Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin

Today, I'm looking at a classic sci-fi novel The Stepford Wives which has gotten two movie adaptations and has even entered the lexicon as a phrase in and of itself. The book really is more of a novella, clocking in at about 130 pages, but I think that the brevity really works to its strength rather than a weakness.

Because the book has become in many ways part of the cultural zeitgeist you're probably familiar with the generalities of the plotline. A new family moves to the neighborhood of Stepford and the mother, Joanna, notices that something their neighbors. The women all seem friendly enough, but they spend all their time on housework and say they're far too busy to spend any time on social activities. Joanna manages to meet a handful of other women who are also recent transplants to Stepford and agree that something is weird about Stepford. And then one by one the members of the group start turning into Stepford wives themselves, their entire old personalities erased.

The book itself is a little vague about what happens to the women after they've been ''Stepford-ized''. It's implied they're replaced by robots, but I personally like the idea of them being brainwashed and reprogrammed better. Either way it's very creepy and the pacing works incredibly well to underscore that.

The book is, of course, about feminism and was published in 1972, putting it solidly within the era of Second Wave Feminism which, among other issues, included a drive by white women to escape the role of housewife that had been created by the post-war American economy. Women fought for opportunities outside the home and equality in the workplace. And yes, I'm grossly oversimplifying a critical movement in United States history, but that's how it's relevant to this work. As this book relates to feminism it's not even subtext, Joanna is a member of the National Organization of Women and is ready to march on the Stepford Men's Association because of their exclusion of women.

The sad thing is that this book, much like Handmaid's Tale, remains incredibly relevant. We are in the middle of a great political struggle in the United States and there are people who seriously suggest that women's natural place is as a wife and mother and women shouldn't work outside the home. Some people go so far as to argue that this is what's undermining ''western civilization'', completely ignoring the fact that women have had to work for most of history to support their families, and even if a woman chooses to take care of her home and children, that is valuable unpaid work that she provides. And yes, women do far more unpaid work than men. Unfortunately we're at a point where we still need feminist propaganda.

Looking at this as a book, as I said the brevity of the book I think actually works to its benefits. As Joanna gradually pieces together what's going on in Stepford, she realizes that time is running out for her and her husband may already have plans to replace her with a submissive, zombified version of herself. As you start physically running out of book, you know that Joanna is running out of time as well and you hope that she can get away and get help before she becomes Stepford's latest victim. It made for a very emotional reading experience.

Overall I'd definitely recommend reading this book. It's a short and easy read and while it's not subtle, it packs a huge emotional punch and remains frustratingly relevant.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The President is a Sick Man, by Matthew Alego

Today I'm looking at a book about Grover Cleveland, a president that most people only know because of his election to two non-consecutive terms, a feat which today remains unrepeated. This book talks about a secret operation that was performed on Grover Cleveland to remove cancerous cells from the president's mouth in the summer of 1893. Because of the impending debate over repeal of the Silver Purchase Act as well as the ongoing economic depression, secrecy of the operation was considered paramount for the good of the country. However word soon leaked about Cleveland's operation and a reporter named E.J. Edwards revealed the information in a fairly tame article, drawing ire from Cleveland and his doctors. Despite his reputation for integrity, Cleveland and his aides categorically denied that Cleveland had anything more than some bad teeth removed and E.J. Edward's article was dismissed as a hoax. It would not be until twenty-five years later that William Keen, the leading surgeon, finally admitted the operation had been performed.

I have some issues with this book, and I think it's mostly because there are points where Algeo goes onto tangents to talk about subjects that really don't contribute to the subject matter and I suspect that was to pad out the length of the book. I think Algeo also blows the secrecy surrounding Cleveland's operation out of proportion by comparing it to conspiracies like Watergate. The result is a book that's adequate from a research perspective but Alego's historical arguments don't really work.

