stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
A few days ago, I finished reading Means of Ascent, the second volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. I briefly commented on the first volume here; under the cut, some comments and speculations on the second.What If... )
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
Still trying to organize my posting habits....

My most recent bus book was The Color-Blind Constitution, by Andrew Kull (published 1992), a historical review of the concept of color-blindness as applied to the laws and Constitution of the United States. It begins with the efforts of women's anti-slavery groups in 1837-40, petitioning for the repeal of Northern-state laws which treated people differently on the basis of race. There were many such laws; Ohio is singled out as having an exceptional number of them, but even Massachusetts outlawed interracial marriage. (The efforts were coordinated between the states, and a more-or-less standard petition was drawn up. In Massachusetts, where the marriage ban was the only law obviously covered by the petitions, this opened the door to some rather crude mockery of the petitioners.) The petitions were unsuccessful, but did establish the color-blind principle as one possible abolitionist stance. (It was not universal among abolitionists, to be sure.)

The story proceeds to the heroic efforts of Charles Sumner and others to establish that school segregation was contrary to the Massachusetts constitution; Sumner's argument in Roberts v. City of Boston, though it failed of its purpose, became a central one: the principle of equality before the law puts racial discrimination beyond the reach of government power. Chief Justice Shaw, ruling for the state supreme court, noted that the law dealt differently with adults as opposed to children and with men as opposed to women; since these were not exceptionable, neither was discrimination on racial grounds. Equal protection was not a strong enough argument; an outright constitutional ban on discrimination would be necessary.

During the Reconstruction period, there was an effort to write color-blindness into the Constitution; abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips pushed for the following amendment, which would have been the Fourteenth:
No State shall make any distinction in civil rights and privileges among the naturalized citizens of the United States dwelling within its limits, or among persons born on its soil of parents permanently resident there, on account of race, color, or descent.
Phillips gained the initial support of the formidable Thaddeus Stevens - unlike Phillips, a member of Congress - but, in committee discussions, Stevens eventually decided that three-fourths approval even of the Northern states (the Southern states being, at this point, disenfranchised) would be impossible, and instead agreed to a proposal by John Bingham, which eventually became the Fourteenth Amendment that we know today - establishing, as Massachusetts had, equal protection rather than nondiscrimination as a Constitutional principle.

From that point, the road to Jim Crow was clear. Though some judges interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as banning discrimination, more did not - including, eventually, the majority of the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice Harlan's dissent still pushed for nondiscrimination, but he was alone on the court: "separate but equal" became the legal mantra.

Interestingly, that phrase left the door open for continued attacks on segregation; over the next fifty years, there were numerous court cases ruling that this or that bit of segregation did not, in fact, provide equal facilities and therefore was unconstitutional. It was a piecemeal attack, but it accumulated force until, finally, Brown v. Board of Education decreed that separate facilities were inherently unequal. Plessy was never fully repudiated; it was simply ruled that the standard it set for permissible segregation was unachievable. Harlan's dissent did not become the law of the land; instead, the argument of his opponents was pushed in an unexpected direction.

At that point, it seemed as though color-blindness was victorious (although the opinion in Brown did not say so). Yet, only a decade later, those who fought for civil rights shifted their ground, calling for racial preferences in the other direction. Kull carefully explains how and why this happened, in a nuanced discussion which I won't attempt to reproduce. After the riots of 1964-65, the Kerner Commission offered a prescription for alleviating the problems of the black underclass, including among other things massive government employment programs, analogous to the New Deal's CCC. (Surely the plight of the underclass in the 1960s was as bad as that of the unemployed of the Great Depression!) But in the political and economic context of the '60s, the Kerner Commission's proposal was dead on arrival. All that was actually achievable lay in such methods as what we now know as affirmative action, forced busing, set-asides, and the protective clauses of the Voting Rights Act; Kull describes their emergence, and the reasons for their emergence, at considerable length.

Finishing the book, one feels dissatisfied. There were so many points where a "road not taken" might have led to better consequences; yet political and economic realities stood in the way. Wendell Phillips' amendment might have made a vast difference, but even the Radical Republicans were unwilling to go that far. The progressive judges of the last decades of the nineteenth century might have prevailed in the Supreme Court, stifling Jim Crow in the egg; but they were outnumbered by the conservatives who drafted the opinion in Plessy. The Kerner Commission's proposals might have been acted on; but instead we chose to push for equality on the cheap, with results that are far from satisfactory.

