Look around your house. Sneakers, computers, movies, household items. How many of those things are made by massive, multinational corporations? ProbabLook around your house. Sneakers, computers, movies, household items. How many of those things are made by massive, multinational corporations? Probably all of them. And how many of these companies are from America? Lots, I'll bet.
In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein takes a trip through the history of branding - the association of a particular company with a particular product. Given that most products with similar function - sneakers, for example - are fairly similar in their makeup and function, the companies that make them use brand marketing to distinguish themselves from their competitors.
Thus, Nike, Reebok and Adidas, whose sneakers are, by and large, as good as each other, use brand marketing to make you believe that, if you buy their product, you are somehow superior to those who buy the product of the other guy. If you buy Nike, you're part the the Nike family - the uber-atheletes, the people who Just Do It and don't go in for all the fripperies of life. If you buy Reebok, you're more down to earth, more involved in the gestalt of life, and not quite as intense as the Nike people. If you have Adidas, you're probably more fun, a little irreverent, and you dream about sex all day. Or something like that.
We use brands to define ourselves. When my father worked for GE, we only had GE appliances in the house, even if that meant paying a little more for the new washer. I had a student who wore nothing but Jean-Paul Gaultier clothes. Hell, Generation X has been divided into the Pepsi Generation and the Coke kids, a terrible schism that may never be repaired in my lifetime, unless the Mountain Dew Freedom Fighters intervene. And we won't even start in with the Windows-Mac Civil War.
I don't pretend to be immune, either. I drink Diet Coke and used to smoke Marlboros, and would never have chosen another brand if those were available. Of course, this probably has something to do with scary chemical additives than anything else, but the point is the same. I was loyal to my brands, one way or another, without even thinking about why.
Like it or not, our brands define us, and we allow them to do so. Mainly because they use their commercials to terrify us - buy Preparation H or lose that valuable sale, wash your husband's clothes in Wisk, or all the other wives will laugh at you, that sort of thing. And the moment you start to wonder if perhaps there isn't any real difference between cars made by Honda and those made by Toyota, they hit you with a barrage of special offers, incentives and tie-ins to remind you that they love you. Really, they do.
Max Barry takes this kind of brand identification one step further.
This is a world where, economically speaking, most of the world is the United States. All of the Western Hemisphere (except Cuba), the UK, Southeast Asia and Australia, Russia, India and South Africa belong to the US, for all intents and purposes. The US government operates in all those places, if you have the money for it. Europe, Africa, China and the Middle East stand alone against the US economic juggernaut.
Corporations are king here. There are no taxes, as the US Government is simply another corporate organization, responsible for enforcing such laws as they have the budget to enforce. Every service - police, medical, fire - has been privatized. And while the concept of the political nation has pretty much vanished, there are economic nations emerging - the US Alliance and Team Advantage, both economic alliances that have their roots in airline mileage campaigns. Each of these groups controls dozens of markets, and cross-promotes all their goods. So if you wear Nike shoes, then you had better not eat at Burger King - that's Team Advantage territory. And if you work for McDonald's, then you'll want the NRA to protect you, rather than the Police, because you get a membership discount. Schools are run by "kid-friendly" companies such as McDonald's and Mattel, and are basically corporate propaganda mills. Not like now, of course. As if all that wasn't bad enough, your surname is the name of whatever company you work for.
Thus, a young man named Hack Nike is given a pivotal role in the marketing of a new Nike sneaker, the Mercury. As part of their marketing strategy, they'll limit production and distribution to five pairs per store. As Beanie Babies, among other products, have shown, the more limited the availability, the higher the demand, and the higher the price. Thus, charging $2,000 for a pair of shoes that an Indonesian laborer made for $0.85 is perfectly reasonable.
The second part of their marketing strategy is to increase the public's awareness of the sneakers, as well as to give them some street credibility. That's where Hack Nike comes in. His new marketing job is to shoot and kill ten purchasers of Nike Mercury sneakers.
Can Nike get away with this? They seem to think so, and they probably could have, were it not for Hack's distaste for murder. Suffice to say, the plot becomes complicated, and the Government's best and most dedicated officer, Jennifer, is on the case.
The story is a lot of fun, and well written. The world that Barry has created is a logical extension of our own, if hopefully improbable, and his characters are pretty easy to identify with, with only a few who don't shine as brightly as the others. Being a native of Melbourne, Barry also takes a few nice stabs at Americans, but they're good-natured and accurate, so I didn't mind. It was a tale of massive corporate malfeasance based on the solid marketing and corporate ethics of today. And since 2003, when the book was published, we've seen plenty of examples of how much large corporations are able to get away with and how unethical they're willing to be in order to make a quick buck.
Barry's book is, fundamentally, about the problems that arise when you allow the free market absolute control. The adage about the corruptive influences of power does not only apply to individual people, it most definitely applies to corporate entities as well. The excesses of the early 2000s showed that not even the law - to say nothing of basic ethics - could make some of the biggest corporations in the world behave honestly. The recent housing/financial services collapse is another example - when pursuing the almighty dollar, considerations for what is right and wrong fall by the wayside, and the law might only be a temporary stumbling block.
Read this book. It's a lot of fun, and then watch the papers and see how true it really could be.... ...more
Wow, remember when I was reading things? One thing I noticed about my period of unemployment was that I didn't do a lot of the things I thought I woulWow, remember when I was reading things? One thing I noticed about my period of unemployment was that I didn't do a lot of the things I thought I would do if I had the time to do them. Drawing, for example - I barely drew anything. And reading, too. I hardly picked up a book. I spent a lot of time going out or on the computer, but I didn't read. One reason might be that the only chair I have in the apartment is at my desk, so there's a lot of distraction. But another is just that, when you have all the time in the world to do what you want, you actually find ways of doing it... later.
