Weekly Read: Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War

Music, those who make it and consume it often think, is a universal language. A beautiful melody or an infectious rhythm or a soothing wash of noise doesn’t require any kind of verbal communication to enjoy. Surely if there’s something that can exist outside of the mess that is politics, music should be yet. Sadly, the takeaway from Jonathan Rosenberg’s Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War is that politics, like religion, poisons everything, in spite of anyone’s best intentions otherwise.

Dangerous Melodies examines this through a particular lens – the American classical music community and how it interact with the First and Second World Wars and the early part of the Cold War. In each era, political considerations informed what was played, by whom and where.

One of the fascinating things about the WWI section of this book (along with PANDEMIC, which of course covers that time period) is how fervent people were with regards to the war and the United States’ role in it. Of course, this was the period of the Sedition Act and the Supreme Court’s deeply horrible First Amendment law, but it really brings the xenophobia home when you hear about German musicians being interned for nothing more than their nationality.

German composers proved a particularly tricky proposition, since, at the time, the American classical music scene was heavily indebted to Germany composers and musicians. Wagner, of course, featured prominently in all this, but he at least had the good sense to be dead when the conflict began. Discussions about whether to continue to stage his operas or play his music were a bit more esoteric than those surrounding, say, Richard Strauss, who was both very popular in American concert halls and still alive to cash the checks.

If the issue during the First World War was what to do with Germans in general, in the Second World War there was some attempt to distinguish between garden variety Germans and actual Nazis. This was easier said than done, however, since some great conductors were at least Nazi-adjacent, if not actual (if unenthusiastic) party members. Their rehabilitation after the war mirrored those of their predecessors in the Great War – in that the result of the uproar had little to do with actual facts and more to do with repeated assertions of bad behavior (I shook my head reading how a judge in a court case involving one conduct admitted there was no evident to prove his alleged sin, but enough people believed it that it didn’t matter).

One odd part about the Second World War is that, at least as Dangerous Melodies tells it, is that Wagner came roaring back and was basically unscathed. To the extent the Nazis glorified him and tried to make a paragon of the Reich it didn’t impact his work being played in the United States. On the other hand, there’s no discussion of Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism, which would seem like a pretty good reason for programming other stuff while the Holocaust is happening.

Where the intersection of classical music and the two World Wars was largely about restricting what was played (with one notable exception I’ll discuss in a moment), once the Cold War begins the tables turn. The universalists gain the upper hand, only to see that universalism weaponized in the name of American foreign policy. American orchestras made numerous state-funded tours of Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain. At best this was benevolent cultural exchange, but there was also some hope that it might show the Soviets that we weren’t all a bunch of burger eating, beer swilling, country music fans, either.

As an aside, after I read this book I listened to the Wind of Change podcast. Done by Patrick Radden Keefe (he of the amazing Say Nothing), it’s a deep dive into the conspiracy theory that the CIA wrote the Scorpions’ late Cold War hit of the same name. It doesn’t really prove that, but along the way it talks about how the American government used the same kind of state-sponsored cultural junkets in more popular music forms, too – sometimes without the knowledge of the artists.

There was one composer whose career spanned the Second World War and Cold War to devastating effect. One of the most famous and celebrated musical achievements of the Second World War was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, called Leningrad. Premiering in 1942 it was seen as embodying the resistance of the residents of that city (now, once again, St. Petersburg) to a lengthy Nazi siege. There was even a kind of bidding war over the US premier! It was a big fucking deal in a way that I don’t think we can comprehend in 2020.

But when the Cold War began, Shostakovich was drafted into the Soviet Union’s culture war against the West. There’s an episode in the book where a conference arranged in New York – assailed by Red hunters for being anti-American – winds up becoming a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda, giving a not particularly enthusiastic speech condemning Western music that he pretty clearly didn’t write. Shostakovich got both the highs and the lows, in other words, of political influence in music.

As it happens, after I read the book, I dug out my recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh I have by the Dallas Symphony. The liner notes go into a little more detail on his most famous work and its political impact. According to his memoirs, published in 1979, it wasn’t the war anthem people made it out to be (it “had been planned” before the war started):

Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as being an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin.

* * *

Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.

Where does that leave music and politics? As Shostakovich learned, they’re inexorably intertwined. Thinking that music can escape the taint of politics when nothing else can is a pipe dream. At best what music can do, better than just about any other form of art, is escape the shackles of the political sometimes and reach across barriers. It ain’t much, but it ain’t nothing.

