Monday, 23 November 2015


I picked up 'Run' by Ann Patchett on one of my charity shop trawls. She is an author that I really love: here are reviews of Bel Canto from 2010, 'State of Wonder' from 2012 and 'Truth and Beauty' from 2013.

This book was very different in scope and theme from the others, always a sign of a good writer. This story covers 24 hours in the life of a family, introducing us to Tip and Teddy and their father Doyle. Actually, rewind, it introduces us first of all to the statue of the Virgin Mary, a family heirloom that bears a striking resemblance to their mother Bernadette and the stories (both the true and the false one) of how it arrived in their family. Left in the lurch by the death of their mother Doyle has become somewhat of an overbearing parent and has dragged them, on this evening, to hear Jessie Jackson give a speech (outings that have apparently been a consistent feature thought their childhood, and Tip has taken to memorising political speeches.) As they leave the event and stand in the falling snow, discussing a party that Doyle is trying to persuade them to attend, a woman comes, apparently out of nowhere, and saves Tip from being struck by a car. In the ensuing chaos they find themselves taking care of the woman's daughter after she is left in the snow by the departing ambulance. The surprise return of their estranged older brother Sullivan  adds an extra twist to the slightly surreal unfolding drama. 

The books touches variously on issues around the family and the nature of belonging, and the obligations that come with belonging. Catholicism is there in the shape of Father Sullivan, their mother's uncle, and Teddy's apparent determination to become a priest, but it is an influence on the family that has waned significantly. Much of the story focusses quite closely on Kenya, the young daughter of the injured woman, and her fascination with Tip and Teddy. I don't want to spoil the plot disclosure, so suffice to say that many things are not as simple as their first appear. 

Here Kenya wakes up having passed the night in the boy's old room at the top of the house:

"When Kenya opened her eyes it was to a flood of astonishing sunlight. So bright was this room, so radiant, that for the first few moments she was awake she did not consider her mother or the Doyles at all. She did not think of where she was or what had happened. She could do nothing but take in the light. It had never occurred to her before that all the places she had slept in her life had been dark, that her own apartment had never seen a minute of this kind of sun. Even in the middle of the day, every corner hung tight to its shadows and spread a dimness over the ceiling and walls. Draw the curtains back as far as they could possibly go and still the light seemed to skim just in from of the window without ever falling inside. No matter what time of day it was she had to switch on the overhead bulb to do her homework, or her mother would shout at her, Your eyes! But in the light that soaked this room a girl could read the spines of the books on the very top shelf. 'The Double Helix,' she said aloud. 'A Separate Peace.' She stretched her arms down the comforter and admired them. She spread her fingers wide apart and took her fingernails under consideration. Every bit of her was straight and strong and beautiful in this light. She glowed. She felt it pouring into her and yet she could tell by her skin, which looked ashy must mornings where she lives, that it was pouring out of  her as well. It was just like the leaves they had studies in science class. She was caught in the act of photosynthesising. The light was processed through her and she was improved by it." (p.157-8)

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The great pony massacre of 1341

One afternoon about four years ago, when Monkey was not feeling well, I started reading 'The Hobbit' aloud to her. It has been a long time, but we have finally finished it. It sat neglected on a shelf somewhere, being picked up at odd moments with the question, 'Shall we have a chapter of The Hobbit?' This method works okay when you are quite familiar with a story, because you can just read a bit and pick up where you are in the tale. My primary school teacher used to read to the class last thing on Friday afternoons and this was one of the books he read us, though I do not recall reaching the end that time.

This is not really a review, because I would be surprised if there was anyone left out there who needed telling about 'The Hobbit'. People bemoan the lack of female character in Tolkien, and in fact there are fewer in The Hobbit (none at all, that is) than there are in 'Lord of the Rings', but to be honest this book is all about the story, and most of them aren't human anyway. Monkey gave me, inadvertently, the title to this post, because she got very upset about the vast number of ponies that are eaten by Trolls or Goblins or Dragons, and we were very pleased to find that the ones that get lost in Bree in Fellowship of the Ring made their way safely back to Tom Bombadil and Fatty Lumpkin.

