Monthly Archives: August 2015

War is Hell, Literally, When the Demons Come to Fight

I am three books in to Django Wexler’s fun musket and magic fantasy series, beginning with THE THOUSAND NAMES. The latest, THE PRICE OF VALOR, continues the narrative successfully. Knowing that Wexler is a reviewer of Anime is critical to understanding the narrative. The plot and setting feel like good Anime. The character design, with the different shapes and sizes of soldiers and characters, and the way demonology works with the Naathem feels familiar to fans of Anime. Some of the plot points, despite feeling a little convenient, are well within the bounds of what would happen inside a good Anime show. For instance, in the second novel, Danton is conveniently discovered as a performance savant, carrying a demon unknown to himself, and he appears in the world at the moment it is useful to the plot for him to appear. In a world of twisting and scheming, it feels convenient for him to arrive when he does, exactly with the most useful power he could have. When Lieutenant Winter Ihrenglass, a transvestite lesbian soldier, is sent to the docks for her inscrutable Colonel Janus’ infiltration mission, she stumbles across her childhood love, whom she was determined to find again. Conveniently, there she is! But, to a cynical Westerner, much of this is so familiar to what happens in Anime, that it only goes to reinforce the notion, in my mind, that I am reading a Western author’s attempt to write like the Anime he loves.

It’s a very good series, believable warfare, and interesting characters and situations. It’s a “yarn” not a “high literary fantasy” but a well-told yarn.

Now, what I find most interesting is the religious overtones. I happen to know that Mr. Wexler, when last we spoke, was not a deeply religious man. His criticism of the corrupt church is apparent in the text. But, the way the plot works out, it feels like there’s a higher power at play. Call it the author, moving pieces around as needed, or without the author, call it the hand of god. There is a divinity present in the text and the plot and the miraculous way the characters seem to stumble across exactly the expertise they need when they need it. Again, reminiscent of Anime, but… Just before it would be needed to do battle against a demon of the black church with control over flames, a character is introduced who specializes in exploding things. Her shrapnel grenades prove to be the critical component that lead to victory against the demon, Cinder. It is commented often in the text that Colonel Janus’ tactical genius is seemingly supernatural, and he makes a lot of lucky guesses. These lucky guesses are important to the plot – they lead to victory, after all – but they also seem to relate to a subtext of something at work in the world that is a little too divine. There are just a little too many moments where something very unlikely and convenient arrives or happens that a careful reader will notice and think either there is a flaw in the texts or that something is up. For an author without much religious conviction, the plotting of the book seems to indicate a strong faith in supernatural intervention. That faith may be the needs of the twisting plot in a complex series by a relatively new author. That faith may also prove to be something else, entirely, in the world of the book, itself. There are two books, yet, and undoubtedly surprises ahead. In a world where demons walk in the flesh of men, it is not so hard to believe that heaven blows through the deserts of Khandarai, and the red fields of blood and musket ball.

Regardless, my dad is enjoying it a lot, and I’m reading it with him and I am in agreement.

One thing to call out as a clear positive, that is all too often underrepresented in historical fiction of this period of warfare: female soldiers. There are enough well-documented cases, that undocumented cases had to be more common than we credit them. Winter Ihrenglass rises through the ranks of the books, a lesbian cross-dresser enlisting to serve in the distant Khandarai, and quickly rises through the ranks, becoming Janus’ right hand, and a powerful force of demonology. And, what I love about her character arc is that it is the things we would call “feminine” about her that made her so successful as an officer and plot mover. She was an outsider in Khandarai; ergo, she went out and learned about the Khandarai people and culture. She was merciful to a woman she encountered and took prisoner, afraid that the woman would be raped by the men of the camp. In this, she gained two powerful allies that ultimately led to the success of the mission to acquire the sacred names. As a woman, she was able to move undetected among the docks and street gangs and form alliances that no strict soldier could form. Her ability to pass as a man also fed into her ability to pass as just some person on the street. She’s a great character, and makes the series worth reading all by herself. The strength and competence of women in this series is refreshing in a genre (military fantasy) mired in tokenism and male power fantasy with regularity enough to feel noticable. Hell, two women just passed Ranger School – the elite of the elite – and Rousey is probably one of the toughest professional fighters in the world of any gender identity. Military leadership qualities, and martial ability, are simply not limited to gender or sexual identity, and it is refreshing to read a book that openly takes on the challenge of making that argument with the many women that enter combat. (How many military fantasy books pass the damn Bechdel-Wallace test with flying colors?)



