Thursday, March 31, 2016

Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era, by Carl Sferrazza Anthony

This week I'm reviewing a biography I managed to stumble across at the used bookstore about Nellie Taft, First Lady and wife of President and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (and Cincinnati son) William Howard Taft. I have been interested in Nellie Taft for a while after reading Goodwin's text, The Bully Pulpit in which Nellie was briefly described and she seemed like an incredibly fascinating person. Conventional would never be an adjective you could apply to Nellie during the entirety of her life and in an era when most women of her social class were expected to be wives and mothers, Nellie was driven by a desire to be much, much more. Personally I rather like this book because it offers insight into the life of one of the most vivacious First Ladies.

I'll begin with a criticism I had of the book's organization, which was one of my main concerns with the text. The book is divided into twenty chapters and a full nine of those deal with her life before becoming first lady. It begins with her childhood in Cincinnati, as well as her frustrations with the enforced idleness her class and gender brought upon her, and her rebellion expressed in a variety of ways. We then follow her as she marries Will Taft and directs his career, pushing him away from the court and towards more executive positions such as governor of the Philippines and Secretary of War. This culminates in her pushing Will and manipulating Theodore Roosevelt to achieve her ultimate ambition: the White House. Another eight chapters are spent going over the four years the Tafts spent in the White House, a combination of triumph and tragedy with the final betrayal of Roosevelt. Finally the last thirty years of Nellie's life are covered in three very brief chapters.

Personally I feel like this didn't place a lot of emphasis on Nellie's achievements after being First Lady, acting as a proponent of social reform and a frequent world traveler after Will died in 1930. Especially considering this is a book and Anthony could easily have dedicated more space to those subjects. The result makes the last thirty years of Nellie's life pass as a bit of a whirlwind. Certainly Nellie was an individual blessed with an abundance of energy and seemed to approach everything with extreme gusto, but it seems a discredit to her later years to briefly gloss over them compared to everything else. But this is ultimately a personal quibble of mine and in no way detracts from the value of the book overall.

When Nellie Taft was described to me in Bully Pulpit it was as a sort of late nineteenth century rebel. Born to an impoverished upper class family in Cincinnati, Nellie was sent to the very best schools and received a proper upbringing. However, the expectation for upper class white women at the time was marriage and motherhood, with perhaps a series of teas, luncheons, and light charity work. Nellie, however, was someone who simply could not stand the prospect of doing little to nothing and was constantly driven to seek more from her life. This resulted in her rebelling in a variety of ways.

There was of course the traditional teenage rebellion in drugs, alcohol, and gambling, Nellie developed a taste for beer and liquor, was described as an extremely good card player, and was a lifetime smoker of cigarettes. (Especially rebellious considering it wasn't ''acceptable'' for women to smoke before then Twenties.) However, her rebellion also took a far more creative path as well. Wishing to not be a financial burden to her parents, Nellie tried at various times to be a professional musician and writer, without much success, but also worked as a schoolteacher for a period of time. Although tame by today's standards, this was absolutely shocking and Nellie's mother was actually concerned Nellie might drive suitors away by being a working girl. Nellie also established salons with her friends, discussing a variety of topics which is how she met William Taft. Although she rejected him multiple times, she eventually consented to agree to marry him because he respected her as an intellectual and her demand to be an equal partner with him in all things, rather than subordinate.

For most of their marriage Nellie would be Will's greatest adviser and would help steer his career towards the White House. A significant exception is when Will took a slight detour working on the circuit courts and leaving Nellie for long periods of time in Cincinnati. Not one to remain idle, Nellie helped found and organize the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, still an important institution in Cincinnati today and equal to the orchestras of cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. When Will was appointed Governor of the Philippines, Nellie reveled in the position and used her influence in a variety of ways. And when she goes to the Philippines, this is where I give Nellie a ton of credit.

Unlike a majority of people of her class and background, Nellie is willing to work with and cooperate with the local cultures instead of trying to dominate. Wherever she'd go Nellie would try the food, talk with the locals, try to learn the language, and treated everyone with dignity and respect. Now of course, Nellie's egalitarianism did not extend to everyone. Anthony admits that Nellie had an extreme class prejudice and preferred to hobnob with the monied, landed, and educated class rather than the poor working class. But, where she differs from contemporaries, as Anthony points out, is that Nellie welcomes people regardless of race, creed, or gender so long as they're the right class, and makes an effort to integrate all ceremonies and events in the Philippines. Her willingness to work with local Filipino elites puts her ahead of many Americans who viewed the world with the racism endemic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her decision later on to include black servants at the White House, something not tolerated previously, is also a significant step forward.

Something that Anthony emphasizes is that Nellie uses her position both as wife of the governor and later First Lady to bring about social reform. In the Philippines Nellie promoted natal care programs which went a long way towards reducing infant mortality on the islands. As First Lady Nellie worked to improve working conditions for federal employees, many of whom were trapped in substandard buildings with poor light and ventilation. In addition she worked to create the park on the bank of the Potomac River where the Jefferson Memorial currently stands and was influential in beginning the planting of thousands of cherry trees in Washington, D.C. which are a major tourist attraction to this day. And in a variety of other matters, large and small, Nellie used her considerable influence with Will to bring about positive change as the First Lady, often inundated with letters from people seeking her help.

