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Some books I recommend

When I meet someone out in the world who mentions they have kids around ages 10+, I get excited. I start maneuvering the conversation towards the subject of books. If all works well, we’ll soon be talking about some of my favorite series of books: mostly young adult coming of age fantasy novels, but also some books that are Just Plain Good.

It’s not just kids, though. Some series are my comfort food. I read them over and over again in my life: often as I sleep, as a way to relax. Sometimes I’ll start re-reading a series from the start, and be lost to the world for a week as I just voraciously tear through them.

I’ve hyped them up in person, and via text. You’ll see these recommendations scattered in emails, facebook comments, chat threads.

Now, I’ll try to post them here, so that there’s one more central place.

These are by no means all the “Sahar Massachi loved these as a teen” canon. But it’s a start.

Read the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett

This series by Terry Pratchett is probably my favorite series in all of fiction. TP was the most popular (fantasy? fiction?) author in all of the UK — until he was displaced by JK Rowling.

Discworld is a set of books of social satire pretending to be fantasy pretending to be humor. They have little mini-series and in-jokes between books.

The series went on for so long that the style changed over time. So “early”, “middle”, and “late” books have enough of a different feel that if you only mildly liked a book from one period, you might think another from a different period was great. (Skip the first four, they’re quite different than the rest)

I think that wisdom is pretty hard to find these days. I find these books to be wise — but not in a self-help kind of way at all. Instead, they’re adventure books! Full of memorable characters, fun situations, and so on. The wisdom comes from asides, little sentences or five that go into the author’s theory of humanity.

It never stops being really fun and funny. But there’s also lots of veiled cultural references, meditations on certain themes, and page-turning action.

There’s a book on the nature of belief, religion, the iron law of institutions, and philosophy. It’s also about a god who turned into a turtle and found the one follower who actually still believed in him.

There’s a book on startups, VCs, the power of marketing, .the internet, and corporate power. It’s also about a con man who was sentenced to revitalizing the city post office for his crimes.

There are books on witches (psychology, the power of narrative), policemen (what does it mean to be human, the rule of law, democracy, neo-noir), death, incompetent wizards, etc.

Again, these books are fun and funny without the sort of cheap laughs you’d get from a “humor” book. Kind of like the difference between I don’t know, Parks and Rec vs “Dude Where’s My Car”.

Wholeheartedly recommend them to everyone.

(And if you go deep into the rabbithole, there is a game you can play set in that universe that has been continually developed by volunteers for dozens of years. Plus BBC mini series, old computer games, etc)

Read the Tortall Books by Tamora Pierce

(Tamora Pierce writes novels in two different worlds. The Circle of Magic books and the Tortall Books. Circle of Magic is clearly inferior, in my opinion.)

TP was a pioneering writer of feminist coming of age teen fantasy novels. Not that I knew that when I started reading them. They were just — really fun!

I think it’s best to illustrate just by giving a quick gloss on the series (in order of their writing).

  • Alanna books: a girl wants to be the first female knight in hundreds of years. She pretends to be a boy, becomes a page/squire/knight, etc. Goes on adventures.
  • Wild Magic books: two dozen years later, a girl has a weird kind of magic — not the normal energy flows etc. Instead, she can talk to animals. This turns out to be really important. Also, the land is under invasion from mythic creatures (giants, dragons, griffons, centaurs, and less intelligent and nice beings). Why? What’s going on? Can animals, humans, and magical beings coexist?
  • Protector of the Small — a little while later, a girl wants to be the first openly female person training to be a knight. It’s very hard. She deals with sexism, stands up to bullying, classism and conservativism, etc. Bullying being one expression of many of these bad isms. Great stuff.
  • Tricksters — the daughter of the hero of the first books gets captured by pirates, sold into slavery in the fantasy carribean, and becomes the spymaster for a multicultural revolt against colonial autocracy.
  • Beka Cooper — 500 years ago, a girl is a cop. But her friends are all thieves. And the cops are very corrupt. How do you be a good cop in a corrupt system? Can you change the system? In this adventure series, you can, at least a bit.

While the first series reads a little young, as you go through the books chronologically, the implied age level of the reader increases as well. I recommend starting with the Tricksters series. Only two books, both of them full of intrigue and spying and so on. Plus a revolution!

Tamora Pierce is clearly just a kind person with a passion for justice. I think she helped me become who I am today. Big fan, and the books are just so fun and easy to read.

Read the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey

Mercedes Lackey is the sort of person who writes 2-3 books a year, and has for decades.

She has a few larger worlds/series, but I’ll focus on the books set in the land of Valdemar.

