Thursday, December 31, 2015

A New Deal for the World, by Elizabeth Borgwardt

This week I'm reading a historical book that seeks to analyze the creation of international institutions after World War II by the United States through the influence of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In specific Borgwardt focuses on three main areas and ties them back to economic stability, collective security, and international justice. Specifically she talks about the Bretton Woods system and its main agencies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the creation of the United Nations, and the Nuremberg Charter and associated trials for Crimes Against Peace and Humanity. Borgwardt's main thesis is that all three of these efforts can be traced back to Roosevelt's goal to expand the New Deal beyond the United States and create, as she titles her book, a New Deal for the world.

Borgwardt begins her text with the Atlantic Charter, an informal agreement made between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in August of 1941. Although the United States was still “officially” neutral until the December attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had worked on pushing the United States towards entering the war and was already heavily involved in the Lend-Lease program. The Atlantic Charter was not meant to be a binding treaty but was more an informal statement of overall war goals for the Allied powers and why they were fighting against the Nazi regime. Roosevelt also worked on including his Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want, which he considered to be essential to the creation of a sustainable peace once the war was over. Borgwardt credits the informal Atlantic Charter as an important step in the foundation of the principles of human rights and the idea that there are international ideals which transcend national law.

The Atlantic Charter proved to be very influential on public opinion and its inspiration spread much further than its drafters intended. The statement of self-determination for all peoples in the world Churchill almost definitely meant to apply only to the oppressed people of Europe under the Nazi regime. Rampant Imperialist that he was, he certainly did not mean for the principle of self-determination to extend as far as India! Roosevelt was also confronted with the awkward system of racially-based repression and discrimination in the United States, which unfortunately lingers to this day. Despite the shortcomings of the creators of the Charter, it would be the first step the Allies would take in organizing the peace after the war in an attempt to avoid the failures of 1919.

Borgwardt also focuses on the differences in public opinion in 1945 versus 1919. Obviously the high aspirations of a post-war international order had their origins with Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations, which proved utterly ineffective at accomplishing anything or even preventing a second war twenty years later. After World War I, Americans in general were ready to return to normalcy, as Warren G. Harding put it, and had no interest in joining an international organization that promised to get them entangled in more European politics. As Borgwardt puts it, everyone wanted to go back to 1913 before the war began. However, by 1945 there was a very different attitude among the American population and a majority of Americans believed that the United States should be involved in international organizations after the war was over to help prevent future conflicts. This assessment was made easier by the creation of scientific polling in 1935, which provided both Congress and the Roosevelt administration with a hitherto unprecedented insight into the mind of the average American.

However, it is curious that a majority of Americans should be supportive of further American involvement abroad when so many Americans had supported neutrality before 1941. Borgwardt's explanation for this shift was the shared experience of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and then service by millions of Americans in the armed forces during World War II. No one wanted to relive the 1930's and the economic and political instability that came with it, so people were placing their hopes in international organizations that would have the resources to promote stability. In addition Borgwardt places special emphasis on the entire generation of Americans the grew up during the Great Depression and saw first-hand the benefits of big government projects during the New Deal which reduced hostility to government-led solutions for big problems. In addition, that same generation was drafted in large number into the military and taken across the globe. Men who may have spent their entire lives in the same small town found themselves in locations as distant as China, Africa, and Europe. Borgwardt asserts that through this exposure to the power of big government, as well as the world at large, the Greatest Generation (to use the popular phrase) became greatly supportive of multilateral international organizations to create a better world for tomorrow.

The three organizations Borgwardt chooses to focus on are, as I said, the Bretton Woods system with the IMF and World Bank, the United Nations, and the Nuremberg Charter and Trials. I will say the final one feels the weakest and there's probably good reason for that, but I'll get to that in a minute. Roosevelt and other New Dealers believed that for a sustainable peace to exist when the war was over, there needed to be economic, social, and political stability in the world which would help keep peace and foster cooperation between nations. Perhaps most important was the Bretton Woods system and its attendant financial institutions, which would hopefully help prevent the problems such as currency devaluation which had made the economic woes of the Great Depression that much worse, as well as promote a certain level of economic welfare. The United Nations, meanwhile, was to serve as a collective security agreement for the Allied Powers and a means to help prevent wars before the start through diplomacy and negotiation. Both of these failed to meet their original intents for a variety of purposes.

