Book review: The Conquest of Bread by Peter Kropotkin

The Conquest of BreadThe Conquest of Bread by Pyotr Kropotkin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“All things are for all.” Not sure if that is an Amazon store tagline or an anarchist catchphrase.

Pyotr Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread is an outline of the failings of capitalistic systems, a critique of the failings of communist systems, and a proposal for a system free from hierarchies and poverty. Regarded as a classic text of political anarchism, particularly as the criticisms of communism were seen to come true in the twentieth century, Kropotkin is probably more relevant today than when he was writing.

The Conquest of Bread was an interesting read that I couldn’t help but feel was politically current, whilst being socially historical. The overall political message and much of the details Kropotkin goes into are insightful and you can see why the Occupy Movement and Breadtube were inspired by this book. With the rise of higher levels of mechanisation, and with the coming automation of huge parts of the economy, there is much to be said for a rethink of how our society is run based on these ideas.

Socially, however, many of the points are a little dated and/or naive. After reading chapter 9 (The Need for Luxury) I commented that this was definitely written a hundred years ago. While I don’t think he is incorrect, removing status and consumerist ideals does change our wants, it was a statement that did exist in a time when cars didn’t exist. This changed landscape necessitates a slightly different idea of what people want, need, and what will be “normal”.*

There were a couple of points that I disagreed with. Kropotkin was a little simplistic in dismissing “middlemen” as doing nothing. While Bullshit Jobs apply, there is still the need for things like distribution and organisation by middlemen. This is probably because Kropotkin is imagining a system that is much more localised than our current global system. Which leads to my next point on specialisation. While there is something to be said for his ideas around everyone pitching in and learning something of what others do and contribute, Kropotkin doesn’t really appreciate the idea of specialisation and having high levels of skill vs the average person who can do it but sucks at it. His example, which is a critique of Adam Smith’s pin maker, is true to an extent. But our modern technology operates at a much higher level now. There is no way an office worker could go out to the farm and be a farmer for a few days. They could do menial labour on the farm, sure, but farming is highly complex now, and not something you can just do for a few days a year, as he suggests.

I could go further into the problems with his understanding of agriculture, which is… antiquated. But those quibbles don’t detract from the idea of being able to provide food for all. In fact, removing the profit motive from agriculture might alleviate a lot of problems.

A very interesting read that I’d highly recommend.

* It was notable that while “men” were the focus, there were some particularly progressive ideas about women in society. If he had been writing after the advent of the pill, I’d bet the comments would have been downright modern.

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Book review: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are LegionThe Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gender reveal parties would be more interesting if you heard, “I’m pregnant with a cogwheel.”

The two most powerful civilisations in the Legion, the Katazyrnas and the Bhavajas, are fighting for possession of the Mokshi world-ship. In the Legion, only the Mokshi is capable of escaping the decay infecting the world-ships. Zan is revived once more in the hopes of leading a force to capture the Mokshi. With little memory of any previous attempts, Jayd and Sabita hint at a larger plan they have in play. A plan that would see Zan and Jayd take on the Lords of the Katazyrnas and the Bhavajas.

Last year I picked up Hurley’s collection of essays, The Geek Feminist Revolution. Since I enjoyed that book, I decided to read one of her novels. After leaving this review for several days, I’m still not exactly sure what to say about The Stars Are Legion.

The obvious place to start with is the world-building, what with how much of the novel is dedicated to it. Hurley manages to use Zan’s journey to world-build very effectively. It would be easy to point at the amnesia and epic journey tropes and shake your head admonishingly, but I felt that it worked well. The characters are similarly complex and develop in interesting ways, even if they are all damaged and murderous.* And there is never a dull moment where the characters aren’t in mortal danger.

I think the reason I’m not sure how I feel about The Stars Are Legion is that several factors scratched away at me as I was reading. Damaged characters can be hard to connect with. The fact that I’m calling the hero’s journey the world-building shows that I wasn’t quite invested in the journey/action. And I also found I knew several “reveals” before they happened.** These issues made me more along for the ride rather than strapped in and engaged.

That said, this was a refreshingly different kind of sci-fi novel for me. There is a lot to enjoy for those who like darker stories and characters.

* And they are all female. Every character. Which was a pretty cool idea that was a neatly integrated part of the world-building. Gotta be honest, this was satisfyingly unique.
** In fairness, this could just be that these “reveals” were established well rather than cynically concealed within a barrel of red herrings or subverted in a way that throws the plot out the window.

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Book review: The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato

The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global EconomyThe Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy by Mariana Mazzucato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What if I told you that we don’t measure most of the things we value in our economy?

Mariana Mazzucato sets out to show that when we talk about the economy we are only talking about certain parts of it (and of our society). She shows how the parts that are included is determined primarily by the history of economic thinking, ideology, and what’s currently making people rich. Mariana then argues that this is flawed and fails to account for several very important aspects of the economy to our current and future detriment.