Alego does an adequate job talking about the historical facts and providing relevant historical context, such as including the history of the antiseptic movement which dramatically increased the survival rate of surgery patients after its adoption and which probably helped save Cleveland's life because his doctors followed antiseptic protocol. Alego also talks about the silver debate and the importance attached to repealing the Silver Purchase Act as an attempt to rectify the Panic of 1893. For modern audiences, it can be difficult to understand the importance of the money question and how it caused divisions even within the Democratic and Republican parties. Cleveland's Vice-President, Adlai Stevenson, was a staunch silverite and would never have approved a repeal of the Silver Purchase Act. If word that Cleveland wasn't well it would have significantly undermined his political power and given the silverites the motivation to hold out.

However, Alego spends a significant amount of time talking about other subjects which have little to no relevance to the book and feel obviously used to pad out the length of the book. There are at least a couple of passages that could definitely have been removed without losing anything substantive to the book. Among these was when Alego took time talking about the history of men's facial hair in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century until the development of the safety razor, and going so far as to categorize the facial hair of each president who had facial hair. Alego also blames Cleveland's response to the Pullman Strike (sending in federal troops to violently put down the strike) on the pain Cleveland experienced from his surgery. I would say that completely ignores the trend of the government siding with capital against labor in the nineteenth century. I mean, there are multiple times when troops were sent in to put down strikes so it's hard for me to agree that Cleveland having surgery was the sole reason he put in the Pullman strike.

Ultimately I think this book is a lot longer than it needs to be. When you look at the historical context, it's hardly surprising that Cleveland kept his heath condition a secret. Alego himself writes about how the word cancer couldn't even be published in newspapers, much less talked about. Cleveland wasn't the first president to conceal his actual health and project an image of healthy vigor to assure the nation, and he wasn't the last either. While I agree it was an act of dishonesty, this was hardly and act bringing about a constitutional crisis.

Overall I'd say this book isn't worth your time because it hasn't got a lot to say and it becomes very obvious when Alego is just padding out the book to meet a word count.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Battlefront II: Inferno Squad, by Christie Golden

Today I'm looking at another Star Wars book, Battlefront II: Inferno Squad, which is a tie-in with the video game Battlefront II and with the Clone Wars animated series. The book focuses on the titular unit, Inferno Squad, an Imperial special forces unit that handles tasks that the regular Imperial military or the Imperial Security Bureau can't handle. Inferno Squad is charged with infiltrating the Dreamers, an extremist rebel faction led by survivors of Saw Garrera's Partisans. The Dreamers have been hitting multiple high-level Imperial targets and appear to have access to restricted Imperial information so Inferno Squad's goal is to discover where their information is coming from, seal the leak, and then eliminate the Dreamers.

I'll be honest, I didn't much care for this book and mostly because it's a continuation of this evolution that the Star Wars universe has taken and I'm not sure if I much care for it. There seems to have been a movement in Star Wars towards a darker and grittier universe, where not only are the Imperials a ruthless and sinister lot, but the Rebels are as well. Both sides engage in indiscriminate killings and torture to achieve their goals, making the line between good guys and bad guys blur. Now I'm not opposed to there being good Imperials, in fact in the old EU the Imperial officer Gilad Pellaeon was one of my favorite characters. But for a universe whose theme seems to be that there's always hope, it's a little concerning that the universe seems to be taking a darker turn. I'm not saying that there can't be bad Rebels or morally ambiguous Rebels, but I'm not used to the Star Wars universe being so darn dark.

I also have to say it's difficult for me to care over much about the characters in the book, especially the Imperials. At the beginning the book the Imperial characters basically justify destroying Alderaan with the argument that the Rebel children would only grow up to be adult Rebels who would kill more innocent Imperials, so it's best that they were killed when they were young. Now the Rebels make the same argument about killing a bunch of Imperial children, but far more of the Rebels raise objections to killing children than any Imperials do to the same. The problem with trying to make the Rebels and the Empire equivalent is that the factions really aren't, because the Empire practices slavery, restricts personal freedoms, and blows up planets. There really isn't any moral equivalency between the two of them.

