American Tabloid

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I’ve become a huge fan of Ellroy. There is something brutally poetic about his stuff, something that comes off as simultaneously stylish/fantastic and gritty/stark. American Taboloid, is really one of the more polished, more “fun” – if that’s a word that can be applied to Ellroy. Tabloid is almost more of a spy thriller or conspiracy thriller/alternative history, rather than the typic Ellroy fare of hardboiled/film noir set in 1950’s LA which at times borders on horror or a sort of science fiction.

It’s all about the Kennedy Assassination – its the story of the murky events leading up to the murder and it supplies a plausible alternative history as to why, who and how. Oozing with mafia dons, Teamster goons, CIA spooks, and loaded with “cameos” by ’60s celebrities – JFK and RFK are major characters – this a roller coaster ride that explores the murky line between crime and the law – it shows how easy it is to “cross-over”.

One of my favourite Ellroys yet.

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Self-Portrait of K’ang-hsi

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This is a remarkable book – unique, actually. This is a “self-portrait” or autobiography of the K’ang-hsi or “Kangxi” Emperor, fourth Emperor or the Chinese Qing Dynasty – reigning 1661-1722, one of the longest reigns in Chinese history. What makes it unique is that this is taken entirely from the writings of the Emperor himself, distilled from private letters, imperial dispatches, reminisces, etc.

Now, when I read the back cover, I had my doubts as the idea of a western scholar translating this assorted writings, and then recombining them to form a book completely alien to both the original purpose of the writing, but also a form of literature that would be quite alien to Emperor K’ang-hsi as well. It was unlikely to be successful.

But I was wrong. This book is excellent and fascinating. It works almost completely perfectly; it feels natural, it feels right. Of course, I need to immediately qualify this with an observation that it’s almost impossible to know how far Spence had to go to make the whole thing work in terms of translation, editing and arraignment.

But qualifications aside, it’s both a portrait of man both wholly the Emperor, but also struggling to live up to what that means, and a portrait of early-modern China already being impacted by contact with Europeans.

This book is accessible, I should mention, no special history yen is needed. Enjoyable, interesting, unique.

Empire of the Sun

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Growing up, my parents would often trick me into watching moves because they were “war” movies. Gone with the Wind? I watched it because I thought it was Civil War movie like Gettysburg or Glory. And so I wound up watching the movie Empire of the Sun, promised to be a war movie. Being too young to appreciate anything other than gunfire, explosions, and special effects of model battleships shooting around director’s bathtubs, I felt cheated.

I found a copy of this book in a awesome bookstore tucked into a corner of Chaing Mai, Thailand run by British ex-pats, and having just visited Shanghai, and looking for a book to read on the airplane, I thought I would forgive my childhood memories and give the book a try.

Set during the last day of normalcy in 1930’s Shanghai and then the rest of the war, it is the story of a young English lad surviving WWII in a Japanese interment camp. It is excellent – both poetic and concrete, mixing child psychology and fantasy with the grim realities of wartime. It’s war story, a coming-of-age story, and a survivor story that captures the deeper truths of wartime.

1930’s Shanghai – for quick reference consult the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – was a fascinating combination of international entrepôt, political flashpoint and cultural mixing zone that was highly unique. A product of European powers forcing territorial concessions of imperial China, Shanghai was a city run by Europeans in mainland China – and this book captures the last day of that era, December 7th, 1941. The next day, the Japanese invade and take over the city from the British.

The main character is the young child – maybe eight years old – of an English “mandarin” – an extremely wealthy and powerful official or businessman. He is “English” but has never been to England. When the Japanese invade Shanghai, his privileged world of private chauffeurs and garden parties disappears and he finds himself separated from his parents. With the English social order of shanghai destroyed, he finds himself isolated – neither really English or Chinese, he fins himself identifying with the Japanese and later, the Americans.

This sense of isolation drives the story – and the child’s survival. He survives, but also discovered himself and his adulthood.

Excellent writing. Excellent story and based on the author’s own experiences, which makes this book even more remarkable. Highly recommended.

 

The Pillars of the Earth

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When I was a child, PBS was dominated Ken Follett and Pillars of the Earth – I recall an animated series or movie based on the book, but also constant chatter as well. Ostensibly about the development of Gothic cathedrals out of the Romanesque style, it had just the right mix of fact and dramatization (or to be more cynical, there was plenty of story with just enough intellectual stuff to make it seem smart). It spawned a host of imitators (there was one about castles, I remember specifically) and I would argue it directly led to the whole genre of historical fiction a la The Tudors, The Borgias, The Vikings, Rome, etc. I’ll even go so far to say as this book sets the ground work for the Game of Thrones phenomenon.

