The Burning God

Magic schools or science fiction academies almost always make for good reading. JK Rowling made a billion dollars out of writing novels that almost never left the grounds of Hogwarts. Probably because the next step is almost always the hardest. I would argue that only Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea novels every featured stories taking place after the magic university was finished that match up to (and even surpass) that time in college. Maybe it’s like real life. Nothing really beats those school days.

Credit to Kuang for trying and for writing a non-western themed fantasy. But she didn’t stick the landing. She struggled mightily and came close in this final book, taking the logical conclusion, while still giving her protagonist redemption… but it didn’t quite work.

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits Of Markets

Did you know that the free market sometimes producing stomach churning results? Did you know that obeying the free market doesn’t always end with what most people would consider a morally uplifting outcome?

Because I did, even before I read two hundred pages of things illuminating things I already know, without ever providing any sort of prescription for change.

I mean, a lot of things suck. Sport franchises are often run by money grubbing jerks. Wal-Mart buying life insurance on a man in late middle age and then working him to death makes people who aren’t sociopaths feel queasy.

But what’s the answer?

The closest this book comes to an answer is by mentioning mid-century economist who saw economics as creating a situation where markets would produce the right outcomes so that the national supply of Love wouldn’t be wasted on them. Sandel correctly points out that this represents a probable misunderstanding of how love works (Thomas Merton once wrote that love is increased by being given away) and muses how the world might have been different if that economist hadn’t died two years after writing his market/love and said, whoops, I was all wrong, let’s just be nice to each other; which, while it might have been nice, I think puts too much on the shoulders of one dead economist whose name I can’t even remember.

‘The Maids’ By Junichiro Tanizaki

I suppose I must have read about this book and added to my list at the DC Public Library system because of the Japanese mystery novel rabbit hole I fell down. However, this is not a mystery. I’m not sure what it is, to be honest.

There is a narrator, who talks about ‘we,’ but about 85% of the way through, it occurred to me to ask: who is this person? It’s hard to see who it could be.

Which leads back to the central theme, which is a certain voyeurdom. The narrator is a voyeur onto this wealthy Japanese household. Specifically, onto the maids. The events and descriptions are not particularly erotic nor lascivious (indeed, most of the maids are described as being relatively plain-looking, country girls), but their is an erotic frisson within the nature of his deep dive into some thirty years worth of maids who came in and out of this particular household.

Perhaps if I were better versed in the history and culture of middle 20th century Japan, I could also see some issues of class and bourgeois culture in there, but in the end, it all feels like a bit of a mystery.

Diary Of A Bookseller

Diary of a Bookseller is, and I mean this in the best possible way, chick lit for guys who watched Black Books (which, the diarist and titular bookseller, Shaun Bythell, did; he even sold a book to Dylan Moran).

The recurring characters (especially his employee, Nicky) become well-realized and you end the book with a much better grasp of the day to day to realities of the business, while still watching it romanticized.

Breezy, uplifting, sometimes, melancholy, and filling without being heavy. Like I said: a sort of chick lit for book people.

Twilight Of Democracy: The Seductive Lure Of Authoritarianism

I don’t mean to say it is not a well written book. It is even, dare I say, seductive. Nor that its points are not well taken. Ms. Applebaum brings a certain intimate knowledge of Eastern European and English politics.

I used to read her columns in The New York Times before the paywall was instituted (which I do not begrudge; I proudly subscribe to my own, local paper and some magazines, but like the multiplying streaming services, I can’t subscribe to them all), but it’s been a while and my understanding of her positions has faded somewhat.

So while reading all of her interesting anecdotes and well-made points, I keep thinking, who did she remind me of? Htichens? No, someone more… irritating. Then it hit me! Thomas Friedman! A well worn gasbag of a neoliberal, technofetishist, with a penchant for name dropping that would make Gore Vidal feel ashamed. Friedman was neoliberal masqeurading as center left and Applebaum was neoliberal who was rather openly center right (Tory, really, though her husband was once with the quite right leaning American Enterprise Institute), with solid smattering of classical liberalism. She doesn’t have Friedman’s veneer of Bernard Henri-Levy-ism (and neither try to pull of inimitable coiffure and sartorial exposures), but, yeah. A less irritating Friedman, but because his conclusions are always so facile and suspect, I immediately began to suspect her, too.

