Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts

Today I'm looking at a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man whose ambitions took him from the shores of Corsica to the deserts of Egypt to the fields of Austerlitz to the ashes of Moscow. It is impossible to understand Europe in the nineteenth century without talking about Napoleon. With such a figure it is difficult to put them within historical context and look at them as a person rather than an idea. To the French Napoleon is often idolized, the glorious general-statesman who made French arms victorious across Europe. To the British Napoleon is a war-mongering monster who burned Europe to feed his ceaseless ambition. Ultimately the truth about Napoleon the man, rather than Napoleon the idea, will be somewhere in the middle.

Roberts pulls on a variety of resources, including the voluminous documents available at this time period and letters by Napoleon that were not previously available. The result is a book that feels very well-researched but I'll admit at the beginning I was a little concerned about this being a little hagiographic. Because there is so much acrimony surrounding Napoleon I can understand Roberts's efforts to dispel the opprobrium surrounding him, but I was worried at times that Roberts went a little too far in the other direction. I will admit that there are things Napoleon did which were net positives, such as the reform of the French civil code which has influenced legal codes in countless countries today. But there are some simple facts, like Napoleon's decision to overthrow the French Directorate and get declared consul, then consul for life, then emperor reflect badly on him. I'm aware this is very much my American-ness coming out with the example of George Washington an exceedingly rare example of a man who could have become king if he wanted (and in fact some people thought about making him king) but instead chose to step down from political power and created a precedent of peaceful transfer of power for two centuries.

 However, Roberts does point out numerous mistakes Napoleon made, especially later in his reign, and takes Napoleon to task for these mistakes. Examples include the invasion of Russia which was a logistical nightmare and the point where the Grand Armee's hubris became a weakness rather than an advantage. On top of that was the continuation of the Peninsular campaign, a drain of troops and resources that Napoleon could ill afford as Russian troops continued to batter his main force. Napoleon also trusted people he definitely shouldn't have, such as Talleyrand. Napoleon had already caught Talleyrand playing both sides against each other for his own advantage. Napoleon did briefly remove Talleyrand from positions of influence, but later found himself relying on Talleyrand which would prove to be Napoleon's undoing. So I think Roberts's opinion of Napoleon for the whole of the book is fairly balanced. And like most people Napoleon is a mix of good and bad so it comes out complicated in the end.

Overall I think this book did a pretty good job of talking about Napoleon. Roberts uses a variety of sources and while he gushes about Napoleon at some points, he is equally hard on Napoleon at later points as well. It's a long book with a lot of information, but well worth the read to gain insight into the most influential figure at the start of the nineteenth century.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Woman Who Would Be King, by Kara Cooney

Today I'm looking at a book about ancient Egypt, specifically a biography of Hatshepsut who ruled as king in Egypt during the 18th Dynasty. The information that we have about Hatshepsut is fragmentary at best due to the loss of records over three thousand years, as well as later destruction of Hatshepsut's monuments. Cooney admits that a good portion of her book is conjecture, however Cooney creates an evocative image of Egyptian society and the life of Hatshepsut within the larger context of the Thutmosid Dynasty.

When Hatshepsut's images and carvings were first discovered by Egyptologists historians (all men, of course) assumed that Hatshepsut was an example of a woman usurping power from a rightful male leader. This was explained because many of her statues and inscriptions were deliberately demolished or defaced, reflecting a backlash during the reign of her successor Thutmose III. Cooney draws upon more recent analysis of Hatshepsut's inscriptions and other existing evidence of her reign to create a more nuanced and ultimately positive understanding of her place in Egyptian history.

Egyptology is a difficult field because the reality of politics and the ideology of politics were almost never separated. Central to Egyptian culture was the idea of the god-king, an aspect of the eternal sun who always had and always would rule over the land of Egypt. Who the king happened to be was largely irrelevant so long as there was a king and in both official and unofficial sources opinions on the king and the royal family were largely reserved. We are unsure about how the Thutmosid dynasty came to power. We know that the previous dynasty failed to produce a viable heir and the mantle of kingship was passed to Thutmose I. Why Thutmose was chosen or any familial connection with the previous dynasty he may have had has been obscured. But we do know among his many children were Hatshepsut who took on the powerful and influential role of God's Wife of Amen, the principle deity of the city of Thebes associated with the sun. The God's Wife was a position traditionally held by a member of the royal family close to the king and came with control of the temple's wealth and influence. We assume that this role gave Hatshepsut sufficient experience to become a political operator in her own right.

