Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review of Habibi by Craig Thompson

Sometimes a book comes along and it is so good, so profound, so heartbreaking and redeeming it stuns you into silence. You have no idea what to say about the book. That $20,000 English degree might as well be a placemat for all the good its doing you now. The silence that follows is profound, deep, and reverential.

I read this in one sitting. Beautiful inspiring unapologetically foreign and heartbreakingly humane. One of the few books I read this year that gave me hope for the species. Will no doubt reread and dip into for years to come.

It is about: two orphans.

It takes place: in a third world urban landscape in a middle eastern country. But it is also as timeless and placeless as the arabian nights or Grimm's Fables.

It is not for the faint of heart: rape, war, murder, mutilation, insanity stalk its pages.

But so do love and understanding. And regardless of the medium, that is hard for an artist to pull off.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review of A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen

Derrik Jensen's books are not really an enjoyable experience. He comes across as a bit of a crank at first and a militant eco advocate reformer. The prose style is engaging though. He has a definite voice. That voice is not shrill, and does not cry about the end of the world. A technique perhaps better expressed on a soapbox on a street corner. Instead the voice that comes across is rational, precise, scientific(he was an engineer in college), sarcastic and ironic, but not in any way shape or form delusional.

I was worried when I began the book about how he seemed like he was going to tie his own experiences of being a victim of childhood abuse(his father raped and beat him and his siblings and their mother) to the larger issue of the destruction of the planet and indigenous people. I felt myself backpedaling and wanting to say "Uh dude, I don’t think they are connected. I think that what happened to you has made you think of the world in this way."

Alas, I was wrong.

Derrik Jensen's A Language Other Than Words is not just a chronicle of his childhood abuse, how he carried the scars with him and what it has taken for him to heal. It is rather, and amazingly so, an investigation into why Civilization and Abuse seem so closely connected to each other.

He draws parallels between what his father had done and the father's justifications: to make you stronger, you made me do it, etc, and our culture's justifications for what it does to the planet and general population. If one looks at our culture writ large, and the damage done on a daily basis by corporate entities who deforest, pollute and use up without a single shred of guilt, remorse, or in any way shape or form concern over what their actions are doing to the planet, then it is hard not to see his father's justifications tied into some mentality that arises in civilization.

In essence then the book becomes more an examination of not so much abuse as of use. The idea and mentality that has arisen in our history of just using the world around us, the people around us, all to further goals and ends that benefit the few. This idea that it is ok to disregard entire species and populations in order that a select group thrives, is something he looks at closely. He sees it everywhere civilization "thrives."

And it’s the idea that what has happened is that civilization itself seems to have a chronic lack of awareness regarding what it does that the book's argument truly hinges on.

In a section I found particularly disturbing(which, after all, is what he plans to do), perhaps because of my philosophy interests, he takes on Descartes famous claim to subjectivity "I think, therefore I am," as one of the starting grounds for this sickness of use. The idea that since I know I exist, but don't know if you do, its ok for me to act as though you don't exist. And when you do that, he warns, you become dangerous. From that simple philosophic declaration its easy to start the culture of use/abuse.

When an author announces that Civilization is doomed my inner ear shuts down and I stop listening even though I may keep reading. But there is a difference here.

In the preface he states that he wanted to write a feel good book, about his experiences with coyotes. But then question led to question and before he knew it these questions led him down some dark paths and he was questioning the whole basis for civilization. Why does it seem, he writes, to stem from this crazy impulse to control and regulate, and in essence abuse our environment.

And that journey is disturbing, profound and thought provoking. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but for sheer skill and force with which he makes you look at these questions from an entirely fresh angle, the experience is not to be missed.

In another of his books which I took to heart, Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, he states his number one writing mantra, and the message he tries to teach his writing students, is DON’T BORE THE READER.

Be prepared not to be bored. Outraged. Shocked. Disturbed. Forced to have thoughts you'd rather not have at 3 am, but most certainly not bored.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why Orwell Matters, by Christopher Hitchens

I prefer the title of the English edition of this book: Orwell's Victory. That title more accurately covers Christopher Hitchens' purpose. The book consists of a series of rebuttals to Orwell's critics and their respective 'camps:' the Left, the Right, Feminists, Colonial apologists, Americans, literary critics, and others. Each one of these respective schools are targeted by Hitchens, and their arguments against Orwell the writer and the man are addressed.

The description of the book on Goodreads and Amazon contained a blurb which said that Hitchens removes the image of Orwell as a plaster saint, and draws a portrait of the man as he was.

