Reading History: “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mid of America” (by Greg Grandin)

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley for providing me an ARC in return for an honest review.

Every so often you read a piece of history that is blistering, refreshing, and utterly compelling. Such is historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. This book explores the ways in which the frontier as a concept, a myth, and an ideology has remained central to how America has conceived of itself and how, in the latter part of the 20th and the early 21st Centuries, the myth has at last begun to collapse upon itself.

The End of the Myth is roughly chronological, starting with the American Revolution (when the frontier was basically the Appalachians) and moving into such epochal events as the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War II, and the recent financial crisis. He has a keen eye for detail and an ability to parse primary texts to expose the assumptions undergirding ideologies. Indeed, so sharp is his close reading ability that I almost felt at times like I was reading a trained English professor (which, coming from me, is quite the compliment).

Two figures loom large in his analysis: Andrew Jackson and Frederick Jackson. The former was the first populist president, a man who based his “egalitarian” vision on the brutal exploitation and oppression of people of color and Native Americans. The latter was, arguably, one of the most influential historians of an era, one whose theorization of the frontier provided a set of parameters within which any discussion of this concept must take place.

As Grandin points out throughout the book, the frontier has, from the beginning, symbolized the political aspirations of the United States. That is to say, it has served a multitude of purposes: as a safety valve, as the engine of empire, as a means of social control. So long as there was a frontier, the inner problems facing American politics–white supremacy and all of its ugliness foremost among them–could be projected outward. Those toxic, destructive energies could be used to expand the boundaries of the nation, while simultaneously serving the needs of those in power.

Beyond the realities of the political, however, the frontier has also served as a unifying me The frontier, and the promise of infinity that it represents, allowed Americans to believe that they were immune to the cyclical nature of history, with its rise and fall of empires. The frontier promised perpetual growth. Because of the frontier, America could convince itself that it existed outside time itself, a fantasy that would inevitably come crashing down into ruin as the realities of the limitations of the frontier became more and more obvious as the 19th and 20th Centuries progressed.

As Grandin explains, now that the frontier has utterly closed, the very energies that it was meant to channel have redounded upon the country. In the wake of globalization, endless wars in the Middle East, and the financial meltdown of 2008, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. The social unrest and problems that have always existed at the heart of America’s accomplishments–and which were, to an extent, deflected by the frontier–have now burst into the open. The wall, with all of its ugly rhetoric and racist overtones, is the ultimate physical symbol of the closing of the frontier.

Grandin pulls no punches in what he sees as the political ramifications of the frontier myth and its demise in the 21st Century. Sometimes, in fact, I found his political claims (and investments) overshadowing his historical consciousness, particularly in his analysis of the Clinton and Obama years (admittedly, this may be because of my own political investments). Nevertheless, I do think that there is a danger in allowing one’s political investments to so transparently mold the perspective one takes on events.

Despite that, this is the sort of bracing, politically-engaged history that is like a breath of fresh air. Grandin tears away the air of obfuscation that allows so many (particularly white) people to believe that the frontier is some sort of infinitely tappable resource that can be exploited at will. Just as importantly, Grandin suggests that, if we want to create a more just and equitable country, we must confront the very ugly and violent parts of our collective past. Only by confronting our original sins can we move forward into a hopefully bright future.

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Film Review: “Stan and Ollie”

Fair warning: Spoilers for the film follow.

These days, it’s sometimes hard to remember that it used to be possible–preferable even–to have a film with a running time of an hour and a half, one that still manages to hit all the right narrative notes to make a satisfying cinematic experience.

Cue Stan and Ollie, a pleasant little biopic about the later years of one of Hollywood’s most iconic comedy duos.

Though a few scenes take place during the duo’s heyday in 1930s Hollywood, the majority of the film revolves around their attempts to rejuvenate their film career via a tour of the UK and Ireland in the 1950s. Though it’s slow going at first, they gradually attain success, until they are playing to packed crowds in London. However, the ostensible goal of this tour–to procure a movie contract–ultimately falls through, and the two must decide whether they will continue their partnership.

