Category Archives: book reviews

Book Review: Clade – superior #climate fiction #clifi

cladeWhen – not if, but when – I reread James Bradley’s wonderful set of linked short stories, ‘Clade,’ I will be on the lookout for two things; his references to the seasons, and his imagery of flight (in every sense).

These short stories, which follow one family from about now, through roughly beyond the middle of the century, have the thread of climate change and its impacts running through them.  Contra Amitav Ghosh’s excellent ‘The Great Derangement,’ there are novelists willing and able to take on the big question of the 21st century (and the 22nd, should we get that far) – what will the world look like as the Holocene unravels/is unravelled by our actions and inactions over the last 70 years (see this from today).

The opening story starts, sensibly enough, in Antarctica, as a young scientist (Adam – the name may be overegging the pudding a bit?) takes samples and waits to hear from his artist wife in Sydney as to the latest bout of IVF.  Spoiler alert – it works, they have a child, called Summer.  And things go on, as they do.

The stories are linked, sometimes obliquely (think Hemingway’s Men without Women), sometimes clearly.  There is the obligatory pandemic, handled well, and other stories musing on bees, teenagers, astronomy, cancer and more.  Bradley knows what he is doing, as he dips in and out of lives. Sometimes the climate impacts are direct (as superstorm) sometimes they can almost be ignored as inconveniences (no more coffee).  Smells, tastes, memory, it all weaves together, as we follow Adam, Ellie, Summer and others through the decades.

“She nods, the spiced sweetness of the honey still burning in her nostrils. There is something fascinating about the idea of a substance that changes with the seasons in this way, a reminder of a time when the planet still moved in its own cycles.” (p118)

And these seasons (or lack of them) go beyond ‘permanent global summertime’.

“With the videos selected and sequenced, she turns to the other elements of the installation, allowing the project to absorb her, working long hours into the night. It is always striking to her how often these periods of creativity seem to be connected to the advent of spring, the strange timelessness of the warm evenings, although whether this is innate, a tic in the chemistry of her brain, or a habit ingrained during her time as a student, those formative years when the most intense periods inevitably coincided with the sudden explosion of spring, is unclear to her.” (p133)

This brings up two thoughts for me – I should re-read Julian Rathbone’s Trajectories, and I need to read some William Calvin

If you had to quibble, you’d say that Clade (the word means  “a group of organisms believed to comprise all the evolutionary descendants of a common ancestor” occasionally falls into the ‘cosy catastrophe’ [warning: link to tvtropes] category – a term Brian Aldiss used to describe John Wyndham’s seminal novels, such as The Chrysalids, The Day of the Triffids and so on.  But that really would be a quibble – this is a very good book, one that can be read for the beauty of its descriptions, its well-drawn characters, or (as I am reading) as part of an exploration of the burgeoning sub-genre of ‘cli-fi’.

 

Disclaimer: I have had email correspondence with James Bradley in the past – he seems like a good bloke. If this book were pants, I’d have said so.

 

 

 

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“Bel-Ami” – brilliant brilliant book about journalism, life, image, etc

How did I not know about this book?  Why was I not told?  Eh?  This is up there with The Wire as “cultural artefacts that everyone will have to engage with when I am chief fascist dictator”.

It’s by Guy de Maupassant, a French writer (mostly of short stories) who died from syphilis in the early 1890s after a short but brilliant and prolific career, writing about French society in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1.

Bel-Ami follows the ever-upward trajectory of Georges Duroy (the name changes in the course of the book). We first meet him basically starving on the streets of Paris. He meets an old army acquaintance who offers him a hand-up – an invitation to dinner, and money to hire the right clothes for such a dinner.  There is a wonderful scene, full of insight where Duroy climbs the stairs feeling the clothes ill-fitting and himself to be obviously a fraud. He bumps into an extremely elegant young man, beautifully turned out…. his reflection. And he learns to fake it till you make it (It would have been great if Maupassant had lived long enough to get down with Siggie Freud).

Duroy is a cad, a bounder, an  outrageous user of women.  He becomes a journalist (somewhere between Scott Templeton meets Sammy Glick) and the novel follows his ascent, alongside and over the bodies of various women (Duroy is as priapic as de Maupassant was).

There is fantastic stuff about corruption, appearances, hypocrisy, love, obsession.  The use of a painting of Jesus walking on water becomes a skilfully-used motif.