So, for atmosphere and amusement, the quote here has Gandalf and Bilbo introduce themselves at the house of Beorn, before bringing in the dwarves, but it is also a lovely example of Tolkien's descriptions of apparently insignificant things :

" 'I am Gandalf,' said the wizard.
'Never heard of him, ' growled the man, 'and what's this little fellow?' he said, stooping down to frown at the hobbit with his bushy black eyebrows. 
'That is Mr Baggins, a hobbit of good family and unimpeachable reputation,' said Gandalf. Bilbo bowed. He had no hat to take off, and was painfully conscious of his missing buttons. 'I am a wizard,' continued Gandalf. 'I have heard of you, if you have not heard of me; but perhaps you have heard of my good cousin Radagast who lives near the southern borders of Mirkwood?'
'Yes, not a bad fellow as wizards go, I believe. I used to see him now and again,' said Beorn. 'Well, now I know who you are , or who you say you are. What do you want?'
'To tell the truth, we have lost our luggage and nearly lost our way, and are rather in need of help, or at least of advice. I may say we have had rather a bad time with goblins in the mountains.'
'Goblins?' said the big man less gruffly. 'O ho, so you have been having trouble with them have you? What did you go near them for?'
'We did not mean to. They surprised us at night in a pass which we had to cross, we were coming out of the Lands over West into these countries - it is a long tale.'
'You had better come inside and tell me some of it, if it won't take all day,' said the man leading the way through a dark door that opened out of the courtyard into the house. 
Following him they found themselves in a wide hall with a fireplace in the middle. Though it was summer there was a wood-fire bring and the smoke was rising to the blackened rafters in search of the way out through an opening in the roof. They passed through this dim hall, lit only by the fire and the hole above it, and came through another smaller door into a sort of verandah propped on wooden posts made of single tree-trunks. It faced south and was still warm and filled with the light of the westering sun which slanted into it, and fell golden on the garden full of flowers that came right up to the steps. 
Here they sat on wooden benches while Gandalf began his tale, and Bilbo swung his dangling legs and looked at the flowers in the garden, wondering what their names could be, as he had never seen half of them before. 
'I was coming over the mountains with a friend or two ... ' said the wizard.
'Or two? I can only see one, and a little one at that,' said Beorn.
'Well to tell you the truth, I did not like to bother you with a lot of us, until I found out if you were busy. I will give a call, if I may.' " (p.118-121)

Since I have been on leave we have launched straight after into 'The Lord of the Rings' and are half way through Two Towers, and enjoying it immensely, it is lovely to get really immersed in another world for a while. 

A Song for Issy Bradley

'A Song for Issy Bradley' by Carys Bray. As usual I read about this on a blog very recently and now cannot remember where. I am not sure I would have requested it if I had realised it was about a Mormon family, but once I had read the first chapter I already wanted to persevere with it. It is not that I have anything against Mormons in particular, just that books about 'faith' do not really interest me. This book gave me a fascinating insight into a world that is utterly outside my knowledge, and, although the author is a 'lapsed' Mormon (if there is such a thing), I felt it was a very open and honest picture of their beliefs. The thing with the Mormon religion seems to be is that it is not so much an overarching code but more a rulebook that governs every single aspect of how you live your life. Maybe it's just my interpretation of the way it is presented, but it seems mostly to be a list of things that you cannot do. The story is, however, just as much about a family struggling with grief.

Claire is an incomer, having met her husband Ian at university and been converted then married into the faith. Their four children, Zippy, Al, Jacob and Issy have been raised within the Mormon church and their father has recently become a 'bishop', which seems to be kind of pastor, someone who offers both spiritual and practical guidance for the congregation. So on the day of Jacob's birthday party he is whisked away on urgent business to visit the sick and Claire is left to cope with all of Jacob's excited expectations, and the stressful experience of having strange children in the house. Issy, feeling unwell, is dosed up with Calpol and left in bed to sleep it off. When they finally realise how sick she is, it is too late. The story moves between each person in the family, watching as they struggle to make sense of their loss, while also dealing with their own private concerns. 

While his rule book props up Ian and gives him a way to handle everything that life has dealt, it gives him no mechanism to support Claire, who refuses to grieve in the proper manner. The older children bottle up their feelings, absorbed as they are partly with other concerns; Zippy (Zipporah) with a crush on a fellow church member, and Al (Alma) with his football. Jacob however has other plans, and he begins an experiment to test the power of his faith. This is the part of the story I found so heartbreaking, not the death of a child. If you bring up a child to believe that prayer and faith will be answered if it is strong enough how is he supposed to understand when it does not work. The children in the story were all so well drawn, struggling to balance the demands of their religion with what they see and experience in the real world. Claire collapses into herself and hides from the world, in a very graphic portrayal of grief. But Ian I hated, for the entire book. His narrow dogmatism was, to me, everything that is bad about organised religion. His hypocrisy is just predictable. His wife is handling it all wrong; you should not be sad for someone who has gone to heaven, nor mourn over the body that is left behind, and he lies to cover up her failure. The scene where he rapes his catatonic wife on their daughter's bed was the most disgusting thing I have ever read a character doing. He does not redeem himself in the end, in my eyes; he steps outside his box for a tiny moment, because he realises it is the only way to draw his wife back inside. 

