Ministry For the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall
Franz Kafka: Lost Writings edited by Reiner Stach (Translation: Michael Hofmann)
Sensation Machines by Adam Wilson
Cascade (Short Stories) by Craig Davidson
The Cold Millions by Jess Walter
Last Orgy of the Divine Hermit by Mark Leyner
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil
Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel
Quicksand by Emmanuel Bove
Appleseed by Matt Bell
Things About Which I Know Nothing (Short Stories) by Patrick Ness
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemison
Phase Six by Jim Shepard
Joe’s Liver by Paul Di Filippo
A Man At Arms by Stephen Pressfield
Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis
Berlin by David Lutes
Love and Capital: Karl & Jenny Marx by Mary Gabriel
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
Dark Money by Jane Mayer
The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars by Peter Cozzens
Pictures At a Revolution: Five Movies & the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris
Marx’s Das Capital: A Biography by Francis Wheen
Germany: From Revolution to Counter Revolution by Rob Sewell
Essays After Eighty by Don Hall
After the Apocalypse by Srecko Horvat
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
The Commandant edited by Jurg Amann
What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction by Alice McDermott
I don’t review a lot of stuff these days (although I do keep a regular book journal). However, after reading Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism I felt compelled to respond, at length, to his vision of the bright, shining near future that awaits us thanks to new technologies, robots, and limitless leisure time.
* * * *
First of all, does anybody else have a problem with the words “luxury” and “communism” appearing in such close proximity? Aren’t they understood to be practically, y’know, oxymorons?
Not according to Aaron Bastani.
Looking through his rose-colored glasses, he sees the future as a time of abundance, thanks to the mining of asteroids in near earth orbit and virtually free services like health care and housing. It is technology that will finally liberate our species from the onerous yoke of work, robots doing most of our jobs, humans enjoying lives of leisure…
I consider myself something of a student of history and try as I might, I can’t recall a single human society, from pre-history to the present, where someone didn’t get a larger slice of the pie due to their size, strength, ferocity, intelligence, wealth, connections, etc. In times of abundance, the ruling clique simply takes more. In times of want, they give up the least.
I wouldn’t call Bastani’s book non-fiction, more like science fiction.
In describing a near future utopia brought about by technological advances, he is employing wishful thinking—I don’t trust machines (or billionaires) to save us and, frankly, we don’t need more luxury on this godforsaken planet, we need less.
In light of the most recent IPCC report on the climate (and its ominous-sounding references to “Code Red”), Fully Automated seems even more far-fetched and fanciful. It will be decades before we can mine asteroids or store limitless amounts of data on a strand of DNA. I see no political will anywhere for building affordable housing or offering free health care or university tuition—hell, we can’t even get our governments, liberal or conservative, to get behind a liveable minimum wage.
And, in the meantime, we’ll be dealing with a climate catastrophe: drought and severe weather phenomena, refugees in the hundreds of millions, flooding, famine, mass deaths from heat waves and newer and even more deadly pandemics as we continue to trespass in remote areas we don’t belong.
Under such stressful circumstances will workable societies and infrastructure still exist, will we have the capacity or, yes, luxury to conceive of space travel when the bonds that hold civilization together are loosening, the world coming apart at the seams?
We know that capitalism is eminently adaptable, able to contort itself into new configurations if it means justifying its survival, but even getting it to embrace a $15 minimum wage or support the notion of a Universal Basic Income is like trying to pry food away from a T-Rex.
It isn’t part of its mentality to throw around “free money” or have governments providing anything but the most basic services to citizens. Oligarchs and their cover organizations have spent billions in “dark money” to secure legislators who are hostile to “big” (i.e. effective) government, doing their best to discredit democratic institutions in the eyes of an increasingly cynical and disconnected electorate.
What major party or serious contender for power is out there agitating for Universal Basic Services for every citizen? Who is going to have the courage and chutzpah to “switch off the privatization and out-sourcing machine”, institute a “One Planet Tax” and impose the rest of Bastani’s progressive and expensive agenda in a world bought and paid for by minions of neoliberalism?
To be fair, the book does have its moments. For instance, Bastani is proficient at providing short, snappy definitions:
Capitalism is described as “a machine designed to extract maximum value to shareholders at the expense of workers and service users”.
Privatization: “is not about improving outcomes or services, but pursuing a political agenda which redistributes wealth from the majority of society to a small elite”.
