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Geek Luddite

Feb. 20th, 2017

05:03 pm - Three ways of not saying something useful about art

This weekend I had two tries at saying a thing and managed both badly, so I thought, well, third time's the charm and I will try again in text and see if it works better than speech.
And lo, here I ramble about art and love againCollapse )

Dec. 4th, 2016

03:00 pm - It's seasonal card time!

It's seasonal card time again! If we follow each other on any social media and you would like a seasonal card, just message or email me your postal address and your preferred seasonal holiday if you have one (I will default to generic season's greetings of various sorts, but if you prefer to get your greetings for a specific seasonal holiday I do try and track that!) and I will be delighted to send you a card.

Wishing you all a season filled with light and graced with lovely moments.

Oct. 11th, 2016

08:29 pm - Books: Unsettling Europe, by Jane Kramer

On a recent trip a dear friend took me to a fabulous used bookstore (in a converted mill! overlooking a river! surrounded by trees, and with its own coffee shop where one could (and I did) purchase fabulous sandwiches and strong caffeinated beverages and sit with the spoils of one's book trawl while looking through the branches to the rocky water below).  The slogan of the bookstore was "Books you don't need in a place you can't find" and I came home with several books I did not need but, so far at least, am enjoying very much.

Unsettling History by Jane Kramer is a slim book bringing together four essays about... well, about what it's like to be a person whose life is in the cracks of the narrative that the people around you are bent on telling? Reading this book now has a very particular historical feeling because these are essays written in the 1970s, which means the time they're written in is 40 years in the past, and they're essays with a wide historical scope and perspective, so this is the voice of the 1970s commenting on lives stretching from the 19teens to the then-present 1970s.  Reading them now is like reading history of history - but at the same time it's a very immediate voice, and some of the assumptions of the narrative are oddly off in the same way that reading old science fiction about the future is off

The first essay is my favorite, a novella length piece with a whole series of novels worth of scope. The elderly communist Italian couple at the heart of the essay lived through So Much Change in Italy, and have such... such intensely and complexly human lives, and I think the essayist must have fallen in love with them a little writing about them, because the quality of the essay made me love them both very much, and feel as if they were relatives I'd known at family reunions and wanted the best for.  The essay about workers from Yugoslavia working in Sweden had its own sort of heartbreak because there is no Yugoslavia anymore, so those poor workers who spent decades working in other countries to build houses they hoped to return to... did they ever enjoy those houses?  Were they able to stay on and ever plant roots in Sweden?  And then just after reading their essay I was doing laundry in my own apartment and talking with two women who left Yugoslavia and... the way in which the echoing concerns of 1970something so directly come and affect now was one of the lasting effects of this short book for me.

All four essays echoed backward and forwards for me, reflecting on the times that led up to when the essays were written and the ways in which the issues raised in the essays are still unresolved now. The other two essays were about the relocations that accompanied the wars for independence in former French and English colonies after the second World War.  Reading about the racism and violence and economic loss experienced by these travelers in the 1970s, and matching that up with the news about Brexit and about the struggles in France that have made frequent news the last few years was... complicated and exhausting and fascinating?

The whole book was about 250 pages long. It gave me a lot to think about.  And I think it would be a fascinating quick reference for worldbuilding, for thinking about the kinds of characters that live in the worlds we create and how they see and experience those worlds. The people in these essays lived very hard lives, so I do want to mark out that these essays touch on sexual assault, physical violence, emotional abuse, racist language, and a number of just really astonishingly, complicatedly painful situations.  The text, written in the 1970s, occasionally has a narrative voice and framing for these events that is not what I would want from a text written now (things acknowledged but treated casually then that would I think be treated less casually now). If those aspects aren't deal breakers for you, there is a lot of really valuable material in this very short book.

Sep. 3rd, 2016

09:00 am - Books: Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siecle Germany

I finished reading Dueling: The Cult of Honor in Fin-de-Siecle Germany, by Kevin McAleer. I finished the book months ago and this post has sat in my drafts unreviewed since then until now because by all the petty things you might ever pray to, this book was bad.  This book was not good.  This book was the kind of book that shitposting was actually invented for.

If you absolutely must read a book on dueling in Germany in the mid-1800s to early 1900s, I hope you have found some other options. This book is not at all good.