The real tragedy of all of this is that Nellie did not get to enjoy being First Lady terribly much at all. After all, Will's real ambition was the Supreme Court and it was only at Nellie's insistence that Will ran as a candidate at all. Unfortunately in May of 1909, just a few months into their four year tenure at the White House, Nellie suffered a stroke and lost control of both the right side of her body and the ability to speak. Although she eventually recovered and continued to live a full and active life, it greatly curtailed her ability to act as the First Lady and enjoy the power and privilege that came with the position. Will was emotionally devastated and left bereft of the person who had been his chief supporter and confidante for decades. Coupled with the ordinary stress of being president, Will overate constantly and fretted, reaching almost four hundred pounds which would have a long term effect on his health. And in the latter half of his administration, the Tafts dealt with the specter of a resurgent Roosevelt, which would eventually make the election of 1912 one of the bitterest in American History. However, Nellie found purpose again after leaving the White House, finally indulging herself with all of the pleasures she so often had to deny when making due with Will's salary. In her last years Nellie was a frequent world traveler, despite being over seventy years old, and remained extremely vivacious.

I will make a few comments on some other things in the book, although I'm aware I've let this post go for quite some time as it is so I'll try to keep it brief. As a Cincinnatian myself, I take an inordinate amount of pride in my city and I find it rather interesting that while Anthony says Nellie was quick to defend Cincinnati against anyone who might speak disparagingly of it, she certainly did her damndest to get the hell away from Cincinnati for the rest of her life, to the point of putting off seeing her own grandchildren because it'd mean coming to Cincinnati. Anthony also states very strenuously that Nellie was certainly not an alcoholic during her life, despite her great love of wine, beer, and liquor. Personally I feel like Anthony doth protest too much considering Nellie seems to go into great detail about what she was drinking later in life in letters to her son, Charlie. Certainly alcoholism would be a foible of Nellie's character, but it doesn't detract from her other good qualities.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book because Nellie Taft is a fascinating example of a woman rebelling against societal norms and using power and influence to bring about social change, sometimes subverting those societal norms she's rebelling against. Although not the most famous of First Ladies, she's a great example and something all future First Ladies (or perhaps I should say First Spouses) should aspire to exceed. Despite its flaws, I highly recommend this book and encourage everyone to go out and read it.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dune, by Frank Herbert

This week I'm taking a second look at what's widely considered to be a landmark book in the genre of science-fiction, Frank Herbert's Dune, a gigantic space opera that if nothing else is responsible for giving us the idea of spice as a tradeable commodity in the space future which has turned up in other sci-fi works. This is actually the first of an almost insane number of books and I'm planning on downloading more audiobooks in this series from the library when I get the chance, just to see what all the fuss is about.

As I said, this is actually a second look at the series for me because I originally read read Dune back in high school and I remember not really liking it terribly much. Taking a second look at it I'd say that the book has grown on me somewhat and I've got a better understanding of it, but I can still see where it has some serious problems. Dune has been occasionally described as the Lord of the Rings of space opera, and I can see the parallels between the two works. Both have insanely detailed universes with thousands of years of backstory and lore that are hinted at indirectly through the narrative but you never really learn specifically what those things are. For example, there's the Butlerian Jihad against thinking machines, which is mentioned in passing as ancient history in the remote past, but we never learn more than the barest details. (At least in this book, anyway.) There's also an extensive vocabulary, some of them words Herbert created, some of them not, which are included in a not always helpful glossary in print editions of the book. The result is Herbert creates a world, much like Middle Earth, that feels like it has considerable depth. You may not entirely understand what's going on and spend an inordinate time in appendices and apocrypha trying to sort through and understand details, but it's a world with as much depth and complexity as our own. If nothing else, Dune is a masterpiece in the exercise of world-building. Or more properly galaxy-building.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plot of Dune, the story focuses around Paul Atreides, heir to the Duchy of Atreides who's also the Chosen One. The actual term is kwizats haderach but it's just easier to say Chosen One. So the story focuses, at least partly on Paul becoming said Chosen One, which is okay but I think it's honestly the weaker of the plot lines. The other one is an economic and political drama focusing around the planet Arrakis where House Atreides is sent. Arrakis is a desert world and the only source of melange spice which extends human life and is extremely addictive, making it the most valuable resource in the universe. House Atreides stands to make a great amount of money from being the governors of Arrakis, however it is a trap by their old enemies, the Harkonnens, who plan to shatter their power and eliminate the Atreides. What ensues is a battle between Harkonnen and Atreides for control of Arrakis and, ultimately, the spice.

One of the biggest complaints I have about the book, and has been mentioned by other people who have read it, is that the book really doesn't allow suspense to exist in the book. For example: within the first three chapters of the book we know that House Atreides is going to Arrakis; we know that it's secretly a trap House Harkonnen has made with the help of the Emperor to crush House Atreides; we know that House Atreides knows that it's a trap by House Harkonnen and the Emperor to crush their power and are planning accordingly; we know that House Harkonnen knows that House Atreides knows that it's a trap and so has a secret traitor planted which who we're immediately told who it is and why they're betraying House Atreides. Seriously, that's all in the first three chapters, and it only gets worse as the book goes on and Paul starts being able to see the future. And of course every chapter starts with a quotation from a work about Paul's life afterwards so you know he's going to make it out okay, more or less. So it definitely removes any sense of suspense in the book and I can see where it would get difficult to read.

Another issue, leaving aside the insane amount of world-building and vocabulary-dumping, is that we're often given different characters' internal monologues, sometimes multiple characters during the same chapter. It's perfectly fine to tell stories from the perspectives of multiple characters and it's been done before and since, but in this case the shifts can be downright jarring and confusing at times because they happen with little warning. So much like Lord of the Rings, its writing is not necessarily the book's strongest suit and if it weren't for the amount of work Herbert had put into the book's universe it probably would have been mediocre at best.

