Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts

Monday, 16 May 2022

What makes states: walls and writing

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States An acquaintance suggested James C. Scott's Against the Grain might be of interest. We'd been discussing the benefits of small, local forms of self-government versus the large state. I'd recommended Paint Your Town Red, and she countered with Against the Grain.

The author is an American political scientist and his book investigates the formation of the earliest states. It covers the period 6,500 BCE to 1,600 BCE in the region of ""Mesopotamia, and in particular the “southern alluvium” south of contemporary Basra... heartland of the first “pristine” states in the world." I do like a history book, and although this is not my usual period, I thought the theory was intriguing; that the establishment of these early states was largely a coercive enterprise. Scott admits there's very little supporting evidence for this because "a great deal of archaeology and history throughout the world is state-sponsored and often amounts to a narcissistic exercise in self-portraiture", whereas if "you built with wood, bamboo, or reeds, you were much less likely to appear in the archaeological record".

I had no preconceptions about the subject, other than supporting the idea that small, local government is often preferable to large state polity. Here's what I took away.

  1. Like other species such as beavers, ants, and bees, hunter-gatherers at some point began to modify their environment, so that "by 5,000 BCE there were hundreds of villages in the Fertile Crescent cultivating fully domesticated grains as their main staple".
  2. The move towards domestication may have been brought about by a sort of 'ice-age', the "cold snap of the Younger Dryas (10,500–9,600 BCE)", which reduced "the abundance of wild plants". This theory is "hotly contested in terms of both evidence and logic".
  3. Why it happened is less important than why it became entrenched, especially as domestication led to an increase in diseases. In addition, one might question how the early state came to dominate these centres of population. Were walls built for protection or confinement? Did writing develop as a means to record crop production and taxation?
  4. As the state grew, it became necessary to 'enslave' people to maintain production for food and tax purposes. Scott quotes Ester Boserup: "when population becomes so dense that land can be controlled it becomes unnecessary to keep the lower classes in bondage; it is sufficient to deprive the working class of the right to be independent". Plus ça change. 
  5. Early states often broke down due to disease, destruction of the surrounding eco-systems, wars and over-exploitation.
  6. Barbarians have had a bad rap. A great many were not primitives. Rather they were "nomadic pastoralists" who required "sedentary communities as depots of manpower and revenue as well as trading outlets".
For those whose curiosity isn't sated by the book, Scott includes a large number of notes and a bibliography of suggested further reading. There's an index too. It was an easy read, if somewhat repetitive, but that's not a bad thing. The problem is in rating it. It's well written, an intriguing thesis, and I do like history, but this period is too long ago for me and too full of conjecture.

Thursday, 24 February 2022

Antigone, Iphis, Electra and more

Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths It was eighteen months after reading a review of Antigone Rising before I bought it. I'd forgotten what had drawn my attention to the book and assumed it was just a general interest in the Greek myths or perhaps a recent book club choice, Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie's modern retelling of Antigone. So it was something of a surprise, a pleasant one, to find it was actually about how those myths are being appropriated by feminists and non-binary people in the 21st century.

Friday, 11 February 2022

Living through a period when politicians don’t merely lie

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia When Boris Yeltsin became President of the new Russia, I was working for a bunch of London-based management consultants who were looking for opportunities to provide advice to the new Russian entrepreneurs. Our strategy was to employ two young Russians. The man introduced himself. He took my hand, bowed slightly, and I swear I heard his heels click. As for the young woman, she was terrified of flying, something of a disadvantage for a jet-setting consultant. Throughout a flight she would grip the arm rests but as soon as the Captain announced our descent she reluctantly let go and fished in her handbag for lipstick and mirror. No matter how terrible the situation, she told me, no Russian woman would ever allow herself to be seen without make up.

Other than a handful of students, that's been the limit of my personal knowledge of Russians.

Monday, 17 January 2022

Our pockets not picked in Paris

This is a true story. The events described took place in Paris in 2018 and are narrated by The Man. Sometimes he thinks he's in a Philip Marlowe novel.

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid August, with the queues not moving and a look of resignation on the face of The Dame. I was wearing my navy-blue long shorts with leg pockets, white polo shirt, black sandals and no socks. I was cool, clean, bearded and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed traveler ought to be. I was crossing the City of Lights.

Saturday, 8 January 2022

Do I like this?