The author notes in his introduction that he finds the idea of dueling romantic and that he thinks if he had been alive back then, he would have dueled. Yes. Yes, he would, because dozens of people would have challenged him.

Folks, I am an easy sell when it comes to histories of dueling. I will read dry academic articles. I will read the footnotes. This book would be so much better if it were merely dry. Dry can be informative! This book is full of errant failures of logic, bizarre intrusions of full brooding capital letters for nouns like Truth and Beauty, and a sort of constant underwash of misogyny like the taste you might get if you accidentally poured yourself a mug of coffee in the morning without realizing there was half an inch of last night's mediocre lemonade still drying out in the bottom of the mug.

Normally I try to charitably attribute this kind of mix of the subject matter and the narrative tone to a sort of accidental mixing that has occurred when the unpleasant notes of the past have swirled, like unset watercolors, into the ink of the narrative framing.  In this case the author explicitly told us, in the text, that he sought out this research because it felt like his kind of thing. So. Mixing = canonically intentional in this case.

Nonetheless, and quite disturbingly, the book actually was quite useful for the purpose for which I read it, which was to help me imagine how scientific societies full of epic douchecanoe bros wearing the scientific society equivalent of feather-bedecked science fedoras might conceptualize their dueling habits. That is, however, a real specific sort of purpose. This is not a general use book is what I'm saying here.

So.  This book exists.  You could conceivably read a copy if you find it.  You have been warned.

Jan. 24th, 2016

05:38 pm - Books: The Stolen Prince by Hugh Barnes (biography of Gannibal)

Oh gosh, never have I wanted to recommend bits of a book so much while simultaneously being so disappointed in that same book. This biography was a hot mess. It's full of awkward, uncomfortable language used about its subject in a thoughtless way; it is not very good at providing a clear throughline to its sections; the opening section is unfortunately one of the least effective, most problematic sections in an often ineffective and problematically structured narrative... and yet.

There just aren't going to be that many book length biographical options about this fascinating person, and there also aren't that many biographies about significant black figures from Europe in the 1700s. And I am a sucker for biographical and historical narratives of the 1700s that span multiple countries.

So, strengths: the bits tracing Gannibal's interactions with 1700s French intellectuals and the bits about Russian court politics feel deeply researched and intriguing. There's a gorgeous tiny bit about Gannibal writing protections for the serfs on one of his estates into a lease contract, and then actually taking the person he leased the estate to to court, and winning, when that person mistreated the serfs. There are some snarkily fantastic bits about Peter the Great.

Weaknesses: the opening bit about slavery in the Ottoman empire, and indeed all the references to the Ottoman empire, are stunningly orientalist in tone. The kindest thing I can suggest is that perhaps... the author read a bunch of very offensively orientalist things for research and then toned them down for reuse without actually stopping to analyze whether the toning down had in fact gone far enough to, y'know, stop being awfully orientalist (hint: it had not). Then there's the consistent narrative textual reference to Gannibal as "The Negro of Peter the Great" which.... no. no. please do not do this as narrative nomenclature outside of references. Maybe this comes across less awfully in the United Kingdom than in the United States.

Which, actually, is a nice segue to the biggest problems I had with this book: 1) it does not seem to be written with an intended audience that includes black people of any nationality (I mean, obviously I cannot definitively judge this given that I am a) white, and b) not the best reader of subtext, but... I would be very deeply surprised if it didn't grate on the nerves of black readers in many spots, which is extremely unfortunate given that it is a biography of an important historical black European), and 2) it does not seem to have been written with any eye to discussion of race, racism, or slavery in the broader context of its own time period, let alone contemporary perspectives. There are persistent and, to me, inexplicable references to Byron's poetry in the narrative, and an excruciating bit paralleling Gannibal with Shakespeare's Othello, but the only time that Aphra Behn's Oroonoko gets mentioned is in a caption to an illustration. There are no, none, zero references to other historical captivity narratives of the 1600s and 1700s, even though the captivity narrative was a thriving literary genre and widely published.

Basically: come for the bits of translated Russian politics and snark about French intellectuals, enjoy the fragments about Gannibal's life, and... sort of wade through the many pieces of unfortunate frosting holding these pieces of cake together?

So many not delicious things wrapped around so many delicious excellent things. I just... I dunno what to say overall here. Absolutely worth it if you're the kind of reader who is interested in this topic and good at sort of... forking aside the less appetizing bits of the presentation to the side of your plate?

