Book Reviews (12)

Books (12)

Natives: Race & Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala

Akala tells the story of race and class in his life – featuring interactions with police, violence growing up, racist experiences throughout his education – and places it in a wider social and historical context.

His deeply informed and nuanced analysis picks apart narratives of ‘black-on-black crime’ (were the Troubles or Glasgow’s gangs ‘white-on-white crime’?); exposes our shallow self-serving vision of the end of the slave trade (which omits the role of slave rebellions); reveals Cuba’s significance in fighting apartheid; and much more.

Akala uses history and data to place his own experiences in the context of a class-stratified society forged in racialised imperialism, and unable to face up to the reality of its past or present. All more clear and readable than I’m making it sound.

Here he is talking about this stuff.

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

In mainstream neoclassical economics, things are seen as valuable to the extent they fetch a price on the market – reflected through supply, demand, and marginal utility. Mazzucato contrasts this ‘marginalism’ with earlier theories of what value is, how it’s generated, and how it may be extracted – arguing that as economics largely stopped debating the meaning of value, it has become easier for value extraction to masquerade as value creation.

The financial sector fetches a price on the market, but much of it is hardly ‘productive’. Often profits are ‘justified’ by risk-taking, but most of the real risk is taken in prior public investment and not rewarded. Inflated medicine prices are unjustified by research costs, and the argument their prices are high in proportion to benefit to society is false and has unacceptable implications (how expensive should water be?).

The public sector is undervalued, making it more vulnerable to capture by supposed ‘wealth creators’. Short-termism is incentivised, with firms spending astronomical sums on share buy-backs to please shareholders (instead of wages and investment). GDP has bizarre holes – if a company cleans up its own pollution that’s a cost which reduces GDP, if someone else is paid to clean up then GDP rises because paying workers adds value!

Marginalism is riddled with problems. Mazzucato doesn’t present a new alternative theory of value – the book’s long enough, to be fair – but calls for renewed debate about it to give rise to better policy. She does have a range of reasonable prescriptions, like using a financial transaction tax to incentivise long-term investment, nationalising natural monopolies such as energy, and upholding ‘stakeholders’ rather than shareholders.

I’m no economist, but I couldn’t help feeling she kept dodging the implications for capitalism itself. If landlords extract value, while there are more empty homes than homeless people, should housing even be a market commodity you can earn money just by owning and renting out? Isn’t the logical endpoint of ‘stakeholders>shareholders’ (at very least) Jeff Bezos losing a great deal of ownership and influence to all those employees he’s got pissing in bottles? If value doesn’t really track price, might markets and the profit-motive be inherently problematic means of arranging production and exchange? Important questions, but the answers are taken for granted here.

Even the Dogs – Jon McGregor

A man’s body is found lying in his dilapidated flat. Those who knew him watch from the sidelines as he is investigated, their stories of homelessness and heroin addiction unfurling in a close, intense portrayal of troubled lives.

This can be difficult to read, not just because of the subject matter, but also because the chronology is stretched and shuffled, speech merging into narration, sentences occasionally fragmented and paragraphs tumbling out of control. But if you can stick with it, you come to find the rhythm of the prose and the story, with each crisply depicted moment and detail adding to something deeply compelling, informed, and empathic.

There are some fantastically beautiful evocative passages, and the darkness is tempered by the humanity of the characters and moments of humour – ‘I don’t think I’d even have mental health problems in the first place if the voices were just a bit nicer to me, you know what I’m saying?’

From Hell – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

A  t h i c c  graphic novel exploring the case of Jack the Ripper. More than a theory of occult conspiracy and a story of legendary violence, it’s also an inspired depiction of the Victorian world and the birth of the modern age, reflecting on power and our fascination with evil.

Campbell’s simple but expressive black-and-white imagery fits the time period, portraying vistas of London as well as graphic brutality. The style complements the mood of Moore’s writing, rendered in suitably rough font – though I sometimes wanted it a little clearer or bigger.

The story is fascinating and multi-layered, going beyond the murders themselves to delve into the police drama and to highlight the victims; who are treated as meaningful in themselves, and to whom the work is dedicated. All the characters are convincing, their interactions showing different perspectives and places in society, backed by research, understanding, and wit.

