Dracula – Bram Stoker
I’ve seen a few people saying they struggled with Dracula, particularly the slow middle. I enjoyed it overall, but I see where this is coming from.
The key problem is that the main characters – each taking turns writing in various documents – can come off a little, well, dim. When someone is losing blood, has puncture marks on their neck, and seems to do better with garlic plants placed in their bedroom… come on, are you really going to dance around the V-word for a hundred pages? And not immediately realise what’s up when someone else gets lethargic? There’s dramatic irony, and then there’s wondering if the cast has lead poisoning.
But it’s a classic for a reason. There are striking passages, as well as a looming unholy threat deeper than some more modern vampire fiction. The Victorian religious context raises the stakes (lol) higher than the mere threat of dying or becoming a sparkly emo. Undeath is a curse, trapping a soul in a state inimical to the laws of God and man, barred from heaven and casting ruin on the earth.
Renfield’s spider thing is grim as hell, when things get going they do get going, and I liked the dry humour of workmen hinting for a liquid bribe – ‘dusty work’ indeed. If you like Victorian writing or vampires, here’s the obvious place to go.
Also, there’s some interesting stuff in this edition’s (Penguin 2003) appendices. Nobody has ever had less chill than Stoker in his gushing letter to Walt Whitman.
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
A series of murders in a monastery in 1327, investigated by William of Baskerville and his assistant Adso. William must attempt to solve the case before a papal legation arrives for an important meeting on a matter of doctrine dividing the church and setting the peasantry against the nobility.
This is far from a straight thriller. Eco focuses deeply on the historical and theological context, with long debates on philosophy – heresy, ownership, semiotics. William’s detective work does showcase puzzle-solving talents, while the murders strike tension, but the pace is moderated by an immersion in medieval monastic concerns that, while definitely interesting and insightful, can get a bit obsessive.
At one point Adso, the narrator, spends pages describing the outside of a door. The book itself opens with Eco pretending, in detail, that he didn’t actually write it, but found a French translation of Adso’s original Latin text. So what? And why leave so much Latin untranslated – is Eco showing off his intellect as William does?
Perhaps the book would’ve benefited from some trimming – but not too much. If this was just a fast-paced historical thriller it wouldn’t have its depth of immersion, its portrait of divisions and power struggles on every level, or its grasp on character and psychology.
William and Adso are a brilliant monastic Holmes and Watson, and watching them figure out the way through a labyrinth is fun. I appreciated the rich context and broader concerns behind the sleuthing, but some of it is a bit dense.
How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them – Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman
(H/t Michael James)
A fun read, with great examples of how to do things wrong and plenty of jokes.
Take this line from a passage parodying Russian literature: “Come, let us go to another room and slowly reveal to each other our unhappinesses!”, or this warning on shady agencies: ‘If an agent is charging you a fee to read your book, you would probably do just as well responding to that intriguing e-mail from Nigeria.’
All the key bases are covered: plot, character, dialogue, setting, aspects of style; as well as a range of more specific issues, like ways to prevent characters having access to a phone.
Some points felt a bit old fashioned – implying younger readers ‘may be under the vague impression that cell phones were invented by Galileo’, stating that self-publishing is only a success story if you end up offered a book deal.
Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation – Grace Blakeley
A rigorous but fairly accessible analysis of the financial sector. Blakeley explains why it took its current extractive and speculation-laden form, how it led to the crash, and the failings of austerity, providing bold, detailed suggestions for where to go from here.
I learned a lot from Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, but thought it shied away from the radical implications of its own content. This is rather the opposite.
Financialised capitalism may be a uniquely extractive way of organising the economy, but this is not to say that it represents the perversion of an otherwise sound model. Rather, it is a process that has been driven by the logic of capitalism itself.
Stolen keeps class at the centre of analysis, explaining how policies and models follow on from power structures, reacting to the struggle between labour and capital.
The outline of the 1970s discontents and Thatcher’s rise provides a compelling narrative of the contradictions of social democracy – a system aiming to maintain a stalemate between classes – falling apart, paving the way for neoliberalism. Thatcher locked in a new regime for decades through detailed strategy, including promoting home ownership with rising asset prices to secure a ‘mini-capitalist’ base in the middle class.
The financialisation of the firm provided an immediate fix to the profitability crisis of the 1970s – a fix built on the repression of wages and productive investment. [States] deregulated their banking sectors in order to give households greater access to credit and expand asset ownership [to] disguise the chronic shortfall in demand finance-led growth threatened to create, and to make the system politically sustainable.
But that housing bubble eventually had to burst, didn’t it? Meaning that the reality of stagnation is no longer hidden by the bubble, and old ideas are new again.
Blakeley wants to conduct an inverse Thatcher. With wide-ranging financial reforms (counter-cyclical capital requirements for private banks to support balanced investment, a National Investment Bank supporting a Green New Deal, debt refinancing, etc) taking place alongside the development of a People’s Asset Manager and Citizen’s Wealth Fund, she hopes to rein in the sector’s excesses, improve most people’s living standards, and secure long-term support for an expanding system of collective, democratic ownership.
Very illuminating, though some typos tripped me up, and some of the points on capitalism vs. socialism could use more expanding to fully answer the concerns and questions a newcomer to this way of thinking would have.
Here’s a good interview on the book.