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review 2017-08-19 21:36
Lady Mechanika - Vol. 1
Lady Mechanika, Volume 1: The Mystery of the Mechanical Corpse - Joe Benitez

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

Set in an alternate Victorian (circa 1879) England, this comics deals with Lady Mechanika, a private investigator/adventuress whose limbs are actually mechanical, and who’d like nothing more than to find out who made her like that and where she comes from; all the while being pitted against the sinister Blackpool Armaments Co. and both its shady employer and soldiers. In this arc, Mechanika investigates the death of a mysterious young woman with mechanical arms similar to her own, only to realise that a lot more players are involved, including Commander Winter and a circus full of characters each with their own secrets.

The drawing style itself is, in general, well-balanced and elegant, and the colours match the mood of the various panels and situations. It’s probably a little overkill on the steampunk aesthetics (in that at some point, there’s going to be a lot of leather and corsets and goggles on top hats etc.), so depending on one’s mood about that, it may not be a selling point. On the other hand, there’s a lot of attention to details, which makes it a joy to look for those in panels, and even if they’re of the, well, aesthetic persuasion in spite of usefulness, there’s plenty to keep your eyes busy. (I usually tends to like steampunk aesthetics, so count me in the second category, even though I tend to criticise lightly. ^^)

Not bonus points on the boobs, though, and some of the extreme ‘female body poses’ that I see in a lot of comics. Eye candy and all that, I get it. It’s just... it detracts from the overall badassness of the characters. (And large boobs are seriously not convenient, especially since they easily hurt during stunts. Whatever.)

The characters as a lot were likeable enough: from Mechanika herself, with her doubts but also her resourcefulness and her desire to do what’s right, to Lewis the inventor whose bottle problems hint at dark events in his past. And the little Alexandra, with her gimmick ‘you’re an impostor’atttitude, which made her quibs with Mechanika quite funny—apparently some authors in the comics write stories about M, and the kid thinks these are the truth. There seems to be a current of underlying relationships that beg to be developed in later issues, creating a sense of an over-plot that will be gradually revealed (which I sure hope will happen in later issues because if it doesn’t, I’ll be disappointed). So far I’m not too happy with the two enemy women apparently becoming enemies because of a man (as it’s a pretty boring reason), but it may still turn out to be something slightly different, so we’ll see. I could do with a little less wordiness, though—it doesn’t fare too well in some panels, making pages difficult to focus on—yet I’m also torn about that because some of that dialogue was of the banter kind, and I think this fits well with Victorian/steampunk themes in general.

Conclusion: 3.5 stars, going on 4.Quite an enjoyable comics in spite of the (typical?) eye-candy. I still liked the artwork and additional covers no matter what, as well as the story and its slight cliffhanger/ominous tones at the end.

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review 2017-08-19 18:23
The Founding Sausage-Makers
The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution - Michael J. Klarman

The drafting and ratification of the Constitution of the United States is one of the most heavily mythologized parts of American history. For many people, what happened in Philadelphia was nothing less than a divinely-inspired blueprint for a national government, with the wise men who created it lionized as the "Founding Fathers" with all of the majesty implied by the use of the capital letters. Though this image has not gone unchallenged, it's endurance reflects its patriotic usefulness, an example of the national exceptionalism of which Americans are so proud.

 

Michael Klarman's book offers a very different view of the creation of our nation's governing document. Drawing upon a vast range of contemporary writings, he argues that the creation of the Constitution was driven by fears for the effects of democracy on economic policy. The key concern was debt. During the American Revolution the states and the Continental Congress had accumulated an enormous amount of debt in their fight against the British. Though the United States had won the war, in its aftermath the country was plunged into a severe economic depression that exacerbated the economic problems of thousands of Americans. Pressured by high taxes to service the debts, voters in several states elected officials who pursued a variety of measures designed to ease tax burdens and make debts easier to pay off, many of which threatened to destabilize national unity.

 

It was concerns over this which Klarman sees as driving the push for a new national governing structure. As he explains, the government provided in the Articles of Confederation lacked authority to address the problem, and was itself virtually prostrate from the burden of debts and the lack of any reliable means of paying them off. For many of the people behind the push for a stronger national government, the heart of the problem lay with the disproportionate power possessed by the smaller states, which enjoyed equal representation in the Confederation Congress. It was this problem which James Madison's Virginia Plan sought to address by creating a new legislature with power residing in a lower house with representation apportioned by population. His efforts to bully the delegates from the smaller states failed, though, and after a compromise was reached establishing an upper legislative house that maintained the principal of equal state representation, the desire of Madison and his allies to empower the embryonic government waned considerably. It was a fortuitous failure, though because such were the concerns of many people about the final document that even with all of the advantages the Constituion's advocates possessed, ratification was a close-run thing, with the support of the smaller states (who never would have gone along with a structure that would have diminished their representation to the degree Madison proposed) decisive to its success.