DangerousMelodies

Weekly Read: Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror 

This is an interesting book (more interesting than compelling, sadly, given its detached, journalistic style) to think about in these times. I actually read it a couple of months ago, but it’s crept back to relevance over the past couple of weeks. How could it not, given that it tells the story of the United States’ first concerted effort to deal with racial terrorism, which also gave rise to an unprecedented expansion of police power and tactics?

It’s the story of Hiram C. Whitley, who from 1869 to 1875 was the chief of the Secret Service. At that time, the Secret Service’s primary job was dealing with counterfeiters (it’s Presidential protection role didn’t come until ??) – which it still does, by the way (one of my great Fourth Circuit victories involved a counterfeiting case). When Whitely took over he broadened the Service’s mandate (via bureaucratic slight-of-hand and without Congressional authorization) into a broader criminal investigative unit with its sights trained the Ku Klux Klan.

Not that Whitley was particularly a crusader for human rights. Before the Civil War he did some work as a slave hunter and he essentially bought his first child. During the war he led a Union regiment in New Orleans with such brutality that his men nearly mutinied. He was a shameless self promoter who wasn’t above working outside the law when he thought it was justified. He tortured prisoners. He arrested men and executed searches without warrants. He was even involved in a Watergate-style burglary and scandal later in his career.

His most lasting contribution, however, is introducing the concept of the undercover work to American law enforcement. The idea that you had to use bad people – or at least good people pretending to be bad – to catch other bad people was scandalous. In fact, the book recounts how in one counterfeiting trial, where the case was built on undercover work, the judge actually gave the jury a cautionary instruction about how unreliable undercover officers were! If only we could get an instruction like that now.

If anything, Whitley seems like the archetype of a character we’ve become familiar with over the years from all kinds of police fiction – the cop who can’t follow the rules, but it still celebrated in the end because he gets the bad guys (a trope that’s getting some fresh looks these days). You can’t argue that Whitley’s targets were evil – not just the Klan by political machines in New York City were targets – but, as this review points out, none of those resulted in convictions, partly due to Whitley’s overreaching. One of my chief criticisms of the book is that author Charles Lane doesn’t really examine what Whitley’s legacy was or how he was an exemplar of lots of cops that came after him.

That’s why the book had come back to mind in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the related protests. As a society we’ve been conditioned to give cops the benefit of the doubt (there’s even a “good faith” exception the exclusionary rule for Fourth Amendment violations), mostly on the expectation that if they cross the line they’ve got a damned good reason. But lines are drawn for a reason and not everybody the cops cross the line to get are “bad guys” and, even if they are, they deserve the due process of the law, too.

I won’t say we can draw a direct line from Whitley’s abuses to Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck 150 years later, but there are definitely echoes there. If Whitely really was “Freedom’s Detective,” it’s worth wondering what kind of freedom it was and whether, too often, it’s been the freedom to behave badly in the name of doing good.

FreedomDetective

Weekly Read: The Last Emperox

I like John Scalzi. I really do. I came to him via his blog, Whatever, before I read any of his books, so I kind of got to “know” him first before I knew his work. I like the snark. I like the politics (mostly). I like the open and honest way he talks about his writing and the business aspects of it. He seems like a very open guy who is helpful to emerging writers and still a complete geeky fanboy about established ones (and, for the few moments he stopped by my table at the WV Book Festival a couple years ago, just a nice guy).

I wish I liked his books better.

Late last year when I was putting together my list of favorite books from the last decade I was surprised that only one of Scalzi’s made the initial cut based on how I’d rated them on Goodreads. Redshirts, which wound up making the final list, was the only one I’d given at least four starts. I’d enjoyed all the others – there were no 2-star clunkers – but most things didn’t get beyond “like” to “really loved.”

I mention that because I really hoped that The Last Emperox, the last book in the Interdependency trilogy, would break through that ceiling. The first two books (I reviewed the first one here) had a lot of promise, but seemed rushed, like there was more in them. With the end in sight I’d hoped it would tie things together in a super satisfying way. Instead, it was more of the same – good and good fun in spots, but ultimately short of great.

The best part of The Last Emperox (and the entire trilogy) is the idea of The Flow. Analogized to a kind of river in space it’s the in-universe way of travelling between distant stars. It isn’t really FTL, but it works like it. The operative fact for the trilogy is that The Flow is collapsing, which is going to cut off planets from each other and basically dooming human civilization.

Against this backdrop the story of the trilogy is various people coming to grips with this. Some are trying to solve the problem, some are trying to profit off of it, and some are trying just do the right thing. This is fairly interesting and some of the characters involved are great. Kiva Lagos is a great, fun character to read about. The suddenly and unexpectedly enthroned Emperox Grayland II is pretty interesting, too, as are several of the supporting players (one is essentially a sentient spaceship). All good stuff.

