[By Nic Lindh on Friday, 03 August 2018]
This roundup is a bit light as I’ve been unable to finish a surprising amount of books, but don’t want to give them negative reviews as I might just not have been in the right state of mind for them rather than them being bad books.
Times are hard for states of mind right now.
I’ve also been doing a lot of self-soothing re-reading Terry Pratchett, specifically the Night Watch Cycle. The character arcs of especially Sam Vimes, but really the whole cast, as well as Pratchett’s growing empathy and complexity of plotting are joys to read.
R.I.P. and GNU Sir Pratchett.
Thieves of private property pass their lives in chains; thieves of public property in riches and luxury. —Cato the Elder
The Storm Before the Storm is the story of the events that lead up to the fall of the Roman Empire. Considering current events in America, the parallels are more than a little scary.
The biggest thing that stuck out for me was that the Romans operated according to a tradition called mos maiorum, which basically translates to “the way of the ancestors.” There weren’t many laws, per se, but rather customs political leaders were supposed to adhere to.
Cough presidential candidate tax returns cough.
As time passed various crises arose, whether through corrupted leaders or external events, and the customs were broken a little bit, then a little bit more, then a little bit more until the Republic fell.
Another eerie parallel between the Roman Republic and America today was income inequality. Most of the insane wealth gathered through territorial expansion and brutality went to only a few people while most of the Roman population existed in half-starved poverty.
We are silent when we see that all the money of all the nations has come into the hands of a few men; which we seem to tolerate and to permit with the more equanimity, because none of these robbers conceals what he is doing. —Cicero
Of course, some of the leaders, like Cicero and Cato the Elder saw the storm clouds gathering, but were ignored.
The Storm Before the Storm is kind of a horror book if you’re paying attention to current events.
White Trash is extremely uncomfortable reading, shattering as it does a lot of the myths America has woven about itself, from its beginning as a place to dump British “waste people” to the ongoing efforts to not pay attention to the poor living on the edges of society.
As she writes about the beginnings of the colonies:
Can we handle the truth? In the early days of settlement, in the profit-driven minds of well-connected men in charge of a few prominent joint-stock companies, America was conceived of in paradoxical terms: at once a land of fertility and possibility and a place of outstanding wastes, “ranke” and weedy backwaters, dank and sorry swamps. Here was England’s opportunity to thin out its prisons and siphon off thousands; here was an outlet for the unwanted, a way to remove vagrants and beggars, to be rid of London’s eyesore population. Those sent on the hazardous voyage to America who survived presented a simple purpose for imperial profiteers: to serve English interests and perish in the process.
That’s, uh, not the most enlightened view of the value of human life.
Isenberg does an excellent job of lifting the lid on the myths and showing the much, much uglier reality beneath, and she does so with a historian’s clarity and ample sourcing.
One drawback is that White Trash is very long, too long I’d argue, and gets a bit repetitive in places.
That in mind, it’s an important work that deserves your attention.
Probably the best work of Sedaris’s career. If you’ve read him before, you know what to expect: Observations on life and family from an extremely observant and strange man, observations that manage to be wry, disturbing and warm at the same time.
At this point Sedaris is in his fifties, his mother has passed away, his father is awash in Fox News, and his siblings are also getting on in years.
Calypso is dark and mature, wrestling with mortality and some disturbing family revelations I’m not going to spoil, while keeping the Sedaris trademark warmth and humor.
Near-future sci-fi where an inventor has created a machine, called Apricity, that can scan your DNA and give you somewhat vague tips to increase your happiness. Which supposedly works, somehow. The tips can include things like “learn a foreign language,” to “build models.”
But the existence of Apricity is secondary to the characters that inhabit the world, who are complex and flawed in different ways. The writing is clear and filled with great phrasing.
While a little bit precious and self-consciously literary, Tell the Machine Goodnight is a short, haunting read that lingers.
Set in the same universe as the very good and incredibly grimdark The Broken Empire trilogy that begins with Prince of Thorns, Prince of Fools is the beginning of a new trilogy, The Red Queen’s War.
Prince of Fools takes place at the same time as events in the previous trilogy, but follows parallel events with little overlap.
Prince Jalan Kendeth is one of the grandchildren of the Red Queen, a fearsome presence. Jalan enjoys wine, women, and losing his money at the fight pits. He’s an avowed coward and ne’er-do-well.
On the plus side, Prince of Fools has plenty of action and swashbuckling and some character growth from our protagonist. On the minus side, Jalan is not an interesting character and his viking side kick also remains one-dimensional.
There’s lots of sound and fury, but in the end the entire novel ends up feeling like a level in a not very good video game. There’s just not enough plot in there for an entire novel.
Though it may be that my expectations were simply set too high—The Broken Empire series is stellar, with a protagonist who is deeply and fundamentally a terrible, terrible human, but a terrible human who you get to understand and empathize with.
Jalan is a twat and his character growth just isn’t all that interesting.
Nevertheless, Lawrence earned another chance with The Broken Empire, so I’ll read the next installment in the trilogy to see if it takes off.
Provenance is set in the same universe as the stories in the Imperial Radch trilogy, but in a different culture. Which is the problem with the novel. The Radch were horrifying but interesting, while the characters in Provenance, the Hwae, are mostly just boring and a bit silly. Sometimes you just want to yell at the page as a Hwae gets wrapped up in some ridiculous cultural trap.
But the Hwae are what they are. The plot is also slow to start as we learn about these imbeciles, but picks up admirably toward the end.
If you enjoyed the Imperial Radch trilogy, you’ll probably like Provenance, even though it does feel a bit watered down in comparison.
If you haven’t read any of Leckie’s work, start with the excellent Ancillary Justice.
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