Review- Corey, “Leviathan Wakes”

James S. A. Corey, “Leviathan Wakes” (2011) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – I figured I’d give the Expanse series a try. People recommend the tv show to me but I wanted to try the books first, and I do make some cursory efforts to “keep up” with what’s big in scifi. At this rate it’ll be years before I get to the show, especially if my work tasks change again and I can’t do audiobooks, but we’ll see. I haven’t got much time for hour-long tv shows these days anyway.

In any event, this wasn’t great but it was good. It’s written by two dudes (“James Corey” is a “house name”), one of whom was George R.R. Martin’s personal assistant. It appears they learned much from Martin: short chapters alternating viewpoints (with the viewpoint character’s name right up top), idealists becoming more worldly and cynics learning to believe in something, blood splashed liberally around, detailed and interesting (if not mind-blowingly original) worldbuilding.

The two main characters are Miller, a world weary cop on a habitat in the Asteroid Belt, and Holden, an idealistic officer on a merchant spaceship (truth be told, the authors kind of slather the idealism on heavy towards the end to give their duller character a personal crisis). A cluster of murders, crises, and general fuckery set the Solar System on a collision course towards war, unearth ancient evils, and of course bring the two characters together to fix things.

The Expanse takes place a few centuries from now, when Mars, much of the Asteroid Belt, various moons are settled by people (but not terraformed). There’s no “faster than light” technology propelling us to the stars- everything takes place with the good ol’ solar system. It resembles, in many ways, the workaday space setting of the “Alien” movies: megacorporations, polyglot proletarian communities of spacers, confined utilitarian environments, etc. I like that sort of thing, though I do think the authors could have mixed it up a little more. Maybe it’s just the historian in me but I’m a little irked that they depict the community feeling of “Belters” (residents of Asteroid Belt stations) as basically the sort of nationalism we see on Earth, just cut and pasted onto outer space. Especially given the ways they distinguish Belters from “Inners” (people who live on the inner planets) — they’re physically different in some ways, speak their own patois, developed a culture around the harsh necessities of space habitation — you’d think there’d be a good opportunity to see how different ideas of community might develop…

This pattern repeats itself in a few places. There’s some (rather pro forma) invocation of the wonders of space travel, but this is no final frontier and there’s nothing really that imaginative, in either the world or the plot. The closest is an ancient evil non-human intelligence that “infects” a space station and gives it an eldritch consciousness. But in the end, that mostly amounts to an opportunity for some creepy H.R. Giger-inspired body horror and a very human-scale redemption narrative. The characters are also pretty by-the-numbers. Space cop is “in love” with a dead (conventionally attractive, natch) girl he’s meant to find. Space officer/dad of misfit space family has to learn to be more flexible but not give up his moral compass. Gruff space men are gruff. But the book hits the old beats enjoyably enough, like a well-practiced barroom rock band. I’m willing to try out the next one. ****

Review- Corey, “Leviathan Wakes”

Review- Wilde, “Salomé” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Oscar Wilde, “Salomé” (1894) and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895) – Oscar Wilde! I’ve known about him forever but this is my first time reading him. I got a book of his plays at a used place when I was briefly dating a woman who liked his work. One of the Melendy Avenue Review Citizens (become a Citizen, come on, it’s cool) indicated he wanted me to read Wilde so I’d reveal details of said relationship. There’s not a lot to reveal. We had fun for about two months and then something stupid and shitty happened and we both said and did dumb shit and then it was over and we haven’t spoken for years. The end.

I’m not sure Wilde is really relevant there, except maybe in being a libertine, which I guess the lady in question also was, but not really more than most people our age. Being a libertine was riskier in Victorian days- Wilde went to jail for a couple of years for sodomy, which ruined his health and probably prematurely ended his life. He had fun encounters with censors, too, including having “Salomé” banned from the London stage because it depicted biblical characters. But he was a rich, educated, Anglo-Irish libertine, and you could say he got the last laugh as he’s still beloved to this day.

