Thursday, December 25, 2014

Krampus the Yule Lord, by Brom

You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, because hoo boy does Krampus have a temper. This week in the spirit of Christmas I’m reviewing another book by Brom, Krampus, the Yule Lord. For those of you unfamiliar with the demon Krampus, (Which I suspect will be only a handful) Krampus is one of many spooky traditions found in European countries around the Winter Solstice because goddamn it is cold and dark out, we need to do something to distract ourselves from that. Krampus in particular is found in and around the Alps, specifically northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and some areas of southern Germany. Although the exact nature of Krampus varies from region to region, he always appears as a horned monster who brandishes switches to thrash naughty children, and on occasion eats the very worst of them. Having dealt with a few bratty children during Christmas time myself, I understand the appeal of creatures such as Krampus.

Krampus the Yule Lord, however, is a creative re-telling of the Krampus legend, mixing in various Christmas traditions from across Northern Europe, including some Norse mythology, and the characteristic slightly creepy touch of Brom. Our main protagonist is Jesse Walker, a struggling country musician living in Boone County, West Virginia. Things have been pretty rough for Jesse, but when Santa’s sack lands in the bedroom of his trailer, things start to become even more complicated. Before he knows it, Jesse gets tied up in a war between Santa Claus and Krampus, a centuries-old war over the very nature of Christmas itself. Initially I didn’t much care for Jesse because he wasn’t a character I could really get behind, but that actually left room for a good character development arc and Jesse improved considerably towards the end. Hooray character development!

The biggest weakness of this book is that I never really found myself rooting for Krampus until towards the very end of the book. Krampus informs us of Santa’s treachery and how the kind, gentle, and gift-giving aspects of Santa’s nature are all an act for a much more nefarious purpose. Although we’re told this by Krampus, most of what we see of Santa is a very earnest, generous, and sometimes very troubled soul who’s trying to make the world a better place. Granted, Santa wields a sword like a badass as well, but considering I’m a huge fan of Santa as depicted in Rise of the Guardians, I’m definitely okay with Santa knocking a few heads together if he needs to. By contrast, through much of the book Krampus works through fear and intimidation, in some ways a walking manifestation of the things that go bump in the night around this time of year. It just brings Krampus’s allegations of Santa’s hidden wickedness into question and I found myself rooting more for the man in red.

The reason I bring this up is the book is titled Krampus after all, and reading the book jacket blurb I was left with the impression we were supposed to be rooting for Krampus. There is some development towards the end and I ended up feeling a little more sympathetic towards Krampus, but not by a lot. It just makes me wonder if we were supposed to like Krampus at all until he stops being such an enormous jerk. Wanting to punish the wicked is one thing, but holding a grudge against Santa is something else entirely. So if you’re going to read this book, just be aware that you may not find yourself agreeing with Krampus much during the book.

Another shame was that there were several characters who weren’t terribly well developed in the course of the novel. We did get to see some really good development with Jesse and Krampus, but other characters like Perchta and Krampus’s Shawnee buddies are little more than background pieces who got their own illustrations in the book. There were possibly a dozen different, incredibly interesting stories about all the different side characters that could have been told, even just a little bit, which would have better satisfied my curiosity. It is, however, probably to the book’s benefit that they remained background characters because I’ve seen far too many books wander off into multiple directions and suffer because they tried to tell six stories instead of telling one well. 

I definitely will also say that this is a book for adults. I mentioned in my review of The Plucker that although Brom does a lot of illustrated work, this should not be confused with kid friendly work at all. The typical spooky, creepy feel that Brom brings to his work aside, the language alone is enough to merit parents looking first before letting the kids read. (Of course, I grew up in a house where I wasn’t allowed to swear at all until I was eighteen.) However, I leave that judgment in the hands of parents and recommend they read the book first themselves.

My final nitpick comes, of course, with Brom’s afterword detailing a little bit about the history of Santa and different Christmas traditions across the globe. Brom mentions a very common myth that Coca-cola helped spread the image of Santa Claus in red and white in the 1930’s, a popular myth because of Coca-cola’s own red and white color scheme and because it takes a playful jab at the commercialization of Christmas that’s been going on for nearly a century at this point. I would like to point out that our modern image of Santa can be traced back to famed cartoonist Thomas Nast, who originally portrayed Santa Claus in a red and white suit in 1881, well before Coca-cola began using Santa for their advertising campaigns. This lesson in pedantic historical trivia brought to you by The Kalpar.

Issues aside, I rather enjoyed this book and I think it’s a great addition to the collection of holiday tales. Creepy, scary, and yet exciting, Brom delivered another excellent tale with his own idiosyncratic twist.

- Kalpar 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

This week I've read another book from Ursula K. LeGuin, in this case on of her science-fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness. As much as I enjoyed some of LeGuin's other works, like the Earthsea series, I was left rather frustrated with this book because it either has fallen far short of the mark or simply has not aged well in the past forty years. Perhaps both. In either case the book seems almost a relic of a bygone era and what was once ground-breaking seems almost trivial in hindsight.

