Friday, June 22, 2012

Life Inc.

Life Inc.
by Douglas Rushkoff
Published in 2009
Published by Random House
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7850-6

I pretty much agree with Douglas Rushkoff's Life Inc.  Yet I'm conflicted about it. Maybe unfairly so.

On the one hand, I'm sympathetic towards the worldview that he's expounding. His chief message is that the methods and madness of corporations -- which exist in order to maximize their economic value -- have insidiously seeped into our lives and ways of thinking. The ideology of corporatism has devalued us as human beings, changed us from citizens into consumers, and wrecked our notion of community -- largely without our noticing that such an ideology even exists, or that this is anything other than the natural order of things, or that we could shed this ideology without necessarily reverting back to pre-industrial times.

But on the other hand, I get suspicious whenever someone takes history and turns it into a narrative to back up one's views. Rushkoff uses a large portion of the book doing this as he describes how corporations were originally created to funnel wealth towards the already wealthy. This automatically sets off warning sirens and klaxons in my mind. Ever since I realized that a 'big-picture' historical narrative could be correct in every historical fact, and yet still be absolute rubbish, I've been awfully reluctant to read much into one, no matter how artfully it's constructed.

Rushkoff's view is that the ideology of corporatism has its origins in the Italian Renaissance. From the extremely contrarian way he describes the Renaissance, you would assume it to be one of the great misfortunes to have ever befallen the human race, one from which all of our current troubles can be traced in one way or another.

Now, he does this in order to make some interesting points. Rushkoff argues that our image of medieval Europe as a horrible place full of squalor and hardship is largely a misconception, shaped by the 14th and 15th centuries, which really were terrible times to be an ordinary person in Europe. But there is ample evidence that the 12th and 13th centuries were far more pleasant, a time when local economies prospered without being dependent on faraway economic centers of authority. This was the time of the great cathedrals, which were grassroots building projects financed by the townspeople rather than by any pope or emperor. He makes the astounding claim that Europeans from this era were generally healthier than at any other time in history, and if modern Europeans are taller that's largely because of hormones in the food, not better nutrition.

He has two reasons for setting our traditional understanding of history on its head. Not only is he damning the events of the 14th and 15th centuries, which gave rise to centralized economic control and the rise of corporations, but he also wants to describe finance as it was understood during the heyday of late medieval Europe. The heavy, centrally minted gold and silver coins from our modern stereotype of old-style money did indeed exist, but they were used more for long-distance trading and affairs of state than for modest local transactions. For these, people used light silver coins called brakteaten (Wikipedia spells it bracteate) which couldn't be hoarded, because they steadily lost value. They were invested back into the local economy quickly. Building cathedrals was a prudent financial decision for prosperous communities, because cathedrals would bring in religious tourists for centuries to come.

This is why Rushkoff speaks approvingly of the many local currencies that have begun popping up in the last few years. These currencies can only be spent within the local community and depreciate with time. I've never been in a position where I could use a local currency, but the concept intrigues me.

Rushkoff's book is much more than just a treatise on medieval currency and what it has to teach us, and my distrust of 'big history' when it's told to promote a particular point of view can't color my impressions of the entire book. He presents the problem of all-pervading corporatist ideology as one which does not fit neatly into a traditional left vs. right political axis, and finishes the book (in the 2011 edition) with suggestions for what ordinary people can do and organizations which are helping people to transcend an excessively corporation-driven lifestyle -- and not by escaping into hippie communes.

And as much as I rolled my eyes at his blatant creation of a narrative, I do believe he's basically right about the big picture.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


by Yann Martel
Published in 1996
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Canada
ISBN: 978-0-571-21976-6

Our protagonist is born in Spain in the early 1960s, the son of Canadian diplomats. He grows up in Canada, Europe, and Costa Rica. He attends a prestigious boarding school in Canada and is accepted to university in Ontario. There are many musings about the nature of life, gender, and sex, as seen through the eyes of our young hero.

So far, our protagonist (who is never named, although there is a solitary mention of having an androgynous given name) has led a life which precisely follows the same course of the author's. It is perfectly natural for the reader to assume that Self is an autobiographical memoir. The reader reads on...

