It is a truth universally acknowledged that work sucks and you shouldn’t do it.
This is an argument – the one Kathi Weeks puts forward early in her bo...moreIt is a truth universally acknowledged that work sucks and you shouldn’t do it.
This is an argument – the one Kathi Weeks puts forward early in her book – that I can definitely get behind. The first half of “The Problem with Work” is a very adept analysis of the way work, and workers’ concepts of work, shape our lives (she focuses primarily on the United States). Beginning with Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” she describes the “work ethic” and its function in keeping workers active at making money for their bosses, and fits her analysis within the anti-work strains of Marxist thought, most notably the autonomist tradition. While it’s heavily academic and often a slog to get through, the analysis and critique of work she puts forward is engaging and convincing, though thoroughly depressing to read while commuting.
The second half of the book is something of a prescription: Weeks sees a Universal Basic Income (UBI) with no strings whatsoever attached, along with a curtailed 6-hour workday (with no loss in pay), as ways to begin to decouple the human subject from work – in the first case, by separating sheer subsistence from a requirement to work, and in the latter by opening up additional spaces for non-work activities. She connects these concepts to Marxist feminist thought via a connection to the “wages for housework” movement that was once prevalent in feminist circles, both in the similarity of the demand for money (in one case, for as-yet unpaid work, in the other for no work at all) and in the act of demanding itself.
While she makes some convincing points about the act of demanding and its potential effect on the system even when the demands are not met, the second half of the book feels slightly bloated with a long chapter on utopian thinking and a lackluster explanation of the demands (that don’t, in the end, seem all that utopian). In the time-worn reform vs. revolution debate, she seems to consider her propositions as revolutionary, but I see them as fairly unimpressive reforms. Many libertarian thinkers have proposed a basic income of some kind, for instance, as a way to reduce the size of bureaucratic government and let market forces take even further control of people’s lives. And while an income without restrictions would be liberating for a great number of people (I’m not against it, I should say, I just find it wanting), it still requires a body to administer it (the state, one assumes) that is presumably seen as distinct from the people who receive the income.
Ultimately, the UBI/6-hour-day project seems better capable of assisting an alternative group to exist alongside the capitalist class, but in no way seriously challenges capitalist hegemony. If the goal is to create space within capitalism for people to either not work, work less, or some combination of both that leads to expanded autonomy, then that seems like a nice short-term goal. However, while Weeks makes some arguments that this short-term goal will make space for long-term thinking, the self-styled utopianism of the book’s specific demands feels a bit lacking.
Overall, like many of this kind of text, the analysis of the problem was considerably better than the prescriptions for solutions. It’s also worth noting that the book is clearly intended for an academic audience, and can often be dauntingly heavy with references to various concepts that are not explained in detail (in other words, you’ll be Googling stuff). (less)
Look, you pretty much know if you’re going to like this book because Morrissey has been famous for 30 years and the sides are pretty well dug-in by no...moreLook, you pretty much know if you’re going to like this book because Morrissey has been famous for 30 years and the sides are pretty well dug-in by now. Fans will enjoy it, non-fans will not – and the strange, troubled, masochistic fans-who-hate will enjoy hating it. (Some categories are bigger than others – that last one is quite large.)
The first half is better than the second, with poetic descriptions of 1960’s Manchester and a childhood spent mostly alone – the pages about television program(mes) from his youth become almost tiresome, though he knows how to make things interesting. His experience at school reads like the first act or two of a story in which abused schoolboys get their revenge on sadistic teachers, but there’s no comeuppance – in fact, a large theme of the book could be that, for all one’s pain, there’s no guarantee of revenge. Sometimes you just have to take it.
That, of course, is the martyr in Morrissey speaking – he certainly paints himself as one, and for the most part you’re compelled to agree. The second half of the book isn’t as good, but it has its moments. After the breakup of the Smiths, treated more like an awkward bit of downsizing than anything emotional, Morrissey clearly has moments of pride, but sees himself as used and abused by pretty much everyone. The trial, in which drummer Mike Joyce sued both Morrissey and Johnny Marr for back pay during his time with the Smiths, may not be interesting to everyone, but the logic and legal thinking Morrissey displays suggest that Stephen Morrissey of Manchester could have made a fine barrister, if he’d been allowed to attend a decent school.