Thutmose I was, in his turn, followed by Thutmose II, probably Hatshepsut's half-brother who she married as his Great Wife. Although the couple produced one daughter, Neferure, if they produced any male offspring it does not appear in the record. In fact Thutmose II had trouble producing any offspring and by most accounts appears to have been a sickly individual dying only a few years into his reign. This created yet another succession crisis within perhaps fifteen years of resolving the last crisis. Thutmose II had produced another son, Thutmose III, but he was just an infant and from a low-ranked birth mother, giving him a weaker claim in the complex web of Egyptian royalty we still don't fully understand. With the high child mortality it was questionable Thutmose III would even survive to rule, much less produce an heir of his own. But Hatshepsut stepped into this vacuum and provided much-needed continuity as regent.

It was not uncommon for queen mothers to step in as regents for their sons, and even made good sene because a mother was unlikely to sabotage her own son's reign. Hatshepsut's case, like so much else about her, was unusual. Hatshepsut was not Thutmose III's birth mother, but his own mother Isis was considered too low-ranked to actually serve as regent. Cooney argues, however, the fact that Hatshepsut became regent, and ruled unchallenged for nearly twenty years suggests that the religious and political elites trusted Hatshepsut and supported her role as regent and later king, to ensure that Egypt would continue to prosper while Thutmose III could grow up.

We know that Egypt prospered during Hatshepsut's rule because of several events. First was a series of highly successful campaigns in Nubia to maintain Egyptian hegemony and continue the flow of gold, gems, stone, and slaves which were immense economic boons for Egypt and Hatshepsut was able to channel the wealth to government figures, including new political appointees like Senenmut, ensuring their continued support for her reign. Hatshepsut also launched a successful trading expedition to the Land of Punt (believed to be somewhere around the Horn of Africa) which brought back even more wealth including the all-important incense which was not so much a luxury as a staple for the deeply religious culture of ancient Egypt.

This economic wealth was then channeled into massive construction programs throughout Egypt, resulting in upgrades of many temples from structures of the near-ubiquitous mud brick to worked stone, creating a new permanence to Egyptian life and the temple complex of Luxor at Thebes, making a veritable bonanza for archaeologists and Egyptologists of today. During all of this Hatshepsut continued to accumulate more power to herself and adopting the title of king, tying her legitimacy and right to rule with her descent from her father, the respected Thutmose I. Hatshepsut was formally coronated as a co-ruler in or about year 7 of Thutmose III's rule, and Hatshepsut celebrated the Sed Festival, a celebration of a king's successful rule, in year 16 of her and Thutmose III's ''joint'' rule of Egypt.

We don't know when Hatshepsut died, but evidence suggests it was about year 22 of Thutmose III's reign because that is when he launched his highly successful war into Syria and inscriptions make no mention of his co-ruler. The success of this first campaign made Thutmose III a warrior king who executed multiple successful campaigns to neighboring regions and exacted enormous tributes. But interestingly the evidence suggests that Thutmose III's attacks on his aunt, step-mother, and predecessor's legacy did not begin until fairly late in his reign, some twenty years after Hatshepsut's death. Why Thutmose III began this attack and destruction is unclear, but Cooney thinks the traditional explanation of a usurping woman being put back in her place is not only unconvincing but unsupported by the evidence of the continued respect and support of elites for Hatshepsut even after her death.

