For more thoughts on this and other bits of British nerdery, consider my eponymous blog: The Scruffy Rube.
Picturesque, pristine, and pleasant.
That’s the general tone that surrounds a lot of the English villages in my favorite British literature. Jane Austen wrote about scores of them, John Fowles’ beloved Lyme has the same tenor. So I wasn’t terribly surprised when I started reading JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy to find that she too had chosen to write about a seemingly serene little town, but Rowling’s setting was far seedier than her predecessors might dare to write.
The Casual Vacancy is about as far from the world of Harry Potter as you might care to go. The depressingly mugglefied air of Pagford village, could seems like a town so run-of-the-mill that it defies anything to be dramatic. But Rowling thrives when describing self-contained worlds that struggle for security and, to some extent, secrecy. That’s where an insular, overly-protective small town jives neatly alongside the vanishing charms and invisibility cloaks of the wizarding world.
The two worlds connect again when Rowling turns her focus to writing about local teenagers, jaded by familial outrage and dedicated to personal interest. She has a masterful method for writing the tortuous logic and emotional angst that typifies teenagers, but her real talent lies in reflecting that same behavior in adult characters. Thus helping teens seem less immature and more relevant to the adult world that surrounds them.
At times it felt like Rowling dropped “gritty” bits of writing (profanity and eroticism) as a way of proving: “I’m not just the Harry Potter lady”, even if they weren’t terribly relevant or valuable to the story. But at its core, The Casual Vacancy shows the same strength of authorial imagination that put Rowling (and Harry) on the map in the first place.
It doesn’t take much to see The Casual Vacancy in a post-colonial light. The most powerful residents hold tightly to a sincere belief in their own superiority, condescending to tell another group of people how they should be living their lives. When some make an effort to put the powerful and the powerless on a more equitable footing, those in power do all they can to stop it. [And that doesn’t even touch on the overt disdain reserved for the one Indian family in town, a particularly bitter–though likely accurate–pill to swallow]
Is it possible that I’m the first Cannonball reader to review a Dan Savage book? That is so, so wrong. His writing seems perfect for this group.
This is the best memoir-style book I’ve read this year, and probably ever. It’s a mix of very personal and very political stories used to discuss issues like gay rights, same sex marriage, religion, death with dignity and feminism. It made me tear up twice, and had both me and my husband laughing, shouting and really thinking about the points being made.
Instead of reading the rest of my review you should just open a new tab (or run to your local independent book store) and purchase it.
Okay, have you done that? Awesome.
What, two sentences isn’t enough for you? Fine. If you still need some convincing, read on.
My husband and I listened to the audio version (read by the fantastic Mr. Savage himself) while driving across Scotland and Ireland on our honeymoon. Given how much time is spent on the Catholic Church and the conservative Christian fight against civil marriage rights, it seemed both appropriate and a little naughty. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Savage’s work, he’s been a sex columnist for the Stranger for years, and hosts a great weekly sex advice podcast (look up Savage Love – it’s wonderful). He is also one of the great minds behind Hump, the amateur porn film festival held in Seattle, Olympia and Portland each fall (http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Hump2013/Page). He is an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights, and, probably most importantly to so many, he and his husband founded the It Gets Better Project, which brings words of hope and comfort to LGBT kids around the world. If you’re not familiar with the It Gets Better Project, get yourself to the internet (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/).
With chapter headings ranging from “At a Loss” to “Bigot Christmas”, Mr. Savage addresses the death of his mother, the fight against anti-gay hate groups, and some simple rules for when cheating might actually be okay. It’s made even more interesting set against the backdrop of his Catholic upbringing. He makes extremely well-reasoned arguments, addressing issues that so many are passionate about with logic and determination. Yes, I agree with him on most everything, but wow, I can’t imagine how those who disagree with him could even begin to logically address most of his points. They are just that good.
In only one part did I find myself somewhat disagreeing with Mr. Savage, and that was a point in his Straight Pride Parade (e.g. Halloween) discussion. I won’t go into detail here, but he and I differ on whether the teeny tiny costume for women thing is a problem. I think his argument (that it isn’t) was mostly fought against a straw man. I support women making the choice of what to wear, and I do agree that too many people judge that choice. However, I thought that he failed to address the expectation that is created around that, and how when the only choices out there are sexy nurse, not only does that create some messed up expectations for women, but for what men expect to see. That’s not the worst issue to disagree on, and I think reasonable people can. But since I fawned over pretty much everything else I thought I should sneak this point of disagreement in there.
Finally, a warning: the book is filled with honest language that can be extremely foul at time. I certainly didn’t mind it, and found that his way of writing sounds extremely natural, but I know some people cringe when they hear someone say “suck my dick.” So, there you go. Mr. Savage is also clearly very progressive so the conservatives among you are likely not going to like the book – although you might find it interesting to see how his ‘side’ views things.