The trial, however, goes on too long. Just when it seems over, there’s an “and another thing!” moment that brings on another segment of unnecessary complaining. Once he finally puts that to rest, we get an extended tour diary that feels more like a spreadsheet about concert attendance numbers than it does a memoir, but the pithy observations and funny stories that pop up here and there make it easy enough reading, if not particularly moving.
That’s the thing that the ordinary Morrissey image doesn’t tend to reflect – the Smiths were a band that wrote funny songs, not just miserable ones (even “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” is a pretty damn funny song). The book is, really, hilarious at its best moments, full of cutting barbs and ridiculous situations. He grinds his axes, and he gets what little revenge on a person that a mean portrayal in a book can give, but ultimately the book seems like one of his albums. Moments are petty, moments are awkward, moments are hilarious, and moments – a lot of them – are transcendent. (less)
Hedges is a talented writer with an impressive amount of experience, and this book, which came out shortly after 9/11 (when war was on everyone’s mind...moreHedges is a talented writer with an impressive amount of experience, and this book, which came out shortly after 9/11 (when war was on everyone’s mind) is definitely a display of this. His specifics are primarily from the Balkan conflicts of the 1990’s, but he does good work in expanding on his specifics into more universal phenomena.
The book is short, which is a kind of mercy, since it is definitely not happy fare. It’s never boring, certainly, but it is consistently bleak and can feel like a sort of dental drilling on one’s humanity.
But that’s not my complaint with the book – in fact, the balance Hedges has between litany of sorrow and functioning polemic is really quite good. What doesn’t work, however, is the statement that Hedges makes at the outset: that for all that comes after the introduction, he is not a pacifist.
That’s fine, certainly – it’s not that I disagree with this point that makes me complain, but that at no point in the book did I feel like a proper justification was made for this sentiment. Everything in the book, with the exception of the “but I’m not a pacifist – I do think war can be justified” lines, points to the inherent unjustifiability of armed conflict. And while I understand that complete pacifism and anti-interventionism can seem like a naïve position, the naivete remains assumed, and never explained.
I walked away from Hedges’ accounts of his experiences questioning the acceptability of war even as a basic concept, which I think was partially his intent – but his statement that he cannot accept sheer pacifism is never sufficiently explored, left to stand self-evident in ways that the rest of his book undercuts. If war is never justified but in some cases necessary, then I’d like to hear more about the circumstances that necessitate it. (less)
While it doesn’t have the compulsive quality that her Cromwell books have, the key strengths that Hilary Mantel shows off in "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up...moreWhile it doesn’t have the compulsive quality that her Cromwell books have, the key strengths that Hilary Mantel shows off in "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies" are certainly here – distinctive voices for her characters, an expert manipulation of point-of-view, and a factually-based but somewhat iconoclastic representation of famous personalities. It’s trite to say, but she has a gift for breathing new life into historical figures that makes them new, unfamiliar, and exciting.
Writing about the French Revolution, here, Mantel has an odd project at hand: a historical novel told in this manner necessitates a certain highlighting of individuals, and yet one of the major ideas that the individuals she highlights share is a certain belief in the force of the People – the populism of the main characters is in some ways ironic considering their position as main characters. This is less of a criticism than an irony inherent to historical fiction in general – and Mantel is clearly aware of it as she shows characters considering the individual’s role in history.
Perhaps the era of Danton, des Moulins, and Robespierre is particularly harsh when it comes to the contrast between individual actions and populist forces, but even as the three protagonists try to shape history, they’re constantly swept up in it. This is a nuance that is less present in the Cromwell books, but gives an important wrinkle to this story.
Ultimately, though, the book is a bit long and can be a slog at times. While it has more layers to its approach, it doesn’t have the same gripping quality that makes the newer books so hard to put down. Still, it’s a good portrait of the revolution, and three of the men who shaped its early stages. (less)
I’m clearly in the minority with this, so no doubt it’s primarily a matter of taste (aren’t most things, after all?),...moreI guess whimsy just isn’t for me.
