Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith
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Monthly Bookpost, August 2015

My Fight, Your Fight, by Ronda Rousey

I had barely stepped off the edge of the mat when the USA Judo officials at the tournament got together and decided they were going to suspend me from competition for six months. But they needed someone to hide behind, like a respected referee blasting me. So the USA Judo representatives went to Carlos Chavez, a big-deal referee from Venezuela. They asked Carlos what should be done to punish me.

Carlos looked at them with disbelief, unable to comprehend why a national governing body was so eager to punish its most promising athlete. Usually when organizations like USA Judo came to him, it was to appeal on an athlete's behalf. Carlos took a diplomatic pause.

"Ronda felt that she had been wronged," Carlos said. "Correctly or incorrectly, she believed that. "She's very passionate about judo and very passionate about winning. In the moment, she was upset. This is what we want in judo athletes who are passionate about the sport. She's young, and we're not going to do anything."

MMA superstar Ronda Rousey's autobiography completely lost me in the first of many short chapters. She starts out with a chapter describing what it's like the half hour or so before a fight begins--getting ready, leaving the hotel room, going through elevators and corridors into the arena, snorting dragon fire and straining with the urge to fuck someone up. she presents herself as part dumb jock, part subhuman beast.

And then she backs up and begins again from her childhood, and lets you begin to know and like the human being you admired enough to want to read about her in the first place. Skip that first chapter. It's an unnecessarily bad first impression.

Turns out, Rousey, the professional asskicker, the Olympic athlete I figured would be the opposite of me, is in fact a total geek and a clever wit who cosplays and plays WoW and may even come to a NerdCon someday. She's doing movies in Hollywood. By the time I was done with the book, I not only wanted to be friends with her (and not just so she might walk me safely through the bad neighborhoods) but figured it might be possible. I'd also learned a bit about the cage match that is just getting through life and facing one's own demons. Unexpected.

Rousey is not at all subtle. She's had a series of awful, gaslighting, commitment-breaking boyfriends, the worst of whom she refers to as "Dick Ittybitty" in the book. She presents the USA Judo organization as not only a bunch of incompetents who fail as her coaches and who treat women's sports as an afterthought, but as actual enemies who tried to undermine her because she complained about their lack of support. The contrast between the VIP treatment given by other nations to Rousey's international competition, the constant watching of Rousey and others so that coaches can keep their athletes informed about weak points they reveal, the five-star accommodations near the arena compared with the El Siesta Motel five miles away and the bored indifference that the Americans give Rousey, made me see red myself.

Each short chapter is titled with a little motto or coach-aphorism like "You have to be better on your worst day than your opponent on her best", which is applied to the body of the chapter, not just about fighting, but about any milestone in her life: The death of her father, a bad breakup, an argument with her perfectionist mother.

Not what I was expecting, and well worth the read.


Theodicy, by G.W. Leibniz
One would need to have a bent toward perversity to say after this that it is more malicious to leave to someone the whole trouble and the whole blame of his destruction. When God does leave it to a man, it has belonged to him since before his existence; it was already in the idea of him as still merely possible, before the decree of God which makes him to exist. Can one, then, leave it or give it to another? There is the whole matter.

If there's a common theme in 17th century philosophy, it is the constant, constant attempt to reconcile reason and religion. how I long for the books of the Enlightenment, to be read next year, where they ignore the superstitions and the dogmas, and instead just go for reason. I've already slogged through Gassendi and Descartes and Pascal this year, and am currently deep into Spinoza, and in fact all of them did it better than Leibniz.

Leibniz appears to be the first to put Germany on the map as a place to be considered for philosophy (as opposed to Luther and the other reformers who were purely religious). he's known for having invented Calculus contemporaneously with Newton; other than that, most of his works, except Theodicy, were published posthumously. and so his reputation in his lifetime depended mostly on Theodicy, a poor combination of complicated jargon and simplistic, circularly reasoned ideas. Philosophy and theology cannot contradict each other, so what is, is. God can do no wrong, and so there is no evil in the world. If we think there is evil, we are wrong, because we know nothing compared to God. God didn't make no junk, and so this is the best of all possible worlds. God has foreknowledge of all things, but there is no predestination because that would be wrong.

