geekchicohio’s #CBR5 review #13: Insurrection by Peter Rollins

Insurrection: To Believe Is Human; To Doubt, Divine, the spectacular 2011 release by pyro-theologian Peter Rollins is a book that’s difficult to summarize or explain in brief. All the more difficult because I’d like to explain to EVERYONE, not just those that self-identify as Christian, why it’s so great.

In short, Rollins’ work hinges on the idea of dismantling what he sees as a wrongheaded understanding of God. He calls it the deus ex machina God, but we all know it as the bearded guy in the clouds calling the shots. Rollins asks his readers to look at the simple idea that “God is love” and from there begin to zoom out to the idea that God is manifest in the act of love, and is not some sort of celestial entity.

He gets to this through various means: Jesus’ words on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which Rollins posits is the moment when God becomes an atheist, the writings of Mother Theresa in which she describes living her entire life with a core-deep sense that there was no God out there watching over her, but that she experienced God in her work with the poorest of Calcutta, and through various parables that he uses to introduce each chapter.

Rollins asks his readers to strip away what he’s previously referred to as the idolatry of God, until all that is left is a person willing to live a life of love, kindness, peace, and humility. Understanding that in living that life we are producing the place where God dwells. He goes on, then, to extrapolate the idea that God’s will for our lives becomes our own will for a life based in love, charity, mercy, and respect.

I would struggle to recommend Insurrection to those not familiar with the basics of the Christian faith, though I’d struggle equally to recommend it to anyone who holds to those tenets with too much fundamentalism as Rollins’ work towards an a/theistic form of an understanding of God is all but heretical by comparison to what most think of as Christianity. But to those open-minded enough, or to those unable to fully embrace or fully leave the faith, it’s something of a revelation.

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 review #12: Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

Abaddon’s Gate is the third (and most recently released, though not final) book in James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse series. I could easily write at length about how Corey (the pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) writes in a style that reads like a Blockbuster (as you’d also know from the blurb on the novel’s cover) and how much of a fantastic page turner it is, and about what a great balance of action and humor and dread these books strike, but I feel I’ve done a lot of that in my reviews of its predecessors Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War. I want to, instead, talk about what sets this book apart. Continue reading

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 Review #11: Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey

As I’ve fallen further and further behind in my Half-Cannonball this year I’ve been saved from absolute embarrassment time and time again by books that leapt out at me not from my “TO READ” pile, but from somewhere else.

Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey, the second book in “The Expanse” series is a book that simply demanded I read it, and it was right. Well-paced, occasionally funny, often terrifying, and action packed, the book is a worthy follow-up to Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. This series is so much fun, in fact, that I had to make the Cannonball-conscious decision to put down it’s successor and write this review.

Caliban’s War picks up a year or so after the events of Leviathan Wake‘s, as our swashbuckling heroes are working a contract for the half-government half-terrorist organization of the Outer Planets Alliance. Jim Holden, Captain of the stolen Martian missile corvette Rocinante, is a changed man–and not for the better.

A strange event on Ganymede, breadbasket of the outer planets, precipitates a shooting war between Earth and Mars. Soon the solar system’s best chance at ending the violence is the clear head of foul-mouthed Chrisjen Avasarala, Assistant to to the Undersecretary of Executive Administration at the Earth UN, and her new bodyguard and assistant Gunnery Sargeant Bobbie Draper of the Martian Marine Corps. That is, if Holden doesn’t fuck things up first.

Meanwhile the human face of the Ganymede incident is Dr. Praxidike Meng, whose quest to find his missing daughter will bring all these characters together, and who may hold the key to what happened on Ganymede, and whether it spells the end of humanity.

I don’t know that I would recommend this book without reading its predecessor first, and Leviathan Wakes is fantastic, but as a part of The Expanse series Caliban’s War is a really fun read. The two writers who together are James S. A. Corey have found an insanely entertaining formula for sci-fi fun.

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 Review #10: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

It wouldn’t be an understatement to consider Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness a paradigm shifting book. Many Americans are cognizant of the fact that the criminal justice system in America today is less than fair, but Alexander demonstrates that the racial disparity in incarceration is precisely the point. The system isn’t locking up African Americans at rates absurdly higher than those of whites because it is broken, it is doing so because that is precisely what it was designed to do.

The New Jim Crow is one of the most powerful, shocking, and infuriating books I have ever read. While I recommeneded Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars to anyone with an interest in national security affairs, I recommend The New Jim Crow to absolutely everyone who lives in the United States of America. It’s that important, and Alexander makes her point that impactfully.

