Sunday, 28 November 2010

Spectacular: Review of Freedom by Franzen

“I don’t know how to live” so says Walter at a pivotal moment in Franzen’s work. It’s a fair commentary on life and freedom but I would now say that a central element of anyone’s life should be reading this book.
I was always worried that when Franzen followed the Corrections with such effective and brilliant non-fiction in his memoirs and essays that we would never see a substantial work of fiction from him again. Perhaps he thought he had done all he could in the genre but I was well off the mark.
Focused on a married couple who met at college, Walter and Patty, and thirty years of their lives: it initially starts like a chamber piece of those two rather than the full symphony that the Corrections represented of pre- millennial America. But this is part of the work’s amazing narrative structure.
It starts and finishes with outsiders, neighbours, looking in at the couple and judging them: only a partial picture is revealed. Then it pulls out like a camera shot to reveal the bigger context in which Walter and Patty. This is done using a variety of methods – excerpts of one of the character’s auto-biography, chapters written from the perspective of very different people central to the two of them. It is a powerful method of structure because it has a variety of “unreliable narrators” and you judge others and them as you read. This however get s turned on its head as you read another perspective and you see that your own judgements were misplaced and you think again about how you have looked at them.
A strong character (in every sense) in the work is provided by Richard Katz – Walter’s best friend – an aging Lothario by the end but a young one to start with ! rock star who is both shallow and deep in equal measures. He does not believe he is free but is lead by his groin into most decisions. Perhaps not unsurprisingly there is a long passage in the final chapter regarding the destructive nature of domestic cats on bird-life in the states. Katz has his own appetite for destruction but also building.
For that is another trait of the work – it integrates non-fiction elements throughout on the environment, Iraq, modern music, birds (Franzen’s own obsession) reflective of his recent work. Sometimes this slightly jars as for example when they discuss a method of brutal mining over 10 pages or so which Walter an Envrionmental lawyer has to promote. I also had a sense of work that Franzen had read before writing this work – notably The Shock Doctrine and I think Collapse by Jared Diamond.
Diamond’s seminal work on the collapse of untrammeled human societies throughout history has an introduction with almost identical tensions raised by Walter in his struggle to tackle the immanent environmental disaster of modern capitalism by doing deals with those very capitalist billionaires. Diamond himself made such compromises which he describes. I am not convinced that it is the right thing to do – and neither ultimately is Walter as it in part leads to his unraveling.
But that is only one dimension of the book it is also starkly, brutally at times, intimate unpicking the nature of family, friends, parenting, unhappiness, betrayal and redemption. It does this with insight and power which is pretty unequalled by any other current writer of fiction. When horrible things happen in this work which they do they are almost unreadable because you feel almost personally entwined with them. After one passage I had to stop reading for a couple of days.
I also like the fact that the central section is labeled 2004 – a key year in recent American history. The fairly comfortable re-election of W Bush to the horror of the left, the chaos in Iraq at its height, Fallujah, post- 911 tensions, environmental destruction being re-discovered as a reality – also the year that the disintegration of Walter and Patty’s life comes to a critical point. There are other historical periods outlined – notably the late 70s when Richard, Patty and Walter are at college and a small taste of post-Obama America. In contrast to the Corrections there is very American context to the work – one (fairly humourous) trip to Latin America apart this is an internal work on America.
And of course the title – its power lies in that you keep referring back to it whenever the concept is mentioned in the work. When Patty is dealing with one of her own personal crisis she sees a sign at her daughter’s college: “Use well thy freedom”. Patty and Walter’s son Joey gets involved in a way with the neo-con movement and their bastardised use of the word. Walter’s campaign against human reproduction seeks to limit freedom for the good of all. In a sense, everyone is cursed with their freedom and the sadness is brings.
I am only really scraping the surface here of the work. There is so much humour, observation, very sad and devastating passages that it cannot be replicated. The ending and writing for the last 50 pages and so also needs to be read. It literally is indispensible.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Streams of time - Mrs Dalloway review

My first completed book of my 40s and an appropriately brilliant one. Originally inspired to delve into after watching the Hours earlier this year.
The movie (and novel) bases itself around the themes, structure and indeed the author of Mrs Dalloway. Death, suicide, trauma, marriage and the role of women are a number of the themes which were explored. I later then saw the movie adaptation of this book starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Those cinematic depictions of the book obviously had enough in them to make me want to read it but nothing really prepared me for the unique and groundbreaking nature of the fiction.