This is not strictly accurate. Instead of a biography that meticulously details Orwell's life and writings Hitchens here instead writes a defense of Orwell's basic positions on the various above topics. In doing so he highlights how Orwell's comments and writings, were co-opted, misinterpreted, or in some cases even blatantly misquoted and used to support arguments and positions he never supported The book digs down through the actual writings and shows what it was Orwell actually said or wrote, as opposed to what he is rumored or others claimed he wrote.

Hitchens is like a Homeric Fighter defending the fallen Orwell's body from all who would 'strip him of his armor.' The fights with some of Orwell's detractors are bloody, as in the section where he defends Orwell from an allegation that he supplied a blacklist of English civil servants who might be communists to the BBC(he didn’t. It was an entry in his journal of a parlor game he and his friends played as to who they suspected were communists or collaborators and who would most quickly cave in the face of a dictatorship or invasion).

What emerges more than anything else in these pages is the idea that Orwell's great enemy and the great evil of his time was Stalin and Stalinism. Orwell witnessed first hand during the Spanish Civil War the lies and propaganda and atrocities committed by the communists against other left leaning groups fighting alongside them. The communists ruthlessly attacked and tried and executed all other groups who had been united in fighting Franco's Fascists. Orwell recognized the need to write of what happened. He saw Stalin's agents everywhere subverting, destroying, and attacking all non communists. This zero toleration of other's political views is what most galled him. And later, during WW2 when the allies saw Stalin as the savior against the Germans Orwell was quick to point out the record of the man, and what his regime had done. There were members of the British government who were working with and for Stalin and some had an active hand in repressing Orwell's books.

Orwell's supposed unflattering portrayal of women as a significant of his anti woman attitude is addressed and effectively demolished. He wrote of a certain type of female in certain type of settings(bossy, domineering, with a hint of cruelty) but this is, as Hitchens points out through letters, journals, and others accounts of Orwell, not representative of how he felt about women in general. He did in fact marry several beautiful, intelligent, and independent women through the course of his life.

Hitchens is fair though. In the book he shows that Orwell did indeed dislike homosexuals and homosexuality and often raved about them. Hitchens acknowledges this but also is quick to point out that perhaps his experiences at English prep schools might have created this.

As a defense for those familiar with Orwell's writings against those who would misuse him the book is worthwhile. There are some intriguing biographical details, but the book works better as a history of Orwell's ideas during and after his death. Hitchens is pugnacious and stubborn enough to go toe to toe with respected literary figures, politicians, and critics, and like a Homeric hero he permits no quarter and gives no mercy.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, and New Directions


When I started the blog I originally intened to review and discuss sci fi and fantasy novels, because those were what I devoured at the time. I still read them, with immense pleasure, but other concerns have sent me to books and areas of interest. Mostly political science, social science, and economics.

Which in a weird way is a kind of homecoming.

Let me explain.

When I was younger, in my in between college days(that is, when I was in between colleges after having dropped out for a few years), I read a lot of George Orwell. A book I read and reread over and over was The Road to Wigan Pier.

Now as I've stated on the blog before, I grew up and currently live in a former coal mining town in Pennsylvania, which for you Non American Readers is about 250 miles from New York City. I can get to NYC in about 2.5 hours by car.

I mention this because the subject of Orwell's book is a mining community and the lives of the people he finds there, and what forces have come together to make such a brutal existence.

I remember being entranced by the book, captivated by the lives of the people and descriptions of the ugly coal hills and dirty conditions that to me seemed as though I were reading an accurate description of my hometown. One line in particular moved me deeply, when he described a young woman in winter with threadbare clothes trying to unstuck a drainage pipe in the freezing cold and looking into her eyes he saw she knew how miserable she was. Not ashamed of her poverty, but aware of just what a situation her life had been forced into. But in the same book Orwell focused on the Mine owners and operators, the exploitation, and the possibility of change. He broke down the system by which a few prosper and the many starve.

I learned a great deal from that book, and learned to question my previously held belief that the mines were just another step along the way of American Progress and the inhabitants were either too lazy to change their existence or just unfortunate.

Orwell, by his arguments, descriptions, and analysis, opened my eyes to the very real truth that what may appear to be the misfortune of others is often the culmination of calculated effort designed to maximize a profit.

I ended up back in college not long after, determined to "make something of myself." I pursued my English degree and studied Shakespeare, Chaucer, Eliot(George and T.S.)and others, and from them also learned a great deal. Many were masters of prose, and insightful into the human condition. But Orwell was never really mentioned on any of the lists. He was often sneeringly referred to as a 'political writer," as if having a political agenda were an inhumane method by which to approach the making of art.

What has drawn me back to Orwell, and to the political writers, social scientists, economists, and other like minded thinkers is the same absolute clarity, the same awareness that something is indeed very, very wrong. That our system is not just going through a series of ups and down with this being one brutal down cycle, but that the system itself is flawed, and unless we learn, educate ourselves, it will only get worse.

