Book Reviews (23)

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

I first read Wolf Hall choking it down as part of a reading list. Trying again on my own time, I could much better appreciate Mantel’s account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise in the court of Henry VIII, as Katherine of Aragon falls and Anne Boleyn takes her place. The sly manoeuvring of power, sharp dialogue, period detail, and introspective prose make for a compelling experience.

There are segments where it’s tricky to see how things are moving forwards – no doubt that reflects the uncertainties of the time, and Mantel’s writing kept my interest, but some of those periods could’ve been summarised more strongly. One small issue I had with the prose is Mantel’s use of ‘he’ as the subject of sentences, usually referring to Cromwell, being unclear in some places with other men involved.

However, any scene of court drama, business, violence, wrangling tricky people and situations – the majority of the book – shows off a balance of historical fact and strong characterisation, drawing on wit, sensitivity, and brash corruption.

The Hero of Ages – Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn #3

A great conclusion to a great trilogy.

Some of the world-building is a bit top-heavy, but it’s masterful world-building – you get to figure things out yourself and realize they were dangled from book one, and the action sparkles as always. The Big Bad is a bit of a generic destructive bastard, despite the notes of complexity Sanderson did fit in there, but is still a fun enemy. And the story as a whole pulls right along, with the best fast, consistent pacing so far, tying up mysteries and closing long-waiting loops with revelation.

Sazed’s philosophical struggle comes off a little one-note, but it’s impossible to dislike the character, and the arc is staggering. Spook – that guy has really stepped up! Through TenSoon, we get more nice kandra lore. Vin is Vin. Elend is Elend. The two together can feel a touch wooden sometimes, but mostly not – overall it’s good old Brando Sando.

And the ending – the scope and payoff over these three chonky tomes, the sacrifice and reward – crikey. Read these books, people.

The Dawn of Everything – David Graeber & David Wengrow

The standard framing of zoomed-out human history runs something like this: start with small hunter-gatherer bands living in either egalitarian harmony (if you believe Rousseau) or a brutish war of all against all (if you believe Hobbes); then progress through a sequence of evolutionary stages – tribes, chiefs, farming, cities: at which point the scale of people who need organising requires a level of top-down hierarchy which leads inexorably to the modern nation-state.

It’s a tale in which modern civilisation required either sacrificing the childlike equality of hunter-gatherer bands, or taming our brutish instincts through the rule of law. In either case, inequality is an unavoidable price.

This incredible work blows all that up. Looking at the evidence in anthropology and archaeology, Graeber and Wengrow overturn every step of the narrative of progress we take for granted.

Humans didn’t spend hundreds of thousands of years in tiny bands with no further political complexity at play – in a State of Nature taken as either good or evil. Our ancient ancestors, they insist, were conscious of how they organised themselves and made decisions about it. Stone Age people could gather in thousands for meaningful portions of the year, building large structures of their own, and consciously shifted between smaller and larger groups with different forms of organisation at different times of year. Far from simple isolated bands, networks of culture formed across thousands of miles.

Agriculture didn’t force a development towards aristocracies, as many thinkers have claimed; and nor did the scale of cities require a loss of egalitarian organisation. At every point a range of possibilities were open, because people debated how to organise themselves. For millennia, people farmed in such a way as to deliberately prevent crops becoming fully domesticated; and once they were it didn’t force any particular mode of social organisation. Various ancient cities were ran by local assemblies for centuries at a time, running complex projects (irrigation, housing, etc) without kings – while the smaller groups in the hills turned towards monarchy. Some cities turned to rulers. Others overthrew them.

Graeber and Wengrow put aside the usual question of the ‘origin of inequality’, which they point out assumes in its framing a primordial Garden of Eden. Instead of asking ‘are we fundamentally good or bad?’, they look deeper to ask how we really function in light of the evidence, how we got here, and what new possibilities this all raises for our future. The course of history isn’t a set of inexorable stages, but one where human agency has always played a role (not, of course, the only one).

Where, then, did the story of stages come from? They trace it to the encounter between Native America and Europe, in which the indigenous critiques of Europe stimulated Enlightenment thought as well as a conservative backlash. This is the context in which Rousseau, Hobbes, and their contemporaries tackled the questions raised by the clash of culture and ideology, in which many European intellectuals came to conclude that equality was possible at a ‘lower stage of development’ but not in commercial or industrial society. The assumptions they made about the past on this basis are all wrong, so why assume they’re right about the future?

The tone of writing is informed yet informal, nicely wry – on ‘savagely violent’ Yanomami sharing beds, ‘This requires a degree of good-natured mutual accommodation of which few contemporary social theorists would be capable.’

I did get frustrated with the endnotes. Many could be better placed within the main text or as footnotes, because flipping back and forth gets tiring. The writers cover as much evidence as they plausibly can without the nature of the task making things ridiculous, but some minor points are brushed though a little suddenly. A stronger look at patriarchy is also missing, the conclusion’s look at warfare a bit quick.