It also was very hard for me to empathize with the characters because they were so blase about torturing or murdering people. I feel like there's an attempt to make the Imperial characters more sympathetic by having them develop personal relationships with the Dreamers, but this doesn't work for a couple of reasons. First, Inferno Squad is trying to ingratiate themselves with the Dreamers so they pretend to be friends with the Dreamers to make that goal easier. A second reason is that they kill all the Dreamers at the end of the book. Like, seriously, just execute all of the Dreamers and be proud about it as well. So it's really hard for me to like the members of Inferno Squad as characters.

Overall I was kind of disappointed with this book. It's kind of funny because when Disney first bought Star Wars a lot of people were worried that they'd Disney-fy the franchise and turn it into upbeat kid-friendly musicals. But it seems like under the Disney leadership, Star Wars has taken a darker and edgier turn and I'm not sure if I really like that. I'm willing to admit that this is probably me being an old person who's complaining about how they changed things and different things are bad, but I still feel like a grimdark universe isn't quite right for Star Wars.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the fourth book of the Temeraire series, Empire of Ivory. When we left off Captain Laurence and Temeraire were helping to evacuate remnants of the Prussian army from the besieged city of Danzig. When we rejoin our heroes they're making a mad dash for the coast of England pursued by French dragons. Despite firing signal flares it's only a shore battery that manages to keep the French dragons at bay and allow Temeraire, Iskierka, and the feral dragons to land safely in England.

Understandably they're perplexed by this situation and much to their dismay that the dragons of England have been struck down by a mysterious plague. Many of the dragons have been sick for a year or more and Britain faces the very real possibility of losing all its dragons. The strategic considerations are gravely concerning, but it's emotionally terrifying for the aerial corps as well because of the deep emotional attachment between the dragons and their crews. Temeraire, Iskierka, and the feral dragons have to protect the shores of England from invasion. When Temeraire accidentally gets exposed to infected dragons Laurence braces for the worst...until Temeraire fails to get sick. It appears Temeraire already had the illness during their trip to China and something, whether the environment of Cape Town or something he ate, fought the illness. Temeraire and his ill friends are packed back back up onto the Allegiance and dispatched back to Cape Town to find a cure.

The thing I liked most about this book was the result of the expedition to Cape Town and their search for the pungent mushroom which is the cure for the dragons' illness. As it was established previously in other books, expeditions into Africa's interior had disappeared without a trace leaving the interior of the continent a vast unknown. The assumption is that feral dragons are in such large populations that any expedition is simply killed. What our characters discover is that the interior is ruled by an organized empire, very similar to the Zulu nation, with the support of dragons who the Africans revere as reincarnations of their honored ancestors. The Africans have been willing to tolerate European interlopers, despite the ongoing slave trade, but with the arrival of European dragons the Africans assume the Europeans are making a serious bid for settlement. In response the Africans launch successful attacks not only against Cape Town, but all the major slave-trading ports up and down the African coast.

I liked this development in particular because it shows an advanced civilization in Africa, as well as a reference to an Incan empire in the Americas that kept Spanish colonialism at bay and the state of Mysore that has used their dragons to keep Britain at bay in India. With the Chinese culture which we saw in Throne of Jade, we see how multiple cultures, with the aid of dragons, have managed to curtail European encroachment, something that took off in the nineteenth century but the seeds of which were sewn in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries. Granted, these are oversimplified versions of various global cultures, but it's not necessarily something I expected from a fantasy series. (Incidentally I also find it somewhat ironic that the deadly dragon-killing disease came from North America and infected European dragons in an inversion of the historical smallpox epidemic which killed upwards of 90% of the Native American population.)

Another theme that's been growing ever since at least the second book is Laurence and other people seeing dragons as people with rational minds, rather than highly intelligent animals. European cultures, at least, think of dragons as highly sophisticated animals that need to be tamed but you can't expect to reason with them. This is in decided contrast with China where dragons are practically equal members of society, and in Africa where dragons are leaders and advisers. As the series goes on the Europeans are going to be increasingly faced with the fact their dragons are just as intelligent, or perhaps more so, than their human companions.