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May’s Departure and the ‘Human Level’

May resignation speech

Theresa May has announced her upcoming departure, in a speech (transcript) closing with tearful ‘enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.’

I found her speech really frustrating, and the ‘oh you’ve got to feel sorry for her, on a human level’ responses troubling.

If you feel for May in that moment, I can understand why – but bear with me here. I’m not asking you to harden your heart, but quite the opposite.

First, let’s look a bit at how she ‘served’ the country.

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For many years the great humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton — who saved the lives of hundreds of children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through the Kindertransport — was my constituent in Maidenhead.

At another time of political controversy, a few years before his death, he took me to one side at a local event and gave me a piece of advice.

He said: “Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.”

It’s too easy to harp on May’s pathological stubbornness in the face of that advice, so I’ll focus on the irony of her using this man in particular as anecdote fodder.

The Windrush scandal isn’t something a government rooted in the humanitarian ideals that motivated Kindertransport could be responsible for. British citizens were denied access to healthcare, made redundant, homeless, or deported – thanks in large part to May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, which sought to actively make the country unwelcoming, such as by sending vans round telling people to ‘go home’. Lovely!

Politico’s Jack Blanchard puts it plainly: ‘May has been badly exposed by the Windrush affair, which is difficult to see as anything other than the responsibility of whomever was home secretary between 2010 and 2016.’

What’s more, a report this year found that the Home Office was doing ‘as little, rather than as much, as possible to find and help people affected by its actions’. People are still suffering because of this – effectively because they’re the wrong colour.

That this scandal alone didn’t bring May’s career to an immediate and shameful end says something dark about us a nation. We think so little of people who came here, faced enormous prejudice, and spent their lives contributing to society.

I have striven to make the United Kingdom a country that works not just for a privileged few, but for everyone. […] I put proper funding for mental health at the heart of our NHS long-term plan.

Well then, she’s failed utterly, hasn’t she? By pretty much any standard inequality has ballooned. I mean, the DWP made someone starve to death. Even ‘I, Daniel Blake’ didn’t go quite that far.

UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s report on poverty in the UK makes for stark reading, with ‘2.8 million people living in poverty in families where all adults work full time. Families with two parents working full time at the national minimum wage are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child.’

Alston was right to say that ‘The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial [but] many of the problems could readily be solved if the Government were to acknowledge the problems and consider some of the recommendations[.]’ Routinely, May and her ministers shook their heads, laughed, or resorted to misleading stock phrases and massaged stats in response to the opposition et al raising these issues.

With Universal Credit linked to suicide risks, how can May claim to advocate for mental health?

I set up the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower

And the Fire Brigade Union’s response:

‘Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.’

72 deaths, no prosecutions.

the second female prime minister but certainly not the last.

This is a very ‘trickle down’ version of feminism, in which a woman leading is woke regardless of what she does.

The Tories love using Thatcher and May to virtue-signal about gender equality, even as their policies materially harm women and a high proportion of Tory MPs are men.

Whatever our background, the colour of our skin, or who we love. We stand together.

This is another purely performative statement. This solidarity applies unless you’re from Windrush, or poor, or disabled, or…

Oh, did you know the government deports LGBT asylum seekers to countries where their lives are at risk and tells them to ‘pretend to be straight’?

Aside from that, Theresa May is on your side.

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Journalist Owen Jones pointed out on Sky News that we should be feeling sympathy for the victims of May’s policies. To which the interviewer said, ‘You can’t just respond on a human level?’ But as Jones said – ‘I have’.

I’ve commented on my issues with civility-centered discourse before, and here it is again.

A political opponent isn’t a member of an opposing sports team, with the codes of sportsmanship and noblesse oblige which that implies. They have different values, and implement policy accordingly. It’s one thing to suggest a role for compromise and mutual understanding in the world, that we recognise the humanity of opponents and work together where appropriate. But if their policy leads to death and misery, we’re supposed to shake their blood-soaked hand at the end of the match as though it didn’t happen?

What is the appropriate way to respond on ‘a human level’ to someone responsible for mass misery and hardship weeping in their resignation speech? What could be appropriate but to center their victims?