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Drinking and Growing Stuff: an Enjoyable Book on Drunken Botany

Infotainment is a tricky business. Either the book will be entertaining, but lack information, or the book will be informative but only interesting to those who are already deeply committed to the field. I enjoy a drink now and again, and I also enjoy growing things. I was actually very excited recently to witness the bloom of a passionvine I had recently planted. I have spent the last three days out in the backyard, clearing out the August weeds and planting for the fall garden, and planting new fruit trees for our little orchard. This weekend, I will be chopping down a dying, old juniper tree, and using the wood in the garden for more organic matter, more organic matter, more organic matter. And, I will be drinking a beer on the patio afterwards, made by own two hands, and some other pieces of equipment. Anyway, I am the target audience for a book about drinking and botany, and the origin of drinks in botany. For this reason, my wise sister passed it along. The book is light and breezy, clearly written with an audience of everyday folks who are not familiar with the field of botany. Early on, there were things I clearly did not know and I was pleased to learn a broad overview of agave, and apple cider. Hooked, I continued on deep into the night, reading through all the entries and seeing what new things I could learn. The bugs and booze inserts were lots of fun. Plants need insects, and yeast need plants, and the connections of everything together may be a little disgusting, sometimes, but there is a pleasure in seeing the squishy origins of things.

It’s a fun, light, and breezy book for anyone interested in plants and libations, that still manages to be informative, and don’t get too serious about anything in a review of it, because it’s just not that kind of book.


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Cornbread the hard way

O axacan Green crossed with all sorts of things in the garden was harvested and allowed to dry out. Shucked, plucked, milled by hand, and turned into a rustic cornbread, i have frozen all that is left for future stews and bean chilis. Doing things the hard way is actually quite rewarding and fun.

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A Great Cloud Falls Over Chile, or Distant Star by Roberto Bolano

Poetry is not the center of politics, anymore. In fact, much of the things that used to be the center of a community – church, local agriculture, poetry, music – have been destabilized by the information age and the economy that has resulted. Everything that is of value, now, is made cheaply, in mass quantities, for a technologically-connected world. It is next to impossible to make a living anymore at local-level agriculture, poetry, music, and even church faces her challenges as the community dissolves into agnosticism and the aging population dwindles naturally. Once upon a time, poets were murdered in their sleep, and important enough to be murdered in their sleep.

Naturally, it is hard to reset the mind for a modern reader to comprehend why poetry could be so important, so dangerous, that the Garmendia sisters – twin poetesses expressing their socialist ideals in verse – must be raped, murdered, disappeared, along with their family in the night when Pinochet’s coup violently swallowed the nation of Chile. Still, in 1973, perhaps, poetry was still important enough. The idea of poetry, after all, is the pure, exalted state of idea, where minds can express with utmost clarity from one mind to another, and can infect minds with ideas expressed beautifully.

The book Distant Star  by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, gives a close and personal look into Pinochet’s Chile from the view of the poets. Young men and women, students at a University, met with a mentor to workshop their poems, pursue publication, and all other respects engage in the life of the mind. One of the men in the workshop is not what he seems. He is popular with the women of the workshop, including the beautiful Garmendia twins, and even the less-attractive but intelligent and talented woman the other two young men clearly respect. And, his poetry, in the workshop, always seems… off. No one can put their finger on it, but it is like the ideas are not quite original, or there is something very familiar to the poems, as if they are copies of poems from somewhere else. Yet, the Garmendia sisters insist this copycat is secretly one of the great poets. It is a mystery.

It is also a mystery that is quickly solved. He is a German descendant of Nazis, and a key officer in Pinochet’s revolution. He is an executioner and cleaner that was seeking out Socialists to be picked up, interrogated, possibly raped, possibly disappeared. He is also a skilled pilot, and a skywriter. After the revolution, he becomes the voice of the dictatorship with his poetry written in the clouds, themselves. It is as if he is the voice of heaven, or gives the voice of heaven to the regime. Much of his sky poetry is done in old Latin. Much of it is done as public spectacle to a community of prisoners, terrified men, who look up and cannot even appreciate the poems. He takes his poetic too far, and there is a long section in Europe, where the survivors have fled to escape Pinochet’s terrible regime. In Europe, the poet and pilot disappears into the air, itself, a myth and rumor and mystery, and a fallen star, once proud and bright.

The book explores closely the relationship between all those poetry journals and political power. Men and women from all walks of life are drawn to create poems, create journals, express their ideas and marvelous manifestoes. This is to say that the terrible ideas, as expressed in poetry, are both the root of the problem where bad ideas flourish, become fascism, murders in the night, etc., but also that the poetry is the cure. Poetry was so dangerous, once. It was so powerful, once. It used to be the center of politics and faith and culture. A fascinating book looking into a world where poetry matters, Distant Star calls to question the values of our own society, where the arts flounder on the shoals of raw commerce, and oligarchs accumulate authority and influence to hold back the floods, when they come, from the lesser peoples. There’s the final journal of fascism, where working class men will ritually defile great works of literature, peeling pages off and eating them, shitting on them, etc., to prepare for their own work. In this journal, the Fascist is found among the disillusioned working men. In this expression of the powerless, where all the young survivors of the poetry workshop, older now, have given up, gotten jobs, and moved on from their dreams of great works of art, these broken and defective men have never surrendered, to the point of madness. The man who would carve his poems into heaven, itself, swelling with pride at his great works of art, and his great works of murdering political dissidents, like an angel is not truly allowed to die. He is probably killed, but it happens off-screen, far away from the reader and the narrator. It is like a specter disappearing into the air, itself. A cloud puff fades, a word is uttered, and in the end, the world has already moved on.

