• Wage of Rebellion

    Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt
    Chris Hedges

    At the end of his previous book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges was openly calling for rebellion: “There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolt or you stand on the wrong side of history.” Wages of Rebellion doesn’t miss a beat, announcing that “We live in a revolutionary moment.” What this means, in Hedges’s analysis, is that the corporate-fascist powers-that-be have lost any credibility, running the global economy into the ground while destroying the environment. As a result, the middle class have lost hope in the essential myth of progress, that they can better their own and their children’s lives. This makes an overthrow of the ruling class, and the capitalist system, necessary. Leading the revolt, however, will take a special kind of character. Revolt is ultimately an irrational act, a leap of faith, and the true rebel will only be someone possessed of “sublime madness.” But while the odds against the rebel are insurmountable, to keep on the present course is to be doomed. That said, the greatest danger may be that we are led into the wrong sort of rebellion. Revolutions have a way of going off the rails and heading in dangerous directions. Hedges is aware of the danger, but accepts the risk, believing that these are desperate times. If he’s right, then hope and fear hang in the balance.

  • Reagan: A Life

    By H. W. Brands

    On the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Ronald Reagan received a videotaped message from his former vice-president George Bush, telling him that “they’ll get you on Mt. Rushmore yet.”

    That was meant as a joke, but since then there has been a serious movement to have Reagan’s face added to the famous cliff side. And it has to be said that his craggy features, captured in stony black and white on the cover of this new biography, do have a sculpted, monumental look.

    The legacy of Ronald Reagan continues to be a lively topic of debate, but in this new political biography H. W. Brands tries for a more objective look. Reagan: A Life sticks almost entirely to primary sources, leaving arguments over their meaning and interpretation to others. This is Reagan in his own words.

    There is at least one very big problem with this. Brands’s declaration that “the most important source of information on Ronald Reagan is Reagan himself” has to be carefully qualified: “most important” does not always mean “best.” In his memoirs, letters, speeches, and even in his diaries, Reagan cultivated an image. He knew he was writing for posterity and consciously crafting advertisements for himself. He could also be forgetful, make mistakes, and fudge the truth.

    Given Brands’s approach, it’s not surprising that his version of Reagan is a very familiar, genial figure.

    But that persona was Reagan’s gift. He was a broadcaster, an actor, and a corporate pitchman before entering politics. For Brands, what drove Reagan into politics was the need for attention, an audience, a stage to perform on.

    He was, however, also a fierce ideologue, and one of his greatest political achievements was to put a happy, optimistic face on American conservatism. Barry Goldwater scared people, but Ronald Reagan made them feel comfortable with policies equally as extreme (indeed, Goldwater had occasion to challenge Reagan for going too far). Hence his title as the Great Communicator.

    But Reagan was already an old man when first elected for president, and as ideologues age they tend to experience a hardening of their ideology. With regard to the entire messy Iran-contra affair in particular Reagan was so sure that what he was doing was right, he couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. As George Shultz, his secretary of state, observed, what he believed “was true to him, although it was not reality.”

    Today, love him or hate him, Reagan is usually seen as one of the two most consequential American presidents of the twentieth century, a judgment Brands agrees with. But with the perspective of nearly thirty years since his leaving office, does this still hold true?

    It seems less so in the area of foreign affairs. Reagan is often trumpeted as the man who won the Cold War, and it’s true that resistance to what he dubbed the evil Soviet empire was one of the keynotes of his administration. But many high-ranking diplomats have since opined that he may have actually prolonged the Cold War rather than hastened its end, and his rhetoric served mainly to create a myth of American triumphalism in the conflict with negative effects still being felt today.

    Brands tries hard to play up the importance of Reagan’s summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, as a way of justifying the book’s blow-by-blow accounts of their painstaking progress. “Never in world history had the heads of two major powers of an era argued matters more portentous for so many people in so many countries across the planet. Almost literally, Reagan and Gorbachev held the fate of humanity in their hands.” But the fact is these meetings came to nothing even in the short run, and were based on false premises and marked by deceit on both sides.