Cooney instead argues that perhaps it was the status of Thutmose III's own son, Amenhotep II, whose legacy Thutmose sought to prop up. Cooney suggest that Amenhotep II, much like his father, was born to a lower-ranked wife. Because of this lack of direct links with the dynasty, usually reinforced by brother-sister marriages in the royal family to keep the bloodline concentrated, Cooney argues that Thutmose III was seeking to change the source of legitimacy to a father-son link rather than a larger dynastic link. It wasn't important if the mother wasn't of sufficient background or even within the family group, as long as the next king was son of the previous king. To this end Thutmose III tried to connect his kingship to his father and grandfather, Thutmose I and II, and edited many of Hatshepsut's statues to be dedicated to his father and grandfather. by eliminating or reducing his aunt, Thutmose III shifted the focus from a family dynasty to a male line, reinforcing Amenhotep II's own claim on the throne.

Overall I thought this book was really interesting. Ancient Egypt is an area I have little to no knowledge so a lot of this was new to me and I thought Cooney did an excellent job explaining not just the history but the larger context of Egypt some 3,500 years ago. The image of Hatshepsut that emerges is a queen who is, above all else, successful. It seems her reign enriched and expanded Egypt, to the benefit of at least the elites, if not everyone. It certainly seems unlikely that a cruel and wanton usurper would be able to rule unchallenged, even in Egypt, for twenty years. Even if Cooney has to rely on conjecture to fill in the blanks left by the fairly sparse historical record, I highly recommend people check out this book.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

Today I'm looking at another book in the universe of Joe Abercrombie, set sometime after the events of the first three books, ending with Last Argument of Kings. This book is set in Styria, an island located to the east of the Union which has been plagued for nearly twenty years by relentless war. Grand Duke Orso, allied by the marriage of his daughter with King Giselle of the Union, has been attempting to crown himself king of all Styria. He has been opposed by the League of Eight, but decades of campaigning have left Orso poised on the brink of achieving his goal. And this is largely because of the mercenary band known as the Thousand Sons led by Monza Murcatto.

Personally, Murcatto is hoping that this year will be the last fighting for Orso and she and her brother can finally retire. This all goes out the window very literally when Orso and six other men betray Murcatto and her brother and throw them from Orso's mountaintop castle out a window. Miraculously Murcatto survives, despite her body being desperately broken, and as you can imagine from the title she swears revenge on her attempted assassins. But killing seven of the most influential men in Styria will be no easy task, and Murcatto will have to put a team together including the northman Caul Shivers, former Inquisition practical Shylo Vitari, a numerical savant known only as Friendly, and a handful of other cutthroats, scoundrels, and criminal scum to accomplish the task.

This book feels a lot like the other books in Abercrombie's series, although in this case I was less invested in the characters than I was in the earlier books. With this being a revenge/assassination plot I was hoping that there would be a little more variation, figuring out how to get at people who are probably in highly secured locations. And there's some element of that with the effort to get to a banker which includes a break-in into a bank to put poison exactly where the banker will encounter it. But most of the rest of the time the characters are just going in and killing people in the messiest way possible. As a result it doesn't feel like a variation on the previous books, instead it feels like more of the same and it starts to get old after a while.

As you can probably see on the cover, there's a quote from George R.R. Martin ''This is his best book yet.'' and I feel like it's because Abercrombie and Martin have similar approaches to their writing. Martin and Abercrombie seem to favor gratuitous sex and violence in their books. On the one hand I can understand upping the amount of sex and violence in fantasy. There's always been violence in fantasy from Lewis and Tolkien to going as far back as Beowulf and beyond, but not quite on the brutal levels that Martin and Abercrombie take it to. Sex hasn't really been as much a part of mainstream fantasy and I can understand the desire to incorporate it into more modern fantasy works.

Now I'm not saying that sex and violence shouldn't be in fantasy works, there's every reason to have fantasy as a genre handle complex topics. But what I'm concerned with is that Martin and Abercrombie don't really do it in a reasonable way. I feel like they're putting the sex and violence into their works for the shock value rather than to really contribute to the story. Obviously there's a way to include sex in fantasy in a way that's meaningful, but including it solely for shock value probably isn't the best way to go about this.