Full confession time: I’ve always much preferred Laurel and Hardy to Abbot and Costello. I can’t say why, other than that I think that Stan and Ollie just seemed more organically funny to me than their (arguably) more successful counterparts. So, I was already prepared to enjoy the film, and I was not disappointed.

The film does play a bit fast and loose with historical details, compressing some things and excluding others, but that’s rather what you expect from a biopic. Indeed, rather than trying to provide a panoramic view of the comedy duo’s career, it shows us this one particular incident that is reflective of their dynamic and their struggles both within and against Hollywood. As a result, we do get a fairly rich sense of their relationship.

While the film’s plot follows a fairly traditional biopic pattern, the performances from both Coogan and Reilly really allow the film to stand out (it’s rather a crime, I think, that neither was in contention for an Oscar). They both seem to truly inhabit their characters. This is not mere mimicry, but instead something richer, deeper, and more meaningful. Just as importantly, there is also an undeniable chemistry between the two leads that lends their performance a level of credibility it might otherwise lack. There are times when one could be forgiven for believing that the two men on screen are really the two old Hollywood stars.

Thus, the film is essentially about the relationship between the two men. From its perspective, the two of them only really succeeded when they worked together. Their other partnerships, Though their wives are certainly prominent parts of their lives–and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda deserve enormous credit for imbuing each of them with spit-fire personality–it’s clear from the beginning that the bond between the two men is of a different kind.

The film is also a reflection on the brutal, unforgiving nature of Hollywood. No matter how successful Stan and Ollie become through their tapping into nostalgia, there will be no movie deal for them. The Hollywood of their heyday has moved on, and while they may not be as pathetic as, say, Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard, there is still a sense of pathos about the whole drama. We in the audience know that there can be no resuscitation fo their film career even before they do; there is no place for 1930s comedians of their type in 1950s Hollywood. We are thus invited to both cheer for them and pity them at the same time.

The film is intertwines various types of nostalgia: there is the yearning of the two actors for their earlier success; there’s the nostalgia of the fans who fill the auditoria; and then there is the film’s own nostalgia for both the 1930s and, arguably, the 1950s. As with so many Hollywood films about Hollywood, the dream factory is a vexed signifier. While it promises them both a renewed career, it is also the great beast that has already chewed them up and left them behind.

In that sense, Stan and Ollie is a rather melancholic film, for as the blurb of text at the end explains, the tour did in fact take a heavy toll on Ollie’s health, and he died shortly afterward. For his part, Stan never again performed with another partner. In the end, we’re left with a sense of sadness for what might have been, a bittersweet longing for two careers cut short by the vicissitudes of Hollywood.

Novel Thoughts: Turning History into Fantasy

Some of my favourite fantasy series involve some measure of real history in their inner workings. This is true of such series as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and, of course, the many works of Guy Gavriel Kay (most notably those of his works set in the world of his duology The Sarantine Mosaic). All of these authors make explicit use of real world antecedents in their myth-making, which adds layers and textures that enhance the reading pleasure. Of course, even the great master himself, Tolkien, had a keen eye for the importance of history at all levels of his work. Middle-earth, obviously, has a history as deep and rich as any in all of literature. The actions of those in the distant past of his world, after all, continue to echo down through all the subsequent eras, for good and for ill.

And it’s not just that the best epic fantasy makes allusions to real-world history; it also asks the same sorts of questions as historical fiction and nonfiction history do. These include: How does it feel to live at the end of an age? What ability do individuals–the small and the weak–have to change the world around them? Is there such a thing as historical agency, or are we all merely subject to forces that we cannot name and certainly cannot control? Do those living in epochal change know that they are doing so?

