Sunday, December 10, 2017

More Books Worth Your Time

It's been a while and I've read some books. Plus you might have bibliophiles to shop for. So here we go.

Neil Schusterman is one of my favorite authors in part because he's waging a one-man war to increase the vocabulary of Middle Grade and Y.A. readers. Also, his work is daaaaaaaaaark. In Scythe, all of the world's problems have been solved by the Thunderhead, which is like the Cloud in that it exists and no one knows how it works or what the fuck it actually is. The last remaining problem is overpopulation, and so "Scythes" play the role of grim reaper. Eventually it evolves into the classic problem of who regulates the regulators, but Schusterman has a gift for outstanding world building, original scenarios, spot-on pacing, finding original ways to present the mentor-student dynamic, and characters that transcend the whole young girl vs. grey patriarch dystopian thing. Bruiser and Unwind are previous Schusterman books that share Scythe's strengths.

Antifa: The Anti-fascist Handbook
I was probably already on a watch list, being left of center as my government oozes to the right of Meng the Merciless, so I had nothing to lose by buying this book. It was an impulse purchase, as I was originally looking for Fantasyland to scratch my "How did 70,000 of my countrymen elect this unqualified racist game show host?" itch, and I stumbled on this book by Occupy Wall Street organizer Mark Bray.

Like many people, I hadn't heard of Antifa (Anti-fascists) prior to Nazis marching openly and committing murder in the streets of Charlottesville last summer. Seeing the footage I was curious about the people in all black who took it upon themselves to mace the knuckle-dragging, mother's basement-dwelling, white hate douche brigade as a public service. The stated purpose of Antifa is to meet the far right wherever it gathers and make life miserable for the Klu Klux Klownz until they renounce their beliefs, crawl back under the rocks, or move somewhere else. The book makes a case for Antifa gathering under the following circumstances: when white supremacist groups are emboldened, when the police can no longer contain them or become contaminated by them, and when these groups threaten the safety of already marginalized populations (people with pigment, gays, Jews, Muslims, people who read, and, eventually, everyone they find inconvenient).

Antifa organizations are listed as terrorists because they destroy Starbucks windows rather than protesting politely, and crimes against money are blasphemy as long as we insist on wealth being our unofficial national religion. Most Antifa are anarchist or communist in nature, which remains my only real objection to their existence, since neither of these philosophies actually work. One thing the book convinced me of is there is an argument to be made for these organizations. They have always disbanded shortly after white supremacy has been pushed back underground. (In other words, they aren't a slippery slope to an equally bad far-left dystopia.) They were a big part of keeping England from falling to fascism as Italy and Germany did in the 1930s. We defeated European Nazism with overwhelming violence the first time, not by taking the high road. And the free speech/free assembly rights of white supremacists should probably be secondary to the right to life and safety of actual human beings. After all, when have Nazis ever gathered for peaceful reasons?

Bray also does a fine job skewering the false equivalency responsible for so many of our current problems. The line of the book (paraphrased): Antifa are not the same as the extremist groups they repress because the firefighter is not the same as the fire. The easiest thing in the world is to dismiss these groups, if you happen to be white, straight, and centrist or conservative. Of course, these are the same people who abandoned their gay, immigrant, and minority friends when they voted Trump in the first goddamn place. We have to remember that compromise with genocidal goose-steppers is neither possible nor advisable. Racism and homophobia need to become deal-breakers again. As one of the people who would be loaded on the trains, I think Antifa has become necessary at this sad, shameful fucking moment in our national history. This book convinced me.

(Side note: If you're a Republican who prefers lower taxes and fewer government services, I disagree with respect but love to engage with people like you. We should still be able to have the taxes vs. services debate without losing our minds in the process.)

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
I think I coined the phrase "bumper sticker support" to note how we mistreat our soldiers in one of my short stories, but this book explores that idea in abyssal depth. Comedy provides readability as the soldiers of Bravo company come home for a celebration of their heroic efforts to win a battle amid the triple civil war in Iraq. They enjoy themselves to the degree it's possible, watching a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, knowing they have to head back to the confused front lines after the game. The people they encounter during the game offer all the verbal support possible, but the treatment they receive from their Hollywood agent and the vile Cowboys owner reveals a lot about our cynical, criminal use of soldiers.