The scale of the task here means they have to set limits somewhere – they can’t analyse every bone fragment in the world’s museums! – but they are very clear when they’re referring to fact, interpretation, or just a possibility to consider. As ‘radical’ a reimagining of history we might call this, the writers were also very sober with it. Wengrow mentions in his Foreword and dedication to the sadly late Graeber that they wanted to write sequels: ‘no less than three’. Heck.

Whatever happens with that, this book is certainly profound.

Book Reviews (22)

books 22

Civilisations – Laurent Binet trans. Sam Taylor

This alt-history in which the Incas invade Europe gave me big ups and downs, but overall was fun.

Rather than a straightforward novel, sections of the narrative take different formats: from Norse saga, journals, the Chronicles of Atahualpa, letters, and ending with a version of Cervantes.

The saga began a touch awkward, but held my attention and lay interesting pieces for later. Parts of Atahualpa’s story, the main chunk of narrative, were great. The lowest points for me were also there, though – more dry than they should be, with little sense of Atahualpa as a character, and contrived vocab (‘the black drink’ – wine; ‘talking cases’ – books) being distracting. But then it very much picked up again. The final Cervantes section, the most novel-like, was the easiest to read, written nicely and peppered with those fun changes to events. Someone more familiar with the original would take more from it too.

There’s not much attempt to really convince that ‘things would happen this way’: rather telling a story on its own terms, while laying on the themes of these clashing civilisations. We get it, Binet – the Inquisition was bad! Lol. But it’s entertaining to have things like Henry VIII threaten to convert to the Incan religion so he can marry Anne Boleyn without needing a divorce first.

While the events themselves might be a little contrived, the book expects some background understanding of the actual situation it’s contrasting – mostly reasonable, but sometimes rather a bit ‘here’s some latin and spanish, good luck!’

If you have any interest in the ‘what if?’ premise, it’s worth a read.

The Lights of Prague – Nicole Jarvis

In a historical Prague where lamplighters fight the various creatures of the night, humble lamplighter Domek and classy, brash pijavica (vampire) Ora cross backgrounds and species to save the city.

Really good. The Slavic mythology here is neat, dark yet grounded. The characters are engaging and empathetic, though I mostly found Ora more interesting to read about than Domek – she has a longer, bloodier backstory, naturally, and more internal conflict. The urban setting – genteel; run-down; dank sewers – comes through in sweeping skylines and as arenas for tense combat.

Jarvis pulls off miscommunication pretty well – because it’s grounded in her characters, not just two people being stupid with each other for the plot. It does take a little time for the conspiracies to get going, but the cast’s interactions and internal worlds provide much of the charm, which means the stakes are higher when the stakes do come out (sorry!).

A fresh vampire story.

The Majesties – Tiffany Tsao

(h/t Allie Writes)

Estella, daughter in a Chinese-Indonesian tycoon family, murdered 300 people with poison – her family, herself, and all the guests to a birthday dinner. Her sister Gwendolyn lies in a coma, the only survivor, reflecting on the past to figure out why.

It’d be easy for a story like this to go overboard with a stream-of-consciousness style. But Tsao weaves through time in straightforward narrative prose, pacing out clues and revelations through scenes of family drama and introspection alongside neat touches of imagery.

I’ve seen others say that there’s too much unbelievable stuff revealed. I don’t think so. Perhaps the bit when the driver reverses pushes it a little in an already tragic scene, and yeah, maybe there is a tinge of melodrama in here, but is it unbelievable that a wealthy family with links to a corrupt government could be, uh, bad? One thing that bugged me a touch (ha!) was the weirdness of Bagatelle, which felt out of place. There is ultimately a fair explanation for it at the end, albeit not a particularly original one.

The story itself is an engaging train-wreck to watch. While it treads some standard thriller ground, Tsao lifts it with the quality of narration, character, and (mostly show-not-tell) engagement with the specific socio-economic context.

But Is It Good?

Bukowski smoking

About once a month, the regularly scheduled Discourse kicks up again about a rotating list of authors and how sus it is to like them. Right now, as I write this, it’s Bukowski. It has been, and will again be, David Foster Wallace or Chuck Palahniuk or Nabokov or…

I have no particular interest in defending Bukowski. I’ve never read the guy, I don’t feel much desire to right now, whatever. I’ve no skin in this one. I just find it a little pathetic that people will pick a writer from one of these lists, to say their work is bad because they’re bad people, and substitute meaningful literary criticism or the simple, honest ‘not my thing tbh’ for ‘this is bad because he’s bad and he should’ve gone to therapy’. People with decent social attitudes knee-jerking at problematic art like this isn’t much less silly than the conservative snowflakes freaking out about wokeness all the time.

(As an aside, I dislike ‘go to therapy’ as a casual retort, used as though therapy is a panacea for interpersonal issues and bigotries or equally accessible to everyone. It’s classic white middle-class feminism.)