The Left Hand of Darkness is set on the planet Gethen, also referred to by outsiders as Winter because it is currently going through an ice age and a day over sixty degrees Fahrenheit is considered broiling. The story centers around an off-world visitor, Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen, an interstellar confederation of human-inhabited worlds united by FTL ansible communications. Ai has been sent to Gethen to invite the countries of that world to join in the shared knowledge and cooperation of the Ekumen. Understandably, the Gethans are fairly suspicious of Ai and the Ekumen's intentions, fearing his arrival merely a front for a far more nefarious scheme. Ai's efforts center around trying to get the people of Gethen to trust and accept him, and gradually enter an alliance with the Ekumen.

What is more remarkable, though, is that the human beings that inhabit Gethen are all one sex. For most of the month Gethans are in what they refer to as somer, where they simply possess no sex, have no sexual urges or desires, and live their life comfortably neuter. Once a month, however, each Gethan will undergo kemmer, and begin to develop sexual characteristics and hormones. During kemmer a Gethen can become what we would define as either male or female, sometimes adapting to compliment a partner who is already in kemmer. Biologically a Gethan can become either sex and can both sire and bear children in their lifetime. As a result, the Gethans are a largely mono-gendered society as well; child-rearing is a largely shared task, and as anyone can become male or female next kemmer, there are no widespread assumptions or stereotypes attached to sex.

It's an interesting thought experiment and could definitely be used to challenge assumptions regarding gender, but the implementation just feels fairly hollow forty years later. Ai definitely expresses frustration at being unable to classify Gethans into familiar male or female categories and finds them rather alien, just as they find him, but he also finds aspects of their cultures, such as a preference for speaking indirectly and obsession with personal honor, to be strange and confusing as well. I guess I didn't find it very odd that an alien culture would seem weird to an observer and that the Gethans reacted with suspicion when an interstellar visitor arrives claiming to want only their friendship.

But more importantly, I felt that the main thrust of LeGuin's thought experiment was to explore stereotypes and assumptions about sex and gender by simply removing them and providing a contrast. The result I am unhappy to say is not terribly convincing, and perhaps a little refinement of terminology (which may have occurred in the past forty years) will help clarify my frustration. Specifically sex and gender do not mean the same things, although people often assume that they do. Sex is biological and the overwhelming majority of people fall into either one category or another: male or female. Sex is defined by what set of organs you have in your pants and the predominate hormones in your bloodstream. Gender, however, is a social construct which is far more complicated. In mainstream Western society we tend to assume there are two genders which also go with the two sexes, male and female. In this dichotomy men like to talk about sports and beer and fix things with their tools and trucks and what not, while women by contrast like to talk about their feelings and like to bake and knit and what have you. We see this dichotomy every day from its use in sitcom humor, to advertising, to the rows of pink toys designed specifically for girls. However, a bi-gendered society which assumes that someone will fall neatly into the corresponding category because of their reproductive organs is restrictive for everyone and leads to sexism and all the horrible awfulness that comes part and parcel with that.

Furthermore, people do not always associate with the gender that is attached to their sex. Some people are transgender and identify as the gender opposite of their biological sex, while other people's preferred gender may vary from day to day, depending on their mood. In fact, some cultures even have three or more genders, creating a host of opportunities for people to develop their identity. The point of this little tirade is that throughout Left Hand of Darkness, Ai attributes peculiarities of Gethan culture, such as the absence of war, to their lack of distinct sexes and genders. Because Gethans are both man and woman, their naturally violent tendencies are mellowed by the kind, nurturing aspects. Although this might have held up in 1969 when the book was first published, it's definitely an outdated idea today in 2014. Continued developmental research has shown, just for sake of example, that boys and girls have just as much capacity for violence. The only difference is that in culturally defined gender roles violence is more tolerated, and even encouraged, among boys while it comes with strict repercussions for girls. While in American culture gender is still very strongly attached to sex, and we are still engaged in a struggle to break down gender stereotypes, what sex you are with does not determine your gender. A culture like the Gethans, which lacks defined sexes may lack defined genders and gender roles, but this doesn't mean they'll be any different from the other mess of humanity.

Other than the blurring between sex and gender, which may have not been as well-defined in 1969 as it is today, this book is okay at best. There's an opportunity to explore new ideas and break down assumptions about sex and gender, but it certainly doesn't get developed to its full potential. There's some exploration of religion, LeGuin's fascination with duality (a consistent theme in her works), and other odds and ends, but the brevity of the work means it lacks depth. I think this could be safely passed by for other works, as highly acclaimed as it is.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, by Andrew Gordon

As some of my readers may be aware, my training as a historian has definitely been fairly Eurocentric, a definite focus of history over the past four hundred years or so. After all, the field of history in the United States has been dominated by white men who are often most interested in...white men. As a result I can sing a song listing in order all the monarchs of England from 1066, but I can't name off the top of my head more than perhaps three important Japanese people in all of Japan's fifteen hundred year history. Aware of this particular gap in my knowledge I found this book at my used-book store that was a general overview of Japanese history from the creation of the last shogunate in Tokugawa times to the year 2000. This proved to be a very good resource for giving me a basic grounding in information about Japan and hopefully will help further readings into Japanese history in the future.

