Category Archives: culture

Review 211: The Diamond Age

LL 211 - Diamond AgeThe Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

I sometimes get the feeling that Neal Stephenson’s writing process goes something like this:

Hey, I found a really cool idea here! I wonder what I can do with it…?

He then writes about 200 pages of really awesome, meticulous world-building, with innovative ideas about, in the case of this book, the possible uses of nanotechnology and its eventual social, political, and economic ramifications, and then thinks, Oh, crap, I’m writing a story here, and high-tails it to the end of the book, leaving the reader a little wind-blown and confused. It happened in Snow Crash, where he was playing with the origins of language and the fundamental functioning of the human mind. It happened in Cryptonomicon, where he dove into the murky waters of cryptography and World War 2 treasure and brought up all kinds of gems, and it happened here, too.

First, tiny guitars - then the WORLD!!

First, tiny guitars – then the WORLD!!

The Diamond Age is, fundamentally, about what would happen – or what might happen – if we really got nanotechnology working properly. How would society adapt if, suddenly, government and commerce as we know them became obsolete? With the Feed and Matter Compilers able to create anything out of nothing, the entire economic and political underpinnings of the planet would come undone, and in the case of the world that Stephenson has made, this led people to reorganize their social loyalties. Rather than band together into geographically or historically determined nation-states, they came together in phyles – places where like-minded individuals could come together and bond with each other through shared values and morality, united only by a commonly upheld treaty. This treaty of phyles, in turn, supported the new economy that nanotechnology allowed.

Within one of these phyles, the Neo-Victorians, one of the more highly-placed Lords realized what was wrong with the world in which he lived. The problem wasn’t the corruption of values of which the old always accuse the young. Indeed, it was that those values were passed on too well. Children did not elect to join their phyles, becoming members of their own free will, but they were indoctrinated into them from birth. This, in turn, made them… well, boring, and it was making the community stagnant.

You'd think martial arts would be a challenge in those skirts.

You’d think martial arts would be a challenge in those skirts.

And so Lord Finkle-McGraw commissioned a great work – The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – to guide his granddaughter into a more interesting life. And had that been all that happened, the story would have been rather short. Two other copies of the Primer were made, however. One for the daughter of the book’s designer, and another that fell into the hands of Nell, a young girl born into poverty and otherwise destined to lead a life of misery and sorrow.

The Primer is a smart book, of course, fully interactive, able to teach reading, science, history, and martial arts, among many other things. What it teaches Nell, whom we follow more than most, is how to be great. In a world ruled by this amazing science and yet rigidly stratified by an ancient Victorian code of social stratification, Nell generates turbulence wherever she goes, and the book helps her do it.

All of this is quite awesome – there’s a great hunt for the Primer, plans within plans, and all that. And then, suddenly, for no reason that I can recall, a new plot about a technology to supplant the Feed and some kind of Chinese revolution and the whole book runs off the rails.

I know a lot of people who love Neal Stephenson, and I can understand why. He’s an incomparably imaginative writer, able to find ways to express ideas that some of us couldn’t even imagine. He’s an heir to the world that William Gibson and his contemporaries pioneered. He creates captivating and detailed worlds with living characters who have complex problems without simple solutions. Hell, even Stephen King gave him a direct shoutout in his book Cell, which was had some thematic similarities with Snow Crash.

I'm not saying it IS a train wreck, but still...

I’m not saying it IS a train wreck, but still…

For all that, though, he just can’t seem to stick the endings, and that more than anything else has kept me away from his newer books. Seriously, it’s like a whole new story kicks in around page 250. If he can kick this problem, he’ll be a writer for the ages.

——–
The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people–and this is true whether or not they are well-educated–is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations–in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.
-Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

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Filed under coming of age, culture, nanotechnology, Neal Stephenson, science fiction, society

Review 191: The Great Derangement

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi

There is an essential flaw in human nature that makes us think we’re special. It used to make us think that we were literally the center of the universe, which it turns out we aren’t. It makes us think that we’re all going to grow up to be movie stars and astronauts, which we aren’t; our children are all brilliant and well-behaved, which they aren’t; and that God is on our side, which It isn’t.