Essentially a novel bound by time - over the course of one day (a similar structure used by Joyce) it nominally covers an upper middle class woman preparing for an ornate party in the 1920s. Except it doesnt really - it is a stream of conciousness work of sorts but the consciousness is passed from one character to another like a baton.
One of the brilliant things this book does is write in the way that people actually think so events from long ago pop up alongside inappropriate feelings and banal conversation. It shows that humans are creatures of the present but their mind contains so much background and history. In a sense it reminds me of Becket's fiction which I enjoy but is very difficult as it burrows down to almost the very inner core of what it means to be human. Mrs Dalloway does not go as far as this which makes it easier though not easy to read.
It actually does much more though as it is a contemporary novel of the 20s - it explores women's roles through time. There are significant female characters at all age of life including Clarissa Dalloway in her mid 50s. It examines class, political stagnation and the insidious affect of the war (First World) which had ended a few years before but whose impact society could (and arguably never has) escape. This is personified in the character of Septimus suffering from severe mental illness/shell shock from the trenches whose tragic arc lies in parallel to Clarissa's "privileged" life.
But what I was really struck by was the sense that this is a novel about change and response to that. The late 19th century is constantly compared with the modern era and the endemic social changes - women for example were just about to get the vote. But also in personal life how mortality is a constant burden we must carry as Clarissa says " the middle of my party, here's death she thought"!
In some ways similar to Mme Bovary as it depicts the essential shallowness of upper class life it actually is much more.
An amazing piece of work with so much in it and will definitely read more of Ms Woolf.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Review of Bingham's Rule of Law

Just finished this and just found out that Tom Bingham died yesterday. I think the work may gain added significance.
An overview of a central legal concept by recently retired leading judge. Impressive in its breadth and in its concise use of language: it's quite a short book.
Bingham outlines in his introduction that the work is not aimed at lawyers but the general populace. I think this is a bit of a vain hope as the technical legal detail (whilst far from impenetrable) generally will be difficult for people with no legal knowledge at all to engage with. As evidence of this witness his appearance on Start the Week where the rest of the panel had either not read the book or not really engaged with the ideas.
When I was a law student (a few years ago! )there was quite a large left wing debate on the rule of law as a concept. EP Thompson, The Marxist Historian and peace activist, labelled it "an unqualified human good" whereas Thatcherite and New Labour politicians were endlessly condemning strikers, protestors and activists for not respecting the "rule of law". Significantly this argument is not even skirted on by Bingham for his sole focus is the state and what it must do to adhere to the concept. Individuals are only mentioned in terms of their rights being protected.
This focus is welcome and enlightening because it removes the political rhetoric from the phrase. But it is limited particularly in his admittedly guarded support for Dicey and Hewart's attack on the "New Despotism" of governmental discretionary power in the 1920s - which was really an attack on socialism, municipal and general.
Its other innovation in exploring the concept is giving the rule of law a substantive content in particular one which respects Human Rights - this was anathema to traditional English law thinkers (particularly Dicey).
The most devastating part of the book is the attack on the decision to go to war in 2003 and the current anti-terrorist laws. A forensic dissection of the shocking legal arguments used by Blair and Straw - Bush as he points out wasnt bothered about getting legal endorsement. A case could be made that this part is the reason Bingham wrote this book it certainly reads like he is getting a lot off his chest. Essential reading when currently witnessing Blair all over the airwaves with his new memoirs.
More technically he also uses the book to have a go at 3 even more liberal law lords and their approach to the power of the courts viz Supremacy of Parliament. Ultimately there are weaknesses - there is a fairly naive view of history - English in particular - which he spends a chapter exploring. And the conclusion hedges its bets on whether the British Parliament will always respect the rule of law (rather than the Government/Administration on which he is fairly scathing) or whether recourse to an ultimate law - a constitution - is needed.
It is a contradiction of modern British Capitalism that the judiciary (in general) have become part of the liberal wing - upholding human rights and taking an interventionist approach. This seems a change from the age of Griffiths "The Politics of the Judiciary" but shows the changes that constitutional reform has made. Obviously they are still an integral part of the establishment - see the recent anti-trade union rulings - but they are now analytical critics of the state too. This covers a wide spectrum of views in the legal system: Bingham's are far from the most radical but are worth spending a bit of time reading

