book reviews, comics, history, literature, politics

Book Reviews, August 2016

The batch of book reviews for August is another hodge podge of comics and American history.  Much like I did for a review last year (Ari Berman’s study of the Voting Rights Act), one of the reviews is twice as long as usual in order to cover the topic of the Second Amendment more thoroughly.

  • Batman: Contagion by various writers (including Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Dennis O’Neil, Alan Grant, and even a short chapter by Garth Ennis) and artists (including Kelley Jones and Mike Wieringo, among others) is a crossover event comic that under-delivers on a promising premise.  What if an ebola-like virus struck Gotham?  How would Batman save the city?  If any peril merited the mind of the world’s greatest detective, this would be it.  Unfortunately, it mostly involves our heroes punching bad guys while numerous civilians we’ve never met before succumb to the deadly virus. As a big crossover event, it means Batman gets help from Robin, Catwoman, Azrael, Oracle, Nightwing, and Huntress in order to save the city.  Though one of the heroes contracts the virus, we as readers never doubt the cure will arrive in time.  The whole exercise feels nothing like a real outbreak of a deadly pathogen.  The artwork is mostly pedestrian or outright bad, with the exception of Kelley Jones’s exaggerated dark and brooding version of Batman.  The original comics came out in 1996, a year after Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and the film Outbreak.  If you want an interesting story about ebola, try one of those.
  • The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman is an important book that looks at two important things regarding the Constitution.  First, it is a history of how the Second Amendment has been interpreted.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, it wrestles with how to interpret the Constitution today, showing how the theory of originalism does not work as a coherent theory of interpretation.  So first the history of the amendment.  The Second Amendment is notoriously difficult to interpret because it has such a strange grammatical structure: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Waldman starts with a lesson about colonial America and the history of militias versus standing armies.  It is this context that informs the writing of the Second Amendment.  During the Constitutional Convention, there was no debate about an individual right to “private gun ownership” or that it needed to be protected in a bill of rights.  Later, during the House debate on the Bill of Rights, “None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting, or for any purpose other than joining a militia” (55-6).  In the literature of the time, especially political writings and those of the founders, almost every use of the phrase “bear arms” had a military context.  It was the duty of every adult male in the community to join the militia and bring his own gun when training or when mustered for duty.  The courts of the early era mostly all understood the right espoused in the Second Amendment as a collective right so that there could be a local militia.  Waldman then proceeds to give a history of the NRA, showing how it evolved from a marksmanship and recreational organization to the militant lobbying group it has become today.  In 1958, their Washington headquarters had the sign, “FIREARMS SAFETY EDUCATION, MARKSMANSHIP TRAINING, SHOOTING FOR RECREATION.”  By contrast, their new headquarters in the 1990s had an edited version of the Second Amendment which omitted the first half about militias.  The key moment in between these two mottoes happened in the late 70s when new leadership ousted the old in what was called the “Revolt at Cincinnati,” and the group became much more political.  This change in the NRA coincided with a new interpretation of the Second Amendment.  From 1888 to 1960, “every single [law review] article concluded the Second Amendment did not guarantee an individual right” (97).  In the next 20 years, however, articles were evenly split, 27 apiece, for an individual right, but 60% of those for an individual right “were written by lawyers who had been directly employed by or represented the NRA or other gun rights organizations” (98).  It should also be pointed out that law review articles are not peer reviewed.  These articles cited each other and found tenuous arguments and often misunderstood or taken out of context quotes to bolster their claims.  The NRA itself is not above trying to misconstrue the founders when it suits their purpose.  For instance, a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington contained the quote “One loves to possess arms, though they hope never to have occasion for them.”  From context, it is clear that Jefferson is not speaking of firearms at all, but rather is asking for some letters back so that he can prepare rebuttals in his capacity as Secretary of State (See the quote at the link for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action site and this explanation of the Jefferson letter).  This sea change in interpretation of the amendment culminated in the 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller which finally established a federal individual right to own a gun.  Two years later, in McDonald v. Chicago, the right was incorporated to the states, thus overturning Chicago’s handgun restrictions.  The late Antonin Scalia, a firm believer in originalism when it comes to interpreting the Constitution, wrote the  Heller majority opinion.  This is notable because the decision picks and chooses from the original context of the writing of the amendment, avoiding much of the history and context of the colonial militias.  Then, later it moderates somewhat by mentioning a list of exceptions to the absolute individual right to a gun (i.e. rights of felons and the mentally ill, carrying firearms into schools and government buildings, and allowing for conditions and qualifications for commercial sales), none of which have an originalist explanation.  They are clearly in the opinion in order to secure the swing vote so that it could pass 5-4.  The decision is not in the least conservative, either, as it overturns over 200 years of precedent.  