Which is not to say that she deserves to be splattered by drunken Pollock with Friedman’s bloviating brush. I’m just saying that I’m suspicious.

She also notes that some of what the new Trumpist conservatives (like… wait for it… seriously, she name drops… Laura Ingraham) says is ‘real.’ Why am I implicitly impugning it’s real ness through the use of what amounts to air quotes? Because the first thing she mentions on her list is cancel culture, which is – and I can’t emphasize this enough – not real. Unless you’re talking about our God-given, Constitutional right to have a talk show or be highly paid to write poorly research columns for that publication. Now, I am doing her slightly wrong, because she notes that it’s cancel culture on the internet, but… I’m sorry. No. There are lots of terrible things out there, but no. Just… no. But she does say that Laura Ingraham once went on a date with Trump and found him unbearable. So that gave me a small amount of pleasure that almost made up for one millionth of one percent of the hatred, violence, and chaos that demented t—t consciously stirred up.

The most interesting idea in Twilight, which she readily credits to others, is key the personality trait in those susceptible to a longing for an authoritarian society: not closed mindedness, but simple mindedness (her phrase, not mine; I would have looked for a less charged way to put it). A dislike of complexity leads to seeking guidance from figures who explain that the world is simple (and often a more than a little manichean). Diversity and different ideas and experiences cause anguish in those who thrive under simpler concepts.

The other (sort of) interesting idea is the medium sized lie. Unlike the big lie of old fashioned fascists, the still big but less gargantuan lie of modern authoritarian parties dominates. While she didn’t use this example, something like the incendiary references to hordes of immigrants at the southern border (arriving in caravans?) came to my mind.

The book more or less begins and ends with parties, with another party or two in the middle. The first takes place in 1999 and celebrates the way that Eastern Europe had been opening up. We are intended to be impressed with her connections to important figures in Eastern European politics, but also to be feel sad, because it turns out that many of them went on to aid and abet authoritarian parties and other bad things (by the way, was Brexit authoritarian and is Nigel Farage an authoritarian or just a dangerous ass?). Another party shows her deep ties to the Republican establishment and it does rather neatly show how so many effectively switched their allegiances from Reagan Trump. Another shows how broad-minded she is to hang out with Democrats. Finally, the last party returns to the beginning, her house in Poland (where the first party took place), which shows us that even though she has lost lots of friends because they all became awful, she is still loved by many important people. The end.

Am I being too hard on her? Probably. I think the moment when she finally lost me was when she started musing about how the internet changes things. Did you know that the internet does not promote reasoned discourse and consensus across political parties? Because I kind of think everyone did. There is the basis of very interesting book of investigative journalism in here, as she mines her connections, especially to those who went to the dark side, to understand what the elites behind authoritarian movements are thinking (and it is about the elites, which is not a criticism; her acknowledged touchstone is the book, The Treason of the Intellectuals, written in the 1920s and which argues the public intellectuals moved from attachment to founding philosophical principles of morals and reason and instead let political attachments guide them). But then she goes all… Thomas Friedman-y.

‘Warhol’ By Blake Gopnik

This is a genuinely wonderful biography. Gopnik (a contributor to our very own Washington Post‘s art section) offer an intelligent, warm, enthusiastic, admiring, and clear-eyed view of the artistic career of Andy Warhol, née Warhola.

He writes more enthusiastically about the earlier years, tacitly acknowledging that his artistic output peaked in the sixties and this work in the eighties, in particular, is lacking compared to his creative peaks.

Where he provides the greatest insight is in Warhol’s intellectual and erotic life. He dismisses the idea of Warhol as being uncreative and, more importantly, lacking in an intellectual and theoretical understanding of art, in general, and his own artistic creations. Finally, he waves away the image (one I held) of Warhol as lacking interest in sex and chronicles his important and often relatively long romantic and sexual relationships.