None of this is important, really. None of what I’m saying hasn’t been said before.

But was Bukowski’s intent (whatever we think about the value of authorial intent) to model prosocial behaviour? When a fictional character is an asshole, is the writer obligated to clearly imply or outright state their disagreement with that character? Or should readers be trusted to apply their own moral judgment like grown adults, and take the quality of a piece of art as a separate, if potentially thornily linked, question from its moral stance?

I don’t care to read JK Rowling anymore, to a large extent due to her transphobia – but I can’t reasonably point to her behaviour on twitter as a reason the Galbraith books are bad as books, any more than her TERF fans can do the inverse. It’s fine to be put off by attitudes expressed in a book, or the author irl. I occasionally give small mentions to these things in my own reviews. But this says little about the work itself, and you can’t e.g. guarantee that someone who does read Bukowski is a misogynist themselves. It’s not exactly Mein Kampf folks, come on. He’s dead, so he isn’t getting royalties either.

It’s especially funny when the moral discourse around labelling a work or its maker as a red flag gets in the way of more interesting discussions about the social implications of the work. When people say Fight Club is a red flag because white guys like Tyler Durden and he’s horrible, they’re not talking about how the narrator’s chronic insomnia was improved by crying in therapy (even though the same people doing this are normally ‘go to therapy’ types) and it was his toxic masculinity which said ‘therapy is gay bro let’s fight and give ourselves chemical burns instead’. If someone is the kind of guy to unironically like Tyler Durden, and you center your complaint on the movie/book, you’re putting the cart before the horse. And maybe (I whisper) missing something you might like if you look from another angle, though it’s totally cool if you don’t.

When Joker came out so much of the discussion was like, ‘is it incel?’, ‘will someone shoot up the cinema?’, ‘[my identity] is poor too and we don’t shoot stockbrokers’. Whether or not it was entertaining as a dark dramatic comedy almost didn’t exist as a question.

I’d like to see more of that question, alongside the repetitive discourse. More: ‘but is it good?’

Book Reviews (21)

The Republic For Which It Stands – Richard White

Intimidatingly subtitled ‘The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896’, I wouldn’t have picked up this thicc tome but Matt Christman made it sound interesting.

Turns out the period is quite interesting. White’s perspective raises similarities and challenges to our current time, and not just for the US. A core point is the failure of liberalism to meet its promise of egalitarianism and opportunity in a society of independent producers, as the realities of industrial capitalism and wage labour held sway – a story we’re still living in.

Liberals had believed that laissez-faire, contract freedom, and competition would eliminate corruption, sustain independent production, and prevent the rise of the very rich and very poor. Contract freedom quickly revealed itself as a delusion when those negotiating contracts were so incommensurate in wealth and power.

Liberalism had been forged in opposition to a world of slavery, established religion, monarchy, and aristocracy, and the victory of liberals in that contest sealed their own doom.

White’s account is at its most interesting when he’s uncovering sweeping ideological/cultural narratives – the role of ‘home’, the courage and fate of natives in western expansion, the significant struggles of race and gender – and their connection to dramatic industrial unrest. The importance White places on the environmental crisis in growing industrial cities, and its close connection to all his other threads, is insightful.

Surprising and amusing anecdotes pepper the story, with recurring figures like William Dean Howells, Frances Willard, Frederick Douglass, etc, highlighting shifts over the years. I also liked his references to contemporary fiction – the way he views The Wizard of Oz in light of the period’s themes is brilliant.

Some of the denser financial and legislative wrangling had me flagging a little. White couldn’t have done much about that without taking from his impressive scholarship, but I still think certain segments could use a touch more condensing. It’s difficult to remember the details of bills and financial intricacies as well as White himself, and he sometimes refers back to a figure where a brief reminder of who they are would be helpful.

The Sword of Destiny – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. David French
Witcher #2

The first set of stories were enjoyable, this second set a step higher in quality. Geralt’s character is stronger and more consistent: mercenary but sensitive, conflicted, a relatable mess. The frame narrative is gone, with the stories themselves having a loose chronology. While I’m unqualified to really comment on translation, there weren’t any points, as were occasionally in the first book, where I was uncertain about it.

Yennefer plays a larger role, and seeing some of that terrible dynamic the pair have – yikes. There are points where she flips instantly from brittle rage to ‘I am smol bean uwu Geralt pwease’ that don’t feel real to me, but I’m interested in where this train wreck goes. Other new/returning characters I also want to see more of. No idea why anyone tolerates Dandelion’s crap, frankly. Rapey, loudmouth, parasitic prick. Hope Yennefer immolates him at some point lol.

Which brings me to the main things that pull me out a bit: Geralt continually running into some of the same people while riding all over the place, and some anachronistic-feeling language. Cellular memory? Really? And I found the combat scenes less crisply portrayed than the first book for some reason – they’re fine, but I didn’t get the same clear sense of motion.

