Thursday, December 13, 2018

Smek for President, by Adam Rex

Some of you might remember when I reviewed the book The True Meaning of Smekday, which the...questionable movie Home is based on. I actually hunted down the book because I was forced to watch Home and was surprised at some of the fairly deep questions it asked, specifically with colonialism. In my review of The True Meaning of Smekday I was left a little disappointed because I felt the book got inches within having a very serious conversation about colonialism in a way kids could understand, but then went into a standard alien invasion story where a small item defeats the aliens and life goes back to mostly normal for Terrans. All that being said I thought it was a good book and worth other people checking out.

Smek for President takes place about a year and a half after the original Boov invasion. Gratuity and her mom are living in upstate New York, along with J. Lo who's moved in with them. The Boov have moved to Titan, the moon of Saturn, and renamed it New Boov World where Captain Smek remains as absolute leader. J. Lo is having trouble fitting in with human society and is more than a little homesick. Most of all he wants the other Boov to forgive him for making an honest mistake and while he told the Gorg where Earth is, he more than made up for that by helping Gratuity drive the Gorg away. So J. Lo and Gratuity decide to take a road trip to New Boov World to meet with Captain Smek, explain the whole situation, and hopefully make the other Boov not hate J. Lo.

I think this book is slightly shorter than the original so it spends far less time on development than the original book did. You definitely need to read the first book to make sense of this one. The biggest conflict is J. Lo trying to earn forgiveness while Captain Smek clearly is only interested in using J. Lo as a scapegoat to solidify his own powerbase. There's a second conflict between Gratuity and her mom, who as I mentioned in my other review went from being a ditz to being a responsible parent which is a lot for Gratuity to adapt to. I actually found this plotline rather touching and emotional, perhaps for personal reasons, so I kind of liked it better than the other one, but I'm not sure if the book would have been better if it had focused more on that. The J. Lo plotline is fine, it works. Nothing terribly spectacular about it, but it works.

Again, I have to give Bahni Turpin a ton of credit. She does all the voicework in this book and makes the Boov sound like aliens that just don't have English syntax down. Considering there's some portions where Turpin had to use alien language entirely I thought she did a really great job. And Gratuity as always is a great character.

This book may not be as developed or quite as potentially deep as The True Meaning of Smekday, but I really liked this book and though it was worth the time to check out. I highly recommend that you go check it out for yourself as well.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Policing the Black Man, edited by Angela J. Davis

Today I'm looking at a collection of essays about the issues within the criminal justice system and the inherent, and not always conscious, racism which makes the criminal justice system target black men more strongly than almost any other ethnic group in the United States. In the introduction Davis states that women of color, and other ethnic minorities in the United States have their own experiences with a biased justice system, but this book specifically focuses on the black male experience. This is an issue that's risen to prominence in recent years with events like the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Eric Garner in New York City, and Freddie Grey in Baltimore, Maryland. These are just a handful of cases in a list that is far too long and illustrates that the system is in drastic need of reform for multiple reasons.

The essays talk about a lot of topics and various areas where reforms can be undertaken. A good example is the socialization of black children with police. There is a growing body of evidence that black children, and other children of color, have bad experiences with police during formative years. This is usually typified with police assuming children of color must be up to something, an assumption that is rarely if ever applied to white children. Because children are, well, children, and can be obstinate, disrespectful, impulsive, and a host of other ''improper'' behaviors, bad childhood experiences with police can leave children of color assuming the police cannot be trusted. And in a way, this assumption is correct and only reinforced by every bad experience. There are many instances where people of color are unwilling to go to the police because of this distrust and can stall legitimate criminal investigations because the community is unwilling to help law enforcement.

An important step to undertake is creating better social interactions with police, both for children and adults of color, that help them learn to trust and respect police and make them willing to work with police in future. They use an anecdote where a police officer does something as simple as explaining why they need people to not enter a certain area which helped build a rapport with people in the community and led to tips on other cases they were trying to solve. If police treat communities of color as people to treat with respect, protect and serve, much as the police treat white communities, rather than as problems to be ''managed'', the response from communities of color will be much more positive. But it's vital that police take that first step to begin the process of respect.

There is also the intrinsic problems of the criminal justice system that disproportionately targets black men. There is a large body of evidence that black men are often seen as more dangerous and more threatening than white men. The best explanation available is an implicit, unconscious bias created through societal stereotypes. This may explain why unarmed black men are continually shot by police who state they are ''in fear for their lives'' while white mass shooters somehow manage to be taken alive. The best method to fight implicit biases is training and education, to raise awareness within law enforcement and help police officers overcome their implicit biases, and there is some evidence that this training has helped to reduce violent responses from police. So it shows that things can be done to help end this senseless police violence.

