22nd November: Le Vide

Always a sort of inverse correlation between how out-of-hand my Pocket queue gets and how short these lists are. I’ve clearly read nowt but books and Company Of Heroes guides* this fortnight, as I’ve only got about a dozen articles for you. oh well.

Song of the week is kind of embarrassing tbh as even though I think it’s silly to have guilty pleasures and it is important to embrace your tastes and etc. John Mayer is still super embarrassing. Nevertheless, I’ve spent years trying to learn to play this song and I’m not far off, and it’s kind of vaguely seasonal and (kind of lovely)

As ever, this reading list appears fortnightly in the form of a blog, here, or in an email newsletter. Please do tell your pals.

  • So the main thing that struck me as I compiled my list this week was the absolute dearth of pieces on the Paris attacks – the titular vide in this list**. I think I would have liked to address events more here but honestly, the internet was an exhausting place to be that weekend and most of what I read in the aftermath of the attacks was dreadful***. There were a lot of people who were suddenly experts in counter-terrorism and the Syrian civil war, and a lot of pieces I’ve previously shared here getting reshared as if they were new. So I don’t know what to do, really. I obviously have got about eighteen months’ worth of great pieces on Syria, Iraq, ISIS, and terrorism in the ol’ archive so if you want to go deep, let me know in the comments or something and I can make some specific recommendations. But aside from that, I think I’ll just leave you with this (unexpectedly) powerful and moving piece on politicising tragedy from one Sam Kriss.
  • Great takedown of the terrible, terrible Boris bus
  • Lovely writing on working in a dive bar
  • This pie looks great, and the writing around it is actually good, not in that annoying food-blogger way of ‘you want a recipe for an egg but let me tell you about my kids first and how much they love an egg’
  • So I thought I’d do a round-up of Spectre reviews like I did after How I Met Your Mother**** but now the bitterness has faded a bit. Still, I think this, on the problem of the villain (spoilers ahead obviously), gets to the heart of broader issues with blockbuster plots at the moment.
  • Very thoughtful, honest profile of R. Kelly, which despite being based on interviews with him and lots of access, doesn’t shy away from confronting the allegations against him.
  • important 
  • Was all ready to jeer here but this is actually quite a sensitive look at a guy who suffers from severe agoraphobia, and how video-games and now Let’s Plays and streaming help him cope
  • More of a US focus but quite interesting on some of the factors behind all the grim food previous generations ate
  • As the winter months roll in and ‘outside bed’ starts to seem like the worst place there is, this is Important Reading
  • This, on the other hand, isn’t really, I’m just really sad that Star Wars: Battlefront is apparently a disappointment.

And that’s that. Come back next week for some book reviews and that. x

 

*definitely spent a full hungover hour reading the Company of Heroes sub-reddit the other day

**don’t worry it’s not possible for you to think I’m more of a dickhead than I do

***spent the weekend in bed complaining about all the shallow and ill-informed opinions getting a national platform

****remember when the longest, most successful piece of writing I’ve published on here was a 2,000+ word rant about a sitcom?

15th of November: Mostly War Again

I, and the people around me, sometimes worry about my World War Two fixation – indeed, I’ve done so in these very pages. Regardless, two of the three books this week are related to WW2 and it is what it is.

The Last Two-Thirds of Sword of Honour – Evelyn Waugh

Difficult to expand on the previous review, especially as I read book one as a standalone and then discovered a combined, three-in-one edition (endorsed and written (AFAIK) by Waugh himself) of the next two. So cf. last time, I guess.

The subsequent parts of the Sword of Honour trilogy sort of lean into the quiet melancholy of the first instalment. I think it sort of accumulates as the story goes on. The protagonist, Guy Crouchback, is basically a good lad, but never really contributes much to the war, for various reasons. It sort of reminded me a lot of Catch 22. The trilogy spends a lot of time on the minutia of military deployments and redeployments and billeting and all that sort of kind of tedious trivial nonsense that you forget was probably a big part of what soldiers experienced. Problem is, Waugh doesn’t quite take it away from just being tedious trivial nonsense. The books aren’t light and comical enough to carry so much of nothing happening. Again, the Catch-22 comparison – Heller leans hard into that tedium and makes it sort of the main joke of the book, whereas, I figure out of almost-journalistic accuracy, Waugh is just kind of repurposing stuff I assume he experienced, and it never quite transcends that.