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Been busy…

The room was large with a high ceiling and had all sorts of tubes and wiring in the rafters. There were different sizes of glass funnel above, ready to descend, with rubber sealant sprayed onto them. The tanks of gas were overhead, too, nestled like eggs among the nest of tubes.
“I’m relaxed, sir,” I said. I tried not to look up again.
“Good. So, we’re going to stand you in the center of the room, right inside the yellow square painted there. A glass tube will descend. For just a moment, you’ll be in vacuum, but you’re young and strong and you can handle it. Then, the ionized gas will fill the vacuum in an instant, and the glass will come up once transfer protocols lock in. You’ll be done in less than a minute. Okay?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Take a deep breath and hold it on my signal. Keep your mouth closed. It doesn’t really matter if you panic or not once the tank descends. You can’t break it if you try, I promise. Best thing to do is just hold still, try to relax, and let it happen. It will be over before you even start to hurt.”
“Got it, sir.” I stood firmly in the center of the yellow square, but I looked up at the glass tube above me.
“It will hurt a little. The ionization process is not a pleasant one. But, it will be no worse than getting a shot in the arm.”
Lights went on in another room behind a glass window that was darkened before. I saw technicians there looking in, and working at terminals, securing their connections and focusing the data lines into the proper channels for my transcendence.
“Hold still, Ensign,” he said, speaking calmly. “On my count, take a deep breath. 3…2…1…Hold.”
Air held still inside my lungs. The glass came down from above surprisingly quickly, but not so fast that I couldn’t jump out from under it if I had the nerve. It separated me from the room, and the vacuum seal hissed. I couldn’t hear anything, then. The air filled with a blue gas that emerged in spots and lines like a grid of flowers in the air itself. It was dazzling, and sudden, like getting punched and seeing lights. The gas filled out the air, and swirled and then I was through. In fact, I had been through for a few moments already, and the gas was actually an optical illusion of my body and brain trying to process the sudden shifts in my vision and orientation.
The glass came up and I was born here, on the Citadel.
The moment I had seen gas, I was already here, and the images in my retinas of the place I had been is proof to me that it was real. Once upon a time, there was a place called Earth, and a young cadet named Ronaldo Aldo who had lived at sea with his mother and father, until he went to War College in the ancient city at the heart of Mexico, and he stepped into a glass tube that quantum cloned him, creating me.

I was born, then, and I was reborn with all the sins still in my heart, my failure with Shui Mien, with my terrible pride.
Is starting to look like an interesting short novel, but more revisions needed.

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Good-bye to the Dodo, to the Bokikokiko

Soon, the rising oceans will swallow island nations like the Maldives, Kiribati, and Micronesia. Miami will go, of course, and will be two feet underwater, and everyone is talking about the American cities that will be underwater, but we forget that there are whole kingdoms of men and women that will dissipate into the ocean completely, becoming little more than a refuge for jellyfish. The people on these islands are already preparing for the total and inevitable transformation of their way of life. Parts of India are being bought up. Neighboring islands with higher ground are reaching out to their neighbors. The people will find refuge. Curious at how we so often forget are neighbors of the fur, feather, exoskeleton, and leaf, I poked around to find what native species will be lost forever when the islands go. It seems it’s already too late for them.

You see, the Age of Encounters on these islands, when all ships from all over started traveling all over, with people and chickens and goats and rats, new plants, new vegetables, new poisons, new population floods, all together crowded out whatever native species were prominent enough to merit the name. Dead as a dodo could be said about a great many species beyond the dodo. The endangered species of the island kingdoms are all in the sea: the coral reefs will be lost with the acidification of the ocean. Will there even be coral reefs someday?