The problem is that all these interesting people are racing around pushing the plot so hard that sometimes the books come off like extended Wikipedia entries. Part of this has to do with some things that Scalzi does repeatedly that don’t work for me (your mileage may vary, as they say). One is that something will happen – suddenly, with no warning (given who the POV characters are), and often violently. Then we’ll get a couple of characters talk about what happened. It’s like in-world telling instead of showing. Plots – in the sense of plotting, conniving, conspiring – are a lot more fun when you can see the gears working during the wind up. Just getting the incident itself with an ex post explanation isn’t very satisfying.

Another thing that happens repeatedly is that something happens to a character that should move them off the board – a conspiracy foiled or an assassination – that really doesn’t mean anything in the end. The evil doer caught in the act escapes, the target of death really escaped serious harm – all explained after the fact. It gets to the point that when a very major “death” occurs in The Last Emperox you can’t care about it very much because there’s little chance it’s real.

Those issues wouldn’t matter all that much if the ending wasn’t so underwhelming. As I said, the entire motivation for this tale is that The Flow is collapsing and civilization is at risk. Folks come up with a clever way to save it and . . . then we learn that will happen years in the future, after this book is over. So, yay? You think it’s heading for a galaxy-defining moment and it just doesn’t.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with this trilogy – it doesn’t feel like a complete story. It feels more like the first part of a larger trilogy (for epic space opera these books aren’t long), where a certain challenge is surmounted but the big one that would overarc the series has a lot of legs left to it.

I suppose that’s appropriate, though. The first two books mostly left me feeling the same way – I liked a lot of what they had to offer, but felt there was more there, lurking in the aether. I know the old show biz saying is “leave them wanting more,” but I’m not sure it applies to books – trilogies, especially.

LastEmperox

Weekly Read: How Long ‘til Black Future Month?

Short story collections are weird beasts. By definition they rise and fall on the strength of each individual story, which I think makes it a little easier to notice the flaws. A dull spot in an otherwise good novel is most likely to just slip down the memory hole at the end of the day. A story that doesn’t work sticks out a little bit more. Given the number of stories in N.K. Jemisin’s first collection you’d expect more than a few duds. As the song says, “not everything everybody does works all the time, son.”. What’s amazing about Jemisin’s collection is how often everything does work.

This is a lengthy collection, so I’m not going to mention every story in it, only a few of the highlights. The first, for me, was “The City Born Great,” in which a homeless kid becomes a kind of midwife to the entire city of New York as it’s “born.” The setup is interesting and the birthing process itself is wonderfully evocative.

“The Effluent Engine” is a kind of alternate history/steampunk hybrid, where Haiti becomes this hemisphere’s leader in the dirigible race, leading a spy (of sorts) to come to New Orleans seeking aid from a famous engineer. A romantic angle cropped up here that at first made me roll my eyes (not because it involved two women – it just seemed cliché), but Jemison turned it on its head in the end, much to my delight.

My favorite title, if not my favorite story, in the collection is “Cloud Dragon Skies” (sounds like a Steve Hill age song – and, yes, I’ve got a musical idea for it in my head). Set in a future where most of humanity has moved off the poisoned Earth, the sky is now red and the clouds have become kind of sentient. Those who left try to fix it, but it doesn’t help. An interesting narrative and point-of-view in this story.

“The Elevator Dancer” is just a great, really short story about the power, or the need, to ignore something that’s right in front of you. The dystopia in which the story is set reminds me a little of the one in Zappa’s Joe’s Garage where music has been declared illegal. There are some things so essential to our humanity that no oppressive force can quash.

Of the several stories that revolve around food, my favorite is “Cuisine des Memoires,” about a restaurant that can serve any meal from any time in history, from the famous to the personal. Naturally the main character can’t leave well enough alone and wanders into a meditation on magic and memory.

In her introduction, Jemisin talks about how she same to write short stories and about how she sometimes uses them to try out worlds she’s thinking of using for novels. That comes through in “Stone Hunger,” which is set in the world of her Hugo-winning Fifth Season trilogy and “The Narcomancer,” which does the same in the world of her Dreamblood duology. I enjoyed the later one more, since it was completely new to me. The other felt a little like a demo version of a song – interesting, but not quite up to the final product. If I’m not misreading, I think “The City Born Great” I mentioned above served this purpose for Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

A couple stories left me scratching my head more than anything else. The lead off, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” is a direct consequence to the Ursula K Le Guin story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about an apparent utopia that comes at a terrible cost. Jemisin’s story is also about a utopia maintained through a vigorous program of execution for anyone who steps out of line ideologically. It’s hard to tell whether this is an agreement with “Omelas” that utopia isn’t really possible, or if it’s arguing that it can be possible with a cost, so let the cost be borne by those who deserve it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Likewise “Henosis,” a dark tale about a prestigious literary award that leads to the winner’s death. I can’t decide if it’s a pitch perfect satire of writers’ desire for glory or such a silly idea that it’s nonsensical.