So, when I set out to write my own epic, I knew that I wanted to bring my love of history into my favourite genre of literature. I read widely and voraciously, and as I did I began to realize that many of the periods of the past that interested me most would make a fine fantasy setting. Particularly influential for me was the British historian Tom Holland’s (no, not that Tom Holland’s) fiery history The Shadow of the Sword. Whatever its merits (and flaws) as a book about the origins of Islam in Late Antiquity, it is a rousingly good read, and he offers some great insight into the period. Indeed, it opened up my eyes to an entire way of thinking about what I wanted to do with my work. What if, I wondered, the two of great civilizations of Late Antiquity–the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Persians–were instead rulers of a vast continent, with a subaltern group sandwiched between them that was destined for greatness in its own right? What if their perennial squabbling was also part of a vast cosmological drama?

I continued reading, pulling in bits and pieces, creating a nation known as Aïonis that was essentially the Byzantine Empire (with some Holy Roman Empire DNA thrown in). Its opponent is Haranshar, the vast entity that rules about 2/3 of the continent of Aridikhos (name subject to change), a Sassanid analogue. And sandwiched between these two vast superpowers are the Korrayin who, in their mountains, are divided into four confederacies and numerous tribes. They’re basically the Late Antique Arabs, except in the mountains rather than the desert.

With this as the backdrop, a tiny little story I was working on–about a young cleric who discovers a heretical gospel and is forced to flee for her life–suddenly began to take on ever-greater dimensions, until her action became the catalyst for a continent-spanning conflict that could literally remake her world.

The result? Well, at this point there are roughly four strands of the novel as it currently exists. The three, more grounded strands are the brewing conflict between the two superpowers, Aïonis and Haranshar; the rise of the Korrayin as an unstoppable conquering army; and the rediscovery of a banned magical technology that involves the binding, through blood magic, of spirits of fire, air, and aethyr into the body of a human host to create an immensely powerful weapon (an obvious analogue of the development of atomic technology). These all take place against the backdrop of a brewing conflict between two essential forces, the creator god (known as the Creator, Ormazdh, or simply “The God” to its worshipers, Demiurge to its detractors) and the god of transcendence (known as Kagal, the Black Destroyer or Murash, the Great Lie to detractors and as Adonai to worshipers).

Through these continent-spanning narratives, I’ve tried to ask the big questions. What does it feel like to live at the end of an era? What happens when great powers become so ossified that they are destroyed from within and from without? How do the seemingly inconsequential actions of small people bring empires to their knees? I’m not sure how effectively or compellingly I’ve answered these questions, but I like to think that my work combines a good story with deeper musings.

In that sense, I think that it is appropriate that I’ve chosen to write in the genre of the epic which, perhaps more than any other genre of fiction, is equipped to delve into these questions in nuanced and detailed ways. As I continue to write the stories of characters such as Theadra, the cleric who discovers a heretical gospel and must flee for her life; Ishaq, a “barbarian” who sets out to avenge his father and claim the High Kingship of the Korrayin; and Bahram, a vizir who is a mere figurehead but yearns to redeem his family; I hope to do justice both to their individual stories and to the larger issues that they embody.

As such, I view my work as working against the (still-dominant) tendency to view fantasy as a low genre, incapable of asking the same deep questions as more literary genres. To my mind, some of the best, and most enjoyable, fantasy series are those that really make us think, that try to transform how we think about the world, our place in it, and our relationship to what has come before us and what will come after. There is so very much that fantasy fiction can do for us, if we but open up our eyes to the possibilities.

Weekly Rant: On Being a #BernieNo: 5 Theses

Well, I was going to write my new blog post on Kamala Harris’s new book but, since Bernie announced his candidacy today, I decided I’ll go with a rant instead. So, allow me to make it clear why I’m a #BernieNo (as opposed to the obnoxious and toxic Bernie Bros).

1.) Bernie is an ineffective legislator. Despite his many years serving in the United States Senate, he has achieved remarkably little. It’s really rather staggering when you think about it. What’s more concerning for his prospects as a presidential candidate, to my mind, is that this doesn’t bode well for his ability to craft any sort of legislation that has a chance of making it through Congress. Furthermore, it’s a well-attested fact that Bernie seemed unable (or unwilling) to forge alliances with his fellow legislators (Barney Frank was apparently not a fan).