In the case of the IMF and World Bank, there has in recent years been criticism leveled against them for engaging in neocolonial practices and there is a certain amount of evidence to support this charge. As the capitalism vs. communism standoff of the Cold War began to set in, the directors of both of these institutions took a very strong pro-capitalism stance and would look to expand free markets regardless of the attendant cost in economic well-being to the populations of various nations. In addition, the World Bank and IMF have demanded strict repayment schedules for loans to developing countries which do not have the political or economic clout to defy these organizations. The result is outsiders demanding harsher and harsher austerity measures from the governments of these nations so they can pay back the loans to the outsiders on time. In an indirect manner this has led to a neo-colonial relationship between the developed and developing world.

In the case of the United Nations, the failure was once again the divide between capitalism and communism. Borgwardt asserts that the United Nations rested on the assumptions the four Great Powers of China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, would continue to act in concert after the war was over and serve as the policemen of the world. However the divide between the United States and the USSR, both with veto power in the UN's Security Council, resulted in almost perpetual deadlock in that body. This resulted in more power being shifted to the General Assembly, which had relatively small membership while the French and British colonial empires were still considerably large and the Americans assumed they could readily control the General Assembly. However, as decolonization continued the membership of the General Assembly continued to grow and many countries in the Third World, finding themselves ignored and marginalized by the Superpowers, increasingly banded together in defiance of both the United States and the USSR. And of course, superpowers are happy to ignore the UN whenever they find it most convenient for themselves.

I have saved the Nuremberg Charters and Trials for last because they certainly seem a bit odd compared to the other two. While both Bretton Woods and the United Nations meet specific economic and security needs for the United States in a post-war world, the Nuremberg Trials seem more an exercise for the benefit of the Allies more than anything else. This is not to say that these trials were unimportant and they did a great deal to establishing the concept of Crimes Against Humanity. However, as Borgwardt points out, after the Nuremberg trials were over there was no permanent international court of justice until 2002, and the first international tribunal for war crimes and Crimes Against Humanity wasn't until the tragedies of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990's. There are certainly individuals who have been placed on trial by their own countries for such atrocities, but the history of international condemnation of such atrocities to the scale of the Nuremberg Trials is noticeable lacking.

It definitely seems like the Nuremberg Trials were an attempt for the Allies to cope with the sheer inhumanity of the Holocaust, as well as to take out punishment on more prominent members of the Nazi regime. However, there was plenty of public opinion which had serious doubts about the Nuremberg Trials, stating that instead of being an example of the rule of law and justice for millions of innocent people it felt much more like victors taking one last revenge on the vanquished. The Nuremberg Trials definitely should have happened and set an important precedent to the world in how to handle atrocities such as genocide, but their legacy is far more muted than Bretton Woods and the United Nations.

Overall I think this book is pretty good, it goes into great detail explaining the American motivations for creating these international institutions and explaining after the war was over how they failed in ways their creators didn't necessarily anticipate. I do feel like it's a little incomplete in explaining how exactly all three of these systems were supposed to work, it seems to focus more on building up to these three rather than the actual nuts and bolts mechanics. For people who are interested in American foreign policy and especially policy initiatives of the World War II era, I think this is a very interesting look at an almost unique point in American history.

- Kalpar  

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi, by Tanigawa Nagaru

This week I'm finally returning, albeit briefly, to the Suzumiya Haruhi series with the fourth book, The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi. I was actually going to read this book much earlier but I found out its events occurred around Christmastime so I figured it would be appropriate to review it for today. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the series you can read my reviews here, here, and here.

The book starts off normally enough, at least as normal as any of these books in a world with Haruhi can begin, anyway. As I mentioned, we've jumped forward to December, (The series tends to jump around a little bit within its chronology) and Ordinary High School Student Kyon is ready for the year to end. Haruhi, being Haruhi, has decided the SOS Brigade should do something together for Christmas this year. As argument against Haruhi is a largely futile endeavor, this decision is finalized and Kyon heads home on December 17th. When he awakes on December 18th, however, he notices things have changed. There are subtle changes at first, like when he notices a friend is ill with the flu that he certainly didn't have yesterday, but it quickly becomes far more obvious that something's wrong. People who shouldn't be there are, and people who should be aren't. In fact, an entire classroom has vanished overnight. Most distressingly for Kyon, Haruhi and Koizumi appear to have disappeared, and Mikuru and Yuki don't recognize him at all. Only a scarce handful of clues let Kyon know he isn't totally insane and set him on a race against the clock to figure out what the heck happened.