It's all like that. "Because God knows best." This was the book that inspired Voltaire to savage the "best of all possible worlds" assertion with Candide.


Treatise on Light, by Christian Huygens
I would believe that those who love to know the causes of things and who are able to admire the marvels of light, will find some satisfaction in these various speculations regarding it, and in the new explanation of its famous property which is the main foundation of the structure of our eyes, and of those great inventions which extend so vastly the use of them. I hope also that there will be some who, by following these beginnings, will penetrate much further into this question than I have been able to, since the subject must be far from being exhausted.

See Newton's Optics, from last month's Bookpost. Huygens was one of those all-around geniuses who did a lot but who was probably a lot more fun to know than to read. the Treatise on Light is a short tract that was included in the "Great Books" volume on Newton, I think, as a companion piece, to contrast the wave theory of light with Newton's particle theory, with an eye toward college undergrads analyzing how each scientist got there and what to do with each theorist's evidence when looking at the other theory. The treatise is full of complicated equations, and over half of it explores the specialty niche of double refraction found in Icelandic crystal. It is not the kind of thing most people read for pleasure.


The Wanton Angel & The Devil's Apprentice, by Edward Marston; Blood on the Strand & The Butcher of Smithfield, by Susanna Gregory; The Assassin's Touch, by Laura Joh Rowland

"This latest device of Sir Edmund Tilney's makes our position ever more secure. We are to play at court in sequence with Banbury's Men and Westfield's Men so that we may be judged side by side. Choice of the fare we select will be critical, my lord, and fortune favors us."
"What of Westfield's Men?" asked the patron.
"They are beset by problems," said the other complacently. "And we will create more to vex them".
--from The Wanton Angel

The killer handed his rapier to his companion to hold, while he knelt to feel for a life-beat. Then a dog started to bark, and the men quickly melted away into the darkness before the animal's frenzied yaps raised the alarm. There was no time to snatch Webb's bulging purse or to investigate the fine rings clustered on his fat fingers.
The mongrel was not the only witness to the crime. A figure swathed in a heavy cloak watched the entire episode, then stood rubbing his chin thoughtfully. There was little he could have done to prevent the murder of Matthew Webb, but that did not mean it was going to be quietly forgotten. Someone would pay for the blood that stained The Strand.
--from Blood on the Strand

The footsteps came nearer, then paused outside the door. An eye was applied to the gap. Davy lay under the sheets and pretended to be asleep. The nocturnal intruder took one more fatal step. The result was earsplitting. As he opened the door, John Tallis dislodged both the stool that was balanced upside down on it and the full chamber pot that was cradles within the three legs. Both suddenly landed on his head with astonishing accuracy. Taken by surprise and hurt by the weighty objects, Tallis emitted a yell of pain and fell to the floor, kicking over a small table and releasing the live mouse he had brought to slip down Davy Stratton's neck.
--from The Devil's Apprentice

As Dr. Ito contemplated the strange bruise, wonderment shone in his eyes. "In all my thirty years as a physician, I've never personally seen this, but the phenomenon is described in the medical texts. It sometimes appears on victims of dim-mak."
"The touch of death?" Hirata saw his own amazement reflected on his men's face. The atmosphere in the room chilled and darkened.
"Yes", Dr. Ito said. "The ancient martial arts technique of delivering a single tap that is so light that the victim might not even feel it but is nonetheless fatal."
--from The Assassin's Touch

There had been green stains on the man's fingers, and blisters in his mouth. Like Newburne, he had been poisoned. However, Chaloner was sure the cucumber had not been responsible for two reasons. First, not enough had been eaten to do a man serious harm, even if Finch had suffered an aversion to them. And secondly, no wind-player ever ate while he practiced, because fragments of food might become lodged in an instrument's innards. Chaloner was sure that the cucumber had been left as a diversion, to ensure that no one looked deeper into Finch's demise. He smiled grimly. But the killer was out of luck, because Chaloner would look deeper, and he would discover who had murdered the hapless trumpeter.
--from The Butcher of Smithfield