Following Vietnam, our government realized it could never institute a draft again without widespread civil discord, especially if the need for war was questionable. The answer they found was to force roughly two percent of the population to fight endlessly while the remainder of us lived lives so unchanged by war that we would be unaware a war was even happening. It's never fair to ask any portion of the population to sacrifice disproportionately during times of war, and this book does an excellent job of handling this issue with both humor and dignity. Bonus points for misspelling currj, nineleven, and turrurr to highlight the ludicrous group-think of the Dubya mid-aughts.

The Nix
This is one of those rabbit hole situations where a character does something hilariously bizarre and then the next chapter is about the surreal existence of one of the side characters and before your know it all the weird has just cocooned you in. This was Entertainment Weekly's book of the year last year, and it's appeal is pretty obvious from the start.

So those are some books worth putting the phones down for. Every now and then, we need to say fuck celebrity gossip and reality show politics for a night and re-activate some a them there brain cells.

Also, check out some of the latest from my publisher, Parvus Press. Scott Warren recently passed the 10,000 sale mark with Vick's Vultures, which I'm currently enjoying, and Mareth Griffith's Court of Twilight has lots of buzz in the same fantasy circles I'm hoping to borrow, once they're questing for their next fix of swords and sorcery.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Pride, Shame, and Patriotism

We all love our country, but we go about it very differently. I've heard conservatives argue that liberals have a "blame America first" mentality, but I've always believed the more accurate analogy was parent-child love vs. child-parent love. Conservatives love America the way a child loves a parent, naively believing their parent country can do no wrong and ought not ever be questioned. Liberals love America the way a parent loves a child, honestly critiquing, owning up to its mistakes, and pushing it to be its best by abandoning the illusion that it's already perfect as is. (Of course, this analogy doesn't take shitty, coddling, helicopter parenting into account...)

I've felt deep pride in my country. I never took it for granted that there would be an African-American President in my lifetime. I never took it for granted that my husband and I could be legally married, or would become homeowners in part because of a smart government tax credit. When I was almost legally blind as a teenager and too self-conscious for glasses, I saved up for Lasik surgery and basically bought eyes. I'm not always capitalism's biggest cheerleader, but I was amazed that this was an option for me. On 9/11 in my native North Jersey, the blood bank in Parsippany was packed, and we even had a surplus of donations for a while there. Thanks to hard work, help, and good luck, my family is finally getting ahead a little.

I've felt shame too. We just elected an emotional toddler who appeals to the worst of our characteristics (greed, hate, and fear). As evidence, I cite the entirety of his words and deeds. The fact that so many of my countrymen failed to recoil in horror at him was another point of shame. There are other things we ought not be proud of. On 9/11, I learned they don't take gay blood and that's really fucking stupid. I have been ashamed and am still ashamed that so many knuckle-dragging Congressmen and Senators don't have any shame talking publicly about how fossils are the devil's tools in 20-fucking-17. I've seen us go to war for to profit the people least in need of profit. I'm terrified we'll do it again, sacrificing freedom for safety while receiving (and deserving) neither.

I have hope in the future in part because I work with young people. There are selfish millennials who walk around talking about "branding" and "optics" and "triggers" and "micro-aggressions" and yes, I too would gladly insert these kids slowly into a wheat thresher. But I see far more of the other kind, idealistic in a surprisingly grounded way, altruistic, and optimistic despite the mess we're handing them.

Overall, I think we are still good people. We're fat and we pollute, but we're still fighting and protesting and advocating for what we believe. We tend to correct our government when it swings too far in any direction. I have to believe it's too soon for a failing president to use a fake war to inspire loyalty again (see the erased war of 2003-?). We're loud and sometimes dumb and we really need to stop this sexual fixation on firearms we seem to have, but we're also readers and dreamers and advocates for justice. The horrors on our news feeds receive attention because of their rarity. We have to remember that acts of kindness don't get their fair share of attention not because they don't happen anymore, but because they are still somehow commonplace. We can be better, and should always strive to be, but we are still, by and large, a good country.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

We Got One

There's a throwaway scene in Ghostbusters where they've been struggling as a business, and Jeanine finally gets a customer call, screams "We got one!" and hits the alarm, finally putting the team to purposeful work. Lots of excited movement happens afterward, and of course, the plot moves forward so that's a big plus as well.

This is how I felt when a publisher offered to buy one of my novels for the first time, and now, with the paperwork in, I feel comfortable enough to officially announce that my first novel, an epic fantasy, will be released by Parvus Press in 2018.

