Tag Archives: books

To the Finland Station

I have no idea why I bought this book, or when. I assume that I thought it was mostly about Lenin, and how he got to the point in April 1917 that he arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd and revved up the Bolsheviks to commit further revolution.

It does have that. But a lot of the book is about the development of revolutionary sentiment more broadly in Europe in the 19th century… or the consequences of revolution… actually, thinking back, it’s a bit confused. And apparently it’s a great classic, which… I am unconvinced by. Maybe I’m out of the appropriate context to really appreciate it.

Turns out the book was written in 1940, which is all sorts of interesting given that it’s by an American, during World War 2 (although before American involvement), and before the Cold War. This date also means the style is not quite what I am used to, and therefore not always enjoyable or easy to read. And there are some seriously cringeworthy aspects too, like Wilson’s insistence on attributing certain things to a stereotyped national character, in both appearance and personality. And the worst times he does this are in relation to Jewish people – Marx, and Trotsky. I found it deeply distasteful; I can’t imagine what it would be like as, you know, a Jewish reader. (Well, I can; if you are Jewish, probably don’t read this.)

The first part of the book focuses on some French authors, the only one of whom I’ve heard of is Michelet. It examines their attitudes towards the French Revolution and suggests the ways that the 19th century changes how many French regarded their first revolution. I’m really not sure what the whole point of this section was, in retrospect. It was interesting to learn that attitudes changed, but I don’t really see how this led to the development of socialism. This development is the focus of the middle half, and was genuinely interesting – I think socialism is one of the most interesting of political ideologies and the different ways people have thought about it and considered its real-world application is fascinating. There is, of course, a significant amount of space devoted to Marx and Engels. I actually knew very little about the two men and their working relationship so that aspect was revelatory – Engels compelled to work as a bourgeois manager basically to support Marx! Marx a deeply unpleasant fellow (this does not surprise me)! I started getting my hopes up that Wilson wold give me a good overview of Marx&Engels’ communism; and while I do now understand the issue of dialectic materialism (… well, ish), without a more thorough grounding in Hegel I’m still in the dark about some of the finer points. As are most people, I think. Possibly including Marx.

The final section of the book is about Lenin and Trotsky (Ulyanov and Bronstein). I don’t know too much about the early lives of the men, so that biographical aspect was again quite interesting. Wilson was surprisingly favourable towards Lenin – the introduction to the book makes excuses for this, pointing out Wilson’s lack of access to sources given when he was writing, and providing some examples of Lenin being a right horror, as balance. I did not, in the end, feel like I got much more of a grasp of Lenin and Trotsky’s politics, which is interesting to reflect on.

I think I’m ok with having read this, having already read a lot around both the French and Russian Revolutions. I won’t be recommending it to anyone, though, except for historical reasons – that is, understanding what someone in 1940 thought about it all.

Friends and Rivals

My mum picks such interesting books for me! I hadn’t heard of this before it arrived for my birthday; I had heard of Turner and Richardson but knew nothing about them – I’ve never read anything by any of these women.

Before talking about the great things, there were two things that disappointed me deeply about this book, and they’re both factual errors that really don’t have a connection to the histories themselves but are nonetheless troubling. I can only hope they’re both editorial mistakes. One: in speaking of the English suffragette movement, Niall mentions “Adela Pankhurst and her daughters”. This should be Emmeline – Adela is one of the daughters. Adela was the one who ended up in Australia, so I guess this is an understandable mistake. However, in speaking of Australian suffrage, Niall gives 1908 as the year in which (white, which is also not stressed) Australian women gained the right to vote; it was actually 1902. Like I said, superficially small errors, but pretty significant for the history suffrage.

The book is set up as biographies – primarily literary biographies – of the four women. As individuals their lives are all quite fascinating: Baynton is probably my favourite, although the one I would be least likely to befriend; for instance, she was annoyed at her third husband for refusing the crown of Albania (there’s a whole story about why taking it would have been a dreadful idea). All four of them dealt with a variety of hardships – some particular to their era, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while others are all too familiar (family hardship, women ignored, the difficulty of being paid as a writer…). Niall writes engagingly and seems to have done spectacular archival research to dig up letters and diaries to get into the mindsets of these very different women.

