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August 2004 Archives

August 23, 2004

Moriarty -- Center of Everything

Laura Moriarty
The Center of Everything
New York : Hyperion, c2003.
ISBN 1401300316

I started this as an audiobook and got perhaps a quarter of the way through in 3 weeks before having it recalled. I then summoned it in hardback and finished it as a book book. It was better the second way.

Audiobooks emphasize the language. They also move at the speed of the narrrator. This can be a good thing in a book with a lot of dialogue and soliloquies. It is not so good in a book with a lot of description or action. Moriarty comes out of the writing schools, and her novel has many of the characteristics of taught fiction. Every sentence and every paragraph is good, well crafted and a pleasure to read. But because it is all so tightly written, the effect when read out loud is a surfeit of perfection; what is good on the page become precious on cd. When you add to this the fact that the book has a certain Stella Dallas aspect to it -- it is full of tragic moments and you never know what will wrench the characters next but you know it will be hard for them -- well, you are left with a precious moment of impending doom. The first thing I did with the hardback was flip to the end and check to see if one of the foreshadowed bad things happened. After that I could finish the book.

As a book book, this is a surprisingly good book. The back cover blurb calls it a Catcher in the Rye for the modern era, written from a female perspective. Someone at the publishing house got paid good money to come up with that. It is a shame that it is not quite accurate.

This is the story of Evelyn and her mother Tina, and Travis who lives in the next apartment building, all taking place in Kerrville Kansas - the center of everything. This is a story of families on the edge, poorly educated, struggling to get by, but with bright and talented students who are trying to get out by using their brains. Moriarty tackles class in Reagans America; she tackles midwestern millenial Christianity; she constantly returns to sexuality and morality. We open with Tina and Evelyn watching Ronald Reagon on TV in 1980; we end with Evelyn leaving Kerrville and Tina exploring a possible new future; between it is all struggle, romance, and wrong turns.

Several of the teenage characters have sex. Tina herself got pregnant with Evelyn while in high school and dropped out to have the baby; the father vanished. To her conservative and religious parents, this makes Tina a bad person. Especially once she starts having an affair with another man. And yet, we also see Tina as a caring mother, spending the last half of the book being successfully obsessive about a child. Elsewhere the members of these anti-Darwin, "if you hear a trumpet grab the wheel" churches provide crucial assistance to Tina and Evelyn. It is not a simple tale, and none of her characters are perfect, but all of her characters are trying to do the right thing - if only they could figure out what that is.

I would not have picked it out of the bookshelves, but it was the best looking audiobook on the short shelf that day and so it followed me home. Sometimes I like to read chick lit; I am generally fond of coming of age stories; I am intrigued by religion and public policy; and this has it all.

It was a hard book to read, but a book that I liked much better in retrospect. I look forward to Moriarty's second novel and will read that when it comes out.

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Red Ted
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Massie - Castles of Steel

Robert K. Massie
Castles of steel : Britain, Germany, and the winning of the Great War at sea
New York : Random House, c2003.
ISBN 0679456716

Robert Massie is a wonderful biographer. His Nicholas and Alexandra argued persuasively that the collapse of the Russian Empire came because of the personalities, passions, and love between Tsar and Tsarina, compounded by their only son's hemophilia. His Peter the Great went back a few centuries and explored the life and impact of the man who dragged Russia kicking and screaming from the middle ages into the early modern era, although it ignores the shallow and military nature of Peter's reforms. Both are wonderful reads and both make a good case.

His later books have been less persuasive, largely because he has moved back to the twentieth century, continued to focus on the lives and personalities of national leaders, but has not integrated these lives and personalities into the larger trends of the day. His Dreadnaught is a wonderful set of portraits of Wilhelm II and the British royal family; it explores the Anglo-German naval race and the tensions that led to war; it fails to explain why the war happened and why it was fought as it was. The book informs without making a convincing argument, and so while it is wonderful fun to read it leaves the reader a little cranky. "Is this all?"

That lengthy introduction was necessary because Castles of Steel is the sequal to Dreadnaught and it shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of its predecessor.