YouTuber Mexie has discussed the distinction between the sort of flashy fast violence that’s easy to appreciate as such, and the more systemic, genteel type of violence that happens in offices distant from the scene.

It’s hard to grasp quite what May’s career has involved. This kind of violence can be abstract, passing through the rapid news cycle. Even reading the reports and checking the stats doesn’t do it justice.

Imagine May, during her speech, throwing a grenade into a crowd (selling weapons to Saudia Arabia, despite Yemen). Or imagine she took you from your house in the middle of the night in winter, and locked you in a cage outdoors to die of exposure (soaring homelessness). Or imagine she bundled you in a van and abandoned you in another country (unjust deportations).

Really think about it. See what I mean?

The only differences between the direct violence I’m asking you to imagine, and her government’s ruinous policies, are scale and ‘legitimacy’. It would have been better if May committed direct violence rather than stamping documents, since one person can’t inflict anywhere near as much harm as a state apparatus. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all.

How is lobbing a grenade in a crowd different from arming Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen? The latter kills more people. Would you ‘feel for’ the bomber being arrested? No? So why feel for an arms dealer resigning?

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The thing is, after all that, I still think Theresa May is a human. Of course she is, and due universal inalienable rights as such. Recognising that, though, doesn’t have to imply throwing all perspective out the window, to the point of ignoring the reality of her actions.

It’s hard to genuinely wrestle with the humanity of people you profoundly disagree with, who are responsible for terrible things. It’s much harder than pretending political opponents are just like players on a different sports team, so you can take the real challenge out of ‘love thy enemy’ and still feel magnanimous.

The fault isn’t simply hers, but endemic in a Conservative party which measures human life by market value, despite the performative rhetoric and crumbs from the table. When May sobbed I think she genuinely believed she’d done good, really saw herself as trying to ‘serve the country I love’. That’s tragic and frightening. It shows just how little of an impression reality has on the spin, how little some people count.

Here’s a human level: it’s heartbreaking for all involved that Theresa May never served the country in the way she claims to have wanted to.

Corruption on the Global Stage

Are we the baddies?

Why is the global south so poor compared to the global north?

One of the main explanations given in mass media is corruption in those countries. Episode 73 of the podcast Citations Needed (audio | transcript) was a very eye-opening discussion on corruption on the global stage, and the real reasons why some countries are poorer than others.

We use a narrow definition of corruption to paint those countries as rife with it and ours as squeaky-clean. But corruption is more varied than the obvious forms of when a tyrant leaches funds for a suite of mansions or an official has to be bribed at a checkpoint. And it takes place between countries, not just within them.

Only 3% of illicit outflows of cash from poor countries are caused by their corrupt leaders. Global corporations and wealthy governments are responsible for the lion’s share. Hot money, the IMF and World Bank, transfer mispricing, and tax evasion account for much of the poverty on the global scale. Especially tax evasion – nearly half of global GDP is held in tax havens!

I knew Britain is dodgy on the global stage. But here’s a section that really hit home with how cartoonishly corrupt it is. (Italics mine)

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Nima: Can you tell us about the Lord Mayor of the City of London?

Jason Hickel: (Laughs.) Yeah. So Britain controls about 50 percent of the world’s tax havens. Okay. And most of those are controlled straight via the City of London.

Nima: The sun never sets on tax havens.

