The Influence of Seapower Upon History

 

Are we still doing Soapboxing? The last post here was in May. Well, I hope it’s still around. Here’s my latest effort:

This book has a revered place in the military history literary canon, and is said to have profoundly influenced British, American, Japanese and German naval strategy from World War 1 on. Theodore Roosevelt’s showing of the American “Great White Fleet” from 1907- 1909 is in part attributed to the impact of Mahan’s work.

“The Great White Fleet”

This book can be roughly divided into three parts, so I will divide my review accordingly.

Part 1
The first hundred or so pages truly lived up to the title’s promise: an analysis of the influence of sea power upon history. The oceans are the great commons of our planet, and one of their most valuable utilities to man has been as the cheapest means of transporting goods. Even though the vast expanse of blue may appear homogeneous wherever you look, there are some particular well-worn pathways- by virtue of their directness and the predominant winds and currents, which have been the mainstays for transportation of goods and military force. In examples spanning from the Roman Empire to just before the Napoleonic Wars, Mahan makes his case that control of these trade routes is a vital strategic interest for any nation wishing to assure its prosperity through trade and its security through projection of force.

The narration starts with an analysis of the Second Punic War which shows beyond any question how Roman victory over Carthage was inevitable, once the Roman fleet asserted her dominance over the Mediterranean.

From there, he jumps ahead to the Age of Exploration and the early days of European colonialization. The Dutch and Portuguese made impressive early gains in foreign trade long before the era of British dominance. Dutch traders established footholds in Indonesia, South Africa and Japan, while the Portuguese were active in India and South America.

 

Both powers failed to grow empires like the British because various factors prevented them from growing and maintaining sufficient military (i.e. naval) force to provide coverage ensuring safe passage, and to drive off competition (or more likely to allow for competition but only on favorable terms).

Part 2
This gets into the period Mahan really wants to examine, from 1660-1783. At the onset, France is the preeminent European military power of the day, but Britain- having no land borders to defend- is free to concentrate all her efforts and resources into developing her navy. Situated as she is between the Netherlands and the open ocean, England recognizes that she can cut the vast Dutch trading empire off from her homelands, if she can dominate the North Sea. The Dutch failure to oppose England in this endeavor can be attributed to both distractions on her land borders which sap vital funds from her navy, and essentially cheapness- a reluctance of the Dutch government to make the short-term investments in her navy which would have paid off so handsomely, if only she were able to meet the English navy on equal terms. What trade concessions and territories (e.g. New York) England can’t extract from the Dutch by force, she eventually takes through leveraged negotiation (e.g. trade and navigation concessions), relegating the Netherlands to a second-rate power by the mid-1700′s.

France proves to be more of a challenge. Louis XIV’s interest in his navy waxes and wanes, and the military fortunes of France fluctuate in exact accordance with Mahan’s thesis. When the French navy is strong, she prospers and enjoys fortune in battle. When the French navy is let to lag in supplies or design, or falls into disrepair or laxity of discipline, French fortunes fall.

Maybe his ministers can be blamed for turning Louis XIV’s attention to draining and ultimately unprofitable land wars in Europe, but Mahan deftly shows how France squandered numerous opportunities to wrest naval superiority from the British during the “Sun King’s” reign. More embarrassing still: once Britain acquires Gibraltar, she begins to assert her interests in the Mediterranean, taking Minorca and Malta as permanent bases of operation, and establishing through the Suez shorter passage to India, where a nascent French East India Company in Madras is slowly overshadowed and beat down.

The British Empire

For most of part 2, England appears to be an unstoppable military/commercial juggernaut, thanks to her mastery of the seas. It is only late in the game when France and Spain- united under the House of Burbon, decide to build up their navies and strike at the maritime source of British power. Spain wins back Minorca, and France successfully assists England’s most populated, most prosperous colony (the United States) in breaking free of the British crown. Mahan shines again as brightly here as he did with the Punic Wars, offering thoughtful analysis on why French naval power, in conjunction with American commerce-raiding, were key to successful revolution.

It is all very satisfying reading up until

Part 3
Seriously, Mahan should have quit around page 350, because the last 180 pages or so only cover a period of about five years, and became ground down in painful detail about British-French wrangling in the Caribbean from 1778-1783.

For some reason, Mahan becomes obsessed here in the tactical minusca of ship-to-ship fighting between wind-driven ships of the line. There is a lot of technical language about ships being leeward, and having the weather gauge, and accounts of battles turning with shifts in the wind… no doubt some readers out there will totally groove on that sort of thing, but it is NO LONGER the discussion promised by the book’s title (i.e. an examination on how sea power has affected the course of history).

Rating them separately, I would award 5 stars to Part 1, 4 stars to Part 2, and 1 star to Part 3. Essentially I recommend you read this book up to around page 350.

Today
After reading this, I think it’s natural to wonder what lessons or observations it has to offer on our present-day world. I have my own biases and worldview, but the issue of China leaps out at me. They obviously haven’t heard of Mahan, or if they have, they haven’t taken his instructions to heart. With over a billion inhabitants, a rocketing economy based on vigorous international trade, and a coastline which provides access to the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea -it seems pretty obvious that China’s current naval power is far smaller than what her interests would demand.

Looking at the state of China in 2014, it seems ridiculous that even today she shakes her fist in impotent frustration at the “rogue province” of Taiwan, and disputed islands in Japan. A Mahanian China would have a robust navy which would long ago have cut Taiwan off from her Western trading partners and brought her into the fold of the mainland provinces.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I wish this would happen. China is a formidable enough frienemy as it is. I’m just saying that it seems only a matter of time that China – like France and Spain before her- smartens up and realizes how much advantage a forceful navy brings a nation. With a decades-long forward presence in Japan, Guam, the Philipines, and more recently Australia, it seems the U.S. anticipates this eventuality.