As for the audio book in specific, the biggest problem I had was the narration. For whatever reason the people who created the version I listened to decided to get multiple voice actors to provide voices for characters in the novel. However, the voice actors are used fairly infrequently so the regular narrator has to take over for at least half the book, possibly more, and provide a variety of voices for the characters. I can even cite an example where in the space of one chapter they went from using just the narrator to using the voice actors to using the narrator again to using the voice actors again. And it had a weird side effect for me by providing two separate interpretations for one character. Specifically the voice actor they got for Baron Harkonnen had a very deep, manipulative, evil genius voice that makes you feel like he's a force to be reckoned with. However, the voice the narrator used makes Harkonnen come across as a bumbling old fool with delusions of power rather than the mastermind. It's...confusing to say the least and I really wonder why the creators of this audiobook decided to shell out for voice actors if they were only going to use them for only part of the book.

Overall, Dune is okay and while I can understand the fascination and adoration it receives, I wouldn't say it's fantastic. Herbert put an insane amount of work into building the universe of his story and making it feel like a real, breathing, living world. However the writing can be weak or confusing, the plotlines aren't as richly developed as they could be, and Herbert basically tells us what's going to happen before it happens so there's no real suspense to the story. If you like space operas there's probably stuff in here you'll enjoy, but I can see how it would have a limited appeal.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Iron Guard, by Mark Clapham

This week I'm returning to the Warhammer 40,000 universe and reviewing yet another novel featuring the warriors of the Imperial Guard. In this case Iron Guard, a book which focuses on the members of the Mordian Iron Guard, one of countless regiments of the Imperial Guard. For my readers who are unfamiliar with the Mordians, they're basically Prussians....IN SPACE! Or to elaborate, the Mordians come from a world where one side is burned to a crisp because it perpetually faces the sun, while the other is constantly exposed to the darkness of space and completely frozen. All of the population lives in hive spires on the dark side of the planet and order is only maintained through ruthless and relentless discipline. The result is the Mordian Iron Guard, regiments clad in bright blue dress uniforms which bear more than a passing resemblance to old Prussian Dunkelblau uniforms. The Mordians' main tactic is to form unbreakable lines of men pouring disciplined volleys of fire into the enemy until either the enemy is routing or dead, or they overwhelm the Mordians with superior numbers and firepower. In either case it will be a costly action for the enemy and the Mordians will remain stalwart against the Emperor's foes.

Iron Guard focuses specifically on the 114th Mordian Regiment, also known as "The Unbreakables", a regiment with a reputation for stalwart determination and discipline over and above the typical Mordian regiment. For the past year they've been helping put down a disorganized rebellion of false Emperors and many have grown bored with the ease of the assignment. Especially since the tide has begun to turn and it appears the world will soon be safely back under the watchful gaze of the Emperor. While half of the regiment will remain behind to continue the process of mopping up the remaining rebels, the other half is being sent onwards to Belmos VII, a world inhabited by a single city surrounding a mine of important raw materials for Imperial war materiel. Although contact with Belmos VII is infrequent at the best of times, a message has recently been received which had made the regional bureaucrats greatly concerned and they want the 114th to go investigate and handle any problems or rebellions that have occurred.

The thing I like most about this book is that it manages to go a different path from most Imperial Guard novels without straying too much from the formula as well. If you read too many Imperial Guard novels, after a while they start to blur together because they're all war novels. There may be differences in the specific details and the specific objectives people are fighting over, but it usually boils down to Imperial Guard and enemies fighting over stuff. Heck, I even got bored with some of the stories in the second omnibus of the Gaunt's Ghosts series because the stories felt so much the same to me. In the case of Iron Guard, though, there is a very spooky element towards the beginning of the story, very much like a horror story. As the 114th goes into the city on Belmos VII they find it entirely deserted, with no signs of life at all. Which is especially concerning because the planet had been out of contact for a few weeks, implying something very, very bad has gone down. As their investigations continue the 114th finds that the people of Belmos VII may have stumbled onto something far more sinister than initially anticipated.

I will say that this book falls on the darker end of the spectrum when it comes to the Imperial Guard novels. Generally speaking these books tend to fall broadly into two categories, either they honor and perhaps to an extent romanticize the sacrifices of the Imperial Guard in humanity's endless war with aliens and heretics, usually showing how their efforts are able to make a positive impact in humanity's plight. On the other hand there are stories that underscore the futility of humanity's war on a thousand fronts and the billions of lives thrown away to try and keep the tottering establishment of the Imperium up for just a little longer. Iron Guard definitely falls into the second category with at least one character ruminating on the senselessness of their struggles and his frustration with how officers seem to callously throw men's lives away only to further their careers. Obviously both sorts of stories have their own merits and some might say that the grimmer types of stories are more in keeping with 40k's notoriously dark outlook. However I personally prefer the more positive stories, but that's a matter of personal taste.

Towards the end of the book the author also brings in other elements of the 40k universe without terribly much explanation of who or what they are and their respective motivations. It's touched upon but they definitely have the feeling of coming out of nowhere and sort of stumbling into what had previously been a survival-horror story. If you're a 40k veteran then you'll be fine because Clapham's not introducing new concepts but rather utilizing pre-existing ones, but if you're new to the lore than you'll probably be confused more than anything else.

Overall I liked the survival horror elements, which felt in some ways sort of like Aliens, which is a pretty good movie. So it makes a refreshing departure from some of the more by-the-numbers Imperial Guard novels. However, if you're not familiar with various parts of 40k lore than you'll probably be confused in the latter third of the book when strange things show up with little warning or explanation. Still a decent read for those who've been around the universe for a while.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

This week I'm talking about the landmark book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond which I actually was first exposed to through a documentary I saw on netflix. Although I fully expect the documentary has long since disappeared from that site, the book remains available. I will say that going through the book felt very repetitive for me because the documentary which I remember fairly well covers the exact same ground as the book. So, for me at least, it was kind of repetitive and this book felt very dry, but it's an interesting perspective nonetheless.