I will leave you with a lighter moment that I laughed at, in fact I giggled aloud at several points in the book where the author seemed by be gently mocking her lost religion. Here Zippy has 'snuck out' to a party, and is offered something to drink:
" 'No thanks,' she says.
'Oh, yeah. You're Muslim, aren't you?'
'Mormon,' she mutters.
Will's wearing a cardigan and big glasses that he probably doesn't need. At least he's talking to her, even though she'd rather not talk about religion because whenever she has to stick up for the Church the words come out wrong. Dad makes it all sound sensible and logical, yet when she borrows his language and ideas, it always sounds absurd.
'Oh, right, A Mormon,' he says. 'You shouldn't be at a party, should you? It's not allowed, is it?'
'I'm allowed.'
'Sorry, I must've got mixed up.'
'I think it's Jehovah's Witnesses, the no-parties thing.' Zippy's face grows hot under its glaze of make-up. She's embarrassed to have been mistaken for a Jehovah's Witness. Dad says they don't let people have blood transfusions and they believe only a few people can get to heaven. She doesn't know much about them, but they sound weird and she doesn't want anyone to imagine that she's got anything to do with them." (p.208)

Ignoring that I found the subject matter a little outside my comfort zone this was a lovely book, beautifully written, and honestly portraying the good and bad sides of family, faith and religious community. I liked the way she gave them miracles and answered prayers without making it seem significant. While I can see that having a guiding message would help you through such an experience, when it tells you what you are supposed to be feeling it has crossed a line. Even though it ends hopefully for them as a family I was left feeling somewhat ambivalent.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Station Eleven

I bought 'Station Eleven' by Emily St. John Mandel for Monkey last Christmas because it is a post-apocalyptic novel about Shakespeare. We read it aloud together recently (though she had already read it herself). I loved it because it is about human beings making something new, rather than, like most post-apocalyptic stories, tearing each other to pieces.

The story follows some characters who are bound together by their links with a man, Arthur Leander, who dies in the opening moments of the book. We witness the beginning of the epidemic that will wipe out the human race, watching a few of the random people who will survive, and then jump forward some years into the future and meet them again, in their new found communities. The story revolved mostly around the people of the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who tour between small communities giving performances in exchange for food. Another group are based at an airport, there they found themselves stranded as the events around the epidemic unfolded, and expecting constantly to be 'rescued' they just ended up staying. The story jumps back and forth in time, giving us the backstories of various characters, and also the history of 'Station Eleven', a far distant satellite/planet that exists in the imagination of Arthur's first wife Miranda and which formed the basis for a series of comic books that she was creating. Only two of the books exist and a copy of each are held (not so coincidentally, since they all had a link to Arthur) by two of the characters. They have become a kind of talisman for Kirsten, a link to the world that is now past. The characters are marked out by age; those who remember the world as it was, and those who don't. Kirsten is one on the borderline, with glimpses of her childhood that she clings to but a sense that she will never know which memories are real and which imagined.

The plot seems initially quite low key, but then tension builds after the Travelling Symphony passes through a place governed by an enigmatic 'Prophet', and they find themselves with a stowaway. It is a largely empty world there are land and resources enough for everyone, so unlike, for example, 'The Road', there are not roaming bands of outlaws killing randomly for food, so although they are wary they do not take the new threat seriously until some of their number disappear. 

You can tell I was engaged with the story as I did not stop to note any quotes. So somewhat at random, here Kirsten and August have become separated from the group and they come across a remote house, unusually untouched since the end of the world:

" 'Nice dress,' August said, when she found him downstairs in the living room.
'The old one smelled like smoke and fish guts.'
'I found a couple of suitcases in the basement,' he said.
They left with a suitcase each, towels and clothing and a stack of magazines that Kirsten wanted to go though later, an unopened box of salt from the kitchen and various other items that they thought they might use, but first Kirsten lingered for a few minutes in the living room, scanning the bookshelves while August searched for a TV guide or poetry.
'You looking for something in particular?' he asked after she'd given up the search. She could see he was thinking of taking the remote. He'd been holding it and idly pressing all the buttons.
'Dr. Eleven, obviously. But I'd settle for Dear V.'
The latter was a book she'd somehow misplaced on the road two or three years ago, and she'd been trying ever since to find a replacement. The book had belonged to her mother, purchased just before the end of everything. Dear V: An Unauthorised Portrait of Arthur Leander. White text across the top proclaimed the book's status as a number-one bestseller. The cover photo was back-and-white, Arthur looking over his shoulder as he got into a car. The look on his face could have meant anything; a little haunted, perhaps, but it was equally possible that someone had just called his name and he was turning to look at him or her. The book was comprise entirely of letters written to a friend, the anonymous V.
When Kirsten had left Toronto with her brother, he'd told her she could bring one book in her backpack, just one, so she'd taken Dear V. because her mother had told her she wasn't allowed to read it. Her brother had raised an eyebrow but made no remark." (P.151-152)

It is an unassuming book, without heroes, but it speaks volumes about the human condition and will leave you hopeful. 