Massie's title suggests that it is a history of the Great War at Sea. But really, the bulk of the narrative and the bulk of the evidence is British; most of the rest is German; the Turks make a short cameo for the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. The narrative focuses on a few individuals who had the power to make crucial decisions. Admiral Jellico of the British Navy, commander of the Grand Fleet up at Scapa Flow, was the only man who really could lose the war in an afternoon. As a result he was cautious and capable. David Beatty, who had been a hard-charging admiral when he commanded the battle cruiser squadron, similarly got cautious when promoted to that spot. Similarly, Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to preserve his fleet. As a result, the great steel castles came out but rarely, fighting one major and a couple of minor clashes.

Massie's focus on these individuals means that the book is a study in top-level command and control in the early days of wireless. From that perspective, I found it fascinating that Massie condems Winston Churchill because of his inability to maintain a proper tempo of orders. He comes down even harder on David Beatty, who let the same flag officer garble crucial commands on THREE different occasions, and who himself had only a tenuous grasp on communications and coordination. Beatty, in many ways, was a throwback to the 17th-century admirals who simply hoisted "follow me" and steered for the heart of the enemy fleet.

Like Dreadnaught I finished the book having learned lots of little things and having had as enjoyable a read as one can have in a military history of the Great War -- Massie's description of the sinking of the Lusitania was meant to disconcert the reader, to help them conjure up the emotions that British and Americans felt when they read the gory details, and it worked. One of his little vignettes still bothers me. I will paraphrase it in the extended entry in the hopes that writing it out will exorcize it from my system.

And yet, I finished the book very pleased with Massie's description of the elephant's left foreleg and very cranky that while he had explained the leg's position with respect to the hindlegs (the Western Front) or even the right foreleg (the importance of Turkish involvement) he never did connect it to the body of the beast; domestic opinion appears only in the form of official German complaints about the privations and slow starvation created by the British blockade; sailors' lives appear only briefly in a discussion of Scapa Flow and Jellico's popularity among the men; civilians appear briefly in the newspapers and vanish; even the cabinet and Prime Minister and the German Chancellor appear in an administrative vacuum. This is an old and a common complaint about Massie, but it still applies.

Finally, Massie returns to one of his themes from Nicholas and Alexandra, contingent moments in the Great War. If the Russians had not plunged forward into Prussia in 1914, the Schleifflen plan might have worked although poor German command and control did more to slow their advance than did the missing troops diverted to fight the Russians. Massie, however, points out that most of Russia's pre-war trade went through Odessa and the Black Sea. If Turkey had remained neutral, then guns, supplies and advisors could have come from the Western Allies to the Tsar's under-equipped, poorly trained, but very brave army. Morale would have been stronger; Russia would not have suffered such terrible losses; the Russian economy would not have collapsed as badly; the Tsar might not have fallen.

And, Turkey entered the war because the German battle cruiser Goeben made it from the Western Mediterranean to Istanbul. The Goeben made it because Winston Churchill completely garbled his orders to the admirals on the spot -- he had wireless and thought this meant that he had tactical control, but all he did was issue three or four sets of mutual contradictory commands and muddle everything.

That is why I have such trouble reading the Great War, and why I can not let it go either. It is painful to read, a tale of mistakes and blood and death. And yet, those mistakes created the 20th century as we know it.

The Lusitania was a large, fast passenger liner. It and its two companion ships had been subsidized by the British government on the condition that they be built with mountings for deck guns and with a very high speed. Every nation had plans to take passenger liners into service as naval auxiliaries and use them as commerce raiders for they were far faster than most freighters, and the Lusitania and her sisters were intended to run down other armed liners just like battlecruisers were intended to run down and sink armored cruisers. The other two ships were armed and taken into service, the Lusitania was left to carry passengers and urgent war materials across the Atlantic.

She was sunk just off the coast of Ireland while carrying a lot of passengers, a full crew, and a cargo that included military explosives. The U-Boat who sank her correctly identified the ship but concluded that she was an armed liner serving as a troop transport, a legitimate military target.

After the torpedo struck, the crew responded without much worry for the ship had more than enough lifeboats. Alas, the ship listed so quickly that the boats could not be launched and almost everyone went into the bitterly cold sea.