I get the idea people probably love the image of Wilde more than they do his actual written work, but the latter holds up ok too. “The Importance of Being Earnest” is an amusing farce wherein two cynical dudes get with two idealistic-but-wily ladies, both of whom really want to be with men named Ernest because of the romantical sound of the name? And so they need to both be Ernest and a little bit earnest, despite being cynical and owning each other all the time with witty ripostes and generally not taking things seriously, and despite neither having been bestowed with the handle in question. One of the characters also discovers his paternity! Normally, a cynic getting all misty-eyed about love and paternity after however long acting above it all makes me mad, but it’s hard to do with Wilde, I guess because of his writing chops and the fact it was all so long ago. I will say the tropes — contrasts between London and country behavior, dronish young men, dreamy young women, battleaxe aunts, confusion and duplicity leading to love — were done better by Wodehouse in my opinion, but would there be a Wodehouse without a Wilde? That’s for historians of British comedy to say, I guess.

After finishing “The Importance of Being Earnest” I gave “Salomé” a try as a dessert. It’s a one-act fever dream about Christianity and paganism in the key of Orientalism. I don’t mean this to make it “problematic” though I guess it is, if you care- I mean to indicate that it partakes of a tradition of immoralists like Wilde looking to a fabulous (in many senses of the word) East. Say what you want about Orientalism as a topos but it was meant to entertain, provide a sensuousness conspicuously lacking in the coal-damp European modernity that developed alongside it. Salomé is sex as a certain kind of Victorian understood it, in all of its naivete and knowingness. Chivalry destroys itself for her, venality in the form of her mother and step-father try to contain her whilst despoiling her, pedants ignore her to fight each other, above all the crude misogynist prophet John the Baptist, representative of what’s coming next (SOME motherfuckers are going to be vexed to nightmare by the rocking of a cradle, to quote the most abused poem in the English language, by Wilde’s fellow Anglo-Irish weirdo lit guy), defies her, spits on her, gets got by her (well, her slaves, but on her command), and ultimately has the last grim, tight-lipped non-laugh at her expense. It’s weird. Part of me wants to do a table read of it over Discord or something but, as they say, it is “problematic.” But short! DM me? ****

Review- Wilde, “Salomé” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Review- Moore and Tracy, “No Fascist USA!”

Hilary Moore and James Tracy, “No Fascist USA!: The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements” (2020) – A comrade recommended this book to me. I do love a good movement history, and this one is pretty good indeed. It details the doings of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, which fought the good fight against the resurgent KKK and other white supremacist groups in a period one could call “the long eighties” — formed in 1978, the JBAKC disbanded amicably in 1992.

I had vaguely heard of the group — had seen images of their broadsheet, “DEATH TO THE KLAN!” — but what I didn’t know is that it was mostly made up of SDS and often Weather Underground veterans. I kind of assumed that the ones who didn’t wind up in jail for robbing armored cars all married Jane Fonda and became Democrats, but that’s where assuming gets you. These movement vets looked for ways to get involved during the doldrums of the late seventies. You could say they turned the sort of desperation to prove themselves “good whites” to better use than ill-conceived armed robberies. Namely, when a few of them got a letter from a Black Panther incarcerated in an upstate New York prison that many of the guards and officials at the prison were Klansmen, they got together with other organizers to do something about it. Thus was the JBAKC born.

The Klan (both the actual Klan and Klan-as-metonym-for-open-violent-white-supremacist-organizing) grew considerably in the late seventies and early eighties, fueled by post-Vietnam angst and the general rightward drift that brought Ronald Reagan into office. They got involved in stuff as diverse as “patrolling” the US-Mexico border for migrants, intimidation campaigns aimed at refugee Vietnamese fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, attempting to pretty up their bullshit and go mainstream, etc. Many of them were emboldened by the Greensboro massacre in 1979, where a coalition of Klansmen and Neo-Nazis gunned down five communist organizers who had come out (mostly unarmed) to protest against them… and everyone involved walked free.