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Oscar Wao

This is going to be the very brief mention of 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' by Junot Diaz because it is now quite some time since I finished reading it. 

It was quite a demanding book, and one that made me eternally grateful for a life that has been utterly devoid of random violence, since it seems to be an everyday feature of Oscar's. Although he is supposedly the central character the book revolves much more around the lives of La Inca (his great-grandmother), Beli, (his mother) and his sister Lola, and seems to be narrated in part by the long term, on-again-off-again boyfriend of Lola. The story skates back and forth from some run down corner of America to a run down corner of the Dominican Republic, relating the history of the three women and how they manage to keep a grip on life, when it is trying very hard to push them under. ( I learned a heck of a lot about the history of the Dominican Republic too; there are copious footnotes in the early parts of the book giving all sorts of interesting cultural and political background.) And Oscar sits there somewhat oblivious, in his own nerdy world of fantasy writing, hoping vainly that some day a woman will come into his life and make it worthwhile. It is written almost entirely in what we middle class people politely call 'vernacular' (and a copious scattering of Spanish too), which meant that some of it went right over my head and I occasionally had to guess what they were talking about, and I spent much of the time wondering if people really talk like that. It was almost like reading science fiction, they could have been on another planet for all their lives, attitudes and experiences had in common with mine. But then that's why they invented novels, and if they don't kick you out of your comfort zone occasionally then you're probably doing it wrong.

This is where the boyfriend (who's name I can't remember) has offered to room with Oscar at college to 'keep an eye on him':

"Point is when her brother lapsed into that killer depression at the end of sophomore year - drank two bottles of 151 because some girl dissed him - almost fucking killed himself, and his sick mother in the process, who do you think stepped up?
Surprised the shit out of Lola when I said I'd live with him the next year. Keep an eye on the fucking dork for you. After the suicide drama nobody in Demarest wanted to room with homeboy, was going to have to spend junior year by himself; no Lola, either, because she was slotted to go abroad to Spain for that year, her big fucking dream finally come true and she was worried shitless about him. Knocked Lola for a loop when I said I'd do it, but it almost killed her dead when I actually did it. Move in with him. In fucking Demarest. Home of all the weirdos and losers and freaks and fem-bots. Me, a guy who could bench 340 pounds, who used to call Demarest Homo Hall like it was nothing. Who never met a little white artist freak he didn't want to smack around. Put in my application for the writing section and by the beginning of September, there we were, me and Oscar. Together." (p169-170)

So, culture shock, most definitely, but I rooted for Oscar right to the bitter end.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

May-Lan Tan and Rosa Liksom

I heard May-Lan Tan at the literature festival this year and was intrigued by the story she began reading. The library very helpfully provided me with a copy of 'Things to Make and Break'. They are slightly disturbing stories, mostly about very vulnerable people. Many of her protagonists are children, often trying to make sense of the mysteries of adulthood: a young girl wanting to meet the stranger that her mum is going on a date with, two children called Lauren who both lose a parent, another young girl who has an abortion and has to watch her sister enjoying parenthood. One quote from a story about Jimmy and Erin, friends negotiating the challenges of adolescence together:

"They take off their shoes and leave them outside on the rack. The hall light is on and her parents' door is open. Erin goes to talk to them.
Jimmy stop in the bathroom to wash the Sharpie Xs off the backs of her hands. She doesn't have a curfew, but they never stay at hers because she lives up at the far corner of Hoboken and shares a room with little twin sisters who never shut up. Erin lives six blocks from the station and has a queen-size bed. She says Jimmy's lucky, but Jimmy thinks curfews are nice, in a way. It means someone else is the adult.
The ink isn't coming off. Even though Erin didn't get X-ed tonight, she didn't try and get served; she never risks it unless they're in some nowhere dive. She's honestly the only person Jimmy knows who can pull off a fake ID. At seventeen, Erin looks fourteen, but she always wears a full face of makeup and a push-up bra and dresses neck to toe in black, so the glamour quotient kind of throws it off. Jimmy has never worn a bra of any kind, and she's had her period twice so far. She hopes some of Erin's girlness will rub off on her." (p.169-170 from New Jersey)