During the early phase, the stewards in the nursery had tied the wicker infant baskets into life jackets for extra safety. After the ship went down, one of the surviving crew members recalled hearing the cries of the children as they floated nearby, alone in their baskets on the tossing sea. It was all he could do to remain afloat himself, and so he had to listen as the cries died down one by one as the baskets filled and sank. All 37 infants drowned, as did about a thousand adults.

The image of Moses baskets sinking in the Atlantic bothers me. Massie meant it to. The people who wrote the stories up for the contemporary newspapers meant it to. And that was one of the big factors convincing Woodrow Wilson that Germany was evil and that he should mount a moral crusade against war and especially against Germany. The 14 points and the bizarre failures of Versailles stem in part from a ship designed as an armed cruiser but not designed to preserve its crew after battle damage.

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Red Ted
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Baker - James Buchanan

Jean Baker
James Buchanan
New York : Times Books, 2004.

This is another in the Presidents series.

Baker is a remarkably good historian, working primarily in the political culture of Jacksonian America. Her book Affairs of Party is most remarkably good, and she draws on her experience in Jacksonian politics for this biography of the man widely regarded as our worst President ever.

Baker tries hard to be sympathetic to Buchanan, and he did have some pretty good diplomatic skills and he was a pretty solid party hack. He pulled where directed, worked the patronage machine, and did what he could to serve the nation as he saw best.

As Baker presents his Presidency, the focus of the book, his problems were twofold. Firstly, Buchanan was a throrough-going doughface. From Pennsylvania, he consistently voted and executed policies that favored the South. This pattern appeared throughout his Congressional and diplomatic careers -- he constantly worked to annex Cuba, for example -- and he continued this pattern as President. Thus not only did he systematically take the strongest possible pro-slavery position in disputes about slavery in the territories, supporting the manifestly anti-democratic and anti-republican pro-slavery constitution in Kansas, but once secession was underway he aided rather than impeded its progress. He pulled federal troops out of the South, he had earlier tried to move federal armories into the South so that they might be more readily seized by secessionists, and in many ways acted like the President of the Confederacy and not of the Union. Buchanan is a bad president, fundamentally, because he abetted the dissolution of the Union he had sworn to protect.

Buchanan was also a fairly incompetant President. Baker traces that incompetance to his personality and his cabinet. The man was not a lifetime loser - despite being stiff, formal, and a bit boring he had been an effective diplomat and an adequate Congressman. But, he was lonely. Buchanan never married. He only had one long-term emotional relationship, a lifelong friendship with Rufus King of South Carolina. And, after King died, Buchanan had no one to talk to, no one to bounce ideas off of, no one he could trust to tell him the truth. He filled this emotional void with his cabinet. Not only did he meet with them daily, but he dined with them, invited them to sleep over at the White House, and otherwise turned them into a ersatz family. They were a failed family, for his cabinet turned out to be composed of yes men, and their close living relationship made it very difficult for his advisors to tell him hard truths. The combination meant that Buchanan served his term in an echo chamber, and it echoed bad decisions.

Baker writes well and smoothly. It is a truism that we learn more from failure than from success. And yet, it is always painful to read about failure. For a clear, well written, short (150-odd page) book, this was a very hard read.

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Red Ted
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August 18, 2004

Sedgwick - New England Tale

Catherine Sedgwick
A New-England Tale
University of Virginia eText center

I am assigning bits of this to the kids this semester, and skimmed through it to see what to give them. I think they are getting three chapters, about 15,000 words, but that might be a bit much.

This is Sedgwick's breakthrough novel - I think it is her first - and it is very much in the mode of the religious politics of 1820s New England. I had encountered it before only in secondary sources: a contemporary book review castigating it for making a mockery of conversion religion, and Ann Douglass' work on the feminization of American culture where she uses it as a case study in changing literary and social mores.

Suffice it to say that Sedgwick: does not agree with the Trinitarian establishment; accuses the bastions of small town morality of being hypocrites; makes sure that all the heros are religious outsiders, all the villains from the elite, and writes the whole thing in a language that draws on the Bible to condemn organized religion.

It is a pretty good little melodrama, and a very easy read.

