CATEGORY: Literary POLEMICS

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Roth produces an absorbing fiction based on the scenario that President F D Roosevelt is defeated in the 1942 US election to a pro German fascist by the name of Charles A Lindbergh, a one-time US ace pilot and all round American hero. But when Lindbergh stops being a willing patsy for the Nazis, a full blown fascist coup is orchestrated in the United States and all the bigoted fascists and anti-Semites come crawling out of the woodwork. It’s a chilling novel for the general reader but doubly, trebly chilling if you happen to be of Jewish persuasion or descent – be it orthodox, liberal, secular or atheist. Anti-Semites tend not to distinguish.

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Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen

Here’s the situation. Anyone who stands up to corporate America and its giant military-industrial complex, be it the Occupy Movement, or individuals like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Naomi Klein or Michael Moore, deserve our respect and support. Similarly when a country stands up to US aggression we instinctively cheer them on. Cuba, Vietnam and more recently Venezuela and Ecuador all have honourable records in this respect. These days however, with the corporate global economy getting its tentacles around the neck of every nation, only the really big economies can dare to take an independent stand.

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Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers Yellow Birds is the perfect antidote to all that toxic nonsense emanating from and around the Help For Heroes slogan. Whatever the US and UK servicemen and women returning from the bloody imperialist interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan may be, they are certainly not heroes. Yellow Birds makes that perfectly clear. Seen from the Afghan and Iraqi perspective they are probably seen as heartless mercenaries in the pay of corporate America. Seen from an Anglo-Saxon perspective they might charitably be regarded as unemployed and unemployable youngsters who naively join the armed forces looking for something more engaging than their dour and demeaning lives in the post-industrial wastelands of Britain and America.

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Transition by Iain Banks

No matter how clever, how ingenious a sci-fi writer may be, and Iain Banks was unarguably amongst the more adroit, they cannot, no matter how hard they might try, escape from human considerations and preoccupations. It cannot be otherwise, nor should it be. For the point of art, all art, including even that of science fiction writing, is to throw light on the human condition in as imaginative and provocative way as possible. It is something of a credit to our species that we continue to dream up ever more inventive ways of doing so. But when all the artistic tricks and gimmicks are stripped away we are invariably left with the usual human stuff; power struggles, empire building, insecurities, and a fear and intolerance of the other.

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The Future by Al Gore

This eminently readable text could very easily have been titled, Common Sense for All, and could have been written by any number of well-meaning fellows of the Ed Milliband, Will Hutton, Ja Hoon Chang variety. In fact anyone who broadly ascribes to a more egalitarian, more rational, more socially responsible world, will find little to disagree with in Al Gore’s Future. Gore makes his thesis seem like good old common sense. However, and it’s a whopping big however, the problem with common sense is that it unwittingly enshrines the status quo and singularly fails to isolate the central dialectic at play. Throughout Gore’s six pronged thesis is a single underlying assumption: that of the achievability of a rational and sustainable capitalism. It’s the very same assumption underlying all the various pronouncements by Milliband, Hutton and Ha-Joon Chang.  Read More…

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Letham

Letham has produced for his readers an intoxicating cocktail of 20th century New York, complete with communist Jews, Black cops, Irish folkies, hippy Quakers, city communes, Sandinistas and a whole load of the usual Freudian stuff to keep us amused. Khrushchev is in there, as is Bob Dylan, dementia and homosexual professors on the prowl. East Germany looms large at some point. Guilts and recriminations are there by the bucket load: mother-daughter and estranged father-daughter tensions that transcend time and place. The prose is invariably clever, sometimes too clever, but that is probably more an indictment of this reader than the author.

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Captain Phillips: But Who Are The Real Pirates?

There is no doubting that this is a real nail-biting highjack thriller of a film. But there is equally no doubting that a real opportunity has been squandered to explore the geo-politics of the region. So in the end we are presented with the bad guys, those Somalian pirates seizing and demanding ransom from the law abiding seamen, and the good guys in the shape of the US Navy Seals and other god fearing US military agencies. The good guys naturally win the day with the help of some state of the art technology and the bad guys are either dead or serving time in a US penitentiary.