Oddly enough, though, there is one place where this boundless optimism is flipped on its head. Every generation is absolutely convinced that this is the nadir of human accomplishment, that we are well and truly screwed and that there has never been a more messed-up, terrible time to live. The past was better, we think, and we look back on the days gone by as a golden age when things were simpler and no one had the kind of troubles that we have today.

When you join us, all will be perfect. Join us. Join us.

Of course, that’s not true. We are healthier, freer, and generally better off than generations before us, who were healthier, freer, and generally better off than the ones before them, and so on. While things certainly aren’t perfect, they’re not nearly as bad as we like to think that they are. If people were able to look at their world with an unjaundiced eye and a fair heart, we would realize that and maybe start living our lives accordingly.

Of course, if we were able to do that, then Matt Taibbi wouldn’t be able to sell his books.

To be fair, the first decade of this century was messed up on a grand scale. Not the same way the 60s were, or the 30s, or the 1860s, but truly twisted and burdensome in their own special way. We had been attacked, seemingly out of nowhere, by a shadowy cabal of extremists who managed to make a laughingstock of our supposed invulnerability. We reacted by flipping out and invading the wrong country and passing reams of knee-jerk legislation designed to chip away at civil liberties wherever they could. Our government, when it wasn’t handing us lies that were about as transparent as a window where the glass has been removed and replaced with nothing but pure, spring-fresh air, was telling us that there was nothing to see here and that the best way to get involved was to go shopping. And if you did have to get involved, you’d better be with us.

Because we know who’s against us. The tehrists.

Overseeing all of this was a simplistic frat boy idiot manchild of a President and the band of Washington technocrats who had been itching to bomb the hell out of the Middle East since the 70s. The media, for its part, was playing along, doing what it was told, and making sure that the people, with whom sovereign power resides in the United States, had no way of knowing what its government was actually doing at any given time.

This could probably be a campaign sign for whatever politician is running near you.

Americans had been lied to over and over again for decades, starting with the post-ironic age of advertising (which Taibbi pinpoints as the Joe Isuzu ads) up to the utterly unswallowable “They hate us for our freedoms” line that we were supposed to believe when it slid, wet, horrible and putrescent from the mouth of George W. Bush. And then, if you raised your hand and asked questions about the story you were expected to buy into, people turned around and accused you of being a faithless traitor. So what are people to do when they can’t trust the narrative that their leaders are giving them?

Why, they turn inward, of course, and build their own narrative. Their own bubble, as it were – a space within which everything makes sense. Everything can be explained, people can be trusted, and all the rules work. It is utterly incomprehensible to outsiders, but that’s okay because outsiders are the whole reason the bubble exists in the first place. As Taibbi discovers, there is far more in common between the far right hyper-Christians and the far left conspiracists than you might expect, and that there are far more of them than you really want to know.

This book is basically two interwoven parts, with a few interludes to keep the story on track. In one part, Taibbi goes down to Texas, uses a fake name and gets involved with a Megachurch in San Antonio. He joins the church to find out what brings these people together in a time when the government and the media can’t be relied upon, and what attracts people to a life of fundamentalist Christianity in the first place. He goes to meetings where demons are cast out, to small group discussions in beautiful Texan homes, and listens to people explain why it is that they’ve given their lives to Christ, something that Taibbi would never do himself, were he not researching a book.

Woah.

He also finds himself drawn into the shadowy world of the 9/11 Truth movement, a group that believes that – to varying degrees – the Bush administration bears some of the blame for the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. Some believe they knew about it but chose to do nothing, so that they would have a reason to launch their war against Iraq. Others believe that they directly caused the attacks, mining the collapsed buildings and aiming the aircraft. The more elaborate theories involve holograms, missiles and a conspiracy of silence that is continually upheld by thousands of otherwise loyal Americans.

Much like the fundamentalist Christianity, Taibbi immerses himself in Truther culture, trying to find out what it is that keeps them going, even when they – like the Christians – have no real evidence to support what they believe. Even moreso for the Truthers, there is actually a lot of logical, circumstantial and physical evidence that outright debunks their theories, but they soldier on anyway, utterly convinced that they are the only ones in America who haven’t surrendered to the lies of the political and media machines.

