Category Archives: book review

Aegean Dream: Too much of the why not and too little of the why yes…

I recently finished a book titled Aegean Dream. The book chronicled the year-long attempt of Dario and his wife to become Greeks. The attempt was a failure. The book describing the events chronicled their time in Greece.

The book begins with a Greek official telling Dario that Skopelos is a jewel of Greece. And in my mind’s eye, I could see him turning to a co-worker and saying – There is this insane American, who wants to go live in Skopelos.

Their explanation for their failure is that the Greek state got in their way. They had all the right intentions, and yet the state didn’t give them what they needed to legally reside and run a business in Greece.

The real explanation instead of the superficial explanation that the author clings to for their failure is more complex. The reality is that to immigrate to another country,  to abandon your previous identity and embrace your new identity, there has to be nothing to go back to. If going back is an option, then you will never make it across.

Without knowing the author in detail, the best explanation I can give is that to be white in the USA is to have the power of the state be your ally. The government exists to serve. The cops to protect. To be non-white, the power of the state is more ambiguous. For some, it’s threatening.

To be Greek in Greece is to be like an illegal immigrant where the state tries and exploits you without ever mercifully kicking you out. The best explanation is in the book: When you start a business, the state will not come after you. As your business grows, the state will  come after you. First it will be the local official, then an official further out, and then an official from Athens. And every time you will have to pay.

To be Greek is to understand this reality.

Throughout the book, the author is caught up in the silly games of the state. The last and most endearing occurs at their departure.  His wife did not get a permanent visa to stay in Greece.  There were lawyers and government officials who got in her way. When they leave the law requires them to pay a substantial fine. To avoid the fine, they write a letter explaining all of the details of their misadventures.  The soldier at the border looks at the paperwork, realizes that this would take a lot of time and effort and waves her on.  The essence of being Greek is to understand that the laws are absurd and so good judgement is required.

And the book is at times funny. Funny because as a Greek, I see the absurdities of the state. Watching Dario navigate the Greek state is like watching a rich man sit in a poor man’s house and wonder where the butler is.

Unfortunately, the book is also very, very, mean. The author spends too much time explaining the “why not” of being Greek, and too little of the “why yes”. In many ways, I think the author arrived in Greece with an image of what it is to be Greek with no understanding of what it meant to be Greek. Like so many philhellenes of the past, he didn’t understand the hard, brutal reality of living in a poor country with a rapacious state. Like many philhellenes, he imagines a Greece that doesn’t exist. And when reality finally shatters his dream, his false dream, all that remains is his bitterness.

And so the book, ultimately is a mean book that chronicles all the ills of Greece without emphasis on what is good.

The Subversive Nature of the Game of Thrones

The Game of Thrones is actually a very subversive book series. The point of the book is to show how sociopaths in power, their lives so divorced from the powerless in their quest for more power and wealth and prestige create mayhem and misery in the lives of the powerless. The entire book is narrated from the perspective of the powerless. The narration forces us to consider repeatedly the utter criminality of the pursuit of power.

The real tragedy of the book is that in the popular zeitgeist we are told to not get emotionally attached to the powerless whose lives are destroyed. That their lives don’t matter. It’s almost as if we missed George RR Martin’s point, their lives do matter and the people that are supposed to take care of those lives however treat them as they don’t. And that is wrong.

We should feel bitter outrage towards the powerful. Our collective social reaction to this subversive book is nothing short of shocking….George RR Martin’s book series The Game of Thrones is a very subtle subversive book that explores the consequences of power on the powerless. In many ways, it’s a political attack on the emerging global power structure.

To get a bit more granular let’s consider what the book is. At a very superficial level the book is ‘House of Cards’ set in a fantasy setting. We have kings and knights and dragons and armies all vying for power.

Except, the book tells us this story through the eyes of the powerless. We see the consequences of the actions of the powerful, because of how it destroys their victims who are our narrators. The narrators are people who are explicitly outside of the power structure of the realm. John Snow is a bastard. Arya and Sansa are girls. Cersei  is a woman. Tyrion is a cripple. If the narrators are not women, cripples or children, but men, they are men that are limited in how much power they can get or can wield. We have Eddard Stark who has power but can’t wield it. Or we have Davos Seaworthy who is ultimately a victim of the actions of his lord Stannis Baratheon.

