Okay who had 'heir of Louis XVI complains about protesters destroying a statue' on their 2020 bingo card https://t.co/f7rrxTP6WK
— RacismDog Owners (@Racismdogowners) May 30, 2020
It sure does feel like everything is happening [at once/too fast/too much/forever] and it can be difficult to unplug and re-focus. So maybe this won't help at all but sharing some recent book notes probably won't hurt. Maybe there's something here you'd like to check out while watching the next month or so of school and sports... but definitely not rent... get cancelled.
China Dream by Ma Jian translated by Flora Drew (2018)
Chinese dissident Ma Jian's short satire of totalitarian corruption is by turns funny, surreal, and disturbing. Protagonist, Ma Daode is a high ranking functionary in the city of Ziyang's "China Dream Bureau" tasked with promoting President Xi's propaganda. His department is at work on a "China Dream device" which is supposedly a microchip implant that would replace the actual dreams of individuals with one collective "China Dream." This isn't really elaborated on in a technical sense except that it becomes clear that the idea is as far-fetched in the story as it would be in real life.
Meanwhile, Ma Daode's own persistent nightmarish memories of his experience during the Cultural Revolution are threatening to unravel his psyche and undermine his position. As suppressed guilt metastasizes to paranoia, Ma Daode struggles to maintain his slipping status in the bureaucracy where the worst thing a person can do is lose his composure. Or, as Ma Jian writes, "Like a live crab dropped into boiling water, as soon as you turn red hot, your life is over"
We're Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America by Jennifer M. Silva (2019)
A few years back there was a boomlet in journalism and publishing for works aimed at upper middle class liberal audiences where an author would study "working class" Trump voters as though they were mountain gorillas. Exemplars of this genre like Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in Their Own Land have been picked apart elsewhere for their condescension, and their class and racial biases.
But Silva does not reproduce those failures here. Instead, this is a study of a multi-ethnic down and out working class living in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region during 2016. The election is really only background noise in the book much as it is in the lives of these interview subjects most of which are several generations of despair removed from a time when politics could have anything tangible to offer them. Recommended for anyone with questions about the depth of social and political isolation in America who also isn't seeking superficial or self serving answers.
Biloxi by Mary Miller (2019)
Louis McDonald is going through some stuff. His wife has recently left him and his father has just died. Already having trouble adjusting, he has retired a few years early in anticipation of an inheritance that may or may not actually be coming to him. And that's when he sort of accidentally adopts a new dog.
The setting is familiar, the story is not very complicated. Miller's voice and dry sense of humor expressed through her sarcastic and often flustered first person narrator are enjoyable. You'll probably finish this in a day or two.
Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America by Christopher Leonard (2019)
The unity among Koch Industries' employees was hard to overstate, or even to articulate to outsiders. This was a cadre of people who worked for a secretive company that made the world work. They operated the mind-numblingly complex machinery that lay just beneath the surface of modern society: the pipelines, refineries, fertilizer plants, clothing factories, and trading desks. The stupendous profits that they realized from doing so only seemed to reinforce their sense of superiority over the outside world. When it came time to fight the outside world, it wasn't done with malice or disregard. It was done with a sense of pity. People outside the Koch campus seemed misguided, uneducated, somewhat oblivious to what it took to keep the lights on. Koch Industries would patiently work to correct these problems and make the world a better place.
Brown's research into the Chernobyl aftermath brings to light tens of thousands of deaths she links to fallout spread far and wide through ecological contamination and the food supply chain. Scores of poor people are basically deemed insignificant and sacrificed in order to accommodate profit, power and international politics. Not only do Soviet bloc governments in Ukraine and Belarus suppress information and deny medical care but Western powers and NGOs including the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization are also complicit in covering up the full extent of the damage on behalf of the nuclear power industry.
Anyone concerned with the cost/benefit calculations of policymakers responding to the current public health disaster will find this an eye opener to say the least.
Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga (2019)
A young Syrian girl's point of view story about migrating to the United States told in affecting free verse. As life in her home town becomes dangerous during the Arab Spring uprisings, narrator, Jude, travels with her mother to stay with an uncle in Cincinnati leaving her father and brother behind. There she describes the challenges of cultural adjustment on top the typical pre-teen worries about fitting in, making friends, and trying out for the school play. The family worries over intermittent news from home while also expecting a new arrival.
Recommended for ages 10-15
Zed by Joanna Kavenna (2020)
Hoping to see this one show up on a few "best of" lists when this infernal year finally does come to an end. Zed is first and foremost a dystopian satire about Big Tech and the hyper-surveillance state. But it's also something of a meta-commentary on the fraught politics and language we use to describe and combat those phenomena now, however ineffectively.
In the book, a company called Beetle is now THE tech giant uniting all the functions of e-commerce, logistics, data, entertainment, media etc. currently dominated by, you know, these guys. Naturally, Beetle is even more tightly entwined with the state than our tech lords currently are. City streets are a grid of autonomous taxis. There are cameras everywhere. And, of course, the public safety is maintained by an automated police force acting under the guidance of a predictive algorithm. But when the system fails to foresee an unexplained murder, several characters must scramble to explain the failure as a human error or "Zed event" and ensure that no more random events happen in the future.