3.) Bernie is an egomaniac. There, I said it. Bernie seems to be under the impression that he is the only one who can rescue the country from its myriad ills. It’s pretty staggering that people still make the claim that Hillary felt she was entitled to the nomination, even though she won the popular vote by quite a large margin and even though Sanders still seems to operate under the assumption that his assumption of the Democratic crown is only his due. This despite the fact that he has done very little for the party whose nomination he seeks, which leads me to…

4.) Bernie isn’t a Democrat. To my mind, it takes a particularly egregious sense of self to believe that, as an stubborn Independent, you have the right to come in and take over a party you have done literally nothing to help. In fact, Bernie is well-known for his contempt of the Democratic Party and its politicians, frequently painting them as just as bad as Republicans. If you want to be a part of the Democratic Party, then fine, our door is wide open. However, if you’re only going to be a Democrat when it suits you, then I am not here for it.

5.) Bernie is disingenuous. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Sanders referred to almost anyone who opposed him as “The Establishment.” The Human Rights Campaign (who advocate for the LGBTQ+ community) was the Establishment. Planned Parenthood (which presses for safe, affordable abortion) was the Establishment. And why? Because they supported his opponent. And the real kicker? Bernie Sanders, a United States Senator, IS PART OF THE ESTABLISHMENT. His effective weaponization of this empty term is one of his most grievous offenses, as was his grouchy (and, to put it mildly), lukewarm concession to Clinton in 2016.

6.) Bernie doesn’t care about black people. Or queer people. Or women. Bernie, like so many Marxist bros that I had the displeasure of encountering in graduate school. Like those men, Sanders sees things only through the prism of class struggle; anything else is secondary. One would think that, given the ways in which intersectionality has become part of the everyday lexicon of Americans since 2016, Bernie would adjust his language accordingly, but he continues to cling to the belief that nothing matters but economic justice. Fix the rigged system, he claims, and prosperity will inevitably follow. More perniciously, he continues to act as if one’s other social identities don’t matter (and are certainly not worth organizing politics around) and to excuse the white racists who he presumably sees as part of his base.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If, heaven forfend, Bernie should lock down the Democratic nomination, I will assuredly vote for him in the general. And I will do so without an ounce of reservation, and I might even be able to muster up the sort of excitement that I now feel for Kamala Harris. I recognize that, much as I dislike him, he is miles and miles better than Trump.

For make no mistake, we are in the midst of a full-blown existential crisis. 2020 may well be the last chance that we have to get this country back on track. After all, Justice Ginsburg will almost certainly not make it through another presidential term, and the planet will be a burnt cinder if we don’t take meaningful action on climate change.

All that being said, 2020 is going to be a bloody slog.

Heaven help us all.

Novel Thoughts: The Savage Joys of Cutting

Since I’ve been struggling a bit with revision today, I figured I’d take a break and write about writing about writing a bit, particularly about cutting.

Unfortunately, I’ve always been one of those people who writes with a mind to length. My daily writing goals are typically focused on achieving a certain amount of words, and I still can’t quite take to hear the idea that concision is more effective than bloat. I’m getting there, but boy is it hard to shake the mind patterns of a lifetime.

So, unsurprisingly, when I compiled all of the separate chapters of my manuscript, I found out that it clocked in at a staggering 280k words. Even for an epic that’s a bit preposterous. In fact, I was convinced that something had gone wrong with Word’s counting mechanism. Nope. I’m just that wordy.

Commence the cutting.

One of the greatest joys of this round of revision has been the excision of superfluous words, phrases, paragraphs, even entire chapters. While the rewriting of entire chapters–and, in one case, an entire story arc–can be somewhat exhausting and dispiriting, cutting brings with it a savage sort of pleasure. I guess you could say that it’s a form of creative destruction, demolishing that which isn’t working so that something more beautiful and effective can emerge. When you absolutely have to cut things, you begin to realize, and sometimes re-evaluate, which parts of your narrative and which parts are a needless distraction.