 

Deeply researched and clearly argued, Klarman's book is a masterpiece of historical writing. While his argument echoes the one famously advanced by Charles Beard in his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, Klarman makes a more convincing case by nuancing his arguments in ways that acknowledges the complex range of factors involved. Contingency is at the heart of his tale, as he shows the interplay of arguments and how decisions played off of each other in ways that determined the outcome. It makes for an origin story for the Constitution that is more akin to the grimy details of sausage making than the high-minded debates of demigods, but it is one that is truer to the reality of politics than we would like to admit. For that reason alone it is essential reading for anyone interested in learning about the history of our country;s founding or how our national government came to be what it is today.

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review 2017-08-18 11:37
KJ Charles: Spectred Isle
Spectred Isle - KJ Charles

I was away on holiday when this dropped onto my ebook reader, as it had sounded like something that was right up my street and I'd pre-ordered it (not that common an occurence for me, given the amount I read!). What I didn't expect was to end up reading it in one sitting, doing the 'just one more chapter' thing and then needing to know how it finished. 

 

Spectred Isle is the first of a series, which is a torment in and of itself, set just after World War I and it's pretty much impossible to find a character in it who hasn't been affected by that conflict. Our main guys, Saul Lazenby and Randolph Glyde, had very different experiences but both suffered significant loss - Saul has lost his future career and good reputation because of a mistaken relationship, while Randolph's family has been destroyed, leaving him facing a future where he is literally the last of his line.

 

This is not quite our world, though, but one where a shadow war took place alongside the fighting in the trenches and Glyde and his family were active participants, tearing open barriers between our world and the 'other side'. Now, as a result, while Whitehall tries to pull magic practitioners into their bureaucracy, Glyde and his friends are left dealing with folklore and story come to horrible life. Saul, finding employment with an eccentric who has all sorts of odd ideas, keeps turning up in all the wrong places and then literally becomes part of what's going on. 

 

The only downside? Book 2 isn't out yet. This book definitely worked for me, really enjoyed it and am looking forward to seeing how this series works out.

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review 2017-08-17 22:23
No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers
No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America - Ron Powers

This is a deeply emotional book about an important topic, and it seems to have found a large audience (judging by the number of holds at my local library if not the number of ratings on Goodreads). It’s a great idea, alternating between nonfiction chapters about the nature and history of mental illness and a memoir of the author’s family, including two sons with schizophrenia. And as a journalist, the author has an engaging writing style that kept me wanting to read on. It is marred, however, by odd choices in structure and focus. In the end, there is far less about mental illness in it than I expected, and the author’s major policy proposal involves disempowering the very people to whom he claims he wants to give a voice.

The larger part of this book is the nonfiction, much of which is history. The author writes a bit about the spiritual roles often held in traditional societies by people who would today be defined as mentally ill, before discussing the history of asylums (they seem to have started out somewhere between prisons and zoos, to be later reformed in the era of Dorothea Dix and then deteriorate again). And other low points: eugenics (Hitler was all about wiping out mental illness through murder, but the U.S. pioneered forced sterilizations), lobotomies (shudder), and deinstitutionalization (the U.S. closed most of its asylums in the 1960s, resulting in many of the mentally ill winding up on the streets or incarcerated). For no reason I could discern, the chapter about the aftermath of WWII comes after the deinstitutionalization chapter, but it’s otherwise roughly chronological.

Powers’s writing style is engaging, and there is useful information here for those who don’t know much about the topic, but the nonfiction portions could have been much better. When the subject is science – what is schizophrenia, or the link between mental illness and creativity – there’s little actual science and lots of authorial speculation; Powers spends more time detailing debunked theories with emotional appeal for him than laying out the facts. When the subject is history, he has a tendency to go off on tangents at best loosely related to the topic of the book: the eugenics chapter goes into detail on how Darwin came to travel on the Beagle, but neglects to mention that forced sterilization went on in the U.S. until the 1970s.

The chapter on antipsychotics is particularly off-base. I expected this chapter to answer such questions as: how effective are antipsychotics? What is it like to be on them? How have these drugs changed in the sixty-odd years since they first became available? What are their disadvantages? Instead we get a history of the development of the precursors to the first antipsychotic drugs, including biographical details of involved scientists, and then a long catalogue of misdeeds by drug companies, often not related to psychoactive drugs at all. There’s even a discussion of the intricacies of patent law that cause medication to be expensive in the U.S. in the first place, and mention of Bernie Sanders bussing seniors up to Canada to buy cheaper meds. As a piece of journalism it’s fine, but that isn’t why I picked up this book.

The memoir portion is equally marked by odd choices of focus. Three-quarters of it takes place before either of the author’s sons begins showing signs of schizophrenia. I understand the author’s desire to focus on the happy events in their lives, and even his drive to include supportive emails he sent his kids over the years. Perhaps one of his goals was to get readers invested in Dean and Kevin as people rather than seeing them as representatives of an illness. But a good writer could have done that while focusing on the years when they were actually sick (they’re still people, which is supposed to be the author’s point, and they’re hardly psychotic all the time). And this structure winds up giving the impression that life ends with schizophrenia, that everything worth telling in his sons’ lives happened beforehand – even though one of them is alive and apparently doing well.