For example - does power really corrupt, and could a good person go bad? Why would the Elves view death as a gift while Men were so desirous of immortality? What are the environmental themes of this book? And is more advanced technology automatically dangerous?
I found that last one interesting, because I view science and technology as being, overall, beneficial to humanity. But is there a point where it becomes too powerful to be beneficial? Just as the One Ring was too powerful to be used for good, might, say, nanotechnology eventually do us harm against our will?
It's a good read if you're a Tolkein fan and have read a lot of his work. If you've only watched the movies, you can still get a good handle on the ideas presented in this book....more
I will never. Never. Complain about my childhood again.
Okay, that's not true. I will. But when I let out a sad sigh of remorse that I didn't figure ouI will never. Never. Complain about my childhood again.
Okay, that's not true. I will. But when I let out a sad sigh of remorse that I didn't figure out exactly why I really wanted to be friends with that one guy in band in high school until it was way too late to do anything about it, I will at least think, "At least I wasn't killing people and snorting gunpowder."
Like most of you reading this, I knew absolutely nothing about what was happening in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. I didn't know there was anything to know. For all I knew, we had fixed Africa back in '84 when the First World Lonely Hearts Club Band belted out "We Are The World" and made us all notice the famine in Ethiopia. And anyway, that was in east Africa. West Africa was supposed to be a little better organized.
Shows how much I knew. Turns out all hell was breaking loose. After more than a decade of one-party rule, the Sierra Leonean military got into power and behaved pretty much the same way most African military governments did. Badly.
In reaction, a rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) started rampaging through the country. Their initial cause was to get rid of a corrupt government, but they very quickly went corrupt themselves, burning and slaughtering as they went. The rebels were vicious and bloodthirsty, and one of their most common ways of recruiting was to murder men and woman en masse and bring their sons into the fold. They would manipulate them with fear and drugs and hate, turning boys of ten, eleven, twelve years old into murderers.
Ishmael Beah was on the other end of this. His family was killed when the RUF ran over his town, along with most of his friends. He and his schoolmates tried to run away, but were eventually ensnared by the army. The army of Sierra Leone were hard-pressed to fight the rebels, and needed recruits. So they would take in boys who had been left orphaned and rootless by the war and hook them on fear and drugs and hate, turning boys of ten, eleven, twelve years old into murderers.
This is the story of Beah's descent into horror and his successful return from it. He was one of way too many child soldiers in Africa, and probably one of the very few who came through his experience not only intact, but willing to write about it. I first saw him on The Daily Show, and honestly it is really tough to reconcile what you read in this book with the bright-eyed, smiling young man sitting across from Jon Stewart.
Thanks to Dad, for the birthday present.... *smile*...more
I grew up near Hartford, and I have to say that there was very little that appealed to me. Sure, it has insurance companies and.... and.... umm.... aI grew up near Hartford, and I have to say that there was very little that appealed to me. Sure, it has insurance companies and.... and.... umm.... a river. Anyway, after giving it some thought, I figured, "Why not Hartford?" After all, if the United States has collapsed under its own weight to the point where Canada has to come in and do peacekeeping operations, Hartford is probably even more of a hell-hole than most other more made-for-fiction cities. I'm sure Ms. Bear had the same thought, since she grew up in the same area that I did ("Hartford? What a hell-hole THAT would make!") and Hartford fits the bill indeed....
Jenny Casey had a life, but not a very happy one. Estranged from her family, maimed in the service of her country, crippled by the cybernetics that were supposed to make up for the loss of her arm and her eye, she's come down to Hartford to wait to die. She has a cat and a home and a certain reputation for being a tough old lady in the rough streets of Hartford, but as far as she's concerned she's a used-up cripple whose worth to this world has pretty much been blown away.
But this world has other plans for her, of course. A knockoff of a Canadian military drug has hit the streets. A police officer has been found dead, murdered. These two events bring Jenny Casey back into the world, angry and resentful and, let's face it, kind of depressed. I can't say I blame her. As with so many veterans, she was used up, chewed up and spit out by the military she gave her life (and eye and arm) to. She feels no debt to them, or to her country, but her very few friends in Hartford are important enough to get her to start asking questions. And we all know what that leads to....
Elizabeth Bear has done a very nice job with this book. It's very real - multi-sensory descriptions are something that a lot of writers, new and veteran, overlook, but they add a certain depth to a story that can't be achieved otherwise. It does require some focus, though, as there are several parallel character tracks that don't really meet up very often, as well as flashbacks that require you to read the chapter heading so you know when you are. Reading this in a distracting environment, such as the staff room at my school, is probably not the best way to enjoy the book....
Anyway, this is the first of three, I believe. I'll have to find a way of getting the next book.......more
This is the last of the Meiji-era history books that I bought, and I'll be going off that topic for a little while. It's been really good reading, thoThis is the last of the Meiji-era history books that I bought, and I'll be going off that topic for a little while. It's been really good reading, though, because that's an incredibly interesting time. Japan went from a medieval feudal society to a nation capable of standing toe-to-toe with Western world powers within fifty years. It's an amazing accomplishment, really.
The 1860s were a bad time for Japan and America both. Japan had its Meiji Revolution, America had the Civil War. And after those events settled down a bit, the people of each country started thinking the same thing: where do we go from here?
In Japan, the answer was obvious: we go forward. Progressive Japanese thinkers, artists and philosophers traveled to America to learn her secrets and her ways, and to show a modern Japan to the world. Americans, however, were looking backwards. In an age of chaos and uncertainty, where the world seemed to be rushing by ever faster, some people wanted to slow down, or even stop. And for that, they looked to old Japan.
