Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Dead Beat, by Jim Butcher

Dear and gentle readers. As you may have figured, I have gotten pretty deeply into The Dresden Files series what with this being book Seven of the series. Ultimately because there are ongoing plot elements I simply cannot avoid them and talk about the book in a meaningful way. So for all those who do not wish to see spoilers now is your chance to run off. (Come back Thursday! I'll have something for you then!) Anyway, onwards with the review.

So, as regular readers can probably figure, I've been enjoying The Dresden Files. If nothing else it's something I can download from the library and I find myself reliably enjoying the books in the series. Even if I find myself rolling my eyes at Harry from time to time. And since I'm seven books in I guess you could say I'm kind of a fan. I wouldn't say this is my favorite series ever, but so far I've been enjoying it.

Dead Beat starts out with Dresden getting a message from Mavra, the Black Court vampire who he's tangled with before and is apparently very far from dead. Mavra has some blackmail on Murphy she's going to release unless Dresden obtains something called The Word of Kemmler for her. Although Mavra really only exists in this book to send Harry on the investigation that turns into a tangle with several powerful necromancers who also want the Word. I feel like it's almost superfluous to have her because as soon as Harry found out some big, bad necromancers were in Chicago he certainly wouldn't have been sitting around idle and would have gotten involved anyway. That's just how he is. Either way Dresden soon finds himself dealing with people well above his power level and trying to figure out what exactly they're trying to do and keep them from accomplishing it within a matter of days.

This is also a breakout book for Waldo Butters, the timid Medical Examiner who's beginning to be exposed to the world of magic. Butters had been introduced in a previous book as a sort of side character but he really becomes a major part of the cast in this book and goes through some character development of his own. Which I thought was really cool and I liked seeing, especially since Butters is in many ways an audience surrogate.

In this book the White Council also takes a massive beating from the Red Court and something like 75% of the existing Wardens, the enforcers and defenders of the White Council, get wiped out. This results in Dresden being drafted into their ranks, something he's less than thrilled about because of his long antipathy for Warden Morgan. However, I think this is a positive change because it sounds like Harry's going to be more involved in the affairs of the White Council and the ongoing war with the vampire courts and apparently other factions that have decided to join the fray. Which seems only fair considering Dresden kind of started the whole war by burning Bianca and her retainers in a giant firestorm. But it has seemed kind of weird that Dresden's been sort of sitting on the sidelines of the war effort after dragging a significant faction of the wizarding community into a global war. So hopefully we can see Dresden being more involved in the larger plot that's sort of been brewing in the background.

Plus there's just a really awesome part to this book which I'm actually not going to spoil here because it's right at the climax towards the end. But believe me, it is ridiculously awesome. Granted, Harry has to make some compromises to do it, but I almost want to say the ends justify the means in this case.

However, Harry does make some unfortunate compromises in this book. Specifically if you may remember a couple books back, there were some demons attached to the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot. Well, technically fallen angels, but demon's equally apt in this case. Basically Harry knows he's being tempted by the power of one of the coins and interacts with the demon, Lasciel, and makes some sort of arrangement with her. Which is a very dangerous game that he's playing because he knows she's luring him in by saying she just wants to help him and doesn't want to control him, but it's just to get him to depend on her until she has all the power in the relationship. And yet he consents to her help anyway, which is a very dangerous precedent and he's aware he's on a very slippery slope. Plus, he does some very strong bending of the rules which, while awesome, are extremely technical in his explanation on how he's not actually breaking the Laws of Magic. So it looks like Harry's getting set up to drift into being a bad guy which is...less than good.