The Wanton Angel is barely even a crime story; although there is a murder, it's almost an afterthought to a campaign of sabotage against Marston's familiar players. the real story is about the attempts--bungling and serious--of competing theater companies to outdo each other and be the one that survives a threatened purge of the theaters by the Privy council. There is also a mystery involving who impregnated the landlord's daughter that needs maybe a trigger warning for the predictably nasty consequences when the landlady tries to force an abortion on the girl. For a normally light series, that particular section made me shudder. In a similar vein, The Devil's Apprentice is the sort of Scooby Doo adventure I had associated with PC Doherty's medieval stories where witchcraft and Satan are treated as plausible suspects before the supernatural happenings are revealed to be a trick. Here Firethorn, the company's lead actor, has a series of mischances that happen to coincide with the fate of the character he plays in "The Witch of Colchester", and thinks he is under a curse. Trigger warnings are appropriate, as the increasing creepiness of the comedian Barnaby Gill's pedophilia, always treated as a comic subplot ("Keep Barney away from the boys, remember!") threatens to drain all of the pleasure from the series.

Susanna Gregory's Restoration series featuring the former Cromwellist spy Chaloner is richer, darker and more complicated than the other sets I'm reading this year. They tend to involve complicated plots in which every character is guilty of something and usually planting false clues to implicate other people in crimes they didn't commit--though they did commit different ones. Sometimes the planting of false clues involves unknowingly framing the real culprit in a way that downgrades her as a suspect when it is revealed that the evidence against her was planted. Tricky, tricky. Blood on the Strand involves the Chirurgeons' guild's relentless quest for more corpses to do public and private anatomical experiments on--and the disturbing tendency for said corpses to turn up under someone else's identity, at a time when there are Royalist and anti-Royalist assassins along the streets of London. The Butcher of Smithfield involves dueling journalists, poisoned cucumbers, stolen horses, dischordant sheet music, gold-digging spouses, and a notorious underworld figure whose identity is almost comically presumed to be one character after another before finally being revealed on the final page as the person I settled on halfway through.

The Assassin's Touch is the next in Laura Joh Rowland's series about Sano ichiro, by now advanced considerably in rank in the Shogun's court. The books optimistically compare Rowland with Raymond Chandler, which I normally find laughably wrong due to the differences in cultures...but this one came close, as it involves interlocking mysteries that go to every corner of 17th century Edo. Sano works on a series of murders of high ranking court officials, while his wife Reiko investigates a heinous crime in the Untouchables' quarter, involving a suspect with no rights and only the most perfunctory due process in court. What happens when the connection between these crimes is discovered is poignant, to say the least.


Travels With Charley (In Search of America), by John Steinbeck
The dominant publication has been the comic book. There have been local papers and I've bought and read them. There have been racks of paperbacks with some great and good titles but overwhelmingly outnumbered by the volumes of sex, sadism and homicide. The big-city papers cast their shadow over large areas around them, the New York Times as far as the Great Lakes, the chicago Tribune all the way to North Dakota. Here, Charley, I give you a warning, should you be drawn to generalities. If this people has so atrophied its taste buds as to find tasteless food not only acceptable but desirable, what of the emotional life of the nation? Do they find their emotional fare so bland that it must be spiced with sex and sadism through the medium of the paperback? And if this is so, why are there no condiments save ketchup and mustard to enhance their foods?

Charley is a poodle. In 1961 or so, the author who gave America the Joad family realized that he was losing his feel for what the country he wrote about was all about, and so he and Charley took a road trip across the United States in a truck. The result is full of Win and Pie.

There are so many levels of thought here. On one level, it's an amusing travel journal. On another, it's a Thoreau-like meditation on the meaning of freedom and the meaning of our country, sometimes bitingly satirical, sometimes poignant. On another level, it's a small bit of history. Passage after passage early in the book shows a sense of rustic Norman Rockwell beauty from random encounters in Maine, Michigan, North Dakota, Montana, at general stores and diners and campfires. On the way back, through Texas and Louisiana, we're suddenly his with incredible racial ugliness. Steinbeck has to hide his truck with the NY plates to get a look at the "cheerleaders", the white mobs who gathered in front of recently integrated schools to scream at the little black girls going in with their police escorts, and screaming even louder at the few white parents who dared to put their white kids in the same school instead of checking out and growing up proudly stupid instead as the children who grew up to be Senators from the South did.