The book is a series of essays about men and women, mostly idle rich from Boston, who looked to Japan as the cure for their spiritual ills. People like Percival Lowell, Henry Adams, Herman Melville and Theodore Roosevelt all saw Japan as a place that offered great lessons to America in turmoil. Unfortunately, the lessons came from a culture that was rapidly vanishing under modernization, so they had to act fast.
The Japanophile community in Boston was a tight-knit one and an influential one. Their love of Japan inspired artists, politicians and educators to look at a way of life, and a way of thinking, that was seriously different from the way they were used to. By coming to Japan, they changed America....more
I got this a few years ago from my dad, and picked it up again recently while hunting for CELTA material. I had an assignment to do, wherein we had toI got this a few years ago from my dad, and picked it up again recently while hunting for CELTA material. I had an assignment to do, wherein we had to find a piece of "authentic material" around which I was to write a lesson. My original idea was to use a comic book, but that proved tricky, so I looked elsewhere.
While I didn't actually use this book for the CELTA assignment, I think I probably will use it as teaching material at some point. The book is basically a collection of very short, interesting historical stories, most of which are stories that people don't usually know. The great Chinese pirate Hsi Kai who was the unarguable queen of the seas. The first President of the United States in Congress Assembled, John Hanson. An entire city killed by a volcano and political intrigue. The three cigars that changed history. Who really killed President Garfield?
They're all interesting and bite-sized and easy to read. With, of course, references for further reading in the back. Enjoy....more
Wow, this was a tough one. It wasn't a bad book by any means - it was well-researched and informative and certainly illuminating. But it was a tough rWow, this was a tough one. It wasn't a bad book by any means - it was well-researched and informative and certainly illuminating. But it was a tough read anyway.
Bix had a very important purpose in writing this book other than simply writing a biography. He wanted to look at Hirohito's true role in the wars of Asian aggression and World War 2. One of the most enduring myths of modern Japanese history is that Hirohito was a passive ruler, manipulated by his advisers and the military. He pretty much sat by, helpless, and his only true act of leadership was in ending the war.
Not so, Bix says, and spends 288 pages explaining why.
He looks all the way back to Hirohito's childhood, when he was groomed almost from birth to be an effective emperor. His grandfather, the emperor Meiji, had been handed control of a chaotic state back in the 1860s, and pulled it all together through sheer force of will. He was an impressive man who had natural leadership ability, which is a very good thing for Japan. If it had been otherwise, the country probably never would have made it into the 20th century intact. His son, however, was not so lucky. Yoshihito was sickly, weak-willed and generally useless as a leader. Even from his youth, the Imperial court knew that this was not the man who would be able to lead Japan in the manner of the great Emperor Meiji. And so they turned to Yoshihito's son, Hirohito.
From the day he was born, Hirohito was surrounded by teachers and instructors who were preparing him to take his father's place as the supreme ruler of the Japanese Empire. Every lesson they taught him was focused on one very important fact: he was the descendant of an unbroken line of living gods, and the survival of Japan was inextricably bound to the Emperor. He was taught to revere the memory of his grandfather, to love the military, and to follow the "Yamato Spirit" which had made Japan great in the past. But, and this was important, to make sure that the imperial line was never extinguished.
The war in East Asia was an incremental one, and, according to Bix, had Hirohito's marks all over it. The Army had been sent out into Manchuria to "keep the peace," but also to expand territory wherever it could. It was given free rein to do so, too - abuses such as the well-known "Rape of Nanking" and the sanko policy of "kill all, steal all, burn all" went unpunished and unchecked, despite the many, many chances that the Emperor had to keep the army under his control. At every step, the Emperor either explicitly sanctioned or permitted by silence the actions of the Imperial Army and Navy.
The biggest problem with this book, which Bix states right out, is that there's so very little information available from Hirohito's own hand. He wasn't a prolific diary-keeper, and the Imperial Household Agency wouldn't let such information out in public anyway. The only way to figure out what the Emperor did and didn't know, say or do is either by secondary sources - the diaries of his ministers and advisers for example - or through inference.
Still, the evidence for Hirohito's war responsibility is pretty damning. Bix concludes that not only did Hirohito actively participate in the planning of the war, but he was more involved in the delay of the war's end than in the ending of the war, contrary to popular belief. As before, he had every opportunity to put an end to the war and the deaths of thousands of people, but he delayed out of pride and arrogance and a disbelief that any force could stand against the sheer willpower and devotion of the Japanese military. He had been trained in the idea that it was not strategy that won a war, but passion and desire, and his Imperial Army was his tool. As far as he was concerned, they were an extension of his will, and for the army to surrender would reflect not only on Japan, but on him.
And when the war did end, when two cities were laid waste, he did everything in his power - with the happy assistance of the United States - to appear blameless. Together with MacArthur and GHQ, the supreme commander of the Japanese armed forces and the embodiment of the nation itself was reduced to an impotent puppet. He was stripped of his power and humanized. But he survived, and he remained the Emperor. He'd held power without responsibility, and suffered no consequences for his actions. So is it any wonder that Japan has a hard time dealing with its past? If the Emperor, the person who was supposed to have been the very embodiment of the nation, the one for whose benefit the people of Japan existed cannot accept his part in the Greater East Asian War, how can the rest of the country?