On the plus side I found out while looking up title and author for this post that there is a different book also written about Gannibal by a children's author who made him the star of a chapter book series for kids, so at least I have some next things to read.

Jan. 11th, 2016

07:58 pm - Queer characters, fiction recommendations, cataloging, and internalized prejudice

I've been thinking lately about queer characters in fiction and how hard it can be for folks to find published stories with queer content in libraries and bookstores -- even when that content is actually there in published books.

many paragraphs of blather ensue...Collapse )

I'm still in a muddle, I guess, and I'm talking it out here hoping to get some kind of mental clarity.

Jan. 4th, 2016

07:41 pm - From the other side of several days of sleep

New Year's Eve I came down with a cold or a flu or something. It was the most lovely, benign type of whatever-it-was.  I didn't have a sore throat, or a cough, I wasn't congested: I just ran a fever for two days and slept almost around the clock.

Then I had a day where I lay in glorious languor on the couch, drinking beverages and reading Zen Cho's absolutely fabulous novel Sorcerer to the Crown.

I'm starting out the new year feeling quite rested, and very refreshed, and since I'm still possibly just the slightest bit getting over the whatever-it-was, I've given myself permission to put off any resolutions or useful activities until next weekend.

I hope that your new years are, as much as possible, off to similarly restful, optimistic starts, full of good things to eat and drink and entertainingly delightful things to read and comfortable pillows galore.

Dec. 5th, 2015

12:44 pm - Seasonal Card Time - my yearly reminder, request, offer, what have you!

I love seasonal cards.  Writing them reminds me of all the things I love most about the holiday season and is one of the main ways I interact, personally and spiritually, with the holidays.

If we follow each other mutually on any social media, and you would like to have a holiday card from me this year, please message me.  Ideally, lemme know the name I should use on the card, and the address, and, if you're feeling extra kind, specify the type of holiday greeting you prefer if you have a holiday preference.  (I will default to generic holiday, not religious, if no preference is suggested.)  I do try to keep track in my spreadsheet of holiday info when I know about a holiday preference, so if you tell me it's Solstice, or Christmas, or Hanukkah I will do my darnedest to write down which and remember to use it. Failures are mistakes, not intentional hints of anything, I promise.

I know the holiday season is not celebrated by everyone, and not a good time for everyone.  I won't be sad if you would prefer not to get a card.

I would, however, be genuinely delighted to send you one.

Nov. 12th, 2015

06:53 am - Posted here in lieu of that hole that Midas's barber used (oh, whispering grass)

It's a more-or-less a functional substitution, but (probable) hypervigilance and massive pattern matching is an EXHAUSTING replacement for whatever other people use for people reading.

Oct. 28th, 2015

12:22 pm - Books: $2 A Day

On recommendation of a friend who wrote a wonderful review, I picked up $2 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer (http://www.twodollarsaday.com/).

I then spent two days being vaguely cranky at the world and marginally depressed while reading it, but I recommend it nonetheless. Very short, well researched, and does a nice-enough job of combining the narrative "stories" with the policy analysis and data to work for most people, I think.

I grew up in a not-well-off family with an extended family who were middle class and upper class.  We were poor but we were cushioned from the kind of deep poverty that this book is about.  We were occasionally homeless, we were on WIC and received food stamps (they were still food stamps back then) when I was a kid in the 1980s.  But I always had winter coats.  We got enough shoes.  When we were homeless we couch-surfed in pretty nice houses, or got to stay in motels. We had running water and heat.    Though I knew this book was focused on people and situations more difficult than the ones I grew up in, I knew a lot of people growing up who were poorer than we were. I did not expect that there would be a lot that was new for me in this book.

There was a lot that was new to me.  The policy changes of the 1990s came after my family had (re)-entered the middle class.  Most of those changes took effect after I had gone to college, and I have not needed to access social services of these types since college. Things for the lower working class may have gotten better (at least according to notes in this book), but, as the authors very clearly show, things for the very poorest in America have gotten a lot worse.

If you have the emotional energy, this was a very worthwhile read. Probably at a similar level of depressing and angering as, oh, Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol? But possibly with more triggers.
Trigger warnings behind the cutCollapse )
[edited because I forgot to put in the authors' names after the title when first posted.]

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