So what do these two groups have in common, and what do they say about America?

American politics are, generally, about Us versus Them. All politics, really, but we do it really well. The parties in power do their best to say that they stand for Us against Them, regardless of which party you vote with, but it’s become increasingly evident that the parties in power are not really for Us – they’re for Themselves. They push the same canned platitudes and wedge the same minor issues every election cycle with the sole purpose of keeping their jobs, and that is finally becoming evident to the public. Rather than governing, which is ostensibly their jobs, Our Representatives in Congress are doing what they can to help themselves, their parties and their friends, and this is more and more evident the closer you look. To have them then turn around and say, without a trace of irony, that they’re doing their best for the country they love, that they actually care about the concerns of the voter, is enough to make even the most optimistic Pollyanna turn into a Grade-A cynic.

“A riot is an ungly thing… undt, I tink, that it is chust about time zat ve had vun!!” – Inspector Kemp, Young Frankenstein

But rather than rising up as one and kicking the bastards out, the public turned inwards and went into their bubbles. If the game we’re playing is Us versus Them, then let’s do it right. Now we’re not just one group of people with a certain set of political views, we are the anointed of God or, depending on where you are, the only intelligent people in a world of sheep. And who are They? They are not just corrupt politicians. They are agents of Satan, sent to bring about the end of the world. They are power-hungry chessmasters, bent on ruling with an iron fist.

It’s a world view that makes sense to the people who have chosen to live in it, more sense than the “real” world does.

Now this book was written back in 2006 and a lot has happened since then, so it is very much a book of its time. Since then, we have seen our political theater change in many interesting ways, not the least of which is the Tea Party, which is kind of the coming-out party for a lot of the people who felt they had been left out of the discussion for so long. They’ve had their chance to incubate in the churches and on the internet, and now they’re out in force and ready to change the way politics works. A later addition to the party is the Occupy movement, bound together in its view of a nation run by plutocrats and their puppet government. They’re what happens when the Left sits in the echo chamber for a while.

Whether they will ultimately be successful is still up for argument, but so far, well… They’re all kind of freaking me out.

The take-home message from the book is this: There have been far worse times to be in the United States, and our nation has seen its way through far greater trials. But each one is different, born of different causes and with different effects, and we do not have the benefit of being able to look back and see how everything works out. It is much easier these days to find people you agree with and isolate yourself with them, and every time Congress or the President or the Media lets us down, it’s more and more tempting to do so.

HAVE YOU ACCEPTED JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR PERSONAL SAVIOR?!?!

But that way lies madness. The madness of an evangelical movement that is anticipating the end of days, the madness of a conspiracy of vast and perfect proportions. The answer is not to isolate ourselves with the like-minded but to seek out those with whom we disagree and make sure that we’re all living in the same world, no matter what it’s like. Rather than dividing ourselves into two giant camps of Us and Them, pointed and aimed by people whose only interest is in seeing us rip each other to shreds, maybe we can finally see what it is that unifies everyone.

Once we can do that, once we can fight the derangement, perhaps we can see our way to making our country into the one we want it to be.

——————————————-
“Washington politicians basically view the People as a capricious and dangerous enemy, a dumb mob whose only interesting quality happens to be their power to take away politicians’ jobs… When the government sees its people as the enemy, sooner or later that feeling gets to be mutual. And that’s when the real weirdness begins.”
– Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement

Matt Taibbi on Wikipedia
The Great Derangement on Amazon.com
Matt Taibbi’s blog at Rolling Stone

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Filed under american history, analysis, Christianity, culture, economics, Matt Taibbi, memoir, nonfiction, politics, religion, society

Review 186: Supergods

Supergods by Grant Morrison

There is this interesting mental phenomenon, which you have probably experienced, called paradoelia. Briefly put, it is when our brains find a pattern where there is no pattern, making us believe that we see something that just isn’t there. It’s why every now and then, someone sees Jesus in a water stain in their basement. Or there’s a cloud that looks almost exactly like a dragon. Or when you wake up at four in the morning, and you’re squinting against the light and the toilet looks like a face and it’s laughing at you STOP LAUGHING AT ME!