I’ve read several economics books over the past year that have addressed the failures of the neo-liberal economic ideology. The solid argumentation, countless references, piles of evidence, and rather obviousness of the problems leave me scratching my head as to why these books need to exist. Why isn’t this obvious to the various “experts” who are running our economy?

The Value of Everything is a very solid argument for rethinking the way we diminish the role of government in our economy. The current “get out of the way while we’re making money, but bail us out when we mess up”* approach is clearly wrong. I’ve heard the very charismatic arguments from the likes of Friedman on why free markets are the way to go, and I thought Mariana’s rebuttals to those arguments were good if a bit too charitable.** But it is clear that governments have a long history of being the innovators, investing early, creating the value that business then exploits, and without that, we’re going to see things fall in a heap.

Well worth a read so we can all start to take off our neo-liberal ideological goggles.

* Privatise profits, socialise losses.
** Worth reading this piece on the Virginian School, a more extreme version of Friedman’s Chicago School for some context as to how the “Free Market” is a con to turn the masses into slaves.

See also:
Curing Affluenza – this has a similar upbeat “fixing” approach to our current system.
Utopia for Realists – takes a different approach and suggests a different system may be needed.
Austerity: History of a dangerous idea – similarly documents some of the failures of neo-liberalism and how it is ideologically driven.

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We’ve stopped reading… Apparently.

Have you ever run across one of those opinion pieces where you understand exactly where the author is coming from but realise they are shaking the wrong end of the stick?

Well, I found one of those pieces on how people have stopped reading novels. Apparently.

The article starts strongly, outlining the evidence for the argument. We get to hear about the “many” conversations that the author has had that confirm their belief.

I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?

I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.

I’m obviously overwhelmed with this high-quality anecdata. The $122 billion publishing industry, which is expected to grow by 6% by 2023, is bound to just give up now and stop releasing books.

But don’t worry, the author has more evidence…

My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.

While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.

I was finding less and less I wanted to read.

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So obviously, the author of this piece is clearly and utterly wrong. They do, however, touch on something important I’d like to discuss. But before I do… I need to say something.

These kinds of unresearched posts written by influential opinion havers annoy me. How hard is it to fact check your uninformed pubinion (get it, pub + opinion) before letting it out into the world? Couldn’t you just keep this sort of uninformed blathering confined to a drunken evening with your mates who won’t remember it in the morning? I mean, check any data on reading, any data on books sales, any data from readers, and you’ll see there are plenty of people reading novels.

But sure, one writer for The Guardian (and elsewhere) and a few their mates haven’t read a book lately, so its all over. Sound The Last Post and bring in the flags, we’re done here.

Really makes you want to start hunting people for sport… I kid, I kid.*

I think a big part of the problem with this argument is that the author doesn’t recognise the actual issue. They burnt out on reading a very specific type of sci-fi/fantasy novel. Yes, they might complain about the bad self-published novels ruining the industry – did I mention they used to write for The Guardian? – but it is clear they don’t read very widely. If I was reading half-a-dozen literary sci-fi/fantasy novels a month, I’d probably be removing any sharp objects from my house to alleviate any spur of the moment desires.

Would it have hurt them to branch out and read some non-literary sci-fi/fantasy? Maybe mix in some romance, crime, western, graphic novels, something, anything, just to have a change of pace. For myself, as much as I love sci-fi, I read just as many fantasies, crime, thriller, horror, philosophy, and non-fiction titles.

This is part of why I dislike the book warden and worthy approach to reading. Those “great books” cause burnout. People stop enjoying reading and engage in other forms of entertainment. The article author mentions several of these, such as the competition from digital and social media, and the rise of prestige television. And to some extent this is happening already, people aren’t reading books because the novels they are told are the important or best ones to read aren’t as interesting as gaming, or TV, or movies.

By not identifying the actual problem it becomes very easy to lay the blame in exactly the wrong place. Let’s blame Dan Brown. How dare he entertain people with his terrible books. Let’s blame self-publishing. How dare authors release the equivalent of pulp novels onto the market. Let’s blame all those books I refuse to read as the reason I’m not reading. But the problem is the “great books” mentality and sticking to only one type of “worthy” novel.

The author wants a revolution in the industry to bring about the novel equivalent that “Mad Men or Breaking Bad” were to TV. But I’d suggest they would miss the revolution. They’ve walled themselves off in one specific sub-genre, complaining about how there aren’t enough shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, that they missed Deadwood, The Wire, and literally every other show.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to acknowledge that there is more to novels than the ones marked “Literary Snob Approved”.**

* Although, you might want to start running, and don’t forget your haversack and hunting knife.