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Red Ted
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Pirates of the Caribbean - Black Pearl

Pirates of the Caribbean: Secret of the Black Pearl.

I feel silly condemning a kids movie for being juvenile. But that is how I felt about Pirates.

I liked Johnny Depp - he did a wonderful job with Captain Jack Sparrow.

My complaints about the movie are very like the complaints that people have made about the theme park ride it is based on: it promotes a trivialized view of violence; it glorifies murder and rape; it sanitizes murder and calls it good clean fun; it celebrates the (real) democratic freedom of pirate crews while ignoring the consequences of their actions and lifestyles. In short, the movie contained so much violence that if it had been shot by Tarantino or to the standards of Private Ryan it would have been rated X for gore. But it was Disney, so there were scores of murders but never any blood.

I was curious to see it. I am glad I saw it. I doubt that I will see it again.

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Red Ted
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August 16, 2004

Wills - Under God

Garry Wills
Under God : religion and American politics
New York : Simon and Schuster, c1990.

I read this very quickly.

I got it because I had a brain fart and confused Robert Bellah, who wrote about civil religion in the 1950s, with Gary Wills, the journalist and political commentator.

This is a perfectly reasonable review of religion in the 1980s Presidential elections, of Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson's different ways of deploying religiosity, and of the way that religious rhetoric continues to permeat the American discourse despite the formal separation of church and state.

He includes a brief review of the founding and the early republic, including a good look at Lincoln's use of God talk. I might do something with his section on Lincoln, the rest is not so useful.

I disagree with him on civil religion and the American religious settlement. Details of that disagreement will wait until I finish, if only because I am still thinking over my position.

So, I gutted this for work, but a book is a book.

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Red Ted
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Critser - Fat Land

Greg Critser
Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World
Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2003

This is a powerful polemic about a serious public health crisis in the United States. But, because that public health crisis is a crisis of personal health, one that must be addressed both by national policy and by millions of individual, private, decisions, I found that I read the book with a split personality. On the one hand, I read it with an eye to public health and public policy, the class components of morbid obesity and food health, and the role of voters, school boards, and elected officials in fighting this battle. On the other hand, I read it as a dad, checking our food policies and thinking about whether we are doing the right thing with our fat baby and chubby toddler.

Critser's book is a polemic. By that I mean that almost every separate piece of his evidence comes with a "yes, but." He points out that womens' clothing sizes have gone up, so that 16 is now a medium. But, he forgets to mention that women are also taller than they were in 1942 when the standard sizes were invented. We are fatter, but we are also taller. Fatter is more important, but the change in clothing sizes reflects two trends, not one.

Much of life fits the old patternn of "two steps forward, one step back." Much of Critser's evidence is a presentation of the two steps forward. He does not mention the one step back. And, while this does not affect the overall point he is making, I am always bothered by people who write critically while ignoring contrary evidence.

That said, Critser does make a strong anecdotal and statistical argument that there is a substantial confluence between several trends, and that most of these trends reinforce one another in a positive feedback loop. Fat and hfcs are cheap, and food is a lot cheaper than it was during the 1970s. Fast food restaurants have dramatically increased portion sizes as a way to increase profit margins. Americans watch more TV. Americans exercise less. American child-rearing manuals during the 1980s emphasized child-directed food habits rather than adult-directed food discipline. Americans feel that their streets and neighborhoods are dangerous, a true feeling for people in the inner cities because of the violence that follows drugs and gangs. Schools have cut PE. Exercise has become a class-based leisure activity, especially for children. National health and fitness recommendations have gotten less challenging, more supportive. People have used tiny and class-biased data sets to argue that fitness and fatness are irrelevant to one another. Americans feel busier. Americans eat more food away from home. Food away from home is far more calory-dense than food prepared at home.

He makes a compelling case for a multiple-causation feedback loop creating a public health crisis, especially among poor people. He gives terrifying anecdotal evidence about the spread of type II diabetes among children, about the effects of morbid obesity on growing children, and about the long term health crisis we have brewing. He does not use these words, but his message is that we are become a nation of Dudley Dursley's: overindulged, overweight, over our heads.

What to do?