There are a few other stories that just didn’t work for me, although none of them are “bad” in a meaningful sense. Not because they aren’t cool ideas – “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” in particular is very cool – but because they feel rushed, almost like they’re half stories. “Non-Zero Probabilities” feels the same way, but I see that it was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo when it was first published (several of these stories are available online – hence the all the links, all legit), so what do I know?

All in all, How Long ‘til Black Future Month continues the serious roll Jemisin has been on the past few years. Most of these stories are great and show a great deal of range in terms of style, tone, and subject. In the introduction, Jemisin explains that she started writing short fiction in order to improve her novel writing. Other writers can only hope our exercises bear such amazing fruit.

BlackFutureMonth

Weekly Read: “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide

There is no such thing as a magic word.

As a writer, much less a writer of fantasy, that’s a hard thing to remember some times. But the reason words can hold sway in fantasy is precisely because the story being told isn’t set in the real world. Here in reality, even that most magic of all words – “Abracadabra!” – only has power because the magician uttering it has convinced the audience to buy into the trick their performing (as someone in The Prestige points out, the audience wants to be fooled).

Pro se litigants in the criminal justice system often think words have some kind of magic power. If only they can find the right sentence in a Supreme Court decision then the judge will have to overturn their conviction or vacate their sentence! I’ve seen it over and over in my years practicing law. That the law is rarely that clear and that their ultimate fate is left in the hands of another human being, with all their flaws and biases, can be hard to accept.

I thought about that a lot while reading A Problem from Hell. Samantha Powers’ 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner is an exhaustive examination of how the United States did (or, more often, did not) respond to genocidal crises that arose in the 20th Century, from the Armenian Genocide during the First World War through the multiple rounds of horribles in the former Yugoslavia.

Power spends a good amount of time on Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled at the earliest inklings of the Holocaust. He eventually came to the United States and made it his life’s work to create some international law that would address the systematic destruction (or attempted destruction) of an entire people. It was Lemkin who coined the term “genocide” and helped shape the Genocide Convention that was passed by the newly formed United Nations in 1948.

Make no mistake – this was a big deal. After the Holocaust and the Nuremburg Trials it wasn’t a given that the international community would make a fairly unified statement that genocide was a crime against humanity. And yet, the fact that there was a name for such horrors (along with a legalistic definition) didn’t magically change behaviors. Not only did further atrocities occur, but the international community, now committed to the idea of “never again,” nonetheless let it happen repeatedly.

One reason is that once the atrocity has a name, it gives the parties involved a way to argue that this particular set of killings or expulsions doesn’t rise to that level. In other words, if it’s not “genocide,” then there’s much less incentive to do something about it. That’s because, very often, there are other considerations in play than just stopping someone from doing evil. At best there’s the fact that exactly how to deal with genocide while it’s underway is always hard to figure out. In fact, Powers, for all her catalogs of what the United States didn’t do, doesn’t offer many alternatives, aside from the use of military force. That can be a hard ask in the 21st Century (not for nothing, but Powers’ book was written just as 9/11 happened and before US quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan). At worst, the people doing all the killing are allies, even if we’re reluctant about calling them that (US policy towards the Khmer Rouge was basically driven by “yeah, but they hate the Vietnamese, too” thinking).

As a result, a lot of time is wasted on terminology. So long as perpetrators can drag out the question of whether something is genocide or not, the killings go on and their plan comes closer to fruition. Since there are no magic words, what’s the point in wasting time making sure we’re using the right one? That dance of nomenclature is one of the themes of Powers’ book.

One of the others is how bipartisan US politics was when it came to dealing with genocide. The champions of ratifying the Genocide Convention – which the US didn’t do until 1988 – came from both parties. Indeed, in classic American fashion, the final ratification wasn’t a triumph of principle, but a political gambit to deflect from a scandal.

The other thread that I found really interesting in all of these genocides is how unready the world is to believe it’s happening. Part of that is down to people just not wanting to believe something so horrible is going on. There’s an anecdote about Lemkin trying to convince a Supreme Court Justice (I forget who, specifically) that the Holocaust is happening and the Justice’s response is, basically, “I can’t believe you – I just can’t wrap my head around the barbarity of it.” Beyond that, though, there’s two related lenses through which people look at these situations that keep prompt responses from happening.