I will say I at least initially enjoyed this book because it was material that hadn't been adapted to the tv series. Well, I've been told that it actually was adapted to a feature-length film at one point, but as DVDs of it are selling on Amazon for a shade under $200 the last time I checked, I haven't actually been able to watch this. As I sort of mentioned in my other reviews, I didn't always enjoy the other books because I was already familiar with the stories and it sort of felt like a repeat. So getting to see some new material with familiar characters was a special treat for me and I look forward to more material that hasn't been adapted.

That being said, I did end up a little disappointed with this book as well. Without going into spoiler territory it very, very briefly touches on subjects that I'm rather fond of and I felt like it truly deserved a lot more development than what it got in this novel. To be fair, the books are light novels and certainly aren't like some of the doorstoppers I've been known to read from time to time with their richly complex plots and characters. Or at least lots of explosions. But I still felt like there were things that could have been developed more in this book and given more space than what they ultimately got. I will say with the new material I kind of wish these books were a bit heftier, but I guess I can't have everything.

Ultimately, the book's okay. There's less of the awkward stuff you kind of see in the earlier books and personally I liked getting to new material, but I found myself wishing for more beyond what I ended up getting. But for the rest of you, Happy Hogswatch, Joyous Solstice, and watch out for Krampus or Krinsblag, they're some nasty fellows.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Chosen, by K.F. Breene

This week I'm returning to the Fierce e-book collection and reading the next novel, Chosen by K.F. Breene. As most of the other novels in both the Fierce and Epic collections, these are the first books in a collection of different series. I've decided to give them all a sampling but probably won't be pursuing any of the series in depth. At least for now. Anyway, Chosen is the first book in the Warrior Chronicles with the second book released this past year.

The plot follows quite a few characters but the most important character, and the one placed on the cover to the right over there, is Shanti. Shanti is the titular Chosen One, who's been tasked by her people to unite the tribes and fight off the self-described Supreme Being who is slowly taking over the world, either through crafty infiltration or outright conquest. At least, Shanti would be saving the world if she didn't nearly die of starvation and dehydration when it turns out a forest that was supposed to be on the map wasn't there anymore. Fortunately for her, Shanti gets rescued by an inquisitive group of cadets and their commander, being brought back to their home city and nursed to health. Everyone is curious about this mysterious woman and her strange powers, especially the Captain, absolute ruler of their city-state and perhaps a bit more than he appears.

I'll be honest, I have some issues with this book and I'm going to try to articulate them as well as I can. First, let's talk about Shanti's powers. Shanti has what she refers to as a Gift, a collection of mental abilities which enables her to do things as varied as accelerate people's natural healing, read their emotions, influence their thoughts, and even kill them with the proper application of this power. Of course, the bad guys that Shanti is running from have this power as well, just nowhere near the same level of strength or ability as Shanti. The problem that I have is that Shanti complains a couple of times about how the bad guys only use their Gift for destructive or evil purposes. Torturing people, killing people, enslaving people. You know, general bad guy things.

While Shanti certainly uses her powers to help heal people, especially herself, and helps one character get over her lack of self-confidence, she has no qualms about torturing or killing people with her own powers as well. I mean, maybe she's meant to be an anti-hero type who's willing to do whatever's necessary, but I still feel like if you're going to be the good guys you have to be better than the bad guys. To paraphrase Sam Vimes here, you can't do bad things to people in little rooms for good reasons because that leads all too easily to doing bad things to people in little rooms for bad reasons. I just didn't like seeing Shanti be driven by a thirst for revenge and looking forward and even taking pleasure in torturing people, even if they were the scum of the earth. It's just not something a hero, especially a Chosen One, should do.

I also had a considerable amount of frustration with Shanti and the Captain and their interactions. Both of them are very powerful people who are very used to getting their own way with things and butt heads pretty constantly through the novel. Shanti's determined to go off and be on her quest as the Chosen one and doesn't want to rely upon anyone else for help. Even when she was so far gone that she would have died of starvation if the Captain's subordinates hadn't found her first. On top of that Shanti keeps a lot of secrets from everyone for the first half or so of the book. Granted, it's with good reason considering she's been on the run from the Supreme Being and his minions for about a year, but she's not willing to tell her hosts anything and gets downright combative when they ask questions, which actually hinders her efforts to get back on the road again.