I’m clearly in the minority with this, so no doubt it’s primarily a matter of taste (aren’t most things, after all?), but I really disliked this book. Neil Gaiman is an author whose work is adored by friends, by everyone, and so I felt I owed it to… I don’t know, someone, to seek him out. “Neverwhere” was listed by several strangers as one of his better novels, so I picked it as my starting point.
And it’s just not for me. I’ve been reading more genre-bending and nonrealist fiction lately, all of it with varying levels of isn’t-this-cool stuff in it. And I like isn’t-this-cool stuff, from time to time – I think things are cool. But that just isn’t enough, I suppose, to carry a novel – isn’t-this-cool-and-I-have-nothing-else-to-say-about-it gets a shrug.
In this case, however, my shrug is rather surly. I can see an argument that, were I to bracket the whimsy that I’m finding irksome (like someone constantly winking at me), I could just sit back and enjoy a nice story. But I can’t – because the framework that all of this cotton candy is spun around is a tired bit of familiarity with nothing to it – a “sad sack grows a spine” story that ultimately feels cheap, and a little sexist (does everyone have to have a harpy fiancé or girlfriend in these stories?). Once the layers are peeled away, there just isn’t anything left. No “there” there.
The frustrating part is that I actually really like this kind of story – I’m always interested in subaltern communities, literal and metaphorical “undergrounds” that exist within but apart from a dominant community. So the concept of “London Below” is a great starting point for me – but what’s the point of it? It seems to be a fanciful mishmash of British historical periods that adds up to nothing, and has no effect on the “London Above” that sits atop it. I’m left at the end with dozens of questions, the answers to which would clearly make this a different kind of book – which seems to be what I’m really interested in.
Add to all that a few uncomfortable similes ("giggled like a Japanese girl"? Really?), and I’m jumping ship. This just isn’t for me. Cotton candy is fun, but I can only take so much before my teeth hurt. (less)
I should probably give this four stars, because even though it was an actual joy to read on every page, there’s a tiny piece that’s missing somewhere....more I should probably give this four stars, because even though it was an actual joy to read on every page, there’s a tiny piece that’s missing somewhere. For a novel that concerns itself in many ways with perfection, it really is almost perfect – just not quite.
The jacket copy compares it, obligingly, to writers like Coover and Gaddis, even Pynchon, and while this is done for fairly obvious reasons (length, &c.), I think the similarities there are largely superficial. While de la Pava does toss a few digressions around and tell a bunch of (very funny) jokes, the story that’s being emblazoned with all of the funny et cetera is really fairly straightforward. It reminds me more of 18th century novels, Tristram Shandy in particular, where the narrative is decorated by various outside-the-box techniques, but never dissolved the way it often is in later, postmodern novels by American weirdos in the 70’s.
One of the embellishments that works amazingly well is the diction and syntax of the book, which despite its affectations comes naturally from the legal setting of most of the scenes – a kind of warped, hilarious legalistic English is used in many situations, making me wish I had gone to law school (though lots of things have done that) if only so I could be the same kind of prick that Casi often is.
At some point, though, the novel doesn’t quite manage to come together, and the ending, though not the one I was dreading (thank you, thank you for not doing what I was worried you might do… nevermind what that was), feels little rushed and cop-out-ish. Yes, on page 678, the ending felt rushed. Add to that some inconsistency in the characters and a few steps off the line of plausibility vs. created world, and it’s not quite perfection. But damn if it doesn’t feel close.
Still, this is one of the best reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. I laughed out loud while reading, more than once, and that’s a very high bar to leap over, for any book. Deal sealed. (less)
I’m not sure what to think of this book. In a way, it’s yet another example of explaining Econ 101 phenomena to people who never took the class – or d...moreI’m not sure what to think of this book. In a way, it’s yet another example of explaining Econ 101 phenomena to people who never took the class – or did, but slept through it. So much of it has a kind of “Freakonomics” feel to it. This is… fine, I guess, though nothing impressive and not very satisfying – Porter never actually answers why things cost what they do, just kind of meanders through reasoning behind specific prices and gives weak-tea arguments for them.
