June Book Reviews

I’ve found very gentle themes that have drifted across my reading habits. This is purely accidental but I find it amusing. June’s reading has taken me away from the more sprawling studies into more intimate settings. I lead with a new found favourite.

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong [5/5 stars]

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Reading a five star book for me has been a bit like a four leaf clover. I also have a weird paradox: I want to find favourites pretty readily but also their scarcity makes them precious, a book class of their own.

I Contain Multitudes in short: the world as we know it is dependant on in a large part to that which we cannot even see. Our health, behaviour, and the ability to do anything is down to a healthy relationship with the trillions of microbes that live within us.

In the book we get a look at microbes in nature, like in a bobtail squid there are certain microbes which allow them to glow and protect them from predators.

Eye-opening is an underwhelming adjective to describe this book. It’ll have to do, unfortunately. I left this book with a new perspective of the complexity and wonder of the world. Highly recommended!

Parade by Shuichi Yoshida [4/5 stars]

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Ever read a book at the perfect time in your life? Like the stars aligned and produced a bit of content that fitted your exact mood? This is what Parade was for me. Again, I was gripped by the melancholia of post-graduation, a long shadow of uncertainty stretching far into the distance.

It follows five Japanese under 30s in various states of discomfort, stuck in unfavourable situations and uncertain how to go forwards. Basically: same. If I were to describe this book, I would say it’s about nothing, not even growing up per se which might sound like a not very interesting overview. For me, though, it’s part of its appeal: it feels like we’re taking a slice out of these characters’ lives, bearing temporary witness to a space of time that they all occupy until the final point.

Anger and violence are sleeper themes in this also. I read it in a day so it felt a bit more intense that it might have been if I paced myself. Good reading.

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (À la recherche du temps perdu #1) [4/5 stars]

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I did it! I have finished volume one of Proust’s epic. Like the sun that crests an autumn horizon, gently bathing that once frigid landscape with its pale light that unfurls like the banners of your country’s army, near those frozen fields by old Combray that are awakened to the prospect of a new dawn, the story unfolds in a gorgeous, but slow manner, such as in the case of that old gentleman Swann, that storied champion with whom we spend an excellent period exploring the tragedies of love and jealousy, those visceral emotions that can make a man as much as they destroy him, a consuming battalion of emotions not unlike the effects of illness, taking us completely whole without chance of rebellion or clarity, which in our fevered grip we hold onto some notion of self as it has changed from memory of a time we have lost, namely such as a time when mind and body were not overwhelmed with illness, not racked or distorted but completely whole.

Reading this book you will find yourself reading a lot of sentences like this. While isolated it might even be quite endearing, but it made  for slow reading, especially to begin with; more than once I wrestled with the notion of abandoning it. But I didn’t. And, being on the other side, I did enjoy it but I must say “overwritten” is a word that comes to mind. Especially when it comes to simpler ideas. In exploring the nuances of emotions, Proust has no rival, and he writes a mean description too. But it poses a problem when you lose the point of the sentence after the 20th comma. I wonder how much is down to the translator. I may never know. What you do have though is something with real flourishes, a piece of literature deserving of its esteem. I’ll check back in but not too quickly.

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Review Round-up: January(ish)

I read books in fairly quick succession towards the end of January so rather than bombard you with a post per review, I’ll do it by month. This trend seems to be continuing this month so this is probably how I’ll do reviews in the future.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein [4/5 stars]

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This book in a broad sense: Naomi Klein vs. Milton Friedman in a rigorously researched, brutal, oftentimes scary, critique of Friedmanite economics and how willing individuals, including governments, are in order to put them into place.

More specifically it’s a critique of the eponymous idea of the “Shock Doctrine”, or disaster capitalism. This is basically the main thesis of Milton Friedman and friends from the Chicago School of Economics: that the best thing is free-market economics—what Klein sums up with three core aims of “deregulation, privatisation, deep cuts to social spending”. The problem? People aren’t super hot about it, so they won’t vote for it. The solution? Shock and awe.

If a country is in the midst of a tragedy, quick implementation of Chicago School economics is the way forward; while the people are reeling, change the entirety of the country’s system. By the time things calm down, everything is different and no-one can protest. The first of these happened in Chile, which was basically a lab to test the efficacy of such a thesis. This was done through the assistance of a coup to instate the dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973, before moving on the other countries in that region. If you want to read more about the coup, go ahead. A lot of death there. Though, what a surprise for a dictator.