Monday, 23 August 2010

Zeitoun- vital writing

It seems a bit portentous to say that this is probably the most important book Dave Eggers will ever write, but it is no less true.
An examination of the event 5 years ago that is the paradigm of the current period of 'disaster capitalism' that as Naomi Klein has pointed out we are now in: the flooding and destruction of New Orleans.
The genius of the work is that it is firmly a piece of non-fiction and that it tells the story through the eyes of a Muslim-American family. Indeed the narrative structure which is clever builds a picture of a family happy and global in nature around the disintegration of American civil society.
There are endless debates on the line between fiction and non-fiction but in this work its jaw - punching power lies in its truth. Eggers' last major work was also non-fiction but relied much on recollections of a young African child. This work has the sense of research, testimony and interviews - a bit like Capote's In Cold Blood.
Zeitoun is a Syrian immigrant who is a successful builder who stays behind in his city New Orleans as his family leaves. He seeks to help those stranded. Things take a dramatic (and for me shocking) turn though. The themes of 21st century America become intertwined - deregulated capitalism and government and fear of Islamic terror.
Egger's elegant prose style takes a back seat here and he lets the terrible story unfold. He understands that the most moving images in life are fairly simple and mundane - a sore foot, hamburger meat, a child's question. And it is moving - almost unbearably sad in places but uplifting and anger inducing too. To read the book really explains why Obama won the Presidency in the states so convincingly 3 years after this.
Zeitoun states of one of his colleagues attitude to the disaster unfolding in front of him and how he rises to the occasion of helping out people he was "a good man made better". The same is true of Eggers, a vital piece of work.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Thoughts on Sen's Idea of Justice.

