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the real kwon
22 May 2016 @ 11:12 am
I loved Sea of Poppies, the first book in Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, SO MUCH!! ...and then the second two books not anywhere near as much, but it was still a cool reading experience?

The Ibis Trilogy is an incredibly rich and well-researched historical epic set right before and heading into the period of the First Opium War, in which the Chinese government tried to put a stop to the sale of opium and the British government threw a brutal capitalist hissy fit.

This brief summary of course entirely leaves out the role of India, which -- given that the opium was grown and produced in India, numerous Indian businessmen were involved in the opium trade, and a significant chunk of the soldiers fighting for the British were Indian sepoys - is what Amitav Ghosh is primarily interested in.

Sea of Poppies is set right before the war and focuses on a number of characters who all end up on a ship carrying indentured migrant workers and convicts to Maritius, including

DEETI: A poppy farmer in Ghazipur to an opium addict who, after her husband's death, ends up fleeing his awful relatives, finding the love of her life, and becoming the de facto older-sister figure for all the women on board the Ibis
ZACHARY REID: A bright young American sailor who by a number of lucky coincidences manages to rise in the ranks and jump to officer status, in large part because no one's remembered to check the original manifest listing his race as black
NEEL RATTAN HALDER: A naive intellectual raja who, after a series of poor business decisions, ends up accused of forgery, stripped of his status and possessions and thrown into prison, which leads to great suffering but also great personal growth
PAULETTE LAMBERT: The daughter of a French botanist, who grew up in India and, after her father's death, is determined to escape somewhere that she can continue doing botany, MAYBE BY CROSS-DRESSING AND JOINING THE IBIS AS A SAILOR
JODU: The son of Paulette's Indian nursemaid, who hearkens for a life of ADVENTURE on the Ibis, while meanwhile doing his best to explain to Paulette that she is unlikely to get away with cross-dressing and joining the Ibis as a sailor
BABOO NOB KISSIN: The very pragmatic but secretly deeply religious Bengali agent of a wealthy British businessman who ends up ... embodying the spirit of his saintly aunt ....?

And these are just the POV characters, there are multitudinous others! Many of the plotlines are wildly tropey in incredibly enjoyable, 19th-century-novel kind of ways. Meanwhile, Amitav Ghosh is enjoying himself tremendously in the way he plays with language -- most of the characters communicate in wildly different dialects and flavors of English, from the sailor's pidgin to Zachary's code-switching to Paulette's franglais; there's no 'correct' version of English and everyone is constantly misunderstanding each other in small ways as they try to navigate a language that's very much in flux. It's super cool, honestly -- like, the trilogy would be worth it for the language games alone.

That said, one of the other things I most enjoyed about Sea of Poppies was the astoundingly refreshing feeling of liking, rooting for, and being invested in every POV character in an epic adventure series! I was really excited to see the continuation of all of their adventures!

Alas, the next two books do not ... exactly do that. More on the second two books of the seriesCollapse )

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the real kwon
15 May 2016 @ 04:25 pm
I am briefly in DC for work this week, so it seems like a good time to write up Patricia Bell Scott's The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, which [personal profile] nextian recced to me and which was everything she promised.

I didn't know much about Pauli Murray before reading this book, which is a crying shame because she was INCREDIBLE -- a queer disabled black scholar and activist, famous for (among many other things) being the first black deputy attorney general in California AND publishing the first full inventory and examination of segregation laws AND being one of the first people to criticize sexism in the civil rights movement AND being the first black female Episcopalian priest, who (understandably) spent much of her life embodying that tumblr meme of 'should I fight [x] famous person/institution? YES, DEFINITELY FIGHT THEM.'

In fact she met Eleanor Roosevelt while attempting to fight FDR.

PAULI MURRAY: Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, I am a law student with as of yet no fame, notoriety, or credentials whatsoever, and I have attached a letter for your husband in which I inform him about his failures in re: dealing with this country's ridiculous racism, could you please make sure he gets it? THANKS, PAULI MURRAY, A CRITIC.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: Dear Miss Murray, thanks for your critique, here are the ways in which I think you are a wildly misguided radical young person. But the feedback is appreciated! THANKS, ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, A PATRONIZING WHITE LADY.

Somehow -- amazingly! -- this began a regular correspondence and, eventually, a lasting friendship??

(PAULI MURRAY: You're an orphan? I'M an orphan!!!)

For the record, while Eleanor Roosevelt gets equal billing in the title, it's really Pauli Murray's book; Eleanor's life is only covered insofar as it relates to Pauli Murray's. This is as it should be, since there's approximately five bajillion books that relate to Eleanor Roosevelt and not nearly enough on Pauli Murray.

And, like. OK. This didn't really need to be a book about Eleanor Roosevelt as well as Pauli Murray at all, it could've just been a Pauli Murray bio with Eleanor Roosevelt sidenotes and in some ways maybe that would've been better because Pauli Murray certainly deserves to stand on her own -- but I also am glad, right now, to be reminded that friendship and respect can exist across very different political beliefs and states of awareness. Not that Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray's friendship was an easy or an uncomplicated one (oh man, Eleanor Roosevelt published an essay titled 'Some Of My Best Friends Are Negroes,' SHE WAS I BELIEVE THE TROPE NAMER ON THIS, oh god, Eleanor) but still: they disagreed, and valued each other anyway. And that's not nothing.

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the real kwon
08 May 2016 @ 03:06 pm
I've loved everything I've read by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, so it is not a huge surprise that I also thought Americanah, her latest (and most widely-read?) novel, was frankly stellar.

Americanah is primarily the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian young woman who manages to get a visa to go to college in America and, after several difficult years, becomes internet-famous when she starts a blog titled "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black."