** Also known as Award Winning.

Book review: Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff

Summon the Keeper (Keeper Chronicles #1)Summon the Keeper by Tanya Huff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You can check-in, but you may never leave.

Claire Hansen is a Keeper drawn to the run-down Elysian Fields Guest House. When she arrives, the owner forges her signature on the deeds and does a runner, leaving her in charge of one employee, one permanent guest, one ghost, and one gateway to hell. With the help of her cat, Austin, she might be able to figure out how to close the gateway. Or she might be stuck there forever.

For our wedding anniversary, we went shopping at a specialist sci-fi and fantasy bookstore. My purchase was the Keeper Chronicles. Yeah, we know how to celebrate. We’re kinky. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tanya Huff, but I was promised a fun story with humour. I think it is fair to say Summon the Keeper delivered on that promise.

The book meanders along, introducing characters, having those characters banter with one another, introducing a few random elements, and generally giving you the feeling that you’re just reading a series of scenes. Then Huff ties everything together in an exciting and fast-paced finale that almost blindsides you. I think that feeling of meandering through the bulk of the story is the only reason I’m not diving straight into the next instalment in the series.

Overall, I enjoyed this paranormal – or is that urban fantasy – novel and will be reading the rest of the Keeper Chronicles in the coming months.

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Book vs Movie: Eyes Wide Shut – What’s the Difference?

If you like Christmas movies, then CineFix have a book and movie for you in this month’s What’s the Difference?

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At the risk of offending Kubrick fans, I must confess that I do not care for his movies.

Now, before you launch into a flurry of keyboard mashing, I’m not saying that Kubrick is a bad filmmaker. It is clear that he was an amazing visual storyteller. But as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always found Kubrick films to be somewhat bland.

That said, I can appreciate what he is trying to do with his films… Usually, this appreciation comes after some wonks with a film degree walk me through it (see video below). But that doesn’t really increase my enjoyment of his films.

As to the book, I’ve not read this one. It doesn’t sound like the sort of novel I would normally read, but would probably offer a more clear understanding of the themes of the story.

Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition by Grant Hardy

Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual TraditionGreat Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition by Grant Hardy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Study extensively, inquire carefully, ponder thoroughly, sift clearly, and practice earnestly.” Zhu Xi

The Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition is a 36 lecture course covering the influential philosophers and thinkers of India, China, Korea, and Japan. Much like the Western version of this series, the aim is to give a brief overview and insight into a range of people and intellectual schools stretching from the ancient times to the modern-day.

When I finished the Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, I tried to find an equivalent version covering the Eastern Intellectual Tradition. It appears Grant Hardy had been thinking the same thing and put this course together. There is so much material to cover here that you can’t help but be impressed by the endeavour.

Unlike the western version, Hardy is the sole lecturer for this course. That is both a strength and a weakness. Where the other course had some ups and downs in the quality of lectures, Hardy was consistent and maintained a throughline for the series. But it also meant you weren’t presented with a singular expert on any of the topics to offer a range of perspectives and insights. In this way, the material felt a little more shallow.

The strength of this series is the general overview of the Eastern philosophical, religious, and intellectual history. Hardy also recommended some texts (aside from the included course notes) to help with further study. This course is well worth undertaking as a general overview.

From the course overview:
When compared with the West, Eastern philosophical thought is much more inextricably linked with spiritual concepts and beliefs. To help you make sense of the unfamiliar nature of Eastern philosophy and its strong ties with spirituality, Professor Hardy has organized this course into four basic parts.

  • Part One traces the origins of Eastern philosophy in the cosmological and theological views that arose in India and China beginning around 1200 B.C., including Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Daoism.
  • Part Two explores the famous developers of legalism, Mahayana and Chinese Buddhism, yoga, and other intellectual schools that emerged during the age of early Eastern empires and built on the foundations of the past.
  • Part Three focuses on the great thinkers who flourished starting in the early 12th century, many of whose schools of thought—including Sikhism, Vedanta Hinduism, and Neo-Confucianism—revolutionized cultural notions of society, aesthetics, and faith.
  • Part Four delves into the modern era, when the convergence of East and West spurred the development of philosophical beliefs that became even more politicized and blended with independence movements and that reacted to ideologies such as Communism and capitalism.

Throughout your chronological journey, you’ll spend a majority of time among the three major countries that form the core of the Eastern intellectual tradition, exploring their unique philosophical themes and spiritual paths.

    • India: The concepts of reincarnation, cosmic justice, and liberation; a focus on logical analysis and direct insight (often achieved through yoga or meditation); the union of religion and politics; and more.
    • China: A constant appeal to the past in guiding the present; practical views that highlight harmony, balance, and social order; a keen appreciation of the cycles of nature; a form of politics that balances legal constraints with personal ethics; and more.
    • Japan: The adaptation and transformation of Confucianism; a distinct philosophy of aesthetics; a focus on group identity and consensus; an openness to adaptation from the Western world; and more.