Overall I really liked this book, despite my concerns of Harry slipping over to the dark side. These books are pretty fun, even if I want to punch Harry from time to time. Fortunately the other characters call him out on some of his stupid behavior as well so at least I'm not the only one doing it. There are plenty of jokes and some of the scenes really are pretty awesome. So it's fun to listen to and that makes it worth the effort as far as I'm concerned.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 23, 2017

For All the Tea in China, by Sarah Rose

Today I'm looking at For All the Tea in China, by Sarah Rose, which is a really good example of how I need to actually read the summaries for some of these books before I decide to check them out from the library. I thought this book would focus more on the Opium Wars where Britain forced China open to the opium trade to rectify a balance of payments problem with their importation of tons of tea from China. Instead, this book focuses more on the efforts of the East India Company to obtain tea plants, whether seeds or saplings, and transplant them in British-controlled India where they could significantly decrease both the costs of importing tea and the travel time to London. The book focuses largely on Robert Fortune, a Scottish botanist who spent several years in China gathering not only tea plants but other practical and ornamental plants which became very popular in the newly gardening-obsessed Britain.

Rose does briefly mention the Opium Wars as part of the historical background of the tea trade, and the need for Britain to stop silver from flooding out of Britain into China for the tons upon tons of tea that Britons were drinking every year. However the book mostly focuses on how the East India Company was going to lose their monopoly on the tea trade, and all other trade in Asia, and their attempts to reduce the costs of obtaining tea. If the Company was able to raise tea in Company-controlled India, they'd have a significant advantage over other companies that would still have to go to China for their tea. The problem, however, was that the methods of raising and producing tea were closely guarded secrets in China which no foreigner had been able to see.

As Rose states, Fortune was basically involved in an act of industrial espionage trying to steal trade secrets. And while I get the sense that's supposed to be frowned upon, I also get the feeling Rose sees it as a triumph of Western ingenuity. The version I listened to was actually read by Rose herself, so I assume all of the inflections and intonations in the reading are genuine to her intentions with the book. And I can't shake the feeling she looks on the imperial ambitions of Britain and the East India Company with something approaching pride. There's almost a skirting around the brutal treatment of foreigners in colonial systems, the ability of the Company to pay absurdly low wages for workers on their tea plantations in India which enabled much lower prices of tea overall. The theft and introduction of tea is seen not so much as one of many examples of European colonialism, but a daring adventure by swashbuckling heroes.

And that's honestly what bothers me the most about this book, the fact that it's fairly recent and feels almost supportive of British Imperialism. Maybe I'm seeing something that's not really there, but it's a vibe that I can't just seem to shake. My concern only grows because of Rose's free-market advocacy. Which isn't to say that there aren't many arguments still going on about the efficacy of the free market, but I feel like her assumption monopolies are inherently wasteful borders on the dogmatic. As an example she points out the East Indiamen merchant ships used by the Company. She argues that the large ships were slow and inefficient and it was only after the introduction of competition in the market that faster, sleeker ships were introduced. Ignoring the fact that well before the fastest of sailing ships were introduced, captains still had competitions to get their tea to London first because of the premiums the first shipment of tea would receive.

And finally there's Rose's argument, although I feel calling it an argument gives it too much credence, that the switch to tea from alcoholic drinks gave Britain an edge in industrialization. While seeing how the introduction of tea, as well as the calories from the sugar and milk added to tea, changed British society overall, I think saying it alone was responsible for making Britain an industrial powerhouse while France and Germany lagged behind because of a constantly inebriated population is bordering on the preposterous. Why Britain led Europe in industrialization is a complex question with multiple answers. Access to iron and coal that allowed the creation of steam engines and other mechanical devices, financial institutions and people with sufficient capital to finance innovations in machinery, and the demand for advances in a growing textile trade. While any one of these is insufficient alone to explain it, they all contribute to explain Britain's development as an industrial power. A shift from alcohol to tea seems insufficient.

I think my biggest problem isn't factual accuracy because as far as I can tell Rose did her research, it's more the interpretation that she takes from those facts which bothers me. She seems oddly pro-imperialism in her narrative, although again that's my own interpretation. She also advances some pretty tenuous theories which cast doubt onto a lot of her other work. Overall I guess the book is okay but it raises some doubts for me.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson

Today I'm looking at a book that deals with the history of the Middle Eastern front of World War I, Lawrence in Arabia, with T.E. Lawrence being the most famous of the various individuals involved in a largely overlooked theater of the Great War. However Anderson also includes individuals such as William Yale, an American aristocrat and Standard Oil man who becomes America's expert on the middle east. Curt Prufer, a member of the German diplomatic corps who sought to unite a pan-Islamic jihad against the imperialist ambitions of Britain, to no avail, and Zionists like Aaron Aaronsohn who sought to establish a permanent Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The Middle Eastern theater has been an interesting subject if only for the what-could-have-beens. The theater received very little attention from the European powers for most of the war, with most of the resources devoted to the Western Front. And a lot of the history and popular understanding of World War I has as a result focused on the Western Front as well. And in many ways the theater is a bit of an embarrassment for Britain as well. There's the disaster at Gallipolis in which almost nothing except for the evacuation went correct, and there's the Sykes-Picot agreement in which Britain and France calmly planned the division of lands of the Ottoman Empire that weren't even under their control yet into different spheres of influence, an act of imperialism so brazen that even contemporaries called it ''The Great Loot''. While imperialist mismanagement of the reason is not the only factor in causing much of the systemic problems in the region today, it certainly didn't help matters.

I am somewhat concerned about the accuracy of this book for a number of reasons. First and foremost Anderson subscribes completely to the ''lions led by donkeys'' narrative of leadership during World War I. In essence, countless good men died in futile frontal assaults on fixed positions because of the incompetence or stubbornness of general officers. While this has been the standard narrative for many years, there has been some reanalysis of this narrative in recent years. And while I may not agree with Hart's arguments I would agree that it's a little too simplistic to blame everything on the generals, which Anderson very roundly does. And since this is a recent book it concerns me that he seems out of step with some of the latest scholarship.

Anderson also seems very firmly to be on Lawrence's side in this work, to the point he seems to start losing objectivity. Lawrence was certainly a flawed individual and research about him is made all the more difficult because he tended to obfuscate his own history. Lawrence deliberately exaggerated or expanded his adventures in Arabia and may have fabricated some of the stories in his accounts. Which makes getting at what really happened all the more difficult. There's some evidence to suggest Lawrence was suffering from PTSD and had become increasingly detached from the violence of the war front, but I feel like Anderson glosses this over to talk more about Lawrence's accurate predictions about the state of the Middle East if the colonial powers had their way. Lawrence as a Cassandra is a powerful narrative, but I'm just not sure how accurate it is.

Finally I'm not sure how I feel about Anderson's use of the term Zionist. Within the context that he uses it, he is using it entirely correctly. The movement among Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to create a permanent homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. This is what Zionism actually was and Anderson discusses it, as far as I know, accurately in his text. The problem is of course the other connotations associated with Zionism and the conspiracy-theory insanity that's all wrapped up in. New World Order, secret Jewish banking conspiracy nonsense. You know the type. So it's kind of a dilemma where what Anderson's doing is strictly correct, but it still seems to come with some unfortunate connotations. And I'm sure it's very difficult to get a completely accurate account of Jewish emigration to Palestine because of how sectarian this topic is.

For the most part the book deals with a variety of people operating in the Middle East leading up to and then during World War I, such as Lawrence, Yale, and Aaronsohn. While Anderson provides a pretty good chronicle of what happened during the time period he chose to focus on, I feel like I didn't understand the greater political implications behind the different decisions. For example, I understand the rationale behind Britain and France deciding to carve up the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot agreement, but I feel like Anderson didn't go as in depth into other nations response when the terms of Sykes-Picot became more well known. Also I feel like I would have benefitted from more knowledge about the fallout from the decision to divide the region into mandates. I know sort of vaguely that it didn't work out very well and that Sykes-Picot certainly didn't help but I'd like to know more about the specifics.

Overall this book is okay. It deals very broadly with a theater of the Great War that's often overlooked and when it isn't it often ends up romanticized or turned into an example of everything wrong with imperialism. And there are elements of all of that in there, but the truth is somewhere in a murky middle where a bunch of human people acting, usually short-sightedly, in their own self interest, make some bad decisions. I did learn some things but I feel like I need more information on this topic to truly get to grips with it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Today I'm looking at The Traitor Baru Cormorant, the very first novel from Seth Dickinson which started out as a short story he later expanded. I was first made aware of this book by a friend who recommended it to me and a number of other people. He was really excited about this book and didn't go into a lot of detail but assured me that it was really interesting and awesome in its own way. And I have to agree with him, this is definitely one of the more interesting and well-developed books I've read. If you like complex political drama and intrigue, such as in A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones), this book is definitely in the same vein. It's got wheels within wheels within wheels of plots, and a world that manages to feel realistic but different at the same time.

