Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Checkout 19: A Novel (2022) by Claire-Louise Bennett

Book Review
Checkout 19: A Novel (2022)
by Claire-Louise  Bennett

   I was wowed by Checkout 19, the latest book by English author Claire-Louise Bennett. The narrator is a uni student in the UK, working at a grocery store during breaks and musing on her past as she works. The entire book takes the form of a monologue a la Thomas Bernhard- who is my favorite author.  Thus, I loved every minute of Checkout 19, and it made me wish there were Audiobook editions of Thomas Bernhard's books.   I wish there were more books like this one that I could read and Claire-Louise Bennett is an important voice in contemporary literary fiction.

The Ministry for the Future (2020) by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book Review
The Ministry for the Future (2020)
by Kim Stanley Robinson

  I've read a few different summary articles revolving around the literary trend of "cli-fi" which is short for climate fiction- a label that seeks to eschew the combination of the words science and fiction.   Climate focused science fiction is as old as the genre itself, but J.G. Ballard wrote a well known novel called The Drowned World in 1962 that was clearly set in a post-Global Warming environment.  The modern idea itself, that emissions of carbon causes greenhouse gases to heat the earth dates to the 1950's and it was popularized in the 1980's.  Obviously it's still controversial.   Kim Stanley Robinson is a prolific writer of best-selling science fiction that is known for being progressive in terms of the suite of ideas being advocated, scientists as heroes, the conquest of space, if not in terms of his representations. 

  When The Ministry for the Future was released in 2020, Robinson gave many interviews where he indicated that he was trying to use his powers of imagination in a more or less concrete manner and that the intent of The Ministry for the Future is serious.  I found his take absorbing.  The Ministry for the Future is created by the UN to represent future generations and given a budge and headquarters in Switzerland.  World action is galvanized after a "wet bulb" incident (when combined temperature and humidity prevent the human body from cooling down, resulting in death) kills 20 million people in India, and things begin to happy.

  The head of the Ministry of Sound is a former Irish politician who seems to be modeled on Mary Robinson, her main aide a ex-Nepali Marxist by way of Indian operator who heads their "black ops" division.   They are helped on their way by the so-called Children of Kali, an amorphous, poorly described network that perpetrates hugely succesful global acts of terrorism.  Robinson introduces ideas by the bucket full that draw from across the ideological spectrum- blockchain based currencies pegged to carbon removal, drilling through the Antarctic ice and pumping water up to be refrozen, genetically eliminating all cattle on earth with a modified mad cow virus, shutting down air travel by bringing down hundreds of private planes. 

  Again, while reading The Ministry for the Future I had the same thought I often have when thinking seriously about the future, which is that any kind of monstrous, global disaster that wipes out half of humanity would quite easily be a net win for the environment and the Earth itself.   It's hard to make any kind of logically consistent argument in favor of humanity as an ever expanding species.  Surely there needs to be some kind of limitation of the endless EXPANSION of human activity and humanity itself.  Obviously, the personal decision whether to reproduce is the only thing an individual can control, but isn't there a seriously strong argument against the endless expansion of economic activity?  The ultimate weakness of the neo-liberal economic order is that the externalities of fossil fuel driven economic activities- those costs that are not assumed by the business earning the money from the activity- subsume the profit because eventually the world will end because of that activity. 

  So who will stop these businesses?  Only state or super state level actors.  And can Democracies do it?  Probably not, because these businesses are huge interest groups in every democracy in the world.  That leaves non democracies and non state actors, so Dictators and Terrorists, or I guess, a UN Agency run by an Irish politician.  I wouldn't bet on the UN. 

Things Are Never So Bad They Can't Get Worse (2022) by William F. Neuman

Graph of Venezuelans living abroad.  The number as of 2021 was 6 million.

Book Review
Things are Never So Bad They Can't Get Worse:
Inside the Collapse of Venezuela (2022)
by William F. Neuman

  This book is essentially a 300 page explication of the resource curse/paradox of plenty/poverty paradox, which is that an abundance of natural resources frequently results in a failed nation-state, where economic growth, functional democracy and various measures of social and economic equality are much lower than what one would expect from a place with such wealth.

  Venezuela is, of course, exhibit "A" in any discussion of the resource curse.  What's especially agonizing about the Venezuelan experience is that the non-functional government is leftist/socialist, and the resources being mismanaged is the oil industry that was largely founded by the American corporations who are villains to those on the left, the same crowd who would essentially love for a South American Socialist government to make good.  These are also the same type of folks who are journalists and write about places like Venezuela, so perhaps it is understandable why stories about the continuing meltdown in Venezuela are few and far between.