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The top 10 books people claim to read but haven’t

There’s a famous quote from one of my favourite thinkers, Bertrand Russell, on reading. He posits that the two reasons for reading are for enjoyment and that you can boast about having read something.

quote-there-are-two-motives-for-reading-a-book-one-that-you-enjoy-it-the-other-that-you-can-boast-bertrand-russell-263575

Let’s face it, he was correct.

I’ve previously discussed the reading statistics that show we primarily read for enjoyment but also seem to feel obliged to read other books (particularly literary titles). Actually, I’ve discussed this issue a lot. The anecdata back this up, with early e-reader adopters being the romance and erotica fans who could now read on the bus to work. We just don’t like to be seen enjoying the books we enjoy.

So it should come as no surprise that people like to pretend they’ve read certain books. The Guardian posted this survey of readers (although I can’t find the source) listing off everyone’s favourite reading cred books, you know, the ones you claim to have read but fell asleep at page 2.

A recent survey of 2,000 people suggests that the majority of people pretend to have read classic books in order to appear more intelligent, with more than half of those polled displaying unread books on their shelves and 3% slipping a highbrow cover on books they’d rather not be seen reading in public.

The books most likely to be lied about are, naturally, the books most often filmed, talked about and studied in school (some of the respondents must have been lying since GCSE onwards). Are any of them in your pretend-I’ve-read/never-finished pile, or do you save your literary fibbing for Finnegans Wake and Infinite Jest? Share your guilty secrets below.

1) 1984 by George Orwell (26%)

I have actually read 1984. Some people like to announce that 1984 is our current reality, which shows they haven’t read it or are fond of hyperbole. I enjoyed it, but I can see how people would battle to read this one. Worth a read if only to see how people seem to mash 1984 and Brave New World together.

2) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (19%)

I got to about page 8 of War and Peace. I have no intention of revisiting it. People always talk about battling through it in small chunks because it is such an important and blah blah blah book. If it was really important it wouldn’t have been so boring as to necessitate reading it in small chunks.

3) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (18%)

I watched the old black and white film, does that count? No? Oh well, I don’t care.

4) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (15%)

I’ve read this novel many times and hated it every single time.

Why reread a novel you hate?

Well, reader surrogate, The Catcher in the Rye is one of those “classics”. You’re meant to love it, or feel moved, or something. Smart people like it, so I must, ipso facto, be a dummy for not enjoying the brilliance of this book. So every 5 or so years I feel the urge to see if I missed something the other times I read it.

I don’t think I missed anything.

Although, John Green did manage to convince me of its literary merits via Crash Course Literature, not that I’ll bother revisiting this novel.

5) A Passage to India by EM Forster (12%)

I can honestly say I’ve never heard of this book.

6) Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (11%)

Okay, okay, I’ll come clean. I only read this book after seeing the first movie in the theatre. In my defence, I tried reading the Hobbit when I was younger and then realised I had so much more to live for and stopped reading.

I really enjoyed the book, but it was long and waffly and I can see why others wouldn’t actually finish it. The narrative structure in parts is also poorly done. In a modern book, those separate threads would be told concurrently rather than one thread at a time with big jumps backward for the next thread. Unlike some 1,000 page novels, this one is worth a look.

7) To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee (10%)

I don’t claim to have read this one, but I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it yet either. I’ve even got two copies, a DTB and an ebook.

8) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (8%)

[Insert joke about book title being equivalent to reading said book]

9) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (8%)

I’m going to read the zombie version. I know, I know. Sacrilege.

10) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5%)

I’m not really interested in reading this. My wife isn’t a fan, but my sister is. No offence to my sister, but I’m taking my wife’s recommendation not to bother.

Bonus: Infinite Jest.

I recently started reading Infinite Jest and gave up. I mean, a book weighing in at one thousand pages had better have a gripping/engaging first chapter to encourage me. Wallace was lauded for this novel, but I think it needed to get to the damned point.*

tldr

The point I’d like to make is that there is no reason to read any of these books. Sure, some of them are great. You might enjoy some or all of them. You might hate some or all of them. But you don’t need to pretend to have read them.

And it is worth noting that many literary influences transcend their medium. You don’t necessarily have to read a book to have a working knowledge of the plot or themes. I’m reminded of a scene from Star Trek where one character criticises Picard for chasing his white whale. Picard acknowledges the point by quoting a relevant line from the book, a book that character hadn’t read. In that moment, despite Picard’s encyclopedic knowledge of the book, he needed someone else to point out the moral of the story.

Enjoy reading. Don’t feel as though you have to read.

