I have a new morning routine, inspired by the Miracle Morning, which involves spending 25 minutes reading while having breakfast before I leave for work. Most of my reading is done on the train which means that I don’t like to carry any book too heavy or large. I have a stash of books that I’ve been wanting to read but not getting to because I don’t read that much at home. There are some lovely art books, some lengthy histories, and some epic sagas. Now I have my morning reading routine I can start to work through them.
One of those lovely art books is The Boy by Germaine Greer. It explores the young male nude as a subject of art throughout history. The conventional wisdom is that the female nude is the object drawn to be observed by the male gaze. Greer argues that this elides boys as an object and ignores women as both artists and patrons of art. It focuses on young males, boys rather than men, which were historically much more studied from real life, whereas female nudes were constructed from ideal proportions.
I really enjoyed it. I find art history a little hard going, mainly because I have scant knowledge to build on, but the pictures are wonderful to look at. I learnt something and started my days with some beautiful images.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. Let’s just say 2017 was a challenging year and leave it at that.
I’m starting with Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, lent to me by a friend. The book looks at ten areas of the world and how the geography affects foreign policy and strategic interests. Tim Marshall is a foreign affairs correspondent with a lot of experience.
The book is wonderful to read. It’s engaging and brilliantly written. The content is interesting. Much of it was familiar to me but plenty was new, and the stuff I knew was presented in a way that opened up another level of understanding. It was crazy to think about how much of Russia is uninhabitable. I liked that Marshall considered both the historical effects of geography, such as how the Himalayas have kept India and China apart, as well as how technology might overcome those effects. What happens once one of those nations can realistically prosecute a war across the mountains?
The best chapter was the last one, on the Arctic. It was very enlightening, especially around the implication that some countries and corporations might want to see the ice completely gone.
Definitely recommend this one.
Earthwind by Robert Holdstock
Published by Pan Science Fiction in 1978
Humans have colonised many planets and on one, Aeran, something strange has happened. The colonists have de-evolved into a stone age culture. Elspeth Mueller has come to find out why. Her colleague warned against the madness the planet evokes if you stay too long so she keeps her trips to the surface short. Until the empire, in the form of shipMeister Gorstein, arrives and Elspeth is trapped.
Elspeth is conscious of losing her grip on her memories as the days go by. She begins to understand what is happening on the planet with the help of Peter Ashka, a seer, who is troubled by the effect that Aeran has on his relationship with his oracle. In Holdstock’s universe there is a uniting force that can give guidance in the form of oracles such as the I-Ching, an indication of what will happen if no action is taken, if one continues on the current path. It is understood that people can change their fate if they choose to act. If the prediction does not come about, it is because something changed or the interpretation was flawed. Aeran has its own oracle, the Earthwind, that is never wrong and the Aerani believe their fate cannot be changed. At first, Elspeth and Peter attribute this to the primitive nature of the Aerani culture but eventually come to believe that there is a fundamental difference between the two oracles.
Gorstein wants the Aerani to accept a mind-implant that will connect them to the other worlds because the empire is paranoid about rebellion. Elspeth opposes this for two reasons: the threat the empire poses to the Aerani culture, and because of the possibility that what has happened on Aeran might spread to other planets via the implant. The colonists themselves are divided and the debate ruptures the community. The longer Gorstein’s ship stays on Aeran the greater the risk they will all revert to stone age mentalities. Elspeth must seek the source of the Earthwind to discover what is happening to her.
It was nice to have a female protagonist of colour, especially as there was no reason for the character to be either of those things. It was just a choice, and it was refreshing that the author made it. I found this both thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s a good adventure story, with a mystery solved by Peter and Elspeth but not without cost. I think this one will stick with me for a while.
The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha
Published by Vintage in 2013
The Impossible State is an examination of North Korea and whether it will ever change. In the wake of the Arab Spring and the popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa, Victor Cha wonders if this might happen to the Kim dynasty of North Korea.
To do this, Cha looks at the establishment and construction of the North Korean state. It is a country with thousands of years of history and much experience of invasion and occupation. After the second World War the Koreas were split and two separate countries were created. The book gives the history of the Kim family and how Kim Il Sung came to be installed as the leader of North Korea, looking at his personal qualities, his experience and his relationships with the Chinese and Russian governments.