Turner wanted to be taken seriously as a writer; Seven Little Australians was a money-making machine and she ended up being pigeonholed as a children’s writer (so familiar for too many women). I’d never realised that this book has an urban setting and just how remarkable this was for its time, when Australia was so much about the bush, thank you Banjo and Henry (whom Turner knew). Conversely, Baynton wrote about the bush – but in almost vicious terms; the one story I really want to read was throwing Henry Lawson’s story “The Drover’s Wife” under a bus. Henry Handel Richardson was considered for a Nobel Prize, and also wrote urban stories – and wasn’t especially interested in being considered a particularly “Australian” author, which was intriguing for the time. And Palmer was, for her time, a leading critic and champion of Australian authors – not a leading female critic, but leading critic, period.

My mum knows me well: this books fits within Joanna Russ’ campaign for women to know their literary ancestry – to remember that there have been women writing before them, that we do have a history to be proud of. Australian literature’s history isn’t all bush ballads, or the agony of Patrick White. It’s also the story of girls at private schools, kids in crappy inner-city suburbs, and epic ‘European’ novels. These writers need to be reclaimed as an important part of our heritage.

Olive and Mabel

Like literally millions of people around the world, I have been highly amused by Andrew Cotter’s sports commentary of his two dogs, which began earlier this year (if you missed it somehow, the first one is here: https://youtu.be/vPhpJuraz14). When I heard that he was writing a book, I was amused; and looking forward to reading it; and a bit worried, because what on earth would it be about?

The answer is that Cotter does actually go on remarkable adventures with his two dogs – bagging Munros in particular (that is, climbing mountains in Scotland over a certain height) – and he has a way with words that makes sense given his normal living as a sports commentator. (Yes, it may have been ghost written, given how quickly it came out; no, I wouldn’t blame him; if someone did help write it they did a very good job of capturing his style and tone, or at least the style and tone that come across in the videos.)

The book starts with how the videos came about in the first place – boredom – and then deals with the global reaction to them – which was completely out of proportion to anything he expected, but completely in line with people going spare during lockdown. I really enjoyed the way he discussed having to deal with the unexpected fame, and the pressure to keep creating content, when that wasn’t something he anticipated. Also the way he talked about aaallll the “marketing opportunities” that came his way and he rejected (except for commentating the Phillip Island penguins, which is utter genius and I’m glad it’s in the world – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIIvTm5xTF0 ).

The rest of the book is about getting Olive, and then a few years later Mabel; a discourse on the Labrador as a breed; and then a lot of descriptions about going hiking in the mountains with two dogs. Which shouldn’t work, but does. This is a gentle, amusing, refreshing book – both an excellent advertisement for having a dog, and an excellent explanation for why having a dog is a terrible idea.

The sort of book you buy for someone in your family and then when everyone’s read it you pass it on to someone else and you know that many people will have had a few hours innocent joy. Much like patting a dog.

Infomocracy

Not sure how I missed this one when it came out a few years ago… some failure of mine or the system, I guess. Anyway, I finally read this (and the rest of the trilogy) last year, and felt a hankering need to reread this year. And apparently I didn’t review it last year, so now’s the time!

There’s no specified year that this book happens; it’s two decades after the near-global institution of micro-democracy, and it’s still a fairly recognisable world aside from that, so mid to late 21st century makes sense. Micro-democracy means that most of the world has been divided into ‘centenals’ – areas of 100,000 people (or is it voters? that’s unclear, I think) – and each centenal votes in their chosen government. The biggest are Heritage, which seems like an ordinary conservative party, and Liberty, which is theoretically all about citizen freedom… then there are some old-nation-based parties, like 1China; and most terrifyingly, there are military-based parties and corporate ones, the largest being PhilipMorris. In the long run I’m not sure which of the latter two are most scary. And then, the party that gets the most centenals over the whole world is the Supermajority and they get… some unspecified powers.