Neoliberalism: “reduces the capacity of public bodies to spend money while simultaneously intensifying social problems like homelessness and poverty. This means the only options to respond…are increasingly market-oriented”.
And, finally: “A green politics of ecology without the red politics of shared wealth will fail to command popular support”.
I also agree with Bastani’s insistence that we should replace the GDP, not with an “Abundance Index”, as he suggests, but something that measures the physical, mental and spiritual health of our citizenry, a Happiness Scale (“decommodify happiness” should be a meme passed on like a secret password, embroidered on t-shirts, stamped on buttons).
But those occasional gems don’t detract from this book’s wrong-headedness and sheer hubris:
“Our technology is already making us gods, so we might as well get good at it.”
“Under Fully Automated Luxury Communism we can lead lives equivalent to today’s billionaires…”
It sings the praises of technology but expresses little interest in human nature and our somewhat spotty historical record when it comes to slavery, exploitation, genocide, conflicts over resource scarcity, etc. Even so-called “free societies” have been built on the fruits of cheap labor and menial servitude.
Bastani posits a positive, hopeful future based on the most specious evidence while blithely ignoring crises that represent an existential threat to our species and are far more present and pressing than he seems willing to acknowledge.
Humans have never lived “wisely and agreeably and well” (quoting John Maynard Keynes) and we’ve never existed in a jobless, leisure society where our basic needs are met and I don’t believe we ever will.
If there is wealth, the priest-kings and charismatic leaders will use dogma and jingoism to take more than their fair share. If we complain, they will employ lethal force to terrify and constrain us. What else is new?
Capitalism might be flexible and self-replicating, but it will also fight fiercely for its survival, its ability to continue exploiting the many in favor of the few, chewing up more and more of our precious ecosystem, its greed barely held in check by weak laws, compromised lawmakers and a distracted populace.
Bastani feels that through some magical influx of abundance, capitalism will become a victim of its own success and be transformed into an economic system that better serves the common good.
I wish that were the case but fear his timeline renders his solutions, fanciful or not, moot. Our plight as a species must take precedence over capitalist wet dreams. We need to act today to save our living, breathing planet, not wait decades for dubious technological fixes.
And I shouldn’t have to say this but the solution won’t come from without, but within.
It starts with us. Speaking and acting collectively. Reforming when possible, revolting when necessary. Putting aside our differences, shouting in one voice, a deafening, prolonged clamor that can’t be, won’t be ignored. Demanding a sustainable, equitable, ethical future, one worth the blood, sweat and tears that will undoubtedly be shed in the course of bringing it to fruition.
In all, I read 102 books in 2019.
Forty-one (41) non-fiction, sixty-one (61) fiction and poetry.
I thought the ratio would’ve been more evenly split, closer to 50-50, but I was wrong.
Only one author placed two entries on my personal “Best of…” list, Ben H. Winters, and a big shout out to that man and his unique imagination.
Here’s my roster of favorite reads during 2019—how does it compare to yours?
Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner
Infinite Detail by Tim Maugham
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
The Emerald Light in the Air (stories) by Donald Antrim
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
The Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown
Grand Opening by Jon Hassler
Benediction by Kent Haruf
Hystopia by David Means
Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan
Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds
The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go
Money by Martin Amis
The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
The Masque of Mañana by Robert Sheckley
Worst novel read this year: Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky
Falter by Bill McKibben
Working by Robert Caro
Talking to My Daughter About the Economy by Yanis Varoufakis
Read & Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide to Activism by Nadya Tolokonnikova
The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
The Wayfinders by Wade Davis
How Fascism Works by David Stanley
Utopia For Realists by Rutger Bregman
The Destiny Thief (essays) by Richard Russo
The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, A Revolution in Hollywood by W.K. Stratton
Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Worst non-fiction book read this year: Wolf At The Table by Augusten Burroughs
My book count was down 40% in 2018.
Gad, that’s embarrassing.
For the first time in ages I read less than one hundred books last year—blame that on Netflix and podcasts, both of which have been stealing my time like a furtive thief.
Below, you’ll find my list of favorite reads, fiction and non-fiction.
How does it compare with your choices?