The books generally come out as trilogies. So you follow one main character through three books that are similarly titled (e.g. “Storm Warning”, “Storm Rising”, “Storm Breaking”). Then the main character from that book might be a supporting or minor character in the next. So you have a sense of a cinematic universe in which all these books happen.

ML also clearly saw herself as a feminist author writing a new kind of book (starting in the … 80s?). Lots of female protagonists. Lots of examples of, interestingly, different *types* of feminism.

Magic’s Pawn, which I read quite young, was pivotal to me. I don’t want to give away all the twists, but I think it’s safe to say that it features a gay male protagonist, it is a compelling book, and it got me on the gay rights train early. I cried reading it, and I reread it every few years.

All the books have well-developed magic systems (important!). Adventure! Ethics! Often — spying and sneaking and so on.

If a country could be a main character of a book, Valdemar would be it. It’s a kingdom where the knights are all chosen by (basically) unicorns-with-horns. Those knights (called Heralds) are commandos, judges, fighters, etc. And they generally have to be good people because otherwise they’ll be disowned by their not-unicorns.

It’s a great setup for lots of adventures. Plus, as time has gone on, the books move geographically far afield and away from that convention.

They’re just … really good! Some sample series:

  • Valdemar doesn’t have “real” magic. This is a problem. Some People have a Destiny planned for the heir to the throne — go learn how to do it. She throws it off, and goes off to do what’s best for the kingdom in a surprising way — living with the fantasy native americans and confronting a world-destroying evil that is gaining strength in the hinterlands.
  • It’s thousands of years ago. There are two super strong wizards duking it out — the evil one and the good one. The main character is a griffon (gryphon) commando who has a lot to learn about love. Plus his best friend, a human therapist-healer-bodyworker-hearthealer (it’s hard to explain).
  • The cataclysm is going to happen soon. The giant empire to the east is invading. The religious fundamentalists to the east are in the midst of a reformation. Can a bunch of unlikely allies avert the apocalypse? Can the commander of the invading army successfully go native and defy the empire?
  • The long origin story of a genius mercenary, and how she ended up using every trick in the book to stop an evil king who mind-controlled his own people to turn them into an unstoppable horde.

These are a comfort food for me. I reread them all the time (along with Tamora Pierce’s books and Discworld books)

Read Sabriel and the sequels

Sabriel is a fun, unique book. Unique, except that the sequels exist (and honestly, Lirael, the sequel, is even better).

In this book — it’s roughly the 1910’s. Hadrian’s wall exists, and it is the border between [basically england], and a land of magic.

Sabriel is from magicland, but she lives at boarding school south of the wall. One day, her dad sends her a message, and she thinks she needs to go north and rescue him. Also, her dad is a reverse necromancer — he puts the dead to rest. She goes north into magicland, and realizes that the zombies and other undead are taking over.

Why? What about her dad? Will she rescue her dad? Will she rescue the kingdom? Who is the mysterious enemy behind all this?

Plus, in this book: lawful magic is cast with runes, chaos magic with words, and necromancy is done with bells. Love it.

Hard to put into words, but I really like this one.

Other books that teenagers might love

If I write a part 2 to this post, I might flesh this out. But here’s a little teaser:

  • Ender’s Game: Of all my favorite books, clearly the most conservative. Adults can’t be trusted. Children are terrible to each other. Overcoming adversity. This is a good book for every child to read, but if it’s the final book they read you’re in trouble. Hard to explain, but it’s fantastic and I highly recommend it. Bonus — Ender’s Shadow is a sort of sequel. Most of the same events, but from the perspective of a minor character in the first book. Really recontextualizes a lot. Read both. Wow.
  • The Westing Game and The View From Saturday and From the Mixed Up Files of Ms Basil E. Frankwiler are for younger kids (5th grade, maybe? 3rd?). Excellent, fun, thought provoking.
  • Redwall is great is you’re 7-9 years old.
  • The “Drizzt Books” and many other books by R.A. Salvatore are fun and worth reading once. There are lot of them. I recommend reading The Crystal Shard, and then Homeland, Exile, Sojourn. They’re good! The Crystal Shard and its sequels are fine, standard fantasy. But Homeland/Exile/Sojourn (especially the first two) stand out to me. Imagine an evil, theocratic, society of beings who could live till 1000 years old, easily. What would it look like? You need some order — it’s a hierarchical society run by a priesthood, not a chaostown. But also it’s not like they frown on murder, for example, per se. The books do a great job exploring that, as well as what it might feel like to be trapped in a society with values very different than yours.
Categories
Misc

How to be a citizen in a time of Coronavirus

What can we do in the present crisis? More interestingly, what can we do with it?

I’m not talking about purchasing a bidet and stockpiling pasta sauce and medicine. Instead: as citizens, how can we rise to the occasion? As organizers, how can we seize the moment to put in place some needed social change?