Overall this book is okay at best. I feel like people seem to be excited over it because of the sex and violence factor rather than the plot and characters which seem underdeveloped in comparison. I'm probably going to avoid Abercrombie's stuff in the future just because there doesn't seem to be that appeals to me personally.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Phasma, by Delilah S. Dawson

So if you've seen anything going on with Angela from the Doubleclicks recently you'll know she's a huge fan of Captain Phasma and said she really liked this book. Since it became available on audiobook at the library I decided to give it a try. This book delves into Phasma's past on the planet Parnassos and how she met Brendol Hux and eventually joined the First Order. There are some moments where Phasma manages to do some really cool stuff in this book, but like most of the rest of the books in the new expanded universe canon I feel like there's far too much protesting that the Empire and the First Order aren't all that bad. You know, despite the fact that they kidnap children to be soldiers, probably practice slavery, and try to blow up planets.

This book has a framing device of Captain Cardinal, a First Order captain with special red stormtrooper armor, who is interrogating Vi Moradi, a Resistance spy. Vi Moradi recently made a trip into the Unknown Regions to get information on the First Order and their leaders, but was captured by the Star Destroyer Absolution. Cardinal wants information about Phasma who's been taking over the stormtrooper training program. Cardinal wants dirt on Phasma so he can take her down in the deadly game of New Order politics.

I was interested in this book because I was curious to see if Phasma did any really badass stuff in it, and I have to concede Phasma does some pretty freaking cool stuff including the equivalent of a ''Diana, Shield'' maneuver. If anything it really makes me wish they had used that in Force Awakens and Last Jedi because I got the feeling that they were trying to build Phasma up into the next Boba Fett-level badass. Now, to be fair Boba Fett did absolutely nothing in Empire Strikes Back but sass Darth Vader and even less in Return of the Jedi. (Way to get punched into that Sarlaac by a blind man, Fett.) So if anything it's a criticism of the fandom's rabid love for Boba Fett than anything else. But I think it would have been a lot better to have Phasma do cool stuff in the movies, rather than having to go to a book.

As for the issues with the First Order, we have both Captain Cardinal and Brendol Hux (father of Armitage Hux who's the Hux in the movies) extolling the virtures of the First Order. They put a lot of emphasis on how the First Order treats everyone equally and brings law and order to the galaxy, opposed to the chaos and anarchy of the ''nebulous freedom'' that the New Republic supports. They also argue that the majority of people in the galaxy don't know what's good for them, so they need an enlightened group of people to tell them what's best for them, and everyone except for Vi Moradi seems to just be...fine with this argument.

Now I can understand the equality argument working for a lot of people, especially the people who are on planets that have, or feel that they have been left behind by the New Republic. Especially in the case of Parnassos which was devastated by a nuclear reactor accident and then abandoned by the mining conglomerate that had caused the accident. I can understand people being upset that the mining company didn't suffer any legal consequences for their actions, and the Empire or the New Order sure wouldn't tolerate that level of incompetence. But when you start saying that you need the ''right sort of people'' to make decisions for everyone else, it begs the question how do we decide who's going to be making the decisions. And all too often it's the people with the biggest guns who decide who's going to be making the decisions for everyone else.

So I'd say that this book is in the middle territory for books in the Star Wars universe. Phasma does some awesome stuff, but also leaves me absolutely terrified because she's willing to kill anyone to achieve her goals. Seriously, don't mess with Phasma. But like with the rest of the new canon, I'm not a huge fan of the fact that people seem to be super okay with the First Order going around killing people, creating child soldiers, enslaving people, and just...just being bad people.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Today I'm looking at a history book by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz that seeks to redress the problem of Native Americans, (alternately called American Indians, the First Peoples, or Indigenous Peoples), who are largely written out of standard American history and when they are included at all it is an entirely inadequate representation of the peoples and cultures. This book is not an exhaustive exploration of the indigenous people who lived in the United States. That would be a difficult if not impossible task for a number of reasons including a scarcity of surviving written and archaeological records, often wantonly destroyed by European colonialists, and because the sheer number of Indigenous nations that populated the modern United States. This book focuses largely, instead, on the policy of the Anglo-American settlers starting with the colonies of Jamestown and Plymouth going into the twenty-first century. Dunbar-Ortiz makes a compelling argument that the United States has, and continues to pursue, a policy of genocide against American Indians through a variety of methods and provides suggestions on how to remedy this state of affairs.