Jason Hickel: The sun never sets on tax havens, yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s interesting because again, this is a residue of the British colonial era. So a lot of these little territories, Britain never relinquished control over now remain as tax havens effectively perpetuating this extractive relationship that Britain, you know, used to have with the south and it still does. But yeah, the key elements of this system is the City of London. Now when most people hear the City of London, they assume it just means London, the city. But in fact the City of London is a small council in the very center of London, the city. And it’s interesting because it’s this ancient artifact from the 1100s where it has its own police force, it is exempt from parliamentary oversight and exempt from freedom of information rules, most importantly, and as a consequence it functions as the very center of the British tax haven network, which extends around the world. Okay. So, the City of London is where a huge proportion of the money that’s extracted illegally from the global south into tax havens flows through and they have their own mayor, which is called the Lord Mayor of London, which is quite different from the Mayor of London, which is the one we normally think of. And what’s interesting about the Lord Mayor is that the Lord Mayor respects the authority of no one but the monarchy. So it’s not subject to parliamentary oversight again. Right? And the job of the Lord Mayor of London is to promote the interests of the financial sector in the City of London. And in order to do that, he has, it’s always a man for the past thousand years, he has a multibillion pound slush fund that is for use and I quote “to expound the virtues of financial liberalization around the world” and effectively to build the city’s tax haven network in different countries. So it’s quite, you know, it’s sort of institutionalized corruption, really, which everyone seems to sort of accept as normal. But the point I want to make here is that if you look at, again, you know, who’s responsible for the rules that sort of facilitate the possibility of these illicit financial flows and the institutions that facilitate them, they’re global north countries, right? Tax havens are controlled by the global north. The WTO rules are effectively controlled by the global north and yet how do they get away with this clean rating from Transparency International despite the fact that they facilitate these incredible heists from the global south every year. That is a massive, significant and actively known cause of impoverishment and under development.

Adam: Well, the City of London is celebrating its 1000th anniversary in 2075 and I hope I live long enough to ring in that thousand years of evil colonial corruption. That’s a hell of a, it’s a hell of a marker.

Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah. Does the Lord Mayor, like, ride around in like a gilded carriage? It just, it seems so outrageous.

Jason Hickel: He actually does. It’s bizarre. But there’s this Lord Mayor show every year where the Lord Mayor literally does ride around in kind of a golden carriage.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: Wow, we were just being sarcastic.

Jason Hickel: I believe he carries a mace, things like that.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Jason Hickel: I mean it’s quite, it’s quite extraordinary really. It’s a, it’s an ancient institution.

Adam: On one level I appreciate that they kind of just lean in to being evil.

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Whenever there’s a big charity event going on, there are also concerned discussions of the type, ‘won’t their leaders just take the money? How can we be sure it gets to the people, and does what it’s meant to? Will giving money ever really solve this anyway?’

As Jason, Adam and Nima point out in the episode, it’s not that the commonly noted sort of corruption doesn’t exist or isn’t a problem – it is. But a far more significant element of the problem is right at home. Our well-off countries and companies are effectively stealing vast sums. And we don’t really hear about it.

Collective Aspiration

Futurama why are you cheering
Leela: Why are you cheering, Fry? You’re not rich.
Fry: True, but someday I might be rich. And then people like me better watch their step.

Congresswoman Katie Porter (D) recently challenged
JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon over how a hypothetical single mother, ‘Patricia’, could survive as a bank teller.

Porter used realistic numbers to show that it’d be pretty much impossible. It’s refreshing to have a discussion like this take place – and fascinating to think about what Dimon’s lacklustre responses show.

He refers to the role as ‘a starter job’. This isn’t an answer to how Patricia can manage her budget. The implication is she’s getting what her job title deserves, and too bad if it isn’t liveable. She has to work her way up.

The minimum wage was originally intended as a wage someone can raise a family and have a home on: a decent floor for conditions. The concept has been allowed to degrade to ‘what we pay the underclass to incentivise them to get something else’. But that means there will always be a group at the bottom, struggling paycheck to paycheck, providing services without receiving adequate pay or respect. If I want a coffee or burger or transaction made, I want the person who does that for me able to survive from their work.

Dimon can pay out unliveable wages for ‘starter jobs’ (and fill his own pocket with the surplus value). His employees cannot ask shops or their landlords for ‘starter prices’.

Later on he says ‘she may have my job one day.’ Porter replies, ‘She may, but Mr. Dimon, she doesn’t have the ability right now to spend your $31 million.’ Again there’s no answer for the present, just the promise of individual aspiration.

How many tellers are going to become CEO? What are people to do in the meantime? Dimon has no answer, just evasion and platitudes. The answer would involve him and his ilk giving back a little slice of profit, which is unthinkable – he worked his way up, he earned it.

He says something vague about wanting to be ‘helpful’. Porter: ‘Well, I appreciate your desire to be helpful, but what I’d like you to do is provide a way for families to make ends meet.’ Quite.