It's also secondarily the story of her high school/college boyfriend/possible one true love, Obinze, who does not manage to get a visa to go to America, and instead ends up in London as an undocumented immigrant having an experience that is some ways wildly different from Ifemelu's, and in some ways depressingly similar.

I read this book for a book club and it was an excellent selection because there is a ton to talk about -- the scathing portraits of racism and global imperalism and classism, and also Chimananda Ngozi Adichie's truly stellar character portraits. We kept coming back to how well she draws even the most minor character, with a kind of ruthless complexity that makes everyone at least a little bit sympathetic and also everyone at least a little bit morally complicit. (We talked a lot about Ifemelu's American boyfriends, who are maybe the best examples of this; the first one is a rich and handsome and deeply clueless white guy who does not really understand a single thing most of the time except on the brief occasions that he does, and the second is an upper-class black American professor who is consumed with the need to do the morally correct action at all times, down to choosing a cereal brand. Both of them, in very different ways, are very understandable and quite sympathetic and kind of horrible.)

Personally, I was really struck by the way all the characters not only changed throughout the book, but frequently looked quite different from the outside and inside. The way Ifemelu and Obinze see each other is not wrong, exactly, but it's obviously not the same as the way they see themselves -- which seems obvious when I put it like that but is the kind of thing in writing that I feel like is really hard to do in the way that Adichie does it, which not only makes you go 'oh, yes, of course that's how people are' but also makes you look at all the side characters with the understanding that almost certainly there is stuff going on in their heads that allows them to explain their actions to themselves.

Also Adichie is really, REALLY good at writing about writing, about the role that Ifemelu takes as self-described Outside Observer, and specifically about writing a blog on the internet and the ways this sort of takes over thought processes such that an event happens and the first thing you do in your head is start composing the blog entry (or funny tweet, or tumblr post, or whatever) that you're going to write about it. I totally do this, and I bet some of you do it too.

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the real kwon
05 May 2016 @ 07:12 pm
I got free opera tickets through work, so last night [personal profile] sandrylene and I went to go see the Boston Lyric Opera's production of The Merry Widow.

The Merry Widow is a very fluffy, very light operetta that takes place at the embassy of a make-believe tiny European country in 1905, where the ambassador is panicking because the country's richest widow is thinking she might want to marry again, and if she marries a foreigner and takes all her money out of the bank it will cause national financial collapse. Therefore everyone is very determined to hook widow Hanna up with drunken playboy Count Danilo, who happens to be her ex. Meanwhile, in the B-plot a French officer attempts to seduce the ambassador's wife, who is having none of it, and would therefore like to marry him off to the widow ASAP to get him out of her hair. Waltzing and hijinks ensue!

Boston Lyric Opera has made a couple of interesting decisions in their production of this opera. The first is that it is completely multilingual -- they've sort of picked and chosen from among the various translations, so the libretto is all in English, and the songs are in whatever language they feel like the character in question might plausibly be speaking at that time.

...conveniently their interpretation of Hanna is an American former showgirl, so a SIGNIFICANT CHUNK of her songs are in English, but they do get a fair bit French and German in there as well, which is kind of a cool approach!

The second is that they have changed the plot so that the entire story takes place in 1914, rather than 1905. As a result:

- a frequent gag is the ambassador's conviction that the greatest danger lies in the threat of attack from perfidious Monaco
- an even more frequent gag is the appearance of Kivowitz the attache (a show-stealing character invented for this production) with some telegraph of vital importance regarding a.) Belgium's fears about invasion b.) the development of tanks and machine guns c.) Archduke Franz Ferdinand's travel plans d.) submarines etc.
- to which the inevitable response is 'lol what's a tank? anyway we have IMPORTANT, SERIOUS things to worry about, SOMEONE LOCK THE WIDOW AND THE COUNT IN A CLOSET TOGETHER IMMEDIATELY'
- while Kivowitz, constantly in the background, is visibly hating his life more with every moment that passes

It's actually very funny, in a black kind of way that highlights the fact that the world in which this operetta takes place is Short-Lived And Doomed.

(The updated libretto is overall genuinely funny -- as I said on Twitter, my favorite was the guy who yelled "Don't get between them! IT'S A TRAP!" as the entire cast stares at Danilo and Hanna finally making out.)

It's not until act 3 that things start to get kind of sledgehammery, for ex.:

- an extremely bizarre flash-forward to Franz Ferdinand's death in the middle of a comic song titled "Quite Parisien"
- a lengthy speech by the French officer in which he declares that he is going off to join the army, then despairingly tries to convince the diplomat's wife to run away with him and leave Europe because everyone here is dancing and ignoring the fact that the world is going to end in terrible war!!
- a subsequent lengthy speech from Kivowitz at the end of the play, complaining about how everyone here is dancing and ignoring the fact that the world is going to end in terrible war!!
- a bit where most of the cast come out dressed in WWI military uniforms, looking vaguely shellshocked, and wistfully waltz with the empty air as the curtain drops, which would actually have been really effective for me in a Cabaret sort of way if we had not just had two lengthy speeches already about how the world is going to end in terrible war!!

I mean I get what they were trying to do but I personally would have toned it down maybe a little, is what I am saying.

That said, it was overall a really fun production and I had an excellent time! (Also, don't worry about Kivowitz, he runs off with Hanna and Danilo to be their bouncer in the bar they are going to start in America in order to get away from the terrible war.)

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the real kwon
03 May 2016 @ 08:35 pm
OK, I'm just going to quote a whole huge paragraph from the jacket summary for The Scorpion Rules:

Greta will be free if she can survive until her eighteenth birthday. Until then she lives in the Precepture school with the daughters and sons of the world’s leaders. Like them, she is taught to obey the machines that control their lives. Like them, she is prepared to die with dignity, if she must. But everything changes when a new hostage arrives. Elián is a boy who refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught. And he opens Greta’s eyes to the brutality of the system they live under—and to her own power.