Overall this was a good installment in the series and I look forward to more.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

Today I'm looking at the second book in the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, Before They Are Hanged. I do hate to say that this book seems to suffer a lot from the issues that second installments in trilogies have. It kind of meanders and while we have some development, we're left with a lot of things unresolved because the third act needs things to accomplish. Obviously this isn't true of every second act in trilogies, but it feels particularly apt in this case.

The last book, The Blade Itself, established the setting, the characters, and the initial conflict, although what I found most interesting was the characters that Abercrombie created. There are a couple of characters who aren't terribly good people. For example, Inquisitor Glokta is an angry, ruthless, and bitter man influenced by his torture at the hands of the Gurkish and Captain Luthar is a vain, spoiled pretty boy who almost gives up the minute he starts running into a challenge. Despite their shortcomings I found the characters rather compelling, especially Inquisitor Glokta. I think the best thing that Abercrombie does in this book is work on the development of his characters, Glokta in particular. I got the impression from the first book that Glokta didn't have much of an ideology as an Inquisitor, he just tortured people as a sort of revenge against the universe. However I got the impression that in this book Glokta has become aware of the larger political struggle and is becoming more than an unthinking subordinate.

Luthar's development is a lot less subtle, to the point where Luther gets literally beaten in the face with his character development. Seriously, he gets his face bashed in with a mace that makes him try to be a better person. Granted, he's not great at being a better person, but he tries. I definitely get the impression based on how Bayaz keeps giving Luthar lessons on leadership that Bayaz is planning on making Luthar king of the Union in the third book. I say this because both princes of the Union die within this book, but it also kind of strains credulity because Bayaz in no way influenced the deaths of either princes, unless Bayaz is part of a long two man (or three man) con, which seems unlikely.

There are plenty of things that I liked in this book, though. As I said, the development of Glokta was compelling to me, personally and I thought it was the most interesting part of the book. I also really liked Colonel West's story. Granted, Colonel West's story is a pretty normal war story and I was able to predict how at least part of the war was going to go, but that didn't keep me from enjoying it nonetheless.

We also get a lot more exposition in this book explaining the history and the larger conflict which is driving the plot of the book. Now, I have much higher tolerances for exposition than most people so I didn't find it as excessive in this book as I've found it in others, but that's probably a matter of opinion. There is also some debate about how exactly events happened in the past of the book depending on who's telling the story. Personally I liked this because it makes the history of the book feel more realistic because there's always two sides (or more) to any story.

Overall I think this book had some issues because it's the middle installment. I do find myself enjoying the characters and interested in the plot, especially because I understand the stakes for the book, so I'm looking forward to the final installment. Hopefully everything gets resolved in a satisfactory manner because I am a little worried Abercrombie will try to cram too much into the last book. We'll just have to see what happens.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig

Today I'm looking at the first of three books in the Aftermath trilogy which helps to fill in the gaps between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. I'm hoping that these books will answer some of my questions about the political situation in the galaxy, although I'm not overly optimistic about the results. To start with as I've said before about Star Wars as a franchise, I worry about the multimedia nature the franchise is starting to take. I've been getting the feeling that to truly understand everything going on in the Star Wars universe, you have to go track down all the comics, books, video games, movies, and whatever other versions of media they decide to utilize. On the one hand, the old Expanded Universe was very much like this and so for people who really like Star Wars it gives them a lot of stuff to explore and enjoy.

On the other hand, to paraphrase Mr. Plinkett, we shouldn't have to read a book to understand a movie. The original movies were self-contained and while not everything was explained in agonizing detail, we didn't have to go check supplemental sources to understand the plotline. We weren't told how the Emperor became Emperor, but for the purposes of the story that wasn't terribly important. We knew he was the Emperor and was in charge, how that came to be was largely secondary. However in the case of Force Awakens, we don't really get an explanation as to who the First Order is or where they came from. Or for that matter what the situation with the Resistance is, because they're apparently not the military of the Republic but they're Republic aligned. So why is the Republic being defended by a paramilitary force? These are questions which probably should be answered within the movie, and we don't even need a super long explanation, a few lines of exposition would be necessary.