On a policy level, Critser implies that a change in agricultural policy to cut back on the subsidies for HFCS, Palm Oil, and Soybean oil would raise food prices (a bad thing) but also create profit signals that would encourage food processors to reformulate their products. He would like to see a return to meaningful physical fitness tests for children, a return to physical education in the schools, fast food and soft drinks banned from the schools, and a systematic public health education and intervention program aimed at changing behaviors. If not, we will all pay for it as we pay for our neighbors' health coverage.

What about on a personal level?

Here we get into the dilemma between cruelty and compassion. On an individual basis, it is a good thing to be kind to others. One of the core principles of the enlightenment was the attempt to reduce or remove pain from life, and that is a good goal. So we are tempted to try to help an overweight friend or neighbor, we are told not to mock people for their physical appearance, just as we tend to go out of our way to encourage, say, a teen mom who completes her education. And yet, every time we engage in that individual act of kindness, we are also lowering the social stigma against obesity, or teen motherhood, or other individual acts that have social consequences. How to be critical without being mean is a hard balancing act, and the current tendency is to bend over backwards to avoid appearing mean.

Finally, public health begins at home. It is created by a combination of policy, laws, and institutions with myriad individual choices and decisions. Policy, in the end, is there to make it easier for individuals to help themselves.

Both J and I are heavy for our height, slim for our weight. I have a BMI of about 27 but an 8 to 10 inch drop from chest to waist. Despite the love handles, I am slim for my age.

The toddler is a little heavy - he is a good eater. We already encourage him to be active - I walk and run and he comes to. "Runnah, runnah!" I need to remember to keep the serving pot on the stove and give much more reasonable portions to him. I can say "eat till you're done, then stop." But I have noticed that he is a social eater, and will continue to eat as long as his little brother or his parents are sitting at table. So, portion control. We are already eating low fat because of my diet. We are currently able to maintain family dinner time and hope to keep that sit-down dinner. He already snacks on fruits and vegetables, with a house rule that food stays in the kitchen (or on the front porch.)

The infant is a little fat, complete with leg creases. He is also being very spitty. I wonder if the two are related. He goes for his 6 moth checkup on Wednesday, and we will see what doctor says.

Finally, Critser is very critical of the literature suggesting that it is better to be fit than to be fat, and that if you are sufficiently active then your pudge does not matter. I know some wicked fast running butterballs (although distance running is a sport where you are better of being fat than being muscular). I also continue to believe that for a heavy person seeking to improve their quality of life, they are better off focusing on fitness and letting the belt come in as a side effect than they are focusing on yet another diet. But, how to sell this message without, as Critser warns, selling the message that fat does not matter?

So, from public health to private concerns, and back again.

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Red Ted
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Clancy & Zinni - Battle Ready

Tom Clancy
Battle ready
with Tony Zinni and Tony Koltz.
New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, c2004.

This is the fourth in Clancy's commander's sequence. And, because it is the first to discuss 9/11 and the War in Iraq, it is the book that got the most critical notice. It has been out for a few months, but it took a while to wend its way through the library system to me.

Like the second and third volumes, this is more a biography and a comment on current events and world politics than a study in leadership principles per se. As such, it is compelling. Zinni comes off well: he is smart, forthright, sensitive, and far-sighted. He focuses on the importance of learning local culture, working with others, and planning before action.

I want to focus on two things, Somalia and Iraq.

Zinni was the lead guy on the ground early in Somalia; he also led the withdrawal from Somalia after the UN and the US cut and ran. He was not there during the middle period when the relief mission went to hell.

The problem in Somalia was that there were a LOT of warlords; they were fighting one another and looting any international aide; the crops were devastated; the people were starving; and until the security situation could be fixed the nation was a humanitarian tragedy in progress.

Zinni was one who urged working with the warlords, drawing them away from fighting and towards a diplomatic and eventually a political solution - "if they are talking, they aren't fighting." He worked with all of them, helped stabilize the situation, and could see a path to some sort of stable society and a democratic future.