In this book Jared Diamond seeks to explain why the world ended up the way it currently is, which is no small question in and of itself. More specifically, Diamond tries to untangle why Europe of all places ended up dominating the globe politically and economically even to this day. Why did Europe develop modern gunpowder weapons, steam engines, railroads, printing presses, and all the other things which generally get lumped into that glorious mess called civilization? For years the accepted answer had been race-based: white people are simply superior to the other people across the globe. More intelligent, more sophisticated, more ''evolved''. In more recent years this has been dismissed for the racist nonsense it is. People in Africa, Asia, and the Americas can adapt to the modern world just as well as Europeans and European descendents so clearly there's nothing about white people that makes them inherently better. But then what precisely was it that allowed Europe to dominate the globe? Surely it must have been something, right? It's a thorny question with no easy answers.

Diamond takes an extremely broad approach, some have argued far too broad, and focuses on biography and geography to take us back to the birth of ''civilization'' thousands of years ago. The main thrust of Diamond's argument is that it all ultimately comes down to agriculture. Diamond operates from the assumption that agriculture is necessary to create the food surpluses required so individuals don't have to focus on growing food and can instead specialize in different areas, such as rulers, bureaucrats, and craftsmen. This allows the development of different technologies which, over thousands of years built up the juggernaut of industrialized Europe. Now, I'll admit I'm not entirely up on modern anthropological research but I believe this view has become challenged in recent times and there may be examples of complex societies with food surpluses that do not rely on agriculture.However, I don't really have the information available nor the faintest inkling where to start looking.

Diamond's argument then continues from the assumption that agriculture is necessary for complex societies and then looks at areas where agriculture has been developed in history, specifically the Fertile Crescent, sub-Saharan Africa, China, Mesoamerica, and South America, each with their own staple crops adapted to the local climates. The bulk of the book focuses on the Fertile Crescent, which is where the most archaeological research has been done, and Diamond concludes that the Fertile Crescent had several distinct advantages, such as a large number of plants and animals suitable for domestication, as well as a large area with similar climates on similar latitudes where the agriculture could expand into new territory, a benefit it shared with Chinese agriculture. Diamond argues that African and American agriculture, however, was hampered by continents that covered a wide number of latitudes, creating environments where previously developed agriculture techniques would not easily adapt and thus hampering their spread. In addition, Diamond says that Africa and the Americas had fewer domesticable species of plants and animals compared to Asia, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.

Diamond's argument makes sense in some areas, but it still raises quite a few questions. The lack of domesticated animals in the Americas certainly explains why as much as ninety percent of the American Indian population was wiped out by smallpox. Smallpox is, after all, a disease we most likely picked up from our domesticated animals. In addition, llamas and alpacas, the only large domesticated animals native to the Americas, were kept in very different conditions from cattle, sheep, horses, and pigs in Europe, Asia, and Africa so the Incas were not as regularly exposed to pathogens from their llamas. The resulting lack of immunity proved catastrophic for Indian populations and did far more for Europeans than any technology probably could.

Diamond's argument goes to great lengths explaining why the inhabitants Australia and its associated islands remained largely stone-age hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. There weren't any species suitable for domestication and in the areas where agriculture was imported, they were fairly small. There were fairly complex societies on islands such as Hawaii, but they remained small due to land constraints. If Diamond's dates for domestication of plant and animal species in the Americas are correct as well, it may explain why native societies were just beginning to tinker with copper and bronze working before the Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century.

However, Diamond's argument certainly fails to explain why Europe came to dominate the world. Certainly a large part of Asia and northern Africa, sharing an agricultural and technological base, was equally likely to grow to be a dominant power and for much of history Asian powers were dominant. It wasn't until the sixteenth century that Europe began its long exploration of the rest of the world which finally culminated in the division of the world into European empires by the end of the nineteenth century. Why it was Europe instead of say India or China, that rose to prominence remains unanswered. Africa too, despite its lack of horses, could have been a dominant world power because they had extensive agriculture and steel weapons. Diamond himself even admits the shortcomings of his work and the fact it's far from complete.

There's also a distressing tendency for Diamond to refer to hunter-gatherer cultures as ''primitive'' or ''backwards''. There has been a push recently among anthropologists, sociologists, and historians to avoid utilizing those terms because they carry unfortunate connotations and have been associated far too frequently with the racist, imperialist terminology of the nineteenth century. While Diamond is trying to offer a non-racist alternative explanation, I fear he almost falls into some of the old value judgements he's trying to avoid by accident.

Overall, the book is interesting but far from complete. It's an interesting working hypothesis to explain some of why the world ended up the way it is, but it's far from the be-all-end-all work on the matter. By explaining some things, Diamond raises further questions and ultimately fails to explain why Europe rose to dominance. Certainly they had the advantage of agricultural and other technological improvements made in the Fertile Crescent which diffused elsewhere, but other locations had the exact same advantages. There's debate as to whether Diamond places too much emphasis on geography and environmental determinism but I don't think I know enough to be able to weigh in one way or the other. Clearly the answer as to why the world is the way it is will be a long and complex process which may never be answered.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Vicious, by Victoria Schwab

This week I'm reviewing a superhero novel, which is something I've done before, more than once as a matter of fact, and which I'll definitely be doing in the future thanks to some of my kindle purchases. And this is despite my overall reluctance to get involved in superhero comics. I never really read comics when I was a kid so I never got exposed to superheroes like most of the other people in my cohort. And unfortunately every time I try exploring the world of superhero comics I just seem to get confused by the sheer number of crossovers and spin offs and what have yous. So reading novels about superheroes is usually an easier method for me to enjoy the idea of superheroes.