It is the very definition of an activist judiciary to find a new “true” meaning of the amendment that the courts had never before found.  This inquiry into the change in interpretation of the Second Amendment thus serves as a good case study for why originalism does not work as an interpretive framework for the Constitution.  The first question is whose intention counts when trying to figure out what part of the Constitution means?  Do we side with those drafting the document (they certainly didn’t all agree; that’s why they debated it), or the new Congress, or the ratifiers in the states?  Perhaps more to the point, a theory that rests on finding an original meaning (if one can be found) does not keep pace with social progress.  How could the founders, smart as they were, consider the principles that would shape our current more technological, globally connected, era?  Each generation reads and interprets the document differently, applying it to the contemporary dilemmas.  Waldman has done a superb job explaining the history of a thorny debate.  I highly recommend anyone interested in the Second Amendment to read it.
  • The Wicked and the Divine Vol. 1: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie is a promising start to a comics series.  It begins with a solid premise: every 90 years, gods return to earth as popular icons, but it doesn’t last.  They die within two years.  Much like any pantheon, the gods fight amongst themselves, while being adored and misunderstood by humans.  This particular go-around, the gods are popstars.  The series plays with notions of celebrity and fandom in interesting and playful ways.  It’s still early, but I’d recommend giving it a try.  [After reading Vol. 2: Fandemonium, I would definitely recommend the series.]
  • The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell is a terrifically fun history lesson on Puritan New England.  While not a historian, Vowell has done the research in primary documents to get the story right.  She focuses on the Massachusetts Bay Colony rather than the earlier Plymouth of Mayflower fame.  The Bay Colony features interesting figures like John Winthrop, John Cotton, Roger Williams, and Anne Hutchinson.  She gives the necessary background for why the Puritans were leaving England in the first place, leading to Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.”  The sermon is famous for calling the Massachusetts colony “a city on a hill,” an example for the world, but also the same watchfulness was a warning to live up to their ideals.  The colony had famous religious freedom battles where first Roger Williams and later Anne Hutchinson were banished.  Williams sets up the colony in Rhode Island known for its religious tolerance, which paves the way for the First Amendment’s protections more than a century later.  But it’s not all religious squabbles in the early colony, there are also skirmishes with, and the slaughter of the Native population (after smallpox had already ravaged them).  Particularly horrifying is the description of the Mystic Fort Massacre.  A group of allied colonists and Narragansett and Mohegan warriors surrounded the Pequot fort and set fire to their homes, shooting anyone who tried to escape the walls.  I was deeply disturbed to find that the destruction of the Natives was immediate and unrelenting.  For the past few years, ever since I knew I would be living in South Dakota, I’ve been reading and learning about the decimation of the people who lived on the Plains.  But that’s not where it started.  It goes back to every first encounter with Europeans, including the Puritans of New England.  While that is certainly a hugely depressing point in the book, much of the rest of it is made fun by Vowell’s sharp wit and humor.  As a side note, I would point out that Vowell makes no secret that she is politically liberal, but that she is also a patriot (an earlier book of hers is called The Partly Cloudy Patriot, an apt self description).  She spends time comparing the Puritan conception of what “a city on a hill” meant to them to how Reagan repurposed it during his presidency.  She loves America and its history, but she’s also willing to looks at its faults and how it has failed to live up to its ideals.  I would highly recommend this take on the Puritans.  It’s made me want to read more on them in a way no other previous encounter in a history textbook has.
  • Before the Fall by Noah Hawley is a decent, if not great, thriller.  I picked up the novel because Hawley is the showrunner for the TV series Fargo, which has had two great seasons so far. I enjoyed the book, but I expected more.  The story revolves around a plane crash, what led up to it, and its aftermath.  The mystery is the unfolding of how the plane came down on the short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York.  Hawley spends time with each of the characters on the private jet, the pilots, flight attendant, the banker and his wife, the cable news executive and his family, and an artist.  My main problem with the novel is that there are a couple of villains in the book and, despite his attempt to humanize them, they come across as flat characters to me.  In fact, the more I thought about them afterwards, the less I liked the book overall, even though I had enjoyed reading it.  This shortcoming left a sour taste and is seriously affecting my feelings for the book.  The book wrestles with the idea of our constant bombardment of infotainment from cable news and the need for narratives to fit every news story whether we have the all the facts or not.  It would be even more interesting if the novel itself didn’t fall prey to its own narratives that forced the villainous characters to fit certain roles.  I have to say I ended up disappointed with this book and wouldn’t recommend it.
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book reviews, comics, history, literature

Book Reviews, December 2015

This is my final installment of book reviews for the year, soon to be followed with a year end wrap up of the best books I read in 2015. Watch this space!  In the meantime, listen to this song from Hamilton, the musical about the founding generation of America, as you read a relevant book review (the first one, anyway).

  • Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is a look at six episodes of the early days of the American Republic.  One advantage of the episodic structure is that it allows Ellis to advance the thesis he mentions in the last chapter, namely that “all seamless historical narratives are latter-day constructions” (216).  In fact, “Nothing was clear, inevitable, or even comprehensible” to those who have been designated Founding Fathers.  Ellis prefers the designation “brothers,” presumably because while the various players came together on certain matters, there was an inherent “messiness” to the founding of a new country, and they fought each other on many issues, even the very meaning of the revolution.  In telling the story of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, or the composition of Washington’s Farewell Address, or the correspondence of friends and rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Ellis highlights the conflicting ideas that animated the early tenuous years of the country.  There was nothing that they could all agree on, except perhaps the need for freedom from Britain.  But the nature of freedom was certainly something that they still disagreed on.  In the chapter called “The Silence,” Benjamin Franklin in 1790 lent his support to ending the slave trade, even though the Constitution had provisions that it would not be ended for at least the first 20 years after ratification.  The congress hotly debated whether they should even discuss the matter since it was supposedly already a settled question in the Constitution.  But how could the same ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration live together with the enslavement of large portions of the population?  The congress managed to put off the question for decades, leading to compromises as the country expanded until it all came to war in 1861.  I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the American Revolution and the early days of the country (or who likes the musical Hamilton).
  • Killing and Dying: Six Stories by Adrian Tomine is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.  Tomine explores the themes of identity and unrealistic dreams.  The title story tells of a father’s love and grief, and his difficulty with being supportive of his daughter’s desire to do stand-up comedy.  It’s a haunting story of perceptions: who is dying and who is killing keep changing throughout.  The collection leads off with a farcical tale of a misunderstood artist who dreams of a new artform called “hortisculpture,” a combination of plants and sculpture that is as ugly as its portmanteau namesake.  Tomine plays with the presentation, telling the story in four panel chunks as if it were a newspaper comic, complete with full-page Sunday installments on schedule.  The format and the subject matter let him poke fun of himself for the self-seriousness of an artist.  Two of the shorter pieces, “Translated, from the Japanese” and “Intruders,” are very meditative and text-based.  The former never even shows its characters, instead showing the settings as we read a letter from a mother to her son about a transitional moment in their lives.  The latter narrates the inner monologue of a soldier on leave coming to terms with his past, but this time using a nine panel grid to tell the story.  It’s a fantastic collection of stories; every one stuck with me.
  • March: Book One, written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, is the powerful first part of a trilogy of comics based on Lewis’s life and the civil rights movement.  The story concerns Lewis’s early days in rural Alabama and his start in the civil rights movement in Nashville while he was in college.  He was involved with the nonviolent sit-ins at the downtown stores in Nashville that protested segregation.  All of this narrative is framed by the contemporary Lewis reminiscing about his past while he gets ready to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama in January of 2009.  This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.  By being able to see faces and settings, the story came alive in the same way that a documentary would, but there wasn’t footage of many of the scenes he was telling.  I would highly recommend this to anyone wanting to learn about the civil rights movement.  One word of caution: the book does not shy away from the harsh language used against African Americans.  The n-word is used multiple times, so use discretion if giving the comic to a younger reader.
  • File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler) and illustrated by Seth is a fun collection of mysteries in the kids’ series All the Wrong Questions.  Snicket is also the author of the previous A Series of Unfortunate Events, and this one features a similar humorous style of writing, full of wordplay and literary references.  All the Wrong Questions is narrated by the young Snicket who is trying to solve a mystery in the spooky town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, but File Under departs from the larger mystery to have Snicket solve some smaller conundrums that he stumbles upon or that are brought to him.  Many of the familiar denizens of the town including Jake Hix, the Bellerophon brothers, Moxie Mallahan, and his clueless chaperone S. Theodora Markson, as well as many others, make appearances in the various suspicious incidents.  The answers or conclusions to the mysteries are provided at the end of the book much the same as they would in an Encyclopedia Brown or similar mystery book, and the clues aren’t so difficult that a young reader couldn’t figure out the solutions to at least some of them (confession: I only figured out a handful myself).  Snicket’s style is educational as it entertains.   The characters provide useful definitions of difficult words throughout the stories, such as inane (“pointless and dull”) and preternaturally (“extra”), and phrases like “shadow of its former self” (“not as good as it used to be”) and “well-bred” (“doesn’t mean anything at all, but which some people use to make themselves feel better than others”).  The literary references were also fun, especially for an English major like me.  In one story alone, “Twelve or Thirteen,” there were mentions of a stolen portrait of Gary Dorian, an Ethan Frome Festival sled race, and hidden within the list of sledders the name of the poet William Carlos Williams.  This is a good kids’ book and series, one that even an adult can enjoy.
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