This entire book is about the lead-up to the third global election. I know, it doesn’t sound like it should be riveting. But oh my goodness, it is.

Firstly, this isn’t just a world with micro-democracy. It’s also a world with Information. Information is like Google, I guess, but made a public utility that is genuinely meant to be working for the good of everyone. There’s a touch of cyberpunk in that most everyone can access Information via a handheld device if they must, or via optical implants if they can; depending on your Information settings, you can walk around anywhere and get facts about the construction of buildings, names of plants – and the public Information of the people you’re around. Older begins to explore the consequences of Information here (and I know it’s ‘begins’ because that’s something that continues throughout the trilogy, SORRY SPOILERS). And what happens when Information isn’t available?

Secondly, of course something nefarious happens, and it needs to be rectified. The two focal characters are Mishima – absolutely my favourite – and Ken. Mishima works for Information doing a variety of things, which sometimes involve a stiletto and shuriken and climbing furniture. She also has a ‘narrative disorder’ which is never fully explained but helps (usually) to sort through a mass of data. Ken is a campaigner for one of the middle-tier parties, Policy1st, who ends up finding out some of the nefarious things and gets pulled into the action. Ken’s fine; he’s an interesting mix of altruistic and self-interested that makes sense, and his doubts and angst are portrayed sympathetically but not at annoying length. Mishima is awesome; she is splendidly capable but not all-knowing, and I basically love everything about the way she acts, reacts, and thinks.

This is seriously awesome book. I guess it’s on the ‘techno-thriller’ side of things although exactly what that means I’m a bit hazy on. I would be confident recommending this to someone who doesn’t love SF, because it could almost be tomorrow; the tech’s not that outrageous. It’s fast-paced but not ludicrously so, there are a range of characters who show a range of issues, and it’s just great.

The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson continues to be one of the great voices of climate change fiction – particularly, the consequences of, and how humans might mitigate them (since no way are we avoiding).

The Ministry of the title is the use-name for a small international organisation set up under the auspices of the Paris Climate Agreement, kind of but not entirely associated with the UN and based in Zurich. Their remit is to basically to represent future generations, who currently don’t get a say in what they will inherit, and therefore to advocate for policies that will be good for those future people. It’s a clever way of showing that current decisions have downstream consequences, and of having people whose job it is to focus on that.

Part of the book, therefore, focuses on the Ministry: policy and the struggles of international collaboration. Another large part isn’t even really narrative so much as a series of vignettes from individuals who are either directly affected by some aspect of climate change – like the devastating heat wave that opens the novel – or by people who are involved in climate change mitigation, like farmers in Kerala who are doing awesome things with agriculture. The scope of the book is a couple of decades, thus showcasing the problems as they develop as well as the myriad and varied attempts to deal with the issues.

It’s not a standard linear narrative, therefore; but it is recognisably a Kim Stanley Robinson. For example, New York 2140 had several characters to follow and a few clear narrative threads, which sometimes intertwined, plus the narrator who dumped info on you. This is more experimental, I think, but feels like an extension of what was going on in 2140. I guess there are two main characters, although they probably don’t get quite enough space to really legitimate the title: the head of the Ministry, a middle-aged Irish woman who is awesome; and an American aid worker caught in the Indian heatwave who continues to suffer the repercussions of that for years. If it’s anyone’s story, it’s theirs; although having said that really it’s the planet’s story, and that of the entire population. Which feels so right for a book like this. It makes sense to hear from farmers in India and glaciologists in Antarctica! Less so the bits from the sun, and a carbon atom; but I’m prepared to indulge Robinson’s whims.

I trust Robinson to generally have his science right, if slightly on the outlandish side – that is, his suggestions probably match known science, but they may require more time / other resources than is considered feasible… although actually, this is something that he addresses in the book – that what seems like a large amount of money kinda isn’t when you set it in context. I do wonder whether a copy of this should be sent to people at the UN, and glaciologists, and agriculture people…

This book won’t work for everyone. The structure will annoy some, for sure, because it decentres characters and because it doesn’t really have much of a narrative. It just… covers a period of time, and what happens to the world in that time. So if you like a neat open and close, this probably isn’t for you; if you like really strong characters driving the story, likewise. But I really do recommend this as an exploration of the next few decades on our planet… it’s both optimistic on some levels but also devastating.