The story follows the career of Baru Cormorant, a young girl who grows up on the island of Taranoke with her mother and two fathers. Already life in Taranoke is changing as the Empire of Masks has been invading with trade goods and their paper currency, drawing Taranoke closer into the Masquerade's economic sphere of influence. Things change for forever when imperial marines land on Taranoke and finally force a treaty of federation, making Taranoke one of many provinces of the empire. Baru gets recruited by an imperial agent and her talent with mathematics (and incredibly high civil service exam score) draw the attention of powerful patrons within the Masquerade's powerful elites. Baru is soon selected as Imperial Accountant for Aurdwynn, a province that promises to be a major income source for the empire if the traitorous and back-stabbing dukes and other local interests can be kept under control. Baru finds herself involved in an almost never-ending series of intrigues and plots, each one concealing one far more sinister beneath it. It's truly an interesting read that will keep you guessing and trying to figure out what everyone is planning and who can really be trusted.

One of the things I liked the most about this book was that we got to see the Masquerade use multiple tools of empire to create and control a large, continent spanning empire which they intend to expand indefinitely until it encompasses the entire world. They do have military power and aren't afraid to use it, that's true. But wars are expensive in money, materiel, and lives, and the Masquerade doesn't want to spend more resources than it has to. Early in the book we get to see, at least partially, how the Masquerade uses economic power to influence regions and bring them within its sphere of influence, and we really see how the Masquerade utilizes economic power when Baru becomes Imperial Accountant of Aurdwynn.  (It's also really neat to see fiat currency and futures contracts introduced, although I have an odd fascination with high finance so it's kind of up my alley.)

The first part of the book also shows some of the more insidious parts of Masquerade control with the construction of Charitable Services Schools to educated the poor and orphaned children of conquered provinces. The Masquerade utilizes education itself to wipe out indigenous cultures and supplant it with its own, sanitized, imperial culture and by indoctrinating children with it, they're ensuring the coming generation, and future generations, will be indoctrinated in imperial credos. And perhaps most sinisterly of all, the Masquerade has an extensive eugenics program working to breed out undesirable traits in subject populations and create more docile, more reliable, and more pliant subjects. And of course all of these are actual methods utilized by historical imperial powers to control colonies and client states in the past, so it's really interesting if somewhat sinister to see them in action in a fictional universe.

As I mentioned earlier in the review, this is a very intrigue-heavy plot. It's not really a question of if Aurdwynn will rebel, but when it will and the Masquerade is trying to head it off before it goes too far. However, the rebels are just as aware of this and have grown equally canny over the years to keep their actions clandestine. I spent a lot of book wondering what exactly everyone was trying to accomplish, Baru included, and what their ultimate goals were. And since I have absolutely no talent for subterfuge I didn't pick up on it until the very end of the book. That being said I still think it's really interesting and a very engaging storyline.

And finally, I think Baru Cormorant is an interesting character herself. She's a savant at mathematics and seems to have an almost innate grasp of economic concepts. Her biggest struggle is between remaining true to who she is, remembering her home of Taranoke, and using the skills of the Masquerade to free her home, and becoming the mask of the Imperial official and becoming one more cog in the machinery of the Masquerade's system of government. And Baru has a very believable flaw of forgetting she's not the only player in the game of intrigue and politics and doesn't always plan on people acting differently from how she'd expect. Which I think keeps her human as a character and more developed rather than less.

Overall I think this book was very good. It's an interesting look at imperialism and the levers of power within an imperialist system, and it's some really good political intrigue as well. If you're a fan of Game of Thrones or other stories like it, I think you'll definitely enjoy this too.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Children of the Mind, by Orson Scott Card

Today I'm finishing up the Ender Series with the ''final'' book, Children of the Mind. I put final in quotation marks there because at the end of this audio book Card said he had a final, definitely final for real this time, book planned to wrap up some plot threads that were left open at the end of the book. On the one hand I can understand Card's decision to leave them open, but on the other it feels like the series does need a little more closure.