The first is that information about atrocities often comes first from people who survive them, mostly refugees fleeing to other places. Repeatedly, authorities downplay the reports of refugees until they reach such a critical mass that they can’t be ignored. While we know more and more about how unreliable eyewitness accounts can be, it can be all too easy to let prudence and caution roll over into dug in skepticism. The second is that there are repeated examples of the outside world doubting atrocities are taking place because it’s not a logical thing for the perpetrators to do. Who would risk the opprobrium of the international community by trying to kill off or otherwise destroy an entire population? But, of course, history shows that perpetrators usually get away with it, at least to a certain extent. And for true believers, what’s the big deal about after-the-fact punishment if you succeeded in your goal?

Ultimately the problem of how to deal with genocide is the problem of international law at its most acute. Put simply, international law only works as well as the nations committed to it allow it to work. There is no outside force, no world police, to enforce promises nations make to one another if those nations aren’t willing to enforce them. One of the provisions of the Genocide Convention was to allow one state to take another to an international court to stop an ongoing genocide. It took until 2019, when The Gambia took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice on behalf of the Rohingya, for that to happen and it’s still not clear whether the court’s ruling will really have any impact.

It would be great if words were magical, but the hard truth of history is that they aren’t. It takes more than a label to get people and nations to do the right thing, even if it should be as simple as stepping up and saying, “stop killing defenseless people.” That’s why something like genocide really is a “problem from hell.”

FromHell

Weekly Read – Quick Hits

While I was off doing NaNo and writing a book last month I was also consuming a few (that’s much easier). Here’s some thoughts about the ones I finished . . .

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie broke out in 2013 with Ancillary Justice, a Hugo-winning sci-fi epic that I really enjoyed. She takes odd approaches to characters and settings that make the stories more interesting. I wasn’t as thrilled with the sequel, Ancillary Sword, but when I heard she wrote a fantasy novel, I had to check it out. As I expected, it’s got quite a different feel to it – the main character is, honestly, a rock. OK, so it’s a god embodied in a rock, but still. The rock god stuff works better than the human story until the two begin to intertwine. The ending really knocked my socks off, even though I predicted it. My usual is to love the openings of books and be let down by the finish – this was just the opposite.

A word on the audio version – if  you sometimes listen and sometimes read, I’d definitely recommend reading this one. The narrator for the audiobook (who also did the Ancillary novels) is horrible, imposing difficult to understand dialects on just about every character and turning the main non-rock character into a whining child.

RavenTower

The Terror by Dan Simmons

In high school when I started The Grapes of Wrath I had to take a break after the first chapter and go get a drink – Steinbeck’s description of the Dustbowl was so vivid I was literally parched. Long stretches of The Terror are like that, too, but with bitter cold in the place of thirst. Simmons takes the unknown fate of a doomed Arctic expedition and spins a tale that’s both historical fiction and bleak horror. Yes, there’s a monster involved, but the real evil lies in the hearts of men, naturally. It’s a little too long and doesn’t stick the landing (a hard right turn into native mythology), but there are some superbly vivid and disturbing set pieces along the way that make it worthwhile.

TheTerror

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. It’s got a great setup – in an alternate 1950s (Dewey really did defeat Truman, for some unexplained reason) a meteorite slams into the East Coast near D.C., killing millions and wrecking the economy. But it gets worse – the main character, a “calculator” at this world’s version of NASA figures out that the impact will cause climate issues that will render the planet uninhabitable. This jumpstarts the space program and leads to said main character becoming the first woman in space (this is not a spoiler – this is essentially a prequel to a short story written about this character years ago). The story is interesting enough, but it’s frustratingly narrow, since the POV is focused only on the main character. One suspects there’s so much else going on in this world as it comes to grips with the situation that would be interesting to explore. Also, while I thought it was great that the main character’s husband was perfectly loving and supportive, the repeated rocketry-punned sex stuff got really old really quick.

CalculatingStars

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

This is almost like the flip side of The Calculating Stars. In this book, the asteroid hasn’t hit Earth yet, but it’s coming and, as a result, everything’s gone to shit. The main character is a young cop in New Hampshire trying to convince anyone who will listen that the “hanger” found in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom is a real murder, not just yet another suicide. The investigation plays out against the background of impending calamity and what it does to society and the human psyche. That was by far the most interesting part of the book, which unfortunately was mostly pushed back in favor of a fairly lackluster mystery. As with The Calculating Stars, the POV being limited to the main character means we get fascinating glimpses of the wider world, but never really get to engage with it.