Consider the first chapter of the book. The narrator is a Ranger named Will. Waymar Royce, the leader of the Ranger patrol arrogantly, leads his men into an encounter with the others over the objections of Will and Gared. The encounter with the others leads to Will and Waymar’s death. From the very outset of the book, the two most important parameters of the book are made clear: men in power seek more power and glory, and the powerless die along with them.

Or consider Lord Varys who implores an imprisoned Ned Stark to take the deal being offered to him. A deal that will save his children. Lord Varys points out how when the last King waged war his innocent children died. And asks us to consider how the innocent are always the victims while the powerful play their Games of Thrones.

Or consider the treatment of Sansa. Sansa in many ways exists to remind us of the childish belief that powerful men exist to protect the powerless. That powerful men are like good fathers who are there to keep the bad guys away. The embodiment of that ideal in her mind and in the popular lore of the realm are knights. And yet throughout her imprisonment by Geoffrey, it’s knights that beat her. And not just any knights, but the most respected and virtuous of knights – the king’s guard. The people who show her kindness are The Hound who is not a knight or a fool who was once a knight. We are forced to either ignore the narrative or consider that men with power use that to power to reinforce or extend their power not to protect the powerless.

The book repeatedly forces the reader to realize that the powerful, in their attempts to extend their power, wreck havoc on the weak. That the powerless are blameless victims of the sociopathy of the powerful.

There is no doubt in my mind that George RR Martin loathes the powerful characters of his book. That he feels nothing but compassion for the weak. And that he goes to great lengths to make us feel how pathetically said their lives are.

What’s really distressing is that if you accept this point of view, then we are all missing the point. Instead of not getting emotionally attached to every single weak character whose life is destroyed by a sociopath with power, we should get emotionally attached to them and feel seething outrage towards the powerful men who cause the havoc.

And if we can feel that, maybe we can take that outrage into the real world.

George RR Martin’s books are a very elegant subversive attack on the powerful. In our new world order where the separation between the average man and the rich and powerful is accelerating, where it is possible to imagine men in power fighting wars over honor, it’s worth remembering that those wars have victims and those victims are not the men but the children who get in the way.

Children like Sansa. George RR Martin refuses to let us forget.

Book Review – Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson

This is possibly the most fascinating review of the New Deal Era I have ever read. Mr. Katznelson explores how the evil system of segregation and racism distorted the revolutionary impulse of the New Deal.

Mr. Katznelson explores the origins of the New Deal and the series of compromises that created the new America.

What he does, very well, is transport us to the time place and the specific challenges that liberal democracy was facing. In particular, confronted with gargantuan problems other societies were rejecting democracy in favor of totalitarianism. Among the over intellectualized élite the idea that liberal democracy could deal with the problems of the state was viewed as silliness.

And yet, somehow, the United States was able to use the power of the state and to keep democracy at the same time.

And for those of us who are watching the Republican Right tear the power of the state to protect the poor, this is a fascinating book because it shows how revolutionary that impulse to change the nature of government was.

What I found most fascinating though, was the impact of Racism on the New Deal. Throughout the period of the New Deal, the southern Democrats were key to getting legislation passed. And they were willing to support legislation as long as it never touched the evil system of segregation.

The Southern Democrats support of the New Deal was that they had poor white men they wanted to help. And their solution was to tax the rich Northern industrialist and transfer wealth south. However, nothing could be done to touch the evil system they had in place.

So for example, they were in favor of a minimum wage as long as it did not touch house maids and farmers. They were in favor of unions until the unions started championing equal wages for all. They were in favor of programs that gave block grants to states instead of national programs because block grants could be used to help the whites and keep everyone else out.

In fact, the entire project known as states rights was not about preserving the liberty of individual states, but rather the white man prerogative to keep their boot on the back of the neck of the non-white and women.

What is fascinating is how the South want to protect the white man’s right to be free, did not align with Naziism because Nazi’s restricted the white man’s freedom … An amazing tribute to the South’s ability to keep two conflicting thoughts in their head.

And lastly what is fascinating to me is why the South is so passionately in favor of military spending. The Southern states benefited immensely from the growth in the military industrial complex in the WWII and Cold War era, and supplemental military spending disproportionately favors them. In effect, the South hates jobs programs that benefit anyone but themselves. Unlike everyone else they wrap their job program in the American Flag.

Twice in the last 150 years has America attempted to reform the south, once in the post Civil War during reconstruction and once more in the 1960’s during the civil rights era. The sad reality is that during the most important revolutionary era, the failures of Reconstruction cost America bitterly.