I'm going to be honest, I didn't care for this book, although I found it fractionally more tolerable than Xenocide. Fractionally, mind you. I had heard some bad things about this book ahead of time so I didn't exactly have high expectations and after the experience of Xenocide I was expecting this to be a bit of a train wreck. Fortunately it's not a train wreck. I still didn't find it enjoyable, but I think it's because Card took the series into a highly philosophical, emotional, and ultimately literary perspective. Which is fine. There are plenty of people who like books like that. But that's just really not what I'm interested in. At least the way that Card wrote it anyhow.

Children of the Mind picks up where Xenocide left off, with the fleet armed with the MD Device still on its way to Lusitania and the threat of annihilation for not only the Hive Queen and the Pequeninos but Jane as well as Starways Congress plans to shut down the ansible network. Most of the work of the main characters is centered around this plot that finally gets a resolution to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Well, almost anyone. And if the book focused mostly around that it would be okay, but a lot of the book involves people getting involved in long talks about their relationships or feelings or what it means to be sentient, and arguing with each other on these topics. And I didn't find myself enjoying the heavy emotional stuff at all. I can't say whether it's Card's writing, the fact that I wasn't emotionally invested in most of the characters, or if I'm just a unsophisticated genre nerd who likes spaceship action but doesn't care about good character development if it hit him over the head with a brick. It could be a combination of those factors, or none of them entirely. It just feels like Children of Dune with lots of people sitting around talking, but instead of events I wish we could actually be seeing they're talking about philosophy, theology, history, and their emotions. It just felt to me like the ratio of action to contemplative navel-gazing was off.

This book also feels like it should be much older than it is. Children of the Mind was published in 1996, but it features a couple of planets that are dominated by national cultures. The world of Path has classical Chinese culture, the world of Divine Wind is Japanese, and Pacifica has Samoan and other Southern Pacific islander cultures (although we just see Samoan in the book). Except I feel like we're not really seeing the true cultures in these books, we're seeing more a theme-park, simplified, almost stereotyped version of complex cultures which have actually been horrifically stereotyped in other media. Now is it as bad as 1940's old-timey racism? Thankfully no. But it feels like an attempt to include diversity while not making an effort to really understand the cultures that you're trying to include. I'm probably overthinking this excessively, but it's another thing that kind of threw me off about this book.

And finally, Card tries to do some world-building in the book but I think it actually backfires because it doesn't make much sense. Although the last book finally got around the hurdle of FTL travel, the majority of humanity still does not, and has not had, access to it. This means that all interstellar travel has to go at relativistic speeds and experiences extreme time dilation. While the passengers may only experience a few weeks or months of travel time, the journey will actually take them decades. So this makes the logistics of interstellar travel fairly difficult and humanity's really only connected through the instantaneous communication of the Ansible. Except in the book Card states that Starways Congress, and I got the feeling this is done on a regular basis, will recruit government administrators from one planet and then transport them to another planet where they're needed. This just seems impractical or downright silly. It'll take government officials decades to get to the planets where they're needed, and by that point it'd be easier to train a local baby from birth to do the job you need them to do in thirty years anyway. Or there are large, interstellar corporations that are involved in finance on all the Hundred Worlds. But that doesn't make sense either because trade between the planets would also be a logistical nightmare. Entire markets could rise and fall in the time it takes to ship goods from one star system to another. In such a case, it would only make sense for each system to be self-sustaining and interstellar travel to be limited to the truly necessary.

 And I could almost understand some planets being monolithic cultures because they're effectively isolated, but Card describes some planets as cosmopolitan with entire communities of off-worlders. Which again, makes no sense. For everyone else, leaving your home planet to travel the stars is described as this horrible experience because with time dilation everyone you know and love will be old or dead by the time you get back and the whole planet will have changed. So I'd think people would be very reluctant to travel between planets except as absolutely necessary, but it feels like a fairly common affair. I appreciate Card's attempts at world-building but it just raises more questions than giving the world answers.