I tend to be wordy, piling clause upon clause and rumination upon rumination, until I can imagine my reader shouting: Get to the point! So that part of the revision process has been a lot more enjoyable than I anticipated. It’s hard to describe, really, except to say that there’s something liberating about cutting away the dross and fluff to reveal the lean, muscular prose beneath.

This isn’t to say that complex syntax isn’t sometimes a good thing, but instead to say that I’ve learned that excess verbiage isn’t just confusing, it’s boring. It’s actually been very helpful to read through the entire manuscript as if I were a lay reader, trying to identify those places where the prose sagged, or where the plot began to meander in useless directions. Let me tell you, that has really opened my eyes to some serious bloat that I wasn’t even aware of while I was in the midst of writing it. Needless to say, in subsequent weeks a lot of that has ended up on the cutting-room floor.

As i move forward with the revision process (which is going quite well, thank you), I have to constantly remind myself of the value of being concise. Even now, when I’m drafting a new chapter or scene, I find myself slipping back into those troubling habits. The difference now is that I identify those tendencies a lot faster, so at least they’re not making it into the revised chapters.

There’s still a long load of revision ahead, but I’m increasingly confident that, with metaphorical scalpel in hand, I can whip this beast into shape.

Weekly Rant: West Virginia, We Need to Talk

You know, for a while there I’m sure (as The Onion put it) that West Virginia was feeling pretty smug watching the slow-moving disaster in Virginia.

Well, never let anyone think that we can’t hold our own when it comes to looking like huge dumbasses on the national stage.

Cue Eric Porterfield, West Virginia Delegate. His behaviour over the past week has shone a spotlight on why it is that West Virginia struggles to keep its brilliant young people, attract investment, and in general remains a laughingstock to the rest of the country.

In a series of remarks, Porterfield has referred to the LGBT+ Rights Movement as equivalent to the KKK, argued that queer people are a public menace, and suggested that he would drown his children if he happened to find out that they were gay. All with no sense that anything he was saying or doing was harmful, bigoted, and cruel (unsurprisingly, he wore a red MAGA hat during a television interview). When pushed about his implication of drowning his children, he said he was just baiting the libs. Because yes, joking about drowning your gay children is sooo funny. What a great way to show the world how much you lack human compassion!

To me, though, the most upsetting thing about this whole debacle is that it is so unsurprising. When I was a member of the Young Democrats in the aftermath of 2004, I distinctly remember a speaker informing us that Kerry lost the election because of “God, Guns, and Gays.” As a young gay man and proud Democrat, it was one of the most insulting and dispiriting things I had ever heard, and I still feel that betrayal almost a decade and a half later.

Things have only gotten worse since then for queers in West Virginia and, despite the passage of protections at the local level (for which several cities deserve great respect and applause), the climate there is not friendly. Though I once thought about returning to my home after I finished my Ph.D., at this point I don’t think that you could pay me enough to go back there. I much prefer to live in queer-affirming states like NY and MD, thank you very much.

Nor am I the only one. In fact, there’s quite an expat community of queer folk from WV who have left the state, taking their talents with them. After all, who wants to stay in a state that seems so dead-set on alienating every minority group that it can?

West Virginians, I urge you to wake up and smell the coffee. I know that you’ve convinced yourself (or allowed yourself to be convinced) that your ignorance and bigotry are some sort of principled stand in the culture war, but you are literally hurting your loved ones. Every time that you allow a man like Porterfield to keep his seat after these kinds of hateful comments, you send a message to your queer family and friends that your own right to feel insulated from political and cultural change is more important than their literal right to feel safe in their own state.

If nothing else, you should realize that the problems you face–the flight of young people, the dearth of decent job opportunities, and on and on–are only going to get worse when people like Porterfield are the face that you present to the nation at large. No one wants to relocate to a state known for its bigotry, and that most definitely includes young people. How long do you think you can continue on this path?