What I see here is a picture of individual aspiration used as a cudgel to beat down collective concerns. If you’re struggling then you, the individual, must work your way up until you are the plutocrat looking down on the struggling hordes. It’s okay, they’re in starter jobs.

Owen Jones’ book Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class discussed class politics in the UK from Thatcher through to New Labour. A recurring theme is the neoliberal redefining of ambition, from a collective improvement of society to individual social mobility.

Politicians, particularly in the Labour Party, once spoke of improving the conditions of working-class people. But today’s consensus is all about escaping the working class. The speeches of politicians are prepared with promises to enlarge the middle class. ‘Aspiration’ has been redefined to mean individual self-enrichment: to scramble up the social ladder and become middle class. Social problems like poverty and unemployment were once understood as injustices that sprang from flaws within capitalism which, at the very least, had to be addressed. Yet today they have become understood as the consequences of personal behaviour, individual defects and even choice.

Further:

Rather than the old collective form of aspiration, based on improving the conditions of working-class people as a whole, the new mantra was that able individuals should ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and climb the social ladder. Of course, it is based on a myth: after all, if everyone could become middle class, who would man the supermarket checkouts, empty the bins and answer the phones in call centres? But this glorification of the middle class—by making it the standard everyone should aspire for, however unrealistically—is a useful ideological prop for the class system.

Dimon’s response to the reality of the tellers in his banks is to – whether or not he’s fully conscious of it – justify the cruel struggle at the bottom with the possibility of a few rising up. I don’t see this as a very satisfying vision for society. It’s a brutal form of social Darwinism, the exploited masses driven to compete with each other for a chance to become an exploiter in turn.

We can do better than this.

There will always be individual ambition. People will always strive for individual goals, for self-expression, for status – this can be a great thing. But we live in a society, and the majority of individuals cannot be free in a meaningful sense unless the collective conditions facilitate it. We are not free if we’re rationing insulin, in a sweat shop, relying on food banks, or facing this gauche monstrosity.

Individual ambition to horde vast wealth gained by ripping off thousands, in a world with so many problems that wealth could solve, doesn’t strike me as a healthy sort of ambition. I aspire to a world where everyone can have a decent standard of living. We are, ultimately, all in this thing together. Collective aspiration is a big deal. Without taking it seriously, the masses are exploited, divided, and less free to pursue meaningful individual aspiration.

Without taking it seriously, civilisation is at threat. Consider climate change. A good collective goal for the planet would be becoming carbon negative. JP Morgan investing $1.9tn in fossil fuels won’t help that, but it’s good business for a few individuals. Some people might drown in hot seawater, but, hey – they were only in starter jobs anyway.

Book Reviews (10)

books (10)

The New Poverty – Stephen Armstrong

75 years on from the Beveridge Report, Armstrong’s book explores the hidden poverty caused in the UK in recent years. He speaks to people affected by unemployment, in-work poverty, exploitative conditions, and the increasingly vindictive benefits system – as well as the organisers doing their best to address the problems.

I’ve read a fair amount about some of these issues. However, Armstrong investigates important factors that I hadn’t seen represented before: the rise in DIY dentistry(!); the decline in local news reporting and its impact on democracy and corruption in local government; how lack of internet access and computer illiteracy impacts access to vital services.

A distressing picture of entirely unnecessary struggle. People shouldn’t have to resort to pulling their own tooth out, but apparently that’s where we are.

All The Fabulous Beasts – Priya Sharma

16 bizarre, macabre, gothic short stories.

Sharma’s writing is elegant, concise, and deeply atmospheric. The stories focus on family, relationships, parenting, love and loss. Some of them were a bit opaque, with fantastical elements coming out of nowhere in a way that didn’t quite land; while some others felt a bit too obvious with their symbolic meaning.

All of them, though, are well developed, with a highly distinctive style conveyed in their details, characters, and turns of phrase. I most liked ‘Pearls’, a retelling of the story of Medusa with brilliant attention to character and modern concerns. As a collection, these fit together well, giving a cohesive overview of the sort of things Sharma writes about and her approach to storytelling.