Our protagonist spends a summer in Portugal before going to university. She takes classes in philosophy and literature, and the summer after her first year she travels to Greece where she meets an older American woman. The two women travel through Greece and Turkey together while enjoying a steamy lesbian love affair. Our heroine returns to Canada and conceives of a novel.

If our heroine thinks it the least bit strange that she used to be a boy and now she's not, she never lets on. If anything, her gender switch is a natural outgrowth of her/his childhood confusion about the nature of sex and gender.

Self is an odd little novel, possibly equal parts autobiographical and pure fiction, not that I really have any means of knowing.

When it was published, author Yann Martel was a Canadian literary author of very limited renown with a bunch of short stories to his name. Self was his first successfully published novel. It did not result in his becoming well-known. Nor, I suspect, did he expect it to. For the first couple of years of its published existence, Self seemed destined to go down in history as a middling work by one of the fifty preeminent living literary figures in the province of Saskatchewan. An OK book, readable but not brilliant.

Then Martel published another novel. This one was about a boy and a kittycat in a boat.

The boy-and-kittycat-in-a-boat book was rather more widely read than Self was.

It garnered rather higher praise than 'readable but not brilliant'.

It caused Yann Martel to have a higher public profile than he did before. In short, it is the sole reason why there are people who are not authorities on modern Canadian literature who are familiar with Self today.

One must feel some sympathy for Yann Martel. Now famous as the man who wrote that brilliant book about the boy and the kittycat in the boat, he apparently has looked back on his earlier work Self as 'terrible' and has wished 'it would disappear' (according to a Sydney Morning Herald book review).

It's not that bad. It's not mind-bendingly, gender-blastingly brilliant, but it's not that bad. I was cheerfully willing to oblige Martel as he led me on a tour of our gender-roaming hero(ine)'s love life and oddball literary projects.

The rape scene. It comes near the end of Self and was clearly meant to be brutal. I'm not sure what to think of it, as it contrasted starkly with what came before. I shall have to put my subconscious to work integrating the entire novel into a cohesive whole.

As it is, Self may be 'terrible' by the author's own estimation, but it has more parts that stick in my mind and won't go budge than many books which are much better.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones
by George R. R. Martin
Published in 1996
Published by Bantam Books
ISBN: 978-0-553-59371-6

This little-known novel has found a small following since its publication. It is a happy story of people who behave morally and never get hurt and cute puppies who definitely never get their heads chopped off. I found the novel unrealistic because nothing bad happens to anyone important and major characters never get killed. If you're lucky, you might be able to find information about the plot online, but you'll have to search hard because the book really isn't widely known.

Seriously now:

I'm generally wary of big fat novels with lots of sequels. Sometimes I like to pretend sequels don't exist. For example, I read Dan Simmons' Hyperion, enjoyed it, and then decided that my enjoyment of the novel would not possibly be improved by picking up the sequels, despite (because of?) the fact that Hyperion ends on a cliffhanger and leaves about a zillion unanswered questions. Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle I treated as one long novel spaced across three hefty volumes. As for Harry Potter, I waited until the last novel was out and then I just read all seven in one go. I found them to be enjoyable reads, but I'll admit I also felt that I needed to be up to speed for pop culture literacy purposes.

As it is for Game of Thrones. I haven't seen the HBO series yet (although my big George R. R. Martin fan of a sister-in-law will probably correct that soon enough), and I came to the first book partially unspoiled. (I already knew about the most shocking character death in the first book, but I didn't know precisely when or how it would happen.)

Part of why I finally picked up A Game of Thrones is a determination to acquaint myself with the plot on my terms, despite the fact that the English-speaking pop-cultural universe seems determined to bombard me with spoilers. I want to learn that Khal Drogo is actually Joffrey's father through my own reading, not because somebody spilled the beans on Facebook.

I expected lots and lots of characters. I got lots and lots of characters. My only problem with keeping loads of characters straight in my head is that I often have trouble telling which ones are going to be important and which ones I don't need to pay as much attention to. I think I was a couple of chapters past Littlefinger's introduction before I realized that he was actually an extremely important character whom I should be devoting mental space to following.

