When Barry Fairbrother, town counsellor for a tiny English down, dies of an anurysm, the ensuing vicious squabble over the titular opening becomes botWhen Barry Fairbrother, town counsellor for a tiny English down, dies of an anurysm, the ensuing vicious squabble over the titular opening becomes both intricate, fraught, and nightmarish. The leading lights of the town and their children are all tightly intertwined, and often at odds with one another. It’s a book of strong characters and intense experiences, a meditation on the malaise of middle age, and an exercise in cruelty. It’s also just not a great book.
A few thoughts:
- Rowling’s biggest strength has always been her ability to create believable characters with intense motivations. She does so in this book as well — the anger you’ll feel toward some characters and the frustration with others marks Rowling doing what she does best. - But it’s as if she needed this book to exercise the restraint built up by seven years of YA fiction, in which the universe needs to make sense, because here awful people just breed more awfulness. - I suppose it would be a positive to say that even the best people in the book have serious flaws. Life is really like that. But the book turns on people behaving terribly, and continuing to do so. It’s just not redeeming, nor is it vile enough to enjoy the viciousness the characters perform on one another (like, say, House of Cards). - The struggle at the heart of the story, over the fate of “The Fields,” a poor part of town reviled by the snooty people of Pagfoot, is the best part of the book. The real arguments Rowling’s story makes for competent, useful social services work really well and are the best takeaway of the book. But then again… - …don’t get me started on the end of the book.
It felt a bit like Rowling was “cleaning the pipes” with this book, telling a difficult story so she could move on to better ones. I’m looking forward to the Robert Galbraith books for just that reason....more
Flash Boys is two books at once. First, it’s a fascinating tale about a few different innovators working in the financial markets. These men spotted aFlash Boys is two books at once. First, it’s a fascinating tale about a few different innovators working in the financial markets. These men spotted an opportunity to create a better wall street, to fix a problem that the market would, hopefully, reward them for. Second, it’s another reminder that the primary motivator on Wall Street is for the people who work on Wall Street to make money, and that the money invested there by the rest of us is just a prop they use to do so. In case you didn’t learn that lesson from The Big Short.
A brief precis: Lewis tells the story of High Frequency Trading (HFT) through a few stories about people fighting to undermine it. Essentially, HFT is a market trading style that uses the inherent latency in the space between the different stock exchanges to make money. Here’s an example of the most basic way this happens: Say you want to buy 100,000 shares of Apple. Your broker goes to the first exchange and finds 10,000 shares on offer, including 100 shares being sold by a HFT. After you buy up the 10,000 shares there, your broker’s pokey computer sends a request to the rest of the stock exchanges looking for the other 90,000 shares. In the 1/3 – 1/2 of a second it takes for your order to move through the market, HFT computers have rushed ahead and bought up all the shares, and are now selling them for a tiny fraction more (say, 1 penny per share). You buy the shares from them, and they’ve just made money off their speed advantage in the market, without adding any value to the exchange. Now multiply that by every trade made on every stock market in the US, and you can see how they’re making billions of dollars, basically by cutting in line where most people don’t know there’s a line to cut in.
A few thoughts:
- The first lesson Lewis teaches us in the story of this burgeoning force fighting against High-Frequency Traders is that regulation usually only solved the problem it’s meant to. But it almost always creates new loopholes through which different ways to cheat can be exploited. And since the incentives on Wall Street are so massive, someone will always exploit said loopholes. - The second lesson is a reminder that banks are there to make money, not to serve the good of the market or even of their own clients. The level to which the banks and the exchanges have altered how they do things to make it easier for the HFTs is appalling. - The book has some hope, though, unlike The Big Short, which just feels depressing. The new exchange being created throughout the book (which opened this year) seems like it has the potential to change things as the clients, the investors who’re paying a speed tax to HFTs, notice what’s going on.
Once again, Lewis does a fantastic job telling a complex tale in a gripping way. Dylan Baker’s performance is quite strong, and adds great nuance to the tale. Highly recommended read....more
Bryson’s book is a compendium of facts and ideas about the English language as it developed in the United States, as viewed through lenses ground outBryson’s book is a compendium of facts and ideas about the English language as it developed in the United States, as viewed through lenses ground out of topics from every corner of American culture. In some ways, it reads like a cast-off from some previous books, as if he took the bulk of the extra notes from The Mother Tongue and dropped in the historical notes he uncovered in writing his travel books about America.