Yeah, looking forward to the novels.

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Special mention: Disco Elysium – ZA/UM

A game, not a book, but it’s a text-heavy experience (with stellar voice acting) and one that beats a lot of books. In this detective RPG you explore the city of Revachol 50 years after a defeated revolution, investigating the murder of a man hanged behind the hostel you’re staying in. The case itself is engaging, but it’s the other things that truly sell this.

Your partner on the case, Kim Kitsuragi, is a fantastic character. Straightman to your amnesiac drunkard (who, depending on your build and choices, could be trying to pull himself together, ranting about a coming apocalypse, doing speed…), Kim’s personality shines in small gestures and things you can uncover in the extensive, well-crafted dialogue.

Your character’s skills embody different components of your psyche, talking to you and each other with unique voices and perspectives. They can be a major help or – particularly when failing a skillcheck, which can have hilarious results – massive hindrances. ‘Encyclopedia’ gives you helpful information, but if it’s too high you risk boring people and getting sidetracked by trivia. ‘Electrochemistry’ helps you understand the seedier side of Revachol – e.g. discerning what drug a character is on – but also yells at you to lick a rum stain. If you regularly take certain options in dialogue, or encounter certain prompts, you can be invited to ‘internalise’ a thought in your ‘thought cabinet’, further shaping your character and the things you can say and do.

The worldbuilding is great – from the geopolitical situation of Revachol, in the hands of the Coalition which defeated the Revachol Commune; to the more out-there things like Innocences and the Pale. The lead dev wrote a book set in this world which I hope gets into English eventually, because Elysium has cool ideas.

I’ve seen people complain that it’s communist propaganda. I really don’t see it. While I lean hard to port politically myself, I wouldn’t enjoy propaganda just from agreement. People who say this either missed a lot of dialogue, missed the jokes, or are triggered by left-wing views getting airtime. Internalising ‘Mazovian socio-economics’ lowers your authority score. A communist character you can meet talks movingly about how the Coalition forces blitzed all his friends in the name of capital, but he’s also a bitter tankie who thinks everything is bourgeois and everyone is a ‘pederast’. Disco Elysium treats itself and its left politics with a wry touch.

Funny, smart, emotive – my only real complaint is some quests need alternate routes. Great game, especially if you like reading stuff.

Book Reviews (20)

The People’s Republic of Walmart – Leigh Phillips & Michal Rozworski

An excellent, readable work advancing a modern socialist response to the economic calculation debate.

One of the better capitalist arguments is that only the market and its price signals can marshal production and exchange on a large scale – that the level of information needed makes planning impossible. Phillips and Rozworski summarise some of the key points and responses in layman’s terms, advancing their own core thread – that much of the world’s economic activity already is planned, that taking place within firms; especially giants like Walmart. In fact, firms which try to introduce internal markets, competition, and price signals tend to crash and burn, as in the case of Sears after a Randian took over.

Given that planning empirically works on large scales, the question broadens to one of democratising planning, and using big data effectively and responsibly. The authors consider both capitalist firms and the USSR as authoritarian in different ways, in their discussion of the latter asserting that one of the reasons planning struggled was the authoritarianism of the society. Contra common arguments that planning inevitably produces shortages which are responded to with state suppression, they suggest that Stalinism undermined planning by inhibiting proper flows of information. If the reports of farmers are ignored in favour of top-down dictats and factory managers fear being shot if they admit problems, planners won’t have decent data and the economy will falter.

They recount Allende’s CyberSyn as an inspiring early attempt at a more democratic planning – with limited computing technology, Chile’s government was nevertheless able to co-ordinate around a CIA-sponsored strike using a balance of bottom-up and centrally guided organising. (Of course, nobody who responds to the mildest of socialist ideas by screeching about gulags is ever heard lamenting the brutality of Pinochet.)

It’s an intriguing piece of work, discussing the economic and historical debate in a more interesting, insightful manner than the off-the-shelf slogans you’ll hear anywhere else.

The Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn #2

I’ve seen two cons mentioned for book two – that it’s a bit slow, and that the original crewmembers aren’t there much.

It’s true that the pace isn’t as intense and twist-filled for much of it. However, the character work is even better as the cast adjusts to a new situation and its challenges. Ham, Dox, etc are less in focus than last time – but they’re still there quite a bit, and show more of themselves in their new context with Sanderson’s great dialogue and plotting.

New characters and some old ones come to the fore – aside from the obviously interesting Vin, the kandra perspective is fresh, Sazed is Sazed but even more, and Elend becoming less of a drip is a key point. Zane is repetitive, though. Action is still crisp and dynamic, particularly as the pace does pick up. The ending is less rushed than The Final Empire and just as staggering.

Some world building points do feel slightly thrown in by surprise, and finding another document lost for over a thousands years is a touch cheap (though admittedly, it’s hard to imagine an alternative given the situation). Duralumin is cool.