    Neuman has longstanding ties to Venezuela as a journalist, and his book is well sourced and not particularly either pro- or anti- the Chavez Regime.   I mean, factually speaking, Chavez and Maduro have been an unmitigated disaster from any conceivable standard.  The best single illustration of the level of disaster is the number of Venezuelan refugees.  The graph above shows 1.6 million, with a steep upward trajectory beginning in 2015.  As of the end of 2021 the comparable figure was six million plus Venezuelans living abroad. 

   Neuman does a great job explaining the back story- Chavez was no true socialist revolutionary but rather a media-savvy military caudillo (South American Spanish for strong man/dictator) who understood the relationship between a mass audience and socialist rhetoric.  The weakness of the Venezuelan state, which essentially only exists as a funnel to direct oil money to corrupt elites and/or "the people," preceded Chavez and inexorably continued under Maduro.   But, as Neuman fairly points out, there have been elections, and some of the most exasperating pages detail the efforts by the internal opposition and cack-handed Republican American politicians to force regime change.

  Anyone looking for a solid, real world example of what the term "failed state" means need look no further than Neuman's description of the Venezuelan power grid in the aftermath of the Chavezs' regime move to nationalize the huge hydro electric plants that provide most of the nation with its electricity.   Basically, in the aftermath of nationalization, Chavez replaced the foreigners and engineers in charge with political appointees who were always unqualified and frequently corrupt and incompetent to boot.
After that switch in corporate government, those unqualified, incompetent government appointees didn't know how to maintain their powerful, expensive, sophisticated equipment and fired everyone that could and would have told them.  Eventually the equipment failed, and when that happened they didn't have replacement parts or people to do the repairs.  And that is a good example of why government nationalization of important industries is often a bad idea.

    At the same time, if you are asking yourself, "How do we get the twenty largest oil companies to leave their oil in the ground?"  The idea that you simply liquidate them at the state level and pay off whoever owns the oil in the ground.  The Venezuelans managed to achieve that exact result through sheer incompetence. And if you are looking at other big oil producers that are already state owned- Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, Russia, Nigeria- one answer is to make the area so fucked up that they can't take the oil out of the ground.  Or like, make the terrain unlivable- maybe climate change will get us there the hard way. 

The Search for Modern China (2012) by Jonathan D. Spence

Book Review
The Search for Modern China (2012)
by Jonathan D. Spence

   I source a fair number of books from the Obituary section of the New York Times.  It's pretty good advice to anyone interested in the world around them to keep careful track of the obituaries of the New York Times for several reasons.  First, it's the one time when people who spend their whole lives trying to keep their wealth hidden can be exposed to the public- it's tough to control obituary content after death.  Second,  they are a great way to learn about intellectual history, particularly currents of thought that aren't particularly popular in the here and now.  Spence died a few months back, he was a stalwart Professor of Chinese History in the United States, and his 980 page late-career opus, The Search for Modern China, remains a standard text for survey courses in American Universities. 

  The reason I was able to tackle The Search for Modern China is that someone thought to make it into an Audiobook- including making the narrator read page long charts of economic production into the mic- making it a 60 hour endeavor. Listening took me most of April, and that was just finishing up from several earlier attempts to tackle it.   At close to 1000 pages, it's hard to write a succinct summary, but my summary would read something like this:

   For centuries the Emperor of China had little or no interest in the outside world. This attitude persisted across dynasties.  The Chinese Empire was amazingly cohesive but poorly managed until the 19th century, when it lost it's cohesiveness and continued to be poorly managed.  Western powers waded into the existing, complicated scenario and did nothing to improve the existing chaos and much to make it worse.  Ultimately, the combination of a lack of cohesiveness, poor management and western outrages gave rise to a move to modernize China.   This movement had many different strands but largely reflected a move towards nationalism, i.e. the awareness of China as a nation-state, not the subjects of an Emperor.  Eventually, the Emperor was deposed, but there was no good plan in place to replace the Emperor and the lack of cohesiveness and outside intervention (by the Japanese) in the early 20th century made the situation worse than it was before.   Through a combination of individual
 brilliance and luck, the Chinese Communist Party emerged as the unifiers of the nation-state of China.

    The "search" part of the title basically ends once the Chinese Communist Party assumed control.  Modern China is the Chinese Communist Party, just ask them, or anyone who lives in China.  The Chinese Communist Party has had its triumphs and excesses but as of 2012 (and indeed, a decade later) they are still firmly installed as the absolute rulers of an increasingly powerful Chinese nation-state.