At the end of the same event I was chatting to a young man who recommended Rosa Liksom. Well, I didn't remember her name but I remembered she was Finnish and wrote short stories, so I googled that (isn't the internet wonderful). The library also had one of hers. 'Compartment No.6' was definitely a bit of culture shock. I did, many years ago, travel across eastern Germany by train, and it was something of a similar experience, though that was only a day, compared to this journey, that seems to go on for weeks. A young woman, apparently escaping a strange relationship in Moscow, finds herself sharing a train compartment with a hard drinking ex-soldier who regales her with lurid tales of violence and sexual conquest. We learn little about her though the story follows her more closely, and he comes across as a rather archetypal Russian, stubbornly loyal to his country in spite of the privations and indignities that have been inflicted upon him in the name of progress. It is quite a vivid portrayal of the Russian character, explaining why the country has continued to function in spite of, rather than because of, communism and its subsequent collapse. 
"The man sat on his bed. He wore a plaid shirt open over his white longjohns. Under the wrinkles of the white shirt peeped a sweaty muscular belly. He picked up a small orange from the table and started to tear roughly at the peel. When he'd eaten the fruit he dug a tattered newspaper from under his bunk and blurted out from behind it in an irritated tone, 'People are restless when they're young. No patience at all. Always rushing somewhere. Everything goes at its own pace. Time is just time.'
He wrinkled his brow and sighed.
'Look at me. An old duffer, a melancholy soul filled with a dull calm. A heart that beats out of sheer habit, with no feelings in it any more. no more pranks in him, not even any pain. Just dreariness.' " (p.15)

As a seasoned traveller the man takes her under his wing and between them a kind of bond forms. 

"A fire-red afternoon sun spread over the wind-whipped sky. Behind it dripped vast sheets of sleet. The girl rummaged in her knapsack, the man set the table for dinner. they ate slowly and silently, drinking well-steeped tea - black, Indian Elephant tea she'd bought at the foreign exchange shop. After the meal the man would have liked to talk but she wanted to be quiet. He took his knife out from under his pillow and started to scratch the back of his ear with it. She rested with her eyes closed. And that's how they travelled that whole long twilit evening, each of them sleeping and waking in their own time." (p.80)

The story paints a picture of him and as they travel it also paints a picture of Russia, though there is not much light it in. They stop at random places along the way to 'rest' the engine, but they are either told they cannot get off, or the carriage attendant tells them the place is not worth seeing. There are some lengthy descriptions of decay and neglect as they crawl across the frozen wastes towards Mongolia. When they cross the border they leave it all behind; the final sentence here is repeated at several points throughout the book, symbolising something I felt, but what, I was left to ponder:

"The Soviet Union is left behind, the Lenin statues and portraits, the watercolour paintings of deserted shores on a foam-flecked stormy sea, the mechanics, oil workers, wretched men working on kolkhozes, miners, address and phone-number kiosks, the monuments to the Revolution, the dance pavilions in the parks, the old couples swaying to the beat of a mournful waltz with fur hats on their heads, the stair brooms, entryway brooms, cabin brooms, chamber brooms, cellar brooms, pavement brooms, barn brooms, stable brooms, bathroom brooms, front yard brooms, back yard brooms, garden brooms, well brooms, the old ladies wrapped in big black cardigans with dusty leggings and threadbare slippers on their feet, lackadaisically swinging their wilted brooms. ...
The clocks on the walls in the street lobbies of Moscow's official buildings, telling the time, the cabinets of experts, the factory party committees, secret gambling dens, clandestine home concerts, art exhibitions in artists' studios, the local committees, sentry booths, blini booths, biscuit booths, patched roofs, houses collapsed under the snow, the millions of peasants who died of hunger, the city dwellers, the workers, the millions in prisons, the loyal citizens broken down by work camps and labour sites who died of cold, the denunciations, the Party tyranny, the choiceness elections, the election fraud, the grovelling and inordinate mendacity, the millions fallen in useless wars, the men, women and children executed at the edge of mass graves, the millions of Soviet citizens that the machine had abused, tortured, mistreated, neglected, trampled, cowed, humiliated, oppressed, terrorised, cheated, raised on violence, made to suffer, are all left behind. The Soviet Union, a tired, dirty country, is left behind, and the train plunges into nature, throbs across the sandy, desert landscape. Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts." (p.143-144)

The Left Hand of Darkness

I love Ursula LeGuin; her Earthsea trilogy made a huge impact on my formative years and there is a brief review of Tehanu on the 'More Reviews' page. I am, however, not much of a sci fi reader and I approached 'The Left Hand of Darkness' with some trepidation. 