West Virginia, I know you’re better than this, I really do. I know that there’s love and compassion and earthy wisdom in those hollers and mountains, but for the love of all that’s holy, you’ve got to start showing it and standing up for it. Looking like a bunch of ignorant rednecks isn’t a political statement: it’s a one-way ticket to desolation.

Despite everything, I still think that there is a lot of good in you, but you’re going to have to work really hard to show this to the world. I know you can do it, though.

I have faith in you.

The New “Aladdin” Looks Like Trash: A Screed

The 1992 Aladdin was the first Disney film I well and truly fell in love with in the theater. Though I later came to understand the many problematic things about it (not least its flagrant Orientalism), I also came to appreciate the queerer textures that bubble under its heterosexual surface (Jafar is one of the queerest of the Disney villains IMHO). And there’s no question that the film is breathtaking and gorgeous and filled with irresistible music.

So, all of that being said, I was a little dismayed to hear that Disney was going to be doing a live-action remake. Though I had liked The Jungle Book, I felt that Beauty and the Beast was so devoid of imagination as to be a colossal waste of time. I still harboured hopes, though, that somehow Aladdin would be different.

If the recently-released trailer is anything to go by, it won’t be.

First of all, it boggles my mind how a film that is so expensive to make can look so distressingly cheap. As I watched the trailer, I just could not quite shake the feeling that I was watching an extended episode of Once Upon a Time. It is definitely not a good thing if your big-budget blockbuster looks like your network show, and I still cannot wrap my head around how so much money could produce such shoddy CGI. Admittedly, some of this cheapness may look better on the big screen, but I’m not holding my breath.

Secondly even if the CGI ends up looking better in the final film that we see in theaters, there’s no shaking the fact that the costumes aren’t great. Again, I’m not sure exactly how it is that such a big budget can produce costumes that look so….cheap and campy. Speaking of camp, I have a feeling that this film is going to be way camp, and not in the self-conscious way that the filmmakers and studio would like.

Third, while it’s no secret that the 1992 Aladdin was hella racist and Orientalist, one would think that two and a half decades would have taught studio execs something. Certainly, they made the right choice by populating the film with non-white actors, but there’s still so much about the aesthetic of the film–and even the core of the film itself–that can’t quite elude the aura of fetishizing the Middle East. While you could get away with that nonsense in the 1990s (sort of), I have my doubts about how well this is going to fly in 2019. (And don’t get me started on the fact that they still felt the need to cast a white actor as a rival for Jasmine’s affections).

Finally, there’s the fact that the whole affair just looks so…small. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because traditional 2-D animation still has a sense of wonder and magic about it, but I’m always shocked by how limited these remakes are. The Jungle Book probably came close to attaining the grandeur and majesty of the Disney Renaissance, but I think that may have to do with the fact that the film they chose to remake is one of the lesser lights in the Disney firmament. In any case, the trailer for Aladdin fell very short indeed of any sort o (the opening shot of the Cave of Wonders was particularly underwhelming).

And the worst part about whole thing?

I’ll still go see it.

I guess I’m a glutton for punishment.

Novel Thoughts: On Finishing and Revising a Rough Draft

Well, since it’s been a while since I’ve checked in on the status of the novel, I thought I’d set out some thoughts on how the revision process is going. I have to say, I’m happy with the novel as a whole. I think it’s got good bones, though I do have to totally rewrite one character’s entire story arc. And let me quite honest: it’s just thrilling to have actually finished a rough draft of an epic fantasy novel. The only other creative project of this magnitude that I finished was an historical novel, and that was 8 years ago. So, yeah, I feel accomplished.

However, as I’ve reread the rough draft, I’ve noticed some aspects of my writing that I really want to work on curtailing as I compose more material. It’s always hard to take a good look at your own composition process, but it can also be very healthy.

First of all, I like to pile clause upon clause upon clause. I’m not sure why I do this, other than that it’s the way that my writing processes my complicated thoughts. This definitely hamstrung some parts of my dissertation, but it is even more distracting in fiction.