Here’s the story Egg. If you like that, you’ll enjoy the rest of these.

The Bedlam Stacks – Natasha Pulley

The India Office sends injured expeditionary Merrick Tremayne to Peru, to get cinchona trees so the British Empire can produce its own quinine to treat malaria.

Like in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Pulley combines a well-realised historical setting and convincing characters with intricate, highly imaginative magical realism. There are nice cameos from Keita, which may be a bit confusing to people who haven’t read her first book, but I like that this is all one cohesive world.

This time the magical element takes a very different and unique angle, though it again involves time, and again intersects perfectly with the characters’ lives and their society.

The presentation of the India Office (formerly East India Company) is a deeply researched window into how imperialism worked at the time, and the natural friction between Merrick and Clem approaches similar themes – all with an unpretentious deft touch.

My only real quibbles are that some aspects of worldbuilding near the end felt like they escalated in scope a bit too suddenly to swallow, and that I couldn’t quite picture the layout of Bedlam clearly. Overall, though, another immersive work of magical realism showcasing what the genre can do.

The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde

‘If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!’ Dorian wishes, beginning a descent into an aesthete’s cold hedonism that led critics at the time to moral outrage.

At first I struggled with this. Lord Wotton rambling on in pseudo-deep paradoxes (‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.’ ‘The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.’) and nothing much going on – certainly nothing really scandalous by modern standards.

But then Wilde simmered down on the self-indulgent speeches, things started happening, and it was great. Some dazzling writing, capturing Dorian’s twisted state of mind as his corruption advances and his suppressed conscience stirs. It’s still hard to see how everyone was so shocked by this book, since it’s actually… clearly moral in its message? (Aside from the casual anti-semitism, etc…)

Sometimes irritating, but becomes a compelling psychological downward spiral.

The Mad Lads Only Went And Done It

independent group

7 Tory Labour MPs left the party on Monday, forming the Independent Group.

It’s unclear what they’re standing for. They’re obviously against Corbynism, but their own position seems rather nebulous. As this article says: they’re not actually a party yet, they describe their platform with vague principles rather than policy proposals (‘It is time we dumped this country’s old-fashioned politics and created an alternative that does justice to who we are today’), and, as member Angela Smith said, they’re ‘sensible’ and ‘centrist’.

Thank heavens someone’s finally there for the silent majority of Brits, crying out for a less exhilarating version of the Lib Dems.

Corbyn’s economic and foreign policy is too hard-left: despite it generating a surge in membership and the largest increase in vote share since Attlee, people won’t vote for that! The one policy this fresh new group are probably concrete on – a second referendum – is by their own admission mathematically impossible to get through the Commons. But it must be really popular with the public, because the Lib Dems are at double digits in some of the polls.

Chris Leslie said that Labour had been ‘hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left’. When a party swells to half a million members, who hit the streets door-knocking to help earn you a seat, and increase your majority, speaking of that as hijacking is… a bit churlish? Shouldn’t any politician want their party to be popular? For heaven’s sake, be glad about it and work together against the Tories!

But, in good old democracy when convenient style, the Independent Group are happy to keep the seats Labour voters and members put them into. ‘By-elections are not what are needed right now’, Leslie says. Not needed by who? Not the voters who elected him under a Labour ticket, that’s for sure.

They’ve already torpedoed any moral authority they might have had. It takes some really powerful galaxy-brains to leave a party because a small proportion of its half a million members are racist, and within hours of your launch have one of your seven members describing POC as ‘black or a funny tinge.’ The totally not racist party – well, only 14% of them. And however flawed Labour’s procedures might be, at least it has them!

Well, we’ll see how many votes they scrounge up. And from who.

Book Reviews (9)

Books 9

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

Danny, a misfit with a desperate need for Wi-Fi and phone signal, joins his estranged, successful cousin Howie in turning a castle into a hotel. As they navigate their difficult relationship and the castle’s surprises, the convict narrator’s story within the story unfolds.