* I’m not the only one who thought this:

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was a definitely finite jest: I think there might have been a good novel encased somewhere in all that dross of self-indulgence, like a Michaelangelo statue trapped in a slab of marble, but Wallace’s editor evidently couldn’t be bothered to chisel the thing out.

Book vs Movie: It’s A Wonderful Life – What’s the Difference?

In this month’s What’s the Difference, CineFix breakdown how a short story was adapted into a feature-length classic.

I’ve never quite understood this film’s popularity. It always struck me as only okay, yet so many Americans regard it as a beloved classic.

Then it dawned on me. Americans. This is an American thing. Like Wendy’s or school shootings.

The actual story around It’s A Wonderful Life becoming a classic is even more fascinating than just the cultural phenomenon involved.

When it was released, the movie was regarded as a saccharine dud. Post-war audiences and critics just weren’t interested. As a result, when the movie studio was due to renew the copyright in 1974, they kinda forgot. TV networks pounced on the free content like a coal billionaire with a SLAPP suit. They loved having a free Xmas movie that they could screen during the non-ratings period holidays. And audiences who had nothing better to do gained an appreciation for a movie that wasn’t a thinly veiled advert or yet another retelling of the life of Jesus on a shoestring budget.

It’s interesting that all it takes to make something a beloved classic is to give it the chance to find its audience. Time and again we see this happen. So much art has fallen through the cracks, not because it wasn’t good, but because it was never given a chance to be read, watched, or appreciated by the people who would enjoy it.

Maybe we need more art entering the public domain far sooner than current copyright laws allow.

If you love Frank Capra’s holiday season classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, then you’re in luck! It’s probably going to be on TV 24/7 for the next month or so. In the meantime, check out how Jimmy Stewart’s “careful what you wish for” cautionary tale was born out of a meager 40 page book entitled The Greatest Gift. Turns out, fleshing out a crazy short story into over two hours of Christmas time magic on screen took quite a lot.

School Literature

A recent article in The Conversation caused a bit of a stir. Titled Old white men dominate school English booklists. It’s time more Australian schools taught Australian books it was bound to ruffle some easily offended feathers.

The article itself was a fairly standard call for greater diversity in school texts. It’s an old discussion that is apparently taking a fair bit of time to leak through to the sorts of people who follow The Conversation to post opinionated comments but don’t read their articles. I’ve covered it here with the worthiness, important books, snobbery, guilty pleasures arguments and the PBS It’s Lit series (particularly this episode).

The basic gist of the article is that it would be really nice if some of the additions to the school book list were actually being taught to kids. We’re still seeing the same old “favourites” being taught, mainly because they’ve always been taught so there are plenty of SparkNotes on them.

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The audacious dream is to expose kids to more authors, diversity of texts, and some of the other great books that weren’t written by a dude wearing a ruff. I’d hope that this more diverse array of texts will inspire a lifelong love of reading by showing kids that there is more to reading than a couple of 400-year-old plays and some poetry that even poets regard as pretentious.

What was interesting was the response on social media and in the comments.

There aren’t any great female and people of colour authors!! I’d have learned about them in school if there were!! Stop being racist and sexist against white men!!

Arguments like this are, of course, said without a hint of irony.*

These arguments are always frustrating. The traditionalism argument about how great these authors are ignores how those texts make it onto the syllabus in the first place and that literally no one wants to take them off anyway. It also feeds into the larger problem of Book Wardens, who suck all the fun out of reading. I want to make a joke about crusty old vampires ruining reading, but they sparkle now, so they’d make it fabulous.

There is also the reactionary culture warrior aspect to this argument. Quick, someone who knows more about this subject suggested we make a change for the better: Man the keyboards, all caps the objections, haul out the canards!

These brave warriors are the last defenders against those evil thinkers and knowers. Only they can protect society from people who would dare to acknowledge there are other decent books worth reading.

In some respects, they remind me of the Literati who bravely defend Fort Literature from the invading hordes of the Lesser Works. As I’ve pointed out previously, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides deciding what is literary.

These reactionary culture warriors aren’t necessarily siding with the Literarti so much as reinforcing the status quo. They like the nice ye-old definition of literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society. But it isn’t a good definition as it is more about what a certain group of people like. And that certain group holds the power, which the reactionary culture warriors need to defend at all costs!**

Maybe if these warriors (and literati) were to actually read some of the other great books they might learn something.

* Said on the internet, the greatest information resource in history, no less. But worse, the article and people like myself were pointing out the problems with their arguments. It’s like trying to lead a horse to a glue factory and they are refusing to acknowledge they were too slow for racing.