Things fell apart after the US turned the nation over to the UN, and after reading Zinni's account of the transition I have a LOT more sympathy for the folks (mostly on the American right) who argue that the UN is inherently broken and will fuck up any important internation affair it gets involved with. Zinni does not go that far, but he does blame Boutrous-Boutrous Ghali for the mess in Somalia. He has many more kind words for Khofi Anan. The Bush 41 administration got us into Somalia. Clinton continued our presence there. The UN fucked up - including the battle of Mogadishu which he argues the UN local forces precipitated. Clinton chose to withdraw rather than start again from scratch. Zinni is quietly critical of that last decision, despite being generally favorable toward Clinton.

The big reason people are talking about this book is not Somalia but Al Quaeda and Iraq. Here also Zinni is opinionated and fairly compelling. He thought from the start that the US was paying too much attention to Saddaam Hussein. If we responded to everything he did, then we gave him the power to manipulate the world's remaining superpower. That raised his prestige. So while the Clintons had Iraq at about12 on their to do list, and Bush 43 moved him up to about 6, Zinni would have pushed him down to the low 20s, continued to contain him, but cut back on the confrontations and posturings.

Zinni generally liked Clinton's point decisions about Al Quaeda during the late 1990s, although I think he wishes there had been more systematic focus on non-state entities. He does not say, but from reading him I wonder if Al Quaeda was the evil equivalent of the Non Governmental Organizations that he had to work with in northern Iraq after 1991 and in Somalia later on - organizations that knew a lot and could help a lot but had trouble working with armed forces and national governments because they organized and acted in a sufficiently different manner. Still, Zinni liked that during the planning for the missile strikes on Al Quaeda Clinton told his military planners to ignore any political repercussions or "wag the dog" things - that was Clinton's problem not theirs - and simply provide the most effective plan for achieving the goal. Clinton was a quick study, and Zinni appears to have been more comfortable briefing the Big Dog than he was at briefing top level staffers.

As for the run up to Iraq itself, file Zinni among those who are appalled at the lack of planning, lack of serious coalition-building, scanty evidence, and lack of long term strategic planning. The current crisis in Sudan came to a head after Zinni wrote, but from reading Battle Ready I think I know what he would say about a situation where we have a genocide in progress and the US can not intervene because ALL of our ground forces are tied up in Iraq or in the rotation to replace the troops in Iraq.

As I read the book, I asked myself a couple of times if Zinni would make a good cabinet secretary or undersecretary, and if so then under which administration. He would be a poor fit for Bush 43, simply for reasons of personal style. I don't know if a Kerry administration should contact him for government service, and I don't know if he would accept. But he is a wonderful resource and someone both sides should be listening to.

Zinni closes by arguing that the United States has stumbled into what he calls an "empire of influence." Despite being the sole remaining superpower, we do not have the armed force to impose our will on more than a small fraction of the world. But, with the reach of the American economy, American media, and American culture, everything we do resonates around the world, and the whole world responds to changes in America and American policy. It is hard to run such a loose empire - an empire built on soft power - but it is crucial that we do. I dislike the term "empire of influence" but have not yet come up with something better. If I were to be tabbed to ask a question of Kerry and Dubya at a debate, I would ask them something about empires of influence, soft power, and the most effective way to spread democratic ideals and individual freedom around the globe.

Zinni made me think, and think differently, about foreign policy. Well worth reading.

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Red Ted
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Zettel - Camelot's Shadow

Sarah Zettel
In Camelot's shadow
New York, NY : LUNA, c2004.

Zettel is a smart, literate, and compelling author. I like most of her stuff. I especially liked Fool's Game and this is also quite good.

She is working in well-trodden territory here, but she does nice things with the standard elements. It is an Arthur story. Magic works. Arthur is fighting against Saxon invaders. Many of the individual elements are familiar from Mallory.

Zettel focuses on Risa, a young woman whose father made a very bad deal at her birth - saving the mother's life at the cost of promising the child to a sorcerer when she comes of age. The action starts with Risa upset about her betrothal prospects, but she soon runs away, confronts the sorcerer, meets up with a nicely drawn Gawaine, and the story progresses from there.