I also tend to have my characters ask too many questions, either to one another or in their own minds. This is, of course, related to the clause issue, and again I’m not sure why I do it. As I’ve embarked on revision, I’ve tried to take the majority of those interrogatory sentences and convert them into declarative (when I don’t delete them outright).

Speaking of character thoughts…I tend to spend too much time in my character’s heads in third person. To try to correct this I’ve focused more on action. After all, while it’s good to let readers get to know your characters and what motivates them, excessive navel-gazing isn’t very interesting to read. Perhaps my tendency to spend so much time in my characters’ heads reflects my own introspective tendencies. Or maybe my characters just don’t have enough to do yet.

I have to say that working on this revision is both exciting and frustrating. It’s exciting to be able to sculpt and craft the rough clay of a draft into something that really sparkles. But man, it takes so long, and it’s very alienating (and dispiriting) sometimes to see all of the mistakes that you made as you were floundering your way through the plot.

So, I’ve now made it through Chapter 6 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with how they look. There’s still a long way to go, though, given that the rough draft was almost 60 chapters. And then there’s that pesky character who finally decided to reveal his real plotline. Still, I’m going to really, really try to get a revised draft done by the end of March and thus be ready to start querying agents by April.

These goals are definitely ambitious, but I am nothing if not determined to see this book in print, come hell or high water.

So, onward we go!

Weekly Rant: Barbara Ehrenreich, et al. and the Banality of Racism

Ugh. Some days.

I didn’t start Monday thinking that I was going to be struggling with rage all day; I figured that would come Tuesday, when the country would once again be subjected to the inane blatherings of Trump during his State of the Union.

Then, while playing on Facebook to avoid doing work, I happened to notice a frame capture of a Twitter exchange among Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, and Elaine Showalter. You can see it below.

Now, I would hope that most of you would recognize why this caused so much anger, hurt, and sadness among the Twitter left. Here we have these three giants of feminist thought openly trading in Orientalist language, at once dismissive and condescending. Ehrenreich’s crude neoconservative pining for the days of “American greatness” and Pollitt’s and Showalter’s patronizing language referring to Kondo as “fairy-like,” as a “pretty little pixie” and “Tinkerbell” are breathtaking in their offensiveness. I had to double-check to make sure that these weren’t trolls out to take down noted feminists.

Unfortunately, the exchange was all too real.

What astounded me the most about the exchange among these three feminist giants was how banal it all seemed. Nothing about the way they were talking suggested that they saw what they were saying as problematic, no awareness that they were participating in long-standing means by which white people have dismissed Asian culture, Asian people, and Asian traditions. How was it possible, I wondered (and still wonder) that these prominent intellectuals could be so complicit in this system of power and not even seem to know about it? How could they be having this conversation on Twitter for the world to see as if they were merely having tea in their parlors?

The answer, of course, is that their white privilege shields them from having to think about these issues, or they think it does (because it once did). Ensconced in their ivory towers, they think they can get away with this kind of language because they always have. One can’t help but wonder how Showalter’s casual racism has affected those of her students who aren’t white or, for that matter, how much it has influenced every aspect of her research and her pedagogy.

I suppose what really frustrated–frightened, me really–was how shocked I was by all of this, even though I know that white feminists have a long history of being dismissive of the concerns of women of color. I was also deeply angry, because even though I realized some time ago that Ehrenreich was a bit of a hack, I had continued to look up to Katha Pollitt and Elaine Showalter (Showalter’s feminist criticism was hugely inspiring to me as a young undergraduate). To find these two women trading in racist and Orientalist language was, for me, a profound betrayal. I particularly expected more of Elaine Showalter who, as a feminist academic, should absolutely know better. I guess you could say that I felt like my trust had been betrayed in some deeply personal way, even though I know that that makes me sound hopelessly naïve.

But then again, perhaps it’s a good thing that all of this played out on Twitter, so that we could at least have a public accounting. One can’t help but wonder, though, if this is the kind of racist trash they peddle in public, what do they say in private? It almost doesn’t bear thinking about.