** The reason why is interesting. For some, it is just about “change bad”. For some, it is about pwning the libs, which as far as I can tell appears to be anyone who has read a book since high school. For others, it is about sucking up to those with power or influence in the hopes they will be rewarded in some way. This seems like an odd position to take given the topic at hand, but it has to be about the only time I’ve seen an Arts Professor lauded for their support of (insert classic literary text here). We live in strange times.

Book review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo CityZoo City by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes the albatross around your neck is alive.

Zinzi December is scraping by finding lost things and writing email scams to pay off her debts. Her life as a Zoo, someone magically saddled with an animal for their misdeeds (a sloth), in South Africa is a struggle to stay afloat. When one of her clients is murdered she is offered a job finding a lost teen pop-idol. The money is too good. The job isn’t.

It’s been a few years since I met Lauren at a writers festival. In that time I’ve read several of her books, including The Shining Girls and her collection of short stories. She always manages to bring something fresh to the page. If I was to tell you that characters in this book have a spirit animal magically tied to them you’d immediately think His Dark Materials. Well, no, nothing like that at all. In The Shining Girls, there was time travel. Nope, not in the way you’re thinking. And that is the skill Lauren brings to the page.

Zoo City is a compelling read. The world feels dirty and nasty inhabited with characters who are hustling or surviving. And the missing person case is a great excuse to traipse through this world. But this strength is also why some people may not enjoy the book. After spending some time in Zoo City you feel in need of a shower and there is a sense of hopelessness or nihilism. Best to know that going in or this could turn you off.

I’m looking forward to reading Lauren’s other novels.

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Book review: Tripwire by Lee Child

Tripwire  (Jack Reacher, #3)Tripwire by Lee Child

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m going to refrain from making any applause or hot jokes. We need that like a nail in the head.

Reacher is digging swimming pools in Florida when a private detective comes looking for him. Later that day two thugs come looking for him as well and he finds the detective dead. This motivates Reacher to go to New York to find out what is going on. Who is looking for him? And what has that got to do with MIA Vietnam soldiers?

This was the second time I’ve read Tripwire. The first time I thought it was enjoyable but not one of the best in the series. I think that judgement still holds but is slightly less enjoyable for a second read. I think part of the problem was that this is a much earlier novel in the series so it felt somewhat less polished in its execution compared to the tight prose Lee is known for. But Tripwire is also early enough in the series that some of the superhuman aspects of Reacher have not yet surfaced.*

Something else I noticed was the ending. It would not surprise me if Tripwire marks the end of Lee’s first publishing contract. There is a feeling that he was writing a potentially final instalment. It’s a bit funny when you know how many more Reacher adventures there are and how at odds Tripwire’s ending is with that.

I wonder how I will feel about Bad Luck And Trouble or 61 Hours now?**

Tripwire was enjoyable but certainly not peak Reacher.

* Which is ironic given the ending. Although, that ending is very plausible. There was a well-known bodybuilder who experienced a similar incident with the same results for the same reasons.

** I’ve re-read a few books of late (E.g. Ice Station). Some haven’t been as entertaining, but others have been just as good, if not better upon a second (or third, in several cases fourth and fifth) read(s). I am noticing a pattern to which ones are better and which aren’t. This may be something I will have to assess in greater detail at some stage.

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Book review: Sartre – Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

Sartre: Philosophy in an HourSartre: Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So little time to give meaning to life.

The Philosophy in an Hour series is written to give a brief overview of a philosopher’s life, some key points about their work, and a recommended reading list for more insights. This Jean-Paul Sartre instalment covers the famous existentialist, some anecdotes about his life, particularly as it relates to his open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, and the barest of insights into his contributions to philosophy.

Having started down the road of philosophical learning with Soren Kirkegaard several years ago, I was well overdue to read some Sartre. I’m not sure this is the place I should have started. While it was conveniently available from my local library, it was somewhat lacking.

While I do appreciate the biographical aspects that appear to be part and parcel of every philosophy course and textbook, this is where Strathern starts to inject his views on Sartre. He continues to do this in his thoughts on Sartre’s work.* When Bertrand Russell does this it comes across as witty, snarky, and probably deserved. When Strathern does it he comes across as childish and distracting.

I think my biggest criticism was that this book felt lacking in substance and critical insights. I was probably after something a little more substantial as an overview, along the lines of a university lecture. For those wanting a short biographical overview with a few ideas sprinkled in, this would probably hit the mark.

* E.g. He mockingly describes Sartre’s existentialism and his insights. Strathern describes Sartre as a brilliant thinker, but also a pretentious windbag. One way he did this was by saying Sartre spent 1933 in Germany studying the ”phenomena” of existence. That was the year Adolf Hitler came to power, but Sartre was too busy pondering existence to take much notice of reality, a condition that stayed with him for the rest of his life. An easy criticism to make but also an ignorant one if you understand that Berlin was a mecca for thinkers, cultures, and artists until after Hitler came to power.