The book argues that within a few decades of the racial caste system of “Jim Crow” ending, a new racial caste system was built in its place. Mass Incarceration began in the 1980s with the Reagan Administration’s war on drugs–a war declared at a time when drug use nationwide was actually declining. But according to the book, “Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses rose 1100%, from some 41K to over half a million, while drug use has remained relatively flat. 90% of those incarcerated are black or latino, despite whites making up a slight majority of drug users.”

Though what makes Mass Incarceration a true caste system is the fact that it extends far beyond simply jails and prisons. “Unfairness in criminal justice doesn’t end with prison. Legal discrimination exists in employment, civic involvement, housing, and welfare for those permanently labeled felons. Extensive use of probation and parole exacerbate the problem as more people were imprisoned for simple parole violations in 2000 than for ALL REASONS in 1980.”

Alexander writes that though the war on drugs is supposedly a war on a thing, the numbers belie that it is actually a war on people–specifically brown people: “Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” By 2000, the incarceration rate of African Americans had increased more than twenty-six times the rates of 1983.

Of course the idea that the criminal justice system is INTENTIONALLY racist begs for skepticism, but Alexander speaks to exactly this fact. As the increase in drug arrests was due, not to an increase in drug crime, but to an increase in seeking out such arrests by law enforcement. Between the “crack epidemic” rhetoric of the Reagan Administration and other “us” vs. “them” media portrayals of drug criminals, the pump was primed for bias, intentional or otherwise. Then, when a check on majoritarian overreach was most needed, the US Supreme Court instead raised the bar necessary to prove discrimination and then effectively closed its doors to future challenges of racial bias in policing. Indeed, the Court let law enforcement off its leash, effectively carving a “War on Drugs” exemption into the Fourth Amendment.

Alexander writes:

The risk that prosecutorial discretion will be racially biased is especially acute in the drug enforcement context, where virtually identical behavior is susceptible to a wide variety of interpretations and responses and the media imagery and political discourse has been so thoroughly racialized. Whether a kid is perceived as a dangerous drug-dealing thug or instead viewed as a good kid who was merely experimenting with drugs and selling to a few friends has to do with the ways in which information about illegal drug activity is processed and interpreted, in a social climate in which drug dealing is racially defined. As a former U.S. Attorney explained:
I had an [assistant U.S. attorney who] wanted to drop the gun charge against the defendant [in a case in which] there were no extenuating circumstances. I asked “Why do you want to drop the gun offense?” And he said, “He’s a rural guy and grew up on a farm. The gun he had with him was a rifle. He’s a good ol’ boy, and all good ol’ boys have rifles, and it’s not like he was a gun-toting drug dealer.” But he was a gun-toting drug dealer, exactly.

Alexander shows that the US Supreme Court has immunized police from complaints in bias in policing, prosecutors from complaints of bias in charging and jury selection, and the system as a whole from complaints of bias in sentencing. It simply refuses to hear cases arguing for racial bias unless that bias is demonstrated overtly: explicitly race based, or racist language. Mere racist results are insufficient proof.

Another reason the war on drugs is waged against communities of color is that they simply lack the political might to raise a fuss. Where paramilitary tactics to break up perception drug abuse by soccer moms, ecstasy use by teens, or pot use by frats would silly in severe backlash. These tactics in the ghetto, by contrast, go largely unnoticed by most of society.

Yet the injustice doesn’t end with incarceration, the shame and stigma of a felony on ones record, paired with the legal discrimination against felons in employment, housing, welfare, healthcare, education, professional licensing, voting, serving on juries, custody make reintegration an almost unbearable hardship. Additionally, many ground face extremely high debts as a result of their incarceration, debts they struggle to pay in the face of bleak employment options, and which can paradoxically lead them back to prison if left unpaid.

Overcoming this system is daunting. First because it requires overcoming or own denial. It sounds exaggerated, even fanciful, to believe that in our colorblind age Mass Incarceration is a thinly veiled racial caste system, but an examination of the facts and myths surrounding Mass Incarceration can lead to no other conclusion.

But we must overcome this denial, end the legal discrimination, the ghetto to prison pipelines, end the dug war, and dismantle Mass Incarceration. More importantly, however, Americans must learn to care across racial lines: the reflexively conjured image of the face of a drug criminal must cease to be a brown one. Real economic opportunity must be extended to the ghetto.
There is no moral alternative.