Finally there is the issue of explicit bias, which people consistently try to prove but are blocked from accomplishing this by the courts. There is some evidence that black men consistently get harsher sentences than white men for similar crimes, and black men are more likely to be given the death penalty in cases where the victim is white, than in cases where the defendant is white and the victim is white, where the defendant is white and the victim is black, and where the defendant is black and the victim is black. I say some evidence because there are attempts to collect this data and multiple attempts by civil rights groups to collect prosecution data to prove a systemic and perhaps explicit bias by the criminal justice system. However when these cases are brought to the courts, the courts have consistently ruled that in order to prove systemic or explicit bias, the plaintiffs need to have evidence that prosecutors are acting in a biased way and without that evidence they cannot bring a case. But that very evidence is what the plaintiffs were asking for when they brought suit because they don't have access to that data and it's only through access to that data that they can bring their case. It's a sort of paradox where to bring a suit you need evidence, but you can't get evidence without bringing a suit. Until we can get more data from the criminal justice system and greater transparency, this will continue to be a problem.

Overall I thought these essays were interesting and pointed to specific issues we can try to address in the future. There's a lot of work that needs to be done to create a more just and equitable society in the United States, but I think if we're willing to learn and change it's something we can accomplish.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

Today I'm looking at a biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has become a popular figure in recent years and the subject of countless internet memes. The amount of adulation around Justice Ginsburg can be somewhat surprising, considering other popular figures are usually movie stars, musicians, and other entertainers. Most people would not expect and octogenarian jurist to become the subject of internet fame on t-shirts, hats, and other popular media. But this biography proves that RBG, as she's referred to throughout the book, is well-deserving of the adulation and remains an vital figure in American civic and legal life.

This biography is fairly short, coming in at about 240 pages, so it's not an incredibly in-depth and fairly easy to read, but it leaves us with a very powerful portrait of a woman who has refused to let anything to stand in her way. RBG was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1933 and encountered many barriers as she attempted to enter the legal profession after World War II. As a married woman, a mother, and a Jew, RBG faced discrimination on multiple fronts and found it difficult or impossible to find a job. But RBG did not let any of this stop her and through determination, buckets of hard work, and a little help.

For years RBG worked tirelessly on behalf of the Women's Rights Project with the ACLU and argued several cases before the Supreme Court on the issue of women's rights. Carmon and Knizhnik show how RBG was extremely strategic in her fights for women's rights, planning gradual steps that would chip away at the edifice of patriarchy and gradually undermine the entire structure. Although large, sweeping decisions are dramatic and emotionally satisfying, they also provoke significant reactionary backlash. RBG firmly believed that a gradual approach would wash away the resistance of conservative, male judges until they finally came around to her way of thinking. RBG was also very strategic in some of her cases that she argued, using examples of how patriarchy harmed men through assumptions of gender roles. RBG believed, quite rightly, that using cases that affected men would resonate better with male justices.

Supporting RBG in her decades-long career was her husband Marty Ginsburg, who not only supported his wife pursuing a legal career, but helped take on chores at home. Most famously Marty took on the duties of cooking after an infamous incident involving a tuna casserole. Marty took great joy in becoming a world-class chef while RBG continued to work on the highest court of the land. Carmon and Knizhnik include a small sampling of the notes between the couple over the years and reveals a deep and abiding friendship and love built on mutual respect. It reveals a deeply personal side of RBG's life that is immensely touching.

The biggest change we've seen from RBG over the past decade was RBG's increasing willingness to voice her dissent and speak up. For years RBG developed a reputation as someone who didn't rock the boat and worked to create compromise. However the court has taken a hard shift to the right in recent years and begun to challenge many of the freedoms that she had fought for before the Supreme Court. As a result RBG has begun speaking out more and as the senior-most liberal has led the other three liberal justices, occasionally winning a critical fifth or sixth vote. Because of her championship for progressive causes, RBG has become an icon to many young people who believe in the same causes. Today many continue to hope that RBG will hold on at the Supreme Court and continue to fight for the rest of us.