Station Eleven

The first question to ask here is, how did I not read this book when it first came out in 2014? And then how did I not read it when it won the Arthur C Clarke Award?

Those of you who have already read this are now possibly backing away in dismay, and reflecting my second question:

How could I read this book this year: did I not know that it involved a… y’know… flu-like virus??

The answer to the second is no, actually, I didn’t. It came as quite a surprise. And it’s a bit of a spoiler I suppose to those who haven’t read it yet but I figure that’s a community service at the moment. Because the thing is, this is a fantastic book and I want to recommend it to everyone… it’s just that, at the moment, such recommendation requires a little delicacy.

“Mum! You should read this book!! … how do you feel about reading about pandemics?”

(That’s not quite verbatim, but close.)

(For the record, she said she was fine with it.)

At any rate, I bought this in one of my spates of book buying this year, as a title I’ve had hanging at the back of my mind for five years and knew basically nothing about. And then I read the whole thing in a day. I would have read it faster than I did but I had to keep stopping to eke it out just a little bit longer. Yes, it’s one of those.

There’s a lot to love about this book. The writing is wonderful, easy to read and utterly absorbing. It takes a particular style to get away with declaring “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” In the first part of the book, in particular, this felt a lot like one of the best of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stories (and yes, just to be clear, that’s definitely a compliment from me).

The narrative goes back and forth between times – pre- and post-pandemic – filling in character histories, drawing links between people, giving detail to the world. The two central characters (I would argue) are introduced at the start of the novel – both actors, one old and one a child. Their lives and the people they interact with largely inform the rest of the story. The child, in particular, grows up to be a focal part of the future story, traveling with a group of actors and musicians across an America utterly devastated by pandemic (see? this is why recommending it requires a certain delicacy right now!). These artists use a Star Trek quote as their raison d’ĂȘtre: “because survival is insufficient”. And I love this for many reasons.

As well as flitting between times, the narrative also shifts between characters – all of whom end up having some connection with the two actors, deep or glancing, which is a neat device that Mandel manages to make neither cheesy nor just too convenient. The range of people (rich and not, pleasant and not, etc) allows Mandel to explore multiple human experiences and reactions to disaster – which, let’s face it, is often the point of writing post/apocalyptic narratives. Another sign of a narrative that is well-paced and features multiple characters is that I never got impatient in reading about some new character, wanting to get back to an original – they were all engaging and, especially as the threads started to come together, I always wanted to see what the new character brought.

There’s not that many books about which I can confidently say “I will read you again.” This is one of them.

Hollow Empire

The author sent me a copy of this book at no cost. It comes out on December 1.

I read City of Lies last year, but I didn’t review it because it was for the Norma K Hemming Award, and reviewing when judging feels wrong. It should be noted that this is definitely a sequel – don’t come to it without the first book – and honestly that’s no hardship, since the first book is excellent and I highly recommend it.

In one sense, you could describe these books in a way that makes them seem like well-written but run of the mill secondary world stories: small country beset with difficulties, strange magic system not entirely approved by the powers that be, fights enemies. That would, however, be to entirely miss what makes this series (trilogy, I assume) stand out. The dual-protagonist structure does that: brother and sister, connected to power but not really wielding it, sharing narrative duty. But again, multiple perspectives isn’t all that unusual. Aspects of these siblings, though, is still highly unusual: she has what seems to be something like chronic fatigue, while he has anxiety and the sometimes-awkward coping mechanisms to deal with it. They’re often in the public eye and people sometimes look on these ‘conditions’ with a dubious eye. And they are also both entirely competent at their jobs (diplomacy, and poison-tester) and at managing their health… issues? complications? The two of them are immensely real and relatable, not defined by what others see as (potentially) disability and also not ignoring it. These two, Jovan and Kalina, make Poison Wars unusual and excellent.