Looking elsewhere, it seems bizarre to me that there are so many areas in the world which remain plagued by pirates.

One of the basic tenets of Mahan’s views seems to be that a nation must keep the seas free and safe for commerce. In this day and age, with the combined interests of Europe, North America, and East Asia at stake, it seems like it would be a small matter to drive renegade stateless commerce raiders from the world’s oceans. Somebody more informed about this can chime in on the discussion thread, if you will.

And speaking of the Middle East (as I was, tangentially): I believe history will deal severely with Middle Eastern powers who have enjoyed so many decades of rich petroleum trade, but who have not channeled any of these profits into building up their own maritime forces. I have never read anything in the popular press about a Saudi Arabian navy, or a navy of any other Middle Eastern oil exporter. I understand that they have built up their respective infrastructures in other areas, and have extensive cash investments around the world. It just seems that Mahan’s book is so clearly correct in observing how closely a (non-landlocked) nation’s fortunes are aligned with the power and respect which its navy commands. The lesson seems lost on the petrodollar-fueled nations of the Middle East.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m not particularly eager to hear about a powerful Saudi navy asserting itself. It’s just that Mahan has made some convincing arguments in this book, and I wonder why they haven’t been more universally accepted.

-End-

nebula

My Nebula Predictions (2014)

I managed to pull this stunt off last year where I accurately predicted which book would be awarded the Nebula in the novel category. I’m not sure I can do it again, but I’m going to give it a shot. Unlike last year, I haven’t actually read all of the books on the list (though I’ve hit samples of all of them), but handicapping who will win the award isn’t about my preferences as a reader. I think it’s a dead heat between Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. When I started writing this, I predicted a Gaiman win, but in the process of writing, I think I’ve changed my mind.

I almost just went with Ancillary Justice for the win — the novel just won the Arthur C Clarke, BSFA and a whole raft of other awards — but I flinched when I learned it was a debut novel. Very few debut novels have won the Nebula, though there is some recent precedent with 2010′s Windup Girl. Nebula voters are professional writers, and I think there’s a preference for writers who have paid their dues, so to speak. (A joke, you see, because you don’t actually have to be a member of SFWA to be nominated. Bad joke.)  Ancillary Justice really has Nebula written all over it. It’s solidly science fiction, but isn’t wanking about tech too much, letting the reader experience the futuristic dislocations as the character does. It’s got the right mix of conceptually interesting science fictional ornament, with dazzling near fantastic explorations of culture to charm the New Wavers and the fantasists. It’s a strong novel with a broad appeal to very different kinds of science fiction readers. Plus it’s fun and cool.

I adored A Stranger in Olondria, which set off all the heart fireworks I have for Ursula K Le Guin. If I had a vote, this would be mine. But this is also a debut novel, again. Nebula voters also seem to have a clear preference for science fiction over straight fantasy, unless your name is actually Le Guin or Bujold. (Which goes back to the debut author thing, somewhat circularly, because both Le Guin and Bujold were well established writers of both sf & f when their fantasy novels won. ) The other fantasy novels that have won are set contemporary, like American Gods, or Among Others. This will become a refrain of sorts in this essay, but as much as I loved Olondria, I just don’t think it has broad enough appeal to the more science fictionally minded of the voters.

Two of the nominees are historical fiction of a sort: Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Jinni, which is set in turn of the 20th Century New York, and Hild by Nicola Griffith, which is about a 7th C British abbess. I enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, partially because I have some unhealthy obsessions about the Gilded Age and the rise of labor movements and the like — ask me about the Panic of 1893 and I will bore. you. to. death. — but that’s ultimately a boutique interest. Fair or not, I also think The Golem and The Jinni will be dismissed by some as “just a romance.” My two cents: the inclusion of romantic elements is less worrisome to me than the rushed and unsatisfying conclusion.

I haven’t read Hild, so I went rolling through reviews to get a feel for reader response, and this line in an io9 review struck me as ominous for its chances: “Call it skeptical fantasy, or an epic that treats magic as politically-charged superstition rather than an otherworldly power.” Now I happen to think that’s really neat — a twisting of the genre conventions — but I think it’s going to result in readers wondering how this story is fantasy at all. Either way, I think historical fantasy is a long shot to win the Nebula. Historical science fiction, sure, like Blackout/All Clear which won in 2011, but not fantasy. Again, the bias towards science fiction novels is clear when you look through the past winners. Throw in historical fiction as well, and I think a fair number of readers are going to nod off.

The question of how the novel fits into the science fiction genre dogs We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as well. Set in contemporary America, with a set up that, while unusual, is not unheard of, the book more explores the intersections of scientific theory, culture, and the family. I would argue that it is science fictional, in that it’s fiction about science, but not everyone is going to agree. The familiar is sometimes the most alien thing we know. That I feel compelled to make this argument means Fowler’s book is likely too much of an edge case to win. It is a really lovely novel, by a well established writer in clear control of her craft, just not science fictional enough.

There are two more space opera-ish jaunts like Ancillary JusticeFire With Fire by Charles E Gannon and The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. Fire with Fire is kinda cozy in a way: conventionally plotted, with a Golden Age sensibility from prose style to its philosophical concerns. That will invoke a lot of nostalgia for many voters. But, as I’ve said before, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a coalition government, and I don’t think Fire with Fire will resonate for people who prefer fantasy. It’s conventionality is also a mark against it; Fire with Fire feels like a period piece, which is weird considering it’s set in the future.

