Categories: books, review

Bookreview: Prince of Marshes

Prince of Marshes:
And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

book by Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart is a multilingual (among others: Farsi, Arabic) young Scottish diplomat, and adventurer. He quit his job in the foreign service (postings in Jakarta, Iran and elsewhere) in his mid-twenties, to walk across Afghanistan (he wrote a book about that too, Places in Between). When the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is formed after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he decides to offer his services to the American/British command in Baghdad. He gets posted as deputy governor of the remote south-eastern province of Maysan, on the border of Iran.

And so the young 30-year-old Etonian (I assumed he was Etonian throughout the book, good to have that confirmed on the ol’ Wikipedia) does his very best to bring his modern take on a kinder, gentler, democratic colonial rule. He achieves some success, building schools, refurbishing hospitals, setting up elections, diffusing violence, causing violence, doling out cash, keeping security, losing security, making jobs and promises, and delivering on some. And navigating his way through the maze of ethnic, religious, political and military players in the Iraqi province: the Iranian-backed factions and their militias, the ex-Baathists, the sundry tribes and sheiks and their militias, the Islamists (moderate and radical) and their militias, the Sadrists and their militias, and even an old Communist named Abu Ivan.

The prose is elegant, the anecdotes snappy, moving, funny and sad; and the arc of the narrative ultimately tragic. Stewart does well to avoid any particular slant on things, presents the facts as he sees them, and leaves the reader to make judgments (mostly, anyway; he leaves little doubt what he thinks of the Italian military).

And yet, in some ways, the smart, young, adventurous Rory Stewart is a good poster-child for the better-meaning ideals behind the invasion. What emerges is a study in modern arrogance: not the aggressive arrogance of the cowboy invaders, but possibly the more dangerous implicit arrogance of those-who-know-best-with-everyone’s-best-interest-at-heart. The arrogance of certainty that comes with the moral status of liberal demorcat. The updated colonialists aren’t much on firing squads, secret police informants, or torture (or at least, they don’t want to be); they much prefer democratic councils, defense of the rights of minorities and women; local poetry magazines; irrigation projects, and job fair. Which is the better colonialist isn’t clear. What’s clear is that in Iraq, neither was all that successful.

Thirty-year-old Rory Stewart, despite his Etonian/Oxford education, his talent for languages, and his tireless work in the service of the high ideals of democracy, openness government, human rights, could not get these Iraqis to do what he wanted them to do: to form a stable, inclusive government to rule their province. The forces pulling them – their history, religion, geography, foreign influence, philosophy – were too great.

Stewart does well to describe the flaws of the occupation and the CPA – frustrations with central decisions by Bremmer and staff in Baghdad, problems with too much money or too little, inexperienced policy-makers, arrogant decision-makers, and all the rest.

But you can’t help get the sense that the CPA, even with a flawlessly-implemented occupation, was bound to have problems, probably insurmountable. The overwhelming sense is that, as much as the Iraqi’s didn’t like Saddam, there were few in the country who wanted to buy what the CPA was selling, even from such charming salesmen as Rory Stewart.

My rating: 4.0 stars

Categories: books, review

bookreview: This is your Brain on Music

This Is Your Brain on Music

book by daniel levitin

What a fantastic book. Introduced by music theory for dummies (what, exactly, are harmony, pitch, rhythm, timbre, major and minor keys, etc etc … I vaguely knew, but couldn’t have told you. I still don’t quite know, but it was all explained wonderfully well for my music-interested, but music-theory-challeneged mind). Followed by discussions of neuroscience, brain function, evoutionary biology, always circling back to music, and how and why we relate to it.

Written clearly, with entertaining vignettes (Levitin, now a prof of of Cognitive Psychology at McGill University, was a music producer in the 1970s, for bands including the Clash, and Blue Oyster Cult), this is a wonderful exploration of the latest theories how the mind works (both psychology and neurophysics), and why music moves us so. Wonderful wonderful stuff.

My rating: 4.0 stars

Categories: books, review

Bookreview: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash

Book by Neal Stephenson

Written in 1992, Snow Crash is a cyberpunk visionary work, presaging Second Life and other online multiplayer games, among other things.

The plot: pizza delivery man, hacker, amateur swordsman, freelance intel gatherer and Metaverse legend Hiro Protagonist stumbles on a virus – a binary image that looks like the old television snowscreens – that infects not computers, but hackers; and tries to save the day. It’s a fantastic satire of the USofA, where the country has broken down into autonomous corporate sovereign entities, who open franchulates in the burbclaves, with the Narcolumbians vying for citizens with Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, and Uncle Enzo’s Nova Scicilia, as well as Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates (among others).