It’s an enjoyable read, though one best interspersed with other books exploring a variety of topics. If it’s your only book, it may get a bit too list-y for you. A few thoughts:
- The section about advertising language was my favorite, as Bryson winnowed from the vault of commercial print in America many fine and amusing turns of phrase. - The book’s military and presidential history is quite thorough – in some ways this will stick with me better than will many of the language bits I picked up. - As with many of his non-travel books, Bryson’s trademark humor was not as strong in the book. He still had a few amusing asides, but I don’t think I ever laughed out loud while reading this one. - I was particularly amused by the early etymological sections that traced many phrases used only in America to British roots, then detailed how the Brits liked to think us uncouth for using them. Snobby Brits. - I was reminded throughout the book of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, which features a long section in America during which the Americans are depicted most viciously and are proud of those attributes given them by the author. In particular, I was reminded of the American habit of eating meat with a knife, the fork being a rather late addition to the American table with the consequence that we hold our forks in our left hands when cutting and then transfer them to the right, something apparently absent from European habits.
Overall, it’s an entertaining book, but a bit too long for continuous reading, and not something you should dive right into if you’ve recently read The Mother Tongue....more
A paean against the surveillance state in the vein of The Handmaiden's Tale or V for Vendetta. Imagines that in the cause of "security," the state wilA paean against the surveillance state in the vein of The Handmaiden's Tale or V for Vendetta. Imagines that in the cause of "security," the state will unleash a surveillance society and a morality campaign and regular people will suffer under the boot of oppression.
The art has a sketchy, scattered quality to it that works well, but it definitely yields the force of the narrative to the written text being superimposed on it. There are whole swaths in the middle of the narrative where the imagery adds very little to the story.
It’s a little disconcerting how close Ronson gets to very scary people in this book. But his point, I think, is that even the very scary people are juIt’s a little disconcerting how close Ronson gets to very scary people in this book. But his point, I think, is that even the very scary people are just people. Them details Ronson’s journey into the late 1990s and early 2000s subculture of conspiracy theorists, people who believe shadowy cabals of the ultra-rich control the world, and make decisions about the world-controlling process at a secret meeting each winter in a hotel and at a second yearly meeting, a satanic ritual in California. A few details:
- Ronson does a very good job of making the terrifying people depicted in his book look more like hapless buffoons that terrorists. He also highlights how the people on the extreme left of the system are also bonkers. - I admire both his persistence and his bravery, to visit places and people who have, in some cases, set themselves up against everything he represents or stands for (or is, in the case of the Anti-Semitic KKK). - The blood drinking lizard chapter, about famous crackpot David Icke, is particularly compelling. Ronson follows Icke when he comes to Toronto to speak about the fact that the world’s leaders are actually seven foot tall blood drinking lizards. The local Jewish Anti-defamation League orchestrates a shut-down of his talks before learning that his talk of lizards isn’t code for anti-Semitic thought, but actually a fear of giant lizards. - I love Ronson’s self-deprecating writing style. If nothing else, reading the book is worth it for the nervous self-terror that emerges as he wrestles with tricky situations, like “should I try on the KKK hood or not?” — he does. - The best part is that he does find a secret cabal of ultra-rich movers and shakers who meet twice a year. They DO have policy discussions and have a ceremony in front of a giant owl. The Bilderburg group does, as Ronson lays it out, seem to have a lot of power (at least in terms of their ability to draw together people who will later become important. But it also functions like a rich old person’s frat party.
For much of the book, I couldn’t help but think of So I Married an Axe Murderer and Charlie’s nutty father. All in all, Them is a compelling, striking read with complicated emotional layers and a strong vein of humor....more
When the zombie apocalypse starts in the second city, it's not just corpses that crawl out of the ground, but the secrets they keep. This book servesWhen the zombie apocalypse starts in the second city, it's not just corpses that crawl out of the ground, but the secrets they keep. This book serves as a kind of partner for his earlier novel, Zombie, Ohio, in that the former was about rural life during the apocalypse and this is about city life. Kenemore tells the story from three perspectives, each a bit different and each interesting.