JBAKC was mostly a handful of aging radicals. What could they do against this? Well, they could do what radicals are supposed to do- they could organize. They linked up with other groups, often local PoC organizations and some national ones, like the Republic of New Afrika. The New Afrikans, in some respects, provided a conceptual bridge for the former Weather Underground people. New Afrikans, as black/“Third World people” (that’s a phrase you don’t hear nowadays) anti-imperialist organizers, could call upon those who held to the old WUO line (that the role of white radicals was to follow what third world radicals were up to) to follow their lead in fighting the Klan. Kind of weird the white radicals were that programmatic about things, but that’s still a thing you see today, sometimes. Either way, these radicals meant it. They had every opportunity to sell out and get into real estate or supplements or something and didn’t do it.

The coalitions JBAKC helped build did different things in different places. They outed Klansmen and other white supremacists, getting them fired from positions like the ones at the prison they were first warned about. They counter-demonstrated when the Klan or Nazis put on rallies, mostly sticking to signs and derisive chanting but unafraid to throw the occasional brick. They “no-platformed,” with the same unhelpful arguments on the left dogging their heels that we hear today, and Moore and Tracy argue reasonably persuasively that Nazi skinhead appearances on “Oprah” and “Geraldo” helped popularize Nazi skins (and marginalize anti-racist ones). They got involved with the punk scene and helped fend off Nazis there. They did what they could, where they could, and always linked up the struggles on the ground to broader struggles- anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and towards the end, fighting homophobia and AIDS stigma alongside ACT-UP.

The authors let the JBAKC organizers speak for themselves a lot, and it is stirring to hear the voice of experience, even (especially?) when they’re admitting to their faults. The writing in the book is pretty decent with some odd editing glitches (people, often referred to only by their first name, written about as though they’ve been introduced when they haven’t been- that recurs at least twice). More conclusions about what JBAKC accomplished, as opposed to their lessons — be humble, be persistent in the face of fascists, build coalitions, have strategy — for today’s organizers, valuable though the latter are.

JBAKC didn’t overthrow capitalism or even get Reagan out of office. The Klan and the various Nazi groups still, mostly, exist, joined by many others, now. For some (mostly armchair) leftists, that alone would discredit them. Moore and Tracy, who are organizers along with being historians, admit the group’s faults: self-righteousness, occasional dips into a dogmatism that made them turn off potential allies. But to me, that’s more or less the point. Antifascists, then or now, aren’t superheroes. We’re regular people working together to do what we can against a pressing problem. We are part of broader movements for justice and, for most of us, against capitalism. Antifascism is a part of that movement. For all the antifa theatrics you can summon up, I understand what we do as maintenance work for the movement- protecting our organizing and that of organizers and people more generally from marginalized groups under threat. If we manage that, we’ve done something good for the movement. If we prefigure a better world where people protect each other- well, that’s good too. JBAKC did that, and we can all follow their example. ****’

Review- Moore and Tracy, “No Fascist USA!”

Review- Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) – I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to like or dislike, in my heart of hearts, anything. It appears that the various Internet-based dispensations about artistic taste and personal virtue mostly only apply to public utterances. I recently had an acquaintance tell me it was important that I see a given pop star’s work as superlative, but that’s one of the few times lately I’ve had my internal headspace even lightly patrolled by woke types. To throw a somewhat inappropriate metaphor in there, most of us accept that individuals are the princes that decide on the religion of the subjects of their individual opinions in the feudalities of their minds- cuius regio, eius religio. Of course, the failures of that system led to the ghastly Thirty Years War, but what the hell, it’s just a metaphor.