I would highly recommend this book to everyone. As short as it is, it's a very quick read and provides great insight into probably the most influential jurist of her generation. I knew basically nothing about RBG about this, and while I now only know a little bit more it's infinitely more than I knew before.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Girl With Ghost Eyes, by M.H. Boroson

Today I'm looking at a short novel by M.H. Boroson, the first in a planned series, The Girl With Ghost Eyes. This book is set in San Francisco's Chinatown in the late 1890s and follows Xian Li-lin, the daughter of a famed Daoist exorcist and a powerful exorcist in her own right. I thought this would be like a typical urban fantasy, someone with magical abilities in a city solves magical problems, but with the twist of using Chinese mythology and the setting. So I thought this was worth the time taking a look and seeing if it was any good.

The book starts with an interesting premise, but I'm left with some hesitations about Boroson's decisions with the book. Chinese mythology is deep and complicated, spanning dozens of ethnic groups, thousands of years, and with no singular religious tradition to unite them. So when it comes to depicting Chinese mythology you have a lot of options you can kind of pick and choose and jumble together, which Boroson does. And quite frankly I don't know enough about Chinese mythology to say whether this is accurate or not, so that's not a huge part of my concern.

The biggest thing I noticed was an emphasis on the concept of ''face'', an obsession with honor, social standing, prestige, and all that comes with it. Again, this is a subject that I don't know a whole lot about but I do know that a lot of what people assume Chinese culture is about tends to rely more on nineteenth century stereotypes about Chinese culture rather than actual representations of Chinese culture. The prevalence of the use of the word ''face'' specifically and emphasis on how gaining and losing face makes me think this wanders into stereotypical territory rather than an accurate representation of Chinese culture.

I also noticed that Boroson tended to repeat concepts or phrases over and over, especially if it was something like the March of a Hundred Devils or the Death of Five Touches. But Boroson also emphasizes how the tongs aren't just criminal organizations but function as support networks for immigrants as well. And these are just a handful of examples throughout the book. This book isn't all that long in the first place and I suspect that if Boroson hadn't repeated himself so much this book might have been significantly shorter.

I was kind of left uncertain on my opinion with Li-ling. She kind of vacillates between hyper-competent in her job as a Daoist exorcist and having to rely on her father or other people to help her out. I've been finding that a lot with various urban fantasy characters in the books so it seems to be a trend within the genre. Long-team readers will know the number of times I've lamented Harry Dresden's decision to leave his brain cell at home or with Thomas for the day. As far as I can see this is the only book in the series as of right now, so I don't know if Li-ling improves in her abilities and that may be determined in future books.

Overall the book is okay. I wouldn't say it's the best book I've read, but at least Boroson is trying something different.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 29, 2018

First Watch, by Dale Lucas

Today I'm looking at First Watch, the first book in a series titled Fifth Ward by Dale Lucas. This series is set in the city of Yenara, a massive fantasy city along the lines of Ankh-Morpork. I kind of made that comparison in my head because the book focuses on the watch wardens of the city. However the characters in this book are nothing like Sam Vimes and his own City Watch. The watch wardens of Yenara are largely another gang. This is reinforced by how the watches are set up. The city of Yenara is divided into five wards, with each ward having its own watch. The prefects of every ward are jealously defensive of their territory and will fight members of other wards that come into their territory. In addition, the majority of crime in Yenara is handled through a fine system, and everyone is in on the rampant graft. So this is definitely a darker fantasy.

The book focuses on the character of Rem, a former nobleman who decided to leave home and take his chances in the big city. Unfortunately this resulted in Rem getting into a major bar fight and waking up in the dungeons of the Fifth Ward. Through talent and a good dose of luck Rem manages to get himself recruited as the newest member of the Fifth Ward Watch. Rem is soon paired up with Torval, a dwarf whose partner has gone missing and is less than thrilled that he's been assigned a rookie to babysit. But Rem and Torval soon discover that Torval's former partner's been murdered, and he may have gotten himself into something much bigger and more dangerous than even Torval could have expected.

I'll have to admit, I have pretty mixed feelings on this book. As a fantasy cop mystery book I think Lucas does a pretty good job and managed to keep the story interesting throughout. I honestly think my biggest problem is that the book isn't the City Watch books from Discworld, and Rem, Torval, and the whole system are nothing like Sam Vimes and his crew. And I guess it's really not fair for me to say this book is bad just because it isn't Discworld. Lucas is doing his own thing and creating his own story.