As for the plot of this book, Wedge Antilles is doing some post-Endor scouting operations for the New Republic and finds not one but three Star Destroyers in the backwater system of Akiva. Wedge concludes that something big is going down but before he can get the word back to the Republic he finds himself captured by the Empire. He manages to get a message out to Norra Wexley, another Republic operative, who puts together a team on planet to disrupt the Imperial meeting and strike another blow for the New Republic.

Plot-wise this book is okay. Mostly I got the impression that the Empire has bases and resources out in the Outer Rim and beyond the edges of known space where they'll regroup and possibly form the New Order. Otherwise this feels a lot like other Star Wars books which I've read before and I don't know if it brings all that much new to the table. Republic wins and the Empire gets driven further back. I think what I liked most is the vignettes of other things happening around the galaxy to show that the Civil War is not yet over and there are still battles to be won and work to be done to make the galaxy a better place.

The thing that bugs me the most about this book, though, is the character Temmin Wexley, Norra's son. Norra left Temmin behind three years ago to join the Rebel Alliance and has been involved in battles like Endor. She returns to find her son Temmin has gotten involved in black market dealings and basically turned into a typical shitty teenager. I actually found myself really disliking Temmin throughout the book. He isn't interested in the galactic struggle, just wants to keep his head down and make money. By the end of the book he's gotten fully on board with the Republic cause, but I feel like he hasn't learned as a character at all. What annoys me the most is that Temmin doesn't experience any loss during the book. At multiple points his mom Norra almost dies because of her fights against the Empire and towards the end of the book Temmin's robot Mr. Bones (a psychotic patched together battle droid) is shot by the Imperials. But at the end of the book Temmin has his mom and he has Mr. Bones. I felt like this really undermined the book because Temmin didn't experience loss forcing him to grow as a character. Everything turned out okay for him at the end and he goes on further adventures.

I'll have to see where the rest of the books in this series go because so far it's been kind of a disappointment. It's certainly not the most interesting Star Wars book I've read or feeling all that vital yet.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the third book in the Temeraire series, Black Powder War. The book begins where Throne of Jade left off, with Temeraire, Captain Will Laurence, and still in China. The crew are planning to travel with the dragon carrier Allegiance back to Britain via the Cape of Good Hope when an emergency message from the admiralty arrives from overland. Temeraire and Laurence are ordered to head directly for Istanbul and take possession of three dragon eggs and return them to Scotland post haste. Considering our heroes are halfway around the world and there should be British dragons in the Mediterranean, they find these orders rather curious and it implies the military situation back home has deteriorated in the year since they left. After some wrangling, the crew decide to head back overland, hoping to shave at least some time off by avoiding waiting for repairs for the Allegiance and taking a more direct route.

A pretty significant chunk of the book is spent on getting Temeraire, Laurence, and company from China across the center of Asia and finally to Istanbul. Considering the terrain they have to cover includes some of the world's larger deserts this is hardly a simple task and our heroes have to face the challenges of feeding and watering a dragon when logistics are hardly easy, as well as fighting off brigands and feral dragons.

The last half of the book brings our characters out of the wilderness and back into the struggle of European politics. Arriving in Istanbul our protagonists find the British ambassador dead, his staff gone, and all requests for information regarding the purchase of dragon eggs blocked by a byzantine network of pashas and advisers. Eventually our heroes have to take matters into their own hands. Under the logic that the eggs have already been paid for and therefore are British property, the crew breaks out of the sultan's palace and absconds with the eggs. Unfortunately they lose one of the eggs during their escape, but more concerning still the egg of a valuable fire-breathing species is mere weeks away from hatching.