But we are not concerned with my heart of hearts, here, because I express my opinions about books in public for all to read. I become “fair game.” This worried me, some. Humans are gregarious mammals and while I can shrug off abuse from strangers and enemies (there should be a good example of that up tomorrow, preview!) I don’t like to disappoint friends. So as I started “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” I began to worry. What would the consequences be of publicly disliking this book? What are the consequences for publicly disliking a black women writer, besides the usual exceptions of your Candace Owens and Condoleezza Rices (Zora Neale Hurston’s politics weren’t great, either, but seemingly people don’t care)? What are the rules re black writers and women writers more generally? I found myself thinking about previous instances- I’ve disliked plenty of white women writers, like Sheila Heti and Sylvia Plath, with limited backlash, none of it moral/political. I’ve been critical of black male writers like Ibram Kendi and Colson Whitehead and it went fine. I haven’t read a ton of black women writers and I’ve liked most of them, especially Toni Morrison, Elaine Brown, and Octavia Butler. Hurston was by no means popular in her own time — Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison both denounced the book as patronizing to black people when it came out — but was rediscovered by seventies feminists.

As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry (probably didn’t need to in any event, but hey, worry keeps me on my toes). I wound up neither really liking nor really disliking this book. Part of my early worry was my pedantic dislike for the title. What else would they be watching God with? Their feet? I’ll also admit I wasn’t crazy about Hurston’s decision to write the vast majority of the book in southern black dialect orthography, including the first person singular becoming “Ah.” It made it more difficult to read, and if it were written by a non-black person, it would sound a lot like minstrel dialogue. I’ve seen examples of similar dialogue done better, but Hurston was something of a pioneer as a black writer writing black dialogue in literary fiction, so she sort of made the road.

Anyway- what is the book about? It is about a young black woman named Janie who wants more out of life than early twentieth century America wants to allow for black people, women, or especially black women. She wants independence, love, the simple pleasures of life. Her grandmother marries her off to a shitty dude. She runs off with another dude to Florida, where said dude becomes a big wheel and also turns out to be shitty, wanting her to be somewhere between a work mule (lots of mule imagery here, and pear trees- I never did like pears that weren’t caramelized, another innocuous feature conspiring against my enjoyment of this book) and a trophy wife. Said dude pops his clogs and Janie runs off with a younger man, nicknamed Tea Cakes. He’s the best of a bad lot. He’s fun, at least, and seems to sincerely like Jamie. He also steals from her and beats her at least once. The way Hurston depicts gradations of domestic abuse — she didn’t come out and say Tea Cakes’s beating “felt like a kiss” but it was basically considered “good” domestic violence — is both rough to read and probably reveals, in some backwards way, a truth about bad relationships. But then he gets bit by a rabid dog and gets rabies himself, forcing Janie to kill him. She gets off at her trial and then sets up as an independent lady, having found what happiness she can.

I’m sufficiently interested in experiences dissimilar to mine that “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was worth engaging with in any event. That said, relationship stories need an extra “lift” to get them over on me (“but Peeeeeeter, alllllll stories are relationship stories!” bollocks). This has some lift, mostly towards the end. Hurston can tell a mean hurricane story. And you do wind up rooting for Janie. There’s less in the way of social commentary here than I expected. I tend to think that might be part of why Hurston’s Harlem Renaissance peers didn’t like it in the engagé thirties, and why it’s been an enduring classic since the seventies. White people basically don’t feature (except when white women rally around Janie’s defense after she kills Tea Cakes, an, errrr, interesting turn), and you can see why that would appeal. It’s not about criticizing an unfair society, it’s about relationships and their structural features. You can say there’s no such thing as society in this book, just men, women, and their dreams (not a ton of kids, either!)… but that’s probably the kind of thing that would get me in that trouble I was anticipating… ah, well. ***’

Review- Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

Review- Pelecanos, “The Big Blowdown”

George Pelecanos, “The Big Blowdown” (1996) – George Pelecanos appears to be one of the big crime writing dudes of the last few decades. I first heard of him as a writer for “The Wire.” Or, rather, I heard of him because Ishmael Reed (a “problematic fave” of mine) tore him a new one when Reed was “on one” about “The Wire” being racist and chumpy a few years back. Pelecanos was a secondary target for Reed’s wrath, after Richard Price, but it did call attention to the gallery of big time crime writers who worked on “The Wire,” including Pelecanos (also including Reed’s fellow birthday lecture subject Dennis Lehane, who Reed did not name check in his diss, for whatever reason). So I figured I’d give Pelecanos a read. Sorry, Mr. Reed.