Throughout this book Dunbar-Ortiz utilizes the definitions of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as her rubric for defining genocide. Although most people usually associate genocide with the wholesale killing of members of an ethnic group or religion, such as in the Holocaust, the UN Convention includes within its definition the forced transfer of children out of an ethnic group, preventing births within the group, and imposing conditions of hardship on groups calculated to bring about their destruction. Although she uses the term retroactively from its creation, by the modern definition the actions of European colonials from their first contact with American Indians matches the textbook definition of genocide.

Dunbar-Ortiz catalogues the methods utilized by European colonists from the overt to the more insidious as a series of tools utilized through five centuries to wage an ongoing genocide against indigenous peoples. Regular warfare, smallpox, liquor, and the practices of head-hunting and scalping factor heavily in the early years of European contact with American Indians. The only point of concern I actually had at this point was Dunbar-Ortiz's assertion that smallpox could not have killed 90% of the population of the Americas. The current historical consensus is that the total population for the Americas was as high as 100 million people, but around 90% of those died of diseases carried by Europeans that American Indians had no resistance to. Smallpox is often pointed to as the biggest, but blame is also assigned to diseases such as measles, typhoid, diptheria, and pertussis which could have had equally high mortality rates. Dunbar-Ortiz argues it's highly improbable that diseases could have wiped out such a great chunk of the population, but admits that they had their effect. Obviously the evidence available to historians is highly fragmentary so a definitive answer is unlikely.

Aside from the obvious methods utilized by Europeans, Dunbar-Ortiz explores some of the less overt but equally deadly methods Anglo-Americans used to try and wipe out indigenous nations. She places a good deal of emphasis on trade, where natives could provide goods (usually pelts) to whites, and whites would offer food, tools, clothing, firearms, and most dangerously liquor in exchange. By replacing traditional crafts with European-manufactured goods, whites made native communities dependent on trade for their continued survival, providing a powerful lever against native communities. This became even more overt with the American reservation system where many natives were dependent on government supplies to provide food, clothing, and other basic necessities just to survive.

Another horrific practice was the means of ''educating'' native peoples ranging from the Spanish mission system to the infamous Indian Academies of the United States, typified by Carlisle. In these cases young children were ripped away from their families and sent to live in distant boarding schools. Their hair was cut, they were forbidden from speaking in their native tongue or practicing their own religions, and severely beaten for any infractions. This was a concentrated effort by Europeans to force natives to adapt to the dominant Anglo-American culture and did untold damage to the life of native communities in the United States.

Even as recently as the mid-twentieth centuries there have been attempts by the American government to renege on agreements with Native American nations, many of whom had sovereign status recognized in treaties signed with the United States government. Native communities have resisted such efforts to strip them of their rights, but obviously with mixed results. Even issues as recent as the Dakota Access Pipeline underscore the struggle Indian communities still face when dealing with the federal and state governments. However, because there are only around five million American Indians in the United States (making approximately 1.6% of the population), it is unlikely they alone will be able to force change. Dunbar-Ortiz says that it will require African-Americans, Hispanics, and Euro-Americans to cooperate as allies for American Indian communities and allow native voices to be heard. American Indians will speak for themselves, but it's the rest of us that have to be willing to listen.

On a final note, I thought it was interesting in how Dunbar-Ortiz talks about the American Army and how it owes its existence to the need of the American Government to kill Indians and make room for European colonization. The oldest units of the American Army can trace their origins to units in the Regular Army whose ''peacetime'' purpose was to expand the frontier and kill and control Indians. Dunbar-Ortiz even illustrates how the American colonial project, the expansion and domination of the North American continent, made use of colonial troops in the guise of the Buffalo Soldiers, African-Americans enlisted in the regular army and deployed in the Western Frontier to fight Indians. To this day, the American Army refers to territory behind enemy lines as ''Indian Country'', part of the Army's institutional heritage fighting native nations.

