By now a regular fixture for the new year (5th time in the 10th year of this blog), I’ll briefly comment on some of the fiction novels I have read the past year, then two non-fiction ones. They are in the picture on the right (minus The accidental apprentice). Unlike last year’s list, they’re all worthy of a read.
The devil to pay by Hugh FitzGerald Ryan (2011). Although I’m not much of a history novel fan, the book is a fascinating read. It is a romanticised story based on the many historical accounts of Alice the Kyteler and her maidservant Petronilla de Midia, the latter who was the first person to be tortured and burned at the stake for heresy in Ireland (on 3 Nov 1324, in Kilkenny, to be precise). Unlike the usual histories where men play the centre stage, the protagonist, Alice the Kyteler, is a successful and rich businesswomen who had had four husbands (serially), and one thread through the story is a description of daily life in those middle ages for all people involved—rich, poor, merchant, craftsmen, monk, the English vs. Irish, and so on. It’s written in a way of a snapshot of life of the ordinary people that come and go, insignificant in the grander scheme of things. At some point, however, Alice and Petronilla are accused of sorcery by some made-up charges from people who want a bigger slice of the pie and are also motivated by envy, which brings to the foreground the second thread in the story: the power play between the Church that actively tried to increase its influence in those days, the secular politics with non-church and/or atheist people in power, and the laws and functioning legal system at the time. This clash is what turned the every-day-life setting into one that ended up having been recorded in writing and remembered and analysed by historians. All did not end well for the main people involved, but there’s a small sweet revenge twist at the end.
Black widow society by Angela Makholwa (2013). Fast-paced, with lots of twists and turns, this highly recommendable South African crime fiction describes the gradual falling apart of a secret society of women who had their abusive husbands murdered. The adjective ‘exciting’ is probably not appropriate for such a morbid topic, but it’s written in a way that easily sucks you into the schemes and quagmires of the four main characters (The Triumvirate and their hired assassin), and wanting to know how they get out of the dicey situations. Spoiler alert: some do, some don’t. See also the short extract, and there’s an ebook version for those who’d prefer that over buying a hardcopy in South Africa (if you’re nearby, you can borrow my hardcopy, of course).
De cirkel (The circle) by Dave Eggers (2013, though I read the Dutch translation of 2015). The book is portrayed as a ‘near future’ science fiction taking the business model and kind of activities and mantras of the likes of Facebook and Google “one step further”. A young and ambitious, but naïve, 20-something (Mae) happily jumps on the bandwagon of the company, called ‘the circle’, that tracks and processes more and more of all the subscribers’ respective digital footprints and adds more and more invasive technologies and apps. Gullible and external validation-seeking Mae gets wrapped up in it deeper and deeper. One mysterious colleague (Kalden) isn’t happy with the direction things are going, nor are Mae’s relatives. Pros and cons of such “transparency” are woven into the storyline, being mainly the ‘nothing to hide’ statement encapsulated in the company’s slogans “secrets are lies” and “privacy is theft” vs. one’s privacy, and some side-line topics on sheeple-followers and democracy. The ‘near future’ portrayed in the book is mostly already here, although the algorithms don’t work as well (yet) as they do in the book. One of the creepy real-life incarnations is the propaganda games, although I don’t know how well those algorithms work with respect to its intentions. Facebook’s so-called “targeted ads” is a similar attempt in that direction; so far, they’re not that much on topic and contradictory (e.g., I get FB ads for both ‘emigrating from South Africa with the family, for the kids’ and for ‘elite singles’), but it has been well-documented that it happens (e.g., here and here, and, more generally on data mining, here). The book probably would have made a bigger impact if it were to have been written 5-10 years ago in the time when most people would not have been so accustomed to it as they are now, like the frog and the boiling water fable, and if the characters would have had more depth and the arguments more comprehensive. Notwithstanding, it is a good read for a summer holiday or killing time on the plane, and the end of the story is not what you’ll expect.
The accidental apprentice by Vikas Swarup (2012). It’s a nice read, but my memory of the details is a bit sketchy by now and I lent out the book; I recall liking it more for reading a novel about India by an Indian author rather than the actual storyline, even though I had bought it for the latter reason only. The story is about a young female sales clerk in India who has to pass several ‘life tests’ somehow orchestrated by a very rich businessman; if she passes, she can become CEO of his company. The life tests are about one’s character in challenging situations and inventiveness to resolve it. Without revealing too much of how it ends, I think it would make a pleasant Bollywood or Hollywood movie.
Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (2008). Science fiction set in Cape Town. It has a familiar SF setting of a dystopian future of more technology and somehow ruled/enslaved by it, haves and have-nots divide, and a sinister authoritarian regime to suppress the masses. A few individuals try to act against it but get sucked into the system even more. It is not that great as a story, yet it is nice to read a SF novel that’s situated in the city I live in.
Muh by David Safir (2012). One of the cows in a herd on a farm in Germany finds out they’re all destined for the slaughterhouse, and the cow escapes with a few other cows and a bull to travel to the cows’ paradise on earth: India. The main part of the book is about that journey, interspersed with very obvious referrals to various religious ideas and prejudices. I bought it because I very much enjoyed the author’s other book, Mieses karma (reviewed here). Muh was readable enough—which is more than the few half-read books lying around in a state of abandon—but not nearly as good and fun as Mieses karma. On a different note, this book is probably only available in German.
Big Short by Michael Lewis (2010). The book chronicles the crazy things that happened in the financial sector that led to the inevitable crash in 2008. It reads like a suspense thriller, but it is apparently a true account of what happened inside the system, making it jaw-dropping. There are irresponsible people in the system, and there are other irresponsible people in the system. Some of them—the “misfits, renegades and visionaries”—saw it coming, and betted that it would crash, making more money the bigger the misfortunes of others. Others didn’t see it coming, due to their feckless behaviour, laziness, greed, short-sightedness, ignorance and all that so that they bought into bond/shares/mortgage packages that could only go downhill and thus lost a lot of money. For those who are not economists and conversant in financial jargon, it is not always an easy read the more complex the crazy schemes get—that was also a problem for some of the people in the system, btw—but even if you read over some of the explanations of part of a scheme, the message will be clear: it’s so rotten. A movie based on the book just came out.
17 Contradictions and the end of capitalism by David Harvey (2014). There are good book reviews of this book online (e.g., here and here), which see it as a good schematic introduction to Marxist political economy. I have little to add to that. In Harvey’s on words, his two aims of the two books were “to define what anti-capitalism might entail… [and] to give rational reasons for becoming anti-capitalist in the light of the contemporary state of things.”. Overall, the dissecting and clearly describing the contradictions can be fertile ground indeed for helping to end capitalism, as contradictions are the weak spots of a system and cannot remain indefinitely. Its chapter 8 ‘Technology, work, and human disposability’ could be interesting reading material for a social issues and profession practice course on technology and society, to subsequent have some discussion session or essay writing on it. Locally, in the light of the student protests we recently had (discussed earlier): if you don’t have enough time to read the whole book, then check out at least chapters 13 ‘Social reproduction’ and 14 ‘Freedom and domination’, and, more generally with respect to society, chapter 17 ‘The revolt of human nature: universal alienation’, the conclusions & epilogue, and a few of the foundational contradictions, notably the one on private property & common wealth and capital & labour.