There are LOTS of keywords in here that line up pretty much exactly with current trends in YA dystopia -- a Special Girl! who meets a Special Boy! who Doesn't Follow The Rules! Sheeple! WAKING UP! probably in first person present tense! AND THEN THEY LEAD A REVOLUTION -- and it is kind of a brilliant example of marketing misdirection because this book is actually very deliberately setting out not to do most of these things?

(It's also not in first person present tense. THANK GOODNESS. I don't know why first person past tense, such a little change, is so much better and more capable of conveying character, AND YET, SOMEHOW.

Also also, there are no sheeple, but there are asshole goats, which is as it should be. All goats are assholes.)

Like, OK, yes, Greta does live in a world controlled by a slightly psychotic AI, and the AI is going to kill her if her country goes to war for something that is out of her control, and that's crappy and pretty horrible for Greta and the other kids in her situation, specifically. But, I mean -- as a war deterrent, as a small sacrifice that makes it significantly less likely that millions of other people will die -- does it work? As a terrible thing, is it better or worse than many of the other fairly terrible things that happen in global geopolitics?

The book doesn't really have answers to these questions, it does not try to tell you where The Line Should Be Drawn, which is a thing I like. I like a great deal about this book. Not everything (gonna take a moment here to side-eye a little Erin Bow's occasionally lazy portrayals of some of international baby royals, especially Thandi, the Xhosa princess whose initial characterization largely consists of 'ALWAYS ANGRY'), but a lot about it, which I am trying to lay out without spoiling, because I think it's worth not spoiling. And worth reading! Come for the earnest and responsible baby royals, and the weird and loving and monstrous AIs, and the affectionate descriptions of farming, and the asshole goats, and the important relationships between women, and the actually really good Obligatory YA Love Triangle, like, you don't believe me now, I know, but I SWEAR TO YOU I DO NOT SAY THIS LIGHTLY, if you trust me you don"t need to click this very spoilery spoiler-cut! but I will understand if you don"t trust meCollapse )

(note: comments also have spoilers)

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the real kwon
02 May 2016 @ 08:01 am
My short story "Further Arguments In Support of Yudah Cohen's Proposal to Bluma Zilberman" is up today at Diabolical Plots!

Obviously death of the author and all that but nonetheless here are some word-of-God canonical facts:

1. Yudah's pronouns are he/him/his
2. Yudah is definitely much hotter than poor Hershel Schmulewitz (that blockhead)

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the real kwon
30 April 2016 @ 11:25 am
I've talked about the brain-candy books I read and loved on my trip, so let's talk about one I didn't like so much: Shannon Hale's Austenland.

To be fair I was unfairly biased against Austenland from the beginning when the close-third narration made an offhand comment about loving all the books except Northanger Abbey which nobody likes like I was expected to agree and identify with it, when: how dare you, Northanger Abbey is a comic masterpiece and beautiful literary treasure.

Anyway, the basic premise of Austenland is: our heroine Jane has been Ruined for Real Love by the fact that no real humans can live up to her fantasies of Mr. Darcy, Ruined! So in her will her great-aunt leaves her an all-expenses-paid trip to a secret luxury Austen LARP where women can go to role-play out an Austen romance with hot paid actors in Regency costume.

Hypothetically, this premise could have been a pretty interesting exploration of the boundaries between fantasy and reality and the inherent weirdness and squickiness of role-playing out a romance with someone who's being paid to feign passionate suppressed Regency attraction, which ... is sort of what we get, except in the end it follows the same pattern of basically all prostitute romance: yes of course it's kind of gross for other people, but our protagonist, who is doing exactly the same thing as all the other women that she has withering contempt for that except we're in her head so we know that she's self-aware and ironical about it on the inside, manages to kindle TRUE LOVE in the heart of the jaded paid romance role-player! for the first time ever!! SHE'S DIFFERENT FROM ALL THE OTHERS, SHE MADE HIM BELIEVE.

OK, well, nice for you, but you definitely did not make me believe.

(Also, I wanted to take a drink every time the heroine is hanging out with the love interest, noticing his broodiness/sarcasm/lack of sociability/tendency to say condescending things, and thinking 'wow, so different from Mr. Darcy!' GIRL.)

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the real kwon
26 April 2016 @ 05:54 pm
Apparently Anna Cowan's Untamed was Controversial in the Romance Novel Community, and to be honest the plot was total nonsense but I'm not gonna lie, I enjoyed the hell and a half out of it.

Untamed's hero is the Cold, Emotionally Tortured Bisexual Duke of Darlington, who has a lot of very public affairs, a harem of hot boys living in his house, and a death-wish. The heroine is impoverished, awkward, plain but extremely well-muscled Kit, currently living with her beautiful baby sister Lydia. Lydia has married a wealthy husband who loves Lydia very much but is big and shouty and regrettably triggers Kit and Lydia into remembering their abusive father; therefore, Lydia is avoiding her husband and banging Darlington. Kit has never met Darlington but thinks he is the worst in all ways. They meet, of course, when Darlington is at a party disguised as someone else.

DARLINGTON: So ... I heard Darlington was a MONSTER. Like, pure evil. Pure evil with an 8-pack.
KIT: lol as if. I heard Darlington was the worst in all ways but, like, stupid ways, you know? Very stupid ways.
DARLINGTON: I find you strangely intriguing.
KIT: Anyway, can't wait to meet Darlington and tell him to stop banging my sister or --
DARLINGTON: Or what? I mean, he's a duke and you're an impoverished young woman, so ...
KIT: -- OR ELSE, is what. I have muscles.
DARLINGTON: Hell yeah you do. *__*

But then Kit accidentally wanders in on Darlington seducing the party's hostess while secretly being not into it at all.