This is, after all, a book on the history of constitutional law, and thus it is predictably dry in spots. Still, I learned a good deal from it, and would recommend it to anyone interested in the questions it discusses.
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
A few days ago, I read John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation, which is, so to speak, a remake of H. Beam Piper's classic Little Fuzzy. It's a quick read, as its progenitor was, and quite enjoyable. I'm not going to give a full review, but only a few comments, hopefully not too spoilery.

The basic story of both books is the same. A miner discovers a possibly-sapient species of aliens on a planet controlled by a single corporation; confirmation of their sapience would legally void the company's control, with massive financial implications. The miner and his allies face off against the corporation's agents. The fight has both physical and legal aspects, and climaxes in a courtroom battle.

There are numerous minor differences. Jack Holloway, the miner, has a distinctly different personality in Fuzzy Nation. (He also has a dog.) The corporation's behavior bears a closer resemblance in FN to that seen in 19th/20th century "company towns". There is far less smoking and drinking. But there is exactly one truly major difference, and it turns a pleasant romp into a far more mature and nuanced story. (FN is, I think, less memetic; Piper's Fuzzies belong to a recognizable class including Anderson and Dickson's Hoka, Cherryh's hisa, and even the Ewoks. Scalzi's version are more themselves.)

The difference is agency. Piper's Fuzzies are intelligent and capable enough in their own sphere, but in their relations with humans they are essentially passive; one character thinks of them as perpetual children, until and unless they evolve into species adulthood. (Never mind the teleological assumptions there....) Scalzi's Fuzzies are fully adult; when, late in the story, we see the sequence of events from their point of view, it is a major shift, and leads to a climax fully as moving as the ending of Heinlein's "Jerry Was a Man" - but Papa Fuzzy is even more of a man than Heinlein's Jerry.

Fuzzy Nation is an excellent reworking of Piper's theme, and I strongly recommend it.
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
Thomas Barfield's The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 is, as its name suggests, an analysis of the relations between China and the peoples of the steppe from the Han Dynasty to the rise of the Ching (Manchu) Dynasty. I found it fascinating; a review is under the cut.

Three-Way Contest )
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
I wrapped up my Farscape rewatch with the Peacekeeper Wars mini-series. I considered not doing so, because I find it a slightly uncomfortable fit with the rest of the series. For the unspoiled, I'll put the rest under a cut.

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down )
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
I've been interested in Persian/Iranian history ever since I read about Shah Ismail I in Toynbee. I have as many books on the subject as I do on the history of any non-Western society. Until now, though, I haven't had a source on Ismail himself and his successors. Safavid Iran, by Andrew J. Newman, is that source. A few words of review are under the cut.

Balancing Act )
stoutfellow: (Winter)
It Is So Ordered, by Warren E. Burger, is... well, the cover blurb is a reasonable description:
The former Chief Justice of the United States recounts fourteen of the cases and historical events that shaped the Constitution.
It is, Burger says, "a story and not a formal history"; in other words, it is a popular account of some of the major cases. Further comments are under the cut.

Read more... )
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
I just finished reading Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, and I have to say I'm a bit disappointed. I've read about half a dozen of McKinley's novels, enjoyed them all, and thought that several - Sunshine, The Hero and the Crown, perhaps Deerskin - were excellent. This one, though....

The Blue Sword was one of her first books, and I think it shows. (Wikipedia confusedly identifies it as her first novel and as her third.) The story is uncomplicated; there is only one point where the heroine faces a real challenge, and some plot points are a bit predictable. Nor are the characters particularly nuanced; all of the major characters get along all too well, not allowing a little thing like a kidnapping/drugging stand in the way of their developing friendship. I will admit that there are some good touches; the depiction of Harimad's camp the day and night before the big battle is nicely atmospheric, for instance. But on the whole, I expect more from McKinley (and usually get it).
stoutfellow: My summer look (Summer)
Vilmos Csányi is an ethologist, a student of animal behavior, specializing (as one might guess) in dogs. In If Dogs Could Talk, he provides a layman's introduction to the results of his studies of canine psychology, combining anecdotes of his own dogs with descriptions of experiments; the result is a lively and fascinating story. (It is also a controversial one; Csányi counts himself as one of the "New Anthropomorphists", who are willing to acknowledge the possibility of animal minds, but require scientific verification of claims about those minds. I suspect that the majority of ethologists would currently disagree.) A more detailed discussion is under the cut.