One of my achievements of this summer (also got flooring done in hall cupboard!) was reading Amartyn Sen’s “Idea of Justice”. This big chunk of thoughts covers almost all elements of human thought through the prism of struggling with what the concept of Justice means in our contemporary society.
Although ostensibly an economist, Sen has won the Nobel Prize, his style is very broad both in the disciplines which he covers but also in his breadth of sources notably drawing on Eastern writings which are more than often overlooked in Western writings particularly on economics, philosophy and law.
His work, which I have never read any of, mainly deals in social choice theory which looks at the economics underpinning human behavior and the choices people make. Sen seeks to counter the presumption, which is fairly prevalent in capitalist thinking, that faced with a choice people always look after their own interests in a selfish way. Indeed, as he points out, choice theory has become synonymous with this.
This work is partially an attempt to integrate his work in this field into the area of legal theory. Indeed it also works as a comprehensive summary of all of his work to this date with a substantial and impressive referencing system and bibliography as part of the work.
The sweep of the work is one of its most impressive features from discussing the nature of freedom, to exploring the economic and political roots of famines to dissecting the writing of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. You get a real sense of the breadth and depth of Sen’s knowledge but also of his enthusiasm for all aspects of learning and knowledge. I would add though that some of the roots of the weaker elements of the work lie here as well.
The essential argument of the book is that theories of justice are dominated historically and in the present time by “transcendental institutionalism”. That is the discussion focuses on the ideal institutions and how they could deliver a ‘just’ society – not only the institutional machinery but the theories which underpin this are also discussed in relation to the higher transcendental concepts.
Sen also labels these thinkers “contractarians” as they often use the concept of a social contract - in that he puts Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau , Kant and importantly in modern times John Rawls. The first part of the work is essentially a dissection and critique of Rawls’ work ‘A Theory of Justice’. For Sen this is the paradigm of this mode of thinking.
He contrasts this school of thought with those who challenge injustice in the here and now and only view justice as how it relates to the immediate. They adopt a comparative approach to realize justice in a real social setting not an ideal world. In this school he puts Wollstonecraft, Condorcet (an early French revolutionary thinker on social choice who I had never heard of) Adam Smith, Bentham, Mill and possibly controversially but I think correctly Marx.
This I would argue is a strength of the work as it illustrates that Marx’s work contrary to sloppy capitalist critique was not about creating a far off utopian society but exploring the concrete reality of capitalism and the injustice it delivers. By putting Marx in this category Sen is certainly distinguishing himself from most other current academic writers.
Sen places himself in this latter camp and in particular cites Smith heavily, in particular his writings on Moral Philosophy which is another neglected aspect of intellectual work. He utilizes in particular his concept of the ‘impartial spectator’ as a judge (in the broadest sense) of what is just.
One of the examples and scenarios (of which there are many good ones) which was lept on by book reviewers and shows like Start the Week is in the Introduction, may have been as far as they read!, seeks to explore this. It concerns three children and a flute. All of the kids have a claim on the flue – only one of them made it, only one of them knows how to play it and one of them is so poor they have no other toy to play with. Who should get it?
Now Sen is not making the case for any one of the children, contrary to the impression some of the reviews of the work have given. Rather his point is that all of them have a valid claim to the flute. In a modern society justice needs to have a system of deciding which is the most “just”. Democracy is necessary for this as Sen equates democracy with public discussion and discourse not simply voting.
The flute example is also used to contrast Rawls’ work and indeed is part of the critique. Now Sen is effusive in his praise of Rawls, the book is dedicated to him (he died in 2002), he cites all the joint teaching work he did with him and makes high claims for Rawls relevance to modern political thought. This I think is a bit of overstatement and perhaps overcompensation for his work more or less takes the basis of Rawls’ work apart.
Rawls ideal institutions are drawn up by participants in a society from behind a “veil of ignorance” that is no one knows what their role in a society would be so they can’t act in their own subjective interests. Sen’s justifiable gripe with this is that it assumes that there is one true model of justice that will emerge from this which all will accept. In contrast to the flute problem where it is seen that three kids can’t agree on what is just.
Thus this basic flaw makes the whole Rawlsian project untenable although Sen feels it has validity in some other areas for example the pre-eminence of liberty. It is of little use in delivering actual justice because it aims for a higher ground which is actually irrelevant. A parallel I enjoyed was an artistic one! That is it is of little use to say the best painting ever made was the Mona Lisa when you are comparing a Picasso and a Matisse and asked which is the best compared to the best painting ever made.
In producing an alternative to this Sen travels across the whole world of human thought – the nature of subjectivity, how humans make choices, the role of language, what sustainability actually means in the modern world . In truth it probably goes too far on tangential issues – I was a bit lost at the discussion of incompleteness in evaluative theory for example!
This feeds into the conclusion which is a study of democracy and Human Rights, although the easiest to read it seems the weakest in argument as it idealises to a large degree issues around the media. Sen argues this is central to democracy and hence justice but does not really explore the pressures and the capitalist domination of all traditional media outlets now which threaten democracy. It also is weak in its examination of current tensions with a slightly idealized version of the Indian state and the UN, both of which Sen has links with. In a sense Sen is dabbling in some transcendental wish fulfillment of his own – ignoring for example the general Maoist uprisings across the subcontinent for example which has its own vision of injustice.

Also because of its scope I found the conclusion a little unsatisfying. Essentially the idea of justice deals with the here and now and must be determined through public discourse with input from outside observers so our idea of justice is not parochial and does not cover up injustice which we in our society may accept. I guess this is enough without being prescriptive and indeed he want s to get away from idealized institutional prescription.
But a brilliant book in many ways – an excellent source of further reading, very well written and comprehensive. I think I will always have a well thumbed copy on shelf.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

And the Ass Saw the Angel Review

Having kindly received this for my birthday last year from my mate I thought a holiday by the English seaside would be the ideal environment in which to savour it.
I am more of a distant admirer of Nick Cave than a fan and don't own very much of his music. My passing knowledge of his work and the fact it was set in the deep dead South of America led me to think his first novel published in the late 80s would be about a drunken blind dwarf having sex with his half cousin before being garrotted by a rusty blade of a harvester and to be honest that wasn't very far off the mark.