From this point, Klein goes through the decades and talks about how various people have taken the Friedmanite approach to economics and fucked people over across the globe, in the midst of economic depressions, wars, and natural disasters.

That’s the real bare bones of the purpose and focus of scrutiny Ms. Klein employs across the book. Now as a book, I was genuinely informed and learned a lot of new, very horrible things that governments have done in order to service quite frankly narrow interests (the aftermath of the Sri-Lankan tsunami, Latin America, as well as the Middle East were among the most striking, though all of the book is upsetting in basically equal parts). And while indeed it was meticulously researched, it lacked a certain degree of intellectual rigour.

For example, it lacked a detailed exploration of  free-market principles which were kind of necessary to make the case, I felt. My understanding is that it’s been tacitly stated that it’s not a defensible position at all, mostly because of what people have done in its name. That’s a dangerous conflation. I think, for example, that lemonade is a good thing. Very plausibly I could be motivated to do bad things in order to persuade more people to consume lemonade. But my actions in the name of lemonade are entirely divisible from the perceived qualities of it.

What I think Klein wants to argue is that what people have done in the name of free-market ideals is reprehensible, but it reads more to the effect that free-market economics as an idea itself is necessarily wrong which I disagree with. Not because I believe in that type of economics, but because I think the presentation of it is incorrect.

It’s a very interesting book that has taught me a lot about aspects of the world I either knew nothing or very little about.

Eat The Document by Dana Spiotta [4/5 stars]

904478Eat the Document is my first exposure to Dana Spiotta. She’s not a very well-known author here so tracking her books down was its own little quest. But the internet provides.

This is a brief book that takes a look into activist culture from the 1970s all the way to the new millennium. Now that doesn’t tell you much because not much happens. Not in a bad way but really the  main focus of the book is more to do with the relationships between the characters and exploration of the idea of rebellion, its functions, and people’s attitudes towards it.

What I loved were the digs at the more post-modern aspects of the activists, most notably the book’s criticism of irony over more meaningful forms of protest: irony essentially being self-defeating. I also really enjoyed the richly detailed interiors. Spiotta really makes you feel present in the scenes, with a clear understanding of personal spaces and people, with sharp details and good dialogue. What was also interesting was the juxtaposition of people and artifice—the not-quite activists, artificial materials, even fake identities—which seems to be a through-line. There is, in a way, a dedication to the need for truth and honesty in some capacity to lead a meaningful life.

My main criticism is that it skipped along a bit too easily. It’s a rare occasion where I ask a writer to write more not less, but so it goes. Very enjoyable and a quick read. A very understated writer!

Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar [3/5 stars]

29776922The “ish” in the post’s title is because of this book,  which I technically finished on the 1st of Feb but it’s just a day out and leaves this month a little less burdened (I estimate maybe five books being read this short month).

Someone in another review said it’s kind of like an extended think piece of a newspaper, which is about right: it’s nice, considering it was written by a journalist in lucid prose about a fascinating topic. However, that’s also where it doesn’t quite live up to what I thought it’d be.

So the premise of the book is this: there’re people who are charitable, and there are do-gooders, people who basically go above and beyond the call of duty. These people go to extreme levels of privation in order to service the greater good. There are alternating chapters of do-gooders and philosophical discussions relating to ethics. But that’s all it is. I thought it would be an integrated analysis of what kind of things we can extrapolate from people who go to extremes, but it doesn’t really quite get there.

So in one chapter, one person is so committed to helping to reduce suffering that he lives on an annual budget of just under $10,000 dollars for subsistence. The rest of his money, time, and resources are wholly dedicated to helping to reduce suffering. What I thought would happen would be a balanced evaluation of the do-gooder’s actions. What I got instead was a grouping of stories with some interesting and well-researched bits between them. It ultimately left open-ended questions such as: is it absurd to be so committed to helping people? What can we learn from these people? Are we, the non do-gooders, doing enough?

I assume Ms. MacFarquhar wants us to decide on our own. Overall, I think you should check it out in a similar way I might be tempted to share a thought-provoking article. It’s interesting journalism, but not enough stitching together of the ideas to make it a very good book.

It’s not a bad month for books, all things considered. I’m also doing well for my goal to read more non-fiction as well. I’ve got quite a few lined up for the coming weeks too.