The story of the castle is a good one in itself – the contrast between tech-addict Danny and luddite Howie speaking to our time, their awkward relationship rooted in the trauma Danny caused Howie in childhood, the blend of realist and bizarre. But that story is being told by Ray in a prison writing class, with Ray and teacher Holly’s lives also an interesting course of events, as the challenge of life within prison interferes with the class and we learn about her own state of affairs. It’s a good touch to have a bit of meta in the mix, as the two tales reflect and reach into each other.

The castle and prison narratives are both a strong mix of human drama and the strange, with intriguing characters at the helm. The meta element really adds something on multiple levels, without sliding into the head-scratching complexity or posturing that can come when things go in that direction, making the whole deeper than its two parts.

Really entertaining, thoughtful, and moving.

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: a Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason – Chapo Trap House

The book by the comedy/politics podcast Chapo Trap House.

Chapo offers a caustic, ironic, irreverent look at (mostly American) politics from a far-left perspective, saying that ‘you don’t have to side with the pear-shaped vampires of the right or the craven, lanyard-wearing wonks of contemporary liberalism.’

The comedy is a cathartic take-down of the centre and right for Extremely Online failsons, but under the irony are nuggets of insight.

[The liberal] process pits tepid reforms against a deranged and revanchist right wing with no such inclination toward consensus or incrementalism. […] Without an organized and popular Left, liberals end up negotiating themselves into oblivion, moving the country, inevitably, to the right.

The chapter on the world provides a quick Chapo-style riff off Howard Zinn or Chomsky, the chapters on libs and on cons are caricatures of both sides with satirical summaries of major administrations (The young and ready [Obama] threw off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and declared, “Let’s find some fucking consensus!”), the chapters on media and culture are entertaining satire. The chapter on work is a great broadside against capitalism, railing against the system of wage labour (‘no employer hires anyone unless they can extract more value from them than they have to pay out in wages and benefits’) and the financial system’s destructive gambling.

Even as a Chapo fan, I don’t think their brand of bitterness and irony can make a whole manifesto. What’s missing is a chapter on the left – with, dare I say it, a bit more hope, warmth, and sincerity.

There are a couple of paragraphs here and there that mention egalitarian ideals, a new order where ‘the productive forces of society aren’t spent on inventing new weapons of mass destruction and clever ways to brutalize dissidents but on ensuring that all people enjoy the fruits of their birthright.’ Okay, but this is pretty simplistic, and only speaking to the home team. Chapo is better at tearing down than building up.

A must-read laugh for fans of the show. This book isn’t aimed at convincing newcomers, but as the hosts say themselves: your politics shouldn’t come from their dumb comedy podcast anyway.

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

‘Bird by Bird’ doesn’t have much detail on the nuts-and-bolts technique of writing – point of view, showing vs telling, whether adverbs are all evil or not, etc. Its focus is on things like paying attention to life, staying at your desk and dealing with your neuroses until you can finish a shitty first draft, dealing with jealousy, perfectionism, and getting out of your own way.

Lamott is funny and honest, dismissing romantic ideals about writers and being published. This was a refreshing dose of warmth and sincerity after the Chapo book. Although there wasn’t much here that struck me as new insight, her points are still important and expressed with nice jokes and anecdotes.

If you’re struggling with doubts and distractions, read this – you’ll find it very helpful. If you’re looking for help with the gritty details of technique, try Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ or David Jauss’s ‘On Writing Fiction’.

Broken Things – Lauren Oliver

Obsessed with the book ‘The Way into Lovelorn’, 12 year old children Mia, Brynn, and Owen killed their friend Summer, following a ritual from their fanfic sequel. That’s what the community believes, anyway. Five years on, their lives thrown off track by the murder, Mia and Brynn try to find out the truth.

Another great ‘story within a story’ thing, with extracts from ‘The Way into Lovelorn’ and their fanfic providing clues to what happened that day. The darker elements of Summer’s friendship with Mia and Brynn come to light, as her obsession with Lovelorn and troubling features of her personality unfold. Each character has a distinct voice and personality, shaped by the past as her life and death looms over them.

A brilliant depiction of difficult knotty relationships, the aftermath of tragedy, and darkness tangled up with affection and hope. The mystery has some nice twists and turns, casting suspicion while building to an intense conclusion, and I found that ending a good move.