The World to Come (Stories) by Jim Shepard
Sweet Nothing (Stories) by Richard Lange
All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski (Translated by Anthea Bell)
Greeks Bearing Gifts by Philip Kerr
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
The Implacable Hunter by Gerald Kersh
To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann (Translated by Shaun Whiteside)
The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem
Straight Cut by Madison Smartt Bell
American Rust by Philipp Meyer
Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante
Neon Rain by James Lee Burke
Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson
No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald
The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla
Tunnel At the End of the Light (Essays) by Jim Shepard
Fighting Fascism by Clara Zetkin
Reporter, A Memoir by Seymour Hersh
Stanley: An Impossible Life by Tim Jeal
The Bending Cross (Life of Eugene Debs) by Ray Ginger
Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler
Space Odyssey (Making of 2001) by Michael Benson
A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain
St. Paul, The Apostle We Love to Hate by Karen Armstrong
The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Seymour Hersh
Remember, Remember (Essays) by Charles Beaumont
The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain
Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
Note: You’ll find a list of my favorite films of 2018 over at Cinema Arete.
You’ll find my list of favourite films over at my blog, Cinema Arete.
Read slightly more non-fiction than fiction last year, a bit of a worrying trend. I’ve really cut back on my genre fiction in the past while; I’ve found the suspension of disbelief rarely works for me any more. The last horror novel I read, by Peter Straub, struck me as completely implausible and I barely finished it.
More and more, I’m looking for quality reads, books that are innovative, literate and unique.
And, more and more, contemporary fiction just doesn’t meet that criteria.
* * * *
Best Books Read in 2016
Fortune Smiles (Stories) by Adam Johnson
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
The Execution by Hugo Wilcken
The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo
The Heavenly Bible by Donald Ray Pollock
Today I Wrote Nothing (Stories) by Daniil Kharms
Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse
The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken
The Adulterous Woman (Stories) by Albert Camus
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
Without by Donald Hall
Felicity by Mary Oliver
Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes
Ghost Wars: Secret History of CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden by Steve Coll
Contrary Notions by Michael Parenti
When the Facts Change by Tony Judt
Disaster Capitalism by Antony Lowenstein
Young Orson: The Years of Luck & Genius by Patrick McGilligan
We Learn Nothing (Essays) by Tim Kreider
Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum
Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
The Idea of Communism by Tariq Ali
Goebbels: A Biography by Peter Longerich
My Life & Travels by Wilfred Thesiger
Hogs Wild (Essays) by Ian Frazier
I can already detect a collective gnashing of teeth as Gaiman’s legion of fans leap to his defense, their counter-attack, predictably, hysterical, vitriolic and ad hominem. Shoot the messenger and deal with the actual, y’know, message later.
I know what I’ve just said might seem a tad critical and extreme at first glance but, as my hero Bill Hicks would say, hear me out.
Clearly, Neil Gaiman is effective at what he does. He sells a ton of books, has earned a bevy of prizes and a significant number of people await each new Gaiman release with genuine pleasure and anticipation.
All to the good.
And speaking for myself, I’ve found Gaiman’s stuff, for the most part, diverting, and he writes in a straightforward, unpretentious style. But upon opening any Neil Gaiman offering I’m immediately struck by the realization that this is not a tale set on Earth Prime—there is an unworldly feel to the material. Indeed, nearly everything I’ve read by the man distinguishes him as someone who, in one way or another, is a purveyor of modern day fairy tales and moral fables. But no one truly believes fairy tales or thinks they have any basis in reality. Do they?
And therein lies the problem.
That lack of credibility produces, I would argue, an emotional distance, a safety margin from which readers can observe the action without being unduly concerned with the fate of the characters. When your audience is granted that kind of dispensation, they stop closely identifying with the people at the heart of the story, stop caring. A potentially gripping yarn becomes merely entertaining. Good, escapist fun.
Doesn’t that pretty much sum up the Gaiman oeuvre?
While he tells a decent story, there’s not the kind of intimacy and closely observed detail that ramps up our emotional investment to another level. Think of the work of masters of the macabre Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont. They frequently dealt with fantastic subject matter but in their best efforts (see: “Matheson’s “Mute” or Hell House) there is an unnerving sense that this creepy account could be real…and our concern for what the characters are enduring becomes all the more genuine and heartfelt.