I am going to read as much Orwell as I can find. He is, in a sense, my Virgil on this journey. Though I am not sure I will agree with all of his political views, I do think I can learn much. Nor do I think I will hold him in overly high esteem. I do not intend to found a cult of Saint George. He will show I’m sure his failings as a writer and thinker as any other human who tries to write and communicate.

But more than read Orwell I intend to open the blog up some. Write essays about the times, things I see, people I meet, situations that for lack of a better term, are as miserable and squalid as those I read about in Road to Wigan Pier, or its companion piece, Down and Out in Paris and London. Strip away the cant, and the corporate coded version of reality, see the ugliness as well as the hopefulness underneath.

Lionel Trilling once wrote of Orwell that he "had a kind of genius to look at things in a simple, undecieved way." He was not a master stylist(or so Trilling complains. I think his style is effective). He could not create characters with such life and power as a Dickens, a Bronte. Yet I cannot help but think that in our own times, when what we see and hear and read and watch is so controlled by a group of media giants who want to force fear and consumerism down our throats, that this ability, this looking at things in a his own simple, undecieved way, is something we sorely need.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Dirty Streets of Heaven Review


Why is it that fantasy books like this, about the war between heaven and hell, always take a left turn and wind you up in some very existential territory? You would think it would all be cut and dried: demons are like orcs and its morally, emotionally, and socially ok to genocide them with extreme prejudice and not feel one iota of guilt, remorse or angst for doing so. But characters in the story cannot help but ask why? Why is it all set up like this? Why do we do this? Who or what really are we fighting for? What really are the rules? What really are the options?

Bobby Dollar is vividly brought to "life." This guy is so dark, he's jaded with the afterlife. He's sick of heaven and its golden city beauracracy. He's sick of hell and its sleazy horrors. He's sick of a world that is at endless war where there seems no end in sight, no resolution, no reasons for its existence other than those guys are bad, and we are good.

Bobby is going to ask some very dangerous questions and the people with halos are going to be extremely pissed off. The people with the horns aren't going to be all that happy either. I loved the fact that this guy is such a troublemaker that he gets on everyone's bad side: a vicious duke of hell hates him as much as the winged seraphs of heaven.

Like in the real world, when someone asks who benefits from this war, a hush falls across polite company like an untimely fart."Its just, you know, the way it is." Not good enough for Bobby who is sick of just taking orders. He takes a walk on the wild side, lands in some dangerous company with the queen of all bad girls, has a primeval horror chase him through the streets of LA dead set on eating his liver for dinner, and learns more than he wants to.

The characterizations are the book's main selling point. A complete set of side characters with their own arcs and motivations. The worldbuilding impressed me as well. Backstories abound about the eternal conflict and the author's inventiveness kept me hooked.

If Raymond Chandler wrote Paradise Lost, it might have looked like this.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review of The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham


I suppose novel readers can be sometimes compared to heavily invested and knowledgeable sports fans. When a team they have been following for years suddenly changes tactics, say goes from a strong running game to a strong passing game, heads wag, talking heads analyze The savvy sports fan though sees farther and thinks through what the coach's goal, if he has any, is and makes analyses that encompass not only the seemingly minor changes but how the new dynamic affect the whole outlook and season in various subtle ways.

So too the constant novel reader sometimes comes across a formula that turns out to not be formulaic at all, a seemingly common type or setup is suddenly revealed to be subtle and different, the product of a conscious choice, not a random gimmick, and something which reveals a fundamental change in tactics for the novel, the characters and the series. Something that is, to continue with the sports analogy, a game changer.

In the epic fantasy series the types and tropes are well established. The hero, the villain, the saving of the kingdom, the threat of annihilation by an invading force have all been done and redone and remixed. All these are well established, as are their opposites. The anti cliché fantasy novels with the grimdark or satiric bite: A Song of Ice and Fire, The First Law Trilogy and stand alones that follow, the K.J. Parker Engineer trilogy and others. These novels deliberately skewer the accepted tropes with a bitter realism and worldliness.

But The King's Blood, the second installment in The Dagger and the Coin series, is doing something that seems to me to be a game changer. When I reviewed the first book in the series I spoke with admiration and appreciation , and still stick by my opinion. I made the statement that the characters, the situations and the setting, with bankers and outdated royalty with their eroding sense of honor, all made the book feel as though Balzac had written a fantasy novel. I still believe the comparison fits. The series is very much concerned with the problems of an outdated royalty and an emerging unfettered banking system. In the first book I was shocked by the mash up of money and fantasy. Im still captivated by what he is doing with it in this book.