Um. Right.

Humans are meaning-seekers. Whether it’s a song or a painting or a piece of toast, we want to find meaning everywhere we can. We are experts at it, world-champions, even when there is no meaning to be found.

ATREYYYUUUU!!!

When we turn these marvelous pattern-seeking brains towards places where there is meaning, well, that’s where things get interesting. Grant Morrison is a master pattern-seeker, which is probably what has helped him become one of the most interesting and important writers of the modern age. His area of interest is not philosophy, however, or literature or world affairs. He does not dissect the works of great masters of classical art or intricate mathematicians. Grant Morrison’s passion is something that many people believe they should give up by the time they leave their teens.

He loves superheroes.

That’s probably the only real point of overlap between me and Morrison, which is a pity because he seems like someone with whom it would be awesome to hang out. In the nearly seventy years since the dawn of the superhero, very few people have done as much thinking about them as Morrison has, nor have they followed the complex interrelationship between the superheroes and the world that brought them to life. Supergods attempts to answer a question that seems simple, but turns out to be mind-bendingly complicated: what do superheroes mean?

Yeah, I can see it…

He starts where it all began, with Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the debut of Superman. He spends several pages discussing the iconic cover alone – from its composition to the promises it makes to the reader – and uses that as a guide to all that will come after. The cover “looked like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall ten thousand years from now – a powerful, at once futuristic and primitive image of a hunter killing a rogue car.”

Superman, who began his career as a protector of the people against the corrupt and the powerful, would be joined by Batman, who prowled the night looked to avenge a crime that could never be avenged. Together, they embodied the hopes and fears of their readers. They spoke to our nobility and our need to see that justice was done. They spoke to that haunting voice that told us that some things can never be made right. They were us, writ larger than life and yet printed on pulp paper and sold for a dime.

Together, Batman and Superman formed a template that nearly every other superhero would either conform to or react against. Over the next seventy years, superheroes would undergo massive changes – become light and dark, be parodies of the real world and terrible reflections of it. They would be funny, they would be grim. They would explore uncountable hyper-realities that were normally confined to the acid dreams of mystics, and they would face the most mundane and everyday problems that bedevil the man on the street.

Over the course of the book, Morrison looks at the history of superhero comics, charting their changes and mutations and looking for the underlying meaning behind each new iteration of the art. He tracks it from its pulp and populist origins, through the wartime years when the People’s Heroes suddenly became agents of propaganda, the age of the Comics Code, which forced writers to go to more and more ridiculous lengths to come up with stories, and the era of the realistic, where the heroes tried to cope with the problems of the readers’ world.

Don’t get punched by a Kirby character if you can help it, no matter what day it is.

He looks at the iconic moments in superhero publishing, such as the explosion of creativity brought about by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics, the editorial guidance of visionaries like Julius Schwartz, who sought to make comics a tool of education, and the masterstrokes of creators such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller, whose singular contributions to the genre are still reverberating clearly today.

Interlaced through all of this is Morrison’s own history, both as a reader and a creator of superhero comics. Much like the superheroes that he loves, Morrison gives us his secret origin as a young reader of comics, moving into a creative adolescence that found him searching for his own identity as both a creator and as a person. Like many of his heroes, he changed costumes and modes, went for a grittier, punk look for a little while, and proceeded to reinvent himself as one might reinvent a half-forgotten character from a title that was cancelled years ago.

As the history of superheroes intersects with his, the narrative becomes less a creative examination of how comics have evolved and more a story about how he evolved with comics. Not only did he become the equivalent of a rock star comic book writer, he managed to reach across the boundary between comic books and real life, crossing from one to another as one of the world’s first fictionauts.

The less said about what Deadpool means for us, the better.

It’s hard to overstate how much thinking Morrison has done on this topic, or how far he is willing to go to defend the heroes that he has not only grown up with but who have made his fortune for him. He sees superheroes not as a pleasant diversion or a corrupting force or as an unnecessary fantasy, but rather as in imperishable idea. They are a meme, a reflection of ourselves – both who we think we are and who we wish to be. Over the decades, Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and the X-Men and all of their costumed comrades have raised generations of readers and instilled in them some of the highest values to which we aspire. Despite being derided, dismissed, and very nearly outlawed, there has been something about the superheroes that has called out to us, and we cannot help but respond.