I read this at the same time as I read several books from the 17th century, which aren't too different from the books and lives described therein of a full hundred years previous. And yet, this book was written just 55 years ago, in and about the land I live in, and it describes a world very much in the past, the world of rotary phones and Woolworth lunch counters and the possibility of no one ever knowing what happened to you if you disappeared. outside the South, people kept their political opinions to themselves in public, because it would be impolite to start discussions that might become heated.

At the same time, there's something timeless about it.

Highest recommendations for any American, and for anyone else who wants to understand the mythos of the USA.


Political Treatise, by Benedict de Spinoza
After which premisses, let us now see whether dominions of this kind can be destroyed by any cause to which blame attaches. But if any dominion can be everlasting, that will necessarily be so, whose constitution being once rightly instituted remains unbroken. For the constitution is the soul of a dominion. Therefore, if it is preserved, so is the dominion. But a constitution cannot remain unconquered, unless it is defended alike by reason and common human passion: otherwise, if it relies only on the help of reason, it is certainly weak and easily overcome. Now since the fundamental constitution of both kinds of aristocracy has been shown to agree with reason and common human passion, we can therefore assert that these, if any kinds of dominion, will be eternal, in other words, that they cannot be destroyed by any cause to which blame attaches, but only by some inevitable fate.

Spinoza may be one of the wisest philosophers ever; his dense Ethics has already taken me several months to get just halfway through, and causes me to put the book down and think frequently, just the way Leibniz doesn't. The Political Treatise is considerably more readable, but has less food for thought. 100 pages, unfinished, and breaks off just when he's getting to the good stuff.

The structure is pretty much the same thing found in any political writing in Europe from any earlier period. here is why people decide to form governments. Here are monarchy, aristocracy and democracy briefly discussed, with the advantages and dangers common to each--and, as mentioned above, ending unfinished right where he's getting to Democracy.

He has a distressing affinity for Hobbes (see Leviathan, Bookpost June 2015) in the assertion that we need a huge Big Brother presence as the only alternative to anarchy. Unlike Hobbes, he does bother to mention alternatives, such as a written Constitution and whether a list of principles can have the strength to protect a people.

There is also a Theologico-Political Treatise, about church government and toleration of independent beliefs; after wading through Leibniz, i just didn't have the stomach to finish it.


The Heat of the Day, by Elizabeth Bowen
Roderick, in implying to Cousin Nettie that he had to leave when he did in order to catch his train had been imperfectly truthful: in fact, he had another visit to pay. On his way from the station, he had located the church, and he now returned there; once inside the lych gate he embarked on his search for Cousin Francis. His mother's account had never been very clear; he had no guide--could instinct draw him? It seemed impossible that the old man at this moment could not speak. There would be as yet no headstone. A smell of clay still came up from places too new to be his; no bird sang; here and there flowers of wreaths rotted--he would have no wreath. No, nothing was possible but a general inclination of the head to all who lay there. A passer-by halted, watching across the wall in the November dusk, the young soldier wandering bareheaded among the graves.

The cover hopefully sells this one as "a Graham Greene thriller projected through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf." Not being much of a fan of either writer, I found it neither thrilling nor sensible. In fact, it seemed to have all the dust of a third tier, pompous, Victorian era novel, to the extent that it was continually jarring to be pulled back to its actual setting during WWII.

It's not the plot. The plot is superficially exciting. A divorced woman, considered scandalous because misogyny, falls in love while huddling in the underground during the London blitz. A second man tells her that the first man is a spy, and threatens blackmail. Her grown son inherits an estate and is digging up old family history from the relative in the nursing home. Another woman, whose husband is fighting in Europe, is having an affair. Hum-de-dum-de-dumdum.

It's the language. I could care about none of the characters, had to keep turning back to find plot details my brain had missed, and could not keep my eyes open for long. This is my third Bowen novel, and I have no particular memories of the other two.


Characters, by Jean de La Bruyere
Cleante is a gentleman. He chose a wife who is the most agreeable and reasonable woman in the world. Both are the delight and pleasure of the society they frequent. It would be impossible to find more probity and politeness anywhere else. Tomorrow they leave each other and their deed of separation is drawn up at the notary's. Indeed, there are some merits which are not made to go together. There are certain incompatible virtues.