It's an interesting book, once you can get through it. There was a lot of minutia that kind of bogged the story down, which is very good in a history book, not so good in a page-turning account of a historical figure's life. But it was essential to proving Bix's point - Emperor Hirohito was complicit in the wars of aggression in Asia-Pacific, and completely escaped responsibility....more
This book absolutely lives up to its title, except possibly the "short" part. The hardcover clocks in at 544 pages, including notes and index, which mThis book absolutely lives up to its title, except possibly the "short" part. The hardcover clocks in at 544 pages, including notes and index, which makes it quite luggable. I suppose, however, when compared to the geologic ages that preceded our brief existence on this earth, the book and the years it took to write it are indeed quite short. In those 544 pages, however, we explore everything, from the dawn of time up until the dawn of human history, from the infinitely tiny hearts of quarks to the infinitely huge scale of the universe. Biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology - whatever your science of choice is, it's in this book. And even if you're thinking, "Science really isn't my thing," I have good news for you - it will be when you're finished.
One of the things that makes Bryson an excellent writer is simply his ability to make you enjoy reading his work, no matter what the topic is. He's most well known for his travel books, such as Notes from a Big Country and A Walk in the Woods, as well as his books on the English language, such as Mother Tongue. When I first read him, he struck me as a more literate version of Dave Barry - a very intelligent guy with a fantastic sense of humor. No matter what he writes, you can't help but enjoy it.
This book, then, must have been a massive challenge for him. He admits right in the beginning that, before he started this book, he pretty much had no idea what he was going to find out. He wasn't a scientist or a naturalist, and had no idea how it was that we knew, for example, that the Earth had an iron core, or how we knew that the universe was expanding or why uranium was so easy to split up. How do we know that the continents drift across the face of the globe, or that we really are cousins to chimpanzees? He started from a state of ignorance, and spent three years removing himself from that state.
That, in and of itself, is admirable. There seems to be an unfortunate trend in thinking that science is too hard for the normal person to understand. In some cases people believe that if it is indeed too hard for the normal person to understand then, why, it must be impossible to understand. This is the "argument from ignorance" fallacy, and it's something that's easy to fall prey to. After all, no one likes to admit that they don't know things, and if your pride is bigger than your conscience it might be all too easy to assume that if you can't understand it then no one can. Thus the whole Intelligent Designer nonsense and the continuing battles.... in the TWENTY-FIRST GODSDAMNED CENTURY.... over whether or not evolution is the process by which we can explain the fantastic diversity of life on this planet.
Sorry about that. The neurochemical processes that allowed my distant ancestors to fight off predators (AKA the famous "fight or flight reflex") tends to manifest itself these days as blasphemy and shouting. I'll try and keep it down from now on.
If you're like me, and you've been a dabbler in science for a long time, you'll still learn something new. Not the least of what you will learn is what the Greatest Scientific Minds of our Time were like as people. Bryson does his best to bring out the humanity of people like Newton, Lowell, Einstein, Kelvin and everyone else. There's a whole lot of fighting, lying, deceiving and backstabbing that brought us to where we are today, and if they had taught me that in science class when I was a kid, I probably would have gotten better grades.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about this book is that it's not so much a book about science as it's a book about scientists. By looking at the people who figured out how the universe works, we learned about why science works the way it does - and sometimes doesn't - and get a real sense of how human understanding progresses. There are flashes of insight and stubborn refusals to see what is plainly true. There are lost geniuses and shameless opportunists, missed chances and serendipitous discoveries. Science, in short, is a human endeavor, with all the glamor and tarnish that comes with it. By emphasizing the humanity of the men and women who have driven science forward, Bryson is able to let us see our own place in the process.
What's more, Bryson takes great care to point out the areas where we have failed, or at least not yet succeeded. Cells, for example, are baffling organic machines that outperform human-made devices by an outlandish margin. We don't know as much as we think about pre-history - our fossil record is far more spotty than the Natural History Museum would have you believe, mainly because fossilization requires very specific conditions, not the least of which is a bit of good luck. There could be entire branches of the tree of life that we don't know because they had the misfortune to occupy an environment that didn't promote fossilization. We don't even know how many species of life are on Earth right now - or how many we've lost.
The history of humanity is twisted and confusing, with no clear answers as to where we came from, how we arose and how we spread across the globe. There are so many mysteries to be solved, and so few people available to solve them.
If you're not a science nerd, you'll still enjoy the book. Remember - up until he wrote it, Bryson was one of you. His style is very readable, and he guides you very deftly from one topic to the next, illustrating a very important point: all science is connected. There is no discrete boundary between, say, chemistry and biology (no matter what the chemists and biologists might tell you), just a fuzzy blur where we pass from one to the other. The greatest advances in our knowledge of how the universe works have come from the most unlikely places, and sometimes knowing why atoms behave the way they do can help understand why the universe behaves the way it does.
Yes, learning is hard. But when you're done, you are rewarded with a new sense of understanding and awe about how the universe works. And that wins over ignorance any day....more
This is my second Bryson book for the year (the first being A Short History of Nearly Everything), but this is probably the fourth time I've read thisThis is my second Bryson book for the year (the first being A Short History of Nearly Everything), but this is probably the fourth time I've read this book. I'm an English teacher, so my desire to know more about the language I'm teaching is, well, pretty high. One does not necessarily lead to the other, of course - I've met plenty of English teachers who couldn't care less about the history of the language, just how to teach it. Not that there's anything wrong with that....
Bryson excels in many things, and one of his best talents is taking something horribly complex, like the rise of English as a dominant world language, and making it not only understandable, but entertaining. He takes us through, of course, where languages come from and how they've evolved over the last umpteen thousand years. With special emphasis on the evolution of English, of course, from a commoners' tongue composed of a mishmash of Anglo-Saxon and Norman, with regular infusions from the Romance languages and Scandinavia to the language of an Empire, spanning the globe and finding niches in the most unexpected of places. He talks about the origins of words pronunciation and how it's changed, and the multiplicity of English dialects. He covers the split of American and British English, and how half the time when the Brits get all snobby about an "Americanism," it's actually a word that was coined in Britain but fell out of favor. He covers the attempts to catalog English and standardize it, to simplify it and study it.