I picked up The Favored Daughter after seeing an interview with Koofi on The Daily Show. She was promoting her book, speaking about her plans to continue in Afghanistan’s government, and the importance of fighting for her country. She was calm and serious and you could tell that she lives her life with clear purpose. She doesn’t have time to waste time, especially knowing that people want to kill her. She plans to run for president and knows her life will continue to be in danger. John Stewart was clearly in awe of her and his sincerity and respect for her story made me want to get her book.
I wanted to know why she is willing to die for her country.
I have no idea who would read this book. I just don’t. This is the sort of book that sits on a bookshelf, conspicuously at eye-level in a living room. As a totem, it is a visible demonstration of the owner’s intellect and keen insights into the world. The possessor of the book does not have to be able to quote from it or even understand it for this totemic magic to work.
With Zizek pumping out several books a year, you could enhance its magic with a few of his other works. ‘Oh!’ your guests would say, ‘You have more than one of Zizek’s books! How clever you must be!’
First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is an extremely difficult book. Difficult and turgid, but rewarding. Published in 2009, Zizek explores the philosophy and social constructs which provided the background of both the cause of the Global Financial Crisis and the response to the Global Financial Crisis.
Zizek’s project is to act as the philosophical optometrist to the world. We, the ordinary folk of the world, cannot see what is really going on because we have the wrong pair of glasses. Worse, we the ordinary folk of the world have been self-prescribing our glasses using WebMD and have strong emotional attachments to the glasses that we have prescribed for ourselves. As philosophical optometrist, Zizek not only wants to prescribe a new pair of glasses but also wants to convince us that we should put aside our emotional attachment to our current glasses.
This is where the difficulty comes in. When discussing the background philosophical issues — for example, the analysis of how capitalist ideology has become invisible to most people — he is subtle, nuanced, even beautiful in his expression. More than that, he is persuasive and (as a conservative myself) confronting.
But when it comes to fields of expertise beyond philosophy — particularly economics — Zizek becomes increasingly less subtle and nuanced. It should go without saying that the causes of and responses to the GFC have an economic element to them, but it is difficult to find that economic element expressed satisfactorily in the book. Although both Michael Moore and the Tea Party make functionally the same claim (‘bailing out the banks is robbery!’), it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are both equally correct. Or even that they are saying the same thing, as strange as it sounds. One is saying: ‘[Giving money to the people who caused the problem] is [morally impermissible because they should be punished for what they did to everybody else].’ The other is saying: ‘[Giving money to people whose business model failed] is [morally impermissible because taxation is theft and propping up businesses distorts the market].’ The focus on the US contributes to this myopic view. Here in Australia, while fending off dropbears and hating on the Lebanese, we invested taxpayer dollars into various areas of the economy in order to ride out the GFC. By most reasonable accounts, it worked well. If you can extrapolate Zizek’s reading of the US experience to Australia, the coherency of his discussion breaks down. In other words, his analysis of their social engagement only seems plausible because the actions failed. Had the actions not failed (as was the case in Australia), the analysis would not look plausible.
Philosophy gets an unfair wrap in public opinion due to films like The Matrix or whatever which make philosophical questions look easy. Where philosophy is absolutely at its best is when it is informed by the very best in other fields of research. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce desperately needs more input from economists (and not just of the ‘I have a popular column in a newspaper’ variety).
The act of reading therefore becomes an act of sifting. You have to filter out all the gobbledegook about economics in order to focus back on the questions Zizek answers best: where are our blindspots when it comes to arguing about politics and economics?
Then again, Zizek does absolutely everything he can to push the reader away. Jokes that are seriously NSFW litter the book. And the jokes don’t really serve much in the way of a purpose. A joke about a peasant’s wife getting raped doesn’t contribute much to the argument.
Towards the end of Zizek!, Zizek complains that the ‘enemy’ tries to marginalise his views by laughing at them. ‘Ho, ho. That funny Zizek. He’s not a serious commentator on politics or culture!’
Here he is, for example, complaining about tulips:
But it’s not the ‘enemy’ making him look foolish there. It wasn’t the ‘enemy’ which littered First as Tragedy, Then as Farce with awkward jokes. It was Zizek himself.
And thus we get back to the start. I have no idea who would read this book. Is Zizek simply writing book after book to his fans? Are they dutifully purchasing each one, making room for it at eye-level in their living rooms? Do fans of Zizek even have money? Worse, Zizek doesn’t seem to have a particular audience in mind.
Which is a shame because three-fifths of the book (the non-economics stuff) is genuinely great.
So, if you’re a masochist with an interest in the philosophy of politics and economics, grab a copy of this book and read it in a really busy cafe so that lots of people can see you.