I expected loads of violence. I got loads of violence. When a certain first-tier major character was badly hurt early on in the book and spent a couple of chapters in a coma, I wrote him off for dead immediately, thinking, Wow. They really weren't kidding about nobody in these books being safe. I was too quick to pronounce him dead (so far) but there isn't a single character living at the end of the first book who I don't expect to be beheaded, disembowelled, dissolved in molten gold, thrown off a mountain, drowned, frozen to death, eaten by wolves, or impaled on a spike by the time the series draws to a close.

Based on Internet chatter, I expected lots of sex. As for what I got, while the novel's not prudish by any means, it contains no more sex than many other novels written for an adult audience. I suspect the issue here is not that the books are particularly full of sexual content; it's the HBO series, and the manner in which the series uses and presents sex to the audience, that's prompted all the chattering. (There's a lot of talk about how the TV series deals with sex, not all of it positive. I'll have thought of my own once I actually watch the TV series.)

So what do I take away from the novel?

Well, the absolute centrality of the importance of bloodlines to the mindset of the characters. Who you are is determined by who your parents were. Period. Now, of course that's nothing new. Not only is it how people organized real-world societies for hundreds and hundreds of years, you also see the same attitude pervading even modern fiction that doesn't take place in a pseudo-historical setting -- Star Wars, for instance

But in A Game of Thrones it's hammered home, again and again, that this is how these people think. For instance, I almost could have liked first-tier major character Catelyn Stark, but she ruined any sympathy I might've had for her through her hatred of her husband's illegitimate son, ultra-squeaky-clean-good-guy Jon Snow, for no reason other than the fact that he dared grow up in the same building that she lived in. But then, treating Jon with civility would probably be about as alien a concept to her as, say, instituting a democratic form of government at Winterfell and having the next leader of the North elected from among the peasantry. These people are Not Of Our Culture.

Also, as with Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, I'm fascinated by the political maneuvering. Politics and intrigue takes up a larger chunk of A Game of Thrones than Robinson's Mars books; I hope the subsequent books continue the habit. I like courtly drama and backstabbings and betrayals as long as they don't happen to me in real life; last year I read Shan Sa's Empress, a novelized account of the real-life Chinese ruler and seventh-century badass Empress Wu which was full of remarkably similar intrigue, and quite enjoyed it.

I also like that, despite the presence of dragons and ice zombies on the periphery, the main thread of the narrative is completely devoid of magic or supernatural happenings or anything that doesn't exist in our world. I respect that, although I'm aware that we'll be seeing plenty more magic and dragons in future books.

I'll have to continue reading George R. R. Martin's books, so as not to be spoiled when someone with loose lips blabs that Daenerys is really Tyrion's mother.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Oracle of Stamboul

The Oracle of Stamboul
by Michael David Lukas
Published in 2011
Published by Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-1-44340-506-5

Eleonora is an extremely precocious Jewish girl born in Constanta on the Black Sea on the precise day in 1877 when the Ottoman Empire loses control of the city. She chafes under the strict rule of her stepmother, and when she is eight years old she stows away in the luggage of her merchant father to a new life in Stamboul (and that city is never called by any other name in the novel).

Eleonora's intelligence and perception attract the attention of some powerful people, and she is thrust against her will into the world of court intrigue. Meanwhile, we readers are treated to lavish depictions of late nineteenth-century Stamboul, written by an author who is clearly deeply in love with the city.

My wife and I lived in Stamboul for a month last year, as we took an intensive CELTA course at a local institute. We found ourselves a room in a townhouse within walking distance of the road known as Grande Rue de Pera to the people in the novel, and Istiklal Caddesi to people who live later in history than the nineteenth century. We were tourists when we had the time (which was not often, once the course started), and as such I was able to read the descriptions of nineteenth-century Stamboul that Lukas wrot with appreciation.

The story moves along at a good, steady pace, and I found it to be very much a page-turner. Then... the book ends. Even before reading anyone else's reaction I could guess this was going to be a sticking point with many readers. When Eleonora decides she's had enough of other people controlling her narrative and her life, she takes action to bring about the end of her intrigue-filled life in Stamboul on her terms. This is undoubtedly going to lead to a lot of readers saying, 'That's it?'

Well, yes, that's it. I can respect Eleonora, the strong-willed creation of Michael David Lukas' brain, and I'm willing to concede that when the central character says the story as far as she's concerned is over, then it's over, and I was happy for the ride while it lasted.