I'll begin by being very honest and saying that I didn't care for Vicious, and it simply came down to the two main characters who I did not like at all through the book. And I'm sure there's people who found these characters fascinating, as the fairly positive reviews of the book suggest, but I did not like them at all. And of course, if you don't like characters in a story it makes it that much harder to enjoy the book overall. And I can see some interesting ideas used in the book, but it just gets buried under how much I hate the characters.

To give a brief overview of the plot, the story takes place in a universe where ExtraOrdinary individuals are alleged to exist. Everyone's heard rumors that they exist, but they're generally accepted to be a legend like bigfoot or the men in black. Relegated to internet discussion boards and late night tv shows. However, two brilliant college students, Victor Vale and Eli Cardale, figure out that if ExtraOrdinaries exist it's the result of a near death experience. And like the stupid and poorly supervised young people they are, they decide to try killing themselves in attempts to give themselves superpowers. Their attempts succeed, although the cost both physical and psychological is incredibly great. And Victor and Eli, two men who weren't entirely there to begin with, are pushed straight over the edge.

All right, so we've got two young men, college roommates, who give themselves superpowers by engaging in suicidal behavior. Not terribly bright, but believable considering some of the people I knew from my own days at university. The problem is that both Victor and Eli weren't very good people and it seems like getting superpowers just amplifies the defects of their personalities. Another character literally says there are no good men in this fight, and that makes it really hard to care about the result when you're trying to choose between two fairly bad options.

Let's begin with Victor, who's more or less our protagonist and competing with or fighting Eli through the book. Victor is an incredibly manipulative personality and uses his skills and intelligence to get what he wants. He sees people as objects to be used rather than as...well...people. He's really only interested in people so far as their useful to him. He doesn't really have friends and the allies he has are only around because they're useful to him and they benefit from sticking around with him. He's interested in controlling people and uses a variety of techniques to do that, and is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. I may not be a mental health professional, but that sounds a lot like a psychopath to me. And of course the worst part, which is almost minor compared to his psychosis, is his being a Nice Guy TM. It's so small as to be almost irrelevant, but I specifically remember him having a female friend in college who he rescues from bad dates and spends considerable time fantasizing about how he'd treat her infinitely better than the jerks she's dating, which is textbook Nice Guy TM stuff. And this is our, for lack of anyone else, protagonist. Now let's look at Eli.

Eli is in some ways cut from the same cloth as Victor. We don't get as much of his background as most of the story's told from Victor's perspective, but we do get a look into Eli's motivations and it wouldn't surprise me if Eli had a lot of the same problems as Victor. Despite being an ExtraOrdinary himself, Eli comes to the conclusion that EO's are a sin against both god and nature and it is therefore his sacred duty to hunt them down and kill them, one by one. And while there are EOs who are fairly dangerous and use their abilities to rob banks or hurt people, the majority of EOs are people who don't mean anyone else any harm and are just trying to adapt to their changed lives. But Eli believes all of them are a potential threat and need to be eliminated, except for himself, of course. And considering exactly zero people in the book seem comfortable with Eli's conclusions, I don't think any of the readers should be either.

Really it's kind of a shame that the main characters are such horrible people because there is at least one really interesting idea that Schwab puts forward. Because every person who becomes an EO gains an ability based somewhat on their dying wish. So their power becomes a reflection of their personality. Such as the little girl who fell through the ice, wishing she had a second chance, and is given the ability to raise the dead. Or the wounded veteran hit by a landmine who wishes he could escape from the world and the pain, and gains the ability to walk in a shadow world. Exploring how powers are a reflection of a person's psychology and their dying wish could be a whole book and a fascinating look at human nature. Heck, there's three different tropes that you could play around with and subvert to your heart's content with a work like that. Unfortunately we're stuck following around two downright awful people I really rather would not have read about in the first place.

Overall despite some interesting ideas, this book was not enjoyable for me because I absolutely loathed the two main characters. I mean, maybe they're interesting to other people. Maybe people enjoy reading about psychopaths, but quite frankly I don't. There are plenty of other books about superheroes that in my opinion are worth reading before this one.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Death of Caesar: The Story of History's Most Famous Assassination, by Barry Strauss

This week I'm talking about The Death of Caesar, by Barry Strauss, which seeks to explore the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar by a group of senators on 15 March 44 BCE. As Strauss himself says, thanks to William Shakespeare Caesar's assassination is one of the most famous in history, perhaps only more recently eclipsed by the sheer amount of morbid curiosity surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. In an event with so much drama surrounding it, it can be extremely difficult getting towards the truth of the matter. Strauss's attempt is to sift through the various sources, which are honestly fairly limited, and also attempts to put the assassination of Caesar within the proper context of the times. However, I feel like Strauss's efforts are rather disorganized and fall somewhat short as a result.

The biggest challenge for any modern historian is figuring out what exactly happened. The very absolute basics are not disputed. Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators within Pompey's senate house, and the leaders of this plot included Brutus, Cassius, and Decimus who were all connected by various family ties. These senators then were involved in a war with Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony) and Octavian (later Caesar Augustus), which they lost and Marcus Antonius and Octavian divided the empire between them. Beyond these very basic details it becomes increasingly hazy and difficult to understand.