I’m mainly just fuming because I had one of those half-waking nightmares, where you’re just drifting between your tedious pillow and your dull subconscious, literally entirely about billeting during WW2. Which I blame entirely on reading too much Waugh.

Idk, again, it’s a pleasant read, kind of vaguely Tory in an inoffensive way (apart from when he has to talk about women for more than a few paragraphs or the intermittent points where he has to refer to non-English people. And TBF I got the impression even this naked Toryism was sort of limitedly self-aware? IDK but I sort of hoped Waugh was better than writing naked condemnation of sexually active women but 1950s, I guess. I’ve seen Mad Men.)

As the books go on, the military thing becomes less of a central focus and other things start to occupy more space. Waugh himself seems to have been surprised at how much Catholic ritual started to become the main focus of the book as it went on, and he wasn’t wrong, because there’s a tedious section midway through what was book three. More characters than Guy Crouchback get involved in the narrative, for little real purpose.

I D K, lads. It’s good, I think. I’ve been told it’s good, and I wasn’t sick of it enough to stop despite it being a long-ass book, so that’s probably an endorsement of sorts.

Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble – Antony Beevor

I kind of wonder if Beevor knew, going into this book, if all of his efforts to portray the horror of the Battle of the Bulge would pale in comparison with the “Bastogne” episode of Band of Brothers. Feel like it would have given old Antony pause. Which would have been a shame, because Ardennes is probably good.

Real talk, this probably isn’t a blog for serious historiographical criticism of WW2 books or discussion of the arguments made. I’m still largely at the “read books about bits of the war I didn’t know about yet” stage, so even comparing two different authors’ takes is kind of beyond me.

However, Beevor has previously been my favourite of the popular WW2 historians. His gift for melding personal, individual accounts with a more general, firm account of divisions and battalions isn’t lost in this book. As ever, I spent more time than I’d have liked flicking back through the book to look at the maps (which are very good) to try and figure out which poxy Belgian village whichever American division was defending from which Kampfgruppe. Having criticised other war books here (and in my head) for the limitations of their maps, using Beevor as a comparison, I’m forced to conclude I just don’t have the head for that sort of description.

On the other hand, Beevor is kind of excellent at portraying several kinds of horrors. Firstly, the simple horror and difficulty of winter warfare. This is something that comes across in “Bastogne”, but I think the book does an excellent job of expressing how the cold made the men suffer and also how it made military stuff very difficult. It’s the sort of thing you read more often on the Eastern front, but that wintry horror is omnipresent in this book, and connects to the next point that is kind of dominant.

Logistics and artillery/air support end up the crucial factors in the Battle of the Bulge to an extent that is both unsurprising and yet kind of incredible – regardless of surprise, training, and morale, you get the sense early on that close air support and overwhelming artillery kind of make an Allied victory a foregone conclusion. Obviously, both of those were extremely subject to weather, so you know, transitions.

Speaking of which, I think Beevor does an decent job of balancing the sort of terror and tension of the Ardennes offensive with a) the SPOILERS knowledge that it failed and Hitler died and the Nazis lost and b) the Allies were never going to lose. You get caught up in reading the accounts of the battles and forget that things were kind of a foregone conclusion at this point. Now! I don’t know that they were! Beevor offers up, early on, Hitler’s end-game scenario for the Ardennes offensive, but you’re never really told whether a) the offensive could have worked on its own terms and b) whether that would have had any significant impact. Which, I think, kind of detracts from the whole thing. Whereas D-Day or Berlin 1945 have a sense of historic heft and almost epochal significance, this one is kind of important only insofar as you are aware of the personal suffering it contains.

There’s a futility to it, really. Which is obviously always an issue in war books because you can’t help being a bit John Lennon about it, and Beevor is very good at reminding you that “hey literally every one of those lads that is about to die in this next battle had a family and made jokes and did banter and I’m not telling you to be sad about it but…”. Which is Important and not just because it’s remembrance week. The casualty figures at the end come as a kind of sucker punch, so I won’t reveal them here but it’s just… upsetting, on both sides, that so many died for nothing. Again, very much Not An Insight, this. But I guess reading about that futile suffering in the context of WW2, The Good War, sort of accentuates it all.

Also kind of interesting in a more dispiriting way, is the kind of exhausting undercurrent of internal politics and, essentially, bitching, on both sides of the conflict. Eisenhower, Montgomery and Bradley. Hitler, [and other names what are less famous to me, sorry]. It’s never crucial to the history, but it’s kind of fascinating that these lads were all in command of tens of thousands of lives and the fate of nations and yet were kind of very petty children about it?