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery Art Objects is a book for readers who relish language, its rhythm and its sounds. In other words, the art of the written word. In it Jeanette Winterson explores the idea of literature as art in a series of essays, using examples of the literature which she admires: the modernists, especially Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein.

I did wonder if I'd get much out of the book, since the only reading I have in common with Winterson is Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Winterson's own books, and Shakespeare. But I didn't let it put me off, and neither should you. This is a book that oozes love of literature.

Monday, 6 December 2021

Permissive, modern, challenging, gappy, frustrating, moving, attenuated, beautiful, ambiguous, resourceful, provoking, necessary. Yours.

This Is Shakespeare Here's a book for people who want to know more about Shakespeare but need a bit of guidance before sitting down to watch or read a whole play. Emma Smith has chosen 20 of Shakespeare's works, briefly explains the plots and investigates the themes. More importantly she teases out what it is about them that continues to make them relevant to theatre-workers and theatre-goers today.

Although written by a Shakespeare scholar, the writing style is accessible and engaging. Each chapter discusses one of the Bard's plays, but there's no need to read them in order. You can pick the book up and delve right into a comedy or tragedy that you know, then investigate those you may not be familiar with later. I started with favourite movie adaptations: Sir Ian McKellen as Richard III, Ben Whishaw as Richard II, Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew aka Ten Things I Hate About You or Kiss Me Kate.

One of the most memorable chapters dealt with A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I'd never seen and knew little about. I'd thought it was just a fairy story, but it turns out that it "really isn’t a play for children". I've subsequently enjoyed the 1999 film version with Kevin Kline as Bottom. Other adaptations are available.

Like many, my introduction to Shakespeare was at school, but when I studied Twelfth Night aged 15 its cross-dressing characters merely seemed to be a plot device to set up some humorous misunderstandings. Now, in a world of LGBTQ+ rights the play takes on a new relevance. This is the value of Emma Smith's book. It shows how over the past 500 years, for each generation Shakespeare "can resonate in particular circumstances, and how we can bring to the plays our own emotional, political, ideological and creative energies."

More stuff

Friday, 12 November 2021

I read it in the Daily Mail so it must be true

We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent This week saw yet another report of university students banning a speaker for remarks made during a debate. It was a perfect opportunity for John Cleese (Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star) to gain some publicity for his upcoming documentary on "cancel culture". The media is full of such voices, incensed by "woke rules". We Need New Stories shines a light on such outrage and exposes the hidden agendas.

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Take back control of your town

Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too If you want something done, do it yourself. After "forty years of neoliberalism having gone unchecked and unchallenged" in the UK, what can people living in depressed areas do to counteract "post-industrial neglect and its deeply damaging social and economic impact"? Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones have some suggestions in this book.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

No ordinary woman

The Hard Way Up: The Autobiography of Hannah Mitchell, Suffragette and Rebel Hannah Mitchell describes herself as a "very ordinary woman" in her autobiography The Hard Way Up. The fact that she's managed to write a fascinating account of working-class life in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries belies that description. Her story is incredibly uplifting and an example of what one can achieve with determination.

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Too many books, not enough time

The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts There are things that happened to you when you were a teenager, things you had no control over at the time, things that changed the course of your life. For example, that time when the headmaster told you your choice of A-Levels didn't fit with his timetable, so you had to choose different subjects. You made the most of it of course, changed your expectations, reassessed your career options, and achieved success nonetheless.

Years later you find the time to do that thing you wanted to do aged sixteen and you discover David Lodge's book, The Art of Fiction

Friday, 2 October 2020

Parson Peters - a life of dishonesty

The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking The word parson, like matron, brings to mind saucy Carry On films and salacious newspaper headlines. So it was with plenty of nudge-nudging and wink-winking that I settled on the sofa to read Adam Sisman's The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking.

The Parson of the title is Robert Peters, and the book follows his career as he repeatedly tries to take up positions at academic and religious institutions around the world, using forged documents and bogus qualifications.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Period Piece: charmingly fearful of the lower classes

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood It's been difficult keeping Book Club going since March. Some members returned to their native land for lockdown, and most of our group are technologically challenged so Zoom is out. You can't imagine the relief when the rules eased and Sian invited the remaining four of us round to hers to discuss her book choice, Gwen Ravarat's Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood. Much as I love The Man, I was euphoric with the prospect of finally seeing someone other than my partner and somewhere other than the walls of our apartment.