He doesn’t spend much time on other artists in his milieu. Much of ‘understanding’ of Warhol was filtered through movies: I Shot Andy Warhol and Basquiat. While his shooting by Valerie Solanas was rightfully depicted as a turning point (and possibly marked the end of his artistic peak) and while she was an important character, my own view was skewed by the sublime performance of Lili Taylor. Similarly, Jeffrey Wright in his breakout role led me to think that Basquiat got short shrift. But, I reminded myself, this was a biography (and a hefty one; 900 odd pages) of one man: Andy Warhol.

Note: Though I enjoyed this book, I will also recommend (in addition to the book itself), this scathing review of it from Harper’s: Always leave them wanting less: How not to write about Andy Warhol

Thomas Jefferson & Doctor Dolittle

While reading it to my daughter (having not realized when I began it, how mightily I would struggle to skip over and elide the racist sections; though I will give some credit for a wonderfully concise criticism of colonialism: an African king says that the last white man to come through, dug holes all over his kingdom and took all the gold and killed all the elephants and took all the ivory and then left without saying this thank you; sadly, this moment of criticism was overwhelmed by subsequent racism, often of a most crudely worded kind), I saw a passage where Dolittle consults Buffon, looking to see if a particular animal is mentioned.

Surely this was the Comte de Buffon whose theory of the decadence of American animals and men had so inflamed Jefferson and inspired some of his most interesting taxonomic efforts?

Down Among The Dead

Did you know that K.B. Wagers hasn’t finished her second trilogy (the ‘Farian War’ trilogy)?

Because I didn’t. And I made a pledge to avoid starting series that are not already finished, because I don’t want to wait for authors to finish.

Oh, and it was good. Better than the first book in this trilogy. The big reveal was telegraphed, but at least our intrepid heroine was reasonably prepared for it.

But it’s not done. Ugh. How long do I have to wait? According to her website, it’s available for pre-order, but I’m not inclined to do that. And the first trilogy has been optioned for television or movie (television makes more sense these days), so when that happens, I can act superior to fans who haven’t read the series, which is a plus. But you know what would have been better? The third book.

There Before The Chaos

It was a mixed joy to return to Wagers’ ‘gunrunner empress’ novels with the first book of her second trilogy featuring runaway princess turned gunrunner turned empress of a matriarchal and Indian influenced space empire, Hail Bristol.

Not mixed because it wasn’t good, but mixed because I grew to love the characters, especially the heroine (and narrator), and got very angry at some of the bad things that happened to her. The first trilogy was more of the Star Wars mold. First one ended in a good victory, telling a reasonably complete story; the second with an Empire still dark setback; and finally with a reasonably upbeat conclusion, following a more conclusive struggle.

This was more of… well, something else. Bad going to worse. And having already started the next book (Down Among The Dead), I know that it doesn’t immediately get better, but instead, rather quickly darker.

I will make one quibble. The aliens are not very alien. One of them, the Shen, can pass as human. And they are, apparently, very close to the Farian, one of whom featured quite heavily in the original books (and is even more important now). For some reason, I had imagined them as looking like Roger from American Dad (I have no idea why), but now that I am noticing descriptions… well, what are the odds that every advanced species in the universe looks more or less like us? I’m a churchgoing man who believes we were made in God’s image, but take that to be more a spiritual statement than as a thesis proposing that all advanced species look more or less the same.

Time Of The Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger And The Decade That Reinvented Philosophy

Besides the fact they were all important philosophers, the magician connection is missing. I don’t mean that I wanted some sort of connection of party tricks, only that it’s a little disappointing that this title clearly seems picked just because it sounded cool, rather than because it relates to some extended metaphor or thread which snakes through the book.

But it’s a good book. Enjoyable for academic and for more dilettantish readers of philosophy.

While it made me want to dig up my copy of Being and Time (which I read in college, but almost certainly failed to understand), I wish that the other philosophers, particularly Cassirer, had had their philosophical positions explicated in as much detail as Heidegger’s. But then again, Heidegger continues to loom large, even now, so perhaps it’s only fair.

Especially knowing how the story ended, I found myself deeply wishing that poor Walter Benjamin had ever gotten an academic posting and what could have been if he had ever gotten some semblance of stability in his life. C’est la via.