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Book review: Superhuman by Evan Currie

Superhuman (Superhuman, #1)Superhuman by Evan Currie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Little known fact: just about everyone has been in the military. Apparently.

Former Marine, Captain Alex Hale, is meeting up with his mates/buddies. They are all ex-military and now love to catch up to wear leathers and go biking. The two local bikie gangs have chosen the same night and location to go to war with one another. They roll on the same campgrounds, armed, and ready for mayhem. Just as the shooting starts something intervenes. When the survivors awake, they have been changed. They are now Superhuman.

A few chapters into this novel I pulled out my phone to check some details. Not my usual fact-checking (although, there was need of that too), but to see who had published this novel. The answer didn’t surprise me.

My biggest criticism of this book is that it felt like a first draft, not a completed novel. Throughout there were so many little things that hadn’t been tidied up that it brought a lot of other problems into view. Normally you wouldn’t notice those issues because this novel is quite fast-paced and entertaining. If only more effort had been put in this could have been a really good action story. Instead, it feels like a let-down.

And I have to mention the genetics mistakes. There is one scene with “scientists” rabbiting on about gene editing, DNA, and various other sciency sounding stuff. It would have been nice if those “scientists” had at least read the Wikipedia article on Non-Coding DNA before talking about it. I mean, Wiki is right there for everybody. You don’t even have to mortgage your house to buy a genetics textbook.

I’m being generous with the 3 Stars because Superhuman was quite fun to read, especially the last third of the book. But Superhuman felt amateurish and the material deserved better.

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Book review: The Cult of Osiris by Andy McDermott

The Cult of Osiris (Nina Wilde & Eddie Chase, #5)The Cult of Osiris by Andy McDermott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

M: Is there anything you haven’t blown up?
N&E: Pyramids.
M: Wanna go to Eygpt?

After their last adventure, Nina has been disgraced and is out of work, while Eddie is playing bodyguard to entitled movie stars. Things are looking depressing until an undergraduate on a dig in Eygpt sees something she shouldn’t have and turns to Nina for help. In no time at all, they are all running for their lives from a dangerous new cult. What secrets does the dig hold that is worth killing for?

It’s been two years since my last Nina and Eddie adventure. I commented in that review how comforting it is to slip back into one of these novels. Andy manages to combine outlandish action, ridiculous plots, larger than life bad guys, a spot of humour, and manages to keep you on the edge of your seat. Many try to do this and fail. Andy manages to do it with the amp cranked to eleven.

The Cult of Osiris was very much like that experience. It was exactly the right kind of fun I needed. This was one of several Andy McDermott novels I bought to fill in the instalments I’ve missed. It was interesting to come back to an earlier adventure after having read several later ones. Artefact-McGuffin-Adventure novels are hard to do this well, but every Nina and Eddie adventure has managed to be extremely fun to read.

Good thing I have some more on my shelf to read.

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Book review: Thirteen by Richard K Morgan

ThirteenThirteen by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When society stops being violent someone will try to genetically re-engineer violence.

Carl Marsalis is a specialist bounty hunter. Genetically engineered and indoctrinated from birth to be a dangerous weapon, he now hunts others like him. After landing in prison in the wrong part of the former USA – Jesusland – he is seconded to track down someone who is killing his way across the former USA after eating his way through the crew of a Mars-to-Earth flight. But the cannibal seems to be a step ahead of the game and not picking targets at random. It’s as though he has help and is possibly working for someone as their hitman.

After recently finishing the Altered Carbon series, I decided to see what other Morgan novels I could get my hands on. Thirteen promised to be similar to Altered Carbon. The setting was similarly cyber-punk, the mystery/detective narrative is front and centre, and Marsalis likes to get violent and have sex with any and all female characters.

But where Altered Carbon used those elements in a compelling way, Thirteen was too indulgent with them. The novel feels padded out and runs far too long. This leads to pacing problems, with some sections really bogging down. The charisma of Kovacs is not present in Marsalis, despite their similarities, so you don’t feel the same thrill from him dispatching a bad guy or having the love interest* throw herself at him.

I think I could have forgiven those aspects a bit more if it weren’t for the “conversations” between characters about genetics. These were long discussions that bashed the reader with the point. I’d have had less of a problem with them if they weren’t quite so wrong on the science. The “conversations” amounted to telling us that we are essentially only our genetics. That’s not only nonsense (GxExM is how we discuss genetics in science) but is pretty much spouting modern-day scientific racism.**

That point is particularly ironic given the obvious analogies for racism and backward thinking being drawn. “Look at how backward these religious bigots are. Look at how badly they treat black people. Hey, check out my thinly veiled racism disguised as science!” I don’t know if I missed something, but this really did read to me as admonishing racism whilst justifying it as not something we can get over. If that was Morgan’s point, then it would have been great if he could have done it in about 150 pages less.