He even has a whole chapter on profanity.
So yeah, if you've every wondered where the language you're speaking comes from, check it out. It's rather unashamedly pro-English in terms of its comparison with other languages, as you might expect, but Bryson does his best to point out the occasions where other languages accomplish things that English cannot. You can't help but notice, however, that Bryson is an English speaker who loves the English language, so expect a bit of bias to seep in there.
Nonetheless, it's very entertaining and informative. Enjoy....more
Back in 2006, I made a trip to the States for a wedding. It was good fun, and I figured that while I was there, I'd go and see"Hell's Bells" count: 3
Back in 2006, I made a trip to the States for a wedding. It was good fun, and I figured that while I was there, I'd go and see some other friends and family up and down the East Coast. While in the Albany Area of New York, I was taken to a fantasy/science fiction bookstore so that I could fill up on books - a precious commodity, given their expense and rarity here.
What I found when I walked in was shocking - I had no idea what to buy. I was so far out of the loop of SF/F news that I didn't know who was good, who was terrible, which mammoth mega-series were worth investing in and which were better off avoided. So I did the perfectly rational thing - I asked my friend for advice.
With very little delay, he picked this book out for me and said, "You need to read this. But," he warned, "you'll want to read them all." I hemmed and hawed a bit, did some mental calculations of suitcase volume and density, and purchased the first three books of the Dresden Files series.
My friend was right. I plowed through those books like nobody's business and then fumed that I couldn't go right into the next one. Any series that makes you practically itch for the next book has definitely got something going for it, and it all starts right here.
Harry Dresden is a wizard for hire in Chicago. He is, as far as he knows, the only wizard for hire, and this is both good and bad. Good in that he gets all the weird cases that only a wizard can really handle, plus the bonus of being a standing consultant for the Chicago police department. Bad in that he's pretty much on his own, wizard-wise, in a city that is just aching to go supernaturally crazy.
As this book opens, Dresden is trying to scrape enough together for the rent, and he's hit with two cases at once - a woman looking for her missing husband and the police looking to find out who made two people's hearts burst from their chests. Chasing either lead means danger, but he can't afford not to take either one. He needs the money, and he needs to keep a good relationship with the police....
Someone, somewhere is breaking the most sacred laws of magic. Binding, killing, coercion and destruction, all uses of magic that are utterly forbidden by the White Council, the mysterious council who oversees the world's wizarding community.
In the best traditions of gritty detective fiction, the two seemingly unrelated cases eventually merge into one very dangerous investigation, one which challenges Harry and his allies to do more than they'd ever done before.
Butcher has done some fantastic work here for a debut novel, and set the stage for a long and fruitful series. He sets up his world in an efficient fashion, giving us everything we need to know in order to get the story he's about to tell, and dropping little hints of what's to come. I really have no complaints.
Well, maybe one. But it's small, all things considered.
As Dresden tells us in his narration, the world he lives in is one that has seen magic pushed back for the better part of a century in favor of Science. "The largest religion of the twentieth century," he calls it, and that kind of set off a little red flag in my head.
I've heard the old "Science is just another religion" canard before, and I know that it's nonsense - science doesn't require faith, it doesn't require any kind of leaps or hope or suspension of disbelief. Religion certainly does - no one prays with absolute certainty that their prayer will be answered - there's always a chance (and often a good one) that nothing will come of it. But hold a stone a few feet off the ground and drop it, and that stone will damn well fall to the ground. Moreover, it'll fall at the same speed when dropped from the same height, no matter who drops it. Every time. No praying, no intercession. Just science.
What makes Dresden's comment even more interesting is how scientific he is in his working of magic. He has a work space in his basement that he refers to as a lab, and explains to the reader the way that magic works. The principles of Circles, and the necessary elements that constitute a potion. When Harry talks about the power of True Names, he tells us about a known effect of using someone's name for spellcraft, one that will work for any wizard, so long as he knows how to say the person's name the right way.
As an interesting aside to that, Harry gives us his full name - Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden - right at the beginning of the book, on page two. This would imply an interesting level of trust between the narrator and the reader, as the character knows full well the dangers of letting one's full name get out of your hands.
He talks about rules and laws, cause and effect, as things that he's studied and remembered because they work. If magic were truly non-scientific, there would be no way for Harry (or any other practitioner) to predict what would happen when a spell was cast. But when he draws a circle and gives it a bit of a charge, Harry knows exactly what will happen. This alternate world may have sources of energy that ours doesn't, and certain physical laws that vary from ours, but science is no less present in Harry's magic than anywhere else.
So, that one little nitpick aside, I found this to be a very enjoyable book. What's more, it was an excellent introduction into what has turned out to be a fantastic series. I can't wait to see how it all turns out in the end.......more
When a book about werewolves has a joke taken directly from Young Frankenstein (“Werewolf? There! There wolf! There castle!”), yoHell's Bells count: 9
When a book about werewolves has a joke taken directly from Young Frankenstein (“Werewolf? There! There wolf! There castle!”), you know you're in very good hands. That's the kind of joke that a very small percentage of readers is going to get, but it's guaranteed that those readers who do get it will be very appreciative.
Once again, consulting magician Harry Dresden has gotten himself into trouble. A few months ago, he nearly got himself killed taking down a drug-pushing warlock who wielded disturbingly strong levels of dark magic. Now, he has a different... hairier problem to deal with.