KIT: ...wow. WOW. Nobody should be pretending to be really into having sex with someone when they're not into it at all, it is offensive to everyone involved, that's gross and I'm DISGUSTED.
THE NEWSPAPERS: Darlington seduced the lady of the house, news at 11!
KIT: Also, whoa, that cute guy I was flirting with was Darlington? GROSS.

So Kit marches off to find Darlington and make him promise he'll lay off her baby sister!

DARLINGTON: Sure! I will leave town and leave your sister alone! .... if you take me back to the country with you and let me just like follow you around for a few months.
KIT: That seems like a weird, kind of contrived request.
DARLINGTON: Well, I'm a weird, kind of contrived sort of guy, as you may have noticed.
KIT: Uh, how you gonna work that without destroying my reputation? As you may have noticed, we are kind of sort of technically in something that might resemble the Regency era.
DARLINGTON: Because I'm gonna disguise myself as my beautiful cousin LADY ROSE and just spend the next couple months cross-dressed and fluttering around the countryside in beautiful gowns while leaning on your sexy, well-muscled arms!
KIT: ..... ............ ......................
DARLINGTON: Also I'm afraid of the dark so I'm going to have to sleep in your room with you like besties, is that cool?
DARLINGTON: Too late, I already said I wanted to in front of your mom and brother Tom, who think I'm your beautiful BFF, and you can't turn me down without making it weird!
KIT: oh my god, I hate you so much.
DARLINGTON: Is it because I'm so hot and delicate and you're worried about accidentally compelling me into having sex with you when I'm not really into it?

So Kit and Darlington spend a couple of months as roommies in the country, negotiating their power dynamics and various complex emotional issues resulting from abusive-parent backstories while Kit flexes her protective instincts and Darlington gets weak at the knees about Kit's strength and power and ability to coolly chop wood and butcher a pig, all very much in the constant-emotional-shattered-glass-mixed-with-points-of-high-hilarity vein of Authors Formatively Inspired By Dorothy Dunnett. However, this summary gets spoilery hereCollapse )

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the real kwon
25 April 2016 @ 06:00 pm
This weekend I was trying to explain Brat Farrar to [personal profile] genarti thusly: "It's sort of like what I imagine a Dick Francis novel is like? IT HAS LOTS OF HORSES IN IT."

[personal profile] genarti looked skeptical of the validity of this comparison, as indeed she might well, because, as you guys know, I have never in fact read a Dick Francis novel. But I liked Brat Farrar a lot so now my subconscious is probably going to be more warmly inclined towards Dick Francis in future.

Brat Farrar is one of those books where a conveniently missing-presumed-dead heir coincides with a convenient lookalike -- the titular Brat Farrar, a twenty-something horse-obsessed drifter who's been having a hard time finding work after an accident that gave him a permanent limp. Brat is discovered by an unscrupulous individual right as Simon Ashby, whose older twin Patrick fell off a cliff at the age of 13, is about to come of age and into Patrick's inheritance.

UNSCRUPULOUS INDIVIDUAL: All you have to do is sashay in and say that you're Patrick and you ran away instead of throwing yourself off a cliff and it was all a misunderstanding! NOBODY WILL KNOW.
BRAT FARRAR: This sounds very unethical and I am very uninterested.
UNSCRUPULOUS INDIVIDUAL: And then you would be come into all this money and be heir to the family's very lovely stables and --
BRAT FARRAR: ... wait hold the phone, did you say horses? Like, I could work in the stables?
UNSCRUPULOUS INDIVIDUAL: Um, I mean, yes, you would own the stable, and also have giant pots of money, so ...
BRAT FARRAR: You have stumbled on the one temptation I cannot resist, LEAD ME TO THE HORSES IMMEDIATELY.

So Brat, with a few mild twinges of conscience, sails into the impersonation game and meets the rest of the family, including Original Patrick's aunt and three younger sisters, and discovers .... awkwardly .... that, with the exception of Charming But Resentful Fake Twin Simon, he actually really, really likes all of them ...... and they all really like him ...........

(In some cases, of course, a little too much:

BRAT: Hmmm, I wonder why it bugs me so much when my littlest fake sisters tell me that cool, pretty, clever, possibly even more horse-obsessed than me Fake Sister Eleanor might have a boyfriend ...?

And, you know, there is a mystery about what really happened to Original Patrick, and some suspense and maybe some attempted murder and so on, and all this is fun but really the stuff that's interesting about the book is this family, the conflict between Brat's increasing feelings like he does belong with this family (......except for the parts that are weird, DON'T MAKE IT WEIRD BRAT) and his underlying knowledge that his whole presence there is based on a lie. It's on both sides, too -- the other POV character besides Brat is Fake Patrick's Aunt Bee, who's been raising the kids for the past ten years, so you get to see the family's growing attachment to Fake Patrick through her, and what his return means to them; everyone is very sympathetic and it's super emotionally compelling.

Also there is a really fantastic horse that murders people for fun, I'm so fond of the murder horse.

(Things I'm less fond of: Josephine Tey's classism and the fact that, despite her many interesting female characters, she clearly considers girls who do not like horses to be a bit less sympathetic than girls who do, BUT YOU KNOW.)

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the real kwon
22 April 2016 @ 09:29 pm
I think it was [personal profile] saramily who recommended the Heist Society books to me -- Heist Society, Uncommon Criminals, and Perfect Scoundrels -- as fluffy caper vacation reads, and she was 100% correct, these are exactly the kinds of books I want to read on long plane rides when I haven't slept in twenty hours.

Kat, Our Heroine, is a weary, jaded former criminal who is tired of the life and is trying to go straight! But her past just won't let her go!

...because Kat is sixteen, 'trying to go straight' means 'enrolling in fancy boarding school.' Don't worry, it doesn't last. JUST WHEN SHE THINKS SHE'S OUT, THEY PULL HER BACK IN.