When life starts looking like a movie, the extraordinary becomes inevitable. Either for good, or for ill. Back in 2008, we on the left were a bit overconfident. The basic analysis was there: we cited Naomi Klein and talked about how we needed a “Reverse Shock Doctrine”. Even Rahm Emanuel was on TV saying “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste”

It didn’t go to waste — for the bad guys. The crisis helped the Tea Party rebrand the conservative coalition after Bush, it funneled trillions of dollars of free money into banks, and it raised the concentration of industry even higher.

So let’s not let the crisis go to waste, before the enemy does.

That’s the challenge. These next few days and weeks will be qualitatively different than normal. We have an opening to try things (and get people to sign on) that would be strange and hard to pull off before. That’s the challenge: What opportunities can we seize now, that might have important effects in the future?

1. Make a neighborhood group

This is an excellent time to make a Facebook group for your block. Maybe just the 40 or so homes in your street. In a few weeks, you might need to start babysitting each other’s kids, or sharing advil, or pooling risk to send exactly one person to the store to buy supplies. In a few weeks, you might be grateful that you dug this well before you drew from in. You might be saving lives by performing errands for your elderly neighbor.

And, in the months and perhaps years to come, you’ll reap the benefits of a tighter neighborhood network. You’ll be happier, more communal. And maybe when you’re trying to convince your neighbors to go to a meeting, to vote, or to consider your perspective, they’ll listen.

Tomorrow, I’ll put this in practice. I’ll knock on doors nearby, and leave a flier. I likely won’t use the term “mutual aid”, or “solidarity network”. Why bother using words that confuse people? But hopefully we will get the rudiments of a community network set up to start being generous, helpful, and kind to each other.

2. Be decisive

In times of crisis, the flailing defer to the decisive. Be decisive.

Delta flight attendants have gotten a huge boost to their union drive in the last few days:

“I have not seen interest this high. Not even after the merger with [Northwest] who was already represented by AFA at the time, or during the recession or the Ebola scare of 2014,” says Cheryl, who has worked at the airline for more than a decade. “The threat of involuntary furloughs and layoffs has been a big motivator. We are scared and freaking out because we don’t have any language in our policies for this.”

The Coronavirus Is Jump-Starting Union Organizing at Delta (by Mike Elk)

If months happen in days, then start grabbing that bounty of time and confusion to push your agenda.

You can start by small things. Advocate for this your neighbors to buy gift cards from local restaurants and cafes they’d normally go to every day. It’s a short term loan to businesses and a way to help them stay afloat. Can you do it through a Facebook page or Action Network petition? After the crisis, you can use that organization and credibility to start talking about other ways to help local businesses, like localist economics or raising the minimum wage or unionizing.

If you can, use the crisis as an excuse to cut out middlemen: can you pay service workers (instead of service businesses) directly? Can you convince your neighbors to do so as well? In the cloak of solidarity you can start laying the groundwork of a worker-owned business.

3. Be Local

Nationally, the Dems are gonna Dem. I’m sure they’ll disappoint us. But there’s a lot of ground you can seize locally.

Organize your neighbors around demands for your town or state. Ones that will save lives. Things like: Stop evicting people during a pandemic! Or “Free Broadband for everyone!”. Or “don’t cut off people’s access to utilities!” Or “give the prisoners free soap and water, for God’s sake

“Jails and prisons are often dirty and have really very little in the way of infection control,” said Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex. “There are lots of people using a small number of bathrooms. Many of the sinks are broken or not in use. You may have access to water, but nothing to wipe your hands off with, or no access to soap.”

When Purell is Contraband, How Do You Contain Coronavirus? by The Marshall Project

You might very well save lives.

Also, I expect that when you start asking your friends to call their city councilmember, or to sign a petition, about these things, you’ll get a different response than you normally get. People who normally tune out politics will be suddenly paying attention to this large shock in their lives. Get them hooked on advocacy. Get them comfortable with the democratic process. This will yield dividends later.

4. Don’t wait for Republican Party to collapse on its own

The conservative movement survived stealing a presidency, lying us into Iraq, failing into Katrina, looting the public after the 2008 crash, gutting the voting rights act, lying to the Supreme court about gerrymandering, and nominating a sexual assaulter to the presidency. It can survive this.

For the last two months, Trump, Fox News, etc have been downplaying the crisis at best, actively sabotaging efforts to handle it at worst. Starting in about a day or so, they’ll try to pretend that never happened. Don’t let them get away with it.

(I wrote a whole thing about it here)

5. Further reading and examples

Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville

COVID-19 Full List of Actions You Can Take Right Now

How To Start A Social Street

BRANDEIS mutual aid for first-generation and low-income students affected by COVID-19 updates