Also excellent is the writing; Hawke conjures a fascinating world, with political and commercial intrigue, malice, and cooperation interlaced throughout the different countries and their interactions. Different societies have different belief systems and social mores, and navigating those is a big part of this second book, in particular, as Silasta recovers from its civil war and the problems revealed by that. Silasta must confront its own history, and oppressed people, while also being wary of external threats. I feel that there’s a particular nuance to a story touching on colonialism and empire when it’s written by an Australia (maybe this can also be true of other colonial settings, too, but I find it easiest to see in Australians). Hawke deals with the lived reality of this sort of situation for colonised and colonisers, and I (as a white Australian) think she does so well.

There is excitement here, given its focus on intrigue and discovering whether someone is indeed trying to kill the Chancellor; but there’s not a whole lot of set-piece battles, so if that’s what you’re after, you need to go elsewhere. I really like that the focus is on the people trying to stop an assassination, rather than perpetrate it; in general, the reader gets to be on the morally right side (or at least, I assume we are…) rather than cheering for a person actively trying to kill another, as in those stories focussed on the assassin themself!

Highly enjoyable; read the first book first; definitely one worth throwing yourself into.

Hans Rosling

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s available from November 10; RRP $32.99 for trade PB, $15.99 for ebook.

An important thing to know about me is that I am a very big Hans Rosling fan. I think the first thing I ever saw from him was his TED talk about the Magic Washing Machine – an example of how to think about poverty, and the spread of people in terms of income across the globe, and the difference that a washing machine makes to everyday life. And then there’s the greatest four minutes of stats you’ll ever see: 200 countries, 200 years, in 4 minutes (and 1948 was a great year). It highlights one of Rosling’s key points that he wants people to know: overall, the world has improved dramatically over the last two centuries. (With the caveat that he acknowledged profoundly in his first book, that many part of the world are better but still bad – like a premature baby in a NICU, who is still ill but better than previously.) And if you want to know just how much of a badass he was, watch this interview with a Danish journalist.

… so as you can imagine, when I learned that Rosling had written a memoir (with journalist Fanny Hargestam) in the year before he died (too young), I was very, very excited. His first book, Factfulness, co-written with his son and daughter-in-law (who worked with him at Gapminder) was mostly about the sorts of preconceived notions that impact on the way people view the world (like the Generalisation Instinct that makes us believe everyone in ‘that’ category – race, religion, gender – is exactly the same). Within it, though, were also all sorts of stories about Rosling’s own life – which was a fascinating one.

This is not a standard (auto)biography or even memoir. Rosling wasn’t writing it just to talk about himself, or even just to reflect on his own life, as far as I can tell. His purpose was to use his life and his experiences to teach readers about the world – hence the title. The man who started as a doctor, became a researcher and then a statistician was, in the end, a teacher. You can see that in his TED talks, and get a clear sense of it when he despairs about the lack of knowledge people have about the world. (Many people who take the Ignorance Survey over at Gapminder do worse, in Rosling’s words, than chimps – they at least would choose at random, whereas most people seem to have overwhelmingly negative views about the world.)

This book is amazing. Rosling’s life was amazing, and the writing is beautifully simple. He starts in Sweden, becoming a doctor; spends time in Mozambique as a doctor; investigates a debilitating illness there, and later a similar problem in Cuba; gets into research, and eventually into teaching, and develops the way of presenting stats that – with the bubble charts his son and daughter-in-law created – really made him famous. Which gets him to Davos, and speaking to people like Melinda Gates. (When Factfulness came out, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a copy to every US college grad that year.) Rosling doesn’t shy away from personal details – some tragic, some wonderful. And he also doesn’t shy away from sharing the difficult, and sometimes bad, decisions that he made over his life. Everything he talks about is aimed at helping the reader to understand him for the sake of understanding how he made his decisions – and what that says about the world. One of the most difficult sections is when he talks about working in an under-resourced, under-staffed, hospital in Mozambique, post-independence. He has to make incredibly difficult decisions. And sometimes they have poor outcomes. Rosling doesn’t attempt to cover that up; it’s all in the context of understanding the world.