With all that said, this was still enjoyable and I am looking forward to reading more from Morgan.

* I’m being overly flippant and critical here. Sevgi Ertekin is a fairly well-developed character but her role does appear to be just the love interest and character motivation.

** Yes, scientific racism is back. Modern-day phrenology comes in many forms. Often it is IQ studies and hereditarianism, sometimes it is labelled Human Biodiversity (HBD), other times it will be straight up eugenicists and white nationalists. Reading about its insidious creep into academia and mainstream discourse is sickening.

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Book vs Movie: The Wizard of Oz – What’s the Difference?

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A cinematic classic versus its literary classic in this month’s What’s the Difference from CineFix.

The Wizard of Oz movie is definitely a film that I think is deserving of being called okay. With the list of highly memorable song and the amazing use of colour, you can see why this film is so perfectly adequate entertainment for a rainy Sunday.

Return to Oz came out when I was young. Unlike its predecessor, it was more faithful to the books and kept their much darker and nastier tone. This, of course, meant that reviewers and other opinion havers* thought it was terrible and not suitable for children… Despite being more faithful to the kids’ books it was based upon.

I never really got into the Oz books as a kid. They were no Magic Faraway Tree, so they lost my interest almost immediately. I feel as though I should revisit them now as a sleep-deprived parent to give them a more fair assessment. Or maybe I’ll just see what land has arrived at the top of the tree this month.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, and neither was the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. The 1939 classic turns 80 this year, so it’s time to look back at Dorothy and Toto’s journey from the pages of L. Frank Baum’s book, to the glorious technicolor screens of the movie. So gather your courage, you Cowardly Lions, open up those Tin Man hearts and pick your Scarecrow brains because it’s time to ask, What’s the Difference?!

* Ha-ha, I did an irony.

Book review: Game of Mates by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters

Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the NationGame of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation by Cameron Murray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t want to see the final season of Game of Mates, I’ve heard the entire thing falls flat.

Cameron Murray and Professor Paul Frijters set out to expose the inner workings of the Australian economy in Game of Mates. Through a series of case studies, they outline how a few (the Jameses) take from the many (the Bruces) by blurring the line between business and the regulators. Then, knowing that their readers will be suitably gobsmacked and annoyed, call for the masses (Bruces) to make a change.

As with any book about real-life grifting in the halls of power, this book made me annoyed and disillusioned. There is nothing more galling than to have someone show you how the grift is endemic and then realise you kinda knew. We kinda all know. There is no surprise here. And that means there is no “justice”. Cue scene of me staring out the window as rain drips down it.

Murray and Frijters conclude with some ways to stop the grift:

1) Reclaim the value of grey gifts for the public.
Essentially, when the grifters rig the system they gift themselves advantage/money/power. We have to tear that down. One example was Public-Private Partnerships on infrastructure developments, which essentially end up being a gift of public assets to private businesses with a guaranteed profit underwritten by the public.

2) Disrupt (James’) the grifters’ coordination.
This is fairly obvious, stop the revolving door between public and private interests, put in oversight, make sure the oversight isn’t part of the problem, etc.

3) Bust the myths (James) the grifters use.
This isn’t just about addressing the claims cherry-picked “experts” will make, such as promoting projects that aren’t needed (examples are given, there are plenty). This is also about reclaiming the narrative from these grifters. In Australia, this is particularly difficult as many of the media outlets are either owned or have close links to the same people grifting.

4) Fight back.
Disillusion can lead to apathy. That’s what keeps us on the losing end.

Speaking of the losing end, the costs of this game are:

  • New Housing – 70% of the gains from rezoning;
  • Transportation infrastructure – 68% of the investment;
  • Superannuation – 27% gobbled up;
  • Mining – 48% of the profits;
  • Banking – 60% more expensive for the masses;
  • Taxes – 23% extra taxation borne by the masses (I’ve seen a figure suggesting this is a global issue and sees the average person taxed proportionally more);
  • Pharmacies, medicines, and health – 10% more expensive;
  • Higher education – 100% more expensive…

Okay, so clearly this book hit the mark and is enlightening. Why only three stars, I hear someone say? Well, while I appreciate your question, I’m wondering what you’re doing in my house.

I think the problem I had with this book was the polemic style to it. We are told. I listed the figures above, and whilst those numbers are backed up, they are big claims that require fairly solid evidence. I felt the evidence was a bit flimsy. Not wrong, but maybe selective, or misrepresentative.

Another example was around how to stop the revolving door which amounted to banning people from getting a different job in the same industry. That’s probably not as well thought out as it needs to be.

Game of Mates is worth reading but it felt underdone.

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