The Captain, meanwhile, comes from a culture with very strict gender roles and immediately assumes women can't be fighters at all. He thinks something about Shanti's story doesn't add up, but it's more because she was found carrying a sword and throwing knives and being ambiguous about her answers. And clearly a woman couldn't be carrying a sword and knives! Women aren't fighters! Fortunately the sexism falls away pretty quickly, but the Captain still is trying to get his own way when Shanti's trying to get hers, and the result is a sort of deadlock. I'm left with the feeling that I should slap them both and tell them to quit being so obstinate and work together. Fate of the world's at stake! On the plus side they both start to get a little bit better as the book goes on and you're left with the impression that there's plenty of room for character development in later books. However in my opinion both Shanti and the Captain have quite a way to go to being well-balanced characters.

There are a few other issues, but I feel like they're sort of minor compared to those two. I feel like the book went back and forth on a couple of things at various points which made it feel less consistent. I'm pretty sure the book said two conflicting things about how powers are passed down through lineage, but it may imply that the characters themselves don't have a terribly good understanding of how the powers work either. I also was kind of uncomfortable with Shanti utilizing lust and sex as a tool to get what she wants or needs from people, and then feeling bad about it later. Especially when she considers the Captain's culture to be prudish compared to her own. But they feel kind of minor compared to my frustrations with the characters.

Overall, the book isn't terribly bad, I just didn't feel terribly excited or interested while reading it either. I can see how some people might enjoy reading it, but for myself the sort of anti-hero willing to torture enemy prisoners angle and the obstinate nature of the main characters made me more than a little frustrated. If you've read this author before and liked her stuff, you may enjoy this, but personally I just wasn't a fan.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bonded, by Mande Matthews

This week I'm reviewing another book contained in an e-book collection called Epic I bought from Amazon. This particular book, Bonded, is the first in a planned trilogy from Mande Matthews which in her own words is described as a combination of Norse mythology and the Hero's Journey as described by Campbell. For my readers who might be somehow unfamiliar with the concept of the Hero's Journey a.k.a. monomyth, you can find an entertaining and educational video here.

I would provide a brief overview of the plot for Bonded, but I'm kind of at a loss because I felt like the plot was by far the weakest part of Bonded, especially in what it lacked as a monomyth. Basically we have the main characters of Hallad and Erik, along with Erik's brother Rolf, who are out in the forest one day with Hallad's little sister Emma. They meet a mysterious woman in the forest, and suddenly a shadow appears that kidnaps Emma. Very simple plot hook, Emma (both Hallad's sister and Erik's love interest) has been kidnapped so a quest must be undertaken to rescue her. Throughout the book there are statements that imply Emma's kidnapping is part of a much larger plot, but throughout the entire book we're never given specific information about what this plot is. We get some vague information about a prophecy, Hallad being the chosen one, and we meet Lothar who's an underling for the Big Bad referred to only as the Shadow but possibly may be Loki. The plot is very vague on this point which actually makes it weaker as a book in my opinion.

The thing about the monomyth is that it doesn't do subtle. That's probably one of its greatest strengths and why it's persisted for thousands of years. There are very obvious good guys and very obvious bad guys and perhaps more importantly the stakes of the good guys losing are made incredibly clear. For example, in Star Wars you know that the Empire are the bad guys because they have the Death Star, which can blow up planets. Generally, good people don't go around blowing up planets. On top of that, if the Rebellion doesn't stop the Empire they'll keep going on blowing up planets. And that's bad. Or for another classic example, take Lord of the Rings. If Sauron recovers the One Ring, he'll cover all of Middle Earth in darkness. Forever. Also bad. The problem with Bonded was I never learned what exactly the bad guy was planning. There was something sinister afoot, I was assured of that much, but aside from Emma getting kidnapped the bad guys didn't really seem to do anything. And I still feel a little vague on who exactly the bad guy is in this story.

The reason I feel vague on who the heroes and villains are is because of how things work in Alvenheim, a realm the heroes aren't from but a lot of the action takes place in. Basically the majority of residents have magical powers which make them connected with the realm of Alvenheim and allow them to call upon the world to give them food, clothing, shelter, heat, pretty much everything humans need to survive. Fruit is not picked from trees, but rather freely given when asked for. Fires are not created because they cause pain to the world. Instead heat and light are called forth and provided. However, there is a very small fraction of the population which is born without magical abilities. They are completely dependent on others to provide for their needs because they cannot call upon Alvenheim to provide their needs. As a result the majority despises those unable to do magic and sees them as little more than worthless parasites who should be left to die of starvation and exposure.