The most effective thing about the book is the structure of the middle sections – once the Ardennes offensive kicks off in earnest, Beevor breaks the narrative down day-by-day, with a chapter for each day across the whole front. This makes it easier both to follow all the various battles and sub-offensives and also emphasises the evolution of the battle as time carries on. Very propulsive, too.

IDK how I feel about Beevor’s treatment of war crimes. While Nazi crimes seem to have been far worse, he does seem to emphasise and castigate them (fairly) far more than he does those of the Allies. Hard to judge this one, though, because it’s the difference between reporting some SS soldiers massacring a village in person, and American artillery levelling that village with its inhabitants under it. Beevor sort of glosses over the latter, and you kind of get it but I was a bit uncomfortable with it. There’s also a horrific undercurrent of violence against prisoners of war that escalates in a tit-for-tat way and is, again, possibly under-condemned by the author? I don’t know what value there is in a historian sitting in 2015 and going “that was bad imo” but I would have been happier with more of it somehow.

Like if you are into war and that, you probably didn’t need me to tell you to go out and get Beevor’s latest because you’re not a mug. If you aren’t, then I admire your tenacity in getting this far. If you’re honestly kind of torn “is war actually good” then Ardennes isn’t the book/Beevor book I’d recommend you start with. So that’s that.

Absolutely fuming I didn’t manage to cram a Company of Heroes reference in here though.

Cronica de una Muerte Anunciada – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I tried reading some Garcia Marquez in high school as part of a kind of obligatory ‘practice Spanish’ effort. Didn’t get on well with him. Still, thought I’d try again, if only so ten years of studying the language aren’t immediately put to waste.

S’all right. It’s about a hundred pages long, and is written in quite an entertainingly conversational way, with the narrator both recounting events as he experience them and reporting the testimonies of others as well as things that happened. Consequently, the narrative jumps around a lot, but not in a confusing way. Even though the titular announced death is left in no doubt from the start of the account, Marquez builds an impressive amount of unease and tension as the book proceeds, and I almost missed my stop trying to get through the final pages.

If you want to read it in Spanish, it’s not too difficult to read. IDK if it’s worth reading in translation as I assume it’s nicely written (I am blind to prose).

8th of November: Bottom-Heavy

That’s not an innuendo. These lists tend to open with about a dozen grim articles on Syria and everyone complains that it’s a bit “monotonous” and “depressing” so here we are. Not so much as one article about Syria, and the security/international relations bit is only about four articles. Never let it be said I don’t listen to feedback.*

Think I meant to share something by Banks something like a year ago now, but it felt a bit like I was doing that high school thing of pass-agg posting songs on Facebook (which obviously I never did), which just meant I couldn’t claim credit for Discovering her. Anyway, this one’s good, very strong voice, and I think she does that wobble-thing that Adele does but without being boring and/or bad.

Plateauing a bit here in terms of viewers and clicks, and I do live for the viewers and clicks. So if you’ve enjoyed any of the articles I’ve shared this week, please do tell a friend. Also, if this isn’t your preferred format, you can read this list on my blog or in a fortnightly email newsletter.

*tbh I don’t, couldn’t care less what the haters say, I just happened not to have read many stand-outs on Syria and that this fortnight