Venus in the Blind Spot – Junji Ito

A selection from horror manga artist Junji Ito. The phrase that comes to mind is ‘mixed bag’.

The best pieces carry plenty of dread and creepy imagery – Billions Alone, the title story, The Enigma of Amigara Fault, Keepsake. Billions Alone’s loner character is the most compelling in the collection, Amigara Fault pulls off a foreboding compulsion with a body-horror payoff that builds as you think about it, the title story has a particularly unique hook.

Weaker pieces are still interesting but a little abrupt, weird for the sake of it. There’s Lovecraftian-incomprehensible, there’s twists and foreshadowing, then there’s just ‘doesn’t make sense’. Master Umezz and Me shouldn’t be here: this fanboy piece about how Ito read Kazuo Umezz growing up is an abrupt shift in topic and tone, and the art style comes off goofy with a light-hearted subject.

I get the impression that his longer work would probably build on the strengths the best pieces here show, with time to dig into some characters more and build up that unease. Some of his shorter work struggles in those areas, while others succeed.

Book Reviews (19)

May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes

After Nixon scholar Harry has an adulterous kiss with the wife of his TV exec brother George at Thanksgiving, a chain of unexpected events hurls them into new lives.

At first this felt like it might be the sort of thing people make fun of litfic for: a struggling academic, an affair, everyone’s a bit unpleasant, etc. But then – everything kept ramping up. The drama. The dark, farcical comedy. The character growth. Bizarre twists and diversions combine with pathos and an extraordinary depth of character. The nephew, Nate, felt particularly real, with insight and conviction but also, well, 13 and trying to deal with a lot.

It’s hard to critique. Sometimes dialogue switches line in a way that threw me for a moment. Some of Harry’s romantic endeavours seemed a bit forced to me. Occasional lax forward momentum. These are minor quibbles, because it succeeds in depicting a tumultuous year in people’s lives – affecting, deeply perceptive, and often very funny.

Covenant – Dean Crawford

Take a thriller where an archaeologist is abducted in an Israeli desert, add some Ancient Aliens stuff, and… eh… The idea could be good, but neither component gets past cliché here – unless things improve after I gave up on page 67.

The sci-fi side is somewhat interesting, but relies on laboured exposition and didn’t really add a fresh angle to the well-worn idea that aliens helped kickstart civilisation. Sometimes a character will rattle through polysyllables, other times they’ll be idiotic as required.

The thriller side is painfully clichéd. The stony-faced agents, the nihilistic and good-at-punching guy, the evangelist preacher who wouldn’t pass a Turing test, the arms company bigshot ‘in this for the money’. I didn’t go in expecting a sophisticated take on Israel/Palestine, but the lazy centrism of Crawford’s ‘brutal military occupation bad, but on the other side rOckEtS’ still grates.

The writing is passable but not good: a big guy ‘swept through the crowds like a tornado through an olive grove’; Troubled Tough Dude becomes a dog who ‘reveled’ in the breeze though a car window; the Jordan Rift Valley is ‘an ancient seismic scar slashed by the tributaries of long-extinct rivers that snaked their way into the endless deserts’.

The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. Danusia Stok

The opening set of stories, prior to the main narrative of The Witcher, introduces an intriguing world drawing on folklore and fairy tales with twists and bite.

Geralt of Rivia stars as the mutant monster-slayer, alongside a few others. His character leans more to the mercenary side than I’d thought, particularly in the first story, which opens with him cutting down a few people for not much reason. Discussions around money are entertaining and sharp, with Nenneke’s comment on exchanging Temerian orens for gems (cheap due to a dwarven mine near Wyzim) and gems for Novigrad crowns highlighting the guy has really made this place. Combat is gritty and dynamically written.

I’ve heard of translation concerns. While some Polish idioms and references are inevitably missed out on, I found the prose perfectly clear and fairly stylish, aside from very few minor points where I couldn’t grasp what it was getting at. But irony lost in translation could explain some of the times where Geralt comes across misogynistic. In any case, he’s a flawed character and better for it.

The Lesser Evil particularly works together various fairytale allusions, questions of morality addressed by flawed characters in a messy world, dramatic combat, and holds the tension of its framing – how Geralt came to be ‘the butcher of Blaviken’.

The weakest parts are a section of the frame narrative where Geralt expositions at a priestess who’s following a vow of silence, and the title story – which at points I found a little vague, a bit too fanservicey over Yennefer, and didn’t do enough to justify the extent of their infatuation (previously hinted in the frame narrative). Maybe I’m missing something there. But both these parts are still definitely good.

Book Reviews (18)

The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

(Mistborn #1)

I got round to reading some Sanderson – and, yeah, it’s good folks. A dynamic, pacey story about a group of thieves, led by the enigmatic Kelsier, working to topple the dictatorship of the immortal Lord Ruler. Vin, a new recruit with burgeoning powers, comes from a traumatic background which has made her expect treachery at every turn. Meanwhile, glimpses into the Lord Ruler’s past hint at a larger story behind his rise to power and fabled defeat of the mysterious Deepness.