The final part of the book is probably what I enjoyed the most, and that's because Laurence and Temeraire head for the relatively safe harbor of Prussia. (My people). The Prussians have decided to bring their much-vaunted military against Napoleon and expect an easy victory. If you're a student of history like myself, then you realize that this is just a prelude to the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt where the Prussians were crushed by the modernized French forces, prompting a flurry of civil and military reforms in Prussia that enabled it to become a key player in the victorious Sixth Coalition. However Novik manages to capture the stunning overconfidence of the Prussians prior to their thrashing at Jena-Auerstedt and makes even me shake my head at the poor deluded fools. Despite their need to get back home to Britain, Laurence and Temeraire find themselves dragooned into Prussian service and if not unable, at least unwilling to leave the Prussians in the lurch. Apparently the British promised the Prussians the support of a wing of twenty dragons, but those dragons never arrived. This raises more questions about the situation back home in Britain and perhaps things have gotten worse while our characters have been away. Hopefully we'll get some answers in the next book.

Another thing I really enjoyed is when Iskierka, the dragon close to hatching finally does hatch. Appropriate for a fire-breathing dragon she is an absolute firecracker and from the moment she hatches she's ready to go into a fight with the French. I found her absolutely hilarious and I'm hoping to see more of her in the later books.

Overall, I think this was pretty good. There are some funny bits and I feel like Novik is at least incorporating dragons into Napoleonic Wars in a way that makes it plausible. As I said in my last review, if you like dragons and you like the Napoleonic Era, this is a book worth reading.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Wars of the Roosevelts, by William Mann

Today I'm looking at a biography of not one Roosevelt in particular, but more about the Roosevelt family in general. Like anyone who has any familiarity with the Roosevelt family, you're probably aware of the history of mental illness within the Roosevelt family, with several members succumbing to alcoholism. More specifically several members including Eleanor and Theodore show signs of depression or bipolar disorder. The Wars of the Roosevelts is a delve into the ''dirty laundry'' of the Roosevelt family and the revelation of the deep emotional issues that plagued multiple members of the family.

Because I've read so much about Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor a lot of the subject matter was familiar to me. Because the book focused more on Eleanor's father (and Theodore's brother) Elliot, as well as Theodore's children there was more information than what I knew before. Mann specifically talks about the son Elliot had with Katy Mann, Elliott Roosevelt Mann, an illegitimate child and one of the dirty secrets of the Roosevelt family. Mann talks about Elliot's rise as a banker and eventually enter the ranks of the middle class. Despite his success, Elliot Roosevelt Mann never got acknowledgement from his more prestigious relatives. However at the 1991 Roosevelt family reunion the Manns were finally accepted into the fold.

Personally I think it's hardly surprising that the Roosevelt family, like so many families, had its share of internal division and strife. There are plenty of happy families, but there are just as many dysfunctional ones as well. Considering the high amount of pressure put on the Roosevelt family to succeed and the ambitions for political power it's hardly surprising that so many of them struggled emotionally. Throw in a family history of alcoholism, depression, and bipolar disorder and it's a recipe for emotional molotov cocktails.

From the description of this book on the library's website Mann implied that the struggles among the Roosevelts would reach the level of warfare or bloodsport. I will admit that the struggles between the Hyde Park and Oyster Bay branches of the Roosevelt families during Franklin's election runs certainly reached the level of warfare, but that at least makes sense considering the partisan and occasional ideological divisions between the two branches. Within the respective branches of the Roosevelt families, I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it outright war. Let me try to explain.

Mann talks a lot about the non-conformists of the Roosevelt families, people who refused to follow the paths and expectations set by their relatives, usually Groton, Harvard, and then some sort of career in business or politics and a drive to succeed. Specifically Mann points to Elliot Roosevelt, Kermit Roosevelt (one of Theodore's sons), and James ''Tadd'' Roosevelt Jr (Franklin's nephew and son of his much older half-brother Rosey). Elliott and Kermit both struggled with alcoholism and were engaged in extramarital affairs. (Although they were far from the only Roosevelts to do so.) Elliott was eventually forced to separate from his family under pressure of his brother Theodore who threatened multiple times to have him incarcerated in an insane asylum. Elliott died at the age of thirty-four after a suicide attempt. Kermit, Theodore's second son, did not receive the same pressure to succeed as his older brother Ted, their father's namesake and crown prince to the dynasty. Kermit always seemed unsure of what he wanted to do in life and also fell prey to alcohol and publicly flaunted his mistress, leading to additional shunning by his own family. Much like his uncle, Kermit eventually committed suicide while serving in Alaska during World War II. Really the only non-conforming Roosevelt who did fairly well was Tadd who, thanks to being an heir to a slice of the Astor fortune through his mother's side, was financially independent enough to ignore his family after he married a common factory girl. Tadd's marriage eventually soured and he spent the rest of his days living in Florida.