The precise motivations of Brutus, Cassius, and Decimus, what they hoped to accomplish, how exactly Caesar died, and many other details are lost in the fog of classical history. Historians during the era were often not terribly concerned with what was accurate so much as what made a good story and their bias, whether pro- or anti-Caesar is usually very explicit. (In fact the idea of unbiased historiography is a fairly new one, and still a thorny issue.) And of course, many of the surviving reports we have are second hand sources. Cicero, who was present in the senate chamber on that fateful day, wrote only a very brief description. Most of the other writers, such as Plutarch, were writing well after the event and drawing on sources which have since been lost to us. So ultimately any historical interpretation has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Despite this difficulty, Strauss goes to great lengths working to incorporate numerous sources to provide necessary context to explain the associated context but at the same time I feel it is incomplete. Caesar's career (which I'm ashamed to admit I only know the most general details about) is mentioned very briefly and how it may have fueled Caesar's ambitions. But the description is extremely brief and I feel like to provide a better understanding the book may have been better served by a more in-depth exploration of Caesar's life and how he eventually became dictator for life, rather than starting with him already declared dictator. Certainly considering the sheer number of people involved it would be unrealistic to go into detail about everyone's life, but Caesar is the focus of the narrative. Strauss also incorporates some details for further context, but I thought there were still major gaps which only I was able to fill in because of my own knowledge of Roman history. (As rusty as I'll admit it is. Thanks, Sister Georgia!) Obviously there were probably constraints on overall length of the book and including more detail would have made the book go even longer, but I feel like it would have helped make the book feel more cohesive.

I do also find myself disagreeing with the final conclusion of Strauss, that Caesar's assassination ended up being a warning to would-be dictators everywhere and in a way it helped save the Roman Republic for a little bit longer. On the first hand, the most famous assassination which referenced Julius Caesar was John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, shouting sic semper tyrannus as he fled the theater. Lincoln, however, was a democratically elected leader and although taking several wartime measures to crush the rebellion could hardly be called a tyrant.

Claiming that Augustus's adoption of the title princeps or ''first citizen'' and willingness to work through the senate was a continuation of the Republic with a limited monarchy is hardly a strong example as well. The Republic had already been dominated by strong men such as Marius, Sulla, and Pompey before Caesar with control of military power being the true determinator. Although Strauss doesn't claim it overtly, there's definitely the suggestion that the assassination of Caesar helped keep the spark of government by consent alive in Europe. I find this also rather weak because while the American Founding Fathers may have been inspired by Greek and Roman ideals, being avid readers of the classics, there was also a separate strong tradition of government by consent in England, independent of any Roman tradition and which heavily inspired American systems of government.

Overall I think this book is okay, but a little inadequate. Strauss provides some context, but just simply not enough to my liking to give a full understanding of the assassination of Caesar and why it's such a tipping point in Roman history.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Pluto, by Naoki Urasawa and Osamu Tezuka: An Overview

This week I'm giving a sort of overview to a series that some friends have been bugging me to read for some time. As my readers may or may not be aware, I have a bit of a fondness for robots and I'm a sucker for robot stories. Pluto, as you probably guessed, is a manga story about robots contained in eight volumes. Which makes it fairly short by manga standards. I actually was able to read all the stories in about a day. I'm going to try to talk about the series as a whole rather than addressing each volume of the series individually.

Pluto begins with the murder of the Swiss Forestry Reserve robot Mont-Blanc. This is especially tragic as Mont-Blanc was well-loved by thousands of people everywhere and had saved numerous lives in his work in the Alps, which leaves people at a loss as to who could be the suspect. Europol calls in our main character, Gesicht, who is a highly advanced robot and crack detective. As Gesicht continues his initial investigation a second body turns up, in this case a human and prominent activist for robot rights. It appears these murders are linked and it soon comes to light that someone is targeting both human supporters of robots and the seven most powerful robots in the world. Unfortunately, Gesicht happens to be on that list of robots. What follows is almost a wheels within wheels conspiracy and some really poignant moments.

I will say that this story is an unabashed retelling or reimagination of the Greatest Robot in the World story arc from the well-known series Astro Boy. Now I personally have never watched or read anything relating to Astro Boy in my life which leaves me of two minds on this story. On the one hand, I kind of wish that I knew the original story that this was based upon because I feel like it might have given me slightly more insight into the story and what was going on. On the other hand, despite not being familiar with Astro Boy I was able to come to this series and actually enjoyed it quite a bit. There's a deliberate choice to make Gesicht, a rather minor character in the original source material, the main character so you definitely get a very different perspective. So I did enjoy reading this series, even if it's very emotionally draining.

Of course I also really liked Gesicht as a character but he's almost tailor-made for me to like him. I like lawful policemen types like Sam Vimes, and I'm fond of robots. So I'm instantly going to be best friends with a robot policeman. Just stands to reason. And there's a lot of character development that goes on through the series which makes you realize these robots are just as human as the rest of us. They feel happiness, sadness, anger, hatred, grief, an extremely wide range of emotions just like us humans. Of course, this has been done so many times that it's practically the robot story, but I still enjoy it as a story when it's done well. And Pluto does indeed do it well.

I will warn my readers that Pluto is a pretty dark series too. There are a lot of emotional gut-punches throughout the series. Whether it's the death of a main character in the series or something very simple, you get hit a lot of times. I remember very early on in the series seeing a deceased robot policeman's body just being tossed away in the garbage, which just felt very wrong to me. Although personally that might have just been my fondness for robots and belief that sophisticated AIs should have the same rights as us humans. I don't know if that early into the series if people would be as emotionally invested or not. But there are a ton of little things like that in the series as well.

Overall this is a pretty good series, but be prepared to be hurt with all the feelings that have ever existed. And if you like stories about robots with feelings, this is definitely one for you to read.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

AC DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War, by Tom McNichol

This week I'm reviewing a fairly short book which I listened to in audio format titled AC DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War which is ostensibly a history of the conflict between the electrical standards popularly referred to as the War of the Currents in the late nineteenth century. I say ostensibly because the book goes on quite a few tangents both before and after the actual narrative which are tied with electricity or the more nebulous idea of standards wars, but they feel somewhat irrelevant to what's supposed to be the book's core subject matter. The result, considering the relative brevity of the book, is a very general overview of the War of the Currents rather than an in-depth history which left me rather disappointed.