When you have lines like "all the welkin bile had been pumped from the sewers of Hell then vomited in a black and furious torrent down upon the shack" Mr Cave is probably only one of the people you would have been in the company of.

The plot such as it is concerns an outsider in a community of outsiders stuck in the middle of desolation. The dominant themes are Religion, corruption, violence, the Old Testament view of God and death. It is very similar to his musical work - in particular I think he did a specific album of Murder Ballads which is echoed here.
As a writer he is pretty good with a forboding sense of environment and outlines the hypocrisy of religion. He writes from a number of perspectives but mainly centres around the outcast Euchrid Eucrow (the crow is a constant in the work). Looking at his spying on the internal machinations of the obscure sect-arian community and their chosen child saviour.

As a whole though the novel loses itself in a miasma of brutal imagery, weather and confusing character development. This is particularly true in the last book within the work which breaks down into a song like structure with repetition and rhythms in parts.
I think one of the problems is that there are not enough concepts Cave cares enough about to fill a novel or if they are he doesn't develop them. In a way writing 4 minute songs you don't have to do this.
The violence (sexual and otherwise) is fairly graphic but in parts so over the top it reminded me a bit of the climactic scene in Kill Bill Vol 1 which was a bloodbath but more like a comic book.
Cave has a bad habit of falling back on long lists to express the same thing - like he'd fallen onto an old thesaurus. Also I am not sure how Euchrid the mute outsider mountain man would have such an articulate form of written expression. I guess it is to contrast with his "dumb" nature but it is never explained: the Bible, God's intervention.
Because of Cave's skill though it just does enough to get you through it. I am even tempted to look at his new book out this year. But generally writing a song or an album of them aint the same as writing a novel.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Between the Assassinations: fury and birth

A rattling collection of ice cold water in the face tales that maintains Adiga's momentum after White Tiger. Literally because the speedy pace is similarly maintained here as it was in his Booker Prize winning novel.
This time the work is a number of short stories set in the fictional town KIttur in the South-West of India paced nominally over a week. Each story is allocated a specific spot in the town and time of day. But as the title suggests this is largely a flag of convenience as every tale takes place between 1984-91, the historical period between the Gandhis being killed by different groups.
I particularly liked this time period as unlike White T which provides a contemporary overview of the impact neo-liberalism is having on Indian society this showed the genesis of these themes and the nascence of some specific problems in India today - the growth of the Naxalite movements for example could be seen by the attitudes of several of the characters. Indeed the last short story outlines a disillusioned Maoist (membership of his Party: 2!) rejecting his vision of socialism for some immediate pleasure/return. A parallel for the collapse of Stalinism perhaps and the beginnings of the unbridled growth of capitalism across the planet.
The over-riding emotion expressed throughout is anger, anger at the caste system, at religion, at poverty, at abuse that seem to be in every corner of the town. But it is not pessimistic per se - each story seems to have a character that wants to challenge their place in the stratified system although ultimately they are frustrated.
This emotion coupled with the brilliant detail of the everyday made me think of quite an unlikely parallel - Irvine Welsh. In particular his Acid House Collection (set at a similar time in history). Welsh's thorough knowledge, humour and depiction of the dispossessed in the East of Scotland are all similar.
Pick of the bunch for me was the delivery boy Chenayya and his rebellion coupled with his admiration of nature. Though every one is good involving everyone from teachers, servants, journalists, schoolkids and a bus conductor and will have a moment that you will find difficult to forget.
To finish on Chenayya's thought which Adiga, a brilliant writer, documents so well: "You have to attain a certain level of richness before you can complain about being oor. When you are this poor you are not given the right to complain".

Monday, 31 May 2010

Emergency....paging Doctor Beat!

As May draws to a close the new Con-Dem coalition has really been only engaging so far in shadow boxing with regards to the massacre of public services that they will carry out to pay for the bail-out of the banks. Indeed to salve their consciences the Liberals and Clegg have stressed the progressive nature of the reforms of civil liberties .Indeed Clegg has said this "will be a government unlike any other".