People are being ripped apart in Chicago. Not normal gangland killings, or even comfortable, familiar drug shootings, no. People are being literally torn apart, limb from limb, guts for garters, that sort of thing. The killings are violent and frightening, and both the Chicago police and the FBI would really like to know who's behind them all. Unfortunately for Harry Dresden, all avenues point towards the supernatural.
If that weren't bad enough, his talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time has made Harry an object of suspicion almost any time something weird goes down. He's used to that, though. What with just being relieved of the Doom of Damocles (a rather pretentious-sounding magical probation), and still being in the bad books of the White Council of Wizards, to say nothing of the powerful mobsters, Harry has more enemies than he can really keep up with. He doesn't need any more, and he most certainly doesn't need enemies that are red in tooth and claw.
For that matter, ti would probably be simpler if it were just one werewolf. But it isn't. Of even if it were just one kind of werewolf. Which it isn't. Or even if all the werewolves in question were relentless, evil killing machines. Which, of course, they aren't. Not all of them.
So now Harry has to throw himself into the fray again – to the wolves, as it were – and risk life and limb for people who don't quite appreciate all the hard work he does. At least, not until a ravaging loup-garou nearly kills them all. But that would help anyone through a crisis of faith, I think.
As with the first volume in this series, I really enjoyed this book. Jim Butcher has an excellent sense of humor, and it really shines through in Harry's narration. Dresden often breaks the fourth wall in his narrative, acknowledging to both himself and the reader that he's about to do something that most people would consider to be insane.
One of the things I really enjoy about reading these books is the multi-sensory experience of reading them. Butcher knows that we have many senses, and also knows that a great number of writers only engage a couple of them. So he throws as much sensory information as he can at us, engaging our senses of touch and taste and smell to make the scene that much more convincing. What's more, he has a gift for an economy of description – what's the most important sensory input for each scene? He knows it, and focuses our attention on that.
Plus, he''s put together a very well-ordered magical universe. The rules are clear and binding, letting us know exactly what harry can and cannot do in order to get out of his troubles. The work that Butcher has done in preparing the world of Harry Dresden shows up very clearly.
Of course, werewolves are fun monsters to play with, mainly because of their symbolic significance. Man and beast in one body, a loss of control and a joy in doing so – the werewolf is the beast we all fear to become. And this is important to Harry as well – as he tells us in this book and most of the others, he has a dark side to him. He knows what it's like to reach into the bleak recesses of his soul and to use magic towards evil ends. He's done it before, and the understanding that he could do it again is a shadow that constantly follows him. When he sees the various werewolves that are terrorizing the city, he sees himself in them. He sees the monster he could become, and he rejects it. Or at least holds it at bay for as long as he can.
It's great to watch Harry, because he's such an underdog. He gets beaten up, outsmarted, outclassed again and again, but he keeps coming back. He keeps finding that one little way through his problems that allows him to come through victorious. As far as he's able to, anyway.
And in the end, isn't that true for all of us?...more
If you're reading this series in sequence (which you absolutely should be, or things will stop making sense very quickly), you"Hell's Bells" count: 26
If you're reading this series in sequence (which you absolutely should be, or things will stop making sense very quickly), you've got a good handle on how the world of Harry Dresden operates. He's a lone wolf, so to speak, standing up to the Occult Forces of Chicago with only the support of his contact in the Chicago PD, Lt. Karrin Murphy. There's also intrepid investigative reporter Susan Rodriguez, for whom Harry's feelings are slightly more than professional.
There's also the mysterious White Council of Wizards. While you may think that belonging to a worldwide magical fraternity might be a good thing, Harry Dresden would most certainly disagree. To be fair, he has a history - he did kill his mentor using black magic, which is something so bad that it's number one on their list of Things a Wizard Must Not Do, which comes with one free beheading. His associates in the White Council barely tolerate him, and make it very clear that he's worth more to them dead than alive. But more about this in other books....
The point is that Harry so far has been a fairly small-time operator. Yes, he takes down evil sorcerers and vicious werewolves, but mostly on his own. In this book, the camera pulls back a little and we learn more about his world and his connections, and a broader story starts to emerge.
The most interesting of these additions is Michael Carpenter, an associate of Harry's whose view of the world comes from a very different place. Michael is a religious man, a committed Christian who sees Harry's use of magic as impure and sullied, but associates with him anyway because they have a shared goal: the elimination of evil. Michael Carpenter is the Fist of God, one of the three Knights of the Cross. As such, he wields a faith powerful enough that even Harry can feel it. Oh, and he also wields a giant sword. With one of the nails from the True Cross worked into it. Amoracchius is a powerful weapon against evil, and a prize that anyone would be glad to have.
In this book (as in all his books), Harry is given more trouble than he can handle. It begins with ghosts, as so many things do. The ghosts of Chicago are being stirred up by something - they're acting out in ways they would never act, causing an above-average amount of chaos and disorder in the city. And when there's ghosts around, tearing up the pediatrics ward of your local hospital, who is it you're going to contact telephonically? That's right - Harry Dresden.
The ghosts are the least of his worries, however. The force behind them, the malicious entity that is driving the ghosts mad, is of far more concern to him. There's something out there, a Nightmare, that is out for blood. It's attacking Harry and his friends, and doing it through their dreams. Not just Harry's friends who are in good with the supernatural, but some of his Muggle buddies as well. This thing is angry, evil, and can tear a person's soul apart, leaving an empty husk that does nothing but try to scream.
As if that weren't enough, the Red Court of Vampires is having a party, and they want Harry to come. Sounds lovely, right? A costume party with the vampires, a promise of protection to all invited guests - how can you have a better night? Myself, I'd start by not hanging around a house full of vampires and their allies. Especially when the hostess, a high-ranking member of the Court, has a serious personal grudge against me. The vampire Bianca wants Harry deader than dead, and she manages to set of a complex series of events to make sure it happens.
