book review: white fever

White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia isn’t exactly the travelogue I expected from reading the back blurb. It’s about a Polish journalist, Jacek Hugo-Bader, who travels through Siberia in a truck in the middle of winter, but that aspect of the trip only appears in the first and last chapters of the book. The rest is arranged more topically about the people he interviews in these Siberian communities.

Once the realization that this wasn’t going to be a wacky journey tale set in, I quite enjoyed the book. Hugo-Bader talks to AIDS patients, hip-hop wannabes, shamans, religious communities and alcoholics. His european perspective on the Siberian aboriginal people gives those sections quite a different tone from the way you’d write about them in North America. Not better, but it was different enough to make me notice and try to analyze why it felt so foreign. Would it have felt more natural if I was a white Canadian forty years ago? Maybe, but maybe that’s just me thinking these Eastern Europeans are a bunch of assholes.

Anyway, problematic aboriginal discussions aside, I liked the book for its alternative perspective on the parts of Russia that don’t make the news. I’ll talk to my Russologist friends about how accurate this Polish journalist was, but for a non-expert it was an interesting read.

indian country (scalped vol.1)

Scalped is a crime story set on the fictional Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There are corrupt politicians who own the new casinos, people who just want to get the hell away from poverty, and Dashiell Bad Horse, an undercover FBI agent who grew up on the reservation and is now back to expose some seedy underbelly to justice. In Indian Country Dashiell Bad Horse gets set up as a cop on the reservation in employ of bad people, and there are double-crosses and a casino opens and people end up dead.

It’s really good crime fictiony stuff. Each issue within the trade paperback ends on a story-changing reveal but it doesn’t feel forced. If you like 100 Bullets, this’ll probably appeal.

The thing that makes me a little twitchy about the book is that neither Jason Aaron nor R.M. Guéra are Sioux or any other First Nation. Does it matter? Well, at one point a big nasty character feeds right into a corrupt savages kind of viewpoint and actually scalps another one. Does that happen if this is a book about the underside of the writer’s culture, rather than some other-ized culture? I don’t think it does. (And to be clear, every white person in the book so far is a terrible murdering double-crossing selfish asshole too. But they shoot people, not scalp them.) At this point, one volume in, I don’t know if that’ll keep on being an issue. I’ll keep reading to find out.

book review: ten monkeys ten minutes

Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes is a small collection of science fiction stories by Peter Watts. One of the stories was a chapter from his novel Starfish. Another was about rationalizing racial violence with genetics. A story about environmentalists negotiating with orca to feed both sides of a conflict was kind of funny, but I think my favourite story in the book was about the storms that are an alien malevolent force in the narrator’s life, much like his teenage daughter who’d never known a world where the sky wasn’t trying to kill you. It’s a small book, but well worth the read.

book review: the freedom maze

Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze isn’t the kind of YA book I normally read. It’s a story of a 13-year-old southern girl named Sophie in the 1960s who goes out to her grandmother’s manor for the summer. Her mom is all about Sophie behaving like a proper white lady. Then she travels back in time 100 years (through the intercession of a Creature in the maze) and is taken in as a slave on the sugar plantation. The plantation owners think she’s the misbegotten daughter of their dissolute New Orleans brother.

The story is about Sophie learning to be a slave. She starts off in the house but gets framed for stealing and has to do much crappier work. She makes friends and comes of age and doesn’t get to go home when what she thinks was a fine adventure is done.

It was a pretty good story, and it was easy to be mad at the characters you were supposed to dislike, including Sophie’s bitch of a mother. It didn’t feel preachy though. I was a little bored, but I’m not a huge slice of life historical fiction person in the first place. It felt well-researched, and I was very happy that Sophie’s physical changes from living six months in the span of twenty minutes weren’t taken back, Narnia-style.

book review: the face and the brute (sandman mystery theater vol. 2)

I have a friend who loves the Sandman Mystery Theater series. He’s the one who first told me about the excellent crime stories Matt Wagner was making with these books. I read one volume, liked it and then never really followed up till last week. The Face and the Brute is volume two, and has two stories about Wesley Dodds, the wealthy detective who dresses up in a gasmask to follow up on the dreams he has about crimes.

The comic is most interesting in how it deals with its setting, New York in the 1930s. The racism against Asians is front and centre (not in Wesley, but in the secondary characters). Dian Belmont is dating an Asian man and grisly murders are happening in Chinatown. Everyone is scared for her safety and encourages her to leave that terrible foreign world alone. But she won’t. The dealing with class issues is done very well, in that the issues actually show up in the writing.

They’re good stories, but I’m not a huge fan of the artwork. It’s all just a bit garish for what I like in my noir comics.

book review: have spacesuit, will travel

I read Robert Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel for my SF class. It’s weird how 1950s it feels (even as it namedrops brands like Goodyear and GE). The kid (who I think is way younger than he’s supposed to be because he talks with this really juvenile idea of adulthood) gets abducted by aliens because he’s out wearing his spacesuit he won in a soap jingle contest. It’s the kind of old SF where we have a Moon base and use slide rules. Which is cool and all for me, as a study of SF, but there’s no way I could recommend a book like this to a kid with a straight face today. The past that this was written in is so different that that would be the weirdness in the story.

Heinlein’s ideas of justice and what’s good and right come shining through especially in terms of what a man should be doing (smashing open doors and alien heads, learning hard sciences and being a bit belligerent).

Some people insist that ‘mediocre’ is better than ‘best.’ They delight in clipping wings because they themselves can’t fly.

One of the parts of that philosophy that I enjoy the hell out of is the complete denigration of people with narrow worldviews. Right off the hop the narrator is referring to “creeps who wouldn’t consider leaving Earth.” But the hero also has a very simple assumption that the way a white male “who can always get what he wants” sees the world is the way a human sees the world.

It was interesting and I’m glad I read it, but there’s way better stuff out there.

book review: incognegro

I really liked Mat Johnson’s comic, Incognegro. It’s about a light-skinned black journalist going undercover as a white man to cover lynchings in the south in the 1930s. Well, that’s kind of the setup. In this story he’s going south to stop the lynching of his own jackass twin brother (who isn’t light-skinned at all).

It’s a tight little small-town mystery with more ins and outs than I’d expected at first. There’s moonshine and backwoods religion and klansmen, and it all hangs together pretty magnificently. One of the themes running through the story is that white people assume we’re the default, that our food isn’t ethnic food, that we don’t have accents, all of which makes us easy to fool. Obviously this is set in a different time with lynchings and much stronger threats of violence based on race, but it’s interesting how much of that “looking like you’re a minority or not” still plays into how people are treated.

Anyway, I recommend this one pretty highly.