  Personally, I think the biggest mistake that the American intelligentsia makes when it comes to China is a simple failure to understand the motivations of China BEFORE the Chinese Communist Party and how they have carried over to the modern area.  One excellent example of this situation is the reabsorption of territories like Hong Kong- which was simple, relatively speaking, and Taiwan, which remains unabsorbed.   The idea that the United States would go to war with the Chinese Communist Part over Taiwan is absurd.  China has never, ever had designs on "conquering the world" a la England, France of Spain.  Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Chinese history understands that the Chinese only want what they consider theirs, and that includes Taiwan.  It does not include places like Japan, Eastern Russia, or Southeast Asia, let alone places like Africa or South America.  The Chinese Communist Party could honestly not give two shits about the rest of the world despite their increased concern with their image on the world stage.  What I'm saying is, give the Chinese what they want, because that is all they want, it's not some kind of secret plot for world domination.  That's a Western thing.    

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Woman, Eating (2022) by Clair Kohda

British author Claire Kohda

Woman, Eating 
A Literary Vampire Novel (2022) 
by Claire Kohda

   I've been involved in publishing- via my record label, for over a decade, and the hostility displayed towards artists- musicians, writers, actors, every artist at the relationship between commerce and art has always struck me as comical.  Or at the very best, an anachronistic attitude directly related to 18th century romanticism and its ideas about the genius apart as creator.  The vibe for Woman, Eating: A Literary Vampire Novel, was very Ottessa Moshfegh writes a vampire novel.   I would argue that Moshfegh has the heart of a decadent in the sense that she descends in a direct line from the prose of Joris-Karl Huysmans and his book Against the Grain.

    It goes without saying that a vampire novel that carries the subtitle of "A Literary Vampire Novel" does not take its premise of vampires particularly seriously, rather the vampire is a motif for an exploration of what it means to be mixed-race in contemporary British society, about the role food plays in the integration of immigrants.   Anyway, I loved every second- loved, loved, loved the Audiobook and the narrator of the Audiobook.  One of my favorites of the year thus far.  Certainly a top five title for me heading into the midyear. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Doloriad (2022) by Missouri Williams

Author Missouri Williams

Book Review
The Doloriad (2022)
by Missouri Williams

    One of the consequences of striving for gender equity in my reading is trying to avoid books written by women from well off backgrounds about the difficulties of motherhood and relationships.  I'd rather read anything else.  So when I hear about a work of literary fiction written by a woman and it is some sort of foul minded post apocalyptic nightmare about the lives of an incestuous family which has managed to survive the end of the world, I say to myself, "Sign me up!"   The Doloriad is interesting on a couple different levels.  First, there is the high modernist technique, a variety of stream of consciousness narratives by various mal-formed monster humans. 

  The Doloriad... is really something.  What it is exactly, beyond foul and kinda breathtaking, and beyond that, it just stands out among the welter of sad family melodrama that dominates literary fiction in the United States, whether written by men or women.


Monday, April 18, 2022

The Lincoln Highway (2022) by Amor Towles

Book Review
The Lincoln Highway (2022)
by Amor Towles

    This was our book club pick this month.  I look forward to book club as an opportunity to read the popular bangers that I would normally avoid like the plague.  It's interesting readying books that have big sales numbers as long as I have an acceptable excuse.  Towles, to me, is in the same category as James Patterson and John Grisham- he spend close to twenty years as an investment banker before publishing his first novel, The Rules of Civility, in 2011.  The Rules of Civility was a modest success, i.e. it only has 12,000 Amazon reviews, vs. 42,000 for A Gentleman in Moscow and 43,000 already for this book.   A Gentleman in Moscow, 2016, was a monster hit and it really set the table for The Lincoln Highway, which arrived in fall of 2021 to universal acclaim and monster sales figures.

   It is unclear to me if Towles is serious enough to win a Pultizer, but this book has the feel of those mainstream hits that the Pultizer Prize often embraces.  The story involves three juvenile delinquents and the kid brother of one of the three.  They all meet at a juvenile detention facility in Nebraska, despite the fact that two of the three are from New York and have, as far as I can see, no business being at a juvenile lock up facility in Nebraska during the 1950's. 

    One of the three is let out and heads back to his Dad's sad farm- his Dad being one of those "only in literary fiction" types of a New Englander from a wealthy background who decides to become a farmer in Nebraska, only to fail miserably.  Do people like that exist in real life?   Needless to say, hi-jinks ensue, including a hobo style train journey to New York, multiple adventures inside and outside the environs of New York, and a quest to retrieve a half million dollars from inside a locked safe inside the palatial "cabin" of the deceased grandfather of one of the three former inmates.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Sea of Tranquility (2022) by Emily St. John Mandel

Book Review
Sea of Tranquility (2022)
by Emily St. John Mandel

    Welp, Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel is surely over the hump, heading towards a long career in the upper echelons of the Anglo-American world of literary fiction, based on the critical and audience success of the HBO Max version of her 2014 novel, Station Eleven.  I've managed to not finish the book version of Station Eleven, the Audiobook version of Station Eleven AND the television show, so I wouldn't characterize myself as a fan, but like always I'm interested in the intersection of literary fiction and science fiction themes, and therefore Sea of Tranquility, Mandel's new book, which is both a time travel caper novel AND a sequel to her well received 2020 novel The Glass Hotel (prestige TV version on the way!)