Ultimately I was disappointed in this book, but not as disappointed as I thought I would be. As I said, there seems to be a lot of people sitting around and talking about their feelings. If you like that sort of thing then this is probably a good book for you. But if you prefer something with slightly more of a pace, I think you can safely forego this book.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff

Today I'm looking at a book about one of the more infamous events in American colonial history, the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. For about nine months the village of Salem and nearby areas of Massachusetts were thrown into a panic over accusations of witchcraft. What began with a few teenage girls having fits and hallucinations turned into a hunt for scapegoats and the literal origin of the term witch hunt. Months of arrests and fantastic trials occupied the attention of Massachusetts residents and by the time the hysteria was over, twenty-five people were dead. Nineteen hanged, one pressed to death, and five had died in prison.

Historians have long tried to understand the Salem Witch Trials and find some answers as to why ordinary people succumbed to what appeared, even at the time, to be mass delusion. The historian's search into the events of 1692 is made even more difficult by the fact many of the records were later redacted, excised, edited, or otherwise destroyed, which if nothing else gives a strong hint that the Puritans themselves felt guilty of what they'd done and wanted to erase it from memory. Because of the ultimately unsolvable nature of the mystery, Salem remains a tantalizing subject for historians to investigate.

Schiff's work is mostly a chronological history of the Salem trials beginning in February of 1692 and the investigations of March and April, before the trials reached their fevered pitch in the heights of summer and then quickly tapering off in September and some aftermath that followed into 1693. Schiff also does a fantastic job of providing the cultural context of seventeenth century Massachusetts for the reader (or in my case listener) to help them understand how a witchcraft panic could grow to such proportions. Most importantly, the deeply religious culture of Puritan Massachusetts with its assumptions that the forces of Satan were hiding behind every tree to attack good Christians, and that the world was on the brink of an apocalyptic war between the forces of good and evil. In such a culture it's almost surprising not that the witch trials occurred, but that there weren't more of them.

The most infuriating thing is of course the trials themselves, at least from what court documents have survived. First there is the reliance on spectral evidence, the testimony given by the young girls, and a handful of older women. Apparitions that only they could see. Specters of the accused sitting on beams in the courthouse roof or on a magistrate's lap. Appearances of a dark man whispering in the ear of the accused, or yellow birds or other creatures that again, only those supposedly afflicted by the witches could see. And the trials were hardly anything but impartial. The magistrates often bullied the accused, showing that they were already assumed guilty by the fact of their being brought before the court in the first place, and forcing confessions from terrified men and women. In the case of Rebecca Nurse, who had the support of her husband and extended family to mount a legal defense for her during the trial, the magistrates explicitly overturned a jury verdict of not guilty and instructed them to vote guilty instead. There is hardly a clearer-cut example of a miscarriage of justice, and it is with good reason that Salem has its infamous reputation.

The most puzzling thing, of course, is the sudden appearance and then disappearance of the accusations of witchcraft. For a very short period there were so many accusations flying around Massachusetts that it seemed everything was the fault of witches. And then just as suddenly life went back to normal. Many theories have been advanced by historians over the years, some more plausible than others. For many years I had gone with a hypothesis proposed by an episode of PBS's documentary series, Secrets of the Dead, that the Salem panic was caused by a case of ergot poisoning. Ergot is a type of fungus that grows on rye and other types of grain and, when ingested in humans, can create sever pains, vivid hallucinations, and a variety of other nasty effects. However, upon listening to the evidence as it has survived, it does seem ergot poisoning is an unlikely explanation.

While numerous people provided vivid confessions of their activity as witches, these were extracted under pressure by the courts and it is well known that people under various forms of torture, both physical and mental, will say anything to make the torture end. Besides, the transcripts of court proceedings show the judges asking leading questions of the accused, giving shape to the answers the magistrates expected. The truly bizarre behavior, the physical fits, the hallucinations, the pricking, and other behavior was limited to a small handful of teenagers and women who may or may not have been acting in collusion. If ergot poisoning had been to blame, the hallucinations, fits, and other behaviors would have been far more widespread than the handful of people.