I definitely think this book is worth a read because of how Dunbar-Ortiz shifts the perspective and provides an in-depth explanation of how American colonialism continues to affect native communities.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, by Drew Karpyshyn

So as you probably realized I've been listening to a lot of books from the Star Wars expanded universe, mostly from the new canon, and I had been feeling kind of disappointed with the results. So I decided to go back and look at a book from the old canon that I remember as being mostly good and see if my tastes had changed or if the books were as good as I remembered. I will say this book seemed pretty okay, if nothing particularly special. I think that's partly because this jumps outside of the movie canon going back to a thousand years before the Battle of Yavin so it doesn't have the baggage associated with the movies.

This book, as you can probably guess, is the start of a series about Darth Bane, who reforged the the Sith order and established the Rule of Two. This book starts with Dessel, a miner trapped on a company-controlled planet digging for cortosis ore that the Republic needs to build armor during the seemingly interminable war against the Sith Empire. Dessel and many other Outer Rim residents have little use for the Republic which doesn't really care what happens as long as the resources continue flow towards the Core. After killing a Republic trooper in self-defense, Dessel chooses to flee and join the Sith Empire as a regular footsoldier. But it's soon discovered that Dessel has an affinity for the Force and he is recruited to join the ranks of the Brotherhood of Darkness.

The book focuses mostly on Bane and his path to becoming the ultimate Dark Lord of the Sith, as well as his conflict with the leadership of the Brotherhood of Darkness. I thought it was interesting to watch how Bane develops as a character and grows in the dark side, opposed to how Luke or many other characters developed on the light side of the Force. It's not a lot to write home about, but I thought it was okay.

Something I wish this book had expanded on more, and maybe we'll see more of in the later books, was the Jedi order at this time. The book focuses a lot on the Sith Order and the Sith forces but doesn't delve a lot into the Jedi order or the Republic forces. In fact, we don't really see the Republic or any Jedi until the last third of the book or so. I think it would be more interesting to see the contrast between the Jedi and the Sith when the galaxy is in open war between the two factions before the Sith go into hiding. It's also interesting that Jedi are going around calling themselves Lord which seems counter to Jedi ideology, so I'd like to see how the Jedi order changed over a thousand years.

Overall I think this book was pretty okay and I'm willing to go check out the other books within this sub-series. I'll have to see if it has the same issues that other parts of the canon have had that I've noticed recently.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Makers and Takers, by Rana Foroohar

Today I'm looking at another book about economics, Makers and Takers, which criticizes the stock market as it currently exists as well as the state of the U.S. economy and seeks to explain how we've gotten to the condition where we are now and where a majority of the population thinks, not unfairly, that the system is rigged against them. Foroohar blames the developments in the American economy on the process of financialization, where the main markers of success are quarterly earnings and stock prices. Company earnings are spent on dividends and stock buybacks which profit the wealthiest percentage of the United States who own the majority of corporate securities. Meanwhile investment in R&D, company infrastructure, and staff wages continue to shrink. On top of this the financial sector, which produces only 4% of the jobs in the United States, consumes 25% of the corporate profits. Foroohar argues that if the United States is to become an economic powerhouse once again we need to invest in people and research, rather than in stock prices.

The name of the book comes from an idea coined by Republicans in the early 2010s. Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney divided the country into two classes, the makers who work and pay taxes, and the takers who Romney described as ''...dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.''

Foroohar takes this narrative and flips it on its head, arguing that the makers are the 90-95% of the population who live and work in the real economy are the real makers who produce goods and services that make the economy function, while the takers are the wealthy top percent of the country, which is hard to disagree with when the wealthiest 5% in the country control 67% of the country's wealth. This is aided by our financial system that focuses on taking money out of American companies and transferring it into the already bloated wealth of the 1%. Not only is the American dream at risk, but the future of American democracy as well.

Foroohar focuses on a process she calls financialization, where finance has come to dominate the economy and making money becomes an end in and of itself. This affects not only the finance industry but other parts of the American industry as well. She assigns a significant part of the blame to the financial sector itself, which she argues should not be a dominant industry in and of itself, but a means to allocate capital and resources to other industries. She points out that while the finance sector accounts for only 4% of the jobs in the United States, it accounts for 25% of the corporate profits. However these profits are generated by moving money around and turning it into more money, opposed to producing goods and services consumed by the majority of Americans. Foroohar argues that the financial sector has become a parasite on the American economy, draining money and talent into an area of the economy that ultimately produces nothing.