The series overall is basically like Ocean's Eleven starring a cast of criminal sixteen-year-olds. All the criminal sixteen-year-olds are independent jet-setting master thieves who hop cities on a moment's notice and have each pulled off approximately two dozen astoundingly successful crime jobs on their own. ALL OF THEM. 'But if they're only sixteen, when have they had time to learn how to --' Shhh, friends. SHHHH. These are not questions that need asking.

Every so often an adult appears briefly, to sternly tells the sixteen-year-olds that the criminal job is too big for them! their criminal parents/grandparents couldn't pull it off and NEITHER CAN THEY! time to try something low-key like conning the KGB!!! and then takes off again to allow the criminal sixteen-year-olds to return to their glamorous criminal lifestyle. Consistent adult supervision is for losers!

Besides Kat, characters include:

Hale, The Love Interest, a poor little rich boy who stumbled on Kat robbing his house once and then ran away from his unloving family to become a jet-setting international criminal
Simon, The Smart One, whose criminal skill is hacking things
Angus and Hamish, The Scottish Twins, whose criminal skill is blowing things up
Gabrielle, The Cool Cousin, whose criminal skill is being extremely hot

...I mean, Leverage it's not. (Not even when Kat decides to become an Ethical Criminal and, like, return art to Holocaust victims etc. who mostly never actually appear onscreen. I actually can't remember if anybody non-white appears onscreen either .... at all, ever. But I could be wrong on this, I'm not even sure if anybody's ethnicity is described at all except for Angus and Hamish, who are Definitely Very Scottish.) Anyway, all that said, it is fantastic beach reading.

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the real kwon
21 April 2016 @ 08:49 pm
Before starting in on the backlog of books I read while traveling and ... from before then (SO MANY), I probably should take the opportunity to mention This Is Jerusalem Calling: State Radio in Mandate Palestine, which I read towards the end of last year.

This is one of those nonfiction books for which the title is a lot more lyrical and evocative than most of the actual text -- the book is a history of the Palestine Broadcasting Service, which the BBC ran from 1936 up to the 1948 war, but unfortunately there does ... not appear to be a ton of information available to build a really compelling history of the other PBS. So the book is quite dry, and spends a great deal of time doing deep textual analysis on, for example, ads for radios in Arabic-language newspapers. Not that this isn't interesting in and of itself! Especially if you happen to be interested in/invested in the history of public broadcasting and telecommunications, which I do in fact happen to be, professionally. But grippingly readable it is not exactly.

The book is significantly more interested in the Arabic-language broadcasts than the Hebrew- and English-language broadcasts, which is a little too bad, because I'm quite curious about all three. It's arguing that the decisions that the BBC made to split off and separate out departments focused on Arabic-language programming and Hebrew-language programming contributed in part to the increasingly sharpening divides between those communities, which ... is probably not entirely untrue, although, I mean, if I were designing a radio station for three different linguistic communities I would probably be tempted to make a significant number of my programming decisions around language as well. Anyway I wouldn't say it was my most compelling nonfiction read of 2015 but I learned some things, though there is still much more that I would be happy to know about the Palestine Broadcasting Service.

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the real kwon
04 April 2016 @ 07:53 pm
I've been meaning to read Vera Caspary's 1940s crime novel Laura for years, as well as watch the noir movie that was based on it. Recently I have done both!

As in most noir, the murder in Laura is basically just the event that blows the lid off a roiling class-, gender-, and sexuality-based interpersonal mess. Laura is a successful advertising executive, in the 1940s (which, probably not coincidentally, was also the author's job). She's independent and intelligent and everybody who knows her thinks she is just the classiest lady they ever met -- including her charming Southern gentleman of a fiancee, who resents her tremendously for the fact that he's living off her money; her extremely queer-coded Famous Writer bff, who resents her tremendously for breaking up their long-term friendship in order to marry a loser like her fiancee; and the police officer investigating Laura, who after a long convalescence in hospital has just discovered Books and and Learning and is super excited to discover the existence of Nice Girls Who Read, Even If They Are Tragically Dead Before You Actually Meet Them.

Because, alas, Laura is tragically dead! Murdered! In her fancy apartment! The book is an epistolary narrative which is told by, sequentially, 1.) Waldo Lydecker, the queer-coded bff, who writes with great pretension about how he is obsessed with her; 2.) Mark McPherson, the police officer, who writes a matter-of-fact police report about how he is rapidly becoming obsessed with her; everything here gets spoilery and goes under a cut, but does not reveal the murderer!Collapse )

And then everything here gets spoilery AND reveals the murderer!Collapse )

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the real kwon
31 March 2016 @ 07:34 pm
I just finished Gore Vidal's Burr: A Novel, which will be the last round of Aaron Burr-blogging for a while, I swear!

Burr is essentially the fictionalized Memoirs Of Aaron Burr, as collected by Charlie Schuyler (no relation), a young man in Burr's law office who has been paid to write a defamatory pamphlet claiming that Aaron Burr is MARTIN VAN BUREN'S SECRET DAD, VAN BUREN'S NEVER GONNA BE PRESIDENT NOW!

I did some internet digging to see if this was a real rumor and found a reference to it in the e-book of Lyndon Orr's "Famous Affinities of History," published 1912, so it appears to have been a real thing or at least a thing that Gore Vidal did not just pluck out of nowhere! AND IT'S HILARIOUS. Maybe all of our presidents are secret descendants of Aaron Burr. (My other favorite historical facts learned from this book that turns out to be true: Aaron Burr totally hooked awkward turtle James Madison up with Dolley Madison; Davy Crockett hated Martin Van Buren so much that he wrote an angry smear campaign book about him.)

