assembled those quotes thematically. That led to it being very much a boosterish kind of thing, with loads of sentiment about the land and an almost total absence of indigenous voices. In that vein you’d think that the first nations people were totally a part of Alberta’s prehistory and have nothing to do with its present. Because it’s just white people it’s all about insecurity around being perceived as rednecks and pointing at historical good things that happened here. And the fucking “individual initiative and volunteer spirit that everyone has to exhibit because they don’t want to fund social programs through the state.
Though it was generally off-putting, I did learn about the province through the book. Mostly about history, including some of the basics of the listener-supported radio station CKUA (which is my favourite thing about living here). There was acknowledgement that the tar sands are kind of bad, but that Albertans don’t really care because everything has to be “balanced” against economic development. Which is the same as the rest of Canada I guess.
But as a book, it was an okay primer that repeated itself a lot. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was a big book a couple of years ago. It’s still large (mwah waaah) but it’s a not-inaccessible examination of some of the economic history we find ourselves embroiled in today.
Piketty uses a lot of historical data to look at how economic income patterns have changed, especially in France, since they had records going back to the 18th century, but more generally in the West. Why did Marx’s prediction that runaway capitalism would lead inevitably to its own collapse not work out like that? Why are we coming into a new age of inequality where the rich own more and more and the poor have less and less, and is this unprecedented?
I quite enjoyed learning about this stuff. I’m no economic specialist and wouldn’t be able to quibble with the data Piketty chose and didn’t choose, but I found it very interesting that the shocks of WWI, the great depression and WWII had on income and ownership were much bigger than I’d thought. For people growing up after the 1940s we have a perspective that equality is possible and the best thing to invest in is an education, but that’s skewed by specific postwar policies that have been undone by specific 1980s policies and greater deregulation. Inequality will be growing and if we don’t want that to continue we have to make changes to the capitalist system. Piketty never really goes so far as to say we should get a new system instead of capitalism, which is probably my biggest beef with the book.
It was written in an accessible enough style and Piketty re-explained concepts he was relying on at the beginnings of chapters so even a nonspecialist could follow along. I do think David Graeber’s Debt was more interesting in both writing style and content, as far as big modern books on economic principles go.
I grew up a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. I was the perfect age to see them win back-to-back World Series in 92 and 93 and though I had my bleh years when I paid them less attention, I’ve been back in my childhood fandom for at least a decade. Since getting more into baseball I added the San Francisco Giants as my west coast team since it’s good to have a team to root for that’s in the same timezone as you. I chose the Giants because of Tim Lincecum and the Barry Zito fiasco and having missed all the Barry Bonds amazingness of the early 2000s (I did briefly flirt with Dodgers fandom, but I figured it made more sense to support a team because of onfield actions and players rather than primarily for their amazing play-by-play guy; I could still appreciate Vin Scully calling a game even if I wasn’t rooting for the Dodgers). More importantly, I needed a National League team to follow, and there wasn’t another that was an immediate obvious choice.
All of that is to say I regret not having paid more attention to the Montréal Expos when they existed. Jonah Keri did pay attention and wrote a book called Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montréal Expos. It’s a good summary of some of the team’s history and the stories around the teams that were good and the ownership troubles and the Big Owe and all of that. I quite enjoyed it.
I didn’t realize that the Blue Jays and their assertion of all of southern Ontario as their TV market was so detrimental to the Expos’ finances. Growing up I assumed there was a Québec law that said Expos games had to be in French and that was why we so rarely saw them play on TV. I remember the strike season and how even without watching the games we knew they were great and that it was a crime to not have a World Series. But I didn’t know the background fire-sale that decimated the team for the next season. And I totally didn’t know about the late ’70s early ’80s coke-fuelled party teams.
It’s a good book, written journalistically, with maybe a few too many personal stories of Keri’s games he was a spectator at, but whatevs. I have a better idea of the history of the Canadian MLB team I never knew I’d enjoy rooting for.
I want to recommend Grant Morrison’s Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human as if it was just a straight up recounting of superhero comics and how they developed. It’s a prose book, not comics itself. Very readable history. Yep. That’s it. Go read it.
Okay, I can’t do it. Even though I want to completely obscure the idiosyncratic bizarre excellence that the book contains, I won’t paper over the fact that an unsuspecting reader of comic-book history blithely following along with the tales of Bob Kane and Stan Lee and Kirby and Miller could be blindsided by this turn into Grant Morrison’s time in Kathmandhu when he met higher dimensional beings who explained to him how the universe works and how that affected his superhero comics (like the amazing All-Star Superman).
It’s a crazy great book about one writer’s relationship with superheroes and because he’s a bit of a mad egotist (in a very charming way) it feels like it’s more than just a story about a drug trip, at least more than one man’s psychedelic voyage but about a chunk of society’s weird shamanic voyaging.