Foroohar also blames the domination of American companies by accountants who focused on the company's bottom line and reducing all the company's processes to numbers. Foroohar traces this back to Robert MacNamara and the ''Whiz Kids'', who became known as the beancounters and dominated Ford and other American companies opposed to the car guys and other innovators who had previously dominated American business. While the car guys were focused on producing the best cars possible for market, the beancounters were concerned with one thing, and one thing only, the bottom line. The beancounters would try to squeeze as much profit from as many sources as possible. Rather than whatever material was best for the job at hand, the beancounters would choose whatever was cheapest. Foroohar argues that this actually had a negative effect on American business by reducing quality and standards of American products resulting in disasters such as the infamous Edsel and Ford Pinto. This weakening of American industry left it vulnerable to foreign competition.

Foroohar's arguments are strongly compelling and suggest that American business's priorities have been skewed towards short-term profits rather than long-term sustainable growth. If America is to become a place where all of us can thrive, there will have to be serious changes in how America does business. Whether that will be accomplished remains questionable, but I think this book is worth reading.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Long Reign, by Victoria L. Szulc

Today I'm looking at A Long Reign, a book I picked up some time ago in one of the numerous kindle book deals that I see on Amazon. The book starts with an interesting premise, the world is ruled by an immortal Queen Victoria whose armies conquered North America after both sides had been exhausted by the Civil War. Lavinia James, a girl from the farmlands of Missouri, joins the Underground resistance to fight the redcoat armies, topple Victoria, and restore the world to its proper timeline.

As I said, the book started with an interesting premise, but unfortunately there is a lot that's wrong with this book. The result is it feels like a very, very rough first draft that desperately needed an editor to go through and help knock off the rough edges and polish it up. The writing just doesn't flow well and sometimes gets downright confusing so it definitely could have used a second set of eyes to improve it. This book also relies heavily on sex as drama and ordinarily am not a huge fan of that being done in fiction. This book has attempted rape, actual rape, and Lavinia having to seduce other people as an agent of the Underground and hates herself for doing it, so sex causes a lot of the drama in this book and because the writing is so rough it makes it very hard for me to read personally.

There are also a lot of plot points that don't make sense which makes this book feel even more like a rough draft. I assume that Dr. Carthage and Ebersol replaced Victoria with a humanoid robot but what they hoped to accomplish by doing this isn't made clear. They seem to be in control of the Empire but what they're planning on doing with the empire doesn't make a lot of sense. It's implied that they're strip-mining the entire earth for resources and creating an army of robots made from human bones and skin, but to what purpose remains unclear. I mean, once you've killed everyone on earth and have your own army of robots and a pile of all the world's resources, now what? Are you going to colonize Mars? If Szulc explained what the villains were trying to accomplish maybe it'd make more sense, but as the book is it's like they're being evil just to be evil.

And this doesn't get on the political and economic situation. At least in Missouri it seems like a large portion of the population has been enslaved to harvest farm produce that gets shipped off...elsewhere for the good of the Empire while they're controlled by the British garrison of soldiers. Now there's a point where they separate the men and women in the slave camps and say the slaves aren't allowed to reproduce anymore because it means more mouths to feed. So the slaves are separated. And then the garrison announces that the men need female companionship so once a year they'll select from the women who have reached maturity to serve as wives or paramours. Which implies that the soldiers will be reproducing because they'll be having sex with the slave women, which therefore defeats the purpose of keeping the slaves from reproducing in the first place. And even before the slaves start being harvested for skin and bones, the British keep working their slaves to death and bringing in more slaves from elsewhere. It just doesn't make sense to me and tells me that this book definitely needed an editor.