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 Review #9: Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

While reading Jeremy Scahill’s new book Dirty Wars: The World is A Battlefield, I described it to a friend as a “direct sequel” to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. Now that I’ve finished it, I’ll gladly double-down on that assertion–and not only because it’s a spiritual successor to that book, but also because it too deserves a Pulitzer.

Where Wright led us through the story of the rise of radical Islam to its climax on September 11, Scahill takes us through the following decade. As Wright told the story of both the FBI team following bin Laden and the man himself, Scahill follows JSOC, the CIA, various privateers and warlords, and their fight against the likes of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Shabab, the Taliban, and others.

The book tells the story of the rise of the Joint Special Operations Command, and the quiet deployment of special and covert ops forces in countries around the world, and away from the places where official wars have been declared. These so-called small wars are taking place off the books and out of most headlines in places like Somalia, Yemen, Mali, and Pakistan. The new military doctrine that “The world is a battlefield” has allowed both the Bush and the Obama administration to bend the letter of the law to mean that war can be waged anywhere, any time, as long as it is in the interest of the United States of America.

Dirty Wars finds its humanity, and it’s most personal story, in the life and death of Anwar al-Awlaki. The American born cleric who transformed from a pro-US defender of democracy and non-violence in the wake of 9/11 to a radicalized firebrand who preached on jihad and praised the deaths of Americans. Awlaki’s story echoes the themes of the rest of the book: the best anti-terrorism efforts of the United States inexorably inflame radical Islam rather than suppress it, and rather than learn from these failures, our country simply walks further down a darkened path from which return is unlikely.

The book is incredibly well reported, it touches on nearly every major story of the post-9/11 national security beat. The breadth and depth of the interviews that support its stories make it clear that Scahill is not alone in his concern about the path American militarism has taken. Current and former officials, analysts, fighters, tribesman, warlords, and victims’ families come together to tell a story of unchecked power, imprecise violence, and global war.

Dirty Wars‘ darkest chapters are easily its 34th and 35th. The former is comprised largely of a letter from American-educated Nasser A. Al-Aulaqi to President Barack Obama, pleading with the President to reconsider his apparent desire to kill–without charge or trial–Nasser’s son Anwar. The latter tells in gruesome detail the story of a botched raid on a homestead in Gardez, Afghanistan, where JSOC forces descended on the household of anti-Taliban Afghani police officer killing several members of the family–some of them women–and then callously attempting to cover up the mistake.

Scahill’s book is easily one of the most important of the year, and I am greatly looking forward to seeing the book’s companion film, also titled Dirty Wars. I recommend it highly and almost without qualification. It will leave you with pressing questions that you’ll be immediately wanting to ask of your politicians:

When can, or can’t, the President decide to kill an American abroad?
Why is the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye still in prison?
and perhaps most upsettingly,
Why was Anwar al-Awlaki’s American-born 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, an innocent boy, killed by a drone strike while eating with his cousins?

Dirty Wars: The War Is A Battlefield will make you want the answers.

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 Review #8: Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

The first book of “The Expanse” Series,  Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey is a scifi/space opera story set in the period after mankind takes to the solar system but before it spreads out to the stars beyond our own. The book’s two protagonists, Holden and Miller, come from this in-between version of mankind: spectacularly advanced but also wholly recognizable.

In the solar system of Leviathan Wakes has been colonized by billions, political power is spread unevenly between Earth, Mars, and the far-flung colonies of the Asteroid Belt and outer planetary moons. Though each party has their own needs and wants, they remain more or less interdependent and antagonistic. When Holden’s motley crew of ice miners stumble into a mysterious derelict ship, the chain reaction threatens the entire balance of the system.

Meanwhile, on Ceres Station, one of the most populated dots in the Asteroid Belt, Detective Miller is assigned a kidnap job–track down the missing daughter of some Luna-based bigwigs. Miller’s search leads him to where his bosses would rather he didn’t go, and eventually across Holden’s path. Together they try to avert a war, or something much, much worse.

Leviathan Wakes reads like a summer blockbuster. It’s quick-witted and perfectly paced, and the sci-fi elements strike the perfect balance between fantastical as hell, and hard enough to make sense and stay out of the way. The book is also occasionally terrifying. Not just thematically, but in specifically describing scenes and events that you’ll have trouble shaking.

Pick it up for the thrills, stay for the incredible world building, the humor, and the insanely fun (and just plain insane) rabbit hole mystery. I’ve been lagging far, far behind on my CBR-ing lately, but pretty much from the time this book came into my possession until the time that I finished it I could. not. put. it. down. Definitely check it out.