If that sounds like a totally wankery waste of time to you, I won’t feel bad if you skip this one. I loved it though.
I suppose I’m getting used to the fact that this is less a book review blog than it used to be. I’m sorry. Maybe I’ll be more diligent in 2014? Regardless, here’s what I’ve read (for a certain value of) recently.
- Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker. A sequel to In the Garden of Iden, but there’s another book in between that I haven’t read. I like these books because they’re all about the historical anachronism. This one wasn’t as tragic as the first though.
- Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. This was the only Vonnegut novel I hadn’t read when I started Unstuck in Time, Gregory Sumner’s book about Vonnegut’s novels. I liked Galapagos more than I’d expect to like a book about inbreeding, stupidity and evolution. Which means I liked it a lot. Unstuck in Time was a decent bit of biography around what was going on in Vonnegut’s life when he was writing the novels, which, fine, whatever, but was also a really good Cole’s Notes kind of refresher on what was actually in those books. It tickled my Vonnegut itch which means I can keep tackling new books in my to read pile rather than rereading the ones I know I love.
- Paintwork by Tim Maughan. Three short stories set in a near future SF world. I liked the Cuban giant fighting robots story the best, though they were all fine stories in a Strossian vein.
- Battling Boy by Paul Pope. A boy-god is sent to Earthish to fight monsters as part of his adolescent trials. I love Pope’s art, but wish the story was less of a first chapter and more complete. Selah.
- The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. This is the second book in The Raven Boys cycle, and this one I liked a little less than the first because it was such a continuation, instead of introducing us to characters and situations. Yes, this almost directly contradicts my issue with Battling Boy. Whatever. I quote Whitman at you.
- The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. I am not a history buff, but a friend who is one recommended this and I loved it. Part of the appeal is that I know shit about the crusades from the European perspective since my education wasn’t really big on celebrating wars of any sort, so now all I know about them beyond very basic Indiana Jones stuff is from this book about bickering Seljuk princes and the politics between Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad. Neat stuff did happen in the past (and it totally gave me a lot more context for when I play Crusader Kings, which I enjoy anyway).
- Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon and Little Hits by Matt Fraction & a bunch of artists. These are good gritty-ish Marvel crime comics about what Hawkguy does when he’s not being an Avenger. Funny and clever. I read this because Fraction is probably my favourite superhero writer these days. The Pizza the Dog issue in Little Hits is the best though. The best.
- The Land Across by Gene Wolfe. This one is about an American travel writer going to a strange European dictatorship. It feels like it’s going to be a Kafka pastiche but then it turns into a ghost story and noir secret police detective tale. It’s very weird and I really liked it. I like The City & the City better, mind you, but not by much.
- Battle Bunny by John Scieszka, Mac Barnett & Matthew Myers. This is a picturebook a well-meaning grandma has given to a little boy about a Birthday Bunny that the boy has repurposed into the tale of thwarting Battle Bunny and his evil world domination plans. I love love love the idea of this so much. That said, I’m a little nonplussed by the gender role implications that boys have to turn everything into violent confrontation for it to be interesting and wish that the protagonist (who is the person defacing the “original” book) was a girl. I might have to write separately about this book.
- Plow the Bones by Douglas F. Warrick. This collection of mostly dark SF short stories was excellent. The writing in its density and consideration of the implications of the premises reminded me of Ted Chiang. Really really good stuff.
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. This is a dystopian novel that’s far more realistic than most. Economic downturn has forced communities to hunker down and maybe hope for the best, while drugs and deprivation force people who have even less to descend upon the people who have a little bit. And in all this, a teenage girl with overdeveloped empathy (she feels injuries in other people) is building her own way of seeing and being in the world. It’s hard to take a lot of other fanciful dystopia at all seriously when this was done so well. I’m kind of ashamed it took me so long to read this classic.
Phew. I’m leaving out a few that I’ll try and do separate writeups for.
Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints is a pair of volumes about rebellion in 19th century China. In Boxers, we follow a young man whose father is humiliated at the hands of the foreign devils and the people who’ve gravitated to their power so he turns to mystical powers to try to rid China of their influence. In Saints we follow a young woman as she tries to become a foreign devil herself.
The stories are good, but somewhat slight. I don’t know. I liked the representation of the Brotherhood of the Righteous Fist becoming gods in their fights. Whenever I read histories of the Boxer Rebellion it seems stupid that so many people would believe a little ritual would protect them from bullets. This represented things in a way much easier to empathize with.
Really though, this book is a decent enough fictionalization of history, but it felt like the characters were there as a means of showing us history rather than having real depth of their own. Which is disappointing, because Yang’s made me care about characters and their individual struggles before.