    On the domestic front, Reagan levelled endless rhetoric against big government, but government grew under his watch, as did the nation’s debt. Perhaps his primary achievement was to acquiesce in the interests of the financial elite and big business, thus beginning the long ramp upwards into ever higher levels of economic inequality, the results of which are all around us.

    Barack Obama thought Reagan one of the few presidents to have “changed the trajectory” of American politics. Both domestically and abroad, however, he affected the course of events very little.

    What he did achieve, however, or at least what he signaled, was a shift in America’s mental make-up. If there was a Reagan revolution it was in how people thought about politics. This marked a dramatic change, for good or ill.

    Review first published July 25, 2015. For more on Reagan see my reviews of The Invisible Bridge and The Man Who Sold the World.

  • The Book of Woe

    The Book of Woe
    Gary Greenberg

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM) is known as the Bible of Psychiatry, and has been called by one leading light in the field (Jeffrey Lieberman, in his history of psychiatry Shrinks) perhaps “the most influential book written in the past century.” This it may well be, but Gary Greenberg, who was closely involved in the preparation of its fifth edition (published in 2013) has a more critical take, seeing it as “all clothes and no emperor.” What he means by this is that it is a nosology divorced from the reality of mental illness, a compendium of symptoms without a clear understanding of the disease (if such an understanding is even possible). The shift from mind to brain holds out promise for the further medicalization of mental illness, but the mind abides in all its elusive complexity. Mental illness will always have a cultural context and social dimension, and there will be no keeping the dirty business of business, not to mention politics, out of our collective book of woe.

  • Blind Spot

    By Laurence Miall

    We all know the story of Meursault, a French Algerian who, upon learning of his mother’s death, returns home for her funeral. The funeral leaves him unmoved, but he subsequently gets involved in a spree of sex and violence that lands him on death row.

    Blind Spot isn’t a cover version of L’Étranger, but you can still hear Camus playing in the background. Luke loses both of his parents when their car is struck by a train, and so returns to his childhood home of Edmonton to wind up their affairs with the help of his sister. He does not cry at the funeral, finding the service to be full of anonymous banality, the bodies tucked away “as if in a warehouse.” And in any event, as flashbacks make clear, he was a less than model son, and had been estranged from both parents for years. He doesn’t care much now that they’re dead.

    Much like Meursault, Luke is a “lone wolf,” someone dangerously unattached to anyone. Discovery of an extramarital affair his mother was carrying on only sours him against his parents more. He falls out with his sister, quits his job, breaks up with his girlfriend (who he was bored with anyway), and starts a rocky relationship with a grad student he seems to only want to use as a sounding board. It’s clear to everyone else what his problems are – primarily that he’s a selfish jerk – but his own failings remain a rather large blind spot.

    And so the plot goes “lurching toward a crisis,” but one less spectacular than Camus’s. We don’t execute amoralists anymore. Luke is a failed bourgeois anti-hero, spiralling into a career of middling solipsism.

    The first person narrator who unconsciously gives himself away is a tricky device to handle, but in his first novel Laurence Miall handles the job with surprising skill. Luke comes across as a pathetic figure even in his self-pity, and his sense of generational angst, inability to experience happiness in anything, and ironic flashes of self-awareness are nicely drawn. Blind Spot is the story of a minor failure, but a memorable portrait of that type, made all the more powerful by its honesty and restraint.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, October 2014.

  • The Man Who Saved Britain

    The Man Who Saved Britain
    Simon Winder

    This is a fine book with a terrible title. I’m still not sure who the man is: James Bond, or his creator Ian Fleming. In any event, neither saved Britain, whose decline in the post-Second World War years is here masochistically chronicled by someone who lived through part of the experience. What Fleming/Bond offered up was an escapist compensation for Britain’s disintegration as an imperial power and fall into global irrelevance. Fleming’s hero “comforted, entertained and distracted people who had lived with assumptions which within less than two decades became completely outmoded.” I don’t know if Winder thinks this was a good thing. It’s also too bad that this book came out in 2006, the same year the film franchise rebooted, more or less successfully, with Daniel Craig’s first Bond outing in Casino Royale. Was this just the further Hollywoodization of British culture? An expression of the City’s rise to prominence as a financial capital? Or just finding a new way of milking more money from a familiar brand? Whatever the answer, Winder’s personal journey is one worth taking even if it doesn’t fully cover the ground. I would have liked a bit more on the specifically juvenile nature of the Bond fantasy, the way it sets its hooks (as it did with Winder) in childhood. There’s something not grown up about Bond, and it’s the same something that makes him a hero for our time more than ever. Though I guess compared to that other megaselling British book-film franchise, Harry Potter, he must seem terribly old now. Our standards keep getting younger.