On the other hand, the characters are supposed to be police, and Rem and Torval seem pretty okay with the whole concept of torturing people. On top of this, we see Torval being a good, honest family man who cares about his sister and three children. To go to Discworld again, it reminds me a lot of the bit in Small Gods where Pratchett said that even the worst and most terrible tortures could be casually inflicted by otherwise good an honest people who are just doing this for a paycheck. Ultimately I'm left conflicted about these characters, and I'm not certain if I can really get behind them. Maybe it's just because I like Discworld so much.

So really, that's my biggest criticism, it's not Discworld and Rem and Torval are in many ways dirty cops, so I'm not sure how much I can get behind them. That being said, it's not a terrible book so it might be worth your time to check out and see for yourself what you think.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Dreadnought, by Robert K. Massie

Today I'm looking at a book about relations between Britain and Germany from the formation of the German Empire in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. I originally thought based on the title that this book would focus more on the development of the dreadnought battleship and the naval policies that put diplomatic strain between Germany and Britain and eventually put the two nations at war. Massie goes into considerable detail in his book, but I'm left wondering if the amount of detail is a little too much, and it's no surprise that this book is over nine hundred pages long. Massie's definitely done his research but I think there's a lot of material that could have been excised from this particular book without sacrificing a lot.

The H.M.S. Dreadnought was a battleship that brought about a revolution in naval warfare and tactical thinking, spawning an entire class of battleship named after it and descendants, the superdreadnoughts. There hadn't been a major naval conflict since the Napoleonic wars but naval technology saw considerable improvements. In 1806 the two and three decked ships of the line with muzzle-loading cannons were the mainstays of navies across the globe. The advent of steel armor, breech-loading artillery, and steam power meant ships had gone through radical changes. But because of this gradual evolution of ship design there was one key problem. Battleships had an armament consisting of guns in different sizes. In addition to complicating ammunition supplies, this meant that accurate ranging of the ship's weapons were difficult if not impossible. The splashes from the different caliber guns would be at different ranges so it would be nearly impossible for a gunnery officer on a battleship to determine where his shells had landed. As artillery increased in its accuracy and range, the importance of accurately and reliably aiming broadsides became a matter of life and death.

The solution was the all big-gun battleship, carrying massive broadsides of heavy guns in one caliber. With improvements in fire control a battleship could fire a devastating broadside accurately and repeatedly into an enemy ship. The release of the dreadnought launched a new arms race among the Great Powers. The ship with heavier guns could fire at a longer range, sometimes safely from beyond the range of enemy ships with lighter guns. In addition a certain amount of prestige was attached to having a fleet of large, powerful battleships. As Germany accelerated its building program of battleships, Britain grew increasingly concerned for their own safety and gradually British interests aligned with those of France, rather than where they had traditionally been with Germany.

This is just a very brief overview, of course, and the book goes into a great many other subjects, such as Kaiser Wilhelm II's personality and strange love-hate relationship with Britain which added further problems to existing relationships between the two powers. And Massie goes into a great amount of detail about those problems. I think the biggest thing Massie could have done was reduce the overall scope of his book. The reason I say this is that Massie goes back to Victoria and Albert and their many children, of whom their eldest daughter, Victoria, married Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia, and later Crown Prince of the united German Empire and the tragically short-reigned emperor Friedrich III. Friedrich's own fondness for England and English customs is used to explain Wilhelm II's psyche and his strange relationship with the nation. I think Massie simply went too far back to make his history concise.

Another issue I noticed was that Massie included detailed biographies of every important figure that factored into the historical narrative somehow. While I can understand talking about, for example, Jackie Fisher, the admiral who was responsible for modernizing the British Navy and developing the H.M.S. Dreadnought, I think detailed biographies of other figures could be skipped or at least heavily reduced, such as Philip Eulenberg who was accused of homosexuality in Germany and at the time caused a considerable scandal. Massie fails to place it into the larger context and how it would have an effect on the naval arms race. Every major government official involved, from Bulow to Holstein to Caprivi to Asquith to Roseberry to Grey gets their own biography chapter which bloats the length of the book out far beyond what I think it needed.

Another criticism I have is for a book titled Dreadnought, the ships themselves don't seem to be as large as the diplomatic relations between nations about them. There's a chapter about their development which goes with Jacky Fisher, and there is a chapter about the Naval Scare, but significantly more of the book is spent on people's biographies and diplomatic exchanges rather than the ships. Maybe this will be talked about more in Massie's other book, Castles of Steel, but there's very little commentary on the dreadnoughts. And Massie doesn't even talk about the Battle of Jutland, the only major dreadnought engagement in history, stopping his narrative with the declaration of war in 1914.