LastPolice

I’d recommend any of these, depending on what kind of story tickles your particular fancy. Obviously I really liked the first two, while the others were just OK. Still, they’re both award winners, so who am I to say?

Weekly Read: The Nonsense Factory: The Making and Breaking of the American Legal System

I’ve practiced law for more than twenty years. I’ve been a fairly regular political observer for longer than that. Which is to say that little that Bruce Gibney details in The Nonsense Factory about how messed up the American legal system has become is new to me. But having it all lumped in one steaming pile really drives how just how bad things are. We are so fucked.

Gibney really takes a holistic approach. Entire books could (and have) been written about particular problems with courts or lawyers or Congress, but Gibney brings them all into the discussion and shows how no part of what we think of as “law” – from those who make it to those who enforce it to those who judge it – is free from serious problems. I wish he had provided more concrete examples, however. Several times he’d outline a potential problem, setting up a “for example” or “as in this case,” only to move onto the next target. Granted, it’s already a long book, but some of that detail would have been nice. Still, in adopting this drone’s-eye-view he finds some threads that run from area to area that might not be obvious when viewing each in isolation.

For instance, there’s a lot of “American exceptionalism” (a phrase, according to Gibney, coined by Stalin, of all people) in our law and that’s not good. It would be one thing if the quirks of the American legal system were producing better, more just results, but for the most part they don’t. As one example, Gibney points out that judges in most other Western democracies are professionals who are trained to be judges, not lawyers (perhaps not even that) with the political skill to win elections or be picked by an executive to fill a spot on the bench for ideological reasons. As a result there’s a pretty steep learning curve for new judges. We could learn from the rest of the world’s experience, but that’s generally not how we roll.

Another example that crops up throughout the book is that although the American legal/political system isn’t designed to do particular things, that doesn’t stop it from trying to do them. The result is that we often end up with patchwork procedures held together by mental duct tape and without any great grounding in larger political or legal principles (one of Gibney’s observations is that legal education in this country provides precious little exposure to ideas about legal philosophy that could inform the system). Arguably the entire federal regulatory apparatus – something the Constitution is silent about – falls into this category. The more salient one these days, however, is the way we go to war, which is largely a Presidential decision rather than a Congressional one. Gibney wants Congress to step up and reassert its own authority, but overlooks the political calculus of the thing – actually voting for or against an overseas adventure is a big political risk, while staying out of the decision and riding the result however it goes isn’t.

For as good a job as Gibney does at diagnosing problems, he doesn’t provide very much in the way of concrete proposals for change. There’s an underlying vibe of “blow it all up and start again,” but he doesn’t actually say that needs or is going to happen. And while he does offer some specifics as he addresses some issues – close a bunch of law schools, allow non-lawyers to invest in law firms, etc. – he doesn’t really tackle bigger issues. For example, he recognizes the need to have more jury trials and more well informed juries, but doesn’t suggest changing the law to produce that result. Rather than suggest the law inform jurors of the potential sentences faced by defendants, for example, he suggests it’s sufficient that jurors be engaged and interested enough to Google the information themselves and engage in jury nullification.

In the end, Gibney’s suggestions largely boil down to exhortations to all involved to do better. Politicians should care more about institutional prerogative than political expediency. Constituents should hold them to account. Lawyers and judges should worry more about the perception of law as just than in burrowing down into their own particular specialties at the risk of losing the big picture. That’s all well and good, but if history teaches us anything it’s that people generally don’t do what’s best, they do what’s in their self interest.

How do we deal with that in the context of a Constitution that’s two centuries old and not designed for the realities of the 21st Century? I don’t know. Unfortunately, neither does Gibney, really.

NonsenseFactory

Weekly Read: The New and Improved Romie Futch

This spring the wife and I spent a long weekend in the other Charleston (South Carolina) and, naturally, found our way to a bookstore. There, in a display of local authors, I was drawn to one of the wildest covers I’d seen in a while:

RomieFutch

The concept seemed as intriguing as the artwork, so I put it on my “to read” list. Having now finally digested the saga of Romie Futch I can say the whole book lives up to the wild premise of that cover.

Romie is a man in a mid-life mess, with an unsatisfying job as a taxidermist, some issues with substance abuse, and carrying a huge, blazing torch for his ex-wife. He sees a potential way out of his rut in a medical experiment in which he (and several other similarly down-on-their-luck middle-aged dudes) has volumes of knowledge downloaded directly into his brain, turning him into a super loquacious narrator.

Armed with his newfound data dump, Romie tries to get his life on track. That largely involves occasional blackouts and other issues related to his upgrades, continued pining for his ex-wife, renewed interest in taxidermy as post-modern art, and the pursuit of an enormous mutated wild boar dubbed Hogzilla. No prizes for figuring out where the cover image came from then.