To provide some background for people who don't know anything about the War of the Currents or for that matter electricity, there are basically two systems: direct current, where the electrons move in one direction, and alternating current, where the electrons move in two directions. Direct current is fairly simple and easy to design, but alternating current is far more efficient than direct current and, with the technology available in the late 1800's, the only one able to travel long distances fairly cheaply. Thomas Edison invested heavily in direct current, planning to create a series of small power plants able to service a roughly mile area, but required extremely large copper wires. George Westinghouse invested heavily in alternating current which had a number of cost advantages, most importantly less wire necessary to transmit power and the aforementioned ability to send power over long distances. Edison, having already built a tidy little monopoly based on direct current, was of course not thrilled at this newcomer threatening to undercut him and with the help of Harold Brown launched a propaganda campaign against alternating current, declaring it deadly opposed to the ''entirely harmless'' direct current, culminating in the creation of the electric chair to forever associate alternating current as the deadly current. However, the cost benefits of alternating current over direct current led to alternating current's dominance, at least when it comes to the power that's used in our homes, but both alternating and direct current have their uses.

The problem I have with this book is that it spends considerable time talking about things that actually aren't the War of the Currents which leaves the actual sections about the subject matter fairly weak. I don't mind terribly much about McNichol going into biographies of Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla, some of the principle actors in the War of the Currents, which helps to humanize and flesh out the narrative. Edison, being the idolized hero that he is, gets the lion's share of the attention, and poor Tesla gets honorable mention at best by comparison, but at least they're all there. The problem I have are the large sections devoted to entirely different and sometimes irrelevant subject matter. For example, the book begins by giving a brief history of humanity's experience with electricity prior to Thomas Edison, going all the way back to prehistory and coming up to the eighteenth century where the experiments of Benjamin Franklin are given a place of prominence. Granted, these are all relevant to humanity's understanding of electricity but scarcely any time is given to the electric telegraph, the invention which made practical use of electricity and perhaps more importantly gave Thomas Edison his early experience working with circuits. It's all very interesting, but it feels like the author didn't do enough research so they had to pad the book.

The other worst examples come near the end of the book. McNichol talks about the electrocution of Topsy the elephant, who had actually killed a few handlers and is perhaps more famous now because of her appearance on Bob's Burgers. I want to say here that according to some other research I've done it's apparently a common misconception that Topsy's execution had anything to do with the War of the Currents. However, one of Edison's many business ventures did film Topsy's death which may be one of the reasons his name's associated with it. The reason I bring this up is that McNichols derails the entire book to then talk about Edison's development of one of his other famous inventions, the motion picture camera. McNichols goes greatly in depth about Edison's development, the creation of the Black Maria, and the growth of the film industry before returning to the execution of Topsy. It's just so weird and utterly irrelevant to the main focus of the Current Wars that I wonder why on earth McNichol brought in the development of the motion picture camera in the first place.

The other main thing is the epilog which devolves into a rant about standards wars past and present. Well, more accurately the recent past as the battle between HD DVD and BLU RAY has ended some time ago with BLU RAY triumphant. I do take issue with calling the War of the Currents the first standards war. There certainly was a great deal of conflict over standardizing basic units of measure such as length and weight, or even the struggle to standardize railroad equipment, which pre-date or were coexistent with the War of the Currents. But that's just my own personal opinion. McNichols spends a good amount of time talking about the Betamax and VHS standards war of the late 1970's and early 1980's with the eventual supremacy of VHS and makes dire predictions of the most recent war between HD DVD and BLU RAY although, as I mentioned, it has become irrelevant today in 2016. While certainly interesting on its own, it feels more like an editorial from the author rather than an avenue of historic argument.

Overall, the book was a fairly big disappointment for me. I learned a few new things, but overall the book was largely a very basic refresher of things I already knew. I might have been convinced to suggest it as a basic primer for information on the War of the Currents, but the book loses focus so much and goes into unproductive avenues that I feel like it really isn't worth the effort of reading and I'm sure there's a better book about this topic somewhere else.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Lovecraft's Monsters, edited by Ellen Datlow

This week I'm going with a little more creepy feel and reviewing a Lovecraft anthology. This however isn't an anthology of stories written by Lovecraft himself, rather it's a collection of stories written by a variety of authors which utilizes Lovecraft's mythos and universe. Which is apparently fairly common as much of the popularity of the Lovecraft mythos isn't necessarily because of the writings of the man himself so much as the writings of other people who utilize his ideas. And it's always interesting to see ideas of one author get used by other people to create a larger and more complex universe.

As I mentioned this is an anthology and those always seem to give me a little bit of trouble from a reviewing standpoint. Anthologies are fun because you get to have tastes of different authors and get exposed to things you might not normally run across, but at the same time they can be frustrating. Sometimes I personally run into the problem that either the stories are too short, and leave me wishing for more from the author, or the stories are too long and I'm flipping through the anthology to see how much longer this story is going to take. Very occasionally you get a story that feels just the right length and feels perfect, but those aren't as common.

As I mentioned in my review of actual Lovecraft, I have some issues with reading Lovecraft and I think it might just not be my cup of tea. Definitely part of it is stylistic as Lovecraft and Lovecraft-inspired works seem to go pretty heavy with the purple prose. And that's certainly an aspect of the literature but more often than not for me, personally, it becomes more than a little too much. In addition, the stories where the lesson is more or less humans are tiny dust motes in a vast and uncaring universe and ultimately nothing we do really matters on a cosmic scale, I find that weirdly comforting rather than terrifying. I mean, yes, it's intimidating to be confronted with the vastness of the universe, but it certainly takes quite a lot of pressure off of me to be completely honest. I think the stories I like better are the ones where there are actually malevolent entities, completely beyond our control, who like to mess with humans for fun. And there certainly seem to be more of those in the more modern fiction. It's downright terrifying to have an enemy you can't fight, much less understand, and it wants to eat your soul. Very chilling.