Anyway, the book is basically Burr's written-out sections of memoir interspersed with the Adventures of Charlie, theoretically the actual protagonist. I have absolutely no affection for Charlie as a character. His whole storyline consists of a.) waffling with himself about whether he's going to betray Burr, whom he likes, by abusing his trust in order to publish this defamatory pamphlet, and continuing to take people's money for it anyway; and, b.) fantasizing about a prostitute named Helen Jewett who reluctantly accepts his offer to have him set her up in an apartment but who would clearly much rather be doing anything else, with anyone else. (Helen Jewett is an actual historical personage, but don't click if for whatever reason you don't want spoilers.) There is also a lot of period-appropriate but nonetheless extremely grating casual racism. The only thing that I found really worthwhile about the whole Charlie frame story was the -- genuinely really interesting and well-done -- examination of the continuity and contrast between the America of the eighteenth century, which Charlie is only experiencing through Burr's memoir, and the almost completely different nation that exists in the 1830s. But this could I think have been conveyed through a protagonist who's a little bit less of a tool.

The 'Burr's-memoirs' bits of the book, on the other hand, are enjoyable, witty, interesting, and historically extremely well-researched. They are also, in some ways, extremely well characterized. Possibly my favorite part is how Burr spends hundreds of pages describing his attempts at gaining power without ever actually saying why he wants power or what he plans to do with it, which is perfectly in line with both Miranda's Burr and the sense that one gets of Burr as a historical figure.

(I feel it is also worth nothing that as much as Burr trash-talks Hamilton in the book -- and boy howdy, does he -- he also never mentions him without going on and on about how good-looking he is. He also describes Hamilton as playing Jonathan to Washington's David, and Patroclus to his own Achilles. I'M JUST SAYING. The subtext in Vidal's fanfic ain't subtle. And Vidal himself was extremely queer, so it's not like he didn't know what he was doing.)

However, I am not entirely convinced by Vidal's Burr. For one thing, Vidal's Burr does not just trash-talk Hamilton, he's mean about pretty much everybody he meets. This is funny and frequently satisfying -- I really deeply appreciate seeing Jefferson called out for his hypocrisy in a book from 1974 -- but stands in rather stark contrast to the Burr of Burr's diaries, who really does seem to like pretty much everybody he meets. I think the point where this officially tipped over into 'wildly OOC' for me was when Burr starts being sarcastic about Jeremy Bentham. Excuse you, Gore Vidal, I know for a primary-source fact that Burr loved Jeremy Bentham so much that he wrote Theodosia and basically told her that Jeremy Bentham was going to be her new second dad.

Also -- this is really less a complaint about characterization and more a complaint about the whole book -- Burr just does not talk enough about women. I don't mean this in the sexy sense. Vidal gives some lip service to Burr's identity as a prominent early feminist, but I feel very strongly that if you're going to write a book about Aaron Burr, Famously Interested in Women's Brains, you have not just the opportunity but the responsibility to -- as Lin-Manuel Miranda would put it -- put some women back in the narrative. And Vidal doesn't, not really. Women do appear, some affectionately portrayed, but they rarely do much moving or shaking even from behind the scenes. Theodosias 1 and 2 each get, if I remember correctly, one scene with dialogue apiece in the entire book. One scene each! The more I think about this the more frustrated I get, especially considering that book spoilers of which I very strongly disapproveCollapse )

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the real kwon
27 March 2016 @ 07:48 pm
More YA regency fluff! Although, to be fair, Patrice Kindl's Keeping the Castle is rather less fluffy and more straight-up satirical. (Though sadly lacking in cross-dressing.)

Althea Crawley is a girl in a world in which her only job is to marry rich, because the castle in which she and her impoverished family live is straight-up falling apart and they also have no money with which to fix it, or to buy themselves food. On the first page, Althea accidentally scares away a suitor by lovingly remarking 'you are so rich' right after he's popped the question. Afterwards, various local gentry descending upon Althea's house for tea and gossip about the eligible young men coming to the neighborhood, while Althea tries desperately to find enough food to feed them all by dividing the biscuits into ever-smaller pieces and dredging the channel for small fish. This gives you about a sense of the tone the book is taking. Subtle it ain't, but it's often quite funny.

Enter handsome, presumably wealthy Lord Boring (....yes) and his bad-tempered, bad-mannered, lowborn & presumably impoverished cousin Frederick, and we all know where this is going.

It's kind of interesting to read this book so soon after Newt's Emerald, because Garth Nix is definitely writing In The Vein Of Heyer while Patrice Kindl is clearly aiming for The Vein Of Austen. In the Vein of Heyer, society is a delightful place; deserving people will do all right, and undeserving people will get their comeuppance, because the world is generally fine. In the Vein of Austen, the world is ridiculous at best and cruel at worst, and plenty of undeserving people will be far happier than they deserve to be and plenty of reasonably deserving people will settle for pragmatic misery, but at least our protagonists won't have to go it alone.

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the real kwon
27 March 2016 @ 11:06 am
I wrote a series of Deep Space Nine ficlets about space Jews for the Purimgifts exchange this year, which was an interesting experience because a.) it's definitely the most Jewish fic I've written, including the year I wrote Fiddler on the Roof fic and b.) I tend to forget that many people don't necessarily know things like 'who is Queen Vashti' or 'what is a Purimshpil.' Which doesn't really matter, because these fics are unashamedly written for the people who do know those things, and that's fine. But it was an interesting experience nonetheless.

Anyway: Space Jews Celebrating Space Purim. I have accidentally given myself a lot of Jewish Star Trek headcanons now. Anyone want to talk to me about Starfleet Academy Hillel?

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the real kwon
25 March 2016 @ 06:19 pm
I really, really should have reread Karen Lord's Best Of All Possible Worlds before picking up The Galaxy Game but IN MY DEFENSE, I DID NOT KNOW ACTUALLY KNOW IT WAS A SEQUEL WHEN I PICKED IT UP.