I like the character. I also like the fact that Zettel brings in one of my two favorite Arthurian Knights (Gareth is the other) as well as my favorite tale from the Arthurian legend. It is giving little away to say that we meet the Green Man in a bit of foreshadowing early on, and once you have Gawaine and the Green Man in the same story you can guess that Gawaine and the Green Knight will follow at some point. It does. It is well integrated into the story. Even the villains are believable, plausible, and smart. The heros win, for a while, but not without consequences.

Highly recommended.

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Red Ted
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Ringo - The Emerald Sea

John Ringo
The Emerald Sea

This is another stupid book. But I finished it.

One way to make sense of science fiction and fantasy is to break it down into people who take a technology and build a story around it and people who want to tell a story or achieve an effect and then make up a technology that will create their desired end state. The first is the tradition of classic hard science fiction - the heroic engineer exploring some aspect of orbital mechanics, for example - although it also applies to the "if this goes on" school of social science fiction. The second is more commonly associated with space opera. The author decides what social or mechanical roles the technology should serve, then works backwards to achieve it. So Pournelle and Niven wanted their Mote in God's Eye to be set in a galactic empire in a world that approximated the 19th century in the days after steam and before radio (or telegraph cables.) The fastest way to move information is by manned vessel, manned vessels have short legs because they need to refuel constantly, and the story moves from there.

Ringo falls into the latter school. He comes up with a setting or situation that he wants to write about, then jury-rigs his science so he can get there. In The Emerald Sea he appears to have the notion for a neo-medieval world, with science taking over as magic, in the context of a war between good and evil. So, he came up with psuedo-scientific rationales leading to a re-creation of many of the critters and dynamics of a really good D&D campaign from high school.

His basic mechanism for all this is that the future is a place of almost limitless resources. It is a world of nano-technology and genetic manipulation. It is a world where individuals can "transform" into other shapes - with the little-realized cost of freezing their emotional development at the age they were at when they first changed. So far, so good. But he then insists that, for example, dozens of sociopaths all transformed themselves into the same goofy ray-fish shape before being recruited by the bad guys after utopia falls apart.

That part challenges the reader's suspension of disbelief. I will buy the transforms - it is a core part of his story. I do not buy the sociology of the transformations. And so he loses me and I declare his book stupid.

It is stupid for other reasons as well. After spending two thirds of the book getting heros and villains to the neutral group both are trying to recruit, he lets the villains win the diplomatic exchange in a scant dozen pages of dialogue. The villains then cleverly followup on their diplomatic coup by attacking this same group of neutrals - a clearly obvious maneuver. Yep. This lets Ringo write up his fight sequences; it lets his heros be heroic; it leaves the reader wondering why and how things got this far.

So, I finished it. I doubt that I will ever spend real money for a Ringo book. I will probably look through the next in the series when it hits the library, but I might decide that I would be better served watching Gilligan's Island reruns.

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Red Ted
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Ringo & Evans - Road to Damascus

John Ringo and Linda Evans
Road to Damscus

Ringo has some strengths. Writing a novel revolving around politics and elections is not one of them. I stopped reading about a third of the way through, when the villain turned out to be a politician, no the caricature of a politician, in the worst tradition of right wing science fiction.

The book reads like Ringo, so I will refer to the authors as Ringo - not sure how they divided up the writing tasks.

Ringo has an odd habit, very visible in this book, of combining libertarian and classical liberal politics emphasizing the role of the state as a machine to protect and serve individual citizens and a constant recurrence to fascist-style language evaluating the worth of those individual citizens primarily in military terms - are they fit to serve the state. It leads to an odd sort of cognitive dissonance when I read it, and while this dissonance is less visible in Ringo's more purely military novels, it undermines and cripples this political morality tale.

I did not finish it. I will not finish it. Having started this I am now less likely to read more Ringo. But see above for comments on Emerald Sea.

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Red Ted
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August 12, 2004

Ben Hur

Ben Hur

I have been working my way through classic movies recently. This was on the shelf, it followed me home, and I am glad I saw it. It is a much quoted movie, and not too bad in its own right.

Charlton Heston does a nice job with the lead. They really do use a cast of thousands. The chariot race really is spectacular.

I spent the first half hour expecting to hear dialogue from Life of Brian - so I am summoning that from the library next.