In an age where fiction and reality are nearly interchangeable, and where the imagination can produce something real in almost no time at all, perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about the superheroes as entertainment for nerds and children. Perhaps it’s time to see what the heroes have to teach all of us.

—–
“Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.”
– Grant Morrison, Supergods

Grant Morrison on Wikipedia
Supergods on Amazon.com
Grant Morrison’s homepage

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Filed under autobiography, comic books, culture, DC Comics, Grant Morrison, identity, Marvel Comics, media, memoir, nonfiction, super-heroes, supervillains, writing

Review 167: A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

History is, in its way, a fiction.

While it is made up of facts, things that are verifiable or at least reliably accepted as being what really happened, our understanding of history rests on a certain assumption that doesn’t always hold up – that what we are reading or hearing is The Truth. It’s how we learn about history when we’re kids – that this happened and that happened, and that’s all we really need to know.

The problem, however, is that what we got in our history books wasn’t the entire story. Oh, it was true, for a given value of “true,” but the historian who wrote the book did so with a specific narrative in mind, one that fit his or her perception of the past and which – more importantly – would sell textbooks to hundreds of schools across the country. The history that we get from those books is designed to appeal to the sensibilities of a populace that is already inclined to think well of its nation, and rarely deviates from the theme. While they do try to note the excesses, injustices and impropriety of the past, they tend to bury it in the glorious achievements of governments and industry.

AMURRICUH!!

Unfortunately, doing so means that there’s a lot of history that gets left on the cutting room floor. Incidents, people, whole populations get brushed aside because either there’s not enough room for them or because telling their story in detail ruins the mood that the historian is trying to set – usually one of bright optimism for a good and just nation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, either. An historian cannot practically include all of the historical viewpoints, good and bad, into a book meant to be used for only 180 days out of the year. So out of expedience, if not a conscious desire to tell an uplifting tale, they write books that look upon our past as favorably as possible, while including just enough criticism of our failures to fend off any serious accusations of bias.

As Zinn tells us, though, there’s no such thing as an historian without bias. Every historian has a story to tell, and Zinn has decided that he doesn’t want to tell the one we’re all used to hearing.

He starts in much the same place as most American history books – with the coming of Christopher Columbus to the New World. Immediately he reminds us that Columbus’ mission was not one of exploration but of commerce, and that the first question he asked the natives of what he would label Hispanola was, “Where is your gold?”

It all went downhill from there.

Reading this book, it would be very easy to get depressed. I can see how those who were brought up with a healthy dose of American Exceptionalism (the idea that the United States obeys different rules from the rest of the world and, more importantly, cannot do wrong) would really dislike this book. It is page after page of lies, misdeeds, cruelty, greed and deception. It is the story of a nation built not on the principle that all men are created equal, but that all men must be leashed to the yoke of the capitalist overclass. It’s a tale of genocide and oppression, of revolts both peaceful and violent, and it never lets up for a moment.

To his credit, Zinn tells us right up front that he’s going to take the side of the oppressed, the dispossessed and the put-down, and there’s no way you can tell that story without it being really depressing. It’s pretty clear pretty quickly, though, where his sympathies lie:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Hey, even executioners got problems, buddy...

His portrayal of the underclass, rebellious or not, is one of suffering nobility, and the System as a deliberately malevolent entity. Any good that it does is simply whatever was necessary to maintain its power, and the above quote speaks to that. The parallel structure that he uses effectively groups all of the upper class into the “persecutor” role, and the lower class into the “victims.” And while there is some truth to that – human history, after all, is a long story of rich and powerful elites governing poor and powerless people – it is painting with too broad a brush, in my opinion. He seems to work from the premise that all those with power are bad, and so those without must therefore be good.

As much as I wish that admitting bias was an excuse for it, it isn’t. It does a disservice to all involved to flatten your view of the American class system into a two-dimensional shadow play. Not all of the populist agitators were good and noble people, nor were all politicians cunning manipulators. Just keep that in mind as you read.