While the zombies in the novel are entertaining and wonderful, they aren't the center of the story. Kenemore uses them as a springboard to write about his real subject, the iniquities and corruptions of the city of Chicago. The man knows this town and it shows. Kenemore just keeps getting better at developing voices and characters. The story crackles with action and wit, but doesn't become campy or full of itself. A really solid tale. Once again, Kenemore shows his thorough thoughtfulness about the zombie apocalypse in the way he writes about neighhorhoods. Like Max Brooks before him, Kenemore suggests that the impoverished have had to learn to make a go of it without the support of society around them. This makes them ideally suited to survive when the dead come knocking. A basement full of automatic weapons helps too.
For people desiring the all-out zombie terror of a World War Z or Walking Dead, Kenemore's book may be a bit too light on cannibal corpses. Nonetheless, it's a solid read and well worth your time.
Full disclosure -- I know Scott Kenemore, and have had him visit my class a few times....more
Rumpole defends a Packistani man accused of being a terrorist on flimsy evidence. She Who Must Be Obeyed also considers reading for the Bar herself thRumpole defends a Packistani man accused of being a terrorist on flimsy evidence. She Who Must Be Obeyed also considers reading for the Bar herself this time around. Rumpole discovers that she’s starting to place her affections elsewhere, but is either oblivious or too crafty to say anything....more
This time, Rumpole brings his aid to himself, working to get a violation of a court behavior order voided. He also has to contend with a murder suspecThis time, Rumpole brings his aid to himself, working to get a violation of a court behavior order voided. He also has to contend with a murder suspect who worries more about whether Rumpole has his senior barrister silks than anything else....more
Panic! examines the recent history of financial scares and how Wall Street deals with them. Starting with the 1987 (88?) crash during which Lewis wasPanic! examines the recent history of financial scares and how Wall Street deals with them. Starting with the 1987 (88?) crash during which Lewis was working at Soloman Brothers (and from which he wrote Liar’s Poker), Lewis traces out the causes, effects, and nature of several crashes, including the Asian currency crash, the Internet bubble, and the recent collapse of the housing market. For each, Lewis provides some contextual commentary and then curates a number of contemporary essays from various financial newspapers and magazines. He does this to give us a sense of what people were saying about the events at the time. A few thoughts:
- Lewis continues to show his prowess at explaining complicated situations skillfully. In both Moneyball and The Big Short, he uses individual stories to craft the shape of the larger narrative being described. He does this a bit in Panic, but the diverse nature of the stories he’s telling prods him to use the voices of contemporary writers instead. The pieces he wrote himself are generally the best pieces in the book. - Jim Cramer comes up several times in the book, partly as an example of how even the really smart folks can get caught in the whirlwind of panics. It’s amusing to see him in this light, especially the essay where he talks about the collapse of the Internet bubble and his intent to leave finance. Since I had no idea who he was before he showed up as the Mad Money guy, this was useful. - In retrospect it’s easy to see just how dumb some of these bubbles were. The Internet bubble is pretty funny in this regard, as the failures came from the shifted priority in IPOs. It used to be “establish a good company, then go public.” The internet bubble came with a new formula: “Have an idea for a company, raise investor financing, go public, then establish the company.” Oops. - The story of the Asian currency collapse was pretty grim. Lewis shapes it as a narrative of investor excess driving currency rates up and down, and the real-world ramifications of that speculation, which was a severely depressed Asian economy that took years to recover. - I really like Michael Lewis’ writing. Alas, this book didn’t really do it for me. It was a bit like finding that a television show you really like has decided to do a clip show. Even if you haven’t seen all the clips, it’s just not as good as a new thing would be. That’s how Panic! feels. Not bad, but not nearly as good as his other writing.