My usual problem with anthologies is it's always a mixed bag. Some stories are good, some stories aren't, it all usually evens out towards the end. Personally I'm left with the feeling that Lovecraft fiction isn't really my thing and I'm better off with my pulp science-fiction novels of space adventure, but if you like Lovecraft it may be worth checking out.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Aeronaut's Windlass, by Jim Butcher

This week I'm reviewing a newer book by Jim Butcher, whom some of you might remember from when I looked at the first book in his Dresden Files series. The Aeronaut's Windlass, however, is the first in a new series called The Cinder Spires set in a vaguely steampunk world of airships and aetheric crystals. I'm going to say from the beginning, though, that although this book starts off promising I found that its greatest sin was it ended up being boring and I was finally glad when it was over so I could move on to something else. That's of course just my own personal reaction to the book, but it's certainly dampened my interest in the series overall.

I think the biggest problem I had with this book is that it's the first in a series, but it doesn't do a very good job of world-building and setting the stage for the series, which I think is fairly vital if you plan to create an intricate series. The series is set in a world where the majority of humanity lives in enormous spires, roughly two miles wide and two miles tall. The surface can be visited, but it's considered to be extremely dangerous and done so only at great risk. A segment of the population make their living as aeronauts, working on and piloting the fleets of airship  powered by crystals that can harness the energy of the aether, carrying out trade between the spires and, more importantly, manning the armed forces of the spires. However aeronauts are considered more than a little odd and the majority of the population spends most if not all of their lives inside the spires.

The main characters of this story are residents of Albion Spire, one of the larger, wealthier, and more powerful of the spires with an excellent navy and an excellent source of the crystals necessary to keep airships aloft and power them. They have been unofficially at war with Aurora Spire for some time and tensions appear to be heating up even more. As for why these two spires are going to war, it's eerily similar to the set up for the Honor Harrington series. Aurora Spire's economy is basically centered around plundering the wealth of other spires, and Albion has become Aurora's next target. This is confirmed when Aurora makes a surprise attack on Albion Spire, inflicting little damage, but it seems the Aurorans had help from inside the spire and the main characters, being individuals the leader of Albion Spire can trust, are sent to investigate.

One of the things that bothered me about this book was there were a lot of things that didn't seem to make sense, even within the universe. I didn't question the aether or the crystals that harness it to make airships fly, but there were other issues that bothered me. For example, as I mentioned, most of humanity live in giant spires two miles tall and almost two miles high, built centuries ago to the point their origins are myth. The source of some basic commodities, such as food or crystals, are explained, with them being grown in numerous vatteries throughout the spire. But other resources are explicitly scarce. Wood is described as an extreme luxury that has to be harvested from the surface, and a house built entirely of wood within the spire is an ostentatious display of wealth. And yet, the majority of airships are made largely of wood and extensive shipyards on the outside of the spire are made from wood as well. So I suppose airships are ridiculously expensive, but it seems a little odd to me. Especially considering how prevalent other materials are. Copper, steel, and ceramics are treated as ordinary, every-day items that can be easily obtained in enormous quantities. Some airships are heavily armored with copper-clad steel plates. (More on that in a minute.) Except all three of those require raw materials which have to be harvested somewhere, presumably outside the spires since they're all artificial structures filled with living spaces and thus don't contain enormous quantities of raw materials. Yet these materials are all apparently more common than wood and therefore less expensive. It just doesn't make sense.

Another thing that bugged the heck out of me, and I'm aware I'm being really nit-picky, is that almost every metal object is described as steel clad in copper. If this was an aesthetic choice, I'd be fine with it. If there had been some sort of nonsense reason tied to aetheric energies, I'd have been fine with it. But the reason given for cladding every piece of steel in copper from battleship armor to personal swords? Rust prevention. Personally this annoyed the hell out of me because it went against everything I knew about metallurgy. (Granted, it's fairly limited and I'm by no means an expert, but I was cursed in this case with knowing too much.) First of all, there are easier ways to prevent rust on steel. Painting steel, utilizing alloys, or just oiling items like swords and firearms, all help to prevent rusting. Granted, galvanizing steel is a method utilized as well, but copper is just a susceptible to corrosion as well. I did do a tiny bit of research and found that in the case of copper oxidation the outer level helps protect lower levels from further oxidation, unlike in steel, but none of these items were described as being green so everything's apparently being polished excessively. Finally, especially in the case of using it to protect swords, copper is slightly softer than steel, being about a 3 on Moh's scale while steel's a 4 or 4.5. So I'd assume after every fight in which swords are used you'd end up recoating your sword in copper to repair all the dings and scrapes in it. It probably wasn't that big of a deal in hindsight, but it just annoyed the hell out of me because it didn't make sense.

The greatest offense this book made, though, was being boring, which I think is the greatest offense a book can make. It's fairly long, being about six hundred pages, which I think was probably about three hundred pages too long for what it covered. I noticed a couple of points where characters were repeating things already said earlier in the book or explaining what was currently happening in the most tedious and time consuming manner possible. There are even points where a challenge one character or group of characters encountered is repeated, only slightly differently, for a separate character or group of characters. And on top of that, almost every character spends some time unconscious for one reason or another. The first time it's a little dramatic. After the third it just gets repetitive. By the end of the book I just found myself wishing the whole thing would be over because it had taken so long and had done so very little with the time it used.

Overall, aside from my incessant complaining about the world not making sense, the book's just boring. The story feels vaguely familiar to other stories I had, without the rich world-building or interesting plotlines and characters. Butcher spends too much time repeating himself which seems to only add padding to the book and slow what should be an exciting adventure into a laborious crawl. Personally I don't think it's worth the effort.

- Kalpar