17 February 2011

Okay, this year, I'm going to try to review the books I read as I go, in roughly monthly blocks. This will force me to write more, and hopefully improve.

  1. Stendhal, The Red and the Black

It's a classic French trope that a woman, trapped in her loveless marriage, falls passionately in love, whether real or imagined, with a totally inappropriate man and ultimately ends in tragedy. This brilliant novel takes that trope, flips it over and takes the reader into some rather unusual territory.

Instead of the woman, the Red and the Black focuses on the boy, in this case, a poor un who has everything, smarts, looks, wit, bearing, albeit everything but the one thing he desires most of all – money. What does a poor boy have to do to get ahead in 19th century France? The fast track to success for a kid with book skills is to dissimulate a look of sincere piety and climb the ladder up the Catholic church as fast as he can. The novel provides a detailed analysis of the inner workings of the Catholic Church, from how young boys are inducted into the church to how money flows out from Paris to the backwater regions of France. Back-stabbing church politics and secular patronage provide a rich and varied backdrop to the otherwise bodice-ripping story-line.

The supreme irony is that this path of religious piety will land him into the clutches of a parade of unhappy and/or unfulfilled women, for whom nothing is hotter than a young gorgeous well-educated Catholic novice. In Julian Sorel, we have a most delicious anti-hero, a narcissistic aesthete who means well but ultimately is not quite in control of his destiny as he would like. His ambition consumes him but he does not have the sangfroid to handle the hot desire of the women who suffocate his life. The prose is an exhilarating roller coaster oscillating from the wildest melodrama to the most exacting analysis of internal church politics. It is indeed a novel that deals with both the Red and the Black.

  1. Steig Larson, The Girl who kicked the Hornet's Nest

Why has this Swedish thriller captured the book reading public? It's certainly not for the quality of the prose. There are for example several pages that describe the technical workings of the Swedish constitution. Yet if you wade through this turgid stuff, there is a compelling vision of the world, a world where good guys can thrive in a flawed system, who, through their strength of will and single-handedly bring down evil conspiracies that have been raging for decades.

What gets you though is the scale and intricacies of the evil conspiracies that Larson imagines, conspiracies that will be uncovered by the protagonist, Larson's doppelganger, the middle-aged and slightly-pudging investigative reporter Mikheal Blomkist who inexplicably yet inexorably seduces women of all shapes sizes and ages.

Alas, you can't get any more flat descriptions than those in the book. Despite the poor prose characterizations, the cast of characters is a rather fun scrooby-doo bunch ofpolicemen, evil agents, secret agents, counter agents and hackers. The playful nod towards technology places the thriller squarely in the 21st century. And of course, the book contains that one character of note, Lisabeth Sander, a sexual cipher, victim and revenge artist, brutally violent at times, supernaturally skilled, and the ultimate deux ex machina of plot, through her complete mastery of the connected world.

Still, the third book is somewhat less compelling than the other two, mainly because the violation of the Swedish constitution is hardly the most visceral crime that one could encounter.

  1. Neil Howe and William Strauss, The Fourth Turning

This is, in my mind, one of the great works of sociology. I am re-reading again so I won't write much about it. All I can say is that it posits a compelling theory of political economy through a mechanism of generational change that repeats every 4 generations.

Written in 1997, it made a distinct prediction that, due to generational patterns setup over 80 years ago, a major internal collapse in the United States was due to occur in 2005 +/- 5 years. I have read of no other theory that has made a prediction of this accuracy anywhere else.

  1. Simon Fairlie, Meat: A Benign Extravagance

I read this book on the recommendation of Monbiot, one of the great journalist of our times. This book is that rare beast, a sober and fair assessment of a topic that deeply touches the way we live. It is so good that Monbiot claims that it completely changed his thinking about the topic: the sustainability of eating meat. What is mind-boggling is the scope of the book, Simon Fairlie has thought deeply about the raising of livestock from every level of detail, from individual farming methods to the effects of the entire economy of different livestock farming methods.

The book has a political purpose as it advocates a certain way to arrange our agriculture. Whilst Fairlie's proposal doesn't strike me as workable, his arguments are beautifully argued and must be taken with serious consideration.

It is a book that is prepared to get dirty with statistics. I skimmed over much of the statistics since I was not interested in mastering the field. But the book, especially the first half, ranges through so much interesting territory, from the history of animal rearing across cultures through the ages, to the biochemistry of different livestock. If you eat meat, and you want to understand how it works, this books is a must read.

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