Reading this book reminds me of how compromise with evil is necessary, but fighting evil is essential.

George Orwell, once again, is right

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/technology/companies/18amazon.html?_r=1

In George Orwell’s “1984,” government censors erase all traces of news articles embarrassing to Big Brother by sending them down an incineration chute called the “memory hole.”

On Friday, it was “1984” and another Orwell book, “Animal Farm,” that were dropped down the memory hole — by Amazon.com.

In a move that angered customers and generated waves of online pique, Amazon remotely deleted some digital editions of the books from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them.

        […]

Of all of the books of all of the authors to demonstrate the power of the technology…

George must be laughing wherever he might be.

Book Review: Life o Pi – Yann Martel

Far too much digital ink (with over 1800 reviews at amazon.com) has been spent on criticism and analysis fo this book. As a statement about religion, the book is deeply flawed. As a statement about our need to construct stories to deal with the terrible deeds we need to do to survive it endures well.

As a  deconstructionist novel, Mr. Martel will love my reaction to his polemic:

What the author intends is irrelevant. What the books says is irrelevant. All that matters is my point of view. And my point of view is that it is a wonderful tale.

Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

This is an amazing book.

The conceit of the book is that a World War against the Zombies has just ended. The author of the book is a journalist who is interviewing folks who survived the war as a sort of living history of the events.

What makes the book work is that it as much a statement about our current society as it is about this fictional war.

What makes the book really work is that it manages to capture the horror, the unbelievable horror of the war and the massive dislocation the war creates.

But what makes the book grab your attention is that it asks and answers some truly appalling questions. Suppose you have this disease which transforms people into, for lack of a better word, Zombies? How do you fight that war? How do you deal with soldiers that get infected on the battlefield? What kind of battle tactics do you enforce? What is your grand strategy?

Everyone of those questions is answered, and the ramifications of those answers is dealt with. For example, what’s your grand strategy?

Consider the problem this diseases presents. In a normal infectious and fatal disease, the carrier gets sick and dies. Once the carrier is dead further spread is impossible. For every normal disease, the carrier will succumb to the illness and at that point be ineffective as a carrier.   Even better once someone exhibits symptoms, folks now to run away from the victim minimizing disease spread and typically ill people can not chase after the well.  A fatal disease normally carries the seeds of it’s own destruction.

Now consider this disease.  Every infected person is a carrier and once infected there is a 100% likelihood of transformation to Zombie status. Unlike normal fatal diseases where death and infirmity make it impossible for the victim to continue to spread the disease, with this disease once the victim dies, the victim becomes a walking, moving, disease carrying monster. 

Now consider the situation where the disease has spread to the general population. Once there the speed of spread increases as more monsters attack more uninfected people.

If you’re the government you have a problem. You’re fighting a war against an army that will never surrender and that has to be killed one soldier at a time.  So first you need to create  a defensible perimeter. But the perimeter has to be smaller than the nation because you don’t have enough troops. So that’s what you do, you define a natural boundary within your country and everyone within the boundary gets saved, and everyone outside of the boundary is left to fend for themselves.

But wait, you ask, why not bring the folks outside of the perimeter into the perimeter? Reason (1) not enough space. Reason (2) they represent an easy target for the Zombies while you perform your retreat into the perimeter.

That’s the kind of book this is. A book that looks at horror and does not flinch.

Highly, highly, highly recommended.

www.librarything.com

Bernadette remarked that the web site www.LibraryThing.com does in fact allow me to export my data.

Since I can now do that, I think I will actually give the place a whirl.

My first impressions are remarkably positive.

I like the use of tags to organize information, rather than the use of fixed columns.

I like the fact that web site can search through Amazon.com or the Library of Congress to fill in information about books.

For example, I typed in “the echo maker” in the “add books” section of the web site.

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And then the web site very quickly gave me the option to select from a set of books that matched “the echo maker”.

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I picked the one by Richard Powers, and, just like that, my library know had all of the information about that book.

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All it took was 15 key presses and one mouse click!

Update: Feb 17, 2008 because I mistyped the web site.

Who owns my data?

 

After I wrote about my Access adventures, Michael Rubin recommended a very interesting web site as an alternative to rolling my own application.

While I was looking at the site, I could not but help to notice the word Beta.

Here’s my anxiety: it will take a lot of time and effort to enter all of the data into this web site. And this web site is a small venture by a small team in Portland.