Again, there’s a lot of authorial speculation and tangents here. He theorizes that his older son, Dean, was moody and withdrawn as a teenager because he was in the early stages of the disease, never mind that Dean’s first psychotic episode seems to have come around age 30. He discusses at length the social and judicial consequences of a car accident when Dean was 17, during which it becomes clear that he has a bone to pick with the other teenager’s family (who previously wrote their own book). Dean’s own opinions are noticeably absent. The author will mention that he never asked how Dean felt about a particular event, or doesn’t know some fact from Dean’s life, leaving me wondering why he didn’t just walk downstairs and ask. Memoirists generally have living, non-estranged family members read their manuscripts and share their memory of events, which could only have improved this book.

Finally, though there’s little discussion of specific policy proposals, Powers advocates throughout the book for parents having increased authority to force treatment on their unwilling adult children. Of course, early diagnosis and treatment is extremely important to health outcomes, and it was clearly agonizing for Powers and his wife to watch Kevin go off his meds, insisting that he’d gotten better. But having recently read a horrifying account of involuntary commitment in another memoir, I’m hesitant to say we should do this more, and concerned by the author’s pooh-poohing of civil liberties concerns. A basic tenet of a free society is that adults get to make their own life decisions, even if their judgment is terrible, as long as they abide by the law. If someone is incompetent, the court can appoint a guardian. Powers apparently believes this option is insufficient because there can be delay (in which case the delay is the problem) and, bafflingly, because this is “not a medical hearing, with psychiatrists, but a judicial hearing, with a judge and lawyers.” Um, yes, this is how government works; it’s called due process of law and why courts exist. There’s nothing stopping psychiatrists from testifying in them.

At any rate, the author doesn’t seem to have thought this proposal through. Does he believe in involuntary treatment only during episodes of acute psychosis, or indefinitely once someone has a diagnosis? His experiences make it seem like the latter. In which case, what diagnoses are sufficient? How long does someone have to be stable to get their rights back? Does he think parents should have this power for life, or only while their children are financially dependent young adults? How would he prevent situations like Rosemary Kennedy's, where less conscientious parents choose a treatment that destroys their child in an attempt to make her easier to manage? If the ill person is married, does the spouse get to dictate treatment? Has he considered the ways mental illness already leaves people vulnerable to domestic violence (“you’re crazy, so no one will believe you”)? There's a long history of inconvenient women forced into mental institutions, because people given power over others don't always exercise it well. It doesn’t appear the author has considered the implications of his ideas beyond his own pain, and while his experiences are a valid consideration, the inquiry can’t stop there.

 

So in the end, while there is some good journalistic writing here and I found the book more engaging than a 2-star rating implies, it falls short of the author’s stated goals. He writes in the introduction that he wants reading the book to hurt, and he wants to give a voice to people with mental illness. The book includes a few tragic stories taken from the news, dealing with police shootings and suicide in prison, and certainly his son’s suicide is one of the most tragic events a family can experience. But far more page time is spent on Powers family vacations and why the author hates Thomas Szasz. And I’m confused as to how he believes he’s given anyone a voice when there’s no indication he interviewed anyone with mental illness for the book; even his own surviving son appears to have had no involvement. Raising awareness is good, but this book is too much of the author’s feelings and too little of anything else. What a wasted opportunity.

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review 2017-08-17 20:32
How to be a Victorian
How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life - Ruth Goodman

How to be a Victorian, like Ruth Goodman's How to be a Tudor, which I read in January, is a fine study of a foreign country - in this case the Britain of roughly 150 years ago.

 

It is filled with strange, often horrifying or amusing details. For example, that genteel ladies might want to take exercise, but were deathly afraid of being caught at it.  (Their solution was to either take long walks, with a package under their arm, to suggest *really* being out on a charitable - and thus socially acceptable - errand, or to perform calisthenics, which would not disturb their movable wombs, in fashionable suits in the privacy of their own bedrooms.)  That doctors were not against corsets, but only "tight lacing," which some particularly fashion-obsessed ladies used to reduce their waists to as little as 13 inches.  That a large proportion of the population, most or some of the time, were hungry, and their nutrition was actually made worse by the rise of the Temperance movement.  (The lure of the cities, even of their slums, was that you might eat better than poor in the countryside.  Even if that "better" wasn't very good.)

 

It is also an excellent study of why regulations are a necessary part of society, for the protection of all of us.  We want laws saying we can't be forced by our employers to work 12 or more hours a day.  We want laws mandating safety equipment in factories.  We want laws saying the makers of food and drugs can't lie in advertisements about what's in their products, and sell us watered chalk as milk, and opium as a safe and gentle herbal baby care treatment.  We want laws preventing industrialists from hiring six-year-olds as coal miners.  Because the Victorians had to fight for each and every one of those protections.

 

Let's not forget them, or their achievements.

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