All this discussion makes me even more skeptical about the very nature of the stock market as a vital piece of our culture and economy. I’m not convinced that it actually adds very much to the value of most regular people who get involved in it, and that it allows a few insiders to make off with huge amounts of money for doing almost nothing that adds any value to the world. And the interconnected nature of those markets means they hold inordinate sway over the drift of the real world even as they make their money by backing or trading instruments so complex only they understand them....more
Bernie Gunther has it harder than most. Like all good noir private eyes, he’s an honest, if disillusioned, man living in a corrupt world. But where PhBernie Gunther has it harder than most. Like all good noir private eyes, he’s an honest, if disillusioned, man living in a corrupt world. But where Philip Marlowe or Michael Shayne just have to deal with corrupt city officials, Gunther has to navigate mid-1930s Nazi Germany, and boy is it tough. So when a missing persons case turns into a murder involving the highest levels of the party, Gunther needs all his wits to stay ahead of the jackboots. A few thoughts:
I came to like Gunther more as the book went on, but in the beginning I didn’t like him very much at all. He’s a smartass with a womanizing eye but where Chandler’s Marlowe felt fresh, Gunther feels distinctly recycled in the same suit. Once things heat up, though, and he has to navigate the treacherous waters between the police force and the SS, the novel gets a lot more interesting. Assuming Kerr’s research to be accurate, March Violets highlights the way the overwhelming need for public image drove people to pretend they agreed with the Nazis more than they actually did. The public danger of violence encourages meek people to stay/ be meek. The title refers to the people who joined up after some of the famous public violence events after the Nazis took power. Gunther lives a life in rebellion, having quit the police force in protest of the political hirings and firings. He mouths off a lot and it gets him in trouble. It’s interesting how the rise of fascism gave little bits of brutal anthill authority to petty tyrants throughout the country. Really depressing was the beginning of the novel, in which we learn that Bernie’s caseload consists mostly of missing persons cases, and as often as not his subjects end up dead in the river, shot by the Gestapo. It highlights the absolute fear playing through the whole country, especially among progressives opposed to Nazi rule. There’s also a grim scene where he laments the low prices jewelers are giving to people preparing to flee the country. A concentration camp makes a brief appearance in the novel, and while I was dubious about using such a structure for part of the fictional world, it reminds the reader, again, of many of the awful living conditions in the work camps.
In the end, I thought the novel was much better as it concluded than it was at the start. An interesting read....more
Brown’s history the years between 1850 and 1900 (or thereabouts) documents the brutal genocide of band after band of Native Americans (whom the book cBrown’s history the years between 1850 and 1900 (or thereabouts) documents the brutal genocide of band after band of Native Americans (whom the book calls Indians as was common in 1970) by whites who wanted the land they occupied. It’s a difficult read, but a crucial one for anyone who values a deep and complex understanding of the past as part of an understanding of the present and the future. A few thoughts:
- By the halfway point in the book, even the most dense reader will have uncovered the pattern: 1. Whites arrive in an area occupied by a band of Native Americans, demand a piece of the land for their own. The band either agrees or fights. If they fight, the whites kill them mercilessly, or bring in bigger and bigger military forces until they can. In the treaty for the land, whites promise rations and annual payments in exchange for the land the band gives up. 2. Whites fail to deliver the rations and/or payments that were promised. Often, new settlers in the region begin encroaching on the reservations for mining, hunting, or general settlement. If the Native Americans react to these violations in any way, they’re blamed and held solely responsible. 3. Whites decide they want the reservation land too, and send “peace commissions” to negotiate further sales of the limited land. Return to step 1. Brown writes the book from the Native American perspective, using language like ‘pony soldiers’ for cavalry and ‘one star chief SoandSo.’ This distinct style choice continually reminds the reader of the perspective and experience being documented. - The sheer volume of tribes on whom the land grab / extermination was practiced is grueling and mind-numbing to contemplate. By the end of the book, it’s painful to continue reading. Sometimes well-intentioned individuals managed to scrape together reasonably solid situations for the tribes for whom they mediated, so the reader could foster hope for a moment. But inevitably, other individuals driven by greed, arrogance, and a system that favored whites over natives in every way upset these situations, driving the Native Americans mercilessly until they rebelled, and then bringing in the Army to kill them. - I was particularly sad to read the chapters on Minnesota, as I’d learned nothing of the treachery my ancestors brought along when they settled the land of 10,000 lakes. The particular brand of betrayal we used was to persuade natives to settle on reservations and promise to give them rations and money in annual installments, then forget or refuse to pay them the rations and money. Then, when they got mad about being lied to, my ancestors killed them. As I said above, this happened in nearly every encounter between White Americans and Native Americans. But somehow, I wanted to think Minnesota was different. Of course, many places in the state are named after the men and peoples they killed: Shakopee, Wabasha, Minnetonka. - Two “fun facts” I’ll take away from this book are: 1. The Native Americans who encountered George Custer (a particularly brutal military leader who well-deserved what he got at Little Big Horn) called him “Hard Backsides” because he could ride for hours without a break. 2. Sitting Bull received a trick pony from Buffalo Bill Cody after he toured with Cody’s Wild West Show. The pony was trained to sit down and raise one hoof at the sound of a gun shot. When Sitting Bull was killed in a scuffle that triggered the massacre at Wounded Knee, his horse performed its trick right on the field next to the dying Chief.