6 billion pounds of cuts were announced last Monday by the now resigned but "dignified" copyright British Media Right wing Liberal Democrat Laws. But the ominous date is the upcoming June 22nd "Emergency Budget".

The formation of an unlikely coalition behind closed doors and an emergency economic programme reminded me of a passage in the Shock Doctrine on Bolivia. In 1985 Bolivia became a laboratory for neo-liberal economics. Not unique but unlike Chile where a bloody dictatorship brought in the Chicago Boys to carry this out on the crushed bones of the Allende regime. This time however it was done after an election.

The Presidential election of 1985 had been inconclusive but both candidates were locked away to discuss the economy. The "left" candidate Paz a sort of Peronist figure emerged as Presidente. He was then in his 80s and had been a long standing figure in Bolivian politics But the important point was that along with his emergence there was announced a cross party economic programme called Decree 21060 (passed in a one-r) - drawn up by Jeffrey Sachs an unelected American academic advisor - later a critical figure in the reintroduction of capitalism in Russia .

This programme (which noone had voted for) included mass privatisation, huge price hikes of basics and an opening up of the economy to global capitalist forces. 20,000 miners lost their jobs, Oil and bread prices went sky high. It was the ultimate shock therapy. Although there was much resistance it took another generation for the political impact to hit of President Evo Morales and his Movement for Socialism administration (elected first in 2005).

Back to GB and all the rhetoric post election is that things are much worse than anyone imagined. Managers across the public sector are using it as an excuse to justify excessive cuts amongst staff.
So a cobbled together coalition in the national interest may use its majority to get through an economic programme that was not endorsed in any election. Austerity and Emergency Budgets have been passed in the last couple of years.
Ireland: Public Sector pay cuts and big taxes on the lowest in 2009 - provoking public protests and a swing to the left in some elections. Spain passed its austerity budget by 1 vote on May 26th icluding a 5% pay cut and a freeze in pensions. The trade unions have called a public sector strike for June 8th.
So the real fight against the coalition will become clearer after June 22nd - though the way they will sell it may be rhetorically different because of the Liberals. For example if there is a sizeable rise in Capital Gains Tax this will be promoted as a tax on the rich - it is already provoking opposition from the Tories bristling at the coalition - the Daily Telegraph have launched their own campaign. But I would guess in Bonapartist style this will be coupled with some outrageous attack on the public sector.
How the opposition will manifest itself is hard to see as the left are so weak at the moment but the battle lines will be clearer post Emergency or rather shock.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Inheritance of Loss: Disintegrating Dreams.

A dream-like description of disintegration. I read this as I saw it was going to be on the BBC World Service Book Club. I also really enjoyed other Indian Booker winners - God of Small Things and White Tiger.
This work is quite different to those with a few significant exceptions as outlined below. It is thoughtful, well written and eventually quite engaging. Overall though there is an aloofness here which means you can't fully absorb the situation unlike Arundhati's Roy work or the frenetic pace of Adiga.
Part of that could be due to its setting which is the literal misty foothills of the HImalayas where Everest is a dominant omniscient presence and country borders mean little. The setting of the study of the three main protagonists is Darjeeling in West Bengal and an uprising of the Nepalese population there in the 80s. Bhutan, Tibet and Sikkim are also nearby.
This insurrection actually happened - something I was not aware of and the demands for Gorkhaland are still ongoing apparently .
Funnily enough both Roy and Adinga also deal with Indian rebellions - the birth of the Maoist movements in the 60s and the contemporary Naxalites respectively. However I never felt an understanding of why these Nepalese were fighting unlike the other works. This is not helped by the dreamlike landscape and the lack of certainty in the time setting of the work.
It is strongest when it speaks of the weakness of the individual's autonomy in the context of broader struggles and happenings. This is seen in the insurrection but also in the forelorn adventures of one of the character's sons travails in the underworld of American illegal immigration.
There is also a nice turn of phrase throughout - each chapter is broken up in a series of vignettes really. I think this is a nod to poetry but this is not done as successfully as Roy.
The other link with Indian literature is the continual use of nature metaphors and similies - in fact a dog is almost a full character. This is done well.
So a distant work in many ways that ultimately has a fairly hopeless take on humanity. Unclear why it won the Booker but worth a read.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - unconvincing.