When I went to order The Red: First Light, I was surprised to discover it wasn’t stocked in my library. This lead me to the revelation that The Red: First Light is an indie title. I didn’t even know you could do that! While I don’t think there’s a real war going on between indie and traditionally published writers — Tor.com, for example, posted a glowing review of The Red: First Light – but the SFWA membership leans heavily to the traditionally published, and a lot of writers know each other from their professional ties under the same imprint. (And it should be observed that Nagata started out traditionally published.) I’m bullshitting here a little, because I haven’t read The Red: First Light. That it isn’t even stocked in my (very good public) library makes me think it’s pretty well screwed though.

I’m sure there’s some complicated formula which would account for The Red: First Light’s indie status versus the debut novel status of Ancillary Justice, but then when you throw in yet another science fiction novel set in the future with space ships and a lot of military/politics like Fire With Fire, the math gets too complicated. Part of the problem here is that there are too many novels that I think fit into the same broad sub-genre, and I think it’s going to diffuse the voters that are inclined towards that sub-genre in the first place. In other words, it’s going to split the vote. (People haven’t been throwing awards at either Nagata’s or Gannon’s novels though, so I’m thinking they don’t stand a chance, just that they’ll draw away from Ancillary Justice.)

Maybe that gives Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not so closely matched with other nominated novels, a leg up. (And I’m not trying to imply that the writers of SFWA are all huddling in their narrow sub-genres or something, but the heart wants what it wants.) Even though Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantasy, it’s the kind of fantasy that Nebula voters seem to embrace: set in the here and now, but with a fantastic twist on the everyday that disrupts the readers perceptions. Gaiman is clearly at the height of his powers as a craftsman of words, and his prose is tight as a drum. Like Among Others, which won two years ago, it’s also got a nostalgic component, as the main character reminisces upon his childhood with a dewy sense of wonder. There’s also a lot of fan service to readers and nerds, like long descriptions of the main character reading and panegyrics to the wonders of literature.

I actually found this fan service somewhat tiresome in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it calculated, but there was definitely a part of me that thought, how easy it is to make your readers (who are, after all, by definition readers) love your main character by having him perform obeisances to the act of reading. The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s protagonist is also an artist of some stripe — writer, maybe — and I think all the ruminating on art and memory and storytelling is going to play to voters who are artists themselves. Writers writing about writing is always a good bet when writers vote on writing awards.

I’ll be clear: I don’t think Gaiman is pandering, even though I’m making fun a little here. The themes of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, including Gaiman’s tendency to insert characters who are artist-observers, are right in line with the themes he’s been exploring his entire writing career. I think Ocean at the End of the Lane sits quite merrily with Graveyard Book (which won the Newbery) and Coraline (which won the Nebula for the novella) in a triangulation of the themes of violence and childhood and memory and matriculation, traversing the uneasy border that separates us grown ups from our childhoods. This has heretofore been a winning mix of themes for Gaiman.

I think my real reticence to call it for Gaiman comes from the slight what the fuck angle to what all happens in Ocean at the End of the Lane. The crisis of the novel is real…let’s say metaphorical, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what exactly that all meant. I’m assuming someone with a more writerly perspective might appreciate this more than I did, but it’s entirely possible that the opposite is true. (Or both; whatever.) The fact that this novel reiterates common themes to Gaiman’s work is also a strike against it: Ocean is sleepy, safe, and treading familiar ground.

Ancillary Justice, by contrast feels energetic and ambitious. Even if it has the occasional first-writer misstep, the book feels like a leap into the black. No, of course Leckie isn’t reinventing the wheel here — nerds more exacting than I can create the list of antecedents (like the Culture novels) — but she is inventing her wheel, and it’s just a kick to be along for the ride. Nor was Ocean nominated at all for the Hugo, which indicates there isn’t this critical whiteheat around it like Ancillary Justice. Given that voting closed last month, maybe that’s not quite a factor, but I do think it’s an indicator.

So, anyway, there you have it. I’m predicting Ancillary Justice for the win. I won’t be a bit surprised if Gaiman wins, just to hedge a little.

Now I’ll have to start reading the novels up for the Hugo.

 

Just kidding, we all know Wheel of Time is a cincher.

 

 

The-Wizards-Promise

The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke

It kills me to say this, but The Wizard’s Promise didn’t work for me. I think I can see what the book was attempting to do, but I don’t think it did it. The reason I’m so sad I didn’t love this is that Cassandra Rose Clarke absolutely slayed me with The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, killed me so hard I was willing to follow her into young adult fantasy with her duology The Assassin’s Curse/The Pirate’s Wish. I was a rut of being sick of young adult fantasy — all the Chosen Ones and half-assed magical systems, the violet eyes and virgins. The Assassin’s Curse duology ended up rewarding my lovesick mooning over Clarke. While it wasn’t on the gut-punching level of Mad Scientist’s Daughter, the story was active and emotional, with just enough subversion of the tropes to feel fresh in a sometimes moldering genre.

The Wizard’s Promise takes place in the same world as the Assassin’s Curse books do, a generation later, long enough for the exploits of the pirate Ananna to become something between tall tales and legend. Our main character here is even named after Ananna — her mother knew her, apparently — but she goes by Hanna. She lives on one of the northern islands, a spare, insular place. She’s at that itchy cusp of adulthood, still living with the ‘rents, but struggling with what she wants to do with her life in that gauzy, dreamy way of the inexperienced. Maybe I’ll become a famous witch after stunning everyone at school!