Details )


Jun. 25th, 2010 10:06 am
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
Last week in San Diego I picked up nine books at Barnes & Noble. I've finished five of them so far, and have a few comments, under the cut.

Brief Notes )

Two Books

May. 20th, 2010 01:31 pm
stoutfellow: Joker (Joker)
I finished reading The Satanic Verses some days ago, and decided to reread Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang. (I read it once before, probably in the mid-90s; I remember almost nothing, but must have enjoyed it somewhat - I bought McHugh's second novel, after all. I'm enjoying it quite a bit on this go-round.)

I find myself a bit surprised by the similarities between the two books. Not to overstress that: Rushdie (nominally the mainstream author) flirts with magic realism throughout, while McHugh (the writer of science fiction) is grittily realistic. Still, there are thematic connections. Among its several strands, TSV is about acculturation, about colonialism, and about the problem of finding one's self under the pressure of those forces. So too is CMZ. (Chamcha and Zhang both find themselves meditating on the fact that, no matter where they go, they are still the same person; the one thing you can't run away from is yourself.) The strains put on Gibreel and Chamcha, suspended between ex-colonial India and ex-colonizer Britain, are the same as those on Zhang, the barbarian from New York seeking his fortune in Nanjing. Not having finished CMZ (and not remembering the ending), I can't comment on how well the parallels persist, but they are there, and they are striking.
stoutfellow: Joker (Default)
1. On a recommendation from an LJ friend, I picked up John Ringo's Princess of Wands while I was in San Diego. In terms of plot and context, it belongs in the "Buffy" category, along with Sunshine and Carpe Demon; unfortunately, I didn't find the main character particularly likeable. I also found it rather gorier than I like; like Joel Rosenberg, Ringo dwells a bit too lovingly on shattered hyoid bones and the like. I doubt that I'll be reading any of the further books in that series.

2. I also bought a copy of Peter Hamilton's Pandora's Star, on a vague recollection of hearing his name recommended. This one, I liked quite a bit; the story involves numerous interweaving plotlines, against the backdrop of an interestingly designed society. The alien menace is well-conceived; the various POV characters, all of them, act on incomplete and possibly incorrect information, and at the (literal) cliffhanger ending the reader cannot be sure which of them are nearer to the truth. ("Paranoia strikes deep...") There's a slight flavoring of Dan Simmons here, although without the... intensity and floridity Simmons brings. I'll certainly go after the sequel.

3. People of my acquaintance who are mystery buffs have been pushing the name of Dick Francis for quite a while, and I finally gave him a try, with Bonecrack. It's a solid and satisfying story; if in some respects it's a bit predictable, still, the working out of the details is entertaining, and the characterizations are a little more solid than one expects in a mystery novel. I'll be looking for more Francis.
stoutfellow: (Winter)
I just finished Julie Kenner's Carpe Demon, the first of a series of books about a middle-aged demon hunter. Overall verdict: a fairly interesting Buffyesque story, comparable but inferior to, e.g., Robin McKinley's Sunshine. Further details under the cut.

Demons in Suburbia )
stoutfellow: (Winter)
In America's Constitution: A Biography, Akhil Reed Amar attempts to weave together several different strands of study. The Constitution is usually studied from one of three viewpoints: that of law, that of political science, and that of history. Amar's stated goal is to work from all three vantages at once, showing how they illuminate one another. How well he achieves this, I am not qualified to judge, but I will say that I found the book enlightening.

Bit By Bit )
stoutfellow: (Winter)
I posted a very brief review of this book earlier, but it really does deserve more attention than that.

The Great Khan )
stoutfellow: My summer look (Summer)
I owe a couple of people book reviews, but if I wait until I have the mental oomph to write them as they ought to be written, it'll be months (or, rather, more months than it's already been). So, pending the possibility of eventual full reviews, let me offer these.

1. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford. An interesting and informative book on the Great Khan, his successors, and their impact on the world. I think Weatherford proves some of his main points, that Genghis was not as much of a monster as European legend paints him - and no more of one than, say, Alexander or Charlemagne - and that he was truly a remarkable man, both tough and flexible of mind, and one who hoped and strove to establish a durable and peaceful empire. He doesn't, I think, prove that Genghis was admirable, though, and he certainly overstates the impact of the Mongol Wars on the rest of Eurasia. Still, very much worth reading.

2. Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I've seen it compared to Borges and to One Hundred Years of Solitude; I think the similarities are there, especially in the early going, but I think they're not that consequential. What this novel is, is Gothic, and very good of its type. Love both requited and un-, mysterious disfigured strangers, ruined mansions, decayed wealth - there's even an inquisitor of sorts. One of its best features, I think, is its recreation of the atmosphere of the great Gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, without resorting to outmoded tropes. Where classic Gothic uses sinister Dukes and Jesuits lurking in ruined abbeys, Zafón uses the claustrophobic atmosphere of Francoist Spain, in the years just after WWII. It serves the same function, without imposing the archaism that too many imitators of the classics fall back on. I enjoyed it a great deal, and was tempted to buy the untranslated version of Zafón's next novel. (I chickened out, but I will be getting it in translation.)
stoutfellow: My summer look (Summer)
Janis Ian released The Autobiography Collection, naturally enough, to coincide with the publication of her autobiography. Prior to buying the album, I didn't actually know much about her, as person or as singer. Of course, I knew her signature hit, "At Seventeen". I knew that she is a science-fiction fan, and that the day she was introduced to Connie Willis was the day she understood the stammering incoherence of her own fans. Beyond that, not much.

What can I say of the album? This: that I do not have any other album which packs such emotional punch for me. Songs of joy, of triumph, of defiance, of sorrow.... I'm sure much of what I react to is idiosyncratic, but, well, there it is.

The Autobiography Collection )
stoutfellow: My summer look (Summer)
Captain's Fury is the fourth book in Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series. I reviewed its predecessor, Cursor's Fury, earlier; here, I'm just going to offer a few disjointed comments on this book and the series as a whole.

When in Not-Rome... )
stoutfellow: My summer look (Summer)
Another of my recent reads is S. M. Stirling's Conquistador. I'm not going to give a full-blown review; I just have a few comments, some of them spoilery, so they'll go under a cut.

Vintage Stirling )
stoutfellow: My summer look (Summer)
I'm quite sure that I read The War of the Worlds in my early teens, but I remembered very little actual detail. (So little, in fact, that on my list of this year's reading, I'm not classing WotW as a re-read.) I do know that, at the time, I had no idea what a "curate" was; I believe I interpreted it as meaning something like "curator".

Anyway, I only have a few tangential comments to make. I knew about Wells' astronomy, with its slowly-cooling Sun and inward-migrating habitable zone; before the discovery of nuclear fusion, what other picture was possible? That the Martians used cannon for interplanetary transit also was unsurprising; the potential of rocketry had not yet been recognized. The biology of the Martians raised my eyebrows a little; it's odd how teleological a view of evolution so many early SF writers adopted. Creatures reduced to little more than brain, speaking tympanum, heart and lungs, without even a digestive system or, of course, sex... That the Martians were defeated by succumbing to Earthly micro-organisms I had known; that, according to Wells, the Martian ecosystem had no micro-organisms at all, I had not. I can't blame Wells for his ignorance, but still, that last makes me shake my head.

The other main point is this. It's pretty obvious that WotW is "really" about colonialism and imperialism, just as The Time Machine is "really" about class conflict. My copy has an afterword by Isaac Asimov, which goes over this point in some detail, and there's something about that afterword that annoys me. Asimov writes
In the book, of course, the Martians are finally defeated, but not through any successful action of human beings. H. G. Wells died in 1946, too soon to see that European imperialism would finally be stopped also, but not through any successful action of the non-Europeans.
He goes on to attribute decolonization primarily to the effects of the World Wars on Europe.

I think that Asimov allowed the analogy to carry him away, here. Certainly the weakening of the European powers by the wars was a major factor, but is it fair to deny all causal agency to Gandhi, Nehru, and Chandra Bose? To Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap? (No successful action?) Sukarno, Ben Bella, Kenyatta, Senghor, Mugabe, Mandela, Lumumba: were their efforts absolutely without effect? Nonsense. It is possible that the withdrawals would have taken place without any action at all by the locals, but the long and savage wars in Indochina and the shorter, but equally savage, one in Algeria suggest otherwise, not to mention events in Indonesia, in Kenya, in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Asimov's analysis is uncharacteristically short-sighted here, I think.


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