Unconvincing. I recently watched Paul Merton's documentary about Hitchcock and the big man stated that he only ever made who-dunnit and he immediately regretted it. This was for the reason that the audience either say "I knew it was them" or say "that was a bit of a shock". No other emotional responses are possible, That's one of the problems of this book because for all the hype surrounding it is a basic piece of traditional crime writing. Much like the novels the protagonist reads throughout - although they are on the left-field side of that genre- mainly female writers. There is no experimentation with narrative structure.
The only other book which is mentioned is Laserman - a non fiction account of a Far-right Swede who acted as a sniper killing immigrants in the early 90s. This fits into the novel and Larsson as he was an active anti-fascist and member of the Fourth International. The setting and explanations of Swedish capitalism, politics and history were the bit I enjoyed most. Like all crime writing the novel involves a lot of exposition but this socio-political stuff was good. Doesnt really take any prisoners though for those unfamiliar with it - expect a lot of mentions of the Left Party, Olaf Palme etc. This is the best written part of the book In some ways similar to Iain Banks, not as good though. The family saga element of the book is also very closely related to Banks last novel.
But what undoes the book for me is the characters and the attitude to gender. Ostensibly it is an attempt to expose male violence towards women in all its forms. The Swedish title of the book was Men who hate women. Interesting to see if it would have been a worldwide phenomenon if they kept that title and didnt use the sexy imagery of the book cover. There are many examples of it - rape, domestic violence, flashing. However the scenes involving the most graphic attacks to me are observational rather than empathetic.
I do think male writers can expose violence against women - Jonathan Coe did it brilliantly in his last novel - but in a more subtle way. In this context they are gratuitous. I think this is because there is a revenge fantasy element to the book. Salander, the eponymous heroine, is a victim of all sorts of abuse but gets her own back in a sense. I think she comes across as a bit of a symbol or cipher for these broader themes. The male hero Michael an investigative journalist (jailed for libel which I didnt know they could do - so you do learn a bit about the Swedish legal system) also manages to sleep with 3 of the female characters with apparent ease which to me seemed unfeasible and tagged on. Given the book is meant to explore the relationships between the genders it falls down on that. T
The book falls away badly in the last two parts - with some virtually unreadable dialogue about techy stuff. There is a sad element with Larsson's death predating their publication but it does mean that there is no possibility or re-writing or editing. The exposing of the villain is disturbing to no real end. The last chapter is pure corn.
A massive hit - perhaps among techies in particular because it is really set in their world - but I think a very flawed piece of work. So absolutely no desire to see the film nor read the other parts of the trilogy.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Keats: Long, sad but brilliant

Keats by Andrew Motion

A huge slab of a book which delivered much more than I expected. I was interested in the whole poetry scene of Keats' time after reading the Age of Wonder book which showed the impact radical scientific discoveries had on all aspects of life including art.

But I didnt know much about Keats or his work outside the famous lines. But this well researched (and referenced) book - at times akin to a major academic work - had me hooked.

I was perhaps less surprised at the brilliance of Motion's writing - he is himself a poet after all - as I was with the political context of the work.

The revolutionary nature of the times - the aftermath of France 89, the rise of Bonaparte, the Chartists, crushing of reform and the Peterloo massacre all play their part. In fact it is part of Motion's thesis that Keats' politics are underplayed in traditional appreciations of his work. Later 19th Century works were particularly bad for this. It's a pretty convincing argument though when you look at the vitriol heaped upon him by the right wing throughout his life and the company he kept,

For he did have a big bunch of mates - it is sometimes a little difficult to keep up with them all but through meticulous detail Motion does outline the tension and "politics" of maintaining friendship in a large group.