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Red Ted
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August 02, 2004

Niven & Pournelle - Burning City

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
The Burning City
New York : Pocket Books, c2000.

This is another novel set in Niven's Magic Goes Away universe, a land where people consume mana to perform magic, where mana is limited, and where a complicated society is adjusting to the lack of renewable resources - Atlantis fell because they ran out of mana to keep it afloat.

I was torn by the book. On the one hand, it is a perfectly reasonable action-adventure about a reasonable yet flawed hero as he first comes of age and then returns to his home city. On the other hand, it is written within Pournelle's world - a land where the surest route to destroying a society is to enforce the social contract. The burning city of the title is South Central LA, in the land of magic and armor, complete with gangs, AFDC distributed by the suburban fathers, constant crime, and a systematic lack of opportunity. Atlantis fell because the king decided to create equality of outcome for his residents, and not only kicked off a crime wave but used up all the wealth of the nation on housing, failed crime policies, and amenities.

In many ways Pournelle continues to live in an odd conservative reading of the 1970s and 1980s, where welfare creates crime, crime leads to a breakdown of civil order, and the implication is that a just society should do the proper Whiggish thing and encourage all people to strike out on their own - and then blame them for failing.

That is a straw man version of Pournelle, but you know, he runs up his own straw men as he critiques social services so I don't feel all that guilty about it. What worries me is that there is a group of people who get their assumptions about how the world works from fiction, and when they read fiction like this it encourages them to hearken to vicious sound bites and to ignore the complexities of social welfare - just because it is possible to build a social welfare system that traps people does not mean that all social welfare is that way, just as the Clintonian effort to get people off welfare was done without falling into the Whiggish trap of the "free" market.

Neither the dysfunction of Pournelle's fictional burning city nor the near genocide of Great Hunger in Ireland are necessary, but so long as folks like Pournelle write stupid fiction, people will assume that these false choices are the only policy options.

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Red Ted
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Secondhand Lions

Great actors.

Some clever scenes.

Stupid movie.

The entire movie seems to have been written as a justification for the discussion towards the end between Robert Duvall and Haley Joel Osment where Duvall explains to Osment that there are some things that may or may not be true - honory, duty, lasting love - but that a man must believe in because you have to believe in something.

That is a good point. I just wish the rest of the movie were not so darn stupid - they were trying for a sort of magical realism, but I was never willing to suspend my disbelief.

Still, I watched the whole thing. Then again, I would watch Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, and Haley Joel Osment take turns reading the telephone book.

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Red Ted
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Karabell - Chester Alan Arthur

Zachary Karabell
Chester Alan Arthur
New York : Times Books, 2004.
ISBN 0805069518

This is part of the American Presidents series - a collection of short, readable, meaningful books about the Presidents.

When you mention Chester Arthur, the usual response is either "who dat?" or "civil service reform." Or for those like me who know a little more, we comment that here was a longtime political spoilsman who became president by accident after Garfield was murdered and who presided over the dismantling of the system that had brought him fame and fortune.

Karabell digs into the mechanics of late 19th-century machine politics, where a dedicated political class ran for office, distributed government jobs to their friends, dunned their friends for campaign contributions, and spent that money to try to win the next election. He argues that Arthur was a reasonable honest very successful practioner of the system, a man who spent most of his career as a follower and facilitator rather than as a principle, and a man who had mastered the art of doing nothing and succeeding thereby.

Karabell argues that civil service reform was a result of Garfield's murder and the midterm elections following, as Republicans dashed through a lame-duck bill so that they could take credit for a subject that had surprisingly become popular among voters. It was not an Arthur policy - he just signed the bill. On the other hand, despite Chester Arthur's lackadasical work habits, lack of policy initiatives, and general caretaker approach to the presidency, his four years were also four years of prosperity, economic growth, and labor peace - a marked contrast to the periods before and afterwards. He does not explain how, but he suggests that Arthur had the knack of keeping things running smoothly, and that this is an under-estimated knack. We never learn if Arthur was lucky or good, we simply learn that every office he prsided over ran quietly and efficiently while Arthur came in late and took long lunches.

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Red Ted
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