But that’s not really the point. The joy of this book is in the character of Romie and those he meets as he tries to get his life straight. Author Julia Elliott has lots of fun with Romie’s newfound vocabulary – the scene where he and several other test subjects sit down and talk for the first time, each unable to keep up with the stream of 5-dollar words coming out of their mouths, is hilarious. It helps set the tone for the rest of the book, too, as everything is always on the verge of just being too much – too many words, too many character quirks – but Elliott always keeps it from going too far. Romie may not have the best life, but it’s an amusing one to be a part of for a while (another highlight – his inner verbal monologue imagining his pregnant ex-wife being knocked up by her fiancé’s young hipster relation).

Along the way, Elliott is able to explore a lot of different areas of modern (and near-future) life. The whole book has a decaying Southern Gothic vibe to it, wherein all politicians are corrupt and big corporations wield power without any real oversight. There’s definitely a strain of anti-science through the book, as the only real knowledge pushers are doing it for malevolent ends (so far as we know – more on that later). It’s deeply cynical and the satire is pretty sharp in spots.

That being said, it does feel like there are some missed opportunities here and there. Romie’s pursuit of Hogzilla is much more satisfying than just about anything to do with the medical experiments performed on him. Since our point of view is Romie’s we never get a broader picture of what the point of the experiment was or who was really behind it. When it comes to wrapping up that part of the story the book feels at its most perfunctory, like Elliott knew she had to do something with it but wasn’t quite sure what. It’s a minor quibble, since this is a book where the journey is well worth taking, even if the destination isn’t quite what you hoped for.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite character trait of Romie’s – that he’s a progressive rock fan! It starts out early with references to Yes and The Moody Blues, but gets so esoteric as to include a reference to Henry Cow bassoonist (you read that right) Lindsay Cooper. Romie has a particular affinity for King Crimson (not the Belew years, apparently, as the songs he name drops later all come from the band’s earlier days). To say I could see a bit of myself in him is an understatement.

The bottom line is that I enjoyed this book a whole bunch. Whatever shortcoming it might have with some of the plot is more than made up for by the characters and the way they’re written. Weird and highly recommended – just like King Crimson.

Weekly Watch: Deadwood

So, somehow, I completely missed Deadwood during its run on HBO. By the time the wife and I decided we should check it out – largely on the strength of all the people in it who went on to other great shows – we couldn’t find it streaming anywhere. Luckily, when HBO premiered the follow-up film (creatively called Deadwood: The Movie) a little while back they ran the entire series on one of the subsidiary channels. We loaded up the TiVo and, over the last few weeks, worked through all 36 episodes and the movie.

My general impression? Expectation is a hell of a drug.

I’ve seen Deadwood called one of the greatest TV shows of all time and a singular achievement. I’ve seen fans still in thrall to it on the Internet for years after the show ended prematurely (the plan, as I understand, was for it to be a four-season run). All that led me to expect, to want, a really profound viewing experience, something to stick away in my pantheon of all time greats. It’s probably not surprising that, to my mind, it doesn’t measure up.

To be sure, there are a lot of great things about Deadwood. The main characters – and the actors who play them – are great. Al Swearengen is one of the best “evil motherfuckers with a heart of gold” ever conceived. The arcs of reforming prostitute Trixie and (multiple) widow Alma are excellent. Law man Bullock is kind of a killjoy, but at least he’s consistent about it and struggles with it.

A large part of what makes them great are the words creator David Milch and the writers put in their mouths. Deadwood is downright Shakespearian at times, if Shakespeare had grown up listening to George Carlin records. The show is famous for its cursing, even though its particular verbiage might be a bit anachronistic. The show also got a jump on Game of Thrones’s famous “sexposition,” with several scenes where Swearengen waxes poetic about his back story while getting an unsatisfactory blowjob.

If not precisely accurate, the language is part of the overall feel of the show that makes it seem a lot more realistic that your typical western. People piss in buckets (or the street) and cough up lungs. The murdered die slow, bloody deaths. Pigs are used as waste disposal tools Tony Soprano would envy (fun fact – my wife and I also discovered this while simultaneously watching Gentleman Jack, set a few decades earlier). Everything’s small, dirty, and cramped. Deadwood starts in a kind of state of nature, so it’s only natural that life there is often (to borrow a phrase) violent, nasty, and short.