It got me thinking of 2011, when I first started drafting. I was playing a lot of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Skyrim, because I like the word 'sky' and I'm an unapologetic nerd. I decided I wanted to write something that had everything I loved about English (drama, plot structure, emotional investment) with everything I loved about video games (action, challenge, emotional investment). I had just finished my first novel, so I was riding a wave of confidence just knowing that crossing the finish line was a thing that sometimes happened.

It got me thinking of the games I'd first really loved when I was a kid. Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy were my introduction to JRPGs (or Japanese Role Playing Games, for those of you who don't know because you did weird things like play sports and get laid when you were young). I was hooked on how hard they made you work in order to succeed. It wasn't until years later I realized I loved books that did the same to their protagonists. The elemental fiends in the early Final Fantasy games got me thinking about elemental sorcery, and what it might look like if the elements were extended into kingdoms and cultures. A preview of my world and its various twisted denizens will come when we're closer to publication.

You'll recognize my love for Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and J.K. Rowling when you read. I'm fine with building on amazing things that happened before I had any discipline or ability. I didn't realize what I was writing until a college kid who worked for me showed me "Avatar: The Last Airbender". There are differences that will become clear, but I'm fine calling "Rise of the Paramancers" (working title) an adult version of that most recent elemental universe.

And for those my age, when you read my work, I hope you'll feel that same general sense of awesomeness you felt when you realized how super Super Nintendo was. Feel that amazement at a boss battle filling the whole screen with a demented form and a massive energy bar. Or that joy when all you had to do was bang plastic action figures together with a friend who geeked out the same way you did. I felt these things when I was writing, and I hope the hours the Parvus team and I put in will take you to the same fantastic places.

Since I'm celebrating a milestone here, there are people I have to thank as well. John, Eric, and Colin at Parvus for giving me a chance. Shane for tolerating all the times I'm three feet away but typing and hence not there at all. Everyone from my past four writing groups. Mom, Dad, and Kathie, for giving me time to play and imagine when I was a kid. (Seriously folks, stop overbooking your little dreamers...) And Flower, for making me want to join her lunatic literary world.

The pieces you write don't all just sit on your computer (though many of them do). Some of them cross the finish line with time and patience. We got one, Jeanine, we got one.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Next Attack Will Happen. (What If We Decide Now Not to Overreact?)

The Trump thing keeps giving me Bush flashbacks. Dubya didn't get to enjoy much of a honeymoon period after his inauguration either, because he also didn't win the popular vote. He looked like a one-term wonder in early 2000. Between his stupidity, conflicts of interest, and tendency to lash out at everyone and everything regardless of reality, Trump might not be in the White House long enough to host a Labor Day cookout.


Bush didn't do 9/11, but does anyone doubt it served him politically? Suddenly you had to support him or the turrurrists win. If you didn't, you weren't a real 'murkin. He was given so much leeway that he questioned the heroism of an actual war hero and we rewarded his chicken hawk ass with re-election.

It took Katrina to remind us that sometimes the government we pay for can come in handy, but only when qualified professionals are in charge. This is part of why I don't believe Bush planned 9/11. He wasn't competent enough to plan anything that actually achieved its objectives.

Which brings us to Trump, whose single achievement to date is making Bush look like a dignified, nuanced thinker by comparison. He has proven himself to be a never-ending brain fart, a walking constitutional crisis. How can a man with so many thoughts be so thoughtless? Given his tendency to provoke, his inability to differentiate between violent strains of Islam and the rest, and the fact that he is a living recruitment poster for groups like Al Qaeda and I.S.I.S, another attack on U.S. soil during a Trump or Pence presidency is likely.

Though 9/11 was undoubtedly one of the worst moments in U.S. history, I've always felt our reaction to it was worth consideration as a separate historic disaster. It's like we were sucker punched in the eye and responded by throwing blind punches at everyone and anyone in arm's length. We also responded with acts of self-mutilation: torture, indefinite detention of terror suspects, and lunatic military spending. Our response was predicted by bin Laden. It's time to face the painful truth that before we gave him the bullets he deserved, we gave bin Laden everything he ever wanted.

If Bush's judgment was questionable in a crisis, imagine Trump's. Everything 62 million Americans liked about him, his "simplicity", his "telling it like it is", will be the opposite of what we need. It may be time to face the facts that the "virtues" of an American political candidate might not match the virtues needed by a person in a governing position. Some people mistake patience, nuance, and intellect for weakness, and this belief has become a national weakness in and of itself.

