book review: october

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.

book review: will the real alberta please stand up?

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.

book review: twisty little passages

Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction is a nonfiction book about text adventure computer games by Nick Montfort. I picked it up to read for a program I did at work on digital storytelling. The ILL didn’t come in time for the program but no one came to the program anyway so it wasn’t a big deal.

The book was about the history and some of the artistic merit behind text adventure gaming, not the point-and-click stuff like the classic Sierra games I grew up playing with my buddy, but the ones where you’re given some text and you type some text and if you type the right thing you get further into the game, like Zork (although Zork isn’t depicted with as much reverence in the book as I had naively expected). The first game that started this form was called Adventure and was about exploring caves and solving puzzles with a randomly appearing pirate messing with you. Now they’re more complex.

The book was written about 10 years ago so my further research shows that some of the languages and tools used to create this stuff have moved on. It’s an intriguing enough topic that I’m doing the further research. We’ll see if the fiction I’ve been writing might work better in this weird little form.

book review: dialogue

At some point I’m pretty sure I read Robert McKee’s Story. I imagine it was at a time when I still thought writing would be the thing I’d do (as opposed to whatever it is I do now). Last week while I was on our main floor desk I was faced with McKee’s 2016 book Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen on our “Interesting Nonfiction” display and I took it home.

It’s fine. I enjoyed the breakdowns of dialogue in screenplays, scripts and prose. There was good stuff about the way scenes build through speech, and the construction that goes into building a satisfying scene. I was also reminded of Adaptation and how these forms can make crap as easily as they can make art.

book review: the divide

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap is Matt Taibbi’s book about how economic inequality affects the American judicial system. How if you have huge amounts of money you will never go to jail but if you have no money you will be hounded by the police for walking down the sidewalk. It was incredibly depressing, but a good read (especially as a companion to Piketty’s Capital which was talking about how the wealth gap grows).

I don’t have the experience of getting thrown in the back of a police van for walking home from work as part of a commercial fishing approach to policing. I also don’t think that the laws should turn away from companies that steal and commit fraud just because there might be collateral consequences to the economy (which is something the Obama administration argued and has become part of banking prosecutions such as they are in the U.S.).

Part of the most depressing part of this book is that it was written in 2014, so pre-Trump. All the deportations and massive fraud investigations and fuckups that hugely and disproportionately affect poor americans, that was under Democrats. Trump deporting people isn’t new. Obama deported thousands and thousands by letting states use traffic stops to get immigrants into Immigration’s clutches. Yes the jackbooted thugs are ever more fascist, but it’s not like America has been a good place for non-white people before 2017-01-20.

book review: capital in the twenty-first century

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.

book review: up up and away

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.