But here’s the thing – most of what happens in that milieu and most of what’s propelled by those awesome words isn’t really that compelling. In reviewing the movie the AC Club said that the “cowardly murder that follows forms the spine of the movie’s second act, but any narrative is just gravy.” That’s in an otherwise positive review, but it seems true to me of the entire series. The show doesn’t seem so much interested in where it’s going, so much as how we get there. I can appreciate that, but it doesn’t thrill me. And it leads to times where the narrative jumps for no good reason other than it has do (I still don’t understand how the big elections in town first don’t happen, then become county-wide later in the third season). Beyond that, the plotting and scheming that everybody gets up to gets a little tedious, particularly since there’s very few people involved to actually root for.

And when those schemes involve those outside main characters, things get rough. For some reasons, many of the minor characters (like the “mayor,” E.B. Farnum and any of Swearengen’s goons – and why they hell did Garret Dillahunt show up three times playing three different characters?) begin as a kind of comic relief, a release valve from the swaggering fuckery of the main characters. But as the series goes along they move from pleasant respite to broad cartoons that don’t really resemble human beings anymore. This is where the very stylized language hurts, because coming from the mouths of those characters it multiplies the cartoonishness.

Which all ends up with Deadwood being a series that I admire for large swaths but didn’t really love. The movie, for what it’s worth, is basically more of the same and while I can see why fans were happy to have it back, if only for a little bit (I love Serenity, after all), reviews I’ve seen saying that it provides “closure” must have a different meaning of the word than I do. I’m glad to have caught up with it and seen what all the fuss was about. If nothing else, it’s added “hooplehead” to my vocabulary, so for that I fucking thank it.

Deadwood

Weekly Read: Great North Road

There was a time when how long an “album” could be was confined to the limits of vinyl. Somewhere between 35 and 50 minutes was the best you could do, and the higher limits were only available with compromising sound quality (hence why all the old Zappa/Mothers albums are so short per side), unless you were making a double. Regardless, it set expectations for what an “album” should be.

Then along came CDs and all that changed. The apocryphal story goes that the amount of music a CD could hold was designed so it could contain all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so about 79 minutes worth of music. Not surprising then that artists in the 1990s and 2000s took full advantage of the extended time, sometimes with great effect (Mike Keneally) and sometimes with an overabundance of filler (I’m looking at you Flower Kings). Equally unsurprising that, as we push on towards the 2020s, album lengths have generally returned to that 45-50 minute zone, even though with digital download formats they could be nearly endless.

Which is to say that in a world of vinyl-length novels, Great North Road is a jam-packed, full-length CD (my understanding is that author Peter Hamilton is known for lengthy books). Sadly, like many of those early Flower King albums, it doesn’t benefit from the additional time it takes up.

Which is a shame, because there are some very cool things happening in Great North Road. The title itself is a bit of a hint, as “North” is actually the family name of a huge clan of clones that has more money than God at this point. The family fortune was made on supplying a petroleum replacement (in the audiobook it sounds like “bi-oil,” but I have no idea how it’s actually spelled) sourced from the planet St. Libra. Said planet is reached through a Stargate kind of gateway located in (of all places) Newcastle, England. There are other worlds, other portals, and an existential threat called the Zanth (again, no idea how it’s spelled) that lingers over everything.

Into all this comes the murder of a North in Newcastle, which kicks off the book’s parallel plots. One is terrestrial, as a Newcastle cop tries to solve the murder. The other takes place mostly on St. Libra, where a military expedition is mounted to find if there is, perhaps, sentient alien life on St. Libra after all. The focus of that plot thread is Angela, who’s lengthy backstory is revealed as the book progresses. She, and her backstory in particular, is the most interesting part of the book, since it allows Hamilton to explore some other worlds and the societies that have developed on them. The way Angela’s past informs her present and dovetails into the St. Libra plot is really well done, even if that plot line is largely an extended riff on the “expedition is caught in the middle of nowhere with an angry monster” trope.

There’s no such compelling narrative to the plot happening in Newcastle, however. While the two do connect in the end, you’re left wondering if the Newcastle stuff could be confined to a lengthy prologue. The investigation just goes on too long with lots of extraneous details (the narratives of the way detectives navigate Newcastle’s highways makes me think of the SNL skit “The Californians”). Sid, the main detective, is a decent enough character, but he never really comes to life.

There are other annoyances – all the woman are beautiful, the Newcastle banter is really repetitive, things really wrap up a bit to neatly – that come and go, but given the length of the narrative they pop up a lot. It makes the narrative more of a slog than you’d expect for an interstellar adventure in which clones and a monster somewhat reminiscent of Hyperion’s shrike should be.

So all in all, there’s a really good, interesting book to be exhumed from Great North Road, but the effort leads to a solid shrugging of the shoulders by the end.

GreatNorthRoad