Give him credit, Neil Gaiman is conversant with contemporary cultural touchstones, borrowing shamelessly from mythology (Old Gods and Sandman) or re-imagining familiar standards (Coraline). But, to me, none of his work succeeds at suspending disbelief. And while I see a lot of archetypes—vampires, werewolves, ghosts, the usual suspects—I don’t, frankly, detect much innovation or originality. Tropes and stock monsters, employed in a standard story arc, with (almost invariably) happy, satisfying resolutions. Gaiman’s approach to writing is quick, punchy, visual; perfect for graphic novels. Illustrative but not particularly deep or insightful. His characters speedily sketched, unceremoniously thrust into peril, even mortal danger.
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…
(First line of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book)
Ah, yes, The Graveyard Book. In that 2008 novel Gaiman presents us with the story of a young human child raised in a cemetery by a variety of well-meaning ghosts and supernatural creatures. Clever, but by Page 50 my interest in the central character, Bod, was purely academic: how would he be successfully re-integrated into human society? The rest of the book zipped past in a blur.
Likewise, I was almost immediately turned off by The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A more recent effort (2013), it’s told (mostly) from the point of view of a child whose observations are so mature and thoughtful as to defy credulity. I disliked the book from its initial pages and it never really caught on with me. Finished it out of a sense of obligation, not joy.
It strikes me that Neil Gaiman is a perfect author for our sped up, ADHD-afflicted society. He writes moderately well, with visual acumen, setting the table quickly, not bothering with niceties like realism or verisimilitude. His fans will say I’m being unfair—after all, with fairy tales the effect is more important than the nuts and bolts of narrative (and perhaps they’re right).
But there’s a fine line in dark fantasy and horror literature, a point where the author must create the impression that what we’re reading is actually taking place, expend every effort to ensure we’re fully immersed in the story, crying and bleeding along with the protagonist, experiencing their dread as the knob starts turning, the door inching open. If we have no faith in their ordeal, no stake in what’s happening to them, the writer has failed us, failed to devise a scenario that is, at once, dramatic and nerve-rending and, despite our best efforts to think otherwise, believable and authentic.
Personal, intimate horror. What really goes on in the dark.
That’s what scares us and leaves a permanent mark on our psyche.
Fairy tales are fine for children, but surely adults require narratives of more depth—aesthetically sound and literate and, at the same time, unrelenting and provocative, seeking to exact an emotional toll, while defying and frustrating expectations.
It’s time Neil Gaiman started writing for grownups.
People old enough to know that in life there are no happy endings…and no such thing as a great artist who stoops to please.
I’m still pondering James Wood’s rather unenthusiastic review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.
I read the review about an hour ago and now that I’ve had a chance to shower and clear my head, I’d like to get some thoughts down, try to sum up why I think Mr. Wood—and a number of other critics—have missed the point. Let me make clear, I have nothing against Wood, I think he’s a thoughtful, articulate reviewer, a smart man…I just don’t always agree with him.
There’s a taint, if I can put it like that, to his review, a whiff of innuendo. Mitchell’s a good storyteller, he allows, and The Bone Clocks is admittedly “entertaining”, but…
Well, apparently, The Bone Clocks lacks coherence, there’s a dearth of human significance and, then, near the conclusion of his critique, Mr. Wood finally lets the mask slip and his biases show:
“Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant…the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of ‘realistic’ skepticism.”
I’m not sure how much fantastic fiction Mr. Wood has read but he must be aware of some of its noble practitioners, Kafka and Borges, Maupassant and Poe. While Mr. Wood opines that “supernatural” skullduggery detracts from the human story, I wonder if he would say the same thing if he was reading a novel or short story by one of the authors I just cited.
What I like most about Mr. Mitchell’s work is that it refuses to acknowledge genre constraints; he delights in playing with tropes and is fearless about introducing SFnal elements to his narratives, creating a vast and varied universe that astonishes literally at every turn.
Mr. Wood’s final assertion, that The Bone Clocks is a “theological allegory”, reflecting a “bleak Gnosticism” must have made the author laugh out loud.
Really, Mr. Wood?
I suspect David Mitchell’s bookshelves are extensive and a good deal more eclectic than James Wood’s. He (Mitchell) is also of a generation whose childhood was enlivened by tales of the mysterious and macabre, whether in books, movies or on TV. From “Dan Dare” to “Dr. Who”; Lord of the Rings to the magic of Ray Harryhausen. All of those influences going into the creative hopper…and what emerges is a mashup that doesn’t discriminate between “literary” and “genre” fiction, employing elements of both, worshipping at the altar of neither.