The most likely explanation as Schiff argues, is probably a combination of things. The girls behavior may have been a combination of the deadly tedium of a colonial Massachusetts winter, the inability of women in Puritan society to act beyond very narrow limitations, and a desire for attention. Schiff argues that the girls may have suffered from a number of psychological disorders which brought about this behavior. The fact that the estates of many of those executed for witchcraft were seized by the local sheriff suggest there were economic incentives for accusing one's neighbors of witchcraft, and there is evidence that small town rivalries, simmering for years, may have blown into accusations in the heat of the moment. And finally, people may have found witches simply because they expected to find witches.

Overall the story of Salem is interesting, infuriating, and a cautionary warning of what humans can do out of fear, jealousy, and the darker parts of our natures. While we may never get a totally satisfactory answer about Salem, we can at least analyze what we do know and see what we can learn from it.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Eleanor and Franklin, by Joseph P. Lash

Today I'm looking at Eleanor and Franklin, a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt written by one of her close personal friends, Joseph P. Lash. This nine-hundred page book is an exhaustive analysis of Eleanor Roosevelt's life up until the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. I was a little curious about this decision until I found out Lash actually wrote a second book, Eleanor: The Years Alone, which covers the remainder of Eleanor's life. I did think it was a little weird that the story would abruptly end in 1945 when Eleanor did considerable work up until her own death, but it makes more sense for that division.

That being said, I still think the title, Eleanor and Franklin is a bit of a misnomer because the story's really about Eleanor. It begins with several chapters about Eleanor's childhood and her experiences with her parents. Her mother who never particularly cared for Eleanor and didn't make any effort to hide the fact, and her father who, although filled with love for his daughter, possibly struggled with mental illness and drank heavily as a coping mechanism to his own detriment. Franklin is barely mentioned at all until he starts courting Eleanor and while Franklin plays a large role in Eleanor's life, the focus of the book is very much on her. So in a way, I almost find Franklin getting equal billing in the title almost superfluous because the book really is about Eleanor and her own activities.

Lash's personal friendship with Eleanor, as well as access to countless family letters and documents, as well as interviews with Eleanor's children makes this an exhaustively-researched book. As it was written in 1971 there are some aspects and opinions that are a little outdated, but this is probably the definitive source for information on the personal, intimate life of Eleanor Roosevelt. If nothing else this book is a literary landmark because of Lash's attention to detail and exhaustive research.

Truly one of the most remarkable things about Eleanor was that she had her own career, almost separate from her husband's. Due to Franklin's infidelity with Lucy Mercer, an event Eleanor found difficult to talk about for her entire life, Eleanor did not invest herself entirely in Franklin and made sure to have an identity separate from him. While Eleanor was influential in campaigning for Franklin and organizing Democratic politics, as well as using her writing and radio broadcasts to promote the New Deal during Franklin's administration, Eleanor always had projects that were her own. If there's anything that comes out of this book, it's the sheer indefatigable energy Eleanor possessed, even into her later years. Eleanor was a prolific writer, maintaining a daily newspaper column for several years and consistently making her deadlines. And this was when she was racing all across the country, poking into slums, coal mines, farms, and other neglected areas of the United States to find areas where the government could do something to help people more during the New Deal and see what was working and what wasn't.

Probably the most powerful thing about Eleanor was that she never lost her faith in humanity's better nature and never lost her desire to do good for other people. From her early childhood Eleanor suffered quite a lot of emotional abuse and came to believe her only value lay in what she was able to give to other people. Based on my own reading of her personal correspondence, as well as the opinions of some psychologists, she may have suffered from some form of depression, bipolar, or other mood disorder. (There is some evidence to suggest that depression and bipolar ran in the Roosevelt family. Theodore Roosevelt, his brother and Eleanor's father Elliot, and some of Theodore's sons all have evidence suggesting they suffered from some mood disorder as well.) And while it may not have come from the healthiest place, Eleanor developed a sense of duty to others which led to her performing countless good works and serving as a champion for the poor, downtrodden, and marginalized. Personally I find it really inspiring that somebody who had a life of feeling unwanted and unloved, even feeling betrayed by her own husband, can grow beyond that and become someone with a heart big enough for all of humanity.