Really, this is a book to re-read every year.  Just amazing.

Books I definitely didn’t buy/get given

Chandler, A. 1977. The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press.  [Chomsky rates this one highly. Definitely didn’t buy this for 99p in Lancaster.]

Fromm, E. 2003. Marx’s concept of Mann. London: Continuum. [Definitely didn’t buy this for 50p in Lancaster.]

Lawson, N. 2008. An Appeal to Reason: A cool look at Global Warming. London: Duckworth Overlook. [Definitely didn’t buy this for 50p in Lancaster.]

Green, A. 1997. Education, Globalization and the Nation State. London: Macmillan. [Definitely didn’t buy this for 50p in Lancaster.]

Books I didn’t get given for Atheistmas…

Black W. 2015. Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires. Frontline Noir.

Before the Hunger Games – Feminist scifi and “The Female Man”

The Female Man is the best, most important book you probably* never heard of. Written in 1970 but not published until 1975, Joanna Joanna_Russ_obitRuss delivered a mind-bending and gender-bending work of genius. Think 12 Monkeys meets The Hunger Games with the sensibility of Thelma and Louise. Speaking as a man, and so accustomed to giving unsolicited advice (subs, please check this), you should relegate other ‘next reads’ and promote this to top of t’pile.

Scattered through time are four women with the same genes but different destinies. They are Janet, a mighty huntress/jane-of-all-trades who would eat Katniss Everdeen for breakfast and not even belch, from a future female utopia called Whileaway; Jeannine (initially ‘wet’, it seems) from a United States where World War 2 never happened and the Great Depression just went on and on; Joanna from a present like that of Joanna Russ, the author; and Jael, an even more ms.terious version, with an agenda, and secrets, of her own…

They meet – a distinct kind of hilarity ensues. That is to say, this book is very very funny, if you like your humour beyond wry to the point of gallows mordant. It’s well-observed (on the excuses and evasions of men about their blindness to/defensiveness about misogyny) and clever. The women are forever fish out of water, but never helpless. Janet (from the future female utopia) is bracingly blunt, for example, but also very ‘human’.
The narration shifts repeatedly, and to be honest I got lost a couple of times (ooh, an excuse to re-read, as if I needed)

In a section (there are nine) of part six, called “The Great Happiness Contest (this happens a lot)” Russ slabs in the following (there is a certain amount of meta-texual nodding and winking, which works wonderfully).

He: I can’t stand stupid, vulgar women who read Love Comix and have no intellectual interests.
Me: Oh my, neither can I.
HE: I really admire refined, cultivated, charming women who have careers.
ME: Oh my, so do I.
HE: Why do you think those awful stupid, vulgar, commonplace women get so awful?
ME Well, probably, not wishing to give any offence and after considered judgment and all that, and very tentatively with the hope that you won’t jump on me – I think it’s at least partly your fault.
(Long silence)
HE: You know, on second thought, I think bitchy, castrating, unattractive neurotic women are even worse. Besides, you’re showing your age. And your figure’s going.

Elsewhere in the book, there’s a gloomy bit on the costs of evolution –

Laur and Janet have gone to sleep together on the couch as if they were in a Whileawayan common bedroom, which is not for orgies, as you might think, but for people who are lonesome, for children, for people who have nightmares. We miss those innocent hairy sleepies we used to tangle with back in the dawn of time before some progressive nitwit took to deferred gratification and chipping flint.

And, finally and fearsomely, there’s an explanation of what we’d now call “demanding the good guy tokens”

I rose to my feet. “Excuse me,” I said, “but business —”
“Damn your business!” he said in heat, this confused and irritable man. “Your businesses isn’t worth two cents compared with what I’m talking about!”
“OF course not, of course not,” I said soothingly.
“I should hope so!”
Numb, numb. With boredom. Invisible. Chained.
“That’s the trouble with you women, you can’t see anything in the abstract”!
He wants me to cringe. I really think so. Not the content of what I say but the endless, endless feeding of his vanity, the shaky structure of self. Even the intelligent ones.
“Don’t you appreciate what I’m trying to do for you?”
Kiss-me-I’m-a-goodguy.
“Don’t you have any idea how important this is?”
Sliding down the slippery gulf into invisibility.
“This could make history!”

