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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

William Gibson, Spook Country

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-06-10

spook_countryJust finished the latest from Gibson (or at least the latest as far as I am concerned). I started a couple of months ago and got stuck on the first chapter and put it down again. I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago this time it caught, and I fairly raced through it.

It follows the standard Gibson convention of having N independent players doing their thing on separate paths, and then converging linearly to the story’s climax. In this case it’s a riff on the Repo Man suitcase-in-the-trunk-of-the-car, and no-one’s really quite sure what’s in it. There’s the inevitable omniscient puppet-master with unlimited deep pockets (and a mag lev bed). There’s no sex on the bed, but then again, I don’t read Gibson to read love stories.

Technology is still present, although in a much more muted form than his earlier works. The cyberpunk theme has been stripped out, and the result is a fairly sharp social commentary.

Two things really annoyed me. The first was the ease with which the various characters in the book managed to snag open wifi networks. These days they’re rarer than you think. I’ve even reconfigured my own router at home to lock down my network. And from what I’ve read, free municipal wifi isn’t very widespread in America. The second plot flaw was an accident where a car crashes at high speed into a lamp post outside a bar… and the two occupants more or less walk away unhindered.

That said, it’s an entertaining yarn with lots of wry observations of 21st century life done with Gibson’s razored turns of phrase. And when the mysterious secret is finally revealed, it’s not so much of an anticlimax as in All Tomorrow’s Parties or Idoru. In fact, it’s quite credible. I give him credit for taking a fairly simple plot and weaving a couple of hundred pages around it.

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Peter Carey – His Illegal Self

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-03-25

His Illegal SelfI finished Peter Carey’s latest novel last night. In some ways it was quite a difficult read. For a long time I felt as if I was underwater, clawing my way through deep green water trying to reach the surface.

Dialogues are not always easy to follow; Carey has chosen to omit quote marks at times, so from time to time I wasn’t sure if something was being spoken, or thought. I may also have missed some obvious clues at the beginning, but it wasn’t for the longest time until I realised that the story was set at the cusp of the 60s and 70s.

Another difficulty seems to be a glaring flaw in the basic premise. Young Che (his illegal self), who is being brought up by his grandmother, is accompanied by Anna “Dial” Xenos to visit his mother who is currently in hiding. But something unexpected happens (what, we won’t find out until much later in the book) and yet rather than take Che home, which would be the most obvious course of action, she instead goes into hiding herself, dyes Che’s hair black and spirits him out of the country.

Of course, not doing that would mean there would be no story, but still, it’s rather difficult to swallow. There’s also some deceit involved in the narrative, since you don’t actually find out how tenuous this initial premise is, as the truth only comes out as a flashback much later on.

All the same, I found myself turning the pages impatiently towards the end of the book when all the pieces began to come together, and I liked the way the story ends happy but broken.

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Naomi Klein – The Shock Doctrine

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-03-07

The rise of disaster capitalism

The rise ofdisaster capitalism

Every once in a while a really good book comes along that connects the dots in a new way, and the result leads to a deeper understanding of human civilisation. This is one such book.

When some financial pundit argues that things would be so much better if only we paid heed to the likes of Milton Friedman, we now have the choice of being able to dismiss them as clueless, sold out or just plain dangerous.

Above all, this essay is a stunning indictment of the Chicago School of Economics, effortlessly deconstructing the toxic underpinnings of Friedman’s pet theories: state=evil, incompetent versus, private enterprise=good, efficient… and we are seeing just how wrong this is in 2009.

As the past few decades have shown, slavishly following these theories has resulted in a relentless transfer of wealth from the many to the few. And now, as the wheels fall off the global economy, the message contained in this book becomes even more important. It’s time to throw Friedman out onto the rubbish dump of history. Sorry. Nice try, but no thanks. I already gave at the office.

Among many other things I learnt from reading this, perhaps one of the most important things I take away from the book is a new point of view from which to understand Israel-Palestine relations.

In essence, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to widespread emigration, and according to the anywhere-but-here school of thought, people were happy to escape to Israel. This in turn disrupted the uneasy equilibrium between the Israeli and Palenstinian people, since the former suddenly needed the latter a whole lot less as a source of cheap labour. This gave the Israelis a strong negotiating position which in turn enabled them to lock down the territories.

I find this line of thought quite intriguing, in that I’ve never heard anyone else articulate it before now.

My only criticism of the book would be Klein’s use of the term “shock doctor” to describe the acolytes of Friedman who launch their brutal economic measures on country after country around the world. A doctor is someone who heals. These people inflict damage.

Other people have been writing about this subject for years. This just happens to be a very articulate and up-to-date essay. It’s a must read. Really. Go out and buy it, or borrow it from a library.