It’s a sobering read, though, to say the least. The best simile I could come up with is that it’s like watching your parents have sex. It’s something that you always suspected went on, but you could have gone your whole life without being presented with the reality of it. So it is no surprise that, after reading this book, some people become absolutely insufferable, cynical and disillusioned.

If you’ve already gone through that stage of your political thinking, however, you find something else in this book – hope. It’s something you have to dig for, but it is there, buried in the larger narrative that Zinn is telling us.

Not sure he saw this coming...

Given the amount of detail he goes into, it’s very easy to lose sight of the larger picture at work. Zinn details slave rebellions, gives stories of workers pushed to the extremes of human existence, soldiers thrown away for nothing, and entire segments of the population ignored or actively persecuted. But alongside these horror stories come tales of resistance. Whether it’s the quiet contemplation by a poor white farmer over whether he might have more in common with his black neighbors than his white landlords, riots of prisoners and guards against a corrupt prison system, or the militant, city-wide shutdowns organized by the Wobblies, the people can only be pushed so far. And while the Powers That Be are very good at figuring out how to distract, scare or defy the people, they eventually do make changes for the better, and everyone benefits a little bit.

Inasmuch as this book is a chronicle of America’s misdeeds over the last few centuries, it is also a tale of Americans’ triumphs. It is a tribute to the will of the people who, no matter how difficult it may have been, decided to stand up and demand respect from the men who held the reins of power. It is a testament to the women who wanted equality, the socialists who wanted a better world, the workers who wanted safe jobs at living wages, the blacks who wanted to be full citizens, and the Indians who wanted the wrongs of the past redressed.

Not everybody has gotten what they wanted – America is still very much a work in progress, and there is bound to be some backsliding as we go. What Zinn shows in this book is that no matter how bad the American government can be or how greedy American business might become, the American people want what’s best for themselves and, when the time comes, will stand up and shout for it. Given enough time, and enough courage, The United States will continue to be a better and better nation, and perhaps someday – someday – it will finally fulfill our expectations for it.

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“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will….”
– Frederick Douglass, 1857
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Filed under american history, criticism, culture, history, Howard Zinn, nonfiction, revolution, society, The United States

Review 165: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is awesome. At first glance, you might not think so – she’s a short, squeaky-voiced New Yorker who has a driving phobia, gets motion sickness and is allergic to damn near everything. She fits into the category of “nerd” with remarkable appropriateness. So if you’re the kind of person who dismisses the Nerd as someone without consequence or someone you should just disregard, then, well, you’re missing out.

Vowell used to write rock music reviews, loves Abe Lincoln, and thinks that it’s the height of fun to go to Places of Historical Interest on her vacations. She’s an unapologetic nerd, deeply cynical and not afraid to assume that other people are as interested in esoteric matters of history as she is. She’s a self-confessed history nerd, and she makes you want to become one with her.

There's nothing about this man that doesn't say, "I'm nuts enough to shoot a President."

I read another of her works a while ago, Assassination Vacation, about her journey to learn more about our assassinated Presidents and the men who’d done them in. It was a fascinating trip through three out of the four major assassinations that happened in this country, and far more interesting than one would think. Especially with regards to the lesser-cared about presidents Garfield and McKinley.

This book is a little different – it’s a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. It starts, of course, with Lincoln, but goes off in all kinds of directions from there. For example, she talks about her time working for one of the world’s foremost antique map collectors, Graham Arader, and the persistent myth, up until about the middle of the 18th century, that California was an island. As part of this job, she was able to look at how the way we saw the world changed over time, and how maps become a part of the historical record of a civilization.

In the essay, “Pop-A-Shot,” she talks about her uncanny ability to shoot baskets in the Pop-A-Shot arcade game. While most of us would scoff at someone taking pride in a game where all you have to do is shoot balls into a hoop for forty seconds, Vowell shows us why this peculiar talent means something important to her, ties her to a sense of greater meaning and accomplishment and, more importantly, gives her something to lord over her male friends.