Hanna is apprenticing with a fisherman of no particular talent named Kolur at the behest of her mom, and the action of the novel begins when what should be an everyday fishing expedition goes pear-shaped. Hanna and Kolur end up well off course, with a mysterious old friend of Kolur’s — a witch of some talent — along for the ride. Kolur and his witch friend are just obnoxiously withholding about what is going on, and Hanna responds with an equally obnoxious foot-stomping petulance. In the dreary sailing that occurs after they find themselves in the wrong place on the map, Hanna meets a not-quite-human boy named Isolfr, who also is withholding about the shape of things, but less so than the grown ups.

Here is where I want to talk about magic. I generally like the magic in this world, which is both concrete and not over-explained. Hanna’s magical talent is wind-magic, the sort of useful calling up the of the elements for fishermen and boats. There’s also earth-magic — something Hanna’s mother practices — and sea-magic. The rules of magic aren’t gotten into too closely, which I can appreciate, because practice and theory are well two different things. I had a blacksmith once explain to me that “all the goodness” goes out of iron when its been reheated too often and too hotly, and it doesn’t make me a good blacksmith to be able to explain what he means on a molecular level (which I can, but it requires some hand waving and a napkin to write on.)

That doesn’t mean that some of the spell-casting didn’t frustrate me. Isolfr — the not-quite-human boy — casts a spell on Hanna such that the fisherman and the witch she shares a boat with cannot hear anything Hanna says about the boy. This isn’t magic so much as narrative convenience, a football-hiding maneuver that serves the storyteller more than the story. And even though we get some reveals about the purposes of the boy and the fisherman, I couldn’t even tell you why that information was withheld from the reader or from Hanna. Much of the action is inert, without discernible reason for most of the novel. I felt like luggage, carried along by hands unattached to a more vital body of purpose, and this is no place to be as a reader. Magic shouldn’t be convenient; it should be structural.

Which is not to say there weren’t things I enjoyed about The Wizard’s Promise. The couple who befriends Hanna when she’s stuck on some godforsaken rock in the north are wonderfully domestic, with the kind of easy, kindly relationship that’s both kinda obtuse and profoundly enviable. I like how Hanna is forced at a point to work diligently towards amassing enough money to buy her way home, and how that really just doesn’t work, or doesn’t work quickly. She eyes a small jar full of coinage, which fills slowly and then drops as she has to do things like make rent and eat. Not many young adult books — fantastic or not — address the hard economic realities of life at a grinding job that doesn’t reward one’s talents or youth. Like one gets at this age.

It’s possible my trouble is the split-novel format – The Wizard’s Promise is the first of another duology — and maybe this pair is to be back-loaded with all the action and promise not exactly come to fruition in the first. Not even come to the middle, really. I can’t really assess this novel on books that haven’t been written yet (much as I’d like to, loving Clarke the way I do) so I have to say this is not a success as a standalone novel. I’m on the hook for the next, because my heart, but that’s more nostalgia than sensibility. And y’all really should read The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, kthxbai.

 

I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly.

sharcano

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

fowler

Nebula Nominees: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

When I was in my first (and, come to think, only) year in the dorms, I had a friend down the hall who was Swiss. By which I mean she had Swiss parents, and her first language was French; she was otherwise American. She was raised, however, in a small Wisconsin town, if not from birth, then from a very young age. She liked to tell this story about her parents taking her to the zoo as a young girl, her French still the primary language, and shouting at the seals, “Le phoque! Le phoque!” You can imagine the consternation of small town Wisconsin when confronted by a girl yelling, “Le fuck!” which is more or less what the French word for seal sounds like.

We didn’t have much in the way of video stores on campus — this is back in the dark ages, before Netflix, or even DVDs, come to think of it — so we were mostly stuck with the selection at the dorm kiosk (which I ran on Saturday and Thursday; a story for another time) which was not good, or the selections at the local library. The library mostly had art films, documentaries about The War, and early cinema weirdness. I can thank the lack of selection for my actually sitting down and watching stuff like VampyrMetropolis, and Battleship Potemkin. My Swiss friend went in for the French art house stuff at the libs, as she actually spoke the language, and knew more than your average bear about French cinema, her upbringing being what it was.

So I watched a series of French films with her — a trilogy, I think, but my memory is a little hazy. They were in an essay style popular (I think) in the 70s. French people chatted and had upheavals of the lunching sort, interspersed with cards that informed the viewer of the philosophical import of the scene. She and I also had a thing where we’d go in together on a bottle of liquor we’d never tried before, purchased by another friend’s upperclass boyfriend with a car and a sense of capitalist opportunity: Everclear (not legal in my home state), stomach-churning gin (which put me off a fine alcohol for years), or, memorably, peach schnapps (I didn’t drink in high school, so I hadn’t learned this lesson yet).

I have this vision, no doubt manufactured, of us sitting in her room sipping a tragedy in the making, watching French films and arguing. I remember quite vividly when she was yelling about some character in the essay film — you know, the Italian woman? — and I was like, what are you even talking about, Italian woman? She blinked at me with the slow blink of the inebriated. You know, the woman with the Italian accent? The one having an affair with the other guy, the husband? Okay, I said, I know who you mean now, but how did you know she was Italian? Couldn’t you hear it in her accent? She asked. No, I most decidedly could not.

She had an entrance into the nuances of the film that I simply did not, raised as I was with English only. I couldn’t hear the accent because all I heard was foreignness, concentrating hard on the philosophical placards and the translations over the lilt of another tongue in a character’s speech. Since then, I’ve caught this lilt in a couple of movie characters in languages foreign to me — Ah Ping in In the Mood for Love, who sounds so different from everyone else, for example — but I couldn’t tell you what this means, exactly. Someone who spoke Chinese — or maybe more importantly, was raised with an understanding of Chinese cultural politics — could explain the inexact, interpersonal meaning to me, but some of it would end up being “le phoque” shouted at seals.