There’s all sorts of cool stuff in here, including skateboarding Kouriers, who harpoon speeding vehicles, to get where they are going; meditations on Sumerian religion and the origins of lagnuage; psychopathic Aleuts; Kanata swords; thrash metal; religious and nuclear apocalypse. Again: among other things.

Not just candy (though it was candy); well worth a read.

My rating: 3 stars

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Categories: art, books, review, writing

52 Books – Q1 Progress Report

I’m trying to read 52 books in 2007, a book a week. I’ve still got a little cushion, but I’m slowing down. Been lucky, with lots of good books. Here’s a list, with a one-line review, link to more detailed review. Starred books are particularly good.

52 Books in 2007 – Q1 Results

  1. *A Clockwork Orange (f), by Anthony Burgess
    Wonderfully inventive, dark satire about a hyper-violent future.
  2. Kafka on the Shore (f), by Haruki Murakami (review)
    Disappointing outing, tho still worth a read for Murakami fans.
  3. The God Delusion (nf), by Richard Dawkins (review)
    Cheap, lazy book by a once-great author. Please: more science, less pop psych and bad philosophy.
  4. *Programming the Universe (nf), by Seth Lloyd (review)
    Is the universe a big computer? Fascinating book.
  5. *Lullabies for Little Criminals (f), by Heather O’Neill (review)
    Beautiful novel about kid growing up in the skanky streets of Montreal.
  6. A Beginner’s Guide to Anarchism (nf), by Ruth Kinna (review)
    Decent intro to anarchism, but missing key connections, especially to the hacker world.
  7. Now is the Hour (f), by Tom Spanbauer (review for Books in Canada)
    Coming-of-age-in-the-small-town-60s story of a teen figuring out he might be gay.
  8. The Human Stain (f), by Philip Roth (review)
    Slick and assured writing by a great American novelist, lacked something, not sure what.
  9. Prochaine Episode (f), by Hubert Aquin (review)
    Twisted tale of a Quebecois spy, or a writer, or a lunatic, or all three.
  10. King John of Canada (f), Scott Gardiner (review for Books in Canada)
    Canada gets a king. Satire ensues.
  11. *The Wealth of Networks (nf), by Yochai Benkler (review)
    The text to read for a comprehensive and detailed study of the open movement in all its guises.
  12. Slow Man (f), J.M. Coetzee (review)
    Man gets hit by car, loses leg. Metaphysical musing, good Coetzee; not great Coetzee.
  13. Crazy about Lili (f), William Weintraub (review)
    Fun fluff about a young McGill student in the 1940s, and his friendship with stripper Lili L’Amour (a fictionalized Lili St-Cyr).
  14. America at the Crossroads (nf), Francis Fukayama (review)
    Maybe the neocons were a bunch of idiots after all. So says a former neocon.
  15. *A Complicated Kindness (f), Miriam Toews (review)
    Mennonite girl smokes pot and screws. Funny, sad, and fantastic.

Categories: books, review

BookReview: Crazy about Lili

Crazy about Lili

Book by William Weintraub

A light fluffy fantasy about a young McGill student and would-be writer in late-1940s Montreal, who strikes up a friendship and potential romance with the infamous Lili L’Amour, the great Texas-born, Montreal striptease artiste.

L’Amour is based on Lili St. Cyr, the burlesque icon, and many other real-life characters and locales are weaved into the tale, by Weintraub, writer of the fine exploration of Montreal’s seamier history, City Unique.

Good fun, especially worthwhile for the historical details of the underside of Montreal’s night clubs and characters in the 1940s.

My rating: 2 stars

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Categories: books, politics, review

BookReview: America at the Crossroads

America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy

Book by Francis Fukayama

It’s a relief to read at least one (semi) mea culpa from a leading cheerleader for the policies that lead to War in Iraq, and the catastrophe that has been the Bush presidency.

Francis Fukayama is the famous writer of the famous article/book, End of History, in which liberal democracy and free markets triumph over evil, everyone gets rich and happy, and the days of war and disagreements fade into the distant memory of unenlightened times.

Fukayama is also a founding member of the Project for a New American Century and a signatory of their Statement of Principles, along with 24 other smart cookies, such as: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Donald Kagan, I. Scooter Libby, Jeb Bush, Norman Podhoretz, and Paul Wolfowitz. The Project argues for a “Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity,” and was a gathering place for the intellectual leaders and policy implementers of our very own actual New American Century, the one that looks a little less shiny than the one predicted by its proponents (including Fukayama) a decade ago. So Fukayama had front row seats, as a champion theoretician, to the ideological experiment whose results we’ll have to live with for the next 50 years, at least. The movement has collapsed, but we’ve not heard a peep from the rest of Fukayama’s ideological buddies – except the occasional claim that the ideas were good, the implementation was at fault.