Champagne, at the moment he leaves a long dinner which inflates his belly, in the agreeable fumes of Avenay and Sillery wines, signs an order someone presents to him by which a whole province will be deprived of bread, unless it is countermanded. He is excusable; how can anyone in the first hour of digestion understand that people somewhere else may die of hunger?

La Bruyere wrote a book consisting entirely of pithy epigrams, either about the foibles of certain types of people in general, or giving specific examples about, say, the person with the upturned snoot who talks about the obvious moral failings of a stranger, based solely on her lack of a fashionable wig, or the person of high stature who thinks he has no master, yet makes a master of everyone in Paris who might be in a position to advance his career.

It was innovative at the time, and popular largely because La Bruyere pretended to have translated an ancient text, and used fake Latin names for all of his examples, but the French court wasn't fooled and loved to gossip about who everybody really was.

Really, you or I could have done the same, and a whole lot of people on modern social media really do. Just on the fly, I could write:

"Timothy works in the IT support department at a local community college. He is obese and smells of armpits. When he goes home, he logs on and pretends to be the CEO of a corporation that employs 50 people, most of whom he will be forced to lay off if the legislature increases the minimum wage."

"Suzanne would like you to know that she was a fan of Fetal Pigs in a Blender before you even heard of them, even before their first drummer Joe Rugg left them to join Facepalm Selfie."

"Whenever something smells funny, you can always count on Fred to ask, 'Who cut the cheese?'"

You get the idea.


Bite Me (a love story), by Christopher
The street was painted with blood for half a block, punctuated by piles of ash and the occasional charred flea collar. Parked cars were sprayed in red mist; even the security lights above several fire doors were speckled with gore. And smoke from burning cats hung low in the air, and on the sidewalk greasy grey ash spilled out of the sleeves and collar of the parking officer's uniform.

"Well, you don't see that every day." said the Emperor, as a police cruiser rounded the corner, the red and blue lights raking the building.

The cruiser stopped and doors flew open. The driver stood behind his door, his hand on his gun.

"What's going on here?" he said, trying to keep his eyes on the Emperor and not look at the carnage that surrounded them.

"Nothing," Abby said.

Like the two prior novels in this series, Bloodsucking fiends and You Suck: A Love Story, I read this one out loud to The Redhead during a long road trip, and it made the hours pass delightfully.

It's about the newly undead vampires Jody and Tommy and their interactions with the homeless but revered Emperor of San Francisco; a fabulously emo goth chick with Elvira fantasies and incredible diary entries; a team of night shift supermarket employees who aim to misbehave; a couple of cops who are going to totally act like they didn't see that; a science ninja who can't explain why this is happening; a real ninja who saves the day; a foul-mouthed Chinese grandma; a trio of assassin vampires; and a huge shaved vampire kitty who will take over the Bay Area with a horde of undead cats unless some of the above prevent him.

And it all works. really. Christopher Moore is a hilarious force of geek nature who also has something serious to say about modern life. Very highest recommendations.



A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor
She and Bill Hill hadn't eaten collard greens for five years and she wasn't going to start cooking them now. She had bought these on account of Rufus but she wasn't going to buy them but once. You would have thought that after two years in the armed forces Rufus would have come back ready to eat like somebody from somewhere, but no. When she asked him what he would like to have special, he had not had the gumption to think of one civilized dish--he had said collard greens. She had expected Rufus to have turned out into somebody with some get in him. Well, he had about as much get as a floor mop.

This one is a nasty collection of short stories about nasty people in the South, doing nasty things. They make loud noises in praise of Jesus while wallowing in bad behavior. They gush about children as angelic miracles while treating them like crap. In most of the stories--maybe the unifying theme of the work--a character will flounder at a critical moment, suddenly aware of and reaching for something bigger than the self, necessary to be fully human, and will fail. If that's your cup of tea, have at it. I found it a dismal read that made me despair of humanity ever doing something right.


Find all of my previous Bookposts here: http://admnaismith.livejournal.com/tag/bookposts
Tags: review list: monthly
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