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Love and Capital by Mary Gabriel

An outstanding piece of research; ambitious and sympathetic to its subject but by no means sycophantic. The life-long work of Karl Marx to unravel the inner workings of capital and to strip away the more fanciful and utopian notions of socialism are more than adequately dealt with by Gabriel, yet Marx and his family are not deified in any way. The self-absorbed, even self-obsessed nature of Marx, probably essential to any pioneer in any field, is carefully unravelled. But equally important are the descriptions of the roles played by Engels, Jenny Marx, their three daughters and their respective spouses.

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Stoner by John Williams

If you like your novels bleakly existential, then this one is for you. It is every bit as dark as Camus’s The Outsider. Somewhat bizarrely though, every page turns out to be an absolute delight, though I must confess the last chapter was so gut-wrenchingly depressing that it took an extreme effort simply to turn the next page. And yet there is something quite life-enhancing about this long forgotten novel, something that shines through that existential bleakness that we all must face sooner or later. Forcing its way past the personal, life-long failures of William Stoner, in his marriage, in his family, and in his work, there is a celebration of life itself the sheer act of being and of consciousness.

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The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing

A great read, which is obviously dated from a plot point of view, but the themes that Lessing toys with are as contemporary, timeless and universal as they ever could be. Lessing offers a wonderful interplay between the idealist political aspirations of young revolutionaries and those most inconvenient things we might call human frailties. In one sense it’s a bit like Karl Marx meeting Sigmund Freud. All the leading characters have personal baggage that weighs them down no matter how politically determined they are. Much of it is related to family stuff, the mother daughter complex being the most pronounced, though the daughter-father relationship also comes in for some serious attention. And lurking behind all this Freudian interplay lurks the very real and legitimate revolutionary activities of the IRA. Read More…

The Selfish Giant – Director Clio Barnard

Watched a great film at the weekend. Clio Barnard’s , The Selfish Giant, a story of two young lads from the north of England who struggle to survive at school, at home and in the world at large. They may be from a traveller’s family or they may not. What is certain is that they and their respective families are desperately poor and generally desperate. That desperation led our two central protagonists, who incidentally both played a blinder, to drop out of school (or were they excluded) and get caught into the trap of petty thieving. They specialised in scrap metal and cables and are soon being manipulated by a ruthless scrap metal merchant, who has a side line in illegal pony and trap racing.

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We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

For as long as I can remember there has been this music category called World Music. More recently there has emerged a genre of novels which might usefully be termed World Literature. Loosely speaking, World Literature includes novels that shine a light on the horrors and misery of corporate globalism, with all the ramifications for people living in both the so-called developing and developed worlds. Such labels have a whiff of Euro-centric paternalism about them but the intention is honest to bring to public attention and to celebrate music and literature that wouldn’t normally end up on the shelves of WH Smith et al. Without wanting to needlessly pigeon-hole it, Bulawayo’s first novel, We Need New Names, comfortably fits into the World Literature category, and for me it is a real gem. Read More…

John Barnes – Passionate, Articulate But Undialectical

John Barnes, writing in The Guardian 5/11/13, argues that one-off high profile racist incidents in football grounds ought not to be of concern, it’s deep seated racism in society that we need to focus on. The other stuff is just a distraction. Here is Barnes in his own words: Tackling racism is a long and complicated process but one thing’s for sure; it cannot be solved by banning a player or closing part of a stadium. The problem is wider than that and if football really cared, those involved in the game, players in particular, would worry less about one off incidents like what happened to Toure and more about what is going on around them. Perceptions need to change and for that to happen, education needs to be pushed as the only way forward. Read More…

Twin Ambitions by Mo Farah

Quite an absorbing read though to be honest, in a rather predictably and superficial way. Behind the exceptional athletic achievement of Mo Farah’s story, there are at least three important sub-plots, but each one of them is dealt with in only the most cursory of ways. A pity. Like all highly successful athletes, you suspect there is a rather special, unique and complex human being at work, but the agents, the ghost writers and the sponsors are keen not to allow that person too much oxygen. Anyone that can dedicate that much focused energy to an all-consuming single endeavour is, by definition, a bit special and worthy of our attention. Most of us get distracted along the way, but to Farah’s credit, he just keeps on getting better and better.