Which is my long-winded, digressive way of getting at We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. There’s something about the narrator that’s off, which is not to say I didn’t completely love her wry, understated anecdotal style, or her loopy, sedimentary storytelling style. Her awkwardness and self-doubt were disarming and lovable. the way a story told by the gawky and odd can take the shine of comedy in retrospect. Comedy happens to other people, as they say; it’s tragedy when it happens to you. She knows how to split the difference between bathos and rhetoric like a champ. She takes the little philosophical placards, and doesn’t so much shred them as fold them into accented shapes that you can’t access through language.

Good gravy, what the holy hell am I on about? The tough thing about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a spoiler which is so central to the book’s bookness that it stops me up, in any language. You have to meet the narrator and stew in her thoughts long enough to understand her accent and where it comes from, her foreignness despite being a fairly average girl from a flyover state. You have to get good and drunk and argue what all that accent might mean, whatever meaning means, and you have to do it grappling with the way personal anecdote, or even possibly memoir, is a slippery, personal delivery mechanism for whatever essayish philosophy, insofar as as any of our lives can exemplify an argument.

And I’m at it again, twisty sentence fuckery — or possibly phoquery — blathering and bloviating when I should just get to it. Here’s one thing: the plural of anecdote is not data, as the scientists rightly say. But as a talking ape, the force of the anecdote has its place in rhetoric. I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves because it was one of the nominees for the Nebula this year. It took me a long time to accept this as science fictional. Doesn’t this all exist in the here and now? Isn’t this the experience of some few — some very few, admittedly; but still, it moves? I eventually looped around, after starting in the middle, the way the narrator does, into acceptance.

There are levels of foreignness beyond the dorm floor Tower of Babel  that occurs when we all get drunk on unfamiliar scotch — one girl lapsing into the Spanish of her native language, another’s Southie accent thickening to incomprehension, the French, the Wisconsin, all of us speaking the language of our homes at each other in some kind of bonding exercise that won’t be remembered with clarity the next day. But we’re all human, our accents notwithstanding. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been thoroughly discredited. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t resonate at some level, the one that looks around after the party has ended and wonders at our profound miscommunications with those closest to us, let alone the strangers, the neighbors, the acquaintances. Alien isn’t just alien, in the end; it’s the familiar. Which is the worst and best thing about it, the end.

 

Sheltered

Review: Sheltered by Ed Brisson and Johnnie Christmas

Sheltered is a perfectly lovely nasty piece of work, a “pre-apocalyptic tale” about all the horrible things people do in preparation for the end of it all. I enjoyed Sheltered immensely, but the first collection (which collects #1-5 of the ongoing comic) has an expectant, waiting quality about it, unfinished, almost unstarted. This dovetails beautifully into the themes of the comic: all of the potential of adolescence untapped and unstable, and how that adolescence slowly, choice by choice, resolves into dreary, irrevocable adulthood. Boo yah.

Sheltered first introduces us to Victoria and her father David. They’re newish members to the prepper community of Safe Haven, which lives somewhere in the hinterlands of Montana. Vic’s not altogether happy with her new digs, hanging out with Hailey, another teen girl who has been in the community much longer. “At this point I’d kill for a mall,” Vic says ruefully, sitting in a deer blind with a flask. “I hate malls. That’s how desperate I am for any sense of normality.” Her dad — an engineer of some stripe — talks shop with the other adults, obviously not quite with the whole prepper community ethos. There’s a pretty wonderful conversation about pulling permits, which I admit might not resonate for other readers who do not have a contractor’s license.

After the slow pan of the first installment, rolling over the bunkers and principals, we get to it: blank-eyed teenage psycho Lucas somehow gets all the other kids to rise up and kill their parents. The supervolcano over Yellowstone is going to erupt soon, within days — according to Lucas — and the food won’t last the three years necessary to survive the nuclear winter with all the adults alive. Hard times call for hard choices. Lucas’s motivations aren’t lingered on, nor are we given much in the ways of his persuasive arguments for doing this.

I thought about this narrative choice for a long while. It could easily be seen as cheating, rushing this hard to imagine brutality; bang, blood in the snow. But I thought it worked, in the end: this unexplained outbreak of violence in a community that has been preparing for a more explicable outbreak of violence. Plus, I dunno, I like the irony of a community preparing for the worst not being prepared for the very worst. Other than the newcomer Victoria, I get the impression that these kids have been raised with a shadow of doom their whole lives, the constant expectation of violence, and I can almost feel the relief when it arrives. Boom. Here’s your apocalypse.

Some of the mid sections are a little slack, with maybe not the best sense of place. Victoria and Hailey are bunkered down somewhere on the campus, Hailey injured, and I couldn’t quite tell you where their building was in relationship to others. Lucas makes a lot of terrible choices, and tends to respond to even perceived threats to his leadership with violence and cruelty. It works. He’s got the shiny blondness of a cult leader, but he’s still a kid. He’s marshaled his charisma to get the other kids to commit this unspeakable act, but he’s not mature enough or wily enough to manage their grief and guilt. What if you were wrong? What then?

There’s a great sequence where Lucas mansplains to another boy about how he should stop hanging out with a girl because we can’t have any pregnancies and we all have to think about group morale etc etc. His mansplaination goes on waaaay too long, long enough for the other guy to be like, geesh, lay off already, mom, I was just talking. It’s hard to pin Lucas’s motivations here: maybe he believes what he’s saying, but maybe he’s also jealous and frustrated that he hasn’t got any easy joking friendships. He’s clearly cut himself into the loner leader role intentionally, but intentions at that age are mutable and jumpy. When he can’t admit he’s wrong — and he really never can, given the stakes — his only recourse is to double down.