I was amused to find that this halo of intellectual achievement still hangs around this book – Oprah added it to her book club, and the book itself is published as if it is a treasured piece of history: note how the top of the picture above calls it “the classic masterpiece.” Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book and I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I even learned some things from it – but Pillars of the Earth is much more “fiction” than fact.

I was expecting a much more historical, architecture-focused work – I was even expecting diagrams – and I found myself reading sexy history with an interesting, almost awkwardly bolted on focus on medieval cathedral building. So you are reading along about the rape, the drama, the passion and then there will be a brief section where one of the main characters thinks about architecture for a little bit – and then the story moves right along.

Follett makes sure he covers all aspects of the medieval world, from pilgrimage to politics to eating habits – and I will say that he artfully, majestically, mixes real history with his fictional little village of Kingsbridge – and I think that’s the best, most satisfying part.

 

No Is Not Enough

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As a rule, I avoid books written by pundits and politicians, and eschew books that seem rushed out to address the latest trending issue, be it ISIS, Trump or why the mainstream media lies. And while books like this wear their loyalty on their sleeve and their biases on their foreheads, it’s best to avoid them for the simple reason that they are not really meant to win an argument or make a point or inform you in any way. These books are meant to fire up the True Believers – somewhat of an antithesis for me.

I made an exception for Naomi Klein’s latest book, No is Not Enough, because I see her as the leading public intellectual of progressive politics. And with Trump’s election, we as a society and my own self personally, need some sort of hope, some sort of way forward. As the book says – we need a way to win the world we need.

The first third of the book lays out Trump’s path to the presidency, the depravities of neoliberalism, the bottomless hypocrisy of the Republican Party specifically and conservatives generally. It’s devastating and insightful and in the light of Hurricane Harvey, all the more urgent and important.

Next, Klein examines some of the issues with the Democratic party – which I found to be a little naive, a little bit cautious. To be blunt here, she does not quite say what needs to be said: the Democratic party rigged the primary against Bernie Sanders and is just as much a part of the larger problem as the Republicans. In her investigation of the primary, she focuses more on Sander’s trouble with minority voters and the double standards facing Hilary against Trump. The highlight is how she points out how what seemed the “safe choice” turned out to be the most dangerous choice – she says it, but the point could have been made louder and longer.

In the conclusion, Klein presents the hopeful looking-forward bits, drawn largely from the Dakota Pipeline protests and her own worth Canada’s indigenous peoples. The big takeaway from this section for me was people who follow the wide-spectrum of left-leaning politics need to put aside the logic of “my crisis is bigger than your crisis” that tends to cripple and compartmentalise the whole project. Everything is related, Klein says and so we need to remodel the system to benefit everyone. I found this section to be light on details though – and it seemed incapable of address some harsh realities and difficulties that progressive politics will have to face and master to gain power.

No is Not Enough is about hope though. It was not the “this is the way forward” that I was hoping for, and seemed to be focused more on finding tiny successes and instances of not-total-defeat to hold on too. This is a good book and many valuable points are made – especially when it comes to understanding Trump – but my own personal expectations for this book was high and were not lived up too.

 

Superintelligence

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It’s hard to talk and think about artificial intelligence or superintelligence with out resorting to science fiction or shallow references to pop culture. WOPR, HAL 6000, Skynet – it’s best if you put those aside for a moment. Well not really, because the basic theme of the book is the tremendous danger a true machine super intelligence would pose to humanity. AI is an existential risk – quite possible it will be “our” meteor wipes us out.

I love serious books. I love how Bostrom saw a problem – lack of serious critical thinking about AI and its dangers – and sat down at his desk, sharpened his pencils and addressed the issue in a well written, insightful book. Logical, smart, yet with rare and subtle humour, Superintelligence is the sort of book that may not be that widely read, but will deeply impress those who do read it.

Systematically exploring the pathways to “super intelligence” the threats, dangers and the odds, this book is neither a pundit-like “rah-rahing” for AI, nor is this a conspiracy theorists’ doom-porn expose. It’s a serious, well written book – and in the age of twitter and fake news – it is incredibly refreshing. Bostrom – like all people’s who intelligence is worth respect, sees opportunities, but offers no easy or simple solutions.

A book that proves that “smart” and “academic” can be enjoyable, even invigorating.