She talks about why she thinks she’s secretly a Canadian, given how generally polite and non-confrontational she is. And then there’s how much she and her sister have in common with Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twins who were the child leaders of God’s Army in Thailand. She talks about the incredibly painful feeling in her gut while she attended the inauguration of George W. Bush and the irritation she feels whenever someone compares someone else to Rosa Parks. And then there’s the advice to Bill Clinton on how to handle his Presidential library.

"Look, I'm not being a nerd here, it's just that there is NO way Han didn't shoot first. None. Seriously."

It’s a rather covert style of writing. She is funny enough and light enough that you don’t really think you’re in it for any useful information or heavy thought. But before you know it, you’re wondering to yourself, “Yeah, what is the media’s responsibility to the truth, and why do we let them charactature our leaders?” Not something you would normally think about, but the longer essay “The Nerd Voice” takes a look at the way Gore was misquoted and misrepresented during the 2000 campaign because the media had decided that he was the arrogant nerd and Bush was the homespun dummy. What’s more, she suggests that Gore might have had more success had he embraced his inner nerd and, like Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, made the jokes about himself before anyone else could.

Vowell is a thinker, and most definitely a nerd, and she lets her thoughts go off into strange and interesting places. She has a kind of temporal persistence of vision, where she looks at how the past and the present intersect. “I can’t even use a cotton ball,” she says, “without spacing out about slavery’s favorite cash crop.” And, above all, she’s funny, which is a rarity in those who write about history. Check her out.

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“I wish that in order to secure his party’s nomination, a presidential candidate would be required to point at the sky and name all the stars; have the periodic table of the elements memorized; rattle off the kings and queens of Spain; define the significance of the Gatling gun; joke around in Latin; interpret the symbolism in seventeenth-century Dutch painting; explain photosynthesis to a six-year-old; recite Emily Dickinson; bake a perfect popover; build a shortwave radio out of a coconut; and know all the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Two Sleepy People,’ Johnny Cash’s ‘Five Feet High and Rising,’ and ‘You Got the Silver’ by the Rolling Stones.”
– Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot
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Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Amazon.com

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Filed under american history, autobiography, culture, history, humor, memoir, nonfiction, Sarah Vowell

Review 164: Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Given a choice between books and movies, many people – myself included – will say that books are always better than movies. “You can use your imagination,” we’ll say, “drawing on the powers of the human mind to create things that manifestly are not real. You can decide for yourself what the scenes look like and how the characters appear, rather than have some director feed his or her vision over yours.”

Despite that, however, we all still love the movies. If you gave me a novelization of Casablanca, for example, I would be hard-pressed to say honestly that it’s better than the movie. There’s just something about movies, how they take images and ideas and just pour them into your head whole. Ideas and emotions flood your mind, evading the more analytical parts of your brain (if it’s a really good movie) and heading straight for the unconscious.

Clearly the alien dreadlocks are a poly-phallic symbol, representing the unrestrained patriarchal abuses committed by whomever let Travolta make this thing.

Oh sure, you might analyze it later – take it apart for meaning and symbolism, dissecting the casting choices or praising the story arc. But for those couple of hours, when you’re staring at the screen, there’s magic happening. We’re lucky that we know what to do with it.

On the Discworld, though, movie magic is something new, and something very, very dangerous.

You see, one of the flaws of the Discworld is that it’s not horribly real. Not as real as our world, certainly, but just about as real as you can be, if you’re a flat world being carried on the backs of four elephants, who are in turn standing on a turtle that swims through the stars. It has been shown in many other volumes that reality on the Disc is negotiable and variable. And if something should come along to make the Disc slightly less real, then that could be a danger to everyone.

In a dry and sunny place far from Ankh-Morpork, something stirs. Long held at bay by ancient rituals and safeguards, something primal has finally been allowed out into the world, and it seeks the minds of those who dream. It is the dream of a place called Holy Wood, and it is where reality itself may be torn asunder.

It calls many people to create thse dreams. It calls young Victor Tugelbend, the best bad Wizard student in the Unseen University. He wants nothing more than to live a life of leisure, without actually having to work. It calls Silverfish, an alchemist who has very nearly mastered the art of making octo-cellulose. With it, he hopes to change the world. It calls Rock, a troll down from the mountains who dreams of doing more with his life than just hitting things. And it calls C.M.O.T. Dibbler, the greatest opportunist and worst entrepreneur in Ankh-Morpork.