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Douglas Kennedy, The Woman in the Fifth

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-02-17

Finished reading The Woman in the Fifth last week. I found it a bit disconcerting with its drift into the supernatural, but well, why not?

Kennedy paints Paris very well in the story, with neither condescension nor misplaced veneration. He captures the problem of immigration and the plight of the sans papiers with precision and at the same time without pathos.

What I liked least (or rather, what was the weakest aspect of what is otherwise a very entertaining and at times moving tale) was that the main character Harry Ricks is forced to flee the United States due to circumstances far beyond his control. And which aren’t revealed for some time in the narrative, and when you finally learn what happened it’s a bit of an anticlimax.

I hope Kennedy is exaggerating a little at how a simple fait divers can bring down a person in America, but hey, drunk Japanese finance ministers commit political hari-kiri (come to think of it, so do English members of parliament caught wearing frilly panties — or not, as the case may be), so maybe small town University professors have to, as well.

I did like the Faustian bargain aspect of the story. Kind of like winning the lottery… just so long as you spend the precise amount of winnings, each day, every day.

Walk on the wild side

Walk on the wild side

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The Gambler, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Posted by dlandgren on 2009-01-18

I stumbled across this page via Energy Bulletin, a site that continues to impress me with its eclectic choice of links to articles on energy descent and peak oil.

Here, then, is a short story by Paolo Bacigalupi, whose name harks to a more mediterranean heritage, but writes with extraordinary vividness of epic cultural clash between East and West. It brought back memories of reading James Clavell’s Shogun and Taipan that I read all those years ago, being as they were my first encounter with the Asian concept of face.

He relates the story of Ong, a Laotian refuge web journalist, writing stories about environmental collapse that no-one cares to read except to assuage their guilty conscience.

“You need to up your average. You’ve got almost no readers selecting you for Page One. And even when they do subscribe to your feed, they’re putting it in the third tier.”

“Spinach reading,” I supply.

“What?”

“Mr. Mackley calls it spinach reading. When people feel like they should do something with virtue, like eat their spinach, they click to me.

With deft strokes, Bacigalupi draws a melancholic portrait of a quiet young man, cut off from his roots and adrift and lonely in a vaguely dystopian future America.  Ong needs to boost his ratings, his readership, or lose his job. (Plus ça change…)

Readership is measured in web clicks, feed subscriptions, pings, trackbacks and buzz generated from social networks whose precursors can be found in the likes of Plaxo, Facebook, del.icio.us and so on. And when I look at the statistics that my own tiny blog generates (on the order of single-digit visits per day), I can’t help but feel a certain kinship.

I’d buy the book it’s published in (it’s the closing story in a collection of short stories from different authors), but I worry that it would be like buying a CD for one great song and discovering that the rest are crappy. Sometimes you come across a story that is so powerful that reading something else straight afterwards feels like a letdown. This is one such story.

Update 2009-03-30: in a particularly strange episode of life imitates art, Robert X. Cringely has an article on the role of automated computer trading on the collapse of AIG and the US mortgage market. He paints the same picture of a single action occurring in the infosphere that generates a buzz, a glow, and creating a chain reaction of attention that will bring the house down, to the immense satisfaction (and profitability) of the same person who carried out the initial trade.

Reading the comments to the blog indicates that his logic is a bit faulty, but I think there’s some element of logic to the underlying premise. In any case, there’s a resonance with The Gambler that is hard to shake off.

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Peter Singer, One World

Posted by dlandgren on 2008-11-16

A long time ago Fiona gave me a copy of Peter Singer, How Are We to Live? : Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest. Singer’s name came up recently in a conversation with a friend, Scott, who mentioned that he had read One World. One thing led to another and he lent it to me.

The book is the result of a series of lectures he gave at Yale as part of the “Dwight Harrington Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy”.

He starts from the basis that we share One Atmosphere, and discusses global warming and the steps needed to address it.

Globalisation has led to a situation where the entire economic activity of the world may be described as One Economy. A natural corollary to that is that there is the need for One Law. Yet this does not mean he advocates a World Government (indeed he wryly acknowledges that such a beast would be an ineffectual bureaucratic monster), but that in all countries, people must be able to see that the system that globalisation has introduced is fair and just.

Finally he discusses the problem of wealth redistribution and foreign aid under the theme of One Community.

It’s an easy and enjoyable read. Of particular note is the manner in which he addresses the need for international action on climate change, and his examination of the World Trade Organisation. Yes, one can criticise some of the conclusions, but it is not a text that can be dismissed out of hand. Overall, there’s a lot to ponder.

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