  • Loophole, here. Got one piece for you analysing the Islamic State’s strategy in Iraq so I get away with the opener.
  • Excellent critique of Britain’s support for Egypt’s President Sisi.
  • Detailed look at how Northern Mali is recovering from conflict and dealing with climate change
  • Examining the archives to work out whether India planned to bomb Pakistani nuclear facilities before they were finished
  • Two excellent pieces from Emily Reynolds (who’s also just got a book deal)*, one on the creepy viral stories about dads defending their daughter’s ‘honour’ in a cute way, and one on the realities of dating when you’re mentally ill
  • On a not-dissimilar note, this is one of those Daniel Dalton male-mental-health pieces on Buzzfeed (he’s done similar on depression and recently, just on crying) that is both extremely basic and simple and yet extremely important and powerful. Idk. This one’s on body image anxiety
  • As Playboy continues its rebrand away from all the Playboy bits of itself, this is a good corrective to a narrative (that, tbh, I’ve not actually seen expressed) of nostalgia for the limited, homogenous view of sexuality Playboy cultivated before the Internet
  • Fascinating, on how efforts to minimise the spread of STIs during WW2 led to really oppressive measures for women
  • Great look at the consequences of Adblock for small sites
  • There was a period of last year where the kitchen in my flat was about 80% avocado, so I’ve had to develop a contrarian ‘avocadoes are bad’ policy. So I enjoyed this history of how the avocado industry (hardly Big Oil, is it?) rebranded them to great success
  • Brilliant takedown of the misogynistic figure of the ‘nice girl’ in popular music, with particular, deserved ire for Drake and (alas) Kanye
  • A broader look at the devaluation of music, going beyond just ‘spotify is bad and pirating is also bad’
  • Lovely essay on the author’s relationship with the Bond franchise and his father, and an entertaining ranking of all the Bond films (not a fan of the order, mind)**
  • Nerd alert, sorry, but I really enjoyed this essay on how Stannis Baratheon’s arc is playing out in the Song of Ice and Fire series and how Game of Thrones’ decisions in the last season mishandled this
  • Quite excited about Aziz Ansari’s new sitcom, both because he’s excellent, and because everyone’s saying it’s excellent. Also apparently it’s quite effortlessly diverse
  • Two brilliant, thoughtful essays on games. One, on the limits of video-games’ portrayals of blackness (very personal, very good), and one, pondering the shooter genre and its glaring ethical issues

There we go. Have a good fortnight, all. x

*there’s a very odd vicarious pride you get with people you’ve followed/interacted with slightly for a while on Twitter when their careers start to take off – this is that.

**half-tempted to do one of those round-up of the reviews of Spectre here, but I might save it for next time. One phenomenon I’ve found intriguing is that once it came out in the States, there was a much more negative, and much more interesting! tone to the criticism. Most British film critics I’ve seen have sort of embraced it despite its obvious flaws, while Americans have been rightly critical. Interesting to me, anyway.

1st of November: Not Even Going To Bother

Men at Arms – Evelyn Waugh

Really kind of unsure what to make of this one.

I think Evelyn Waugh’s books are held up as sort of capital-C classics. Generally, when reading a Classic, I expect to come away with a degree of “oh yeah wow definitely” or a flat “what did I miss”. Men At Arms is, I reckon, good. Not spectacular – quite rambly in parts, and generally just sort of there, but in a pleasant way. The protagonist is some sort of Tory noble and the novel charts his attempts to join the forces at the outset of WW2, and then his experiences once he gets in. I don’t really know how accurate any of it is, it strikes me as very well-observed and clearly aware of what things were like in London in 1940, which is no surprise given it was published ten-odd years after the war, but it’s possible the Halberdier Corps was more fictionalised than not. [googled: It was made up]

Regardless, as a sort of historical thing it’s very interesting, not least because it’s so centred on part of the officer class, which, oddly, is not an experience I’ve read much about. So it had that sort of Full Metal Jacket boot camp vibe, except much more Tory and comfortable.

The writing itself is always fluid and pleasant and occasionally beautiful to the extent that you actually stop and go “good, that”.

It’s part of a trilogy, which is annoying, as it sort of kicks up a notch in the last fifty pages and now I need to source the rest of them in a public library, which tends to be a recipe for frustration, but there we go. [update, found an edition in the main Islington library with all three books compiled. A+ ]

The Hydrogen Sonata – Iain M. Banks

Sort of a futility to reviewing these Iain M. Banks books. They’re not all the same, but they kind of are, and the differences, positive and negative, tend to only really make sense if you’re already knee-deep in Culture novels.

Still.

In this, I think the final ( L ) Culture novel, Iain M. Banks goes deep on the notion of Subliming, which had previously been quite implicit. I’m not sure how, but he fixes the tedious passages of Mind-to-Mind conversations that dominated Excession, possibly just through the simple technique of not giving them all indistinguishable phrase-length names. The twist isn’t as crucial as in Look to Windward, so it kind of doesn’t matter that it’s predictable. There’s too much time spent chatting about the epononymous sonata, but that’s allowed. The protagonists are a bit too scattered, even for an M. Banks novel, which poses problems for the pace and focus of it – there’s only one obvious candidate for main character, but she loses a few chapters to a character who is almost identical, diluting both of them.

IDK, as ever, they are what they are. I think I’ve just borrowed the only two Culture novels I haven’t already read from the library, so we’ll see how they go. Past couple of years have been disappointing, in terms of M. Banks. A shame.