“The Big Blowdown” takes place in Washington DC mostly during the late forties. The soldiers are back home from the war, the dames are sexy, no one leaves home without their “deck” of filterless smokes, and even low-level crooks like the characters in this book dress sharp (the main character is a clothes horse with an interest in women’s shoes- I wonder if Pelecanos is into historical lady footwear? A charming personal detail if so). Pete Karras is a local boy, son of Greek immigrants and combat veteran, who drifts into organized crime with his childhood bestie Joe. He gets into trouble because he’s too nice to working-class immigrants who owe his boss money (the boss and his flunkies all have “old stock” Yankee or German names- wonder if there were many mobs like that running around?). Joe judas-goats Pete into a crippling ass-whooping. Pete leaves the life and becomes a cook at a diner. Joe stays.

This is a crime novel but not a mystery. There is a whodunit of sorts in the background that becomes important to the plot — someone is cutting up sex workers — but it’s pretty obvious quite soon who is doing it and it’s not the point of the book. The point mostly lies with Pete’s relationships and with the historical background/mood. Pete shows what was cool about forties manhood — the dames love him and he can kick ass even when limping — but Pelecanos isn’t shy about what all that cost. Dames love him but he can’t keep a good relationship. He’s married, routinely cheats, can’t connect with his toddler son. He’s something of a loser. When Joe and the mob he still works for come around to shake down the diner where Pete works, Pete and his hardass Greek immigrant employers prepare for a showdown with the mob. “Closure” for Pete and Joe’s relationship — in classic tough-guy fiction fashion, men’s relationships with women (mother excepted) are chapters but relationships with other men are books — and survival for the defiant diner become intertwined. There’s a side plot with a kid from a Pennsylvania steel town trying to find his addict sister in the big city that gets tied in, too.

The main peculiarity here is that the first forty pages or so of the book involve Pete’s childhood and then his service in the war. It establishes Pete’s relationship with Joe, I suppose, and the immigrant milieu in which they live. The war stuff makes clear Pete is a badass. But it seems to me other detective fiction does similar stuff without making such a big thing out of it. I was never especially curious about the childhood of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, I have to say. Part of it seems to be Pelecanos’s devotion to immersing the reader in his world. He draws Balzac comparisons from critics, and you can see why that would have attracted the producers of “The Wire.” He doesn’t do a half-bad job with it, either, but I’m not sure it’s the best thing for a crime story, compared to a lighter touch on the characterization and world building. The novel does tighten up considerably towards the end, when the pacing really comes on line, where it counts. All told, not a bad book.

I am developing a thesis that the nineties/early 2000s were an interesting time for crime writing for a few weird reasons. There’s some funny negotiations with sex and race, white tough guy writers dealing with earlier iterations of the “anti-oppression” ideas we see today, taking angles where they can. One of the best crime writers of that era, Eddie Little, a real life ex-con who literary fraud James Frey ripped off, had his characters spool out whole theories of how people of different races should talk to each other (with such rules as “if someone of a given race isn’t there, you can shit talk them all you like”) in between scores. Little wrote two books full of grit and jailhouse braggadocio-turned-flight-of-fancy, then relapsed into heroin use and died, leaving American crime fiction the poorer. As for Pelecanos, his characters, mostly Greeks, interact with black people in ways that make me wonder if they were meant to be rebukes to “political correctness”- a sort of rough and ready equality where both sides interact and rib each other (slurs included) and nobody’s keeping score… Pelecanos has a helpful black gangster give a speech about how he doesn’t want to be integrated, he wants to be on top of his own thing… I don’t think that’s the point of the book at all but it does make me wonder about the genre and the time. ****

Review- Pelecanos, “The Big Blowdown”