The end of the last installment ends with a truck pulling up, the tall figure of a man flicking his cigarette off into the snow. “Hey kid,” he says to Lucas. “Your parents around?” Boy howdy, they are not. There’s been a lot of scrabbling and missteps by Lucas up to this point, and it’s going to be interesting to see where this situation goes. On some level, a new grown up threat is what Lucas needs, given that the younger kids — like the foul-mouthed little shit Curt — have been acting like kids without parents. (Or even acting like kids with parents, because impulse control is low, parents or not.) If he can cow them into submission with another threat, he might be able to keep this crapshow going long enough for the supervolcano to blow. That’s the American way, after all.

 

Thanks to sj at Snobbery for turning me onto this.

FASHION VICTIM

Talking style with the St Paul Mayor

From the second in a series of fashion profiles from the Star Tribune of elected officials:

After the start of his second term in office, St Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has shown that a man can possess a serious sense of fashion and still be treated seriously. So what we’re going to do, in our interview, is not take him seriously at all.

Describe your style: “I’m a Midwestern politician and I was trained as a lawyer, so I’m going to go with hugely bland. A lot of my family worked in newspapers so we have a family tradition of a “wardrobe for print”. But I’ve got a bod for sin, just like Melanie Griffith.”

You feel best when you’re wearing …“Blue shirt, red tie. But sometimes I like blue shirt, blue tie just to change it up. But just between you and me, business casual totally stresses me out. How am I supposed to accessorize Dockers and a polo shirt?”

Where do you shop? “It’s absolutely killing me that Men’s Warehouse evicted the “I guarantee it” guy from the board. That place was my favorite, but now, I don’t even know. What will it be without George Zimmer? Burlington Coat Factory is also really nice.”

You never leave home without …“So, this is a little creepy, but I have this rabbit’s foot from when I was a kid. It was dyed green, but the color has faded, so it seems a little sickly. I’m reasonably sure it’s the reason for my political success though, so I had secret pockets made in all of my clothes. Its name is Melvin.”

What’s your No1 fashion rule? “No white after Labor Day. I’m working on legislation that will make this law in St Paul. Plus, socks with crocs are both morally and ethically wrong.”

Are there any fashion challenges that come with being a man in politics? “I’m legit sick of all the attention that my panty lines get. So I like old fashioned boxers, and they have a tendency to wad up a little. Really, it’s just a couple pair of them, for my “fat days.”  It’s not anyone’s business but mine and my boys’.”

How has your style changed since becoming mayor? “I wore more sweaters when I was on the city council, but I think I need a more national look as a mayor, you know? Like I’m the boss, but not like the boss boss. I’m worried I’m sacrificing approachability for professionalism, but the right tie can really soften the whole “executive branch” thing. It’s a balancing act, like eating peas without honey.”

Tell us about your hair. “It’s 100% my own hair. I would not want to pull a Traficant; that’s just awkward for everyone. My wife calls me a “silver fox,” but I still can’t tell if that’s an insult or not.”

Who are your style icons? “Oh my God, there are so many. I mean, obviously, JFK, because I rarely wear hats. Obama, Clinton, and both the Georges Bush wore suits a lot and were in government. I think my sweater period was a nod to Fred Rogers. I honestly shed tears when he died. Such a good man.”

I can’t help but notice that this interview is 100% grade A gold-plated bullshit. “Right you are, Star Tribune. Keep up the good work, you rapidly irrelevant nitwits. Maybe I’ll accessorize the end of this interview with my middle finger.”

(With apologies to Chris Coleman, who seems like a nice guy. For sure doesn’t keep the severed foot of a small animal in his clothes.)

Tell me something Nhu

I had never heard of Madame Nhu before I came across this book, and that’s too bad, because she’s a fascinating character, and from beginning to end, her circumstances gave her unique “front row seats” to the complicated story of Vietnamese history between the period of French colonialism and the 1975 fall to Communism.

Tran (Nhu) Thi Le Xuan, the titular “Madame Nhu” was born to parents with long, aristocratic pedigrees which extend back to the last Emperor of Vietnam, who lost his kingdom to the French in the mid-1800′s. When the French ruled Indochina, the Chuongs (her maiden name) collaborated, going so far as to convert to Catholicism, and prospered as part of the tiny native Vietnamese landowning Elite. Nhu was born at the tail end of this era, in 1924. When the Japanese drove the French out in World War II, the Chuongs collaborated with them. When the Japanese were in turn driven out, and the French (briefly) returned, fortune nevertheless shone on the Chuongs, as Thi Le Xuan’s husband Dinh Nhu built up his older brother’s (Diem Ngo’s) political career. Through complicated intrigues, Diem would become President of South Vietnam, and Dinh Nhu the leader of his political party and de facto Vice President (who in Vietnam has powers akin to the American Secretaries of State and the Treasury). Diem was a lifelong batchelor, so the very public Madame Nhu came to be regarded as Vietnam’s “First Lady” even though she was technically the Lady Vice President. (“Second Lady”?)

So yes, this is a mercenary, ambitious, Machiavellian family, exhibiting not much in the way of idealism or loyalty… even to each other. When Nhu was First Lady, and her parents the Vietnamese ambassadors to the US, they publicly denounced her just prior to the coup which saw her husband and brother-in-law assassinated.

Most readers won’t actually like any of the characters in this book, but that’s besides the point, isn’t it? The enjoyment I derived from this book came from (1) having a lot of my questions about the genesis of the Vietnam War answered, and (2) boggling at the amount and complexity of cloak-and-dagger intrigues it details. Seriously, some of this stuff is so bizarre, I would have thought it was bad James Bond fan fiction, if author Monique Demery wasn’t such a credible writer.