Fukayama’s reckoning, a little late mind you, is refreshing. He’s realized that ignoring 5,000 years of human history is perhaps a bad way to run the only empire left in the world. Unless, that is, you want to run it into the ground.

Still, the book smacks of disingenuousness: it really wasn’t his fault after all, his intentions were pure. And Fukayama’s prescription for “realistic Wilsonianism” (essentially: maybe we should work within international laws and frameworks after all) is a bit of a farce. Sort of like a back seat driver who keeps yelling at you that you are going too slowly; then gets behind the wheel, speeds insanely for a few miles, loses control, smashes into an oncoming truck; and then, while recovering in the hospital tells you: I’ve decided that robust cautiousness is the way you should drive from now on.

But at least it’s 77% honest. Errors and disasters are cataloged. Reasons are given. Mistakes (sort-of) owned up to. And it offers great insights into the movement and minds that lead us where we find ourselves today. In one big mess.

Thanks to Francis Fukayama and all his ex-buddies.

My rating: 3 stars

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Categories: art, books, review

BookReview: A Complicated Kindness

A Complicated Kindness

Book by Miriam Toews

Wonderful book about a young girl growing up in a Mennonite town in Manitoba. Who knew Menonnite teens smoked pot and had sex and were so funny? Sad, hilarious, excellent.

Finely-wrought study of how social constraints can slowly tear people apart.

Good to see more CanLit shaking the old shackles. Along with Heather O’Neill, Toews has renewed my hopes for Canadian writing.

My rating: 4 stars

BookReview: Wealth of Networks

The Wealth of Networks

Book by Yochai Benkler

A comprehensive and exhaustive book about the open movement (free software, wikipedia, blogging, flickr, creative commons, crowdsourcing etc) of which LibriVox is an enthusiastic member. Not for the faint-hearted, this book is dense, big and academic in approach, but refreshingly rigourous, with significant attention paid to law, economics, and history as well as softer moral/ethical considerations. The history of radio (fascinating) & laws around who can broacast what; net neutrality; patatent law and innovation; SETI@home; copyright law; and much more all get detailed treatment.

This book really brings everything together, and for anyone serious about collaborative approach to solving problems, this one is a must. Especially for you academics out there. But everyone else should read it too.

You can get the book online here, in pdf, html, or wiki formats … or you can even buy it at amazon. There’s an extensive wiki too, to contribute to the project, here.

My rating: 5 stars

Categories: books, review

Bookreview: Slow Man

Slow Man

Book by J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee writes the way writing ought to be written. He is spare and economical, and his writing has a moral force for my money unequalled in contemporary writing in English. Slow Man is something of a departure for the usual realist Coetzee, something of a metaphysical mind-bender. Paul Rayment is a 60-year-old who suffers, in the first scene of the book, a bicycle accident, which results in the amputation of his leg; and he begins to fall in love with his private nurse, the hard-headed Croatian Marijana. Eventually novelist Elizabeth Costello (a character in Coetzee’s previous novel of the same name) appears in Paul’s life somewhat mysteriously: either Costello wishes to write a novel, with Paul as the basis for a character in the book; or Paul is in fact a figment of Costello’s literary imagination. In either case, the two don’t get along well: Paul upset at the intrusion of Costello into his life; Costello annoyed by Paul’s unsuitability (cautious, reserved, resigned) as the hero of a novel.

As always, Coetzee writes with a moral force, and he packs an enormous amount of weight into his deceptively simple writing. Paul and Elizabeth Costello struggle primarily with mortality, age, and the elusiveness of love; the indifference beauty has for the ugly.

This was a looser novel than most of Coetzees works, not quite the smooth offering of books like Disgrace and Foe. And he’s left his usual territory – South Africa – for Australia, where the questions are of a more intimate and personal nature, rather than the heavy weight of moral history that Coetzee struggles with in other novels.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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Categories: art, books, montreal, review

BookReview: Next Episode

Next Episode

book by Hubert Aquin

This is the second Aquin book I’ve read, both in English (for shame), and both left me with the same sense of wonderment at the confused brilliance from which they eminated. Next Episode is a slim book about (“about” seems such an imprecise preposition to attach to this book) a young Quebecois man in a hospital for the criminally insane, who writes a novel about a Quebecois spy, kidnapper, murderer in Lausanne. The narratives keep crossing paths, as one character twists into another. Good, challenging stuff.

My rating: 3.0 stars