This book, as I said, expands the Dresden universe a bit. It assumes that the readers are fairly comfortable with what we know, and gives us a lot more to think about. The world-wide spread of vampires, the hide-bound White Council, and the ramifications of having a Faerie Godmother. In the previous books, we saw Harry come out on top against small-scale foes - now the camera pulls back to show us how he goes up against larger institutions.
In this book, Dresden is almost always out of his league - although I can't imagine who would be in their league while facing a hoarde of really pissed off vampires while being on the brink of death already. Buffy, probably. Or River Tam. Anyone written by Joss Whedon, I guess. But Dresden makes it through. Not in the "Finding reserves of strength you never knew were there" style found in the Whedon Supergirls, but more in the "This just might be crazy enough to work, unless I kill myself doing it in which case it might not go so well after all" style.
Plus, it has my favorite trope of modern fantasy fiction - even if the hero wins, he doesn't actually save the day. In fact, things get a whole lot worse. Which is all gravy for Jim Butcher, because it means he has all the more material to work with for the rest of the series. ...more
In the last book, Harry Dresden saved the day. He fought some of the strongest the Red Court of the Vampires had to offer and"Hell's bells" count: 14
In the last book, Harry Dresden saved the day. He fought some of the strongest the Red Court of the Vampires had to offer and came out, well, more or less intact. To do so, he also managed to make himself the target of nearly everything in the Nevernever (the mystical other-world from which all the nasties ans scaries ultimately come), lose his girlfriend to a bunch of bloodsucking fiends, and instigate an all-out, world-wide war between the White Council of the Wizards and the Red Court.
So yeah. Mixed blessings and all.
Now he's practically working himself to death to avoid actually being killed. After all, saving the day is nice, but it doesn't usually come with a check at the end of it, and there are bills to be paid. When we see Harry again, some months after the disastrous events at Bianca's nasty little costume party, he's working himself to the bone. He's become a recluse, hiding from as many people as he can. He does this for two reasons. First, he's spending a lot of time looking for an antidote to Susan's vampirism - or semi vampirism, anyway. She hasn't drunk from a person yet, you see, and until she does that she's not really a vampire. It's a hard job, though, which is why she not only turned down Harry's proposal of marriage but also left the country with instructions that he not try to follow her.
So the love of his life is incommunicado, and Harry doesn't know if she's alive or dead - or worse. What's more, he believes that it is her fault that she got this way, even if it really isn't. One of the criticisms that can be laid at the feet of Harry Dresden is his deep-seated male chauvinism. He doesn't believe that women are inferior or anything quite so barbaric as that. He believes that they're special, that they should be treated with an extra measure of care and respect. He hates the thought of harming a woman, and will go out of his way to see to it that the women he cares about are kept safe from anything that might hurt them.
Unfortunately for him, Harry tends to hang around with women who don't want to be taken care of, namely Susan Rodriguez and Karrin Murphy. Both of them are strong-willed women who want to be part of Harry's life, and neither one of them particularly appreciates being told to sit on the sidelines because they're girls. In fact, this attempt by Harry to protect them, more often than not, brings them more trouble than if he had trusted them to begin with.
I say this because it was good to see him make a little progress in this book. Following the events of Grave Peril, in which she was psychically tortured - though perhaps "raped" would be the better word - by the spells of a dead sorcerer, Murphy found herself broken. She couldn't sleep, she couldn't concentrate. She was afraid of everything, a shell of who she had been. So, in order to bring her back at least part of the way, Harry tells her everything - his dark past, the White Council, all the things he's not supposed to share. While it was by no means a magic recovery potion, it went a long way towards establishing their equality and fellow hunters of evil.
And all this really has little to do with the plot itself, which is a pretty straightforward murder mystery/supernatural power play. Queen Mab of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, needs Harry to find out who killed a servant of the Summer Court, the Summer Knight. Queen Titania of Summer thinks, and not without reason, that it was Mab who had the knight killed. Harry has to get to the truth, and he has to do it before Midsummer's Eve, lest the two courts go to war and take our world with them.
For the White Court, this is an excellent opportunity. If Dresden succeeds in helping Mab, she will give the Wizards safe passage through the Nevernever, which will in turn allow the Wizards to better prosecute their war against the vampires. If Dresden fails, the vampires will (in theory) be happy, and the war will end on its own. Either way, there's a very good chance that the White Council will finally rid itself of Harry Dresden, something they've been trying to do for quite some time.
So for a simple murder mystery, it's really not very simple at all. We get a good look at the expanded universe of Harry Dresden, and it's a scary place to be. This time he's going up against some truly heavy hitters, with some very serious stakes, not the least of which is his own life and his own free will. For the first time, we are privy to the workings of the White Council, how they work and how they don't work, and it's very easy to understand why they and Harry don't get along so well.
As with the other books, this gets my full recommendation. It's fast-paced and interesting, and there's some damn fine character work. A bit of very good banter between Murphy and Harry caught my eye that makes both of them much more interesting and believable (not that they weren't before). It's moments like that throughout the series that show Butcher's care for the characters and his desire that we see them as real as he does. Also, a very nice Indiana Jones reference, only involving unicorns.
So - and you're going to get tired of hearing me say this - go get this book. Go get all the Dresden books, and settle in for some good reading....more
"Hell's Bells" count: 16 (plus two editing errors - "break" for "brake" on page 24 and "shield" spelled "shielf" on page 319)
It's the "Hell's bells" t"Hell's Bells" count: 16 (plus two editing errors - "break" for "brake" on page 24 and "shield" spelled "shielf" on page 319)
It's the "Hell's bells" that started it. I don't usually make notes on spelling errors in books. I do notice them, of course - they practically jump out at me and dance around - but these are the only ones where I make a note of the page.