At first Kelsier’s smiling and Vin’s frowning were a little much (yeah, I get it…), but all the cast quickly become interesting, complex figures. Allomancy – the magic system based on using various metals – is very clever and works great in action scenes, particularly the pair of steel and iron, which allows for pushing and pulling metals. The way characters fling themselves or objects around is described so clearly and follows a strong logic. However, the categories of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ and ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ are less intuitive for other metals – but don’t worry about it.

Worldbuilding, character, and action with a powerful climax leading to the next book, although some of the last section felt a little bit rushed.

House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski

Not everyone will like this. I loved it, but this is a book without easy answers, the epigraph warning, ‘This is not for you.’

On the face of it, it’s about a Lovecraftian house developing dark empty rooms and shifting corridors, possibly infinite on the inside. Photojournalist Will Navidson documented the horror his family and others experienced in The Navidson Record. Most of the book is an academic manuscript about the film and its events, dictated by an unstable blind man, Zampanò. After Zampanò’s death the documents are discovered and put into some order by Johnny Truant, a tattoo shop employee.

The story in the film, told straight by itself, would be a good creepy novel with engaging characters. But the experimental approach House of Leaves takes is more complex, challenging, and interesting. Zampanò’s analysis of The Navidson Record leads off in many directions, engaging with psychology, mythology, science and literature. His and Johnny Truant’s footnotes relate subplots and lead to materials in the Appendices, like Truant’s mother’s letters to him from an insane asylum. One of her letters needs to be decoded – it’s not hard, but it forces you to slow down and makes the emerging story so much more impactful as you find what’s coming (but is it true?).

Chapter 9 is particularly incredible. While discussing labyrinths, it is itself one. The footnotes lead to dead ends and endless loops. The pages have various segments read in different directions, even parts that need a mirror. It’s not just gimmicky. In this chapter, as in others, formatting quirks reflect the content – accentuating story, playing jokes, reflecting themes.

Truant’s story can be a little tiresome at points – yeah I get it, the guy lays pipe, enough dude – but his developing mental collapse and questionable relationship with the manuscript add so many layers to the book.

The film, and the many other academic treatments of it which Zampanò references, don’t actually exist. But if the whole thing is merely Zampanò having a mental break, why does the manuscript affect Truant? And where did those claw marks come from? Does the minotaur represent a eldritch Nothingness (‘There is nothing there. Beware.’) which erases the house and film behind it, then becoming the manuscript – then, perhaps, erasing Truant as it becomes House of Leaves, then on to erase its readers? 😮 Perhaps Johnny Truant was that dead baby all along, and the whole damn thing is his mother processing trauma in the asylum? Is there a real house and minotaur? Or is it all symbolic?

Truly mind-bending.

The Bees – Laline Paull

A thriller following a bee in the totalitarian society of the hive through religious purges, wasp invasions, and the trials of winter. The life of the hive balances fact and artistic license to make an alien society centred around the Queen, beset by internal and external threats.

The idea is great. The writing is mostly solid – many scenes breathtaking, other points a little awkward. References to ‘data’ passed through antennae and encoded in scent can make the bees sound strangely computerised, and once when Flora sneaks into an area her attempt to slowly turn a door handle is like – since when are there door handles in the hive?

Mostly, the tricky balance between actual bees, and the humanised version Paull needed to tell a story that made sense to humans and is this good, works well. Occasional confusion and awkwardness is worth it to get the unique, action-packed theocracy.

Book Reviews (17)

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Reform or Revolution? – Rosa Luxemburg

The German revolutionary’s response to Eduard Bernstein, who argued for a path to socialism through gradual reforms, without a revolution.

Reading this felt a bit like watching Rosa put Eduard through a wood chipper. The arguments are fairly accessible to the sort of weirdo who would read this, and when she directly addresses her opponent it’s with an entertaining irascible tone.

She would be disappointed that (as of now) capitalism hasn’t irrevocably collapsed in crisis with the proletariat rising to seize the means – in a sense, she was too optimistic. But other theoretical forecasts are prophetic, such as credit being a ‘mighty instrument for the formation of crises’ (rather than a mitigation, as Bernstein argued).

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – Paul Kennedy

Kennedy’s thicc account of the rise and decline of leading powers through economic and military change from 1500 to 2000 was popular with DC wonks on its release in 1988 mainly because of the last chapter – an analysis of existing trends and informed speculation on the near future.

These days the last chapter is more of an example of how a well-educated cautious broadly-liberal American observer saw things in 1988. It’s fascinating that such an intelligent and informed person could be so naive as to refer to ‘fissures [which] often compel the United States to choose between its desire to enhance democratic rights in Latin America and its wish to defeat Marxism’. PAUL, YOU MUG, THE U.S. USES ‘SUPPORTING DEMOCRACY’ AS A RHETORICAL PRETEXT WHILE SPONSORING ANY DICTATOR GOING, YOU’RE TOO SMART TO FALL FOR THIS!