This book operates in a very big-picture and broad-strokes perspective, which I find very helpful for two reasons. First of all, knowing only a few hazy generalities about Japanese history a very broad and general history providing more specific details about this country was an excellent way to being reading and learning about history. Very often history texts tend to have a very narrow focus and may not talk fully about various other events that tie into the focus of the text. A broad view is very good for an introduction to new material and can help facilitate research into other areas. Secondly, I myself tend to be a very big-picture sort of historian, liking to look at large events and ideologies shaped over decades, rather than focusing on the day-to-day drama that often becomes very popular in biographies. So overall I found this book rather useful for my purposes in learning more about Japan.

On the flip side, because this book is a very general history of Japan it does not spend terribly much time talking about any one subject. The book is rather ambitious in its scope, going from the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States Period, of the 1500's and the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603 to the year 2000 in only a little over three hundred pages. Obviously libraries have been filled with texts delving into the complexities of these five hundred years of history, but to cover it all in one smaller text results in quite a lot of detail being left out. This definitely should be expected in such a general work and while unfortunate, is a necessity of the very big-picture approach of this sort of text.

I will say that there was one point where Gordon started interjecting into the text with the personal pronoun "I", offering personal opinions on historical events. I was of course a little frustrated because in doing historical research and writing you should never make personal statements or assertions like that. If nothing else it violates the ideal of detached historical research. The goal of a historian is to research primary and secondary sources, and then construct and defend an interpretation of events based around those sources. Historians ideally refrain from passing judgement, as tempting as it is, but this is very complicated issue which remains a subject of debate even today. I personally suspect it was just a slip-up on the part of Gordon or his editors in some part of the process from transferring notes to manuscript because it was only that one forgivable instance and the text remains historically sound throughout.

If you know little to nothing about Japan and seek to learn more about a nation that has so greatly influenced the twentieth century then A Modern History of Japan is a good place to start reading. I recommend it as general material to become more familiar with the course of Japanese history and offer inspiration for other topics which you may seek to learn more about.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Bolo Brigade, by William H. Keith Jr.

This week I've returned to my perennial favorite series, the Bolos, with a full-length novel Bolo Brigade. When I initially began this series I sought to read it in chronological order. However, in the helpful guide of books located on Wikipedia I only recently noticed that the full-length Bolo novels were published concurrently with many of the Bolo short story anthologies, which I've already reviewed. However, I'm very happy to be going into the full-length novels and look forward to the opportunities provided by additional space.

This particular book deals with an area of space out on the galactic rim that is independent of the Concordiat of Man, but still strongly affiliated and protected by ancient Bolos against the remote possibility of a threat. Of course, we know that since the focus of the book is on this particular galactic backwater, the Bolos are going to have to save the day. In this case a race known as the Malach, very similar to raptor-like dinosaurs in many respects, have invaded the human worlds. The humans are no match for the hunter-warriors of the Malach, and some of the Bolos are simply insufficient as well. But hope lies in Freddy and Ferdy, two ancient (and perhaps most importantly self-aware) Mark XXIV Bolos, defenders of the sector's capital.

If you asked me my opinion on this particular book, I'd say it's okay. I wouldn't say it's going to win any awards, but it's a worthwhile contribution to the Bolo canon. As I've said before with other books, you usually go into Bolo books expecting some crazy awesome tank goodness and the book seldom fail to deliver on that promise. It's probably not going to change the world, but sometimes it's fun to kick back and read some pulp adventures. And honestly it has a giant tank on the cover, what did you expect? I will say that the Bolo books in the past have been able to raise the question of what makes someone, or something, human, and while this book sort of touches on that, it doesn't go into terribly great detail, focusing instead on the pulp action.

I will say that the book sort of makes an attempt to contrast the Malach and their societal values with human values, which are definitely alien to say the least. I do wonder if it was entirely fair for humans to judge Malach by human values, simply because the Malach are so alien. But at the same time, when people are determined to kill all of you and take all your land and resources, you kind of want to focus on killing them right back and morality can be damned. The book also does work in people who want to make peace with the Malach, assuming that they can be reasoned with as you would with other humans and a peaceful resolution to the current conflict can be achieved. I will admit that this peace faction comes across as little more than straw men because we know that the Malach terms, if the Malach bothered to offer them, would be completely unacceptable to any humans. So it sort of turns out the military people are right, but it doesn't feel terribly heavy-handed in this instance. I will also say it was kind of funny to find another species that is expanding from a solitary world and simply cannot believe that humanity is in control of more than a handful of planets. Although the Concordiat's resources aren't brought to bear in this novel, it definitely leaves the Malach in for a very rude awakening when a true Bolo Brigade arrives in the sector.

Simply put if you like Bolos, you'll like this book, and if you're new to Bolos then this book is also a good choice. (Although you might not catch all the references.) Definitely worth the read if you want some sci-fi action.

- Kalpar