Maybe that’s why a number of science fiction scribes I know are less than approving of Mr. Mitchell’s body of work. They think he’s nicking their best material without giving due credit, while some of literary crowd (like James Wood) would accuse him of slumming every time he goes off reservation and presents them with a “bad-faith tussle with a fantastic assailant who has already won”.
I’ll admit, initially I found the supernatural elements in The Bone Clocks a bit off-putting. I’d read no reviews or advance articles on the novel, not wanting to risk spoilers (and you won’t find any in this piece, I promise). The book startled me, intrigued me, then absolutely drew me in. Imagine a collaboration between Jonathan Carroll and Thomas Pynchon, both operating at the top of their form. There are conspiracies and mazes and secret societies and psychic shootouts…but, sorry, I swore I wouldn’t ruin the fun for you.
If The Bone Clocks was a song, it would have “crossover hit” written on it in big, block letters. The novel defies mere description and resists being slotted into any safe, comfortable niche.
Like its author, it is ambitious, ridiculously intelligent, culturally attuned, charming, witty and serenely confident.
David Mitchell is a marvel.
He’s managed to surprise us, yet again.
What a guy.
The reviewer and I belong to the same LibraryThing group and she mentioned she was picking up a copy but, sheesh, I didn’t expect such a smart and, yes, glowing review.
It’s the first critique of any sort the poems have received. I get general rumblings of praise from the people who’ve read New & Selected Poems but folks seem reluctant to address the subject matter or prominent themes. I worried, in my Afterword, that the collection might be too personal, too intense and I think there might be something to that. If you watch the footage of the book launch, the poems are often received in what I would describe as strained silence. Sherron told me that at one point a woman near her was softly weeping.
What kind of strange zeitgeist has my verse tapped into?
Poems are a hard enough sell these days—apocalyptic, mind-bending excavations on the human spirit may not be what readers are looking for.
Cripes, look at the bestseller list.
Yup, once again, it appears I’ve missed the mark.
After a long drive across the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, Frazier arrived at a long-abandoned prison camp near the town of Topolinoe. The camps along the Topolinskaya Highway were among the most dreaded destinations in Stalin’s gulag, the prison system that claimed the lives of more than a million people during the height of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Frazier walked through one of the barracks where inmates starved and froze in the Siberian winter: “This interior offered little to think about besides the limitless periods of suffering that had been crossed off here, and the unquiet rest these bunks had held.” As always, Frazier locates the apt historical anecdote that captures the horror with precision. He tells the story of two child prisoners who were given a pair of guard-dog puppies to raise, then struggled to find names for them: “The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.”
-Joshua Hammer (from his New York Times review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia)
Right now there are, count ’em, three volumes from E.L. James’ vile, puke-stained series Fifty Shades of Grey at the top of the bestseller list.
Let me remind you folks: this “author” honed her chops on Twilight fan fiction and has, apparently, graduated at the head of her class when it comes to derivative, amateurish, abysmally written gutter trash. Reading the first five lines of any offering by Ms. James immediately reveals her paucity of skills, the crudeness of her prose.
I would never have believed it was possible that popular fiction could sink any lower than Stephenie Meyer…but then along came Amanda Hocking (ptui! ptui!) and, now, (God help western civilization) E.L. James.
Am I supposed to draw comfort from the fact that an unheralded talent can still score a lucrative contract from a venerable publisher? Should I holler and celebrate because at least two of these authors come from the independent/DIY/self-publishing world, same as l’il ol’ me?
Sorry, but that’s not the case. I’m embarrassed by the success of authors as horrible and sub-literate as James, Hocking, et al. I’m embarrassed to belong to a society where the printed word has become so devalued and compromised, this kind of crap is not only published but gobbled up by a public whose brains have gone soft and fatty from all the junk food we take in through our eyes, mouths and ears. We immerse ourselves in trash, refuse to task our minds with challenging artists and works, seek escapism the way a junkie craves the needle. The mind is a muscle and ours’ have gone flabby, resisting even the lightest exercise.
Video games, comic book movies, books written for an intended audience with a mental age of fourteen…all part of a decline, the barbarians at the gates garbed in corporate robes, enticing us with baubles, buying our delinquent souls with the equivalent of beads and flim-flam.
I shudder to think what the next step down the evolutionary ladder might be, how much lower literature can sink.
What comes after E.L. James?
That’s something too terrible to ponder…