The result is a book that desperately needed an editor to help put it into shape. There are some ideas with potential, but the book feels very much like a rough first draft which could be expanded, edited, and improved. As the book is right now, I unfortunately can't say that it's worth reading.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Tarkin, by James Luceno

Today I'm looking at yet another book in the new Star Wars canon, Tarkin, apparently because I'm a sucker for punishment. Or I'm just desperate for something to listen to from the library. Bit of column A, bit of column B. As you can probably guess, this book focuses on Wilhuff Tarkin about five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith. This book bothers me like a lot of the rest of the new canon because it drags the Rebellion down to the level of the Empire and creates a sort of moral equivalency between the two. In a way I find it rather ironic because when Disney first bought Star Wars everyone was concerned that the franchise would be, well, Disneyfied and made lighter and softer. But instead it seems like they've gone in the opposite direction and I don't know if I really like that change in the Star Wars universe. Star Wars as a universe has always been fairly black and white, which I'll admit has been to its detriment at time, but I feel like we're going too far in the other way whihc is making Star Wars...well...not Star Wars.

The reason I bring this up is because in this book we once again have a band of rebels who fall more heavily on the terrorist side of the freedom fighter/terrorist spectrum. And while I don't oppose the idea that the Rebellion wasn't entirely filled with pure, good, innocent people like Luke Skywalker. After all, Han Solo didn't exactly start as good person when he signed up for the Rebellion. The problem is that in the new expanded canon, we seem to be moving towards all factions of the Rebellion being ideological extremists. The flip side of this is that the Empire also gets more humanized which, again, is fine, but when the Empire is regularly committing atrocities such as blowing up planets and people think this is fair and necessary it really undermines the idea that people in the Empire aren't terrible. Ultimately I feel like the new canon is dragging both the Rebellion and the Empire to a level of them being shades of grey and it just feels wrong for Star Wars. But I'm willing to accept that I'm part of the old-school fandom who probably wouldn't have been happy regardless of what Disney did.

The majority of this book focuses on Tarkin and Darth Vader doing what almost amounts to a buddy cop story. The Emperor sends them to investigate a rebel plot and ultimately Tarkin's special ship Carrion Spike gets stolen by rebels so Vader and Tarkin have to get it back. Which weirdly results in Tarkin doing a lot of detective work to figure out who the rebels who stole his ship are, where they're going to strike next, and how to stop them. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be an homage to the fact that Peter Cushing played Sherlock Holmes in a Hammer Horror adaptation of Hound of the Baskervilles and in a 60's TV adaptation, but I'm going to pretend that it is. I don't know if it really makes sense for Tarkin to be a great detective, but I'm willing to at least roll with it.

But the other personality traits and abilities they give Tarkin don't really hold up. Especially with him being a crack fighter pilot. I say he's a crack fighter pilot because there's a part of the book where he flies an old-school V-wing Starfighter in a dogfight and manages to keep pace with Vader. Now I consulted with several old-school fans who agreed with me that this was a feat of flying which would require a pilot on the level of Wedge Antilles or Soontir Fel. So while Tarkin might not have racked up enough fighter kills to be counted as an ace, he certainly has the skills to be a crack pilot. And it just...it doesn't work for Tarkin.

At the risk of going all Plinkett on you, Tarkin always struck me as a political bigwig with connections that enabled him to reach a position of influence. Probably someone from a core world with all the benefits of the upper classes to help ease his ascent into the command ranks. Tarkin seemed the sort of person who would be truly comfortable on the command deck of a Star Destroyer, marshaling a fleet, but would be incredibly out of place in the cockpit of a starfighter. It's just a weird thing that stood out among the other things in Tarkin's backstory that seem so at odds with the character as I knew him from the original Star Wars. Again, I'm probably being an old fuddy-duddy who's upset over the replacement of the old canon but I feel like there are some legitimate complaints against the new canon to make.

Ultimately I don't know if this book really works well. Tarkin gets a backstory and abilities, some of which mesh with the cruel administrator who advocates rule through fear, and some which just leave me confused. This book doesn't build on the canon in any meaningful way, and I don't think we really needed to explore why Tarkin believed rule through fear was the way to handle the galaxy. I think this book can be safely skipped, even by the most diehard fans of the canon, old and new.

- Kalpar