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 Review #7: A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

It’s difficult to know how best to review a 1100+ page novel that is just one part of many (seven? is it seven now?), and that took me months and months and months to read. I kept putting A Storm of Swords down to read other books, and then returning to it. I think that’s a comment on its length, but not on its quality. It might be my favorite ASOIAF novel yet.

As this is a series that’s very much in the zeitgeist right now, and one that a lot of people are progressing through at different speeds (and across different media) I’ll stay away from spoilers, but believe me when I say that there are a LOT of twists and turns and surprises in this book.

To restate a thousand other reviews, though:
Martin’s world-building is second to none. It’s not the least bit difficult to believe that this is a civilization with 1000s of years of history, some of it laid out explicitly, much more of it only hinted at.

To put into words just how great this series is:
It took me months and months to read this book, I have two more to go in the series as it stands, and I’m already aching about the fact that I’m going to have to wait for (surely) years for its completion.

Look, this is the GAME OF THRONES series, people. I don’t have to spell it out for you. It’s great, and you’ll love it.
Unless that kind of thing isn’t your cup of tea, but even then you still might.

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 Review #6: The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

On September 11, 2001 I was a high schooler living safe and sound in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. Fate would determine that my second period would be with the American Studies teacher who was also the school's A/V supervisor. So a group of us juniors watched slack-jawed as the second plane struck and as both towers fell. All the while our teacher bellowed at us about how these events would change everything, and the world we thought we knew would be different now.

For the nearly ten years between that day and his death, Osama bin Laden to me was just the thin, silent figure on grainy VHS tapes, shooting range targets, and occasional photographs. The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road To 9/11, Lawrence Wright's riveting history of bin Laden, his al-Qaeda organization, and Islamic extremism seeks to flesh out that vague image. Continue reading

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 review #5: Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

I guess I should begin with what you already think you know about Scientology…

It’s true. When a church member is deemed worthy of attaining the level of “Operating Thetan III” he, or she, is led into a room and presented with a document informing them that billions of years ago the evil Galactic Emperor Xenu brought millions of innocent souls (thetans) to Earth on spaceships resembling DC-8s, stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. That story is, however, neither the most interesting nor the most controversial part of Scientology, nor of Lawrence Wright’s exploration of it in Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Continue reading

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 review #4: Panic 2012 by Michael Hastings

The latest from Michael Hastings, Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign is a brisk and enthralling book that does what it says on the tin. Hastings’ writing style oscillates between that of straightforward, traditional journalism and Thompson-esque stream-of-consciousness gonzo journalism, resulting in a read that never bores, but also never leaves reason to doubt its veracity.

Hastings’ book tells, primarily, the story of the “panic” experienced by the Obama campaign following the President’s disastrous first debate with challenger Mitt Romney, and the hair on fire weeks that followed. It’s difficult to ascertain how much of this panic was legitimate and how much was manufactured (by the media for ratings, or by the campaign itself for fundraising purposes), but that’s half the fun. By focusing on the debate prep, the advertising, and the social media campaign, Panic 2012 provides great insight into the highly effective, if not exactly well oiled, Obama 2012 Machine.

Hastings’ take on events is especially unique given his outsider status on the trail. Having moved from Rolling Stone (where he was no friend to the Obama agenda) to up-start Buzzfeed, Hastings lacks some of the clout and most of the goodwill held by his counterparts on the trail. The resulting point of view is a sharp look at not just the campaign, but the media that surrounds it.

As fascinating as the campaign’s actions are, some of the best bits of the book come as Hastings focuses his attention on the White House press pool.  This collection of, as Hastings calls them, the best and worst journalists in the business manages to provide meaningful content in trying conditions, but also manages to flaut some of the expectations that Joe Public might have governing journalistic behavior. Most common and humorous, is the serious chafing Hastings describes in the multiple occasions on which he is told arbitrarily and after the fact that a given event is “off the record.”

Panic 2012 is certainly not the definitive look at Obama For America 2012–Hastings got almost no access to key campaign players until after the election. It is, however, an exciting and insightful look at the campaign. While more exhaustive accounts are surely forthcoming, it’s difficult to imagine that many will be as much damn fun as this one.

Hastings is perhaps still best known as the author of “The Runaway General,” the Rolling Stone piece that ended Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s career (and its’ book-length followup The Operators). It is unlikely that Panic 2012 will end any careers (though stick around till the end for a Rahm Emanuel anecdote that will SURELY complicate the mayors’), but it certainly confirms that Hastings’ career is one worth continuing to watch.

Check out excerpts here and here.