To give you a little taste of what I’m talking about: the 1963 coup which took down the Diem regime began as a fake coup, engineered by Diem himself, and brother/advisor Dinh Ngo. Diem had been unpopular since a 1962 crackdown on dissident Buddhist monks, which ended in several displays of public self-immoliation (always a sympathy-grabber.) The fake coup was supposed to be controllable, as it would be started and orchestrated by Diem operatives who wouldn’t let it get out of hand. The faux-coup would disrupt commerce and cause general disorder, which would turn public opinion against Diem’s opposition, and which would give Diem an excuse to institute martial law, and a purge of moderates. Great idea, no? The thing is, the CIA knew about the secretly fake coup, and turned one of Diem’s generals into a double agent. So the CIA operated a double-secret REAL coup within Diem’s fake coup. Diem and Dinh Nhu didn’t catch on until the supposedly-rebelling soldiers -whom Diem had secretly ordered to shut down traffic in Saigon- didn’t follow script and stand down to Diem’s police. After a lame attempt to flee, Diem and Dinh Nhu were hunted down and stabbed to death in the back of an armored troop carrier. When Madame Nhu heard the brothers had been assassinated, she didn’t accept the news as real for three months. She assumed (as, actually, my own wife probably would) that he had faked his death, and was probably waiting somewhere for her out of the country.

And that’s just one of two death-faking stories in this book… and only one of three false-flag attacks… and Diem was only in power for nine years! That’s a average of one false-flag event for every three years in power. I wonder if that’s a record. (I am so naïve.)

Oh, did I mention that Diem was put in power by the French, because they expected him to fail? They figured his political inexperience and corruption would mismanage South Vietnam so badly that the public would be clamoring for a (pseudo)return to French (neo)colonial rule.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. This was a family of tenacious survivors, and Madame Nhu was at least as streetwise as her husband and brother-in-law, and maybe considerably more. When a pirate problem on Vietnamese inland waterways became so bad it threatened the economy, Diem and Dinh Ngo were prepared to negotiate. It was Madame Nhu working behind the scenes who convinced them to confront and destroy the underworld pirate/gangsters, which turns out to have been the right decision.

She was tough (love that front cover pic), but also knew how to turn on the charm. Her flirtations with then-VP LBJ were “credited” (if one may use such a positive term) with bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid into Vietnam. That’s just one of many instances in this book when the “Dragon Lady” used her sex appeal to political ends. Obviously, the appellation “Dragon Lady” -with all its racial and gender stereotypical undertones- is problematic, but I’ll leave those discussions for some other reviewer.

No doubt the CIA would have been happy to kill off Madame Nhu along with her husband, but she was fortuitously having a minor operation in the United States at the time (removal of a conjunctival cyst). This saved her life, and she lived as a recluse for the next fifty years, first in Paris, and in old age with one of her sons in a suburb of Rome. Throughout the book, as she is telling Madame Nhu’s life story, the author also tells the parallel story of how this book was researched, and how she came to know Madame Nhu personally. This is not a heavy-hitting scholarly work, but a very readable account of a minor historical figure who probably deserves more attention.

A few unexpected tidbits:

Vietnamese resistance to French recolonializing efforts after World War II were in part the result of Japanese propaganda during the war. Even though Imperial Japanese forces were cruel masters, their Asian solidarity propaganda found purchase among Vietnamese who suffered long under humiliating French colonial rule. For all their evils, the Imperial Japanese broke the myth of unchallengeable European commercial, military, and technological superiority.

One of Madame Nhu’s other brother-in-laws was a Catholic cardinal who “went rogue” and started ordaining bishops without Vatican approval. Eventually he was ousted from the church, when they uncovered a plot by him and some others to elect a second pope who would challenge the sitting pope.

The Vietnam War arguably started with American CIA orchestration of the 1963 coup. There is a long list of reasons why the US wanted to oust Diem and his brother- mostly they were too independent-minded to take uncritical instructions from the US, but also because the Kennedy administration felt that Diem’s regime didn’t project a favorable enough image of what a liberal democracy should be, in contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s regime up in the North. President Diem appeared a bit too opulent and corrupt, and as part of the miniscule Catholic minority, it looked bad when he cracked down on Buddhist monks. One has to wonder whether the crackdown, and subsequent coup, and subsequent Vietnam War would have happened at all, if Madame Nhu’s family had been Buddhist instead of Catholic.

The Guardian announces a new prize for self-published books

Well, now, this is very interesting. The Guardian is launching a self-published book of the month prize, which I think makes them the first of the old guard reviewing platforms to grapple with indie publishing this closely. And good on that.

The Guardian and Legend’s new prize is open from today to self-published novels written in the English language – translations are also welcome – with submissions to be read by a panel of Legend’s readers. The panel will draw up a shortlist of up to 10 titles a month that will then be read by expert judges, with the winning entry to be reviewed in the Guardian, online or in the paper.

I’m discouraged to see the Guardian referencing the Hugh Howey “statistics” about indie publishing, which are more or less full on bullshit, but whatever. The rise of indie publishing is a thing, whatever the numbers, and I’m cheered to see a traditional review platform take on the world’s slush pile, because heretofore citizen reviewers have been stuck with the job themselves, to more or less terrible results. Terrible not because citizen reviewers can’t assess a book’s quality — especially in boutique genres that are largely ignored by professional reviewing in the first place — but because the average reader has been exposed to the myriad of batshittery that lurks in the slush pile.

