Category: Books

Best Books Read in 2021

ministry

Fiction:

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

Honorable Mention:

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

Poetry:

Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis

Graphic Novel:

Berlin by David Lutes

Love&Capital

Non-Fiction

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

Honorable Mention:

The Commandant edited by Jurg Amann

What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction by Alice McDermott

Mutant Thoughts (iii)

Another long hiatus and, what can I tell you, I might’ve been AWOL from this blog, but I’ve been up to my naughty bits in new writing.

I’m talking about over one hundred and twenty (120) pages of prose since June and my next poetry collection, The Definition of Melancholy (publication date May, 2022), now boasts over ninety (90) poems, and still going strong.

Not only has my blogging suffered during this creative binge, but I’ve also been doing damn little reading (no way I’ll reach my goal of 100 books this year).

Had to go ahead and reorder additional copies of my Notebooks 2010 – 2020 from my printer; many, many thanks to the folks who’ve picked up a copy and seem to love that odd, wee tome. It has done surprisingly well and I couldn’t be happier with its reception.

So on the professional front I guess you can say that all is well.

On the personal front, well, the recent surge in COVID cases in the province pushed back elective surgeries for months so I’m probably not looking at the second hip replacement until Spring, 2022. Just gonna have to tough it out ’til then. I’m doing all right, managed to keep up with the yard work this summer and can still limp around on my errands. A lot of folks are in worse shape than me and I can only empathize with what they’re going through as we wait for the surgical wards to come back on line.

I intend to spend the Fall & Winter getting down as many words on paper as I possibly can. Once they carve into my hip I’ll have to focus on pain management and rehab, which can tend to play hell with your creativity. Must try to read more, as well, my to-be-read pile has attained almost K2-like dimensions. New Colson Whitehead and Jim Shepard books out…and that fat history of the Ottoman Empire has been staring me down for the past week.

Have also been feeling the urge to descend to my basement lab and slap some paint on canvases, see how much more damage I can do to the legacy of visual art. And maybe it’s time I hauled my MIDI keyboard upstairs, produced an hour or so of noise and mayhem to unleash on unsuspecting listeners on BandCamp.

Watched Rose Glass’s “St. Maud” with Sherron last week and (shudder), boy, that finale is just…well…it’s…it’s…

You have to see if for yourself.

But, be warned: it’ll take an awful big bite out of you.

Looking forward to seeing “Dune” at our local theater as a birthday treat, but going in with pretty low expectations. I’m usually underwhelmed by Denis Villeneuve’s films. Nice to look at but they don’t move me emotionally. But “Dune”…shit…that’s half art, half spectacle. Gotta see it BIG.

Enough for now. I close with an image of an oak leaf from our back yard.

This. This is how I’m feeling these days.

FULLY AUTOMATED LUXURY COMMUNISM by Aaron Bastani (Review)

FALC:cover

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.

Heat wave

Mutant Thoughts (ii)

This is intended to be a semi-regular column devoted to my various enthusiasms, pet peeves and the strange notions that all-too-frequently bedevil me. Not intended for folks with delicate sensibilities or soft brains. Read on.

It’s been a long time since we last touched base and, as always, the fault is mine. I’m a lousy friend, a terrible correspondent, constantly getting sucked up into a project and completely forgetting those nearest and dearest me.

I fully admit it: I am a selfish, thoughtless bastard.

But I’ve been working and so that erases all sins, all culpability. A brand new, 40-page story under my belt, plus a number of solid poems, ideas bouncing around in my skull like pingpong balls in a dryer. So no apologies: as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to my writing, the ends always justify the means.

* * * * * * *

  • Our thirty-first anniversary yesterday. Sherron and I half a country apart but still talked on the big day, and I sent her a couple of poems, as well (what can I tell you? I’m an old school romantic). We have an amazing relationship, a partnership of equals. She keeps me honest and human—without her I’d be much more nihilistic and misanthropic (believe it or not). Friend, lover and comrade. To the end.
  • More fun on Twitter this past week: some twerp who writes urban dragon novels putting me in my place because I dared offer a few words of advice to a fellow colleague. He had posted about doing research for his next book, I responded with my thoughts and he told me not to attempt to communicate with higher order beings such as himself. And remember, folks: he writes books about dragons.
  • The great “de-cluttering” continues, as we divest this house of decades of accumulated stuff. This has been in the works ever since we started renos in late spring. Boxes and boxes of books and VHS tapes hurled out the door. Old clothes, crap we haven’t used in years, taking up space, gathering dust. No more. And not a single regret, only relief, the house seeming lighter since we started the process.
  • My mantra this week: “What does it cost me to be tolerant?”
  • There’s a possibility (however slight) that my second hip surgery might happen in September. Inconvenient, since we’ll also have another grandchild arriving around that same time but, damnit, just to be able to walk normally again…won’t believe it until I get the call to report for pre-op. Then the game is on.
  • Hoping that the forecast is right and we’ll get some decent rain in the next few hours. Like a lot of North America, it has been a hot, dry summer on the Canadian prairies, the skies reeking of burning boreal forests. Dystopia is here, folks, the future you refused to believe in banging on your door.
  • Finished two great books in the past month: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For the Future and The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars by Peter Cozzens. Movies that impressed me: Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant” and Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire”.
  • That’s it for now–hopefully it won’t be a month before you hear from me again. But, in the meantime: let’s be civil to each other, shall we? At least try it…and see what happens.

My new office space (and a new beginning)

Yes, can’t hold back any longer. The second floor renovations almost done, the restored hardwood floor an enormous improvement over the ancient, dusty, shag carpet that once covered it (said aged, toxic carpet being one of the suspected “hot zones” for the initial onset of COVID-19, report from the CDC still pending).

My office is now up and running, stocked with some new book cases, hundreds of volumes surrounding me…and yet there seems to be more space than ever, each square foot fully utilized. Gone is the clutter and torn, sagging posters. Even minimized my display of toys and miniatures. This is the space of a grown, mature artist, not a terminal juvenile (that stuff goes down to my “man cave” in the basement). 

Here are some pictures to show you what we’ve done. First a “Before” shot, once the carpet had been ripped up and the office virtually emptied out:

Now here’s a couple of pictures taken this morning:

Just looking at these snaps has my left hand twitching in anticipation of some serious writing. I’m talking about a binge that leaves me emotionally and physically mangled (ah, the good old days). Imagine having a space completely designed around your wishes and specifications. It’s a dream come true. The beautiful little touches that make it completely mine—

Including, as a grand finale, one wall that my wife and I layered with papier mache…incorporating fragments torn from an old, tattered copy of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I had lying around.

I call it the “Joyce Wall” and a closeup looks like this:

Work on the upper floor still isn’t complete—there’s scraping and crack-filling and painting…and then all the furniture has to be put back in the proper rooms. It’s been a process but we’re getting there.

My new creative play area excites me beyond belief. There’s a sense that my career and approach to writing are getting a reboot, a fresh beginning, distant, unexplored horizons beckoning.

What dreams may yet come

NOTEBOOKS: 2010 – 2020 (The Cover Reveal!)

Here it is, ladies and gents.

Chris Kent’s rendition of the cover for Black Dog Press’ 15th book, a collection of my jottings and authorial asides we’ve dubbed Notebooks: 2010 -2020.

Official release date mid-April, but you can buy it right now from either Smashwords or Kindle.