Overall this book is very detailed and it shows that Massie has done considerable research into this subject, but this book is far more about the personalities and diplomacy than about the ships themselves. If you're looking for a more military-focused history, then this book is not going to serve you well. But if you're just looking for a ton of nineteenth and early twentieth century history, especially with Britain and Germany, then this is definitely worth your time.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Empire of the Summer of Moon, by S.C. Gwynne

Today I'm looking at another book about Comanche history, Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne. Some of my long-time readers may remember a lifetime ago when I looked at another book, Comanche Empire, and while I quibbled over the use of the term ''empire'' for what appeared to be a band of similar nomadic ethnic groups that exerted military and economic control over a vast geographic area, but I thought that Hamalainen did a pretty good job with their arguments. In Empire of the Summer Moon, however, Gwynne uses outdated methodology that reveals an underlying racist ideology which brings his whole work into question. The focus on Quanah Parker, who some people might suggest was a collaborator, further leads me to suspect this book isn't worth the effort of reading.

I know that in the last paragraph I made some pretty serious charges, but I think this is entirely justified by Gwynne's use of the terms ''primitive'' and ''civilized''. Without going into a huge lecture, basically the social sciences (history, sociology, anthropology, etc.) basically avoid using the terms primitive and civilized to describe people, societies, nations, etc. This is because the terms primitive and civilized, especially in how they were used in the nineteenth century to justify colonization and imperialism, come with inherent moral baggage. Civilization is good, primitiveness is bad and needs to be countered with the force of civilization. We're even at a point where using simple and complex to describe societies is debated because a society that appears simple may in fact be rather complex, depending on how one wishes to use the term.

At multiple points through the book, Gwynne uses the terms primitive to describe the Comanche people and pits them in conflict with white civilization. I remember two specific examples that stuck out for me. First was when Gwynne briefly talked about Comanche language he said that despite its primitive nature, it had extremely detailed descriptions of horses, such as a yellow horses with black hair and a black tail, a horse with red ears, a horse with white ears, and so on. To which I reply, of course the Comanche don't have words for concepts like plumbing or income tax. They're a nomadic hunting culture where horses are central to their way of life. Where their language is going to get precise and sophisticated is with horses, not with concepts they have no use for. Comanche language can be complex without necessarily talking about abstract ideas.

Another example is when Gwynne talks about the Comanche response to diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and syphilis which they had no previous experience dealing with. He dismisses their traditional medicine as ''primitive'' which would have had no effect on the underlying disease. Again, this is an assumption that native people are automatically primitive and white people are somehow advanced. I would like to point out by our modern standards at the time the Comanche were dealing with these illnesses, the 1850's, Western medicine was equally primitive, or perhaps even more harmful. The Comanche may not have been able to do anything about syphilis, but at least they weren't treating it with mercury pills.

On top of this, Gwynne seems to get invested in the idea of the Comanche as a warrior people. I will admit that the Comanche were extremely well trained as mounted archers, but considering their livelihood was hunting the American bison, it makes sense that they would get very, very good at mounted archery just as a matter of survival. Gwynne seems to take especial pleasure in describing the torture, murder, abduction, and rape carried out by Comanches against white settlers. While this is certainly a thing that happened, I find it frustrating when Gwynne literally glosses over the Sand Creek Massacre by merely saying that ''what happened is too terrible to speak about in detail''. To go into detail about Comanche atrocities while largely ignoring the extensive, systemic, and documented atrocities as part of the genocidal campaign of the American government does a great injustice to the cause of Native American history to merely pass over this. Coupled with his usage of the terms primitive and civilized leads me to think there is a far more racial bias in Gwynne's work.

All of this leaves me to look somewhat askance and Quanah Parker's inclusion in the book. As Gwynne depicts it, Parker seems the most responsible for encouraging the Comanche to settle on a reservation and adopt white ways of life. Because of the racial overtones in Gwynne's work, and the positive light in which Parker is depicted, I almost come to the conclusion that Parker was a collaborator with the white government in betraying his people. I don't know what the current Comanche people think about Parker, but Gwynne certainly leaves me with doubts.

Overall I would not recommend this book. Gwynne's mythology is flawed and he uses racial tones within his writing. Considering this book was written in the last ten years, that raises some serious red flags for me. If you're looking for a book about the Comanche, I would definitely go with Comanche Empire instead.

- Kalpar