Two books came to mind as I read this history. First, Jared Gardner’s Guns, Germs, and Steel helps explain the historical accidents that gave some cultures (Western Europe, particularly) a leg up in the technological race that determined the outcome of so many battles. But it doesn’t explain the attitude that accompanies them, the idea of ownership and conquest that drive the people who arrived from North America and proceeded to murder the people already living there.
Second, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael suggests that the modern world has been swept, in the last 5,000 years or so, by the mindset of the takers rather than that of the sharers (it’s been a long time since I read that book, so forgive me if I’m using the wrong language here). He suggests that the equilibrium developed by many societies hinged on an idea of shared ownership and communion with the land, but that this perspective conflicted with the new perspective of takers, who believe in ownership and dominion over the land. This latter perspective fosters greed, etc, and also provides an incentive to overwhelm one’s neighbors. The clashes in North America and Australia represent two of the more recent encounters between takers and sharers, with the takers brutally sweeping the sharers aside.
I also can’t help but notice what a strong role the belief in religious superiority had in shaping the white political and military actions. (Usually greed was the first role, with miners and settlers encroaching on land the government had already ceded to the Native Americans.) Usually the whites believed their Christian views gave them moral superiority–even the “manifest destiny”–from which they could decide the fates of the tribes with whom they dealt. It also gave them the justification to punish the tribes who had come to live on reservations. Often, almost immediately after the tribes had given up their land, their agents and the legislators who funded them resented the “handouts” they had to give the reservation residents, conveniently forgetting that these were not charity, but payment owed for land purchased. Already by the 1880s, the U.S. was welching on its debts.
The big question, for me, is not how we can recuperate these moments, as we’ve tried to do with films like Dances with Wolves or Avatar (the latter of which strikes me as a science-fictional Native American revenge fantasy--despite being tainted with the White Messiah plotline–-that should be shelved right next to Inglourious Basterds at the video store). Instead, I would like to know how we can move forward while both accepting that our culture is built on that horror, and acknowledging that no individual should be punished for the sins of his/her parents. That said, the systemic poverty on reservations stems directly from the actions of the government and its agents in the years since the treaties were signed.
This isn’t a question I have a satisfying answer to yet, I’m afraid....more
I have to wonder, now, whether I encountered some brief discussion of this novel a couple years ago (probably on BoingBoing) and then forgot about it,I have to wonder, now, whether I encountered some brief discussion of this novel a couple years ago (probably on BoingBoing) and then forgot about it, or if the zeitgeist of the era just prompted me to follow the same path that Charles Stross had already cleared so cleverly. For the last couple years, in classes and other places, I've been saying it would be a great story premise to have an alternate reality game in which players run errands or do various blind work in order to play the game, all the while unaware that they're actually working for real world forces using the ARG to get unwitting people to do their bidding. Turns out it is a great story premise, only Stross has already written it.