The thing I don't like is when authors make up new words and leave you to guess what they mean. And also they create long complex names with unpronounceable consonant combinations, so I have trouble remembering who is who. It took me several chapters to realise that this book is written from two, alternating, points of view: one Genly Ai, the alien, and the other Estraven, the soon to be deposed Prime Minister of Karhide. So the book is not about racing through outer space firing laser weapons, it is about people and politics and gender. I was a little disappointed that she did not find another way of referring to the people who live on 'Winter', implying that 'he' is a gender neutral pronoun, for the reader this did not give a sense that the planet's inhabitants are, most of the time, devoid of gender. I think it would have been better to invent a word instead, so that throughout the reading I would have been constantly reminded that they were not men, but just people.

"When you meet a Gethenian you cannot and must not do what a bisexual naturally does, which is to cast him in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards him a corresponding role depending on your expectations of the patterned or possible interactions between persons of the same or the opposite sex. Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is nonexistent here. They cannot play the game. They do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imagination to accept. What is the first question we ask about a newborn baby?
Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as 'it'. They are not neuters. They are potentials, or integrals. Lacking the Karhiddish 'human pronoun' used for persons in somer, I must say 'he', for the same reasons was we use the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine. But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me to continually forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman." (p.76)

The whole issue of how people related to each other, how it affected their society, the nature of their sexual habits, morals and behaviour was touched on several times, but for much of the story it stays in the background and I did not feel that she fully investigated the possibilities of the idea. Mr Ai has come to the planet as an envoy from an interplanetary coalition. Where he landed was partly random but they are the country who gets the first opportunity to be part of this potentially lucrative organisation ... if only he can persuade them he is genuine. The political shenanigans of the two neighbouring countries dominates most of the story as, first Estraven, and then Ai are cast out of Karhide and end up in Orgoreyen. The politicians jostle for position and use the visiting alien as a pawn, one easily discarded when those at the top decide he is a fake. They have this weird politeness system call 'shrifgrethor' that mainly means that nobody actually says what they mean and real trust and friendship are very hard to achieve. So when Estraven comes to rescue Ai from the prison/farm the two of them are still not sure if they are both striving to achieve the same thing. In the unforgiving environment of a planet that is mostly frozen (and everywhere else is pretty chilly) they forge a bond that is beyond their normal experience. For me this was the essence of the book, about the two of them overcoming not just the physical obstacles but the gulf of misunderstanding between two species:

"He looked up and laughed. 'I don't know what to call you.'
'My name is Genly Ai.'
'I know. You use my landname.'
'I don't know what to call you either.'
'Then I'm Ai.  - Who uses their first names?'
'Hearth-brothers, or friends,' he said, and saying it was remote, out of reach, two feet from me in a tent eight feet across. No answer to that. What is more arrogant than honesty? Cooled, I climbed into my fur bag. 'Good night, Ai,' said the alien, and the other alien said, 'Good night, Harth.'
A friend. What is a friend, in a world where any friend may be a lover at a new phase of the moon? Not I, locked in my virility: no friend no Therem Harth, or any other of his race. Neither man nor woman, neither and both, cyclic, lunar, metamorphosing under the hand's touch, changelings in the human cradle, they were not flesh of mine, no friends; no love between us.
We slept. I woke once and heard the snow ticking thick and soft on the tent." (p.173-174)

The two of them are tested to the extreme, and come out the other side to a world that is the same when they are so changed:
" 'Fear's very useful. Like darkness; like shadows,' Estraven's smile was an ugly split in a peeling, cracked brown mask, watched with black fur and set with two flecks of black rock. 'It's queer that daylight's not enough. We need the shadows, in order to walk.'
'Give me your notebook a moment.'
He had just noted down our day's journey and done some calculations of mileage and rations. He pushed the little tablet and carbon-pencil around the Chabe stove to me. On the blank leaf glued to the inner back cover i drew the double curve within the circle, and blackened the yin half of the symbol, then pushed it back to y companion. 'Do you know that sign?'
He looked at it a long time with a strange look, but he said, 'No.'
'It's found on Earth, and on Hain-Davenant, and on Chiffewar. It is yin and yang. Light is the left hand of darkness ... how did it go? Light, dark. Fear, courage. Cold, warmth. Female, male. It is yourself, Therem. Both and one. A shadow on snow.' " (p.217)

It is a very short book that packs in a lot of ideas, and not at all what I was expecting. I am not sure it has converted me to the genre but it was certainly a worthy entry on the 101 books list.