  • The Organized Mind

    By Daniel J. Levitin

    Daniel J. Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University and author of the bestsellers This Is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs, is clearly someone in tune with the intellectual zeitgeist. The spirit of the age seeks to explain modern life by way of the latest findings in brain research, the science of evolution, and information theory. Anyone having problems adjusting to our rapidly-changing social and cultural environment should expect experts like Levitin to have the answers.

    The Organized Mind is a science-based self-help manual. Levitin starts with the premise that information has become “the key resource” in our lives, but, due mainly to the digital revolution, we are drowning in a flood of it. Drawing on research in the fields of neuroscience and social psychology he suggests some basic rules for not only keeping your head afloat but on how to thrive in this new environment.

    After laying the groundwork by explaining what we know about basic concepts like attention, information, and memory, Levitin moves on to chapters on how to better organize our lives, and includes a test case on how to approach the problem of dealing with the diagnosis of a potentially life-threatening illness. Finally, he concludes with some words on the kinds of values and skills we should be teaching our children.

    Most of the analysis is informative and entertaining. Levitin’s fundamental principle is that we have to shift the burden of organization from our brains to the external world through the use of various high- and low-tech devices. Much of what he says is common sense in fancy dress, or old news (for example: we need to get better at understanding statistics and sifting information critically), but that is the nature of many if not all self-help books. Otherwise there is still plenty to be mulled over and enjoyed, like the analysis of the pitfalls of procrastination and the dismantling of the myth of multitasking.

    We are all living in an information age. Levitin provides an excellent guide to survive and thrive in this brave new world by getting our mental homes in order.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, August 2014.

  • China in Ten Words

    China in Ten Words
    Yu Hua

    Non-fiction isn’t a big leap for Yu Hua, as all of his novels take as their main subject matter life in contemporary China. As a primer on China, this collection of ten autobiographical essays is both lively and insightful, not to mention disarmingly honest. Growing up during the Cultural Revolution obviously had a huge impact on him, and the stories he tells of his childhood are scary in their matter-of-fact descriptions of a brutal and insane world. As for the essays themselves, expect a mix of observations that are applicable to modern life the world over (the decline of reading, urbanization, moral collapse, the way fake news has become a more informative source than traditional channels) with matters distinctive to China (in particular, the existence of a parallel, alternate or “copycat” reality and black market economy that both mirrors and comments upon official reality, or the party line). Is China itself such a mirror to the West? Which side of the mirror would be the reality, and which the image?

  • Glow

    By Ned Beauman

    It’s often been said that there’s something vegetable about culture, and that literature can only flourish where it has roots in a particular place. But hasn’t the whole concept of place been left behind in a globalized, wired, “virtual” world?

    London, for example, is a place with as rich a literary history as can be imagined, but in 2010 – an alternate, futuristic 2010 that is the setting for Ned Beauman’s Glow – it is looking more than a bit uprooted.

    The hero, Raf, is just one of a generation of young people of indeterminate origin enjoying London’s party scene (think drugs, lots and lots of synthetic drugs). Raf has a fluid work schedule because a sleep disorder has thrown his mental menstrual cycle out of whack, but mostly he parties by night and does odd jobs like freelance programming and dog-walking during the day.

    One of Raf’s clients runs a pirate radio station catering to immigrant communities, including some mysterious Burmese. This turns out to be significant because Burma is the source for a wonderful new drug named Glow and is also the place where Cherish, a dangerous girl Raf hooks up with, hails from.

    Could there be a connection between all these things, and the super-intelligent foxes appearing all over London?

    Certainly. And also connected are a gang of paramilitary types who drive around trying to stuff people into the back of a white van. The leader of this sinister bunch is someone you don’t want to mess with: “a pillar of tungsten and steaks” who makes “any normal product of the human genotype feel like a fiddly new model that had been miniaturized by some clever Japanese company to fit better into the handbags of teenage girls.”