The thing you have to understand is that mental illness was highly stigmatized in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact to this day organizations such as NAMI are still fighting to end social stigma associated with mental illness. For a socially prominent family such as the Roosevelts, it's hardly surprising that they would shun or attempt to hide members of their families who showed signs of mental illness and failed to meet the high expectations of the family. I wouldn't call it a war within the family so much as a family of high-achievers reacting like many people in the same time and place would react to family members that failed to meet expectations.

Overall in spite of a good portion of this book being review for me, I still thought it was interesting and worth checking out. This definitely goes into the lives of the less prominent figures such as Elliott, Kermit, Theodore Jr., and Alice whose lives are overshadowed by the giants of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. If anything, it shows that the Roosevelt family was much like any other, dirty secrets and all.

- Kalpar

Sunday, May 6, 2018

All Good Things

Hello, dear and gentle readers. I wanted to take a moment to let you know about some decisions I've made regarding the blog and what's going to happen in the future. A little over six years ago I decided to start blogging at least once a week, mostly with reviews of books that I've read, but occasionally including tv shows, board games, and other media that I've consumed. Amazingly, I've managed to not only keep up the blog in all that time but starting two years ago I managed to do two posts a week. At the risk of sounding a little boastful, that's hundreds of books that I've read over the course of nearly seven years.

However, I've decided that it's time for me to move onward from this project. The blog has been a good learning experience and has definitely helped me grow, but I think I'm at the point where I'm ready to move on. I've decided at the end of 2018 I will stop posting book reviews on the blog. I may do the occasional update from time to time, but for the most part the blog's going to be shut down. The blog will continue to update every Tuesday and Thursday through the end of December. Hopefully this decision will give me more time to work on other projects. I thank everyone who's been with me this far and hope you've found this blog as interesting to read as I have to write it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert O'Connell

Today I'm looking at a biography of William Tecumseh Sherman, who with Ulysses S. Grant made the winning team the United States needed to put down the slaveholders' rebellion. As O'Connell points out, Sherman has been the subject of varying biographies in the years since his death. While some people depict him as a stalwart defender of the United States, proponents of the Lost Cause mythology tend to depict Sherman as a bloodthirsty monster. This is to provide a contrast to the warlord Robert E. Lee, who in the Lost Cause mythology is almost deified. Lee was good and honorable while Sherman pillaged and burned through Georgia. O'Connell counters that this was not the case but I feel like he goes too far in the other direction and almost becomes a hagiography of Sherman instead.

The issue I have with this book is I feel like O'Connell doesn't deliver on the promises which he made in the introduction. O'Connell states he'll talk about Sherman not only as a general, but as an individual in a separate section. O'Connell does do this, but it feels largely inadequate for the promises he made in the opening.

The majority of this book focuses on Sherman's career during the Civil War as well as the development of the Army of the West into a cohesive fighting force. O'Connell goes so far as to say that the Army of the West was the true predecessor of the modern American ground force, capable of undertaking any task, conquering any terrain, and adapting to any situation. O'Connell argues that this created the institutional DNA of later American forces. Personally I don't know how well this argument holds up, but I'm also no expert on military affairs so it's entirely possible that O'Connell is right.