The ARG manipulation thing is but one of several narrative threads in Stross' novel, Halting State. We also have a robbery in an MMORPG that has real-world consequences, and for-keeps office politics reminiscent of the third story in The Atrocity Archives. Stross tells the story through three characters, Sue, a Sargent in the Edinburgh police department, Elaine, a forensic accountant gamer, and Jack, a slacker hacker with training in the Alternate Reality games that play such a big role in the near-future society of Scotland. A few thoughts:
Stross writes in a not-too-disconcerting second person, putting you in the role of the chapter's subject. I suppose this emphasizes the gaming aspect of the story, but ultimately it gets in the way, for my money. The story takes place mostly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, both of which Stross describes as ancient cities bristling with the new. It works very well. I was also pleased to come across the part in the book where the characters visit a cafe built in an old castle/building with thick walls and no wireless signal. I remember reading on Stross' blog about how, a month before the book was due to be published, he visited this real place and found that finally it had been penetrated by wireless. He's since documented other ways his book has become obsolete ahead of schedule. (with spoilers, obviously.) My favorite innovation are AR glasses, something everyone wears that overlays a kind of Google Maps or other layout on top of the world you're playing. We're already moving toward this with GPS and direction-enabled phone apps that overlay labels on phone images. We just need to move those screens up to glasses and we're there. Stross' description of the precarious state the international Internet substructure is gives me the heebie jeebies. While we're certainly under the environmental Sword of Damocles, I'd preferred not to think of the ways we've made ourselves vulnerable by building such complex technologies into the heart of our society. We won't need to get into life-support chairs to find ourselves in a "The Machine Stops" situation. I also like the "life recording" of all on-duty police officers at all times. While there should be adequate precautions in place to keep officers from suffering unduly under this kind of surveillance, the unreliability of witness testimony means we should implement this as fast as we possibly can. I can't say I like the US cover all that much. The UK cover is far better.
A solid book, entertaining and well-written. I enjoyed it quite a bit--about the same as The Atrocity Archives, but not as much as Singularity Sky or Accelerando....more
Former IRA enforced Gerry Fegen has a problem -- every time he tries to go to sleep, visions (or ghosts?) of the men and women he killed start screamiFormer IRA enforced Gerry Fegen has a problem -- every time he tries to go to sleep, visions (or ghosts?) of the men and women he killed start screaming, driving him to drink them into oblivion. It's while using this method that Gerry runs into an old acquaintance who was with him when he committed one of his murders. When he follows the ghost's instructions to kill his former mate, that ghost leaves him alone with the others. One ghost sated, eleven to go.
Despite the fact that Fegen elicits little sympathy from us, he is a man drowning in guilt. As such, it's easier to side with him as he cuts a bloody swath across Belfast than you'd expect. It also helps that he's killing dislikable, immoral, unethical people. Neville's writing style builds suspense nicely, driving the tale forward using a variety of perspectives, but never losing sight of Fegen's story and troubles. The obvious read of the book is that Gerry has lost it, and is being haunted by manifestations of his own guilt--the perspective Gerry's prison psychiatrist offered-- but the book doesn't let us get away with a completely easy explanation, having one or two scenes where the ghosts seem to know something Gerry doesn't know. But our unconscious knows things we don't otherwise know, and if ever the unconscious had a direct line to the mind, it's through hallucinations. Neville's book, written in 2009, digs deeply into the sustained tension in the city, wrestling with the bloody heritage at work in many parts of Northern Ireland, something that becomes even more important as we look at the rising debt crisis in that country. Neville pulls no punches in suggesting that many of the IRA folks were, by the very nature of the criminal enterprise their cause had to be, embroiled in graft and corruption and crime as part of their daily lives. Alas, there are few (if any) redeeming characters in the novel. We want to like Fegen through the magic of identification with the narrator (akin to Stockholm Syndrome, if you think about it). The only likeable character is Marie, the niece of one of Gerry's victims who is being menaced by the same people Gerry has been hunting. While she's sympathetic, we get almost nothing from her point of view, and she serves as a plot device more than a character, someone to provide a positive motive for Gerry. She's neither all that kind nor a prostitute, but she serves the same purpose as the "hooker with a heart of gold" in old Westerns.
The Ghosts of Belfast is a rollicking ride, a solid thriller that drew me along quickly. It's dark, but not gruesome....more