Russ did similar stuff in “On Strike Against God”, which should probably also be near the top of your to read pile. Anyway…

Books and their covers
The cover of the first edition is an example of Lewis’ Law – (that the comments under any article about feminism justify feminism).
300px-TheFemaleMan(1stEd)


Bang goes the canon

So why isn’t this book better known? Who can say for sure. Russ stopped writing novels while better-known authors such as Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy did not. But then, it’s not as if their books – The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, Woman on the Edge of Time, Body of Glass, are exactly on everyone’s tongue and constantly referenced in popular culture (though imho they should be!).
Maybe people only have ‘space’ for so many feminist gender-benders and utopias/dystopias, and Octavia Butler‘s Dawn and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are the incumbents respectively and ‘that’s all she wrote’?
Maybe because it wears its early second wave feminist politics on its sleeve it’s somehow dated? That’s a coy way of talking about the ‘anger problem’. There’s a lot of it. (Can’t think why. I mean, I thought everyone loved the patriarchy. Oh… yeah… right. ) But maybe the righteous (and right – and sadly still right) anger makes the book unassimilable? I don’t know. All I know (believe) is that Russ wrote a fantastic book, and it should be canonical.

Btw I went to a conference about utopias/dystopias in Newcastle in April. Good conference, but to my knowledge, nobody presented anything on this book. That’s a real shame, imho. There is surely a really useful reading of the Hunger Games (for instance) to be done ‘versus’ this Russ and some others.

Final thing I know; that there are many many cool things about being married to an ardently feminist bookworm. One of them is metre upon metre of cool fiction by women. Next up is a collection of short stories from the Women’s Press.

* Of course, not everyone is as ignorant as me…

Good bye to all schlock – #fictionbyfemales #lifetooshort #apocalypse

The only fiction I am reading this year is by women, with a presumed bias away from white western women (though there’s nowt wrong with the Barbara Kingsolvers and Margaret Atwoods of this world).

However, I need another ‘rule’ – no schlock.  Life is Too Short – I am not getting any younger, and the apocalypse might be just around the corner.

Which was the theme of the last schlock book I read (in every sense). “The Three” is a page-turner by Sarah Lotz. The cover kinda sums it up – a jet (if you look carefully, it’s a 747) heading towards three (not two) uprights of similar dimension to, well, you know…

thethree

Think the Midwich Cuckoos meets Predator meets the (forgotten?) 80s moral-panic-about-video-games ‘Arcade’, in the style of World War Z (an oral history of the zombie wars, by Max Brooks) and Blair Witch Project.  But this is longer (and not better for it), and the inter-textuality/meta-textuality gets a bit tricksy.  There is nothing new here, but what redeems it is Lotz’s clear ability to give voice (mostly convincingly) to a range of characters and create a trail of bread crumbs that you want to follow.

The set-up – four passenger jets crash simultaneously and there are only three (or four?) young survivors is well laid out, but as the book goes on it’s not as creepy as it would like to be, and ends, inevitably, a little flat.

A lesson to me- I have fantastic fiction and non-fiction to read when I am not DOING MY FRICKING PHD, WHICH I SHOULD BE DOING ALL THE TIME.  And so; No. More. Schlock.

Books by women, and even – darn it – about women

This year (starting last week) the only fiction I will read (novels and short stories) is by women, as per suggestion from the wonderful wife (7 years hitched!!).  It occurred to me, both before and after reading Ursula Le Guin’s comments on her ‘The Eye of the Heron’ that this might not mean I was going to be reading books about women!

So, here’s a bit of a list of likely candidates

Angela Carter – esp Wise Children and Night at the Circus
Ursula Le Guin – Always Coming Home, The Eye of the Heron, The Beginning Place
Toni Morrison – Beloved
Andrea Newman – Triangles
Elfriede Jelinek- The Piano Teacher
AS Byatt – Little Black Book of Stories
Marilynne Robinson- Housekeeping
Michele Roberts – Fair Exchange
Margaret Drabble – The Radiant Way
Claribel Alegria – Family Album
Jennifer Egan – A Visit from the Goon Squad
George Eliot – Felix Holt
Carrie Tiffany – Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, and Mateship with Birds