North Korea in relation to South Korea is interesting. For several decades, North Korea was richer and more advanced than South Korea. This was partly to do with financial support from China and Russia but also partly to do with chaos and mismanagement in the South. What’s worth noting is that the current situation wasn’t inevitable. Cha was foreign policy advisor to several US presidents and is well placed to understand North Korea and its place in the international system. It wasn’t always as isolated as it is now, with even China’s support hesitant and reluctant.
Much of the book is focused on North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the motivations behind it. Cha credibly argues that there is no way that North Korea will willingly stop developing nuclear weapons. It is the only leverage they have and the last twenty years have seen it work pretty well. They saw Qaddafi give up his nuclear enrichment programme only to be invaded by the US and the North Korean regime has a strong incentive to maintain its own development.
And finally, will there ever be a popular uprising? Cha thinks it’s unlikely. The control the Kim family has over the population and the way the cultural narrative has been manipulated has resulted in a people that have very little access to the outside world. Popular uprisings depend on the belief that life could be better, because it is seen to be better elsewhere. The North Koreans don’t have that belief. They have been told that life is much worse outside their own country and denied access to any information that might suggest otherwise.
This is a fascinating book. I haven’t read anything about North Korea before and much of this was new to me. I can’t tell you if there are better books out there, but if you want to know how North Korea became the impossible place it is now, then this is a good place to start. It’s a dense book with a lot of erudition but Cha’s writing style is light and pacy, so it never feels as heavy as it actually is. A surprisingly easy read and I enjoyed it.
Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan
Published 1988 by Gollancz
In a world where virtual reality is inside everyone’s head and you can choose to be someone else if you tire of your own personality, somethings are still illegal. Like being crazy without a license. Seeking altered states of consciousness and living an impulsive, directionless life, Allie Haas tries a black market trip into paranoia. It leaves her unconscious and dying and her dealer drops her off at a mental drycleaner, leading to both of them being arrested.
Allie is offered a deal: train as a mindplayer to facilitate the work and games of others, or be imprisoned. She takes the deal.
Mindplayers is a fascinating exploration of our inner mental worlds and how we use narrative to create ourselves and our lives. Allie finds intimacy with others in the mental realm, discovers what happens when someone has their personality stolen and helps other discover meaning in their creative work. It’s like meditation and psychology combined, enhanced and lifted to another level. What might be possible if we could have such insight into ourselves?
I really enjoyed this. It combines great storytelling with serious exploration of science and technology and its impact on humans. Science fiction at its best.
The Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj
Published by Pluto Books in 2016
The Rent Trap explores the world of private renting and how rising house prices make home ownership out of reach for many renters. It looks at the instability caused by short term contracts and the impact on families. The book covers the de-regulation of the housing market and what that means for tenants.
Most landlords aren’t property developers. Most are individuals who’ve bought a second house as an investment for their retirements, or owner-occupiers renting a room to help with the mortgage payments. But what this means is that the people paying for the house aren’t the ones who’ll eventually own it and this is creating wide inequality. It’s interesting to see how individual small decisions, made for good reasons, create a huge problem in the absence of regulation.
Worth a read.
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire
Published by Random House in 2003
I went to Rwanda last year on a work trip and it inspired me to learn more about the genocide in 1994. I visited the excellent Genocide Memorial and bought several books.
Shake Hands with the Devil is the memoir of the force commander of the UN mission to Rwanda. It starts slowly, with some time spent on Lt. Gen. Dallaire’s career and experience, but by the end of the book it is clear why this needs to be covered in such detail.
This is a book about the actions of the international community in response to the crisis, or, more precisely, the lack of action. As Dallaire describes his experiences in Rwanda and with the UN it becomes clear that there was a lot going on that he was not aware of until far too late. The politics surrounding the genocide – the relationships the Rwandan government forces and the Rwandan Patriotic Front had with France, the US, and other western countries independent of the UN, the domestic situations in those countries and the public tolerance for another foreign intervention, the under-resourcing of the UN – contributed to something truly terrible. Shake Hands with the Devil doesn’t exonerate the Rwandans who made this happen and the choices both sides made, but he does make clear how the structural, systemic issues in international relations supported and exacerbated those choices.
There is a tragic honesty in this memoir: Dallaire comes across as a man well and truly out of his depth. He lauds and celebrates the officers and soldiers assigned to the mission but doesn’t hide his own failings. Indeed, the early pages spent exploring his own experience serve to show how his lack of real conflict experience hampered him as well as demonstrating the abilities that qualified him for the role.
Shake Hands with the Devil is an eye-opening read. The exposure of the way the UN has to operate, and what that means for people it is supposed to help, is damning.