Overall I think this book is very good. Being on the weighty side and having less time to read than I'd like, it took me some time to finish, but I think it's well worth the effort. The image of Eleanor Roosevelt, a kind woman who remained her husband's, and the Democratic Party's, conscience, constantly pushing for reform to make America more free, more just, and more equal. When Franklin took a more tepid approach to racial equality, out of a need to maintain support of Southern Democrats for federal legislation, Eleanor proudly promoted equality for African-Americans and other ethnic minorities in the United States. I think the fact that Eleanor was able to fight past her own feelings of inadequacy and accomplished so much in her life is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

If you're interested in learning more about Eleanor Roosevelt, I think this book is well worth the effort. It provides a very detailed view of Eleanor's life with countless documents and offers her opinions on a number of subjects. She was truly one of the most remarkable people of the twentieth century.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Mirror Mirror, by Gregory Maguire

Today I'm looking at another book by Gregory Maguire, who seems to have a definite niche of twice-told tales and doing different interpretations of stories we've all heard before. As I rather liked Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister I decided that listening to Mirror Mirror, Maguire's reinterpretation of the story of Snow White, would be an interesting book to listen to. Unfortunately what struck me about this book most of all was that it felt unfinished or underdeveloped, especially compared to his other books. A lot of time passes in the book without terribly much happening at all, it raises a lot of questions about the book's universe that aren't really answered, and ends rather abruptly. I honestly was left disappointed and I can see why this is one of the less popular of his books.

The story is set in sixteenth-century Italy with Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia playing major roles in the story. Snow White in this case is Bianca de Nevada whose father, Vincente, is sent on a quest to find a limb from the tree in the Garden of Eden to help save Cesare from syphilis. Bianca spends a few years without her father until Lucrezia decides she wants Bianca dead, apparently out of insane jealousy more than anything else despite Bianca being barely eleven, and Bianca is taken into the forest where she stumbles into the dwarves' cave and sleeps for a number of years before waking up. Lucrezia finds out Bianca is still alive and tries to kill her multiple times before succeeding in putting her in a deep sleep that Bianca remains in for another number of years. Meanwhile her father, upon finding the monastery where the limb from the tree in the Garden of Eden, gets caught by the monks there and thrown into a dungeon, where he remains for several years before being rescued by a dwarf who followed him to retrieve their mirror.

Do you see what I mean about this being confusing and yet underdeveloped? Two of the main characters spend a majority of time the book is set effectively out of action. Bianca is asleep and Vincente is locked up in a dungeon, spending time remembering things rather than doing things. Because, well, locked up in a dungeon. This is to say nothing of Lucrezia, Cesare, and the dwarves who also spend a lot of time remembering things. Or everyone just thinks about things. I got the feeling while listening to this book that it was trying really hard to be deep and insightful but it just honestly came across as pretentious more than anything else. Or like it was trying really hard for a literary award of some sort.

And Maguire seems to spend a lot of effort in creating an interesting world and multiple plot-lines which could be woven together to an interesting finale. There's the mirror created by the dwarves in a quest to be more human, which I feel like we never really get to explore more. They mention a desire to be more human before meeting Bianca, but it's also implied that their shift to a more human existence is also caused by the arrival and presence of Bianca. There also seems to be a theme of the magic slowly going away from the world, especially with a scene between the huntsman and a unicorn, at least what I suppose is supposed to be an actual unicorn because it's described as such in the book. To say nothing of the existence of apples apparently from the actual Garden of Eden. It feels like there were a lot of different avenues that Maguire was interested in exploring and developing, and for whatever reason he kept the book short and just didn't explore them fully.

Overall I think Mirror Mirror almost feels like a rough draft or outline for a book that Maguire meant to flesh out but just never got around to developing further. I was a little curious as to whether this was his first book or not and was a little confused to find out it actually came after his earlier ones. It feels like there was potential to be really interesting, but it just never got to where it needed to be substance-wise.

- Kalpar