So the premise seems pretty straightforward but there is a lot more going on here. Kavenna isn't just writing about technology, politics, police, and media. She's writing about how we interpret those things through literature, through art, and even through our understanding of physical science. One disturbing suggestion is that the total quantification and therefore commodification of human experience really does decontextualize and obviate any human objection.
Thankfully, she doesn't beat you over the head with any of this heavy stuff the way a lesser writer might. Instead this is an absurdist story that owes more to Joseph Heller or even Douglas Adams (and certainly the authors she cites in this column) than it does to Orwell. There is ironic commentary on the nature of causality and on the meaning of authenticity. The character in charge of maintaining the algorithm, one Douglas Varney, is a haggard and disheveled figure who has to appear in "Real Virtuality" chat rooms as a cool-faced avatar called @TheRealDouglasVarney. Near the end of the story, as things begin to unravel a bit for the regime, we get this.
The point was made across all free media. Nothing you are told is real. Remember this, until we tell you something you are being told is real. Actually, the thing we are telling you, that nothing you are told is real, is actually real. That thing is real, about nothing being real. Just that thing, though and nothing else. Is that clear?
Highly recommended. Would be my favorite novel of the year so far if not for...
The Mirror and the Light by Hillary Mantel (2020)
The third and final installment of Mantel's best selling, prize winning and otherwise much celebrated fictional history of the life of Thomas Cromwell. Mantel's books draw on 20th Century scholarship that revised the traditional view of Cromwell as a power hungry villain and cast him as a uniquely competent, even progressive, reforming administrator. Historians continue to argue over these interpretations but Mantel's work has clearly moved the more sympathetic version of Cromwell into the popular imagination where it is likely to stay for some time.
He is a compelling character for modern audiences. An unlikely rise from blacksmith's son to mercenary soldier to legal aide and finally to first minister and political fixer for Henry VIII defies the feudal social conventions still in place during Tudor times and presents to us as sort of a "rags to riches" meritocratic ideal. So Mantel's Cromwell becomes a bit of an avatar for the early emergence of a capitalist order. In a scene from the first book in this series, Wolf Hall, Cromwell reflects on certain members of the English nobility's misconception of where power lies in the new age.
The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence … from Lisbon, where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from the castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
In the middle of reading Mirror, I also picked up Thomas Piketty's Capital and Ideology which paired particularly well because of this. Piketty's book compares different historical "inequality regimes" and the ideological underpinnings that rationalize each regime's structural distribution of power and wealth. One such contrast is between the medieval "trifunctional" (3 estates) order based on rigid social hierarchy vs the "proprietarian" capitalism based on the primacy of individual property rights that replaced it.
Cromwell may be a man of the new era, but he has to operate within the fading but still dominant norms of the old. In one scene from Mirror he is investigating a murder when a colleague stops to advise him he isn't relating to the commoner witnesses he interviews in the correct fashion.
Listen, Cromwell, you don't get a good name among the lowly by sharing their concerns and handing out coin. You get their respect by overlooking them, as if you did not understand their sort, and your own belly had never been empty.
One facet of Piketty's argument is that our 21st Century neoliberal regime may be devolving into a neo-trifunctionalism where a corporate dominated cultural elite divides governing responsibilities with state police powers while the majority working class is, well, overlooked. So there are resonances between these books that might also be harbingers.
Another familiar political theme throughout the Cromwell novels is the problem of navigating an authoritarian regime headed by a spiteful narcissist. One simple way to describe these books, in fact, is to say they are a story about how to survive under totalitarianism until you don't.
By the time we reach the third book, Cromwell has survived and thrived because he has understood better than any of the courtiers around Henry that the imperative is always give the king what he wants. It's a rule that supersedes all considerations of morality and law and meeting its requirements demands ruthlessness. The further Henry's appetites strain against what should be his boundaries, the greater the danger increases. Not to Henry, of course. There are consequences for his transgressions but as Cromwell reflects at one point...
But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.
But Cromwell is not an amoral actor. He has agendas of his own both personal and religious which he has been able to advance by staying on top of the gossip, knowing who to do favors for, and by "arranging his face" so as never to give the game away. In other words, office politics but with actual beheadings.
Now we see all of that unraveled as the realities of that haphazard justice begin to catch up with him. We can rise to great heights learning to work the system and flatter even the most dysfunctional sort of power only to discover we are, in fact, as captured by and subject to its caprices as everyone else. Frustrated by his inability to advance the cause of Protestantism beyond that part of it that fits the king's whim, unable to defend friends and allies without compromising himself, knocked back by one particularly stinging personal rejection, Cromwell begins to resemble, ever so slightly, that red hot boiling crab described by Ma Jian.
Cromwell's enemies conspire against him in plain sight but there is no
recourse other than to continue arranging one's face and acting as though
everything is under control. Until, inevitably, it isn't. Once the disaster is set in motion, one has no choice but to allow it play out. Whatever the strength of our convictions, talents, or resolve, ultimately we are at the mercy of terrible forces greater than anything within our grasp. All we can do is wait on those forces to mete out what punishment they will.
While awaiting his sentence, Cromwell imagines what Hell might be like.
That is how it will be-not pain itself but the constant apprehension of pain; the constant apprehension of fault, the knowledge that you are going to be punished for something you couldn't help and didn't even know was wrong; and the discord in Hell will be constant, repeating for ever and ever, a violent argument being carried on in the next room.