    As Raf starts to trace even more connections, he discovers that the white-van mafia is providing the muscle for a multinational mining corporation that has an eye on using Glow as an entry into the global drug trade, destabilizing the Burmese government in the process.

    Glow is Ned Beauman’s third novel, and follows up an appearance on the longlist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. He’s a lively, imaginative writer and gives a neo-psychedelic gloss to the proceedings that makes one think of the conspiracy fiction of Thomas Pynchon.

    But it’s Pynchon 2.0. The politics have changed. Corporations rule the world and the state has withered away completely. Even for the radical guerillas we meet, political struggles are no longer the main concern: “A tyranny grew old and tired and palsied just like any other beast. But if killing a tyranny was like killing an elephant, killing a corporation was like killing a colony of sentient fungus.”

    “Unlike governments, corporations endured: deathless, efficient, self-renewing.”

    In a world of corporate colonialism traditional forms of authority, like parents or the police, are missing, and human relationships are utilitarian and brittle. War takes the form of a “ghost conflict” between alienated tribes of stakeholders and London is less a physical place than a postmodernist simulacrum, a composite photograph taken by CCTV cameras, its infrastructure cracking apart in a way analogous to the visual decomposition of a pixelated virtual doppelganger. The “two worlds . . . diverge and then converge,” slowly becoming one in decay and decrepitude.

    Glow is a book that looks in two directions. On the one hand it is grounded in London, its urban geography, night life, and hard-to-kill sense of somehow being at the center of everything. But it also looks out toward the rootless, global world of serial immigration, stateless capital, and online communities. Raf is someone with a foot in both worlds. Even in London’s familiar streets he can take a wrong turn and suddenly not have any idea where he is, or find that a chat-room correspondent is actually the guy standing next to him.

    Culture may still be vegetable, but like the drugs Raf takes it is no longer organic. Glow is a novel of its time.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star April 15, 2014.

  • The Murderer Next Door

    The Murderer Next Door
    David M. Buss

    I don’t think David Buss should worry about the theory of homicide he advances here – that it is behaviour adapted over time to deal with specific problems encountered during evolutionary battles for reproduction and survival – being used as a defence for murder. But I do regret how the extent to which the behavioural evolution movement has reduced human beings to such miserable creatures. Accept enough of the argument about the dominance of our selfish genes and you have to wonder at the meanness and triviality of our lives.

  • Plague

    By C. C. Humphreys

    England in the seventeenth century was a wild and dangerous place, making it a perfect setting for the latest historical thriller from C. C. Humphreys.

    The year is 1665 and the story opens with gentleman-thief and ex-cavalier Captain Coke being pursued by bounty hunter and ex-roundhead Pitman. Pitman, a former member of the Ranter sect turned Quaker, has a growing family to feed, and the price on Coke’s head goes up considerably after one of the highwayman’s robberies is derailed by the intervention of a bloody-minded religious fanatic with a fixation on the end of days. Meanwhile, back in London, actress Sarah Chalker (a friend of a friend of Coke’s) is drawn into a web of violence that eventually extends all the way up to the royal family. She will need the assistance of both Coke and Pitman it she wants to survive.

    The novel comes on like a theatre piece, complete with prefatory Dramatic Personae. Among these, Captain Coke is well cast as the hero, his flamboyant dress and habit of smoothing his moustache making him appear like “something off the stage.” Even more than this, however, Plague feels like the screenplay for a buddy picture: one that has thief and thief-taker joining forces to take down a vicious serial killer in the atmospheric setting of London’s dirty, plague-stricken streets.

    Humphreys does a great job evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of a labyrinthine London, and makes good practical use of history throughout. That is to say, it’s not a novel that feels thick with research but one that wears its reading lightly, employing history for dramatic effect. Particularly well handled is the fallout from the religious diversity that sprouted up during the Civil War.

    There are some improbabilities in the plot, but the action-packed pace is such that they scarcely have time to register, and the finale comes with a nicely executed twist. Overall, the mix of plague and puritans with the flavour of popcorn makes for an entertaining treat.

    Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2014.