Unfortunately I think O'Connell focuses on the Civil War to the detriment of talking about other parts of Sherman's life, specifically the time when he was General of the Army after Grant's retirement and when he was in charge of Indian policy in the West. Sherman was an avowed American expansionist and vigorously promoted the building of transcontinental railroads, the extermination of buffalo, and the forcing of Indian tribes onto reservations. Sherman may have grown in his opinions on African-Americans due to his experience with escaped slaves, but his opinions on American Indians remained decidedly intolerant. I think Sherman's policy on Indians, more than anything, is the biggest black mark on his record. Personally I think O'Connell skips over Sherman's post-war career in an attempt to burnish Sherman's reputation to the point of becoming hagiographic.

Obviously nobody is perfect, and human beings in positions of power have more opportunities to make bad decisions. Personally I don't blame Sherman for burning Atlanta and other major cities in the South during the war, especially if it was as limited as O'Connell argues it was, then it makes absolute strategic sense from a military perspective. However the systemic genocide of native peoples by the American government to promote white expansion into the American West has no such argument. I feel like O'Connell purposely ignores this problem because it will be too much of a black mark on Sherman.

Overall I think this book has some problems. First are the organizational issues, where despite his attempts to do otherwise O'Connell focuses heavily on Sherman's Civil War career and only briefly talks about the rest of his life. In so doing, O'Connell takes an almost hagiographic approach to Sherman, almost making him the patron saint of the American military. I feel like this is far too simplistic, especially for a twenty-first century audience, and O'Connell probably could have taken a more complicated view.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Thrawn, by Timothy Zahn

If any of you are familiar with the old Star Wars Expanded Universe, there's a very good chance that you're familiar with Grand Admiral Thrawn. Heir to the Empire and its sequels are some of the most popular old EU books written by the truly fantastic Timothy Zahn. Seriously, Zahn is probably the best EU author out there. Part of the appeal of Grand Admiral Thrawn was he was a complex and believable character. One of the struggles the EU ran into was a lot of Imperial characters were bad stereotypes, real cackling villain type. Thrawn and his subordinate, Gilad Pellaon, were reasonable authority figures. Soldiers trying to do the work of the Empire and faced with not a lot of great options. Zahn illustrated that even if the Empire was a bad organization, there could be reasonable people in the ranks.

When Disney announced that the old EU was no longer canon, the fact that Thrawn was no longer canon was the biggest disappointment for old fans. Trust me, there's a lot of old EU material that wasn't a huge loss, looking at you Jedi Prince. So it was with mixed emotions Thrawn appeared in the Rebels TV show. On the one hand, it was good to see an old friend come back into the new canon, on the other hand it does raise some questions such as what ultimately happens to Thrawn. In the old EU Thrawn got sent on a secret mission to Unknown Space by the Emperor, which explains why Thrawn wasn't present during the fall of the Empire. I'm curious to see what happens to him later in the universe although I think it's very unlikely Thrawn will show up in the new film universe.

This book focuses on Thrawn's rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy, his career shepherded by the Emperor's influence. With his aide, Eli Vanto, Thrawn goes through the Imperial academy, serves as a weapons officer, a first officer, and eventually commander of his own Star Destroyer, the Chimera (which is its own reference). On some level I feel like Thrawn's rise is almost too fast and very obviously influenced by the Emperor. It's like we know that Thrawn will end up a Grand Admiral in the Imperial Navy and we're just marking time to see how it happens. Thrawn's tactical genius does come into play multiple times through the book, which makes sense since it is written by Zahn, but I almost feel like it's a story that didn't need to be told.

The other thing that concerns me about this book is that Thrawn basically outright states that there's a threat from beyond the galaxy which threatens both the Chiss Ascendancy and the Galactic Empire. (Which makes me think of the Yuuzhan Vong, which threatens to make the Star Wars universe even more complicated again.) Thrawn is apparently on a mission from the Chiss to determine whether the Empire is an ally worth cultivating, or best used as a distraction to buy the Chiss time while they try to put weapons together to defeat whatever threat it is from beyond the galaxy. I'm worried that we're going back into the original problems of the EU where we have dozens of plot threads and putting them into a coherent whole is almost impossible.

Overall I think this book was okay, but I think it's feeding into the problem we had with the old EU.

- Kalpar