 

Brother Number One

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Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were pound for pound the most murderous of the communist dictator/revolutionaries that emerged during the Cold War. What strikes me about this “Cambodian Revolution” is exactly how far they went in their ‘leap’ towards communism. All privacy – everyone was expected to wear the same clothing – and personal ownership was abolished, the entire population of Phnom Penh was herded into the countryside and treated as enemies of the state.  No other country has pursued the logic of communist revolution further than Pol Pot’s communists.

Pol Pot is a nom de guerre, much like “Stalin” it is quite interesting how secretive the man actually was – his family didn’t even no he was the leader of the revolution until they saw his photo hung in the collective’s dinning hall as a part of the nascent personality cult that was being formed. Brother Number One is a biography of a man – real name Saloth Sar – that strove his entire life to not have a biography.

Pol Pot was actually born to what we might understand as a wealthy farming family, and in the very small world of Cambodia a hundred years ago, this meant connections to the royal family via the royal ballet troupe. Pol Pot received a very high level of eduction for the time – even travelling for years to France – and mixing with the Cambodian elites of his generation. In France he becomes a communist true believer, returns to Cambodia, where he becomes the head of the nascent Cambodian Communist Part, formed and backed by Vietnam in their struggle for independence and war against the US. Pol Pot becomes the head of the Cambodia Communist Party when it’s really not a desirable job to have, but he’s totally loyal and committed.

Once Pol Pot becomes the leader of the party, all sources of personal information essentially cease, and the biography reads more of a history of the Cambodian Revolution. You have to say this for Pol Pot: he was not corrupt and not a hypocrite.

Reading this book you come to realise how poor and small Cambodia truely is – the geopolitical reality is that they are trapped between Thailand and Vietnam; the best Cambodia can hope for is a tenuous independence backed by one or the other. The Vietnamese brought Pol Pot to power and they went to war to get him out of power – it’s as simple as that. And much of the butchery of the revolution can be chalked up to sheer incompetence – there simply was no body who knew how to run an economy – mixed with a curious sense of fanaticism.

A fascinating, chilling read.

King Leopold’s Ghost

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Like many of the historical topics that I am interested – like comprehensive, well written histories of ancient and medieval China – I was unable to find books on the wars of independence in Africa involving ageing European imperial powers like Portugal and Belgium that wind up being a playground for the CIA and worse….

If you know of any good books about Portugal’s involvement and wars in Angola, let me know…

King Leopold’s Ghost is one of the few books that did come in the course of my search. Of course, this is not about Portugal and Angola, but rather, Belgium and the Congo. Close enough.

During the 1840-1914 “Scramble for Africa” – the height of European imperialism – little Belgium’s constitutional monarch, the lonely, somewhat tortured Leopold II – desperately wanted a colony. And lacking both the military means, much less a domestic drive to acquire a colony, he essentially dedicated his life to acquiring a colony and running it himself. He stands out as more CEO than “king.”

By carefully manicuring an image of philanthropy and backing famous explores of Africa – especially the (also tortured and lonely) Henry Morton Stanly – Leopold managed to wrangle a rather unique situation. He cobbled together “treaties” signed by African Kongo chiefs which seceded their land into an “independent state” based on “free trade.” After furious lobbying and international campaigns that can only be described as propaganda – perhaps the first true use of “lobbying” in the way we mean it today – the US recognised the “Free State of the Kong.” Not ruled by the civilian government of Belgium, in effect the Congo became the personal property of Leopold.

The result was a humanitarian disaster – the Congolese were not just exploited as slave labor for ivory and rubber, their treatment was such that Leopold’s regime can be considered a genocide. This devastation, and the humanitarian response in Europe constitute the first example of both that we see in history. Leopold made millions. And Joseph Conrad wrote his brilliant Heart of Darkness from it.

King Leopold’s Ghost does a great job balancing human interest and telling the stories of the major personalities involved with facts as they can be ascertained. Narrative and factual rigour are well matched in this book. Informative, eye-opening and despite the rather tragic topic, quite enjoyable.

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

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This is a charming work of history and biography – not an oil painting, a sketch. Jonathon D. Spence presents us with the story of Jesuit Matteo Ricci’s extra-ordinary life in Ming Dynasty China. The book is framed around Ricci’s “memory palace” – an European memory aid that Ricci hoped would appeal to the scholarly sensibilities of the Chinese elite.