What if we decide in advance not to overreact next time an attack happens? We ought to commit to a sober reaction now, while we have the benefit of calm. Justice doesn't need to be swift, it needs to be slow and accurate. The danger of overreaction is greater now than it was in 2001. Whatever Bush's faults, he wasn't a human mood swing. He reacted months later by invading the wrong nation, because he didn't know or care enough to know. In response to even a minor terrorist attack, Trump would likely nuke South America, Africa, and Antarctica: anywhere full of brown people and endangered species he could easily scapegoat with his minority of supporters (and where he doesn't privately own a golf course or hotel, this is where those conflicts of interest come into play, bigly).

There are two things that frighten me more than Trump: One is a future politician with his amorality, but also with actual intelligence and discipline, who uses Trump's fear-baiting and chaos-as-camouflage templates to hypnotize us toward fascism. The other is Trump and his white Nazi brigade using the next terrorist attack to crush all resistance and change America in their deadly, kleptocratic, Putin-esque corporate-military image. Stupid becomes cool and questioning his government becomes treason. "The Media" can't be trusted except for the outlets President Deathwig approves of (and of course, they are the ones who approve of him). Dissenters disappear in the night. We go to war when and where he says, because he says. The damage we do to ourselves is, again, worse than what any home-grown or authentic Islamic terrorist could achieve.

We can and should decide ahead of time, now, while we have the luxury of security keeping us rational, that we will never again allow any tragedy to make us choose cowardice over true bravery, fear over compassion, and authority over resistance.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Atrocity Fatigue

We've been here before, but not this low. I remember this level of fear, hate, and contempt for nonconformity just after 9/11, when there was an intense level of social pressure to back another bad president.

But making Bush look graceful may wind up being Trump's most dazzling achievement. Read or watch Bush's inauguration speech in 2001. Boob that he was, he at least acknowledged he hadn't won the popular vote and pledged to try his best to win over those whose vote he hadn't earned. Is anyone expecting anything that magnanimous to escape the combed-over gasbag on stage tomorrow?

That's the trouble with Trump. We keep lowering our expectations and he keeps finding ways to still disappoint. He must be unstoppable in a Limbo contest.

His primary weapon to date is atrocity fatigue. He called a judge unfit because of the judge's race? Must be Tuesday. He made fun of a disabled reporter? Yawn. He appointed Emperor Palpatine to run NASA? Well, at least that guy's more experienced than Betsy DeVos.

Disengagement seems like a form of self-preservation in this environment. Resist that. Participation is the only way out.

Look at history. By 2006 we'd learned our lesson and Bush lost his rubber stamp congress because an informed electorate demanded a change. That congress helped us recover from the Bush collapse of 2008. I am a homeowner because of good legislation passed by that congress under Obama. The Great Recession didn't become a depression because of that congress.

It took a very specific event for us to remember that contempt for government is not a valid replacement for functional government. Our impotent reaction to Katrina in 2005 sent two messages to most of the population. The first was that climate change was real and dangerous. The second was that we need a competent government and we need one another. Conservative contempt for government had led Bush to appoint friends based on their loyalty rather than professionals based on their qualifications. That choice cost lives, and we saw it on our televisions. Unfortunately, it seems to take a disaster in America for us to remember that we are a country at all. In times of relative comfort, we act like we're a series of competing small businesses.

There are reasons for optimism already. Maybe this man is all the disaster we need to make us something like a country again. Based on Trump's declining polls, people paid attention to the subtext of his cabinet appointments. It didn't go unnoticed how many wolves were put in charge of hen houses. It didn't go unnoticed how many alligators the supposed swamp-drainer nuzzled up to and how quickly he sold his working class voters right the fuck out.

There are protests. We need those. Please stop all this casual contempt for the people in the streets just because they care. Democracies need protests. If you don't agree, don't participate. Or run a counter-protest. Just don't be that asshole rooting for our too-militarized police to beat the shit out of everyone and ship them off to Guantanamo. That's too real a danger to be funny right now.

Watch what you allow this man to inspire in you. He's got a gift for hate, fear, and chaos. But that means we need to keep a closer watch on him. Do not allow him to wear you down with his Twitter-bombs and casual racism and depressing ignorance and exhausting entitlement and unforgivable lack of reflection and humility. There are still more of us (65 > 62!) and if we show the shortcomings of his corporatism dressed as populism, true populism can win out in 2018 and 2020.

But only if we resist his remarkable ability to fatigue.