Anyway I spent a lot of The Galaxy Game moderately confused and I don't know if it's me, or Karen Lord, or if everything would've been fine if I'd just reread Best Of All Possible Worlds first after all. Though I do feel on pretty stable ground saying that the structure did not help -- there are loads of POV characters, only one of whom speaks in first person, while everyone else gets limited third for no particular reason I could tell, and several of the stories and plots who seem set up to be quite important in the beginning have faded away by the middle of the book.

The actual protagonist (who is not the one person who speaks in first person? WHY THIS CHOICE, I'M SURE THERE'S A REASON BUT I DON'T UNDERSTAND) is Rafi Delarua, the nephew of the protagonist of Best Of All Possible Worlds, who is a kid with dangerous psychic powers that scare his family and most of the people on his planet!

...fortunately he then ends up on a completely different planet where it just so happens he can use his powers usefully, and people are like 'you should do this thing' and he's like 'oh, yeah, I guess I totally should?' and it pretty much all works out fine. It's kind of an off-kilter coming-of-age story, because it's lampshaded in the book a couple of times that Rafi doesn't really make any actual choices; things consistently happen to him, and he rolls with it, and by the end he has officially grown as a person but not really because of anything he did, mostly just because growth is a thing that Happens to you just like Life and Friends and Career Choices and Ending Up On An Alien Planet Where Karen Lord Gets To Do Lots Of Interesting And Complex Culture-Building Happen To You.

And then in the background there is all these super interesting and complicated galactic politics stuff going on! There's some fascinating fallout from the first book that, again, made me really wish I remembered the first book better -- all this stuff about diaspora communities, and the ways those different communities evolve and come into conflict with each other, and dealing with ongoing trauma and loss, and meanwhile there's also some really cool market and trade politics stuff, and then there's the offhanded reveal of Why The Planet Died To Begin With and how the people responsible for it are dealing with that, which is maybe ONE CHAPTER towards the end of the book, ONE CHAPTER, REALLY??, and OK, now that I'm writing this out it turns out I'm deeply frustrated by the backgrounding of all this REALLY FASCINATING stuff in favor of Rafi playing sportsball.

Then again, a lot of the stuff that happens in one or two offhanded chapters feels very much putting the pieces in place to have setup for a future book. And I will definitely read that future book! But, like, making sure that I have performed EXTENSIVE REVIEW first.

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the real kwon
24 March 2016 @ 10:16 pm
[personal profile] jothra lent me Yoko Ogawa's Revenge after warning me that it was extremely creepy, and I should not read it late at night.

Of course I did not listen and now LOOK WHERE THAT GETS ME. No, I was mostly OK, until the short story where a girl visits a torture museum and nothing bad actually happens at all except an internal realization on the part of the protagonist that torture sounds kind of like fun, but the descriptions made me so uncomfortable that I had to put the book down for a while and stare at kittens or something.

Revenge consists of eleven short stories. Most of them are about obsession to some degree or another. Some of the stories have murders; some of them have weird magical realism; some of them have both, and some of them have neither! Even the ones that have neither are creepy to a certain extent.

Some of the stories stand more or less alone, but most are loosely connected -- a death in one story will frequently show up as a background event in another; more metatextually, a character in one story occasionally turns out to be the writer of another. I am perhaps most fascinated by the story in which a character, who says she is an author, who seems to have written several of the stories in the book, complains to the protagonist about another woman who steals her work and goes about promoting it like her own. Yoko Ogawa, what are you trying to say ...?

Anyway, I imagine that reading these stories as individual pieces when they were originally published must have been a very different experience than reading them in collection. Some stories I think I would flip through if I was reading them solo as either having no point, or dropping the DUN DUN!!! too heavily on the last page, but having them woven together made a deeply surreal whole that was greater (and creepier) than the sum of its parts.

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the real kwon
20 March 2016 @ 02:59 pm
I've seen and enjoyed a fair number of movies in the past month!

Hail, Caesar!Collapse )

The MermaidCollapse )

RudramadeviCollapse )

Act of ViolenceCollapse )

Crack-UpCollapse )

ZootopiaCollapse )

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the real kwon
16 March 2016 @ 10:20 pm
I picked up The Half-Made World because I saw Felix Gilman talk at an event a few years ago and thought he had interesting things to say. Unfortunately, I did not like The Half-Made World.

I can't actually think of any Weird Steampunk/SFF Westerns I do like particularly at the moment -- with maybe the one exception of Kage Baker's Mendoza in Hollywood, a book I love WELL beyond its deserts (& I guess The Gunslinger, a book of which this one is not un-reminiscent, but there's contextual reasons for that) -- so it's possible and even probable that the genre is just generally not my thing, but I'm ... let's say generously, KIND OF confused by the worldbuilding choices.

The Half-Made World is set in a West that's -- well, I can't tell if AU!Europe is actually on the same content as AU!America or not, there may or may not be an ocean in between, but either way in the East Things Are Civilized And We Have Hospitals And Fancy Psychology and Out West Things Are Weird And Violent And Controlled By Weird Spirits until you go all the way west and literally get to the end of the world where reality comes unmoored and monsters are created from the hazy mist.

The West is dominated by two extremely powerful immortal forces: The Line, which are giant ... possessed monster trains....? ... who conquer land to create dystopian industrial railroad-linked cities where all the people exist in downtrodden assembly-line order, and The Gun, which are violent spirits who possess/partner with violent individuals to create Forces Of Bloodthirsty Chaotic Neutral Verging On Evil that oppose The Line and also perform other random acts of ballad-worthy violence, just 'cause.