Also intriguing looking back from now is Kennedy’s reference to balancing the three competing priorities facing governments heading to the 21st century – ‘guns’, ‘butter’, and sustained growth – as a very difficult task. Continual economic growth is demanded by capitalism, but is impossible (not merely difficult) due to the threat of climate change, and, indeed, the finite amount of resources and demand – good luck breaking the laws of thermodynamics. It would be interesting to hear his response were he pressed on this point now.

The book is primarily a work of history, looking at how economics, technology, and warfare relate to the global balance of power from 1500-1988/2000. You don’t need to memorise particular battles, names, or dates. Kennedy’s writing is as engaging and narrative-driven as you could expect of something like this.

He explains how Europe became the centre of world power due to its internal competition in technology and trade, with its geography making it difficult for, say, the first country to develop gunpowder to take over the whole continent and have innovation stall there. From there he looks at the leading powers which rose in the continent, and the factors which helped each to prominence as well as those which led to downfall – the Habsburgs, Napoleon; and Britain’s place as an imperial/merchant superpower spurred by the Industrial Revolution. Developing through the two world wars comes the long-predicted ‘bipolar world’ led by the U.S. and Russia, taking Kennedy through to 1988 and fears of nuclear war.

Is this a good book? Yes. Do you need to know a lot of history or economics? No, though you might want google here or there. Did it take me a long time to read, and is it a bit dry? Yes.

Wakenhyrst – Michelle Paver

H/t Matthew Richardson.

A well-paced, character-rich gothic story of a murder in 1913. A manor in a fen; a somewhat unfortunate, bright, ‘plain’ female lead; an overbearing misogynist father figure; superstitious villagers with strong accents. All the familiar tropes – very slickly executed.

The marsh setting is an atmospheric point of contention between Maud and Edmund Stearne, the girl and father whose… difficult… relationship forms the core of the book. Paver alternates a close third-person focused on Maud with an epistolary style, each character’s voice stark and engaging. Young Maud’s understanding of her mother’s regular miscarriages, Edmund’s awful pompous journals, and Maud’s inexorably growing knowledge of what’s really happening around her are well served by the approach, which leaves room for doubting everyone’s reliability.

An atmospheric read, well-researched and suspenseful.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

A funnier, better characterised, modern adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, about two feuding academic families. The narrative centres on the Belsey family – the white academic father, Howard; black hospital admin Kiki; budding Christian Jerome; self-styled hustler Levi; intensely driven student Zora.

The Belseys alone are diverse and well-realised (though Kiki perhaps less so – a human counter to Howard’s ultra-cerebral nonsense who’s given less chance to shine in her own right); but add in the black conservative Kipps family and you get a lively cast with complex personalities and conflicted relationships driving the plot. Add in other characters: Carl, a rapper thrust into poet’s circles, sensitive to being taken a fool; Claire, a perfect satire of a poet; the delightfully elliptical Jack French and his dictionary… – it’s funny, with powerful, frustrating, and touching encounters.

At times the nods to Forster can ring a little false. The opening awkwardly uses a Forster highbrow style to frame the more natural, effective email exchanges (before the fantastic dialogue introducing the Belseys); making the plot reflect its earlier inspiration sometimes requires unconvincing gambits like Howard not having a mobile phone.

On the whole, though, very entertaining and meaningful.

Book Reviews (16)

Books 16

Earthsea: The First Four Books – Ursula Le Guin

Fantasy set on an archipelago world, with magic rooted in true names and the balance of the natural world. The first trilogy – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore – covers the heroic exploits of the mage Ged, who starts out as a gifted, impatient, arrogant goat-herder. There’s action in there, but it’s a chill pleasant read. Would’ve liked more of the school on Roke. Le Guin’s Daoist influence is used well.

Tehanu changes tack in interesting ways. It’s good overall – the turn towards ordinary life and women counterbalances elements of the first books, and a weaker writer would’ve forced a way around The Farthest Shore’s ending. But the pacing is choppy, and sometimes it feels a bit like an essay poking through.

The character and worldbuilding are high-class.

Why You Should Be a Socialist – Nathan Robinson

Robinson’s arguments for democratic socialism emphasise core principles – solidarity, concern about class structures, commitment to democracy in the economy (e.g. the workplace) as well as in the usual political sphere. As with his work in Current Affairs, he draws a sharp divide between his politics – based in libertarian socialist  ideas – and the more gulag-y stuff.

One weakness is a lack of a clear distinction between social democracy and socialism, linked to his excessive reticence to define terms. He veers between arguing for (good) reforms within capitalism along the lines of Bernie Sanders – pointing out the successes of individual socialist mayors, etc – and calling for more radical systemic change. Many liberals could come out of this thinking ‘okay, the Democratic party needs reform and it might be good to have a few socialist voices here and there, but I’m still not convinced about seizing the means of production.’ But hey, that’s not a disaster.