Remember TARP? The Auto Bailouts? Neil Barofsky has written an enlightening book about his time as a presidentially-appointed and congressionally-approved Special Inspector General for the TARP program. Told that he was to work “independently” within the Treasury Department to root out potential for fraud and malfeasance within the TARP program and the receiving banks, Barofsky received a veritable baptism of fire in the first weeks of his appointment as he quickly ascertained that no one in Washington is truly an independent investigator and the only way to keep a job in DC is to keep quiet, not ruffle any feathers and by no means ever actually produce any documented work that is openly critical of anyone. Ever.
Luckily for us, Barofsky decided his next job wasn’t as important as the one he had just been assigned to do and his account of the 19 months he toiled as head of SIGTARP gives readers an insightful narrative into the incredible machinations, contrivances and outright duplicity the Treasury Department—lead first by Hank Paulson, then Timothy Geithner—got up to in their efforts to convince American taxpayers that giving massive bailout funds to the banks with almost no oversight as to how those funds would be used, was the best, most honest way to improve the economy.
“The further we dug into the way TARP was being administered, the more obvious it became that Treasury applied a consistent double standard. In the late fall of 2009, as I began receiving the results of two of our most important audits, the contradiction couldn’t have been more glaring. When providing the largest financial institutions with bailout money, Treasury made almost no effort to hold them accountable, and the bounteous terms delivered by the government seemed to border on being corrupt. For those institutions, no effort was spared, with government officials often defending their generosity by kneeling at the altar of the “sanctity of contracts.” Meanwhile, an entirely different set of rules applied for home-owners and businesses that were most assuredly small enough to fail.”—Neil Barofsky in Bailout
Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy is a critical look at one of the most basic and taken for granted aspects of American society: the meritocracy. Second-nature to most of us, meritocracy is the idea that the best and the brightest among us should rise to the top. That pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps is possible, that the elite have earned their place, and that everyone has that opportunity. Ironically, this distinctly American ideal was first defined by an English writer who saw the “meritocracy” as the thing that would rise up to replace democracy once the latter had met with its inevitable failure.
Early in the book Hayes introduces us to the Manhattan based magnet school Hunter College High School. Hunter is lifted up by its administrators and alumni as a beacon of the meritocratic ideal. Entry to the school is gained through a single standardized test–the brightest get in. Period. Hunter is the perfect example of the level playing field of ‘equal opportunity.’ Any kid of any color from any borough can take the test and get in. The reality of ‘equal opportunity,’ though has produced stunningly unequal results: as the wealthy hire private tutors to prepare their kids for the Hunter entrance exam, Hunter administrators are (some privately, some publicly) watching the demographics of their school grow further and further from those of the city at large and are preparing for the rapidly approaching year where an incoming Hunter class contains no black or latino students.
Hayes then takes us on a tour through some of the most public failures of meritocracy. In Enron and Major League Baseball we see that it is very difficult to produce a system that rewards effort and doesn’t also reward cheating. In the Catholic Church and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina we see the folly in a ruling class that lives a life insulated from those it is meant to serve, or that is unable to understand the basics of the underprivileged’s lives (like that Katrina might have been difficult to escape for those on welfare because it made landfall at the end of the month, and there was no remaining room in folks’ budgets for an additional tank of gas).
The thesis of the book is essentially that pure meritocracy fails when it pays attention to equality of opportunity and ignores equality of outcomes. Within a generation (or less) those who benefit from meritocracy learn to game the system and hold onto their power. Then as inequality widens, these elites fall out of touch with the ‘common man.’ In American society, the idea of an elite ruling class socially distant from the vast majority of the population ought to be anathema; it is precisely the injustice of such an arrangement that drove our founding fathers to declare their independence.
Twilight of the Elites is one of the smartest books I’ve ever read. The case studies Hayes lays out are sharp and informative and the insight he adds, both himself and through the many interviews he conducted in writing the book, is even sharper. This book also marks the first time in my adult life I’ve found myself consulting a dictionary to ensure I’ve got the author’s meaning (expiate and plebiscite).
It’s certainly written from a progressive point of view, and I don’t know that anyone who thinks of themselves as leaning towards the right side of the aisle would enjoy it as much as I did, but it is challenging and persuasive all the same. For liberals it’s a must read.
Of all the early 20th Century writers, George Orwell continues to be an intriguing character. Despite being a socialist, his two most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984, caused him to become the darling of the modern libertarian, of the tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist, and of the perpetual adolescent of the Internet.
But this popular caricature of Orwell as the friend to the neo-con is difficult to reconcile with the Orwell who emerges from his essays. Books v Cigarettes — a collection of seven essays published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series — presents some of Orwells musings on society, particularly his relationship with the intelligentsia. The collection paints a picture of an Orwell who is at once both a self-conscious outsider — almost desperate to be acknowledged as a contrary, free, and independent thinker — and a painfully self-conscious product of middle class England.