What is changing the game in the series are the characters. There is a depth here that I am struck into silence by. Geder's portrayal, his initial uncomfortableness with being in the public, his awkwardness, his geekiness, his being thrust into 'greatness,' his thoughts, what he holds dear, and what he hopes for are all shown with a depth of understanding for the character himself. You are inside his motivation, inside his anxieties, inside his hopes. All of which are even more fascinating since you cannot help but wonder if what you are being shown is the development of a bloody tyrant and dictator who will kill hundreds of thousands in the name of security.

So too with Cithrin, the banker. An unusually sharp orphan with a talent for finance, she has progressed from pulling off her swindles in the beginning to working on larger acquisitions and holdings for the future. But here too, you wonder if what you are being shown is not so much a hero's development, as the development of a cold hearted calculating CEO type who cares only, in the end, about money.

Dawson, the noble from the beginning book, is still loyal to the throne. But here is shown to become even more bloody minded in the name of patriotism. He will risk the stability of the kingdom for what he believes is right.
Captain Marcus is the swaggering sergeant with a tragic past. He is perhaps the book's moral center but there are also subtle questions of his motivations. Does he really love Cithrin? Or is it a fatherly protection love? He ends up finding employment for the bank kicking people out of their homes and without giving too much away he is good at his job.

Clara, Dawson's wife is one of the most moving characters in the book. How she keeps the family together, the things she does, the losses she accrues and the effect they have on her is some of the most poignant writing I've ever read, not just in a fantasy series but ever. I found myself moved to a deep empathy when reading of her coming down in the world.

What makes this series a game changer for me is not just that these characters are all in a morally grey area, but that they are beng moved into this area completely conscious of what they are doing. I see this as a bit of a game changer for the fantasy novel because the characters are neither high minded nor are they fools either. They do not have the world weary cynicism of a Tyrion Lannister, or the despair of their own redemption of a Logan Ninefingers.

The game changing aspect of this is that this is something new in fantasy, at least to my experience of reading fantasy. He is working with familiar tropes and types and not writing anti fantasy as much as doing something different. And the something different in these books is the level of character building. There are subtleties here and they are deep. To portray a monstrosity in the making of a Geder takes great skill and ability.

What's rare for me in a fantasy novel series is to read one right after another but I immediately picked up The Tyrant's Law(book 3). Generally I need a break from the characters and the world and need to read something else. But I am intrigued to learn what is going to happen to these characters.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review of Something Fierce, by Carmen Aguirre

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This was a difficult book to read. The style, the writing, the tone, the pace all were well done. The odd mix of the combination of a young girl's coming of age(complete with "boy crazy" nice clothes and music) matched with a revolutionary education and revolutionary parents(revolutionary, not activist, this book was clear on the difference) were intriguing, insightful and moving.


But the difficulty for me arose from the heartbreaking conditions the people of south america were subjected to back in the seventies and eighties. Aguirre deftly moves between a young girls eye opening experiences with poverty, injustice, state oppression, racism and the real price of neoliberalism. She does not turn her eyes away from what she sees. And what she sees is described unflinchingly: student protesters burned alive in the streets, the survivors of torture camps with twisted nails and limps, dragging their bodies to the local market, Indian senior citizens made to be "mules" carrying luggage weighing hundreds of pounds on their backs and laughed and jeered at in the streets.
And Aguirre writes of what she sees not through the lens of some political dogmatism, or some abstract plan to change the political structure, she writes of the outrage she feels as a human being, and then takes action as a result. She acts out of the need for change. Her revolutionary spirit, her ideas, her observations, her plans, she does not hide from what she sees as wrong. She refuses to look away, to pretend its something other than what it is. And the books strength rests with that.


In a strange sense this book reminded me a lot of Homage to Catalonia. Lionel Trilling wrote in his introduction to that book that Orwell was not a genius but a writer who accomplished a lot just by keeping his eyes open. I don't entirely agree with his definition, and there are parts of Aguirre's book that are genius, but the statement about keeping his eyes open applies very much to Aguirre.


While others in her set are getting stoned at parties and hanging out in malls Aguirre and her family are organizing, housing the fugitives and dissidents, working constantly through subversion and activism to make their world better. She looks around her and refuses to believe that things "have to be this way."


She is hardworking, diligent, intelligent, and inspired. But there comes a point in the book where she breaks down. Where the "terror," as she refers to her frightening experiences of being searched and mentally tortured, overtakes her still. These scenes are brutal, and painful, and made me squirm. But also, in an extended sense, made me understand that things such as this happen.


The end of the book was sudden, and won't spoil it. I do hope she writes a sequel about her life as an actor and writer of plays, and her work in the theater. Though she may have stopped being undercover, running goods and documents for the revolutionaries over mountain paths, her life is intriguing and I hope there is more to come of what happened after.