One of the great revelations of this book is Agneta Rosling, Hans’ wife. She seems an amazing woman – definitely a match for him. And let’s be honest, you’d have to be, because Hans comes across as one of those people it’s incredible to watch and listen to but would actually be difficult to live with. Agneta had her own career, and actively worked with Hans in some stages of their lives, and supported him – and was supported back.

I read this book very quickly, because it’s an easy read and I really wanted to know everything. There were moments, though, where I had to put it down: occasionally to stare at nothing and consider the world, occasionally to shed a tear, and sometimes to just breathe and let new knowledge settle. I don’t tend to read modern biographies; they usually bore me. This one, though, I will be praising to everyone for a long time. Highly, highly recommended.

Anthropocene Rag

This book is an absolute trip.

I should preface my comments here with the reminder that I’m Australian. While cultural imperialism means I have a better knowledge of American culture than is probably appropriate, I don’t know all the ins and outs of American myth: I have heard of Paul Bunyan and Babe, for instance, but I have zero knowledge of their context, or what purpose they served, and so on. There is undoubtedly nuance that I missed, here, as a result; clever puns or narrative twists that passed me by.

Having said that, this is still a really fun and weird and clever book.

In case you haven’t come across it ‘anthropocene’ is a proposed name for the geological epoch in which we currently live: the time when humans are having a significant impact on Earth’s systems. The ‘rag’ in the title is mostly the musical version of the word.

The narrative takes place across an America that has been completely taken over by nanotech – the Boom. This tech is somewhat driven by a consciousness, but not entirely. What it is driven by is a fascination with story. And it will go to great lengths to recreate stories and historical moments – up to and including completely remaking places… and people. So there’s a whole new level of danger in living in America, never quite knowing whether the person over there is biological or a construct, and whether they might coopt you into their narrative.

The story itself centres around six individuals who have received Golden Tickets from… someone… to enter Monument City, which may or may not actually exist but if it does, it’s connected to the Boom. And at this point hopefully you, like me, are thinking: wait, wasn’t Roald Dahl English?? Yes he was, but I can only assume that Irvine is going with the idea of Willy Wonka having been so completely Hollywood-ised that he’s basically been subsumed into the American cultural myth. Anyway: essentially this is a set of road trips that showcase the weird things that have happened to America thanks to the Boom, and allow Irvine to explore American mythology.

Anthropocene Rag is a lot of fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it does have some lovely lyrical moments, and its range of characters were always entertaining.

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

I’m really sad that I didn’t enjoy this more. In theory, the ideas are all great: mermaids as an extension of the Sea; the Sea as a larger-than-humans entity with real awareness; witches who tell stories; pirates; a feisty young noblewoman; genderfluid characters and multiple races and discussion of imperialism and colonialism!

Sadly, the execution does not quite match the ambition.

It felt like there were too many ellipses. Too many gaps where it seemed like the author skipped a step in the narrative – it was in her head but it didn’t make it to paper. I’m pretty sure there was at least one mention of the storm having passed, with no prior mention of the storm. And this applied to some of the characters and relationships, too. Evelyn and Flora are both pretty well-developed characters, but their relationship really isn’t. Mermaids are explained – how they exist – and this is probably my favourite part of the whole book; but witches aren’t, nor how their magic works (is it innate? can anyone learn? no idea).

Moving between Evelyn and Flora as POV characters was fine – it made the narrative much more interesting than just one perspective, given the context. But all of a sudden introducing new perspectives quite late in the story was just weird, and put me quite off balance; and not in a good way. One of them made sense, narratively; it could have been added much earlier and would have added interesting complexity to the whole thing. The other, though, felt utterly superfluous.

On a positive note, the issues brought up in the story are dealt with well, and that’s something I was impressed by. This is a world dominated by a Japanese-influenced culture (kimonos, etc); they have largely taken over the known world (this is another problem: there are these portentous ‘oooh, the Red Shore‘ comments, without much explanation of what that place is). The brutality of colonisation and imperialism are bluntly on display and are an essential part of the world – not gratuitously, but as reality.

Excellent ideas; I was engaged enough that I kept reading the whole thing; ultimately, not very satisfying.