The #HungerGames and #militainment

So, am only reading fiction by women this year. Polished off books 2 and 3 in the Hunger Games trilogy last weekend. If you’ve been living under a rock this last 5 years, here’s the recap. Sometime (hundreds of years?) after a nuclear war, American civilisation is based around a hyper modern Capitol, with 12 (well, 13) districts which feed it. Those districts rebelled and were brutally suppressed. To remind everyone of this, every year, each district sends – from a lottery- a male and a female, aged 12 to 18 to fight to the death (last person standing), which is televised for the entertainment of the Capitol and as a reminder to everyone else who is in charge. In district 12 (the coal mining one), a young woman, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to take the place of her younger sister. Havoc ensues.
As others will have noted, presumably, this sort of ‘fight to the death’ thing is not new. The Romans did it, and we’ve been imagining our own societies doing it for some time now – Series 7: The Contenders, Battle Royale, Turkey Shoot and Punishment Park.
the-hunger-games-trilogy1So, Collins’ success is in telling the story very well (it is a page turner, and she makes you care about the supporting cast) and in being refreshingly clear-eyed in the third book about how revolutions work and who tends not to survive them.
I don’ think feminism is the most interesting lens through which to read the books (maybe the films – which I want to see – are different). That said, reading the books alongside Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is probably something all young women could usefully do. Katniss is the Ilsa Lund in Casablanca– the fairly passive woman caught between Two Men Who Love Her.
Her act of rebellion (as opposed to her courage, which is constant) is to threaten to kill herself, and only in the third book does she start killing people (in the first two books there are a series of convenient accidents and plots that leave her blameless.) Then again she is sixteen; she’s allowed not to be the bad ass, the violent redeemer.

You could I suppose take a political economy line – “Coal miners fuck up the Capitol” (Timothy Mitchell, take a bow) but for me the most interesting take is to look at it as an example of and also critique of ‘militainment’ or ‘state violence translated into an object of pleasurable consumption’

Militainment is the title of a book by Roger Stahl

Militainment, Inc. offers provocative, sometimes disturbing insight into the ways that war is presented and viewed as entertainment―or “militainment”―in contemporary American popular culture. War has been the subject of entertainment for centuries, but Roger Stahl argues that a new interactive mode of militarized entertainment is recruiting its audience as virtual-citizen soldiers. The author examines a wide range of historical and contemporary media examples to demonstrate the ways that war now invites audiences to enter the spectacle as an interactive participant through a variety of channels―from news coverage to online video games to reality television. Simply put, rather than presenting war as something to be watched, the new interactive militainment presents war as something to be played and experienced vicariously. Stahl examines the challenges that this new mode of militarized entertainment poses for democracy, and explores the controversies and resistant practices that it has inspired.
This volume is essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between war and media, and it sheds surprising light on the connections between virtual battlefields and the international conflicts unfolding in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

Meanwhile, Siobahn McEvoy has lots of useful things to say – more about the Harry Potter series than The Hunger Games.
Here’s a quote

James Der Derian argues that ‘technology in the service of virtue has given rise to a global form of virtual violence, virtuous war’.The military-industrial-complex coupled with a complicit global media has produced a ‘military-industrial-media– entertainment-network’ or MIMENET that now can ‘seamlessly . . . merge the production, representation and execution of war’. Part of the military-entertainment-complex, ‘militainment’ comprises a large share of the entertainment market, and is ‘an important pedagogical project of US war practices’, supplementing the militarisation of schools, universities and daily life, perhaps particularly since 9 – 11. Through othering and dehumanisation, making war seem productive, exciting, heroic and glamorous, but mostly through making war pleasurable, ‘militainment’ helps to ‘construct the citizen’s identity in relation to war’, and helps normalise war as a tool of foreign policy. In addition, after 9– 11, as Der Derian writes ‘virtuous war’ is ‘played out by the military-industrial-media-entertainment network as our daily bread and nightly circus’.

Siobhan McEvoy-Levy (2015) Disarming ‘Militainment’: reading peace and resistance, Peacebuilding, 3:2, 200-217,

As McEvoy also points out – life is beginning to imitate art. There is a ‘salute’ in the books where you kiss the middle three fingers of your left hand and hold them aloft, as a sign of rebellion, defiance and solidarity. Well –

David Sim, ‘Thailand: Anti-Coup Protesters Adopt Hunger Games’ Three-Fingered Salute’, International Business Times, June 3, 2014,
David Sim, ‘Hong Kong: Defiant protesters give Hunger Games’ three-fingered salute as police clear camp’, International Business Times,December 11, 2014,