Unrig: How to fix our broken democracy by Daniel G. Newman

Having been raised in a mostly-white mostly-middle-class part of a purple state, I understood that the United States is a government for, by, and of the people. But for the last ten years or so that hasn’t felt like it was particularly true anymore… and it wasn’t just because of the presidential election or the current unrest. Nobody seemed to be able to tell me why, though, and the few that tried fell into traps of Democrat and Republican stereotype talking points and attacks on the other party.

Which didn’t make sense, really, because I know Democrats and Republicans and while everyone has points they differ on, we’re really not as far apart (on the whole) at the grass roots level as we believe. Heck, I was raised Republican, and the Republican party of today is definitely not espousing the same values as the one that existed when I was in high school.

So what the heck’s been happening? Why can’t we get along? Who the hell are the Koch Brothers and why do I care? How is Betsy DeVos in charge of education and why does it look like she’s purposely destroying public schools? Why are the elections swinging directions that we don’t expect, or don’t want?

When Scott McCloud mentioned Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy on Twitter I decided to give it a shot, and it’s done a very good job of describing the forces that are pressuring both our elected officials and the elections themselves.

Daniel Newman puts forth a case (with a sizable bibliography) that the ultra-rich in the US banded together and started playing a long game years ago with the intent to take control of the democracy out of the hands of common citizens like you and me. Dark money influences both elections and the elected. It changes how our electoral maps are drawn. It prevents fair elections. It increases the financial effects of corporate lobbyists to get what they want.

It’s a freaking mess.

But this book isn’t just an explainer for what’s happened over the last 20-50 years. It’s also an explanation for what we, the people, can actually do about it. It explains ranked choice voting, clean elections, the Voting Rights Act, gerrymandering, and many other political tools that we can use to make our democracy more or less fair, and then what we can do to wield those tools.

And look, if you’ve fully bought into the narrative that the government should be small and helpless and distrusted, or that people shouldn’t help each other or work together for better lives because it’s a dog-eat-dog world, you’re probably not going to be a big fan. This book assumes that neighbors help neighbors, we all want better lives, and we can work together to get them. It doesn’t ascribe to any specific ideology although it does make it clear that most of the dark money from the ultra-rich is going into the Republican party with the specific intent to undermine democracy.

This book is for disillusioned Republicans, frustrated Independents, confused Democrats, and everyone else who’s looking for an explanation of our current political and democratic situation in clear terms, with a compelling and precise visual and textual story. It’s for everyone that needs a graphic novel (graphic textbook?) refresher in that civics class you might not have had in five, ten, twenty, or thirty years. It’s for people thinking of getting into politics now, people thinking of getting into politics later, and people who are just sick of attack ads on television and always having the worst choices at the election box.

The book has an accompanying website for bringing people who want to unrig our democracy together. And it’s time.

James Acaster: Repertoire on Netflix

Just finished watching James Acaster: Repertoire on Netflix and wow.

It’s a four-hour standup special. Or rather it’s four different one-hour episodes.  But those four episodes are tied together as if it was a single four-hour standup with breaks.

It’s also some of the tightest writing that I’ve seen in any book, movie, or short story I’ve experienced. At least three different stories weave their way in an arc that has more twists and turns than a French braid, and has no loose ends.

If you like standup, or if you like storytelling, this is worth your time.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

I spent most of Hank Green’s  An Absolutely Remarkable Thing wanting to have Stern Words with the protagonist.

Maybe that’s because I’m 44 and April May is 23. Maybe it’s because April May made bad decisions that Past Me was quite good at making and hello I didn’t really need that kind of introspection in The Year Of Oh God Seriously 2020. Especially in 2020. Especially in June of 2020.

Maybe it’s because the world deserved better than what April May was able to deliver. Maybe it’s because the world right now deserves better than any one human being is able to deliver.

There’s also a part of me as a UX Designer that relates a little more closely with April May and the way that when we lock onto something fascinating it can easily become all-encompassing in our lives and shape who we are just as much as we shape what it is. The title is completely true and the driver of the book: the Carls are an absolutely remarkable thing. They’re the kind of thing that frankly would terrify the shit out of me and I would have definitely not gone down April May’s path because April May’s path is scary. (Some of where April May and I disagree definitely comes from “April May is an extrovert and anne gibson is much more willing to hide from all of humanity”.)

Or maybe it’s because this book doesn’t work at all if the protagonist isn’t deeply flawed.

But here’s the thing: in most cases, a protagonist that annoys the piss out of me is exactly the kind of thing that makes me put a book down and move on to the next book, and that didn’t happen here. Hank wrote real people who make real decisions and some of those decisions are really bad, and, most importantly, There Are Consequences.

And to that I give Hank profound credit. His characters are real. They all make mistakes. Some of them acknowledge those mistakes in the book. Some of them don’t. And the world is real, with all its warts and fights and distrust and fear and horribleness.

In that way, it reminds me a bit of Ferrett Steinmetz’s Flex series. Hank’s book is much more science fiction than magical realism, and Ferrett’s book is much more of an adult voice than Hank’s (mostly because Hank’s protagonist is a 23-year-old marketer and Ferrett’s is an adult bureaucrat). In both, though, the protagonist is riddled with bad mistakes compounding bad mistakes, and it’s only through their overall hope in humanity and their closest friends that they muddle through.

In tone, this is Young Adult For Actual Adults, which I love. In structure, it’s an autobiography written by a much wiser version of April May. It ends on a cliffhanger, so be prepared to get the next one in the series even if you want to have Stern Words with April May.

Swordheart by T. Kingfisher

I probably should have known Swordheart by T. Kingfisher was the beginning of a trilogy when the bird slipped through a plot hole there at the end and didn’t amount to anything. Screaming birds generally aren’t put in the plot for no reason and this bird is way too much a Chekhov’s Bird to just be sitting there.

Anyway, this book is fantastic, and I’m now hungry for the next two.

This book is the story of Sarkis, a man whose spirit has been placed in a sword, and Halla, a 36 year old widow who was planning to kill herself with the sword until a warrior appareted into her bedroom when she tried to do the deed.

And then from there it gets weird.

It gets weird in the ways of the Clockwork Boys stories, with strange creatures on a road that disappears and reappears, bandits, murderers, ruthless priests, not-ruthless lawyer priests, a gnoll that drives the ox, an ox named Prettyfoot, hands-down the nastiest aunt I’ve found in a book in quite some time, and a clammy-handed man who nobody should marry.

And then somehow everything works out and the people who need to be dead are dead and the people who you were kind of hoping would be dead are banged up at least, and the people who should be in love are in love.

I’m pretty sure that although Ursula Vernon insists she writes “fluffy romance” on Twitter that this doesn’t qualify as “fluffy” unless you ask Halla what she thinks of her own weight. But romance it is, and relatable romance so much as it can be without traitorous relatives and a ensorcelled sword.

This is good, in short. Read it.

Firefly: The Sting by Delilah S. Dawson

Delilah Dawson is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors. The plot of Firefly: The Sting  (a graphic novel that is set in the Firefly universe) is complex, and lots of characters “take the lead” in this ensemble story of the women of Firefly. The premise (that Saffron had been hiding on board Serenity, and thus able to cause a full set of hijinx) felt a little beyond what the character (to me) is capable of, but everything after that was true-to-character and strong.

Props to the many artists, colorers, and letterers involved, especially for the interstitial art between chapters. It was impressive and intriguing.

I hope that there are more stories like this coming.