Those without magic, left to fend for themselves, light fires, hunt animals, and do various other things normal people do to keep themselves alive. Furthermore the non-magical become outright brazen with their behavior because to the non-magical doing as little as picking a flower is worthy of the death penalty. So in the vein of  "may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb" the non-magical people burn the land and boil the sea (sorry, couldn't resist) because they're going to get killed regardless of what they do, may as well get some good old revenge in while they're at it. Which although not explicitly stated, has left me with the impression of a bitter civil war between the two.

Why is this relevant? Well Lothar, the chief minion of the Big Bad and main bad guy for this book, is actually trying to help the non-magical. Granted, he's doing so for his own selfish ends (or so we're told), but he's the only person in the book who treats the non-magical as human beings rather than parasites. It certainly puts a damper on the whole monomyth if you show the bad guy working to help people who are risking death just to feed themselves and their children. Because that sounds like a very good guy sort of thing to do, kidnappings aside.

Otherwise, I felt like a lot of the book was spent sitting around waiting. The characters didn't know a lot of information, so they'd stumble around or sit around and wait and maybe get a little bit of information revealed to them, but not terribly much. I even got the feeling that the main characters got tired of waiting and rushed off into the unknown because they got as bored as I was. As I reached the halfway point I was just forcing myself through but losing any hope of getting a better explanation of what was happening, rather than some events which are tied to a mysterious and sinister plot.

Overall, I didn't really care for this book. The inclusion of Norse mythology is a nice touch and the author has definitely done her research on that subject. But plot wise I felt like this book was a bit of a mess, especially for something trying to follow the monomyth. There's a bad guy, but he seems to have very limited goals and the stakes are fairly small for a monomyth story. Plus, if your bad guy is helping people in trouble it makes him a little less of a bad guy. I'd recommend passing on this one.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Conquest Through Determination: Steampunk in All of its Splendour, edited by Miles Boothe & Deana Roberts

This week I'm reviewing an anthology of steampunk-themed short stories that I picked up quite a while ago and finally got around to reading. For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with the idea of steampunk you can always watch my video rant explaining steampunk, or peruse a fine variety of other sources which explain what steampunk is. To provide the short explanation, it's a genre of science fiction usually set in the late nineteenth century with advanced technology relying upon steam power. (Although this is a very general definition, steampunk has expanded well beyond just a literary genre.) As someone who is interested in the history of the nineteenth century it's a genre that seems almost made to fit me and I have quite a lot of fun with it.

Conquest Through Determination is an anthology of over  a dozen short stories from a variety of authors, all of which are set in a variety of steampunk universes. Of course, it being an anthology I run into the issue I've had with other anthologies I've read where I can't go into much detail about the stories without potentially ruining them all. So I end up giving more of an overall impression of the book rather than a very specific review of its contents. And while this book is kind of short, at about 260 pages, I think there's quite a few entertaining and interesting stories which I think people will enjoy reading.

One theme which I noticed across these stories was a tendency to have spunky female characters who defied social conventions by being engineers and mechanics, and acting all unlady-like!  Which I'm actually in favor of and I think it's a theme in steampunk overall rather than just this collection of short stories. Modern authors generally do not hold the same Victorian ideas of gender roles and seem to take great delight in shocking Victorian sensibilities with their outspoken female characters. And honestly, I think this is a good thing. Even in the twenty-first century we still suffer from a lack of strong, female characters in fiction and so steampunk as a genre consciously making that decision is definitely a step forward. My only concern is that it will become obligatory for steampunk to have a female mechanic/engineer/scientist who doesn't give a damn about proper Victorian manners and it'll become just another worn-out trope over time. (And it did get a little repetitive for me to see so many characters that felt the same in that respect.) Hopefully, however, as steampunk continues to evolve as a genre in the future this will develop as well.

Overall I liked this anthology and I recommend it to any other steampunks out there who might read my blog, especially if you've got a little time to kill and just want to read a short story. I do remember being frustrated that one story set in an alternate American Civil War confused Frederick Douglass with Stephen Douglas, sort of a big difference. Some of the stories are sad, some are fun, and there are a couple that border on the downright bizarre, but all in all it's a pretty good read.

- Kalpar