And all of this on the same day that Liam Neeson admitted (apropos of nothing, really), in an interview with The Independent, that at one point after a friend of his had been raped he had gone out hoping to violently assault a random black man (you cannot make this stuff up).

And all of what I have just described took place during the same few days when it was revealed the Virginia’s governor has a racist past of dressing in blackface.

Sometimes, you just have to admit that the world is broken.

Book Review: The Frustrating Pleasures of “Fire and Blood” (by George R.R. Martin)

Let me preface this review by saying how frustrated I am by this book’s publication history. For almost 8 years I have waited very impatiently for The Winds of Winter to finally see the light of day, and when I heard that instead we were going to get the first part of a two-part history of the Targaryen Dynasty, I was quite annoyed. I even contemplated not even buying this book as a (undoubtedly futile) form of protest.

Unfortunately, for all of his flaws, Martin is one hell of a world-builder and, since I really did enjoy both The World of Ice and Fire and A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, I found myself drawn inexorably toward Fire and Blood.

Though I am still deeply frustrated, I have to admit that this book was a true pleasure to read. I, like many other fantasy aficionados, always find that the histories of secondary worlds are (all too often) more interesting than the actual stories sent in those worlds. Fire and Blood succeeds precisely because it shows us the sinners and saints, the benevolent monarchs and cruel tyrants, that shaped, and continue to shape, the destiny of those living in Westeros.

This history reveals that the Targaryens are some sort of unholy combination of Julio-Claudian and Ptolemaic Dynasties, with all of the associations those two families in the ancient world possessed. We also are left with the distinct sense that, in Westeros as in the real world, the actions of one generation continue to influence their descendants, often in ways that they could never have predicted. Just as importantly, Fire and Blood reveals that this universe is one of both great beauty and unspeakable cruelty.

Some have criticized Fire and Blood for being too much like a history textbook (and thus boring). For me, that’s precisely what makes it so much fun to read. It also reveals just how vast Martin’s creative vision is, how much effort he has put into his secondary creation. Whatever the flaws of A Song of Ice and Fire (and they are substantial), there is no doubt that this is still a world with its own internal consistency and its own contradictions.

Indeed, that is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. Gyldayn (the book’s fictional narrator) seems, at first blush, to be merely transmitting information to us, his readers, but he also makes clear at several points that our understanding of the past is necessarily shaped (or misshaped) by the sources available to us. In his case, he has to rely on both eyewitness accounts of the events of the past as well as less reputable reports (some of the most amusing snippets come from the fool known as Mushroom). History, as Gyldayn reminds us, is ultimately written by the victors, and it would be a mistake (or, at least, Martin wants us to believe it would be a mistake) to view anything in the volume as the absolute truth.

That being said, I do have a few critiques. First, while I appreciate that the people of Westeros have a very biting sense of humour, it gets a bit repetitive to continue hearing about the sundry nicknames that they grant their superiors. Unfortunately, this tendency to find a device or turn of phrase and beat it to death with overuse has become something of a thing with Martin (see also “where do whores go?” in A Dance with Dragons). When it’s used sparingly it can be very effective and conveying the particular characteristics of the Westerosi, but in Fire and Blood it starts to become rather irritating.

Likewise, the (to my mind unnecessarily) convoluted family true of the Targaryens makes keeping them all straight something of a chore. This unfortunate problem is exacerbated by the bewildering similarity of their names. If you want my advice, focus on the absolute major characters (mostly the regnants), and you should be fine.

The larger criticism is that much of this material is a retread of what we’ve seen before in various places, both in A World of Ice and Fire and in the numerous edited collections to which Martin has contributed over the years. Admittedly, it’s been supplemented, but it does lead a cynical mind to wonder whether this is just another cash-grab for Martin while he flounders his way through the narrative morass that is the main thread of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Because I hate ending a review with a negative, let me reaffirm that this is definitely a must-read for fans of the novels who want to gain a richer, deeper understanding of the blood-soaked past of Westeros and its most infamous dynasty.