Skating on the edge of Chaos

This is the biggie, and I was very disappointed that, in the end, I missed Paul Mason at the literature festival since I had been hoping to ask an erudite and searching question. 'Postcapitalism - a guide to our future' is a fascinating investigation into the history of the capitalist economic system and an examination of where it might be going in the light of the financial crises that have occurred in recent years. There is a lot of marxist theory in this book, so be prepared to get your head round some ideas that you might think you already know stuff about. I certainly had a basic notion of marxism, having read a bit at polytechnic. It was another book like 'This Changes Everything' that was hard to read because so much of the 'story' leaves you frustrated and angry. I blame it all on the annoying people who invented money, it really is the root of all our problems. 

It is far too complicated to explain all the arguments so I will try and quote a few things to give you the gist of it. Back in 1910 a guy called Hilferding managed to get his head around what was happening to capitalism:
"His book, Finance Capital, would become the reference point for all left-wing debates on the future of capitalism for a century. Hilferding was the first Marxist to understand the scale of capitalism's mutation. What is more, in the new structure many of the permanent features looked exactly like those Marx had listed as counter-tendencies to the falling profit rate: export of capital, the export, via migration, of surplus workers to white-colonial settlements abroad, the pooling of profits via the stock market, the move away from entrepreneurship into rentier-style investing.
The finance system, which in the previous century had functioned as a puny redistributive centre for business profit and an unreliable source of capital, now dominated and controlled the business world. The counter-tendencies to crisis had become synthesised into a new, more stable system.
For Hilferding, the forces of instability had not disappeared, but had been driven into a single sphere: the imbalance between the production and consumption-oriented sectors of the economy. He explicitly ruled out 'under-consumption' as a cause of crisis, pointing out that capitalism could always create new markets where old ones were exhausted, and thus go on expanding output. But the possibility remained that sectors would expand at different rates. Hence the need for state intervention to prevent such an imbalance." (p.58-9)
He still believed however that this change was the final stage of capitalism and would leave inevitably to socialism; in 1989 the death of the Soviet bloc and the rise of globalism put paid to those hopes.

What was not foreseen in the early 20th century was the information revolution that Mason believes is paving the way for a transformation of capitalism: "Once you can copy and paste something, it can be reproduced for free. It has, in economics-speak, a 'zero marginal cost'." (p.117) 
He goes on:
"If you are trying to 'own' a piece of information - whether you're a rock band or a turbofan manufacturer - your problem lies in the fact that it does not degrade with use, and that one person consuming it does not prevent another person consuming it. Economists call this 'non-rivalry'. A simpler would for it would be 'shareable'.
This has major implications for the way the market operates.
Mainstream  economists assume that markets promote perfect competition and that imperfections - such as monopolies, patents, trade unions and price-fixing cartels - are always temporary. They also assume that people in the marketplace have perfect information. Romer showed that, once the economy is composed of shareable information goods, imperfect competition becomes the norm.
Until we had shareable information goods, the basic law of economics was that everything was scarce. Now certain goods are not scarce, they are abundant - so supply and demand become irrelevant.
In short, information technology is corroding the normal operation of the price mechanism. This has revolutionary implications for everything, as the rest of this book explores.
If they'd understood capitalism as a finite system, Romer and his supporters  might have explored the massive implications of this extra-ordinary statement - but they did not. They assumed the economy was, as in the textbooks, composed of price makers and price takers: rational individuals trying to pursue their self-interest through the market." (p.117-118)

Fast forward just a few years:
"In 1997, Kelly proclaimed the existence of an emerging new economic order with three main characteristics:'It is global. It favours intangible things - ideas, information, and relationships. And it is intensely interlinked. these three attributes produce a new type of marketplace and society.
The solution, Kelly said, was to invent new goods and services faster than they could slide down the curve to worthlessness. Instead of trying to defend prices, you had to assume they would collapse over time, but build business in the gap between one and zero. You had, he warned, to 'skate to the edge of chaos', to exploit the free knowledge customers donate when they interact with websites. By the late 1990s , the received wisdom among those who understood the problem was that capitalism would survive because innovation would counteract technology's downward effect on pricing. But nowhere did Kelly explore what might happen if this failed." (p.126-127)