I was really blown away by Keats' work though especially the explanations given by AM - there is quite a technical aspect but not insurmountable. I liked the way Keats used Greek mythology and paganism as the ideal society (which was quite a common thing at the time apparently) - hence the endless nymphs and naiads etc! Motion's writing on "To Autumn" and the work itself is spellbinding.
Keats attitude to poetry was complex - it was unclear if he saw poets as a sipher of higher pastoral (?) powers or as a document of life put in a different context. He was not a realist at one level - which critics have cited as an absence of political dimension, a point more or less destroyed by Motion. In some ways it reminded me of Engels' description of feudal socialists in Socialism Utopian and Scientific - which was highlighting a similar period.
His relationship with Fanny Brawne (this book is the basis of recent movie Bright Star) is dissected warts and all. It is hardly a romantic ideal indeed Keats had extremely confused and in the modern sense messed up attitudes to women and abandonment. His mother had left him and his family early in his life. There is also some speculation that part of his weakness was due to a lingering veneral disease caught when he was studying to be a doctor,

The last few chapters are very sad but bring the themes together. A lot of Keats' work was over blown in a teenage angsty way but he was only 25 when he died. Also never consummated his relationship with FB which I assume was pretty frustrating! He also was only 5 foot a point which seems irrelevant but lead him to be insecure throughout his life. A point Byron (who comes across as a bit of a tosser here) exploits.

In many ways a tragedy but one which produced wonders. Have now ordered the collected poems for by bedside.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Fool's Gold: Review.

An enthralling race through the anarchy, selfishness and ultimately vandalism of financial capital. It puts the last decade of capitalist "development" in context and is taut as a thriller in its last couple of chapters.
Although many of the processes are complex Gillian Tett explores the foundations of them well so even if you get a little bit lost you have the basic understanding of what the bankers were getting up to.
Her journalistic style makes it readable but I would criticise the referencing which is patchy. It seems to be trying to nod its head to academic work (Tett studied anthropology prior to FT journalism) but not fully engaging with it. The references either should have been ditched or more fully developed. Perhaps the latter could not happen because of speed of publication as it is pretty contemporary.
Though Tett states in the conclusion that she is angry over the mayhem unleashed by the banks her prose does not really reflect this in the way say Naomi Klein would. Understandable given the different politcal complexions but this position is a boon here. Taking a fairly diffident style in reporting the banks dealings in credit derivatives as they get more and more ludicrous is actually pretty effective.
I am not 100% sure why she chooses to focus her discussion through the prism of JPMorgan and she occassionally falls into the trap of character biography of some of the protagonists (see Robert Peston review from last year) but normally pulls back from the brink.
It definitely deepened my understanding of how the banks pursued profits through essentially gambling on losses and defaults, hedging their bets, swapping risks and expanding credit exponentially. It made me angry and I will use it for future reference.
One quote to show the madness - when the sub-prime mortgages started to default in big numbers in 2006 the banks actually increased their exposure to it : " Between Oct and Dec 2006 banks issued a record $130 billion in CDOs alone double the level of a year ago and 40% were created from sub-prime mortgages". And they wonder why people dont trust the banks!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

In Cold Blood - A Neer Day Treat!

Not the first way you would think of spending New Years Day reading about a multiple murder in Mid West in the 1950s but I am really glad I did.

An incredibly well written book which although based on a real-life incident is an example of how to write experimental narrative. Using multiple voices - witness statements, materials from the killers, newspaper articles, academic journals to explore amorality. It was labelled "New Journalism" but it is more indicative of a modern novel.

The sense of location is strong - funnily enough it reminded me of two non - fiction books I have read in the last few years - Collapse and Fast Food nation which although about very different topics gave a similar picture of the Mid-West in the States - the people, landscape nature of the environment.

As a form of combining fiction with real events you are never sure when Capote is expanding on the truth or simply making it up. But he is such a good writer that is not a hindrance - only I suppose if you wanted it as historical document. A criticism is that Capote got too close to murderers but the narrator's voice is quite absent - Capote is only directly referred to at one point near the end of the book. This occurred to such an extent I wasnt sure if he was present at the execution - he was apparently.

Moral ? Well it's definitely not a campaigning book against a miscarriage of justice it does show the mess society and families can make of people or how supportive it can be. It also shows the randomness of brutal violence - like being struck with lightening as the investigating cop calls it. Very influential and I am intrigued to read Capote's other material.