Our three protagonists are: Liv, a lady doctor who comes from the East and is Going West to try experimental psychology on patients who have been brain-damaged by The Line's weapons; Creedmore, a semi-reluctant Agent of the Gun who's been sent to kidnap one of Liv's brain-damaged patients who was once a general of the one Noble Foolish Doomed Republic and may hold Important Secrets; and Lowry, a Typical Agent Of The Line whose mission is to stop Creedmore and capture the general of the Noble Foolish Doomed Republic, ditto ditto. The Noble Foolish Doomed Republic, for the record, was stuffy and overly bureaucratic, but nonetheless had a brief period of inspirational glory which may have subsequently resulted in the only thing that can defeat The Line and The Gun.

The metaphors here ain't subtle, but what the actual message is, I'm honestly not sure. I'm also REALLY EXTREMELY UNCOMFORTABLE about the fact that the embattled and oppressed indigenous population of The West are creepy magical inhuman white people with strange powers who live under hills, come back to life after you kill them and can't deal with iron? I can't actually decide which part is worse, the fact that it's full-on magical native, or literally overwriting the history of the American West with EUROPEAN FAIRIES.

I mean, to be fair, there are several explicitly non-white people in the book! But where they came from and how they got there is HIGHLY unclear, given that, once again, all of America's history of racial oppression, slavery, etc. is now being written onto -- I reiterate -- BASICALLY EUROPEAN FAIRIES. I think there might even be a mentioned human character who is coded Native American, which makes the metaphorical landscape THAT MUCH MORE CONFUSING.

That said, at one point a side character briefly appears -- a black showman-inventor traveling around to demonstrate his Miraculous Devices to the public -- who made enough of an impression on me in his three-sentence cameo that I was like "man, I wish I was reading the book about that guy!"

Turns out the sequel is in fact about that guy. Dammit, Felix Gilman!

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the real kwon
13 March 2016 @ 10:32 pm
Thanks entirely to [personal profile] rachelmanija (well, and tumblr, and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr.; plenty of blame to go around) I just finished reading Volume 1 of The Private Journals of Aaron Burr.

Aaron Burr is, it turns out, a distressingly relatable historical figure. The journal is written while he's in Europe, after having a.) shot Alexander Hamilton b.) attempted to become Emperor of Mexico c.) been tried for treason and d.) been branded a Dangerous Person in just about every part of American and western Europe. Almost none of this is ever referenced in the journal, in which Burr -- fleeing from country to country throughout Europe -- spends most of his time losing his luggage, getting lost, oversleeping and missing appointments, accidentally staying up too late reading trashy literature instead of being productive, misspelling words in foreign languages, and trying (and failing) to stop drinking caffeine. Those of you who check out the Hamilton tags on Tumblr have probably already seen The Zit Saga, The Bedbug Saga, and The Time Burr Accidentally Set Himself On Fire, all of which is fairly representative #tormentsofaaronburr. At one point he is literally put in prison, and what does he worry about? "The only thing that disturbed me was some apprehension about my papers. They have got everything. No plots or treasons, to be sure, but, what is worse, all my ridiculous Journal" -- and, I mean, if I were Burr, and I had just recorded The Zit Saga, I wouldn't want the police getting their hands on it either! Possibly my favorite quote in the whole thing is when Aaron Burr, a 53-year-old former Vice President, after a day of getting lost and spending money stupidly, complains "I want a guardian more than at 15" -- i.e. "HELP, I NEED AN ADULT."

(As various people have noted, Historical Hot Mess Burr does not appear to have a LOT in common with Aaron "Talk Less, Smile More; I Am The One Thing In Life I Can Control" Burr from Hamilton. However, I have to admit, I get about 10x as much delight in Hamilton's Burr -- and I already got a LOT of delight in Hamilton's Burr -- when I imagine that the whole REASON he has adopted his policy of Constant Outer Smoothness is because on the inside he's constantly panicking over having accidentally left all his important documents for a meeting in his other coat.)

The journals are addressed to Burr's daughter Theodosia, and meant to be an amusing record for her of his adventures. Burr's editor does some scandalized pearl-clutching about this fact -- "it is simply inconceivable that a father who loved and respected a daughter as Burr loved and respected Theodosia could have written for her perusal many of the things contained in his journal!" says the introduction -- because Burr also uses the journals as a way of keeping track of the money he is spending unwisely on everything, including Amorous Adventures, of which there are MANY. Aaron Burr appears to be of the firm belief that if someone solicits you for sex, it's extremely rude to turn them down: "In the evening, to my great surprise, and uninvited, tapped gently at my door Tempe. You know I never disappoint people if I can help it and so T. was not dismissed; 4 rix dollars."

This is a fairly representative sample, except usually he writes about his Amorous Adventures in bad abbreviated French, which his poor editor then has to crankily decipher. [personal profile] rachelmanija has recorded the poor editor's process of losing his mind over Burr's terrible spelling, handwriting, and personal habits up here. It is HIGHLY WORTH A READ. Rachel is generally doing a bang-up job collecting all the funniest parts of the journal, so for more details please go over there.

That said, there are other parts when I find myself having some genuine human non-hilarity feelings about old Aaron Burr, mostly because, whatever else you can say about him as a person, the way he writes to his daughter in the journals is flat-out adorable and also deeply sad, because he misses her so much! Imaginary Theodosia is his conscience and his confidante, and he's clearly having a constant conversation with her in his head. The one thing he totes with him all over Europe is Theodosia's portrait; he buttonholes everybody he can find and makes them admire it, and gets incredibly cranky if they don't compliment it loudly enough. He's 100% one of those dads -- which is funny, but also incredibly sad when you know that Theodosia is actually going to die en route to see him before they ever meet again! "Passed an hour looking at your picture," Burr writes, at one point. "I was exceedingly struck and alarmed to see it pale and faded. Why was not this perceivable before? Perhaps may arise from being placed among his portraits, which are very high coloured. Yet the impression that it is faded is fixed on my mind, and has almost made me superstitious." GUYS, THIS IS NOT A LITERARY FORESHADOWING DEVICE. IT'S REAL PEOPLE AND I'M SAD. ;___;

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