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War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

With the centenary of the first great, global imperial slaughter rapidly approaching, a simple parable like War Horse is sure to be drafted into active service. I haven’t seen either the stage adaption or the recent cinematic offering, but I hear nothing but plaudits for both. I did however, recently stumble across the original 1982 story and I’m pleased to say it had a distinctive and unambiguous anti-war sentiment. I sincerely hope the stage and film adaptions remained faithful to that sentiment. Read More…

Harvest by Jim Crace

What a joy. What a craftsman, and what a timely reminder that the very embryo of English capitalism, the enclosure of the common land, was not that long ago. With these class sanctioned, criminal enclosures, came the wool trade, and with the wool trade came a cash surplus that could be put to no end of new profitable endeavours. It was, as Marx would have it, a brutal period of primitive capital accumulation. Wage labour was soon to follow and hey presto a brand new socio-economic system comes into being. Jim Crace, zooming in on this long forgotten bitter transition, gets the mood and bitter implications perfectly. Read More…

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I have often argued, perhaps facilely, that the three institutions that are holding back humanity, are religion, nations and family. That of course is in addition to class, the most debilitating of all social institutions. It is fairly easy to imagine a more enlightened world without religion and nation, but somewhat more problematic to envisage alternatives to the family. From most reports, neuroses arising from the Israeli kibbutz network were every bit as pronounced as those produced by your typical nuclear family. Similarly, the English boarding school system was and is notorious for producing its own catalogue of life-long disfunctionality.

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Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is an important one. Ali makes an emphatic and unambiguous statement about human rights. It is a clear rejection of the muddle that is cultural relativism so intricately embodied in our notions of multiculturalism. Ali presents a rational argument for the internationalisation of human rights and in particular, women’s rights. The intellectual journey that Ali travels is truly inspiring and one can only hope that her journey is not yet over. As a very minimum, Ali is demanding that Islam undergo its own reformation, jettisoning all that is medieval and barbaric. The western modernity that Ali so marvels at must not, Ali persuasively argues, stop at national borders.

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Red or Dead by David Peace

This extraordinary work operates on two majestic levels; firstly, a microscopic examination of the footballing life of Liverpool Football Club under the stewardship of a one Mr Bill Shankly focusing on Shankly’s obsession with hard work, his obsession with success and his obsession with the people of Liverpool and… Secondly, David Peace has produced a towering exploration of a footballing world long since gone, a world where celebrity and bucket loads of corporate cash have tainted the once deeply cherished leisure pursuit of thousands of working class communities. Red or Dead might even be considered a lament for the fading dream of British socialism and all that that dream conjures up. Read More…

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

‘The White Tiger’, a truly subversive text by Aravind Adiga, one whose relevance sweeps way beyond the shores of its native India. This is a novel that is destined to set a parameter for the 21st century, a novel that sheds light wherever there is a master-servant culture and that of course, is in every country and in every corner of every country. To break out of the ‘chicken coop’, as Adiga describes modern day slavery, that is the never-ending task for all humanity, and the White Tiger of Bangalore is, in his own marvellously compromised way, right in the vanguard of that task.

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Taking On the Trolls, The Guardian

Two articles appeared in the 7/8/13 edition of the Guardian, one by John Henley the other by Hadley Freeman, both journalists trying to make sense of what to do with the internet. It’s generally accepted that the internet is a sort of ‘wild west’, complete with cyber bullying, violent and degrading child pornography, misogynistic abuse by the bucket load, and of course, 24/7 illegal government surveillance. What is not generally accepted is what to do about it. The whole debate revolves around a simple axis; to censor and regulate, or allow the internet to exist as it was originally envisaged an open international democratic forum for all views, all opinions and all proclivities.

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