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 (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 (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.