I had a friend back in the day who worked at a very small press as a publicist. The small press had a fake employee who had a voicemail and an email devoted to taking all the crazy queries and unsolicited manuscripts. They did not want an actual person to have to field this stuff themselves — I think the unfortunate job of clearing the inbox rotated — and the imaginary person could take all the threats and blubbering to no ill effect. Unfortunately, my friend had the same first name as this imaginary slush pile reader, and would get a certain percentage of the crazy queries as creepers tried to socially engineer themselves into a meeting. “I talked to Elizabeth last week,” they’d lie. “Can you put me through to her?”

The publisher did actually look through the manuscripts that were not written in crayon — which happened, oh yes — but the small but tenacious percentage of weirdos made the imaginary reader a professional necessity. I think this is more or less happening writ large in the publishing world. Anne Rice wants to strip readers of psuedonymity to keep them from “bullying” writers with their negative assessments of the slush pile. The average negative review is no more bullying than a fake editor ignoring a crayon manuscript. The slush pile weirdos have been foisted on the world, and they have never liked being shunted into an inbox. They want to meet you at home so they can tell you how wrong you are, which publishers have been avoiding for years through pseudonymity.

Now that I’ve gone out into tangent, I wanted to wind up by saying that I’m glad that the Guardian is taking the indies on.This is partially because traditional press has to adapt or die, and self publishing is here to stay. But another more selfish reason I’m glad to see professional reviewers take on self-published works is that I hope that once they start grappling with the slush pile like the rest of us have, they’ll get a fucking clue and stop using STRGB as a reputable source. The bullying narrative has been parroted widely in the traditional press, and I think a good part of that is how completely insulated they’ve been from the whackadoos out there.They’ll get to see the inbox in all of its glory.

Which is not to say that I think indie authors are all a bunch of loons, just as being traditionally published is no guarantee of sanity either. My mother, for example, self published a historical novel, and she is not trolling the kboards as we speak. (God, I hope not anyway. Mum?) It is also not to say that professional reviewers taking on the indies will solve all ills in a rapidly changing publishing landscape. But professional is as professional does, and adding professional reviewers into the mix will go far in helping readers to assess works that have been up till now more likely reviewed by friends and family than…let’s call it a less subjective readership. I’ve enjoyed many an indie title, and I will take any help I can get separating the good from the bad. I’ll be glad to see someone else’s inbox take the hit. Thanks, Guardian.

gorgeous nothing

The Art of Losing: Hope is a thing

This is going to be a ramble. It’s my Grandma Dory’s 97th birthday. She died less than a half a year ago, and I’m still raw with loss on days like today. On other days, I don’t always remember, which makes the occasional rawness all that more difficult. For a smart, well-researched, and considered take on The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, please check out the review in the New York Times.

A friend of mine – actually more the mother of a childhood friend that I’ve known forever – recently posted a picture of birds in a glassed case. She titled it “Three little birds,” undoubtedly referencing the Bob Marley song because I know how she rolls. It came after a series of posts about her father – the grandfather of my childhood friend – and his experiences in his assisted living home. He is 102 years old. The image bolted me to the floor.

When I was visiting my Grandma Dory in the past years — after the fall, before the stroke, after the stroke, before the end, in the middles when it was just fall and I was there, or it was spring, and I was sprung — I would sit in the broad open visiting area with its hard couches and watch the birds. There was a glass case with a variety of finches, all hopping tropical finery, and a three-ring binder on a string with their names and attributes. I’d page through with my daughter to learn their names in the interstitial times: right before my cousin came and told us stories, right before we set up a dinner in the odd “meeting room” with its badly framed art, right after all that jazz and heartache while I waited for my husband to pull the car around, like one does, my son with his head in the Nintendo DS. The birds hopped.

When she died, my closest cousin and I messaged a lot about what we were going to say. He is the oldest boy of the cousins; I am the oldest girl. (That we are both nigh on 40 years old does not factor; boy and girl were what we were to her in the best most difficult way.) We linked each other a lot of Cure songs and other tragedies. (Six months apart, we are the children of our time, and I’m not going to apologize for that.) Birds were a motif for us, for her, my grandma, all of her watchful years and feeders hung out in front of the picture window. I remember smearing peanut butter in a swinging wooden stand on her behest when I was six, licking the knife. For the birds. I remember the owl and his plastic neck turned nearly around in the woods outside of the Payne Farm house seen through the spyglass she left on the windowsill. Do you see? she would ask.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

He read this, in the end, at her end. God, how I miss her. I even miss him, my closest cousin, our relationship always in these hard, bright moments when he is here or I am there, suddenly, at an event. Nigh on 40, these events tend to take the tang of loss more often than they used to, funerals more than weddings, loss more than gain.

I was shocked as child when my dad made fun of Dickinson. “A bird came down the walk,” he said, puffing out his chest and making the universal sign for chicken arms that he flapped. How can you make fun of her weird observations? She was indeed an odd old bird, all of her slashed punctuation, all that hiddenness. She wrote poems on envelopes like I write grocery lists on the same, the economy of the domestic scribbled out on whatever is at hand. “Hold this”, I say, in the car as we go the grocery store. “Read it back.” My daughter cannot read my cursive and chides me, the reused envelope in her hand. She pretends at cursive in pages of fake script. I wonder at the things that might shock her about how I feel: how could you? I imagine my feelings are glassed, fluttering behind surfaces that she can see through but cannot touch.

In my more crystal moments I think about the long twisting process of grief, which makes me grab whatever is at hand to staunch the bleeding. I cut the tip of my thumb off by accident earlier this week, and it didn’t even hurt at first. After I’d run the water pink and wrapped leaking gauze over the digit, I looked closely at the bit of thumb and nail that sat on the edge of the blade. It was like there was another me pushing through the knife. I got tissue and pushed what I’d cut off away. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for my loss. I am not sorry for all the gorgeous nothings.

In this short life that only (merely) lasts an hour
How much — how little — is within our power