But that’s not entirely fair, I guess – he does postulate why things cost what they do – “marginal utility.” This is a concept with which I’m unimpressed, so I’m probably not the key audience for this book. At the outset Porter gives the reader a (possibly intentional) misreading of Marx and the labor theory of value (which predates Karl, but whatever), leading to his first blunder that resonates through the book: the interchanging of the terms “value” and “price.” It may seem like a small nit to pick, but it ultimately means that the conversations (about price and value) are actually running parallel to one another and never quite intersect.
Let’s bracket that, though, since Porter is really only talking about price and the marginal theories he’s applying to his analysis are the tiniest bit more useful in that discussion. Porter’s basic thesis is that things cost what they do because people will pay it – a point my mother made once as I was gloating over the impressive prices a magazine was quoting for my Star Wars action figure collection. (She was right, in a way – unless I actually found a counterparty to actually pay that listed amount, it was hard to say they were “worth” it – but then, why would the magazine say that if it weren’t true?)
A lot of this is a long re-telling of the diamonds vs. water discussion from economics textbooks. Water is so much more useful than diamonds, but diamonds cost a lot more – and that’s because, we’re told, that diamonds are much rarer and water is so plentiful, and the marginal happiness blah blah. While Porter never talks about diamonds and water (that I remember, maybe he did), he makes the same kinds of arguments – and so the refutation of the diamonds vs. water conundrum: that the DeBeers cartel has been artificially inflating the price of diamonds for a very long time – is just as applicable to some of the examples he gives. One of the underlying assumptions of the book is that markets are rational – but there isn’t a single example where one can’t point to someone with his finger on the scales. Before this gets too Ron Paul-ish (free markets! no regulation!), it’s worth looking into further. Porter’s examples try and walk a line between the homo economicus idea of rational consumption, and the plainly obvious fact that people are insane. He uses the example of the national speed limit set in the 1970’s as an example of consumer (or driver, in this case) rationality – because people were taking longer to get to work driving at the reduced speeds, they were losing out on the time they could be making money, and so decided to say “screw it, I’m going 70” and risk getting a ticket, as though each lead-footed dude in a GTO was weighing opportunity costs as he zig-zagged between station wagons on the interstate. At the same time, Porter warns us not to fall for the rational-actor fallacy – so apparently no, our speedsters are not getting out slide rules and trying to work out ticket vs. paycheck math each time they hit the road. It’s frustrating – the book tries to have it both ways, and ends up making some very odd arguments.
This is especially apparent when discussing climate change. For someone who writes for the Wall Street Journal, it’s noble of Porter to even acknowledge that climate change exists. However, his aren’t-we-being-irrational look at it is full of its own kind of zany thinking that passes for sobriety in a lot of this kind (i.e. pop economic) of writing. After discussing the potential costs (everything’s a dollar amount, of course – tree-hugging me is clearly a moron for thinking that an ecosystem has more to it than a price tag) of climate change and the fact that they may come down in the future, he gives an example of a farmer who would be, by most accounts, unable to keep working the land he now tills after the sea levels have risen and droughts have ravaged it, etc., and asks whether “we” are really taking the full picture into account when we try to stop climate change and keep Jake on his farm. Because couldn’t Jake perhaps go find a better job, if his land was destroyed? There’s an opportunity cost here, Porter says, and he’s probably right – Jake would certainly make a better living designing iPad apps than he would as a peasant. There’s just one problem – WHO’S GOING TO MAKE THE FOOD, EDUARDO?
It’s this kind of thinking that, in my mind, typifies the entire book. The “price of everything” is, we learn, set by the consumer in all cases – even when monopolistic cartels, government controls, market manipulations, and other forces that might as well be cosmic in terms of an individual consumer are out there keeping prices high (or low, depending on whom it benefits). This is, ultimately, just a rehash and reorganizing of most marginal theories of economics, so I don’t know why it should come as a surprise that it bugged me. But, at the same time – I had a pretty good time disagreeing with it, saying NO, NO, NO every now and then as I read. So I can’t completely trash it – it was fun enough to get mad at, which is its own kind of pleasure, really. (less)