The idea of the memory palace is that you place what you want to remember in a imaginary building and the objects de arte inside are linked to the individual items you want to remember. For example, in your imaginary dream palace, you enter the forecourt, which has say four statues in it; each statue is dramatic and vivid, say, two warriors fighting – and this prompts you to recall the Chinese ideogram for “war.” Ricci was a master of this technique, apparently able to recall entire books and repeat them forwards and backwards. If this technique seems unwieldy – effectively giving you more to remember (as it seems to me), bare in mind that Ricci lived in a society that was still essentially oral and verbal – their capacity for memory was therefore far more linked to song and the spoken word.

I found two of Spence’s books simply browsing in Powell’s – and I knew that they would be winners from the moment I saw them. More of a cultural history through the lens of one man’s life, we are guided through the world of early-modern/Counter Reformation Europe, and the world of the Jeuits in East Asia. This schema works because Matteo Ricci himself was such a fascinating, brilliant character.

From Papal-controlled central Italy, Ricci became a Jesuit priest and as  young man, sailed out to China and spent the rest of his life attempting to convert the Chinese the Christianity. Facing the complex web of Chinese belief, Ricci made little headway but was remarkably successful in interesting the Ming court in Western mathematics and technology. His attempts to make christianity “palatable” to the Chinese borders on heresy.

Ming society was a curious mixture of belief – the common people were largely Buddhist or Taoist, with a healthy dose of folk customs and superstitions. The ruling class practised the loose corpus of philosophical and ethical doctrines known as Confucianism, which has this epicurean, agnostic, and one is tempted to say humanistic vein.  Thus Ming China was a cosmopolitan place compared to Counter-Reformation Europe, and the monotheistic strictures and fears of Christianity made little headway. A telling event recounted by Spence is the reaction of a courtly eunuch finding a dramatic, baroque crucifix – the agony and torture of Christ; his emaciated body – all being vividly rendered in wood, shocked and angered the eunuch, who showed it to the assembled Chinese – they found the concept of the “tortured” God inexplicable, and the obsession with the “torture” itself the Chinese found to be somewhere between quite odd and downright evil (they may have a point). It was a ‘PR’ disaster for Ricci, who was unable to find a reasonable explanation for it on the spot. The Jesuits in China focused largely on the Virgin Mary, backed by God-the-Father and the more edifying exploits of the Apostles.

This world of Jesuits, emperors, science and religion – I got hooked on it from James Clavell’s Shogun – is one that is fascinating. In many ways, this is Shogun but factual.

Informative, interesting, vivid.

The Plague of Fantasies

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As our Republic continues it’s Twitter-fueled death spiral, and humanity trundles along in polluting the planet in the name of greed for greed’s sake, works of philosophy increasingly read as obscure works of ancient hieroglyphics – tokens of a dead time when the things like “truth” and “justice” had purchase and meaning. I was reading Habermas – a titan of liberal-democratic philosophy, attempting to perfect and streamline  a hopeful future  – and it might well have been the small stick-like imprints on clay tablets that the Babylonians made. Trump’s election broke something, something that I despair of ever getting back.

Happily, The Plague of Fantasies does not read like this; I found it to be one of the more “relevant” books of “philosophy” I have read in memory. Fantasies addresses itself to the what we might call the underlying human psychological “problem” of the internet. The internet is this place where all the world’s facts, ideas, and truths are literally at your fingertips, and yet it’s ushered in the end of “facts” and “truths” as we know them. Technological change is reaching a point where the very nature of what it means to be “human” is under real change in our own lifetimes.

Zizek approaches the “problems of the internet” from the perspective of Lacanian psychoanylsis, which draws on Freud, but also the larger tradition of Critical Theory. As such, he’s not interested in the internet as a technical achievement, but sheer human psychology and how the internet effects us in the most fundamental sense. For example, with “windows,” computers cross a border between being large calculators and become rather vehicles of fantasy (they cease to be tools and become a sort of magic). We cease to “work on it” and now computers “work on us.” Real Life is increasingly just “real life” or simply “RL.”

Most of the book focuses on human psychology – a complex and delicate web of deferred fantasy, impossible to resolve tensions and unexplored truths about what “makes us tick.” The internet essentially provides this vehicle where are fantasies are “granted” when human psychology seems folded around having fantasies that are never realised. 

Of course, Zizek shines with a plethora of pop-cultural references raised to high philosophical and psychological points, mixing startlingly pronouncements that shatter the stilted “Option A or Option B” common opinions of our society. Powerful, insightful, totally original and completely uncommon, Zizek never disappoints. Fair warning, this book was pretty heavy on “inside” Lacanian theory; and in that respect, this book was a sometimes a bit inaccessible; I have never in the flesh a person conversant with Lacanianism.