What happens if this small web site goes out of business? Do I have to re-enter all of my data all over again?

I really want the ability to have a hard-copy of the data that is independent of the web site. Such that if the web site goes down, I can move my data to some other provider.

And as much as it pains me, I feel compelled to agree with the folks at Data Portability. I own the data, not the company that keeps a record of them. I don’t have a problem with them profiting from my data, but damn it why won’t they give me  a copy?

Book Review: Geek Love: A Novel by Katherine Dunn

Katherine Dunn’s book Geek Love is a captivating tale of the brutal sibling warfare that is part and parcel of any large family. What makes her book unique is the setting that allows her to explore the far fringes of these battles while informing us about our own reality. In some ways it me reminds of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Joss Whedon used the implausibility of horrible monsters to explore common themes in teenage lives from alienation to sex. In Geek Love, Katherine Dunn uses the extreme universe of the circus freak to explore the hell hole that is family.

In her book, the siblings are a collection of circus freaks and the parents the circus masters. The freaks are not some accidental genetic mutation but the explicit creation of the pater familia. He and his wife to create their mutant freaks, consume vast quantities of drugs that are designed to create mutations. And although we are meant to recoil from this form of parenting, how different is it, really, from any father who tries and to make his children into whatever image he has of them?

Starting from this extreme point in space, we then begin a descent into the mad, mad world that is Binewski family, a tale that is recounted to us by Olympia the last surving member of the clan. We learn about Arturo, Aqua Boy, the siamese twins and chick.

There are three basic threads that emerge. The first is the story of how Arturo slowly claims ownership of the circus, usurping his father’s power. The second thread is the tale of how Arturo rather than admit he is abnormal uses the power of his voice and show to convince normal people that because they are not like him they are abnormal. The third tale is the tale of stunted lust between Olympia, the twins and Arturo.

Interspersed within these threads we learn about the day-to-day life of being a freak, being in a circus, and being a member of this very unique family.

This is a good book. Disturbing, but a good book. I suspect it is disturbing because it forces us all to look at the freaks and wonder are we really that different from them?

Book Review: Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab

There is this great old joke that I learned. It goes like this:

Jimmy, a Greek-American, gets no respect. So he gets the bright idea that to get respect he needs to join the mob. The only problem is that as a Greek-American he knows nothing about the mob or anyone in the mob. Every time he asks his Italian-American friends about the mob, they keep telling him: There is no such thing as the Mafia.

Jimmy, being an enterprising young lad decides to go to Italy to find someone who knows something about the mob. After two years of trying and getting nowhere he finally returns to the USA.

Back in Astoria, his friends ask him: So Jimmy, what did you learn about the Mafia? Jimmy responds: There is no such thing as the Mafia. And with that his friends started to accord him every kind of respect.

The funny part of this story is that the FBI and the police were no better for about 50 years. Starting in the 1930’s when the Mafia transformed itself from a street gang to a real powerful organization and ending in the late 70’s, the Mafiosi worked with impunity. No one knew of their existence. No one knew who their leaders were. No one tried to arrest them. The laws that were required to arrest them (RICO) did not even exist making a made man a criminal that could never be put behind bars. The Feds in the 1980’s when they actually started to take the mob seriously ended up arresting the wrong Capo of the Genovese three times.

This is a book of the history of the Mob. The author, Selwyn Raab, is a journalist and not a historian so the book suffers from all of the flaws a history book written by a journalist suffers. It’s breathless, opinionated, dependent on first person accounts, full of conjectures and questionable assertions. However, like all great journalism it creates a sense of immediacy. This is not a scholarly treatment of the Mob.

What is interesting is that Mr. Raab is extremely frustrated with the media and how the media treats the Mob. He finds them to be a despicable organization of vultures and parasites that prey on the weak. To Mr. Raab, the notion that there is something romantic about the mob is abhorrent. A significant chunk of the text is devoted to this rant against the media.

Where the book is weak is in the history of the period starting in 1900 and ending in 1980. Where the book is strongest is in the period beginning in 1980 and ending with the present day. This is the period that Mr. Raab covered as a reporter and a significant chunk of the book reads like a re-capitulation of his notes from trials and from conversations with insiders.

I liked the book. What I found most interesting was how powerful and how invisible the mob really was. And how the notion that there are vast powerful conspiracies of men that we don’t know about is not that absurd, given how little we as a country knew about the power of the mob. Maybe the black helicopters and the tri-lateral commission really do exist …