Without really knowing why, they all head to Holy Wood, where the sun always shines and the clicks can be made on the cheap. A strange city springs up, made not of solid brick and mortar buildings, but shacks with false fronts, a city that is completely modular and impermanent. There they build worlds and lives and, yes, dreams. Through them, the people of Ankh-Morpork can dream as well.

All those dreams, though, are a shining beacon for Things that live beyond the boundaries of our universe. They seek the warmth and light of our world, and will exploit any opportunity to break through. By bringing dreams to life, the people of Holy Wood risk dooming the world to nightmares.

In fact, it is possible to have too many movie references...

I could, if I wanted, just start to catalog all the movie references that Pratchett makes in this book, but that would be ridiculous. Besides, someone has already done that for me, over at L-Space, and even they say it’s impossible to list them all. Suffice it to say, if enough people remember it from classic cinema, then it’s in this book in one way or another. If it’s a story told about Hollywood and they heyday of the studio system, then it’s in here too. Whether you’re an avid fan of the cinema or you just watch whatever your friends are watching, you should be able to get a lot of enjoyment out of this.

The themes that Pratchett explores in this book are interesting, too. One of these is the nature of fame. In one scene, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, a man who holds the life of the city in his hands, is seated next to Vincent and Ginger, the Disc’s first movie superstars. Even though the Patrician has worked hard to become the ruler of the city, even though he is responsible for the lives and well-being of everyone in it, he is still far less famous and beloved than these two people who are famous just for standing in front of a camera and saying things. And even though he knows this, he still feels an odd thrill that he’s actually sitting next to them.

OMG, we collate paper just the same way!! (courtesy of The Bloggess)

In our own world, we hold celebrities to be almost apart from the rest of us – although that may erode slowly as social media such as Twitter and Facebook open up more and more of their mundane lives to their fans. Still, if we see someone famous in the grocery store or on the bus, we think, “Oh my god! That’s [famous person]! He’s buying broccoli here, just like me!!” Even though they are made of the same flesh and blood that we are, we perceive them as something Other, often even confusing them with the characters they play. In our world that’s merely annoying, but on the Discworld, it’s downright dangerous. The power of belief, coupled with Holy Wood’s need to make dreams into reality, are a potent and disastrous mix.

As he does so often, Pratchett is using his world to comment on our own, and in doing so is taking note of the immense power that Hollywood has. I heard someone say once that America’s greatest export is unlike that of any other country. Our greatest export is Dreams. And dreams can be wonderful or they can be horrible. But their power to affect the world should never be underestimated.

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“It’s fifteen hundred miles to Ankh-Morpork. We’ve got three hundred and sixty-three elephants, fifty carts of forage, the monsoon’s about to break and we’re wearing… we’re wearing… sort of things, like glass, only dark… dark glass things on our eyes… Let’s go.”
– Azhural, elephant herder
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Lost in the Stacks 10: The Ends of the Worlds

A lot of the books I really love have something to do with the end of the world. Whether it’s the great plague of The Stand or nuclear holocaust in Swan Song, zombies like in World War Z or flesh-eating plants like in Day of the Triffids, or even irreverent humor like in Good Omens, I love to see the world come to an end, if only to see what comes next.

But what is it about these books that makes them so interesting? And not just books, either – there have been plenty of movies and TV shows that use the end of the world as a plot point, and they’re hugely popular.

What does the End of the World tell us about ourselves and our society? What is it about the end of the world that we find so appealing?

Maybe they have something to say about our relationship with the Eternal and out faith in a God that may one day decide He’s had enough. Perhaps it’s a desire to just start over from scratch and make a new world without making the mistakes of the old. Maybe we feel special, like the rules don’t apply to us. Or maybe we just want to see the world burn.

Whatever the reason, these stories will remain popular for a good long time. Let me know what you think!

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Filed under apocalypse, culture, death, disaster, Lost in the Stacks