    In fact, I actually went out to my local Barnes & Nobel and bought the hardback, which I mildly regret because Sea of Tranquility clocks in at barely 200 pages (with large margins, blank pages between chapters, and chapters that are under fifty words each.)  I tried to savor the experience but there is no way I could have taken longer than two hours to read this bad boy.  The short length probably bodes well for the potential audience size- I picked my copy off a stack that was on the official Barnes & Noble book club table, and it makes sense.  Sea of Tranquility actually reminded me of a science fiction novella written by someone like Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov, but of course written by a contemporary author of literary fiction.    As you might expect there isn't much "hard" science fiction where the characters spend pages of exposition describing various impossibilities (like time travel) to the reader.

  I think St. John Mandel deserves credit for writing a time travel caper book when the obvious trend has been towards alternate histories and parallel universes, retro and brave at the same time, her choice, I would say. 

Ancestors (1971) by William Maxwell

Book Review
Ancestors (1971)
by William Maxwell

   I only learned about William Maxwell last year when the New York Times book review published a lengthy re-appraisal which argued for Maxwell's canonical status as a 20th century writer.   Maxwell published rarely while maintaining his post as the fiction editor for the New Yorker- could you imagine a better description of a "writer's writer."  He also spread his bibliography in between literary categories, he wrote novels, short story collections, non-fiction and a couple of children's books.   Ancestors is a book of non-fiction, somewhere between a family biography and the micro history of the small town in Illinois from whence Maxwell hailed.

   I bought a copy of Ancestors at a small book store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on a visit last year and since then it has languished, largely because the opening hundred pages offer a heavy helping of details about 18th and 19th century religion among newly arrived American immigrants, and the role his various forbearers played in those religions.  I suppose, at some level, you could describe the debates between various evangelical Christian denominations in early American history as "interesting," but only in a historical sense, in a literary sense it was a bore and it took me nine months of Ancestors on my bedstand before I got past that hump.

  After that Maxwell picks up the pace, and the chapters dealing with his parents and grandparents generations are legitimately interesting AND cover a time- the 1880's, 1890's, 1900's and place, American Midwest, where there aren't a ton of books that have stood up with the test of time. For some of those decades: the 1880's, for example, there isn't a tremendous amount of American literature period, so a book like Ancestors is useful for filling in some of the blank spots.

Drowning Practice (2022) by Mike Meginnis

 Book Review
Drowning Practice (2022)
by Mike Meginnis

  I've been really interested in the intersection of genre science fiction and literary fiction, particularly as it relates to the apocalypse/post-apocalyptic subgenre.  Much of the action in this space of the marketplace is with semi-succesful or already succesful writers of literary fiction adding science fiction themes in what I can only imagine is either an attempt to drive interest in the book or a legitimate reflection of growing interest in science fiction by writers of "serious fiction."  It's probably both.

  For me, the turning point was in 2017 when Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize after publishing two heavily genre influenced work in a row- Never Let Me Go (2005) was a straight forward science fiction/dystopia set up, and The Buried Giant was reworking of what might be called "Arthurian fantasy."  At that point, it would be hard for anyone working in publishing to claim that science fiction or fantasy couldn't be serious literature.   

  In Drowning Practice, every human on Earth has the same dream which features an authority figure telling them that the world is going to end on November 1st.   This simultaneity of an event taking place across all of humanity is enough to convince everyone of the truth of the message.   The protagonists are Lyd, a semi-succesful writer of literary fiction who suffers from clinical depression, Mott, her unbelievably precocious 10 year old daughter, and David, her psychotic CIA spy of an ex-husband.  I gather from the reviews that the reader is supposed to be charmed by 10 year old Mott, who, I shit, you not, decides that the one thing she wants to do before the world ends is write a novel.

  Only in the universe of contemporary American literary fiction would a book about the end of the world give you not one but two characters who spend most of the book musing about the meaning of literature in the wider world.   So while I was more or less annoyed the entire time I was listening to the Audiobook, I did finish it, which says that Drowning Practice isn't insufferably boring despite the characters being obsessed with the progress of a novel written by a ten year old.   Also it's yet another work of American literary fiction where one of the major characters is a sad, wealthy, well-educated white woman who has ambivalent feelings towards motherhood.  Truly, truly, truly a subject I would avoid if I could. 

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