Anyway, on to the book. If you've been following the series this far, you know that Harry Dresden, Wizard for Hire, has really gotten himself into deep doo-doo. Aside from his usual problem of taking on cases in each book that end in his getting the everlovin' beat out of him, there's a larger story arc to take in - in this case, the war between the Vampires of the Red Court and the White Council of Wizards. Which, as much as he tried not to, Harry incited and, by all the ancient laws of not killing one's host at a party, he is definitely guilty of. To be fair, the host that he killed, Bianca, was trying to get him to do break the Rules of Hospitality so that she could kill him because he made her so angry way back in Storm Front that she drained one of her favorite servants dry.
It's a complicated world they live in.
So far the book-level arcs and the series-level arc have been pretty distinct, though I suspect that they will become more and more intertwined as the series goes on. Sooner or later they'll merge, and all hell will break loose. Literally, I have no doubt.
In this book, Harry has two major problems to deal with. The first is a duel - the Red Court really wants him dead, and they've sent one of their oldest and most powerful representatives - Don Paolo Ortega - to challenge him to a duel. To, of course, the death. Harry certainly doesn't want to die, but the consequences of not dying might be even worse. Should Harry try to duck out of the duel, hired mercenaries are spread throughout Chicago, ready to take out everyone who means anything to Harry.
If Harry should win, of course, the city will be declared Neutral Ground, and the Vampire-Wizard war will have to rage on elsewhere. Overseeing all this is The Archive, a seven year-old girl who has the entire history of humanity - every word written, every word spoken - in her head. She is a being of enormous power, and can be reduced to giggles by a cute kitty cat. She and her bodyguard/driver Jared Kincaid are there to see that the duel goes according to the rules, and are ready to exact very harsh and fatal punishment to he who violates them.
Again, the White Council, who by all rights should be standing by one of their own, is secretly hoping that Ortega will take Dresden down. The Wizards are losing the war to the vampires, and any excuse they can find to call a stop to the death and destruction is a welcome one. The trouble is, the Vampires may not want to stop....
In the other corner, Dresden has a paying job, one that is uniquely suited to him - find a certain relic for the Vatican. It's priceless, of course. A length of linen cloth with a variety of stains and discolorations that may or may not have the imprint of the resurrected Jesus Christ burned into it. Yes, it's the Shroud of Turin, or as Harry would call it, "The freaking Shroud of Turin." It is, of course, an immensely powerful artifact, regardless of whether or not it really is the burial shroud of Christ.
Magic, as Harry tells us, is greatly about emotion and belief. If you want to do a spell, you have to really believe in that spell. You have to know down to your bones that it's going to work, or it won't work at all. It takes great hatred to make a voodoo doll work, for example, above and beyond the usual magical accoutrements that one needs. Millions of people believe in the divine nature of the Shroud. That gives it power, which can be used for benevolent or, as is the case in this book, malevolent ends.
This is where we meet some of the more dangerous foes in Dresden's universe: the Denarians.
The Denarians (more formally The Order of the Blackened Denarius) are a group of fallen angels who are far, far nastier than the usual breed. There are thirty of them, each bound to a coin, an ancient Roman denarius, which may or may not have been the silver coins paid to Judas for a kiss. When a human touches the coin, the fallen angel is able to make contact and enlist that human as a mortal carrier. Some of the Denarians seduce their hosts, where others just use brute force to subjugate them. Either way, the Denarians are millennia old, nigh immortal, and evil down to their cores.
The leader of these creatures calls himself Nicodemus, and he wants the Shroud so that he can do terrible, terrible things to the world. Not end it, necessarily, but bring about the kind of chaos, panic and disorder that he and his kind thrive on.
Fortunately, Harry has the Knights of the Cross on his side - Michael (whom we have already met), Sanya and Shiro. The three of them are willing to fight the Denarians, but want Harry out of it. Why? Our old friend the half-understood, vaguely worded prophecy. Which, like so many other prophecies throughout history, should be regarded as highly suspect.
There are a lot of layers to this story. We get a fun new group of baddies to deal with, a better understanding of the war between the Vampires and the Wizards, and even another, more human look at John Marcone, the undisputed head of the Chicago underworld, who is also looking for the Shroud. For slightly less nefarious purposes, however.
Each book builds on the ones that came before it, yet each book lives on its own, which was a very good decision on Butcher's part. While you will certainly want to jump straight into the next book upon finishing this one, you don't actually need to. There's a certain amount of closure, with just enough loose ends to fuel your speculation for the next book. I shouldn't have to say this by now, but - go get 'em....more
In honor of Carlin's unfortunate passing from this world to the next, I thought that I would spend some time involved in personal reflection and activIn honor of Carlin's unfortunate passing from this world to the next, I thought that I would spend some time involved in personal reflection and active remembrance by perusing one of his humor encapsulation modules. it's full of brief comedic text-forms and small humorous thought units which will undoubtedly bring a day's diversion to anyone who... who...
Aw, f*ck it. Read his goddamn book and laugh, you m*therf*ckers. He was a dirty, foul-mouthed son of a bitch, but he said what he thought and never gave a damn what other people thought of him. That c*cks*cker's all right in my book. He knew the true nature of humanity - we are such evil, vicious bastards that we would invent something as destructive and painful as napalm, but at the same time we can create something whose sole purpose is to bring whimsy into our lives - silly putty. Carlin knew that humans were impossible to categorize as "good" or "evil" and he let us know that as loudly as possible.