So where are we going with this, and here it begins to get worrying for us ordinary people; my sister's job in financial services was replaced by a computer programme some years ago, very sensibly she is now training to be a nurse:
"In the first wave, we find that most workers in transformation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labour in production occupations, are likely to be substituted by computer capital.
In the second wave, it is everything relying on finger dexterity, observation, feedback, or working in a cramped space that gets robotised. They concluded the jobs safest from automation were service jobs where a high understanding of human interaction was needed - for example, nursing - and jobs requiring creativity." (.174)
But it's not as scary as you might fear:
"So what we have in reality if an info-capitalism struggling to exist.
We should be going through a third industrial revolution but it has stalled. Those who blame its failure on weak policy, poor investment strategy and overweening finance are mistaking symptoms for the disease. Those who continually try to impose collaborative legal norms on top of market structures are missing the point.
An economy based on information, with its tendency to zero-cost products and weak property rights, cannot be a capitalist economy.
The usefulness of the labour-theory is that it accounts for this: it allows us to use the same metric for market and non-market production in a way that the OECD's economists could not. Crucially it enables us to design the transition process so that we know what we are trying to achieve: a world of free machines, zero-priced basic goods and minimum necessary labour time.
The next question is: who is going to make it happen?" (p.175-176)

'Postcapitalism' appears like book that would be really heavy going but it is a thoroughly engaging read. He does not talk down nor get overly technical but assumes that the reader is intelligent and willing to understand the arguments. It is very all encompassing as he, in effect, analyses in quite a lot of detail the social, ecomonic and political history of the 20th century, drawing together ideas from a wide range of sources. 
One thing that I made a note of that struck me very hard was an impact of the Second World War that had never occurred to me before. In a tiny section entitled 'The Massacre of Illusions':
"The scale of death during the Second World War makes it difficult to comprehend. So its impact on the politics and sociology of the working class has been the subject of a horrified silence. But let us puncture it. The majority of the Jews killed in Eastern Europe were from the politicised working-class communities. Many were adherents either of pro-Soviet, left Zionist parties or the anti-Zionist Bund. The Holocaust wiped out an entire political tradition in the global labour movement in the space of three years.
In Spain, the unions, co-ops and militias of the left were destroyed by mass murder - and their traditions suppressed until the 1970s. Meanwhile, in Russia the working-class political underground was exterminated by the gulag and mass executions.
What Orwell called 'the flower of the European working class' was crushed. Even if it had only been a question of numbers, this deliberate slaughter of politicised workers - added to the tens of millions of people killed by military action - would have been a turning point in the story of organised labour." (p.196-197)

I think it makes a strong case, and one that is not reliant on a particular political ideology; it is not anti-capitalist, nor is it proposing new social or political structures. What it is saying is, like Marx, that the end of the current version of capitalism is inevitable, that the mechanism that gave rise to capitalism have been fundamentally changed by technological advances and we should stop trying to cling to the old way of doing things. It is quite a revolutionary book, and more people should read it.

"As we pursue these goals, a general pattern is likely to emerge; the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they do to old process by applying collaborative thinking and networks.
What we are looking for are rapid technological leaps that make things cheaper to produce and benefit the whole of society. The task of the decision-making nodes in a networked economy (from the central bank to a local housing co-op) is to understand the interplay between networks, hierarchies, organisations and markets; to model this in different stages, to propose a change, to monitor its effects and adjust their intentions accordingly.
But for all our attempts at rationality, this is not going to be a controlled process. The most valuable things that networks (and the individuals within them) can do is to disrupt everything above. Faced with group-think and convergence, either in the design stage of an economic project or in its execution, networks are a brilliant tool for allowing us not just to dissent, but to secede and start our own alternative.
We need to be unashamed utopians. The most effective entrepreneurs of early capitalism were exactly that, and so were all the pioneers of human liberation." (p288)

A pile of books

So it is supposed to be NaNo time, and we started with good intentions, several times, but things seem to have stalled for a variety of physical and emotional and practical reasons so we gave ourselves permission to take a sabbatical this year. It feels sad but I have too many other things on my mind. Coinciding with the end of the literature festival was the Manchester Science Festival, where they had a massive adults only ball pool. It was supposedly to allow grown ups to rediscover the joy of play, but the morning that Monkey and I went there were half a dozen young women all taking lots of selfies. But we had a fabulous time, and because it was so quiet we ended up staying in for about an hour until I was completely exhausted. What they need now is a large soft play area and a massive slide and it could be all the fun of Crealy, but without the faint smell of pee.
After repeated complaints about the freezer being full of blackberries I finally got around to doing a second batch of jelly; I had taken too many of the jar collection up to Unicorn and had to acquire some others.
So, in the meantime this intimidating pile of unreviewed books has been collecting, and following me around the house as, each day off, I have good intentions of writing about one or two of them. My November leave has arrived and we have been playing rather a lot of Upwords. The list of jobs does not even include getting these reviews done ... so I think I will add it and then I can tick it off. I may not do justice to all of them but I vow here and now that they will all get a mention.


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