He does, though, make a lot of good points for newcomers, especially hammering the points of real commitment to democracy beyond the limits of liberalism, that public ownership needn’t mean state ownership, and that libertarian socialism is a thing.

It’s very obvious, given that we live on a planet with finite resources, that endless growth is impossible. And yet we have created [corporations] that exist to pursue endless growth[.] This is a recipe for civilizational suicide.[…]

Whether people are free depends not just on whether they own themselves, but whether others have power over them in practice.[…]

We should probably focus less on the question of whether something is in [the public sector or private sector] than on questions about who gets the benefits and who holds decision-making power.[…]

Liberty without socialism means rule by CEOs, socialism without liberty means rule by bureaucrats.[…]

I can never understand why using an iPhone means you cannot object to the conditions under which iPhones are produced and sold and advocate for changing them. […] If a resident of the Soviet Union had gotten a free education in state schools and a job in the state bureaucracy, would they be a hypocrite if they criticized [the] structure of the Soviet economy?

The Toll – Neal Shusterman

At first I was a bit concerned about how this trilogy would be finishing – the initially ambiguous gap in time from Thunderhead was confusing, the Tonist interludes seemed too out-there, some fast perspective hopping, and thoughts of ‘really, this is a super-intelligent AI’s plan?’

But it does all come together! It’s a lot of fun, and works back through questions raised by the first two books to tie up in a story of enormous scale. Greyson and the Thunderhead have a great weird dynamic, all the characters are enjoyable (though Goddard is a little ‘mwah-ha-ha!-y’), the conclusion wraps up in a satisfying way without being too sugary. But I find it weird that people still struggle to understand people like Jeri?

A good ending to a refreshing, fast-paced take on (u/dys)topia and AI, with nice worldbuilding around post-mortality – albeit the themes on that are nothing new – and an interesting cast.

Selective Accuracy in Fantasy

Walpurgis
source

Some guy on the Daily Wire reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher: ‘No woman can fight with a sword. Zero women can fight with a sword.’

His complaint is, by the way, inaccurate. Many people have brought up Julie d’Aubigny, a bi opera singer/swordswoman who – among other adventures – attended a ball dressed as a man, kissed a woman, got challenged to a duel over it by three men, beat them all in succession, then went back to the ball.

Everybody knows that, on average, men have a strength advantage. But that’s an average, and besides skill in weaponry is supposed to make it possible to defeat someone who may be stronger than you. His reference to a ‘5 to 10-pound sword’ is also a joke, considering even claymores were around 5.5lb, with most swords much lighter.

More importantly, fantasy isn’t real. That’s sort of the point. Why is this fairly mundane area the point where his suspended disbelief snaps?

In Taking Artistic License I considered times when strict accuracy may or may not be convincing or entertaining. But there seems to be a particular trend for selective demands for accuracy in fantasy, based in reinforcing certain social attitudes. This can be at the expense of actual accuracy, or represent an arbitrary block on imagination:

‘But this historical period…’ Are you absolutely sure? Really, no foreign traders or anything? Nobody’s in the closet? You might be right, in which case fair enough. But if your version of Ancient Greece is completely straight, your research slipped up somewhere.

‘Ah, but in my fictional world of…’ So your worldbuilding has the full details of a steampunk society powered by burning the blubber of sky-whales – daily life, ecology, politics, history, five paragraphs about perfumes made using sky-whale bile. But you can’t (or didn’t choose to) imagine [multiple demographics or alternative social attitudes]

Samantha Shannon pins this down in her essay:

[E]ven in fictional worlds, the oppressed must remain oppressed. Any attempt to do otherwise is evidence of liberal fragility, box ticking, the sanitization of history or the shoehorning of unwelcome “politics” into entertainment. […]

It is typical that the same critics often base “historical accuracy”—both in historical and fantastical stories—on the fiction of a white and heteronormative past. In their minds, people of color, queer people and powerful women only had the nerve to exist in the last couple of centuries. […]

Creators can and have used fantasy to highlight both modern and historical inequalities to great effect, and they must always have the opportunity and space to do that—but, lest we forget, fantasy is not history, and is therefore not beholden to it. It can be exhausting to read about the same racist, homophobic and sexist worlds over and over again.

Fantasy as a genre is rooted in being able to picture radically different realities, where not only history and geography, but the laws of reality itself, can be reshaped from the ground up. So to me there’s something very petty about insisting that issues such as gender have to match with the comparable real-world place and time.

I’m of course not saying that every work of fiction has to be actively progressive, or that there aren’t ham-fisted ways of trying to be that can detract from entertainment or believability. But I can’t relate to the mindset where things like a medieval society being cool with gay people are less believable, and need more justification, than the dragon flying overhead or the dead raised from their graves.