Archive for the ‘Books’ category

Swamplandia in Bad Decline

March 24, 2013

Pocket Review: Civilwarland in Bad Decline, by George Saunders

I purchased this collection of short stories impulsively a few weeks back at City Lights. It was a pleasant diversion during my ongoing odyssey through my main book of the season, The Big Screen, by David Thompson. So it was nice tight writing, dark, satirical, etc. Each story was set in the near future (or in an alternative reality) in a different dystopian theme park or service industry. While reading (maybe especially the story “The Wavemaker Falters”), it occurred to me that it’s a shame I read this so soon after Swamplandia! because the stories are so … similar. Hmm … you could almost say Mr. Saunders is ripping off Ms. Russell to a degree. Oh wait … it would have to be vice versa, because these stories are from almost 20 years ago and Swamplandia just came out a year ago. Huh.

And in fact, when I looked up George Saunder’s Wikipedia page, I saw:

Novel cooking

November 27, 2011

I’ve been enjoying Murakami’s latest novel “1Q84” and last night I was reading one of his typical scenes. The solitary introverted protagonist prepares a meal for one while meditating on a troubling past memory …  hmm … that celery/mushroom/shrimp stir fry sure sounds good …  if only I had a live-in BF who is also an amateur chef … oh wait.

A couple of texts between the bedroom and the living room later, a plan was hatched, and it came to fruition less than 24 hours later:

"Then a dash of soy sauce and finally a scattering of Chinese parsley. Tengo performed all these operations on automatic pilot."

Chef and cookbook. The "recipe" is on pages 362-363.

"When the stir-fried shrimp and vegetables were ready, Tengo ... still lost in thought, proceeded to eat the steaming food."

Book review: The Dispossessed (Ursula K. Le Guin)

June 2, 2011

Why I read it: I wasn’t in the mood for “non-fiction.” (Troy gasps). Of course, Ursula Le Guin’s science-fiction is often sociological; she creates inspired new worlds/societies based on intriguing thought experiments (cf. The Left Hand of Darkness, etc.). For hard-core fact-based readers like myself, she’s an easy sell.

What it’s about: The Dispossessed is an allegory of anarchism. Written in 1974, it concerns a physicist (Shevek) who leaves his home world, the moon, in search of new understandings. The planet he’s left is in essence a giant hippie commune –there are no possessions and no laws, and all work is done voluntarily. The planet his ancestors left, 200 years ago, is currently splintered into many nation-states, some of whom are at war with each other. The state that hosts him is opulently wealthy, with pockets of extreme poverty (that he’s not supposed to see). It desires his “theory of simultaneity” in order to build faster-than-light spaceships, and thereby to steal a jump on it’s socialist/authoritarian rival state.

Good/Very Good/or Excellent: Very Good.

Details: The writing is above average for Le Guin and the characters are well-rounded and interesting. She doesn’t bite off more than she can chew, and   much of what we learn about both worlds (“our” capitalist society and “their” anarchist commune) is indirect, or reflected in the characters themselves. The plot isn’t overly complex, which worked for me, as it didn’t detract from the contemplative nature of the story itself.

Portraying Shevek’s astonishment at the capitalist, hierarchical, rigorously-gendered world he encounters is trivially easy for Le Guin, and the least interesting thing about the book, to me. Far more interesting are his difficulties with his own society, which provide his motivation for leaving –he’s the first person to leave Anarres since it was settled. Most people associate anarchism with chaos, but Le Guin does a good job of showing (not telling) how an anarchist society could (would?) likely work. Just as you can’t imagine a democracy without (small “d”) democrats, Shevek’s world consists of anarchists. Each of them learns from childhood to share, to avoid “egoizing” and acquisitiveness, and in return, to rely on each other for their own survival. Anarres is a harsh, desert world, and although there is a lot of hard, dirty, dangerous work to be done, people do it eagerly, in weekly or monthly shifts and in solidarity (echoes of the Israeli kibbutz movement come through strongly here). As a result, the primary individuality of each person is recognized; if you want to do something (“work” and “play” are the same word in their invented language) you are allowed to do it. There are no laws, remember.

But society is its own law. Le Guin does a fantastic job of creating characters who, at the same time they cannot be anything other than anarchists or imagine anything other than anarchism, chafe at the “soft,” but ultimately oppressive restrictions created by the need for conformity. Interpersonal rivalries fester even in a world where food is free, and freely available, and tragically, it’s the very attempt to restrain power that seems to create oppression.

This is not an indictment of anarchism by any means. Le Guin is smart to locate Shevek’s society on a moon, cut off from contact with the mother planet; egalitarian, non-hierarchical settlements on Earth tend to be conquered by authoritarian regimes, or crumble in the face of capitalism. Like Shevek, when you’re finished with The Dispossessed, you can’t imagine how you can live in a society like ours, that locks down our humanity and distributes privileges on manifestly unjust grounds. In some ways, it’s a thrill to see petty, status-seeking behavior in an anarchist context; it highlights the ways in which human nature, for better or worse, is entirely compatible with a non-hierarchical social structure. After all, we evolved that way, right?

I expect that, like a cafeteria on Anarres, readers will take from The Dispossessed what they want. Le Guin does not let anarchist sympathizers off easy; the capitalist world Shevek encounters on the mother world is given its due; it gives Shevek things (of real value) that he can’t get on Anarres. Anarchism emerges from her fictional account much like Augustine’s famous prayer for chastity, “Oh lord, give us a world without power, but do not give it yet.”

Week in review

April 7, 2011

Is it still snowing in Salt Lake? Really?

We had a great time there, especially since we haven’t seen that kind of precipitation since … we don’t know when.

“It’s nice to have a good uncle and a silly uncle.” Thank you Silas Andrew! Dan now has a new nickname.

Dan says: Goals of the week (tie) = Simon Dawkins and Khari Stephenson. We could have used that kind of quality in Madrid. And by “we” I mean: COYS! Not that I’m too upset, mind you. As the gent in front of me at the pub said, “I expect we’ll lose, but I’m really excited about this.” He said that before Peter Crouch lost his frackin’ mind, mind you.

Maverick has the BEST fried chicken in San Francisco. Mind my words.

Site of the week.

Island of the week:

Rapa Iti

Please check out our new book

February 5, 2011

Now on sale at A Different Light

Troy’s arch-nemesis …

August 1, 2010

… has been turned into a comic book “hero.”

You’ll have to ask him about the accuracy of that graphic novel, however. I wouldn’t know.

Quote of the week

July 20, 2010

We walk with the feet of others … and put into the hands of others our very lives; the precious things of nature which support life, we have quite lost. We have nothing else of our own save our luxuries.

–Pliny, Natural History

Found in a thoughtful and thought-provoking book called “the Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature” by Curtis White.