There was me, Sian, Bernard, Marco, and Susan, white bread smeared with salted butter and topped with smoked salmon, and a glass of white wine, which always helps lubricate the discussion.

So what about the book?

Monday, 27 July 2020

The culmination of a lifetime of struggle

A Cure For Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage In the Prologue to A Cure for Gravity Joe Jackson describes an eventful 1975 gig in Basingstoke. He follows up with musings on where his love of music came from, his first musical memories (The Runaway Train, and Exodus), his working class upbringing in Portsmouth and first attempts at gigging. And then, aged sixteen, he has to choose what to study for his A-Levels. It was an important decision, because what you chose to study in 1970s England could limit your further education choices and consequently what sort of job or career you ended up in. I should know. My own plans had to change for the sake of the headmaster's timetable. I discussed my future options with Mum, as did Joe Jackson, whose mother suggested he become a librarian. His reply? "A librarian! I might as well be buried alive."

Sunday, 21 June 2020

The decline of Bolton

The Town That Vanished Ian Robinson's The Town that Vanished uses the Mass Observation Worktown investigation of the late 1930s "as a frame of reference for exploring why industrial towns like Bolton disappeared." It is a descriptive study rather than an academic attempt to answer a research question. The author's intention is also to "introduce the Worktown project to people who have little or no knowledge of it", primarily Boltonions.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

How were the Nazis possible?

Defying Hitler: A Memoir "What is history, and where does it take place?" Sebastian Haffner's book isn't concerned with the type of history we learn at school. Great leaders take small roles in the narrative because "decisions that influence the course of history arise out of the individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals." Defying Hitler is the memoir of one such individual and "offers direct answers to two questions [-] 'How were the Nazis possible?’ and ‘Why didn’t you stop them?’"

Monday, 4 May 2020

Who knows what will work?

Adventures in the Screen Trade Before you think of getting into the movie business, do yourself a favour and read William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade. Although it was written in the early 1980s, it rings true about what is generally known about the industry today.

It's split into three parts. The first part describes the industry in terms of its key players and elements. Stars "live in a world in which no one disagrees with them", agents "are not noted for human kindness", but above all, "not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work".

Friday, 17 April 2020

Deprivation of liberty is punishment all by itself

A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner Incompetent, inadequate, spiteful, indifferent - these are just a few of the words that come to mind when considering the management of UK prisons as described in Chris Atkins's journal, A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner.

As the title explains, the book is an account of the author's experience in prison after being convicted of tax fraud. It's limited to the first 9 months of his sentence, which he spends in HMP Wandsworth. Urged on by some of his friends, he recorded his experience with the hope that his "unvarnished account will provide a strong argument for urgent prison reform".

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Everyone can be exploitable in moments of weakness

Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists Going Dark is the result of Julia Ebner's "personal research" into how extremists use social media, online forums, trolling and hacking in order to radicalise individuals.

Six parts deal with different stages in the radicalisation process: recruitment, socialisation, communication, networking, mobilisation, and attack. A final section looks at potential developments over the next five years and then suggests action we might take in 2020.

Monday, 24 February 2020

How do you define working class?

Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class "How can you call yourself working class when you live on the French Riviera?" Good question, and one I've been asked several times. Maybe I'm no longer working class? Perhaps the Dead Ink publication Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class will provide an answer.

The book is a collection of 23 essays, written "in response to a tweet that, in the aftermath of the EU referendum, requested someone produce a 'State of the Nation' book of working class voices". But how to define the working class? The editor tells us that the authors "self-identify as working class or [as] from a working class background".

Monday, 30 December 2019

I loathed Mexico

The Lawless Roads Graham Greene "was commissioned to write a book on the religious situation" in Mexico in 1938, which resulted in The Lawless Roads travel memoir, as well as inspiring his novel The Power and the Glory.

"I loathed Mexico" admits Greene, and after reading of his experiences it's no surprise. He travels by bus, train, boat and plane, but most memorably over the mountains by mule. He stays on the border, visits Mexico City, and promised himself to spend Holy Week "in Catholic Las Casas, to see how it was observed in a city where the churches were open - so I was told - but the priests not allowed inside." His travels are filled with mosquitos, black beetles, discomfort and dysentery, and yet on his return home Greene tried to remember his hatred. Like many travellers he finds "a bad time over is always tinged with regret."