I feel great sadness for the people whose homes are going to be underwater for a thousand years, and for the societies and communities that are going to be flipped upside down forever. I feel for them. But, I see in the loss of the trees, the replanting of new trees, new plants, the invasion of the creatures that exploited the niches we created a greater sadness. People will be fine. We don’t even know what we’ve lost. There will be whole genetic lines that disappear forever. Whole communities rose and fell on those islands, independent of man, for centuries where the coconut seeds landed on the sandy shore, and debris carried tough black-winged petrels from one island to another, hunting fish.
There is one bird, native only to Kiribati that will probably be gone, soon, when the waters rise, because even if it is protected in a zoo or refuge, it will have no wild grasslands to call its home, free of competition it had no ability to outfly. The Bokikokiko is a bird that is as unknown as the name of the youngest son of the president of Kiribati. It is endangered now, and it will have no home soon. When the waters rise, it may continue on as a museum display for a time, in some sad replication of a native habitat in an enclosed zoo somewhere, but it has no future at land or sea with the loss of Kiribati. I am willing to believe that most people did not even know this bird existed at all until a few minutes ago, with its ridiculously beautiful name.

We don’t even know what we are losing, most of the time. We don’t even notice the absence of the birdsong, this year, or the reduction of song. I stood in my front yard, yesterday, where our desert willow and agave and native flowering plants and shrubs stand out in a community of property-value-raising oak trees. I looked up int he branches, and watched the hummingbirds flit from one flower to another, stopping to rest in the branches of my trees. All around me, I saw nothing else for them to eat as far as my eyes could make out among the hunched houses and huge, endless oaks. I plant things that make tiny berries for birds. I leave one of the blackberries uncovered in fruiting season, for the birds. I do not argue over figs with birds. I plant things that flower and seed that birds like to eat, and butterflies like to eat. I don’t know what else to do. I feel powerless to stop the tide, the death of beauty in this world, the end of birdsongs and the end of butterfly wings.

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The Future Is Uncertain, Grow Food

Ron Finley’s TED Talk about growing food in the public median in Los Angeles, and all the ruckus and legal ails that resulted from growing vegetables and fruits in a giant food desert in impoverished neighborhoods of Los Angeles talked a lot about a separation that has occurred among the people in this country and the ground beneath their feet. Always, in America, there is a mudsill, and a community of people upon that mudsill. The hardest work (and the agricultural work is some of the work) is done by the people who are on that mudsill. The people who are one step above the people on the mudsill would do anything to avoid any signifiers or placement alongside the humans whom society has placed upon the level of the mudsill. Right now, our poor communities in urban areas do not grow enough food. Our rich communities don’t, either. We have all this land as lawns, as concrete pavement and weedy lawns, as lawns and ornamental scapes and lawns. I don’t eat grass. I bet you don’t, either.

Anyway, this is a documentary that expands upon Ron Finley’s TED Talk, prominently featuring him and others who share his values from all walks of life in their gardens. It’s called URBAN FRUIT and it touches tangentially upon a lot of the issues around growing food, including selling excess produce, and balancing economic needs with human needs, which are not the same. Cities are a reflection of ideologies. The big, sprawling city is a reflection of a way of life that is far removed from human reality, and it will either change us to better reflect a sprawling city life, or (what is more likely) the sprawling city will collapse into compartmentalized neigborhoods that become whole worlds, collapsing again into smaller neighborhoods and again until the seas rise up, the buildings crumble, and the wild things return to dance like sparrows on the crumbling gravel.

The further the civilization develops, though, the less it questions the validity of the basic ideas themselves, and the urban environment is a critical factor in making this happen. By limiting, as far as possible, the experiences available to influential members of society to those that fit the established architecture of thought, urban living makes it much easier to confuse mental models with the universe those models claim to describe, and that confusion is essential if enough effort, enthusiasm, and passion are to be directed toward the process of elaborating those models to their furthest possible extent. –

Urban Fruit looks to be both a necessary transition into sustainable living, and a snapshot of what growers in one of the most developed cities in the world (Los Angeles) are doing and how they are doing it. It is an accumulation of ideas and theories about public and private space, eloquently presented by charismatic gardeners. It also looks like the beginning of the end of these huge, sprawling cities, where the ideas of the city’s foundation are being pushed out by people taking necessary steps to reclaim lost agricultural land and heritage in a city that has mostly abandoned the citrus fields and cow pastures of yore. Climate change is coming, and already huge amounts of people simply don’t know where food comes from, if not the store, and simply don’t know the first thing about what makes it good or bad, and why. Look upon the buildings and houses in the background of the film, and wonder where food will come from for them. Soon, the gardens will expand, and green roofs will expand, and every city will collapse into an accumulation of neighborhoods, growing food and independent of the globalization that flows around them like an invisible highway. Poor communities, already trapped by globalization, will become islands in the city, more self-sufficient, and more green.

Growing your own food is like printing your own money, after all. It separates you from the system of high finance and commodity crops that do a lot of harm even as they are trying to do some good.

The documentary, itself, is less revolutionary than I am giving it credit for being, but I am lost in the context of the documentary, and the place and time where these things are all happening all around us, and the cities, as we knew them, were never sustainable, never a good idea without great changes that will come to the forgotten neighborhoods, and the communities of color that city services all too often will forget.

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